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Undergraduate Research in History

The History Department offers students many opportunities to undertake fascinating research projects, either in conjunction with or under the mentorship of a faculty member. Below are recent history projects that students completed as funded Summer Undergraduate Research Projects.


Tracking The Iron Snake: Race, Class and Culture in the Making and Ruination of the Kenya Railways

Valery Otieno ’20; Advisor: Makhroufi Ousmane Traore

From the advent of colonialism in Africa, railways functioned as technological arteries of imperialism particularly serving as pipelines for the movement of resources between the metropole and periphery. In Kenya, Sir Edward Grigg, a former governor, said that the railway was the beginning of all history in the former British colony. This is because rather than infrastructure being built to facilitate entrepreneurial pursuits, economic activity was formed around facilitating the Uganda Railways. As a result, what we now consider to be Kenyan territory was imagined through the railway tracks. Accordingly, my archival research project seeks to address the complexities surrounding the transformations in the social history of the railways. While imperial political structures collapsed after 1964, my research asks what Kenya did with the material ruins of the imperial technology left behind after independence. This is particularly relevant given the ongoing construction of the Standard Gauge Railway which replaced the now defunct Kenya Railway system, and will connect Kenya to other East and Central African countries. So far, my research findings indicate that the eventual collapse of the initial railway system was a direct result of the incompatibility between imperial structures and post-colonial development agendas. Unfortunately, the unfavorable negotiation terms between Kenya and China on the Standard Gauge Railway demonstrate the inability of a nation to learn from its past.

BK CORE: A Radical Organization

Jawuan Walters ’20; Advisor: Tomas F. Summers-Sandoval

Brooklyn CORE, was a chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights organization that favored non-violent methods to protest discrimination throughout the United States. After initial success of desegregating public areas in the mid 20th Century, CORE officials began to encourage their supporters to open up “chapters” that would operate independently of CORE, but still abide by CORE rule. As a result, CORE chapters open throughout the country in large cities, in small neighborhoods, and on college campuses. 

BK CORE was founded in 1960 by a small, but determined interracial group of people who has previous experience in the civil rights struggle. Members strived to alert NYC leaders of the apparent discrimination that affected African-Americans daily and to challenge and change the systems in place that led to these discrepancies. 

It’s members, and their philosophy differed from other chapters and was described as “radical.” They believed in deliberate, calculated, civil disobedience, and sometimes confrontational protest; at a time when confrontation was frowned upon. Members were not afraid to get arrested or beaten by police. 

After nearly a decade of activism, BK CORE was able to illustrate change in some policy in housing and workplace discrimination, but fell short of the large foundational change they aimed for due to the limitations of the chapter and the failure of policymakers to address the detectable outcomes of discrimination.

Navigating Race & Place in the Pacific: Understanding the Guam Land Use Plan and its Impact Decades Later

Gabby Lupola ’21; Advisor: Aimee Bahng

Guåhan, also known as Guam, is the southernmost island of the Marianas, an island chain located within Micronesia. Along with Australasia, Melanesia, and Polynesia, these Pacific islands comprise the vast, interconnected geography of Oceania. As for Guam, its unique history of colonialism, religiosity, war, and militarism bears a heavy influence on the livelihood of all inhabitants (human or otherwise) and their island environment. Chamorros, those native to Guam, have a long and arduous history of land dispossession, the most impactful being military land grabs during WWII and the lack of transparency or intent to return said land as evidenced by the faulty military-devised Guam Land Use Plan (GLUP). As indigenous peoples of the Pacific, Chamorros have an inherent connection and responsibility to the land of their ancestors. However, the modern Chamorro is a conglomeration of ancient roots, Spanish influence, and American patriotism. Military and tourism industries play a vital role on island and take up space, with the U.S. military occupying a third of the island, so conflicting ideals of gratitude and obligation arise. In order to understand the complexities of land usage on Guam, I conducted archival research and oral interviews. Ultimately, whether to reclaim formerly privately-owned properties or to protect sacred sites (#SavePågat and #PrutehiLitekyan), the issue of land is still alive and well in the minds of modern Chamorros on island.

Education as an Instrument of Power: Japanese Textbooks in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945

Hyun Wook (Jacob) Noh ’21; Advisor: Samuel H. Yamashita

This research project examines Korean language and ethics textbooks during the Japanese colonial period with the specific intention of understanding how and why the Japanese government used education to exercise power over their Korean subjects. It offers an analysis of the themes, morals, and stories in three elementary school textbooks issued by the governor general of Korea from 1915 to 1935. To evaluate the potential impact of colonial education on children, it uses Michel Foucault’s theory of “How to Exercise Power” as a framework. This theory explains how states direct the behavior of people through lines of communication, the shaping of capacity, and the exercise of power relations. Thus, it reveals the ways in which governments expected to achieve their goals. A Foucauldian reading of these textbooks allows one to ask and answer several questions: What concepts do colonial textbooks teach Koreans students? Do they have any significance? Are there any noticeable changes in the conceptual language or discourse as time passes? And how does the Japanese government influence the actions of their subjects in the classroom?

