OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Susan Burch

Portrait of Susan Burch

Susan Burch is a professor of American studies and a former director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity at Middlebury College. Her research and teaching interests focus on deafness, disability, race, and gender and sexuality in late nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. history. She is the author of Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History, 1900 to 1942 (2002) and a coauthor, with Hannah Joyner, of Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson (2007). She has coedited anthologies including Women and Deafness: Double Visions (2006), Deaf and Disability Studies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (2010), and Disability Histories (2014). She also served as editor-in-chief of The Encyclopedia of American Disability History (2009). She has received an American Council of Learned Societies' Fellowship, a National Archives regional residency fellowship, National Endowment for the Humanities and Mellon Foundation grants, and a Fulbright Scholars award. Her most recent work, Committed: Remembering Institutionalization and Native Kinship (2021) centers on peoples' experiences inside and outside the Canton Asylum, a federal psychiatric institution created specifically to detain American Indians.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

This talk draw on the life story of Junius Wilson (1908-2001), an African American deaf man who grew up in the Jim Crow South and attended a segregated deaf school. At age sixteen he was falsely accused of a crime and when his deafness was misjudged as “lunacy” he was incarcerated in an institution for the insane where he was surgically castrated and held for 76 years, including six in the criminal insane ward. Wilson was never declared insane by a medical professional or found guilty of any criminal charges. Junius Wilson’s lived experiences are "remarkable" in both their power and their particulars. But we should not dismiss his history as merely an isolated story, irrelevant to our understanding of the past more generally. Fundamentally, what happened to Wilson highlights the extent of what a society based on hierarchy and violence can do to its most vulnerable members. His story allows us to explore the depth of racism and disability discrimination, the intersection of Jim Crow policies and the eugenics movement, the impact of institutionalization, the changing meanings of mental health and social work across the twentieth century, and the unexpected sources of strength that emerged in the face of such a terrible tragedy. His story invites us to consider what and who remains in the margins of our historical work and why. Through this work, Burch explores entangled issues of race, gender, deaf identity, institutionalization, eugenics, and civil rights. Rememoring deaf and disabled people like Junius Wilson into our worlds (scholarly, community, personal), Burch will show, fundamentally transforms our understandings of who and where we are and have been.
Disability historians play a critical role in telling and retelling stories of the past. Centering on the lived experiences of disabled people in this presentation, Burch raises questions that reflect the complex, messy process of recalling the past and of repopulating it. Disability scholars must contend, for example, with the intimacy and vulnerability of forced commitments, sterilizations, and lobotomies—to name just a few medical interventions in global disability history. For many reasons, the stories told by superintendents and policymakers often shout louder than the versions disabled people might tell. This encourages many disability historians, then, to seek and tell disability histories even when the sources weigh heavily in the favor of other perspectives. The disability historian’s work in retrieving disability stories may stir questions of privacy and shame, but may also preserve the everyday acts of solidarity and creativity that continue to inform disability cultures. Our work ultimately may restructure knowledge itself, in form, content, and interpretation.
Centering on lived histories of people institutionalized at the Canton Asylum, this lecture examines Native self-determination, kinship, institutionalization, and remembering. Between 1902 and 1934, this federal psychiatric hospital in South Dakota confined nearly 400 men, women, and children from more than fifty Native nations. Institutionalization not only impacts those removed, but ripples through families, communities, and nations, and across generations. Burch's talk expands the boundaries of Native American, disability, and general U.S. social and cultural history by bringing these multiple analyses into conversation with each other.
This interactive, multi-modal presentation spotlights the history disability as a concept, lived and relational experience, and a critical lens for understanding our collective past and present in the United States. Key themes, including access, normalcy, citizenship, and justice, provide entry points to reinterpret history in expansive, transformative ways.