Earlier this year PhD candidate Camille Goldmon was named a 2021 Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow. In the following Q&A exchange, Goldmon offers more context about her dissertation, titled “On the Right Side of Radicalism: African American Farmers, Tuskegee Institute, and Agrarian Radicalism in the Alabama Black Belt, 1881–1940.”
What was the genesis of your project, and how has it changed since you first entered graduate school?
I come from a background of Black farmers. My father is a third-generation farmer in Arkansas. I never gave it too much thought until I started noticing that everything I’d ever read about Black farmers was about sharecroppers. This prompted me to do more research on the origins of sharecropping in the US South for an undergraduate capstone paper. That’s when I started to realize the significance of agricultural landownership among Black southerners, particularly those in rural areas. I dug further into landowning African Americans and the challenges they faced for my master’s thesis. For my dissertation, however, I wanted to tell a slightly different story—one of overcoming challenges and dethroning systems of oppression. One that would better capture the narrative of people like my father, grandparents, and great-grandparents who tenaciously persisted in their pursuits of land, but would also shed light on the extent of obstacles deliberately designed to hinder them. That’s how I began focusing on grassroots agricultural activists and organizational leadership like that at Tuskegee Institute between 1881 and 1940.
What has the research process during dissertation fieldwork been like?
It goes without saying that the pandemic had totally changed the landscape of dissertation fieldwork, but luckily I’ve been able to get back into the archives over the past couple of months. There’s no way to describe the joy that comes from touching an archival source that you didn’t know existed, but fits perfectly into your research.
How do digital humanities approaches figure into your work?
I mentioned wanting to expose the obstacles that Black farmers faced. These issues include disparate access to resources such as extension services, loans and grants, and tillable land. I can (and do) use census data, financial figures, and even dialogue to demonstrate the inequities and the effectiveness of efforts to dismantle systemic discrimination. However, I remember the first time I saw the 1939 Home Owners Loan Corporation Map of Chicago that showed redlining and segregated housing practices in the 1930s. And the first time I saw the diagram of the Brookes slave ship that illustrated how enslaved Africans were transported across the Atlantic. I knew about segregated housing and the inhumanity of the Middle Passage, but those visualizations completely upped the ante of my understanding. That’s why my dissertation has a digital component that functions as an online, open-access archive for digitized primary sources, GIS maps, and other visual aids that will hopefully deepen readers’ understanding of my work.
Are you partial to a particular chapter, section, or story from the project so far?
At this point, chapter designations are subject to change, but my favorite narrative thread in the entire project is that which follows individual farmers or farm families who advocated for themselves or used their landowning status to advocate for others. This includes farmers who opened their homes to visiting civil rights workers, which many African Americans in rural areas could not do without fear of eviction from white-owned land or being frozen out of jobs. It also includes those who joined organizations such as the Progressive Farmers and Households Union, Sharecroppers and Tenant Farmers Union, or Alabama Share Croppers Union at risk of violent reprisal against themselves and their families. I love having the privilege of telling these stories of strategy, community, and overall courageousness.