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"Be Willing To Explore": Mellon Fellowship Winner And Colleagues Draw A New Picture Of "Jim Crow" Era In Central Virginia

May 2, 2001-- Intensive research in African-American history and culture, including contributions to important new findings about the Charlottesville area, helped win a prestigious Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship for a graduating University of Virginia literature and history student.

Brandi Hughes of Yorktown, one of 85 exceptionally promising students throughout the country and one of only three at Virginia colleges chosen to receive a 2001 Mellon award, will enter Yale University's interdisciplinary American Studies Ph.D. program in the fall. The highly competitive fellowships, offered by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, pay tuition and living costs for the first year of doctoral study.

"Throughout her undergraduate career, she has always been a strong, careful and thoughtful scholar," says William G. Thomas, one of her U.Va. teachers and director of the Virginia Center for Digital History. Hughes' research, and that of other students who work with the center and U.Va.'s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American Studies, has unearthed new historical information about Central Virginia that is placed on a World Wide Web archive called "Race and Place."

An English and American Studies honors major elected to Phi Beta Kappa, Hughes has been a major contributor for three years to the archive, which focuses on the Jim Crow era of racial segregation in Charlottesville. Drawing on undergraduate and graduate student research into the period from the late 1880s to the mid-20th century, it contains extensive photos, letters, census data, maps, business records, newspaper collections and other material that offer new glimpses of life in a segregated southern community of that era. Several leading U.Va. historians work closely with the project.

Hughes has researched census, land and business records in libraries and courthouses, deciphering handwriting, transcribing documents, printing microfilm and discussing and writing interpretations. Web experts, she and student-colleagues digitize new historical material so it can be searched on the Web by genealogists, historians, students and anyone wanting to learn more about the area’s history. (The Race and Place Web site is at www.vcdh.virginia.edu/afam/raceandplace)

As she spent the last two summers reading early-20th century land records in local courthouses, Hughes says, "it was fascinating to me to see the sheer number of African Americans who owned land and property here." She and other students have brought forth considerable data showing how, despite many obstacles, a strong black middle class, largely overlooked in Charlottesville's history, thrived during the Jim Crow era and contributed hugely to community life. A local black-owned real estate company, the Piedmont Industrial Land Co., was one of the first and largest in Central Virginia. Prominent black entrepreneurs, such as John West, a barber, became major property holders and community figures. Local churches played key roles in helping African Americans "network" together to improve their financial resources. Long before the 1960s, strong civil rights activities were under way locally. And Charlottesville was a "locus" for close connections among the Richmond, Washington, D.C. and Hampton-area black communities of the time, Hughes says. Despite segregation laws, there was more interracial cooperation and collaboration, and less neighborhood segregation than was previously supposed. Such findings "call for a reinterpretation of the Jim Crow South," especially in small cities outside the Deep South, she says.

Hughes’ contributions to humanities research on the Web have been so strong she was selected by faculty members last year to participate in an "E-summit" conference with U.Va. alumni heading major technology companies. Despite her commitment to placing useful information on the Web, she says historical research will always involve the hands-on work of reading and interpreting real documents and oral histories, and much thinking. "The Web is great for sparking interest," she says. "It can lead you to further research."

Like many students, Hughes was unclear about her direction when she arrived at college. She knew she loved to read. "It became facisinating to me to see how history was written and can have many interpretations," she says. Through the mentoring program in the Office of African American Affairs she became interested in American Studies, with its interdisciplinary focus, and the Woodson Institute,

where she was chosen for its "emerging scholars" program. Now, "she is not just emerging any more," says Thomas, the historian who heads the digital research center.

Entering Yale with a Mellon fellowship, Hughes wants to teach. Her wide curiosity includes literature and law as well as history. Her advice to entering undergraduates, whether sure or unsure of directions: "Be flexible in your interests. Stay as open and creative as you can. Be willing to explore."

Contact: Bob Brickhouse, (804) 924-6856 or Katherine Jackson, (804) 924-3629

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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