PAAH Summer Program Interns: Christoforos Sassaris
My name is Christoforos Panagiotis Sassaris and, in May 2020, I graduated from West Chester University of Pennsylvania (WCU) with a Bachelor of the Arts in English Literature and a minor in Computer Science. In fall 2020, I will begin pursuing a Master of the Arts in English at Villanova University, where I will also take courses on Hellenic history and literature. My research interests include book history, American history and literature before 1900 (especially the African American community of nineteenth-century Philadelphia), the reception of Hellenism in the West, Hellenic history and literature from antiquity to the modern day, and early modern drama.
I was inspired to apply to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s internship program at the Library Company of Philadelphia after conducting research on a rare dictionary housed in WCU’s Special Collections Library, an eighteenth-century copy of Gerasimos Vlachos’ Thesauros Tetraglossos … (Θησαυρός Τετράγλωσσος …). Vlachos’ book shed light on a part of Hellenic history that had remained relatively understudied due to the occupation of historically Hellenic lands by the Ottoman and Venetian Empires. Examining an understudied part of my people’s history made me see the great importance of using archives to retrieve the often-forgotten histories of groups that have lived under the dominance of other groups. In Dr. Joseph Navitsky’s research seminar, “The Literary Culture of Philadelphia,” I learned that Philadelphia’s pre-1900 African American community had likewise been historically understudied and underrepresented. Hence, I saw that the internship would not only enable me to enhance my knowledge of pre-1900 African American history, but also to take part in retrieving that history through archival work and sharing it with the public through an online exhibition. Moreover, working at the Library Company—the nation’s first cultural institution—would provide me with invaluable experience in the fields of archival librarianship and museum work, in which I hope to pursue a career.
During the past two weeks, my research has centered on the 1794 pamphlet authored by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen; nineteenth-century book and magazine illustrations that portray the health conditions of the Middle Passage and slave market; and attitudes toward African American health during the American Civil War. In the process, I have learned much about the history of race and pandemics, such as the crucial role that African Americans played in providing aid during the 1793 yellow fever outbreak; several White physicians’ pseudo-scientific arguments that led to widespread misconceptions about Black people’s biology; the nineteenth-century racist caricatures that presented African Americans as threats to the public health; and the ways in which the Middle Passage and the slave market served as the origin points for a long history of unequal access to healthcare between Black and White Americans.
The Library Company holds an abundance of print items on these topics (especially from the nineteenth century), such as illustrated trade cards, postcards, and political cartoons; hence, the most challenging part so far has not been finding documents that could go into the online exhibition, but instead choosing which documents not to include. Another challenge has been to choose the documents that are most illustrative in themselves, rather than those that require extensive contextualization. Through this challenging work, the Mellon Scholars program is not only providing me with intellectual growth and important historical knowledge, but also with hands-on, practical knowledge in the professional fields of archival librarianship and museum work. The Library Company staff has helped me to address the challenges posed by archival research and curatorial work through providing relevant secondary sources, advice on directions that I could take my research in, recommendations on how my part of the exhibition could work nicely with the other interns’ parts to form cohesive exhibition, and more. I look forward to sharing the finished exhibition with everyone!