Mourning a People’s Historian: Michael Mizell-Nelson

Historians in the News
tags: obituary, Michael Mizell-Nelson

Mary Niall Mitchell is Ethel & Herman L. Midlo Chair in New Orleans Studies and Joseph Tregle Professor in Early American History at the University of New Orleans

Michael Mizell-Nelson (Photo courtesy of the University of New Orleans)

Public historians from all over the country have just returned from Nashville, Tennessee this weekend for the National Conference for Public History (NCPH). In a typical year, my late colleague Michael Mizell-Nelson would have been among them, with a small flock of his master’s students in tow. Every year, Michael struggled to find the funds to pay for their airfare and hotel to the NCPH, often spending his own money to assure his students could present their work, meet colleagues in the field, and acquire new skills.

As Michael knew too well, universities (including the faculty who teach in them) have been slow to recognize the value of their public historians—those dedicated not solely to academic research, but rather, to the production of rigorously researched histories intended for a wide audience. Although I had some training at the graduate level in Public History, it was not until Michael’s death—when our department struggled to gather up his loose ends—that I have come to understand the nature of what it means, today, to be a public historian.

Michael’s sudden passing late last year, at the age of 49, was met with great sadness by many in New Orleans. The memorial service for him on the UNO campus was standing room only, attended by current and former students, colleagues from across the city, state, and country, local television producers, musicians, documentary filmmakers, and even many of the deans Michael hounded over the years for student support. The number of different hats worn by those in attendance was testament to a scholar who had the most expansive possible view of history and its importance to its true inheritors: the public.

From day to day, the most obvious thing that set Michael apart was how closely he collaborated with his students. Unlike most scholars in the humanities, Michael seldom worked alone. For the past several months we have been leaning heavily on two of his graduate students, in particular. They are the most knowledgeable about the state of Michael’s myriad projects (as you might expect of loyal graduate students) but they are also the only ones who knew how these projects work: how to get in the “back end” of websites and databases, what ideas Michael had for revising them, who he collaborated with at other institutions, whose submissions were incomplete, and where all of those unfinished pieces lived.

The arc of Michael’s too-brief career followed the transformation in Public History that has occurred over the past twenty years. For him, certain people were at the root of these changes—namely, the late visionary Roy Rosenzwieg at George Mason’s Center for History and New Media (since named for him, RRCHNM), the pioneers in history education at the American Social History Project, and pathbreaking researchers and early digital adopters such as Gwendolyn Midlo Hall. Michael, too, was an early adopter of the tools of the digital humanities, despite living in the Deep South, a region of the country he termed bitterly (but justifiably so) in a 2012 essay for this website, a “digital desert.”

In his broad, deep knowledge of New Orleans’s past and his determination that its citizens have access to reliable versions of their own history, Michael was one of our most significant storytellers. Weary of the popular falsehoods about this city—and they are legion—he turned to the history of ordinary folk, to the people who drove streetcars, those who organized and protested, and to the family businesses and historic neighborhoods that kept this city, literally, afloat. As a researcher, Michael might in fact be best known as the man who found the origins of the poor boy sandwich (now known as the “po’ boy”) a staple of New Orleans cuisine born—where else?—in the midst of a streetcar workers’s strike.

As his friend, the historian David Roediger, recalled on the occasion of Michael’s memorial service in January: “There’s a lot of discussion about capturing people’s history, about producing history useful to ordinary people, and about helping people write their own history—or at least there used to be. No one I know has actually managed to do all those things so lovingly, painstakingly, excitingly, and excitedly as Michael did.”

It was his concern for the preservation of the city’s history in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that led Michael to his first major digital project at UNO. While still evacuated from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he began thinking about how to salvage, gather, and preserve what he could of the precious historical artifacts, documents, and profound destruction the flooding left behind. The result, in collaboration with Roy Rosenzwieg at George Mason University, was the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank (HDMB) an online repository of everything from children’s drawings to the photographs of first responders and the oral histories of ordinary citizens.

Like all of the best public historians, Michael was happiest when he was collaborating with others. Despite a full teaching load and committee responsibilities, he somehow managed to work closely with colleagues around the country on digital projects, including the HDMB (with Mills Kelly and Sheila Brennan at George Mason), New Orleans Historical (with Mark Souther of Cleveland State, Mark Tebeau of Arizona State and Vicki Mayer at Tulane University), and the New Orleans Research Collaborative (with Leslie Harris at Emory University) .

Michael’s death has left an enormous void in the lives of his family, friends, and colleagues. He was far too young to leave us, and anyone who knew Michael, and heard how swiftly cancer took him, surely had the same thought: he had so much more to do, as a husband and a father of two, but also as a tireless public historian. His wife, Cathe, described daily life with Michael best, when she told the New Orleans Advocate at the time of his death: “Sometimes I felt so exasperated by the endless to-do lists that I just wanted to shout, ‘Stop having ideas!’ But I didn’t because that and his wry sense of humor are what drew me to him in the first place.” With this, she put her finger on what made Michael one of the most dedicated public historians of our generation: his bottomless well of project ideas, ideas that he never intended to pursue alone.

I am not the first of my colleagues to note that our department relied on Michael to bear the full burden of training our students in the digital humanities—that is, to teach them how to be historians in the twenty-first century. Michael made this point, much more gently, at many a faculty meeting. And pretty sharply in his 2012 HNN essay: “Departmental hiring of one person to teach a digital history course is not a solution. Some are blessed to work among institutions offering financial and moral support for digital history projects, but many of us in the hinterlands are typically described as the ‘one in our department who does digital history.’ How that takes place is not typically a concern of others in the department.” Despite the fact that we are, for the moment, without that sole digital historian, the UNO History Department, with help from the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies, is working to keep Michael’s online work available and his projects alive.

I am certain we did not do all that we might have to help Michael train the next generation of historians for the digital age. In his view, his colleagues (myself included) grasped the importance of new media largely “in theory” rather than practice. But I cannot but think he would be pleased to see we are now getting something of a trial by fire. Those of us once unfamiliar with “platforms” and “back ends,” for instance, are at least now somewhere on the learning curve. And instead of doing this alone, a group of scholars across the city have formed a digital collaborative. Our charge is to make sure that projects such as New Orleans Historical and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank persist and thrive. I just hope, for dear Michael’s sake, that Heaven has Internet access.

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