OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Annette Atkins

Portrait of Annette Atkins
Image Credit: Denise Gagner

Annette Atkins is a professor emerita at Saint John's University and the College of Saint Benedict in Minneapolis. A scholar, teacher, and public historian, she specializes in transforming serious research into compelling stories. She is the author of Harvest of Grief: Grasshopper Plagues and Public Assistance in Minnesota, 1873–78 (1984), a book about nineteenth-century rural poverty; We Grew Up Together: Brothers and Sisters in Nineteenth-Century America (2001), a Choice outstanding academic publication about adult sibling relationships; Creating Minnesota: A History from the Inside Out (2007), a path-breaking reinvention of state history which won awards from American Association for State and Local History and Western Writers of America; and Challenging Women since 1913 (2013), a history of the College of Saint Benedict and women's higher education. Atkins speaks widely at professional meetings, libraries, and Road Scholar and other senior education programs, and she has run writing workshops for faculty and the staffs of historical societies. Her lectures have been broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio where she was the on-air historian for five years. Currently, she's at work on a book that tells the American story by focusing on shoes—their wearers, styles, manufacture, and materials, as well as industrialization, urbanization, globalization, advertising, and popular culture. This book expands on her essay, "Walk a Century in My Shoes" (Minnesota History, winter 1999–2000), and demonstrates her continuing commitment to inviting readers to see themselves as part of the historical story.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

This lecture begins by asking the audience members to examine their own shoes -- where do they come from, where were they bought, how many shoes do they own (and why so many)? From this basis, I build a story of America by exploring kinds of shoes, methods of manufacture, the economy of production and sale, the expanding and shrinking shoe world; the industrialization of the process; the development of labor unions, the "Americanization" of ethnic shoes, and the erasure of "Indian-ness" that boarding schools pursued by forcing students out of moccasins, the class and race denominators of shoes, as well as their regional identities. I use shoes to illuminate key themes in American history, taking the audience members with me from "now" to "then" to "now."
In this lecture/discussion (with large and small audiences), I propose a set of questions to help people begin to see their lives as historically significant and to connect their personal to larger historical forces. We work our way through as many of the questions as time allows (allocating several five minute blocks to actual writing) and participants leave with a better understanding of their historical context even if they don't want actually to write their own life stories.
The threat of war crystalized many Americans' fears about the identity patriotism of the multiple newcomers who had made the U.S. their home in the immediate pre-war years. The Minnesota Public Safety Commission created a body of primary documents that help contextualize for us today many of the compelling issues that the war brought to the surface. It required that every "alien" be registered and provide extensive information about family, background, arrival, occupation, land ownership, reasons for not becoming a citizen. Copies of telling examples from this data set will be distributed to the audience and from these we will construct some stories of the nature of immigrant life