After reading the sources, one can conclude that the Japanese government used education to communicate certain actions to its readers. They include: attend normal schools, study diligently, respect teachers, work hard for the state, and show loyalty to the Japanese Empire. These actions intended to convert Korean children into loyal Japanese subjects.

Depicting Delhi: Panoramas, Paintings, and Patrons

Noor Dhingra ’20; Advisor: Arash Khazeni

My project considers the city of Delhi as a palimpsest of architectural styles, empires, and cultures. Delhi’s court patronage of artists and literati was particularly strong during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and gives us an insight into the way the city was lived in, represented, and reconstructed. By mainly analyzing The Delhi Book by Thomas Metcalfe and Mazhar Ali Khan compiled in 1844, as well as travelogues or safarnamas, urban ethnographies, and maps, I spent my SURP re-imagining early modern, or 19th century Delhi. Using visual material such as paintings and maps poses the problem of patronage -- which complicates the relationship between the creator and the creation. I used the book and its paintings to understand the fragile and complex transitional phase between Mughal sovereignty and British rule. The panoramic painting, which was popular in Indo-Persian art long before its European counterpart, was an important part of my research. The panoramic view, while undeniably spectacular, has the disadvantage of lacking clarity in revealing the relationships between different buildings. Landscapes, both cultivated and urban, were employed through Delhi's Mughal era for political ends, to produce an image of the that was peaceful, economically prosperous, and cosmopolitan. I used the art form to analyze the urban structure and topography of the city, and also as an imperial technology used by the British to inhabit the city and mark it as their own.

The Deen Comes To Dixie: Establishing Black Muslim Communities in North Carolina, 1955-1985

Paul Kiefer ’20; Advisors: Makhroufi Ousmane Traore and Helena Wall

Over the past three months, I collected stories from one of the often-overlooked mid-20th century Black Muslim communities in the American South. The majority of my research centers on oral histories I produced with older members of mosques in North Carolina, supported by archival documents from those mosques and their longtime members. The goal of the research is to assemble a history of Black Islam’s re-introduction to the American South through a smaller case study. That history addresses both the fundamental processes by which Muslim communities established themselves in the mid-20th century and the ways in which they interacted with their region, their neighbors, and the political and social climate of the era.

The story of those communities begins with the arrival of a handful of Northern Nation of Islam ministers in the mid-1950s. Their tiny weekly meetings soon gave way to formal mosques and a visible presence- one of my interlocutors sold copies of the Muhammad Speaks newspaper to the crowd that gathered during the 1960 Greensboro sit-in. By the early 1970s, Black Muslims held a presence in cities large and small across the state, including a two-block business district surrounding the original mosque in Durham.

The characters that emerge in these stories - not only Muslims, but black prison guards, black opponents of integration, struggling addicts with strong religious convictions - capture often-overlooked nuances of 20th Century Black Southern life.

Endless Bondage: Slavery in Old Age

Adam Taslitz ’21; Advisor: Kenneth Wolf

The research I conducted will contribute to Professor Dan Livesay’s (CMC) forthcoming publication on American and Jamaican slavery. Professor Livesay’s work explores how elderly slaves existed within a system that understood slaves through their ability to perform physical labor. I contributed to his project by identifying elderly slaves and finding law codes and articles that dealt with elderly slaves.

I used Antebellum Virginia census records, Jamaican law codes, and the official publication of the American Colonization Society to find information about elderly slaves. By running keyword searches for words like “old” and “infirm” I was able to target areas within each database that were of use for my project. The Virginia census records turned up twenty slaves with the moniker “Old” before their first name. Though law codes did not make mention of infirm slaves often, the provisions that dealt with the elderly also frequently dealt with infants and children. The publication from the American Colonization Society revealed how purportedly progressive slaveholders manumitted old slaves in hopes of sending them to Liberia. Furthermore, various caricatures of elderly slaves throughout the publication are used to create paternalistic defenses of slavery. Though slaveholders used elderly slaves to defend the system of slavery, records show that slaveholders ultimately saw elderly slaves as burdens.

The Secret History of Queer Foster Families

Michael Waters ’20; Advisor: April Mayes​

In August 1972, a small news item appeared in the early gay newspaper The Empty Closet. Under the headline “Foster Home Sought for Youth,” the social services department in Rochester, NY had written to ask for someone to foster a 15-year-old trans girl, adding that “it is felt that the best placement would be in a gay home.”

