Myisha Eatmon

Meet new faculty: Myisha Eatmon

Hometown: Chapel Hill, N.C.
Education: Bachelor’s in political science and history, University of Notre Dame; master’s in U.S. history, Northwestern University; Ph.D., Northwestern University (November 2019)
Position: Research fellow, history department, will begin as assistant professor of African American history in Fall 2020

How did you originally get interested in your field?

I’ve always been interested in history since I was a little girl. So the fact that I became a historian is remarkable. It goes back to being a kindergartener and learning about slavery and the Holocaust and Jim Crow — those are the three areas that really have kept me interested in history. And looking at the continuities and discontinuities between what we are seeing in our current moment and in the things that have happened in the past. It’s too similar to what was before. I’ve always had this idea if we continue to learn history and really familiarize ourselves with those dark periods that we might be able to avoid going back there, but clearly not everyone has the same philosophy, because here we are.

What was your dissertation and how has your research or scholarship evolved since then?

My dissertation, titled Public Wrongs, Private Rights: African Americans, Private Law, and White Violence during Jim Crow, explores black legal culture in the face of white-on-black violence under Jim Crow and black civil litigation’s impact on civil law. Essentially what I’ve done with my dissertation is historicize what we see with police brutality. African Americans are having to sue in civil court because the police are not being indicted. I wanted to know if that was something that had started happening recently or if it was something that had a legacy in Jim Crow. What I found is that in the 1880s all the way up until Brown [v. Board of Education], African Americans are suing individuals and companies for similar types of racialized violence. The second project I want to do is look at ways African Americans and Jewish people are creating a legal culture in the face of anti-Semitic violence and anti-black violence during the inter-war period (World War I and World War II).

There were Jewish people who helped found the NAACP, which means that either they had the means to help black people or they had an interest in helping black people, and I want to explore that relationship a little more and help historicize what we’re seeing with the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-black violence in the U.S. in the 21st century. I want to see if there is a continuity or if this is something different.

I deal with very dark subjects, but those stories have to be told. My historical philosophy is to recover the stories of people who can’t tell their stories for themselves.

Why did you choose the University of South Carolina?

This will be my first assistant professorship. I chose Carolina because it was close to the other Carolina, but I was really struck by the public history work that the university is undertaking to really confront the university’s history and relationship with slavery. A lot of institutions try to cover it up or they try to change the names of buildings in order to hide that history. What I see the University of South Carolina doing is not necessarily embracing it in a good way, but confronting it head on and recovering that history and telling that story even if it is a little shameful.

I was also struck by the history department, it seems like people get along and it was warm. Not all departments are like that. Almost everyone I had met with had been there at least five years; many people had been there more than a decade. That told me that Carolina was a place where people went and stayed. And that’s what I was seeking in a professorship, someplace that I could put down roots and really build a career.

What are you most looking forward to this year?

I think I am looking forward to engaging with my colleagues and really building relationships within my department. I am looking forward to wrapping up my current project and doing the research I need to do to help transition from dissertation to manuscript. And I’m also looking forward to learning the history of the University of South Carolina — not only its history in relation to African Americans but just in general. And I went to Notre Dame, so I am a football girl, so I am looking forward to SEC football this year.

What are you most looking forward to about being in Columbia or in South Carolina?

Columbia is the capital but it’s also a close-knit community and it seemed like a place where everybody kind of knew each other and there were a lot of cultural things to do in the city. So I am definitely looking forward to that. I am looking forward to the proximity to Charleston, to Atlanta, to Charlotte: The location is perfect. I’m looking forward to the football, of course. It seems like it will be a home away from home for me.

I deal with very dark subjects, but those stories have to be told. My historical philosophy is to recover the stories of people who can’t tell their stories for themselves.

What made you decide to go into academia?

In addition to being an African Americanist, I am also a legal historian and before deciding to go to graduate school, I worked on the Hill for John Kerry for a semester. I had planned on taking the LSAT and going to law school. When I got back to Notre Dame after my semester in D.C., I had a come-to-Jesus moment with myself where I realized I didn’t want to work 60 hours a week even if it was to make 6-figures. So instead of being a slave to the corporate/legal market, I decided to apply for graduate school until I figured out what I wanted to do. Over the last seven years, what I found was that my interest in history and the way that I engage with history allows me to do some of the activism that I want to do, but it also allows me to create knowledge and tell stories that I think need to be heard and are related to our current moment. So while I’m not a member of a bar, I still get to dive deep into the law and engage with the law, but also with history.

What’s a talent you have or something that you’ve done that people might find surprising?

I think the only thing that people will find surprising is that I’m under 30 and I did work on the Hill for a semester.

What do you hope to accomplish over the next five years?

I really would like to build up a legal history cohort. I think it’s something that students are interested in. I would like to write the manuscript. I also want to get into writing editorials. I think that historians have a lot to say and we are informed. And I think that editorials might be the way to go. I love newspapers. I have a chapter in my dissertation that looks at old black newspapers.

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