Lycoming College professor awarded $136,000 grant to research family with Klan connections

Lycoming College professor awarded $136,000 grant to research family with Klan connections

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Sarah Silkey, Ph.D., associate professor of history at Lycoming College, has secured a $136,000 grant to analyze a rare Reconstruction-era collection of correspondence from a family with ties to the Ku Klux Klan. With this award, Lycoming joins Harvard University, Princeton University, University of Notre Dame, Boston College and other tier one research institutions in receiving one of only nine ACLS fellowships this year — a rare honor for an undergraduate institution.

The American Council of Learned Societies named both Silkey and her research partner, Michael Fitzgerald, Ph.D., professor of history at St. Olaf College, the recipients of a 2017 Collaborative Research Fellowship. Their project, titled “Wild Adolescence: The Pickens Family, the Ku Klux Klan, and Racial Terrorism in the Alabama Black Belt,” was chosen in part due to the effective incorporation of undergraduate students, enabling young scholars to gain an understanding of the research process. The fellowship is designed to support a team of scholars as it researches and coauthors scholarly works that individual research would not be capable of producing. These grant dollars will enable the Silkey-Fitzgerald team to exercise more diverse research methodologies, examine greater amounts of materials and analyze findings from varying perspectives.

The 20,000-item Pickens Family collection came to light when it was donated to the University of South Alabama in Mobile. With a prior connection to the area, Fitzgerald gained access to the collection and asked Silkey to help him research the correspondence, diaries and legal documents that detailed the lives of Pickens Family members and the world in which they lived. The trove of materials reveals the interpersonal dynamics of racial extremism and the generational conflicts between Victorian gender expectations and notions of southern manhood during Reconstruction and its aftermath.

Silkey has taken advantage of this project to engage in undergraduate-faculty research with Jacob Quasius ’18 and Kaitlyn de Melo ’19. Since 2016, the team has captured more than 30,000 digital images of family correspondence, diaries and legal documents spanning from 1830-1920, and constructed a topic-indexed correspondence database to organize and quickly access sources reviewed and annotated by team members. By participating in the project, senior history major Quasius and de Melo, a junior history and psychology double major, have already gained valuable research and analysis experience as undergraduates, and were able to make intellectual contributions to the project.

Silkey hopes that the book she plans to co-author with Fitzgerald on the Pickens family will foster productive public discussion of terrorist violence and the enduring challenge to forming a more equal society. “Historians will gain a better understanding of how people dealt with extremism and white supremacy in a domestic setting,” she said.

At Lycoming, Silkey teaches courses examining the intellectual, social and cultural history of modern America, as well as African American history and the history of Africa. Her work promotes a broader understanding of American history by examining the evolution of ideas about race, gender, violence and citizenship.

The initial stages of this project were funded by the George B. Gaul Endowed Student-Faculty Research Program, the Robert H. Ewing Fund, the Dan S. Collins Enhanced Academic Experience Fund and a Lycoming College grant from the Mellon Foundation.

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