The two questions people always ask me in relation to my research are:
- Why did you choose to study African American education?
- Why did you choose to base your study in North Carolina?
Although Irish people have never really questioned why I chose to study black education, Americans, in general, are really surprised! So for those of you who are interested, let me begin by attempting to answer the first question.
I’ve always had an interest in American History, particularly that of the American South, and race relations have intrigued me ever since my first reading of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I suspect that this was because the world Lee presented in her seminal novel was so alien to me. I grew up in the 1990s and during that time Ireland was a relatively homogenous country, dominated by native, white, Catholics (I’m one of them!). Although Ireland is much more diverse nowadays, as a child I never witnessed racism and I struggled to comprehend discrimination on the basis of skin colour. I found, and still find, such discrimination completely repulsive.
In 2011 I graduated from MIC with a Bachelor of Education with History. When I decided to pursue postgraduate study, I wanted to combine my interest in, and expertise of, both History and Education. Black education in the American South has always been a “hot” topic but when I began my studies it was of particular scholarly interest, namely because a recent study had challenged the accepted image of the freedmen’s teacher to reveal that northern white women, or “Yankee Schoolmarms”, were not the only teachers of the freed people. Essentially, this study paved the way for a fresh analysis and reinterpretation of freedmen’s education, particularly at state level.
This brings me onto my second question, why North Carolina?
The answer is simple. North Carolina is a unique southern state, socially, culturally and geographically. Historically, North Carolina was known as “racially humane” and unlike many other states which were dominated by plantation society and culture, North Carolina had a relatively large number of non-slaveholding yeomen farmers. Moreover, North Carolina was home to a large Quaker population, a group who were manifestly opposed to slavery and active in black education since the mid-18th century. Knowing this, I was eager to investigate how the complex interplay of slaveholder, Quaker and yeoman farmer worked to influence North Carolina’s post-emancipation system of black education.
So there you have it! I am a firm believer in engaging in research, or any kind of work really, for the love of it. This was the advice my father gave to me when I first began thinking about postgraduate study. Obviously I worried about the logistics of it all – how was I going to study North Carolina from a little town in Ireland!?!? And sometimes it was frustrating. But thankfully we live in the digital age so it all paid off.