On Being a Watch Listed Historian in the Age of Donald Trump

Tobin Miller Shearer

The evening of Monday, November 21, 2016, I received an email from a colleague. In it, she wrote, “You are on a ‘professor watch list’ compiled by a right-wing group.… Sorry to be the bearer of bad news….”

I had just returned home from leading a three-hour graduate seminar during which we discussed at length what it means to write advocacy history. Some students felt it essential to tailor their research and writing so that it could speak to present-day public policy. Others felt that contemporary interests fundamentally compromised historical scholarship. The only thing that mattered was whether you were true to the historical record.

Historians often tell uncomfortable truths about the past, truths that many in our church and society would prefer to forget.

In the subsequent days and weeks since my name showed up on the Professor Watchlist website and the list received national attention in the New York Times and elsewhere, I’ve given a lot of thought to the subject of advocacy and the practice of writing history. It is not accidental that the developers of Professor Watchlist have targeted more academics from the field of history than from any other discipline. Historians often tell uncomfortable truths about the past, truths that many in our church and society would prefer to forget. Frequently the truths we tell as historians do influence public policy in tangible ways, whether we want them to or not.

I’ve spent the better part of the last ten years researching the Fresh Air rural hosting movement, a summer vacation program for urban children in which white Mennonite families have regularly participated. From the end of the nineteenth century through to the present, white rural and suburban families hosted children from urban centers for one- to two-week summer vacations. My research focuses on the period between 1939 and 1979 when the program transitioned from white families hosting white children to white families hosting black and brown children.

mla-bethel-1960-gulfport-group-with-bus

Photo of group of twenty-one African-American youth from Gulfport, MS, preparing for Mennonite sponsored Fresh Air trip to Kansas in July 1960. Used with permission of Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel, Kansas

Back in 2008, I contacted the director of the oldest and most well known hosting group, the Fresh Air Fund, based out of New York City. Formerly known as the Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund, the New York Times is now its primary publicity partner. In that initial phone conversation, I described my research to the director. Although at first she was quite thrilled to hear that I would be writing a book about the Fresh Air movement, her tone abruptly shifted when I explained that I would be examining the programs’ racial dynamics. She went from friendly to icy in a minute. Despite my best efforts to assure her that I was a trained, professional historian, she informed me that they had no archive and, even if they did, I would not be given access to it.

I followed up the conversation with subsequent requests for access to their materials and, several years later, arranged to stop by their offices while I was on a research trip to New York. Despite a warm welcome and a tour of their offices, my request for access to their records was again denied, this time by both their executive director and their board. They told me that they had had a bad experience with a graduate student and, therefore, no longer gave researchers access to their records. Interestingly, a short while after they denied me access, they opened their archives to a historian from an Ivy League school with whom I had begun to correspond. His focus on the program’s early years did not touch on race.

The Fresh Air were wary of my agenda. Those who put me on Professor Watchlist were likewise suspicious that I carry an agenda. In the case of the former, an agenda to expose a troubling truth about the way race worked in Fresh Air programs. In the case of the later, an agenda to expose a troubling truth about the way race worked in society.

In my line of work, being singled out for extra scrutiny is not new. In the past, right wing groups ranging from the KKK to a group called Campus Reform have targeted me. Thus far, little has come of such scrutiny other than ill-conceived and rather anemic death threats. Although we are in a new and deeply troubling political climate at the moment, I remain wary but not unduly concerned.

But that is not the point of my essay.

Rather, I want to explore the possibility that I do have an agenda, that I am somehow breaking an ethical code by pursuing advocacy history. That possibility bothers me far more than being included on a Watchlist.

In the discussion with my graduate students, I made the point that sometimes advocacy history keeps historians from asking certain questions because they don’t want the subject of their research to look good – or bad – depending on their topic and particular political interests. In a recent discussion about his research on the black freedom struggle in Alabama during the 1960s and 1970s, civil rights movement historian Hassan Jeffries described how difficult it was to write the last chapter of his book, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt. In that chapter, he had to describe the disappointing outcome of electoral politics in Lowndes County. Even though black citizens had finally earned the right to vote, black politicians lost touch with the freedom values that had brought them into office; they then betrayed their constituents. It was not a story that Jeffries wanted to tell, but he knew that he had to tell it or his historical project would have no integrity.

I’ve wondered if my own scholarship has that kind of integrity. On the one hand, when I’ve written about white Mennonites, I’ve been very conscious of the perception that I have an agenda, one bent on exposing Mennonite racism. As a result, I’ve been meticulous in my documentation, deliberate in my attempt to contextualize and explain, careful not to hold white Mennonites to a standard that was not present at the time.

