Graduate Spotlight: Christina Davis
Expected Graduation: Spring 2011
Degree Objective: Ph.D. in History
Other Degrees: M.A. in History, B.A. in Psychology
Christina Davis knew she found her academic niche as a first-year graduate student. Davis, a history doctoral candidate, began to read letters written by southern teachers during the Reconstruction era.
“Studying letters written by nineteenth-century teachers affirmed the appreciation I felt toward my own teachers and led me to commit to a teaching career,” she said.
By combing through historical documents, Davis illuminates the lives of the Southern teachers who taught in the first schools for African-American students. She uses the resources provided by Professor Ronald E. Butchart’s Freedmen’s Teacher Project, a database that collects historical documents from more than 11,600 post-Civil War teachers.
“I examine women’s lives in the South as they worked to secure their basic needs, adjusted to their extracurricular workloads, and created identities that gave them a level of authority, autonomy, and freedom not ordinarily available,” she said.
Davis says traditional historical narratives do not accurately reflect the truth about female teachers during Reconstruction.
“The traditional and revisionist interpretations of women’s educational efforts for the freed people lean too heavily on unbridled hostility or flowing praise,” said Davis. “My work portrays them as everyday people.”
According to Davis, during Reconstruction, black and white women teachers established themselves as independent individuals in the social and public realm, creating new opportunities for women outside of domestic work. Additionally, their lessons for former slaves expanded beyond the writings on a chalkboard.
“I argue that, in many cases, the non-academic lessons that teachers imparted through their extracurricular and community-wide labor proved more important than the reading, writing and arithmetic skills that dominate the literature on southern black education,” she said.
Outside of the daytime classroom, teachers held public exhibitions, evening classes for adults, community activities and Sunday schools. Some teachers even lectured their students about the responsibilities of citizenry, such as owning land.
“Along with their academic contributions, I think women’s extracurricular lessons provided students with examples of what it meant to live as free persons,” she said. “Observing teachers’ creativity, ingenuity, and independence could teach students how to navigate in society as American citizens.”
Along with her dissertation research, Davis is collaborating with Dr. Barbara McCaskill to recover the life story of Joseph Richardson Jones, an African-American filmmaker, photographer and reporter during the civil rights movement. He produced films about African Americans as they developed their culture, fought in World War II, and campaigned for civil rights.
“His war films conveyed the patriotism of black soldiers during World War II, and his coverage of racial violence in Georgia reached Americans nationwide,” said Davis.
After completing her doctorate, Davis plans to teach and advise students at a major research university. Furthermore, she hopes to expand her research to include African-American students after the Civil War.
“When I first began to delve deeply in the history of African-American education, I planned to focus more on students than teachers,” said Davis.
“If the historical record allows, I would like to return to this topic and bring black children to the fore of the conversations about how life changed on the ground after the Civil War.”
Story by Ben Benson