MA in History

Pam Smith, 2014

Pam Smith

Why did you decide to pursue an M.A. in History?

As an African American, I had always been interested in my family’s history of enslavement. Genealogy became a passion of mine around the age of 30. During my research, I was referred to a very cool professor, Ann Neel, who had done a lot of research on slavery in Missouri because her family was from there as well and she had grown up there. Ann was then teaching sociology at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. I had grown up and was working in Chicago. Long story short, a member of Ann’s family “owned” a member of mine in slaveholding Missouri. It was a shocking discovery. We recount the details of our roller coaster friendship, now 30 years strong, in a presentation called Entangled Lives. We’ve presented this talk on college campuses since 1996. Ann and I had the grand adventure of telling our story on the Oprah Winfrey Show and for publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education. Also in my 30s, I decided to work in Africa. I had a longing to go back to my homeland and to my people. I spent a year in Burundi during that country’s civil war (1993-1994) and a year in Benin (1994-1995) teaching and working on education projects. While I was living on the continent, I visited slave ports in Ghana, Senegal and Benin. So, for a long time history had been a very important part of my life.

I was working as a consultant for nonprofit organizations for about 10 years when the economic downturn hit in 2008. Most of my clients could no longer afford to hire consultants – so I decided to do what I had been wanting to do for a long time – go back to school at get a graduate degree in history! I was 54 years old at the time! It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I loved every anguishing minute of it. I started at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago and ended up moving east after I got an internship at the National Archives. I had proposed a project to conduct a pilot assessment of archived loose bundled county court records languishing in the backrooms of court houses. In such papers a genealogist found a manumission paper for my 3rd great grandmother, Matilda Lewis Threlkeld. Through research I had learned that through slavery Matilda was the granddaughter of President Thomas Jefferson’s sister, Lucy Jefferson Lewis. That’s another long and emotional story. I was passionate about these records being well-preserved and digitized so that more people could access them.

What was your most rewarding class? Why?

I loved all my graduate classes but I had three favorites: The first was with Professor Joan Johnson at Northeastern. In this class I was taught to think like a historian and I was introduced to great female historians like Danielle McGuire, author of At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (2010). Another favorite class was with Professor Schrag. I was riveted from the first day. I found his teaching of how to properly structure a paper fascinating. The rules live inside me and surface as I write documents for various purposes -- Is my argument clear, I ask myself. Does every paragraph support my thesis all the way to the end? While I can’t say that I have mastered this process, I did learn a lot! Finally, I loved the public history course I took from Professor Spencer Crew. I learned about how to develop historical exhibits, knowledge that I didn’t know at the time I would soon be putting into practice!


How has the M.A. program helped you with your career or your personal interests?

During graduate school, I met one of the owners of the 106 Group, a company that specializes in interpretive exhibits at historic and other public sites. We had a nice lunch and it was clear that we had a lot in common in terms of our interests. But it was not until I received the MA in history that I was asked to consult on projects. Later, I could see that the degree in history made all the difference. For example, my degree has been cited, along with others, on the cover page of client reports. With the 106 Group, I have had the opportunity to work on a couple of challenging and exciting projects – Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest (the president’s summer home where he enslaved 100 people) and a riverfront re-development project in Minneapolis. Regarding Poplar Forest, I was ecstatic to work with Professor Crew! He served as one of the project’s advisors.

My graduate MA degree also increased my knowledge and confidence as we took our recently published book, The Chicago Freedom Movement: Martin Luther King Jr. and Civil Rights Activism in the North (2016) out into the world. I am one of four co-editors of the volume; the others have PhDs.

Finally, my degree adds professional credibility as I work with others to help address violence in Chicago. Together we established the Addie Wyatt Center for Nonviolence Training. As certified trainers, we teach students and adults Dr. King’s approach to nonviolent conflict reconciliation.


Any career advice you would give to students in the program?

I would say follow your heart. You might not get rich but you will live a fulfilling life. And, as Dr. Martin Luther King used to say to students, try and make service to others a part of your life’s work. I believe that we really can build the Beloved Community if we love one another and work for equality and opportunity for all. Finally, try and make space for adventures in your life. Adventures are thrilling and take us to places we never thought we could go.

Tell us something that people would be surprised to know about you.

I hiked up Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania – twice! The first time was in 1994 and then again 15 years later. Though I got very close to the top, I haven’t summited yet. Third time is a charmer! Find your own Kilimanjaro!