Historians Want to Be Cited in the Media

Historians in the News




A story told by Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globe Awards, about a 1944 rape case involving an African-American woman, had been written about in detail by the historian Danielle McGuire.

It was getting late, and the 2018 Golden Globe Awards were dragging on. But Danielle L. McGuire, a Detroit-based historian, was still waiting. She was staying up for something much more important than the year’s entertainment honors. She was waiting for Oprah Winfrey.

That night, Winfrey’s speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement, in which she presented a passionate argument for the #MeToo movement, electrified viewers and prompted questions about a presidential run.

For McGuire, the speech prompted a different question: How had Winfrey found out about Recy Taylor, one of the women at the center of her speech?

In September 1944, Taylor, a 24-year-old African-American sharecropper, was abducted and raped by six white men while she walked home from church in Abbeville, Ala. Decades before the civil-rights movement reached its climax the NAACP sent Rosa Parks to investigate the situation, and the seeds of the movement for racial equality were sewn, she said.

McGuire’s 2010 book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (Penguin Random House) brought attention to a figure who had been largely absent from mainstream history. McGuire had connected the dots between the activists who called for Taylor’s rapists to be prosecuted and the rise of the civil-rights movement years later.

The speech introduced Taylor but didn’t go full circle to the civil-rights movement, And it lacked a reference to McGuire’s work.

Not that the historian was upset. At first she was just surprised that Winfrey was speaking about Taylor. "I was genuinely shocked, like, in a good way," she said….

Most historians’ work will never get the Oprah treatment. But many historians have become familiar with the feeling of anonymity as their work gains attention from the news media.

Weeks before Oprah said the name "Recy Taylor," the History Channel published an article, "Before the Bus, Rosa Parks was a Sexual Assault Investigator."

The article framed Parks as a leader and an advocate for black women, using the Taylor case as an example — just as McGuire’s Ph.D. dissertation and book had argued. Mention of the book was added at the end of the article after McGuire notified History.com.

McGuire and other historians don’t want work that took them years to craft to go uncited. Uncovering history takes time, and historians’ work should be treated like any other source, they argue.

Many articles about Taylor that followed Winfrey’s speech made it seem as if she was the first to tell Taylor’s story and to uncover Parks as one of her advocates, McGuire said. "So many people tend to think that historians don’t do detective work. We know how to find things that other people don’t know how to find, because it’s how we’re trained." ...

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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