In the instance of Mennonite involvement in the Fresh Air program, I’ve described the programs as one-way, short-term, paternalistic endeavors that valorized the country at the expense of the city. But I did so only after discovering that African-American leaders within the church were equally critical of the programs at the time that they were being offered. As my research expanded to look at the Fresh Air Movement in its entirety, I discovered even more critical voices calling for discontinuation of the programs. One critic famously exclaimed that the programs allowed children of color to visit white suburbs for one week every summer but then locked “them out the other 51 weeks of the year.”1

The book that emerged from those ten years of research, Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America features those critics. Of course, I also include accolades from an adoring press. But, as I look back at that work and my body of research on Mennonites writ large, I have to agree with my critics at the Fresh Air program and Professors Watchlist. I do have an agenda. It is not, however, the one they have accused me of having.

Back in 2008, the Fresh Air Fund director accused me of emphasizing something that they had “never paid attention to.” She was referring to race. Yet my agenda is not so much to focus on race – even though I have reams of evidence that, at least by the 1960s, the program claimed race relations as its raison d’etre – as it is to engage in truthtelling. You can’t tell the truth if you don’t tell the whole story. At that time, the Fresh Air Fund simply didn’t want to hear the racial side of their story.

Professor Watchlist has accused me of talking about systemic racism and white privilege in my classes and, more generally, of “discriminat[ing] against conservative students and advance[ing] leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Again, they are off the mark. I do most certainly talk about systemic racism and white privilege in the classroom but make a point of inviting students to disagree and debate with me at every turn. The minute students feel that they can’t disagree with my perspective, I am no longer doing my job. Here again, my interest is in challenging my students to engage with a difficult truth, one that most of my students have not previously encountered.

So, yes, I do believe that there is such a thing as a historically determinable truth. It is not coincidental that the discourse of postmodernism – one which calls Truth with a capital T into question – has emerged at a point when female, black, brown, gay, lesbian, and trans voices have finally begun to be heard in society. Postmodernism suggests that there are only individual perspectives, that all truth is relative. My study of history has convinced me that, while there are many perspectives, there are also raw realities evident in the practice of slavery, the denial of women the vote, the institution of apartheid and Jim Crow, and the persistent and recurring evidence of racism, sexism, and abuse within the white Mennonite community, some of it directly connected to Fresh Air ventures as former Fresh Air participant Janice Batts has courageously made known. And so despite being denied access to the Fresh Air Fund records, I kept on writing; despite being put on a watchlist, I will continue to teach history and research difficult topics.

A coda: a week after the Watchlist came out, I received an email out of the blue from the new executive director of the Fresh Air Fund. A volunteer had sent her a link to a lecture I gave on the programs at Eastern Mennonite University this past January. She wanted to talk about “your studies, findings, perspectives, and thoughts of the ‘Fresh Air’ Friendly Towns, in particular.” It was a gracious note. We will be speaking in two weeks.

Like me, the Fund’s executive director is deeply concerned that we “now sit with the reality of a Trump presidency.” Although I expect that we will have differing perspectives on the contemporary worth and value of a program that I have found fundamentally paternalistic and based on assumptions of white superiority, I am equally convinced that we will have much to learn from each other. At this point I don’t know what the outcome of our conversation will be, but I am eager to discover where a path of advocacy history in a time of watchlisting will take us.


  1. Ellen Delmonte, “An Editorial Feature,” Call and Post, Saturday, July 3 1971. 

One thought on “On Being a Watch Listed Historian in the Age of Donald Trump

  1. Thanks for this interesting post. My grandfather, son of German immigrants living in Brooklyn, spoke fondly of his summer sojourns on a farm in Pennsylvania, sponsored by the Fresh Air Fund. Possibly these visits gave him a larger world view that allowed him to move his family to the LA area in the 1920s and buy a small tract house down the street from a steel mill, but with enough yard in which to raise chickens, quails, canaries, and parakeets. I will be interested to read more about the Fresh Air program’s history.

    When I was a child living in white LA suburbs, my family hosted two black children from the Watts neighborhood, not far from where my grandparents lived, during two consecutive summers. This was before the LAUSD was integrated by bussing, which did not happen for another five or six years. The first summer, our guest seemed to appreciate her time with us, enjoying summer classes and playing with all the nighbor kids. The second summer, our guest ended up sleeping away much of the summer, which suggests that she was much less happy about her situation. I, the host child, learned a lot from both experiences. I would be curious to know how it seemed to the children we hosted.

    I’m much happier living in a more integrated neighborhood than the one in which I grew up. It’s much healthier for children to attend their local public schools, but housing segregation, by race and class, are a continuing problem.

    Like

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