OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Rachel Devlin

Portrait of Rachel Devlin

Rachel Devlin is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University specializing in the cultural politics of girlhood, sexuality, and race in the postwar United States. She is the author of Relative Intimacy: Fathers, Adolescent Daughters, and Postwar American Culture (2005). In her most recent book, A Girl Stands at the Door: The Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated America's Schools (2018), she draws on interviews and archival research to tell the stories of the many young women who stood up to enraged protestors, hostile teachers, and hateful white students every day while integrating classrooms. Among them were Lucile Bluford, who fought to desegregate the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism before World War II, and Marguerite Carr and Doris Faye Jennings, who as teenagers became the public faces of desegregation years before Brown v. Board of Education. Devlin has received fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

This talk describes the philosophy and personal commitment to the notion of “civic decency” that drove Black young women and girls—in vastly disproportionate numbers—to volunteer to file school desegregation lawsuits and, after Brown, to desegregate formerly all white schools in the South. Girls and Young women articulated a vision of what Lucile Bluford, who attempted to enroll at the University of Missouri eleven times between 1939 and 1946, called “civic decency.” Through their calm, upright, irreproachable and socially open performances in front of white students and school administrators, black girls and young women embodied a set of civic values that they wished to see enacted in the public sphere at large. In so doing they led the way in desegregating American schools and set a new standard for all races to emulate as they sought to find a way to coexist in the public schools. In the age of Trump, when the most basic standards governing civic decency are under assault, it is helpful to remind ourselves of the work Black women and girls did to bring about a more inclusive, open and decent society—and how that legacy still lives on today.
Esther Brown was the "guiding light" of the first school desegregation case in Kansas (Webb v. School board, 1948) which helped to convince the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund to pursue a second case in Topeka (Brown v. Board). For the Webb case Brown led a year long school strike, travelled the state to raise funds and incurred the wrath of her neighbors. After winning Webb v. School Board she moved to Topeka to work tirelessly on the Brown case. So instrumental was she--she located plaintiffs, found expert witnesses and handled the lion's share of the logistics in the case--that Topekans took to calling her, affectionately, "the White Mrs. Brown." This talk examines Brown's deep roots in the Communist Party which trained her to become the organizer she was for school desegregation. It also examines the work of women activists across racial lines and their relationships to one another. It ends with a discussion of Jewish women's significant contribution to the civil rights movement overall, and their differing inspirations for joining in struggles for social justice.
Childhood and Race in America: From Jim Crow to Civil Rights discusses the ways in which black children were taught Jim Crow from everyday experiences, and how they learned the “rules” of segregation from encounters with whites, both young and old. The talk discusses change over time, how Jim Crow affected self-perception amongst black youth, how black and white childhoods differed within the same communities, and how boys and girls experienced Jim Crow differently. The talk ends with a discussion of the significant role of black youth in the civil rights movement—one that was informed both by their status as children and their gender.