History in Narratives with Richard Bell

Stories are tools that capture history in ways that relate to our own experiences. Richard Bell, professor of history at the University of Maryland, has harnessed stories that spotlight individuals who’ve deeply shaped the arc of early American history.

Bell has participated in several IHS events and programs, offering critical advice to graduate students looking to find their footing in academia through mentorship and graduate student conferences. He is also a past recipient of the Humane Studies Fellowship and the Summer Graduate Research Fellowship, both of which supported him in the final stretch of his dissertation research.

Richard Bell

IHS provided support during the final stages of my dissertation research. The summer graduate research fellowship gave me the necessary funding to get to the last two or three archives, which I needed to finish in good time. I wouldn’t have been able to finish this last leg of my dissertation as quickly if not for IHS support. That is something I’ll always remember.

– Richard Bell

In his latest book “Stolen” (2019), Bell tells the story of five free African American boys who were abruptly kidnapped in Philadelphia in 1825 by illegal slave traders and sent to the Deep South. This miserable journey, which many free African American citizens had to endure from the American North to the South, is often referred to as the Reverse Underground Railroad. “I wanted to get into the heads of these five boys and put their experiences at the center of the story,” says Bell.

The heart of American history, Bell believes, originates in the struggle of individual actors to achieve liberty. In only telling the stories from top-down perspectives, you miss a crucial condition of the human experience.

Individual narratives illustrate the long ordeals many people had to face in American history, especially victims of slavery and violence. “When I look back at my body of work so far,” reflects Bell, “I see that telling stories about individual liberty and the pursuit of liberty have been at the center of everything I do.”

In a new project, Bell plans on chronicling the story of Elizabeth Jennings, who refused to exit a whites-only streetcar in New York City in 1854. Often considered the nineteenth-century precursor to Rosa Parks, Jennings precipitated the future desegregation of mass transit in New York City and other major cities throughout the American North by suing the Third Avenue Railroad Company for discrimination. Bell remarks that “there’s a reason why segregation of mass transit by 1955 was limited to the states of the South. It’s because of Elizabeth Jennings working to achieve the same effect in the North a hundred years earlier.”

At a recent IHS Discussion Colloquium event covering the political thought of Frederick Douglass, Bell was pleased to hear so many different branches of Douglass’ political thought floated around with such a diverse group of scholars. These sorts of discussions act as intellectual wellsprings, which give scholars a chance to dig deeper into the minds of thinkers and the ideas they forged.

The IHS workshop on the political thought of Frederick Douglass was one of the most exciting intellectual experiences I’ve had in the last couple of years. I’ve never had as many neurons firing in my brain and little light bulbs going off because of what other scholars were saying about Frederick Douglass.

– Richard Bell

In addition to participating in IHS programs and workshops, Bell serves as a mentor to several budding scholars of history. The opportunity to offer some life experience, adds Bell, is invaluable as a young scholar looking to make their way in academia.

When I was a graduate student, IHS was the only place I could turn to for career development. It’s very exciting and rewarding to pay that forward in any way I can.”

– Richard Bell

Now a tenured professor, Bell imbues his students with a message of optimism. History is a set of stories that convey a deep struggle to achieve liberty. In many cases, history surveys the lives of people in turmoil, those who never quit by seeking equal justice and human dignity so that they can better the world.

“In my various research projects about American history, I have been convinced that history is about ordinary people struggling to leave a mark and make a difference,” says Bell. “I tell my students that they have that power inside themselves to change the world around them, to improve the world as many in the past were apt to do.” If history means anything, it’s an opportunity to investigate the past so that we can empower ourselves to improve the future.

The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021. For more spotlights on scholars, video interviews, photo galleries, and in-depth conversations on classical liberal ideas, visit TheIHS.org/60

IHS 60th Anniversary

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