I have been fascinated by history ever since I was a little kid. Hearing stories
about events that actually happened and the struggles people lived through simply
intrigued me so much more than fiction. These were real people and real events, and to a
kid growing up bored in the suburbs those stories, because they were real, were powerful.
Despite that fascination, I never really appreciated I could make history a career. In fact,
it was only in college when I realized I could do so. I was sitting in a Russian history
class taught, ironically enough, by Dr. Marks. Dr. Marks was a young professor recently
having completed his PhD from Harvard, and his enthusiasm and passion for history was
evident. And then one day in class it suddenly dawned on me that this was his job. He
liked history and got paid to read, write, talk, and think about it. That epiphany, albeit a
late one, made me realize what I wanted to do.
Once I had decided to make history my career, I learned I needed to focus on a
topic. I began as a Europeanist, with a focus on German and Russian history, but by
graduate school turned to American history. When searching for a topic for my
dissertation I read a book called Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the
Great Depression by Robin Kelley. It was a fascinating book, and in the introduction
Kelley expressed shock that no one before had studied Communism in the American
South. He suggested that Communists were all over the place and were worthy of study.
I decided to take him up on the idea, and made the study of Southern Communism the
focus of my dissertation. I soon realized that was too large of a topic, so I narrowed it to
Communism in North Carolina as there seemed to be more information and more activity
for that state than others. That research culminated in my dissertation, which I revised
over the course of five years into my first book: The History of the North Carolina
Communist Party, from The University of South Carolina Press.
The research on that first book led me to a North Carolina native named Paul
Crouch who was a Communist for seventeen years before quitting the Party, turning on
his former comrades, and then testifying against them in various court cases and
congressional hearings. Much of his testimony was perjured, but he died before he could
be punished for his crimes. He seemed like a fascinating character, so I set out to write
his biography. Five years later, his story was published as my second book: The Life and
Lies of Paul Crouch: Communist, Opportunist, Cold War Snitch, from the University
Press of Florida.
The research on Crouch led me to the topic of my third book – James Larkin
Pearson. Pearson was a neighbor and friend of Crouch, but was a fascinating character
on his own. He authored seven collected works of poetry, published eight amateur
newspapers, and served as poet laureate of North Carolina for more than two decades.
He died in 1981 just days shy of his 102 birthday. That biography, entitled James Larkin
Pearson: A Biography of North Carolina’s Longest-Serving Poet Laureate, came out in
2015 from Lexington Books.
Currently I am working on a history of the North Carolina State Penitentiary in
Raleigh. It was the first prison in the state, but North Carolina was one of the last three
states to construct such a facility. While telling the story of the penitentiary, I am
examining and demonstrating larger themes in the state’s history such as racism; political
infighting; the regional differences between the coast, the piedmont, and the mountains;
the often fraught financial plight of the state; and the state’s struggle between its
progressive and reactionary nature.
Historians are trained to look for the causes, course, and consequences of events,
and the only way to stay sharp is to continually look for new fields of inquiry. I thus
believe that research and writing are fundamental to being a historian regardless of one’s
academic position. Even in a teaching-based environment, such as Chowan University,
being an active historian is important to remaining a good historian. Not only does it
keep my critical thinking skills alert, but as I find new information I add the material to
my classes and improve the quality of knowledge I pass along to my students. I also find
research and writing invigorating. No matter how difficult the day was, I can look
forward to an evening, weekend, or break to focus on something I find interesting and
fulfilling. That makes the tough days easier to deal with and, I hope, makes me a more
effective professor. In the end, I simply find research, writing, and finding new topics to
study fun. It is enjoyable, and why not do things that are fun? I get to talk about, read
about, think about, and write about the thing I find more fascinating than anything else.
That is a pretty good job!
One of the reasons I enjoy being a professor at a teaching-based institution is the
opportunity and expectation to teach a wide array of topics. At research schools,
professors tend to remain focused on their immediate area of study. I like the freedom to
follow my interests and to teach classes, whatever their focus, that are appealing to me
and to the students. Additionally, teaching a broad spectrum of classes forces me to think
more broadly about history. That broadened sensibility has made it easier to address a
wide array of research topics. I have written two books on Communism, another on a
poet, and I am working on yet another on prisons. I do not believe I would have done all
that, or even been allowed to do that, had I been at a research-oriented school. I think the
expectation would have been that I stay focused on my narrow field and not stray into the
area of another expert. I like the opportunity to stretch intellectually, and working at a
teaching institution has enabled me and required me to do that both in the classroom and
in my research.
Regardless of what people may think about teaching institutions and research,
Chowan, at least, has been very supportive. From annual professional development
money, which I use to pay for research trips, to a sabbatical, to the willingness and ability
of the library staff to help me round up the necessary documents, I have found Chowan
an amazingly accommodating place to do research. Support from the faculty, staff, and
administration, especially Drs. Moore and White, has made the work possible, and I
cannot thank them enough for all the opportunities and assistance they have offered.
The chapter below is the introduction to James Larkin Pearson: A Biography of
North Carolina’s Longest-Serving Poet Laureate, and is instructive as it shows how
historians take often insignificant individuals or events and use them to examine larger
historical issues. In this case, I use the life of one North Carolinian to describe a larger
theme in the state’s historical development.