Heather Ann Thompson and Joe William Trotter, Jr. on the Value of Urban History

Historians in the News
tags: racism, urban history, COVID-19

Heather Ann Thompson is a historian at the University of Michigan and is the Pulitzer Prize and Bancroft Prize-winning author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy (Pantheon Books, 2016).

Joe William Trotter Jr. is the Giant Eagle University Professor of History and Social Justice at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His latest publication is Workers on Arrival: Black Labor in the Making of America (University of California Press, 2019).

Kara Murphy Schlichting is Assistant Professor of History at Queens College, City University of New York. She is the author of New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore (University of Chicago Press, 2019). 

Join UHA Membership Director Kara Murphy Schlichting for a conversation with outgoing UHA President Heather Ann Thompson and President Elect Joe William Trotter Jr. about leadership in the UHA, the important role urban history can and should play in the most pressing debates of our times, and the UHA’s impact on their own lives and careers.

What led you to take on a leadership role in the UHA?

Joe William Trotter Jr.: My esteemed colleague and mentor Joel Tarr served as one of the founders and later president of this organization. Immediately, I thought, it would be an honor to join Joel as one of the presidents of this important organization. I was also moved to accept service…because of the extraordinary work of young historians with specialties in African American History, transnational and global studies, the environment, and the emerging field of digital history, among others. I believed that service would energize, deepen, and help to strengthen my engagement with emerging debates on the history of Black urbanities from the colonial era through recent times. Equally, and perhaps most important, I signed on because I believe that UHA leadership should emerge from all sectors of our vibrant field of historical scholarship.

Heather Ann Thompson: The UHA has always been one of the most important communities to me because it was one of the first places I ever presented my work on Detroit as a graduate student. But at the same time, it always troubled me, that there were so many people who I knew who were out there doing scholarship very much like mine on cities—writing the history of urban activists, thinking about the importance of Black or Brown politics in inner-city spaces, etc., as well as scholars who were out there grappling with global urban logics—that really did not see themselves as “urban historians” per se…. [I think] that every organization must reflect the rich and complex scholarship that is actually being done in the field that it represents, as well as the true diversity of the scholars doing that work…If the UHA is going to be the flagship urban history organization, then it must be the home to, and a place to nurture, the best and most interesting work on cities done by the most diverse group of scholars in every sense of that word. Full stop. 

Since the pandemic asked so much of the UHA unexpectedly, what are you proud of in terms of the UHA during your tenure president?

Heather Ann Thompson: OMG, it is hard to capture in words what it has been like to be the president of an organization trying to put on a major annual conference in the midst of a global pandemic. I have never, ever in my life been more grateful for the goodwill, fortitude, and tremendous friendship and support of so many people in this organization. Not only did everyone rally to ensure that the Detroit conference was going to be epic well before we even knew the word covid, but when it hit with a vengeance, those same people, and so many others, never missed a beat, never faltered or disappeared. They stayed, they all helped with whatever needed to be done—first to first cancel the conference, then to reschedule it, then to cancel it again, and finally to reimagine it (as it now will be) as an entire exciting month of urban history offerings. This was a herculean and wholly unrewarded task on so many people’s part and I truly can’t express how much it has moved me. I never had to ask anyone to help—they just did. This is what I am most proud of. We, the UHA, did this, together. 


What do you see to be the UHA’s relevance to contemporary issues of urban space, design, politics, and communities?

Heather Ann Thompson: [T]his organization can, and in my view should, play an important role in some of the most impactful discussions taking place right now across the globe—discussions in which decisions made thereafter will result in material changes in real people’s lives. These range from discussions about how to/whether to design prisons and detention centers, to debates about the efficacy of urban policies such as “Broken Windows policing,” to weighing in on surveillance innovation such as electronic monitoring in inner city homes v. rural prisons, to being asked to discuss whether certain transit options might be better for the environment, etc., etc. To me these are all discussions that are intensely consequential, they are discussions that we know a great deal about, and therefore we should be ready to enter them. But they are also fraught and they are intensely political. And therefore, I think we need to also be much more thoughtful about the implications of the work we do—make room for a more deliberate and careful thinking through of what the praxis part of being an urban historian means as members of the UHA.

Joe William Trotter Jr.: Today, over fifty percent of the world’s people live in cities and the numbers are climbing. As cities become the primary residence of the vast majority of the world’s people, urban history will have an important and even pivotal role to play addressing the persistence and even intensification of class, gender, race, and other forms of systemic socioeconomic and political inequality. More than ever, we will need the insights of urban historians to craft policies and cities designed to eradicate inequality, past and present. Indeed, urban historians must take a larger role at center stage in the struggle to craft more inclusive communities across myriad social divisions and fragments of our social, cultural, economic, and political world. 

Read entire article at The Metropole

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