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History students honored for doctoral research

Two doctoral candidates in History, John Barnard and Jessica Pursell, have carried off coveted university prizes for their dissertation research.

Barnard secured a Dissertation Research Award for his work on the intersection of African religious beliefs about spirit possession and spirit mediumship in the development of the African American millennialist tradition within the United States.

Pursell, in her turn, reached successfully for a Dissertation Fellowship for her project under the following working title: “St. Louis Public Schools, Public Schools, and the World.”


John Barnard

Barnard (pictured left), who is directed by Ras Michael Brown, is a former holder of a Dissertation Fellowship. He also served as Associate Coordinator for the Southern Illinois Regional History Fair earlier this year.

Originally from Arnold, Missouri, Barnard will return to his home state this summer to act as a park guide at the Jefferson Memorial, where he will lead interpretive programs at the Old Courthouse—of Dred Scott infamy—and also help develop new ones.

Among other interests, John is looking forward to helping correct the historical record as regards slave auctions at the Old Courthouse. Until just recently, guides at the memorial cited 1861 as the year of the last slave sale on the courthouse steps.   Historians now know that “informal, party-to-party slave sales took place well into 1864.”

Barnard continues, “The larger point is that they are trying to move beyond the mythology of the ‘Last slave sale’ on Jan. 1 1861, a narrative that focuses entirely on the actions of brave white people [activists], and diminishes any agency enslaved people had in securing their own freedom (much like the largely mythological Underground Railroad).”


Jessica PursellPursell (pictured right), a current Dissertation Fellowship holder who hails from St. Louis, discovered that she had an excellent research opportunity right in her own backyard.

At the turn of the 20th century, St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the U.S., with a significant immigrant and African American population. It became a crossroads for national trends in education.

The superintendent of St. Louis public schools—which were segregated at that time—would become the U.S. Commissioner of Education and set about exporting what Pursell describes as “imperialist education” to the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Jessica is looking at the international influence American education wielded in the world during this period. Natasha Zaretsky is her dissertation director.

In addition to the fellowship, Pursell has also recently become involved with the History of Education Society, graduate students’ committee, which brings the view of new historians to the organization. She was also accepted by the society for a mentored research opportunity and the chance to present her paper at its conference. She will conduct her research principally at the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center in St. Louis.


—L. A. Brown