Mellon Scholars Program: “Obscure details” and the Pursuit of History

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Mellon Scholar Ken Anderson

Mellon Scholars Program: Obscure details and the Pursuit of History

In a series of occasional blog posts, participants in our Mellon Scholars Internship and Workshop programs will introduce themselves, discuss their experiences at the Library Company, and share their goals for pursuing careers in the field of early African American history. This program is generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Mellon Scholar Ken AndersonObscure details…There’s a title for my memoirs! For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved history and as long as I’ve loved history, I’ve found interest and passion in what some would call the most obscure subjects and questions and their most peculiar facets while connecting them to greater historical themes…What were Winston Churchill’s best quips and did they add to England’s finest hour? What was the 19th century development of Germantown like and how did it reflect greater trends of Philadelphia’s and America’s suburbanization? Was W.E.B. DuBois a snob and did that affect his commentary on both black and white society?

I love the “nitty-gritty” and have spent much of my free time reading on these “dusty” subjects and sharing these tidbits with unprepared friends and family members (either to their amusement or anguish). I satisfied my craving for research in high school by working in my school’s archives. For years I lived with the fact that I was a keeper of specialized knowledge, a connector of dots, who was seen as appreciated but at times a novelty.  I knew that there were others like me but it was not until I got to college that I met people who were equally interested in scholarly pursuit with the level of detail that always interested and frustrated me. I realized that my interests were not novelties or a hobby but rather an ideal foundation for scholarly development. Last summer was my baptism into collegiate research, and I won a grant to study the role of the black middle-class in the upper South from the early nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century using my own family history as a subject. The research focused on themes of respectability and ultimately what it meant to be black and middle-class in one of the nation’s most segregated corridors.

Constitution and Rules to be Observed and Kept by the Friendly Society of St. Thomas's African Church, of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1797).

Constitution and Rules to be Observed and Kept
by the Friendly Society of St. Thomas’s African Church,
of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1797).

When recommended to apply for the Mellon Scholars Internship at the Library Company of Philadelphia, I could not think of a better way to spend a summer. I figured I will be surrounded by others who share my love for digging deep into history, answering the questions, and connecting themes. I will have the opportunity to work for a leading organization in the pursuit of both American and African American history. I will hear some of the foremost scholars on black history and gain professional advice and strategies from a noted historian. To apply was a no-brainer and to be accepted was a blessing. I hope to use these skills to both refine my research and writing skills but also help in charting my professional course. I have an interest in politics and hope to enter government. But as a lover of history, the potential to research and share my knowledge with others like me is the greatest career temptation.

During my research this summer, I will be focusing on themes of black respectability in Philadelphia from the late eighteenth century to the 1830s, specifically highlighting the community role of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the first black Episcopal Church in the country and a leader in both political and social life in antebellum black Philadelphia. I plan to look at the generational divides amongst Philadelphia’s black leadership, highlight the relationship between denomination and class, and ideas of early nineteenth-century racial uplift.

I’m excited to see where my research takes me and look forward adding some useful research and career skills and more obscure details to my intellectual rolodex by the end of the internship.

Ken Anderson
University of Richmond, Class of 2017
2016 Mellon Scholars Intern

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