OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

James R. Barrett

Portrait of James R. Barrett

James R. Barrett is a professor emeritus of history and African American studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he won several teaching awards and was a University Scholar and chair of the history department. He grew up on the West Side of Chicago and has worked often with teachers, labor unions, and community groups. Barrett's research is primarily in the areas of labor history, urban history, race and ethnicity, and the history of social movements. His major works include History from the Bottom Up and the Inside Out: Ethnicity, Race, and Identity in Working-Class History (2017), The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multi-Ethnic City (2012), Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago’s Packing House Workers (1987), William Z. Foster and Tragedy of American Radicalism (1999), and a critical edition of Upton Sinclair’s classic novel The Jungle (1907; 1988). He is currently at work with Jenny Barrett on "Chicago: A Peoples' History."

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Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

This is an inter-ethnic approach to understanding the formation of urban society and culture in the early twentieth century. It looks at relations between the Irish and African Americans, Jews and others to explain the evolution of urban culture from music hall and vaudeville, through Tin Pan Alley to the urban realism of the Great Depression and beyond.
What are the origins of today's street gangs and how has the institution changed in its personnel and functions over time. What does the history of street gangs tells us about the evolution of urban society?
The essay recasts the concept of cosmopolitanism in a working-class context. Reading habits, travel, political activism, and cultural activities shaped a range of “blue-collar cosmopolitans” – Pullman Porters, sailors, hobos, and others --from the early through the mid-twentieth century. The general impression is one of much greater working-class sophistication than we normally envision.
Relations, negative and positive, between the Irish and African Americans, Jews, and other ethnic groups in the city. In this lecture, there is special attention given to religion, labor, and popular culture.