An Ode To Kenneth Kusmer (1945-2020)

tags: African American history, graduate school, urban history, mentoring

When I was a doctoral student in the late 1990s, Temple University’s graduate seminars in history met in Center City, Philadelphia, at 1616 Walnut Street. One of the area’s older skyscrapers, the building had an early twentieth century character and commanded respect for the intellectual endeavors that students encountered in their doctoral work. Ibram Kendi, in How to Be an Antiracist, describes in great detail the eighth floor of another of Temple’s academic buildings, Gladfelter Hall, where the Department of African American Studies held its seminars in the ‘fishbowl’ – a classroom encased in glass windows on all sides. Although the Department of History’s faculty and administrative offices were one floor above that space, it was the downtown campus that defined the work that Kenneth Kusmer’s students in urban and African American history did. For a student like myself, fresh out of undergraduate work at a school on Philadelphia’s Main Line, in a history department dominated by the legacy of St. Augustine, Walnut Street was a dream come true. A popular bookstore was a block away, a comfortable pub was around the corner, and a number of extraordinary restaurants sat within two blocks for a quick snack before class or a lengthy dinner conversation with classmates afterwards. Ken balanced the vitality of the city with a patient caring for his students that was, and is, rare at a research university. He was the hand that helped hundreds of students reach higher to achieve entry into the tenure track and the community of scholars around the world.

Ken earned his bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College and his PhD at the University of Chicago. In addition to his seat at Temple University, he was also a Bancroft Professor of American History at the University of Göttingen and a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Genoa and the University of Roma Tre. His first book, A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930, continues to offer fresh insights about urban formation and transition in the twentieth century. His series Black Communities and Urban Development in America, 1720-1990, remains a vital resource for any student of African-American urban history. I was fortunate to study with him as he completed his monograph, Down and Out, On the Road: The Homeless in American History. His technique of maintaining a manicured bibliography in all of his fields of interest still inspires me every semester. I remember writing, in an evaluation of his teaching over twenty years ago, that “His encyclopedic knowledge of urban studies challenges students to master the assigned and recommended readings every week.” On more than one occasion, he would ask a student to locate the evidence that supported a contention about the nature of segregation and its specific manifestations in one city or another. I learned the lesson quickly: read early and often in order to have any hope that I might answer those questions successfully.

His seminar on urban development since 1945 included future stars of American history like Juan Thomas, David Canton, and Peniel Joseph. I met Erik McDuffie in those classrooms, and together, with constant support from Ken, Bettye Collier-Thomas, and Wilbert Jenkins, we developed a conference on Black radicalism that featured Anthony Monteiro, Farah Jasmine Griffin, and Robin D.G. Kelley. As a  community, we all pushed the boundaries of accepted scholarship in the historical profession. Even at this early stage of evaluation, I believe that moment, in that department, on that campus, in that city, holds tremendous meaning and power – it served as the bridge between the forerunning generations of social historical research and the ambitious interdisciplinary inquiry that has emerged in the last decade.


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