MHC alum’s career began in her junior year
Sara Rzeszutek Haviland ’03, assistant professor of history
Awards: Almara Grant
Advanced degree: Ph.D. in history from Rutgers University
Current position: history professor at Francis College
My first book, “James and Esther Cooper Jackson: Love and Courage in the Black Freedom Movement,” was the culmination of 13 years of work, and began as my senior thesis in the history department at Mount Holyoke College. And that thesis, a study of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, an organization that was run by the Jacksons named in the book’s title, grew out of a paper I wrote during my junior year.
As an undergraduate, I had a vague sense of how historians conducted research and I knew that I wanted to do the same. But historical research is something you really only learn by doing. Mount Holyoke provided me the opportunity and the guidance to realize my goal.
My original paper was on black internationalism in World War II, and as I was planning to expand the project, professors Holly Hanson and Mary Renda encouraged me to try oral history. I reached out to others who had written on related topics and one of them put me in touch with the Jacksons. I received an Almara grant in the fall of my senior year, which gave me the opportunity to travel to conduct research and collect oral histories.
That winter I purchased a tape recorder and visited James and Esther Cooper Jackson in their Brooklyn, New York, apartment. I was nervous and I felt a bit out of my depth. I was a very quiet 21-year-old and I was talking with two people in their 80s who had spent their lives working with important organizations, who had been friends with W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin and Angela Davis, and who had used their lives to fight for change.
The Jacksons directed me to the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, and I spent about a week there using the Southern Negro Youth Congress papers. I had not done my own research in an archive before, so I learned not just about the organization but also about research itself. With each step, I felt more and more legitimate as a historian. When I defended my final independent research project that spring, I found the sense of accomplishment a bit addictive and it solidified my interest in pursuing a doctorate in history.
I arrived at graduate school in 2004 with a strong research background and a usable project framework in my thesis — I was, without question, ready for the challenges of my graduate program. I kept in touch with the Jacksons who, it turned out, were looking for someone to help them organize over 200 boxes of their personal papers for donation to an archive. I spent nearly a year visiting their apartment, weeding through mountains of amazing material that no scholar had yet used. The Southern Negro Youth Congress was just one facet of their expansive activist careers.
My thesis project provided the seed for my dissertation, which then grew into my book. I am grateful that I was challenged to conduct thorough, solid research and work like a real historian as an undergraduate. I continue to draw on that background in new research projects, and I routinely refer back to my experience as an undergraduate researcher to guide the college students I now teach.