Karen Hagberg, a lesbian activist, noticed the ad. She and her partner applied to be foster parents, and a few months later, the girl—Vera—was sent to live with them. The city paid for food, clothes, and medical expenses, and even though homosexuality was still considered a medical illness and the agency only had forms for heterosexual couples, it approved them as parents anyway.

Through old newspapers, archived letters, and interviews with social workers, I discovered that in the 1970s, social services agencies in nearly a dozen cities across the U.S. organized placements of older gay and trans kids with gay foster parents. These placements often happened spontaneously, as social workers were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of kids in the foster system and gay and trans kids, who were often rejected by society, were especially difficult to place. Finding a gay home for these kids just seemed like an easy solution. But in doing so, these social workers were accidentally creating something radical—all-queer families in era well before such a phenomenon was supposed to exist.


Hair, Money, Makeup, and Migration in the American South: Korean Immigrants in the Black Beauty Supply Business

Alison Choi ’20
Advisor(s): Samuel Yamashita

A historical investigation of Korean American history and Korean-Black relations from the mid-twentieth century to today, through examining Korean black beauty supply businesses in the American South.

Funding Provided By: Missing Fund

Migrants to Hong Kong during the 1950s to 1980s: International Relations and Immigration and Refugee Policies

Kelly Ho ’20
Advisor(s): Angelina Chin

This research examines the UK and HK governments’ positions on HK’s refugees and analyzes how outside forces and circumstances affected HK’s refugee policies and the lives of its migrants.

The FBI, the CIA, and Anti-Vietnam War Communist Repression in Southern California

Xavier Maciel ’20
Advisor(s): Tomas Summers Sandoval

During the Sixties, the FBI and the CIA engaged in active repression of the anti-Vietnam War and Communist (New Left) movements in Southern California. Why did they engage in repression? What did repression entail? Was it successful? I answered these questions by examining digital archives of the FBI and CIA and various physical archives at colleges and libraries in Southern California; interviewing former radical students such as Brown Beret founder Carlos Montes; and going through documents compiled from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Throughout this process I learned about secret government programs—including COINTELPRO and Operation CHAOS—which targeted radical student groups through focused monitoring, infiltration and sometimes illegal activities. This systematic repression damaged many of groups seen as radical. For example, according to Montes, the Brown Berets—a militant Chicano nationalist organization of which he was a part—collapsed under the weight of these efforts.

Funding Provided By: Aubrey H. and Eileen J. Seed Student Research Fund

To Praise their Beauties, Shapes, and Manner of Dressings: The Role of Women in 17th and 18th Century French Travel Literature

Rachel Tils ’20
Advisor(s): Gary Kates

Under the mentorship of Professor Gary Kates, I worked with 17th and 18th century French travelogues housed by the libraries within the Bibliotheque Nationale de France to explore the literary treatment of non-European women in 17th and 18th century French accounts of voyages to the East and West Indies. This work will then play a major role in my upcoming senior thesis in history, for which I intend to write about the treatment of women in the Histoire politique et philosophique des etablissements et du commerce des Europeens dans les deux indes, a nineteen volume history of European colonial exploits across the globe written in 1770 by the French philosophes Guillaume-Thomas Raynal and Denis Diderot, both of whom used European travel literature and accounts of foreign places for their research. While specific observations and tropes about non-European women appeared frequently and consistently throughout this body of literature and the Histoire, the purpose of their inclusion changed over the course of the two centuries. While women in 17th century travel books were often emblematic of classical ideas about the unknown (non-European) world, women in 18th century travel books and in the Histoire became literary tools used to discuss facets of European social and sexual mores, commerce, and globalization.

Funding Provided By: Eugene F. and Aletha W. Olson Memorial Fund for Student-Faculty Research

To Serve Her Empire: Middle Eastern and Indian Women's Service in the British Army, 1939-1945

Natalie McDonald ’20
Advisor(s): Helena Wall

The Middle Eastern and Indian women who served in the British army during the Second World War have been largely forgotten. An international SURP took me to London, where I sought to shed light on their experiences by pursuing archival research at the British Library, National Archives and Imperial War Museum. Official government policy, documentary footage, diaries, letters and oral histories reveal a dramatic asymmetry between the image the British authorities wanted to project of the overseas women’s services and the lived reality of servicewomen; the effort put into maintaining gender and colonial power structures within the women’s services; and the perceived propaganda value of local recruitment as tensions rose both in India and with the Jewish community in Palestine. This project participates in the discipline of transnational history by investigating connections between gender, war, and empire.

Funding Provided By: Eugene F. and Aletha W. Olson Memorial Fund for Student-Faculty Research