Thursday, August 7, 2014

Research Travel Grant Aids Historical Researcher in Using the University Libraries

Diane Russeau-Pletcher is a person who likes to go down rabbit holes when she finds them.   Exploring some of those rabbit holes recently brought her to the University Libraries at UNCG  to do research in the papers of Ellen Winston, found in the Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives.   Russeau-Pledger is the 2014-2015 Research Travel Grant Award recipient of the Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives.

Diane is studying the history of the eugenics movement in North Carolina, especially after World War II, and sees Ellen Winston as a key stakeholder in the state’s program as head of the State Eugenics Board and Commissioner of Public Welfare in North Carolina prior to being named by President Kennedy in 1963 as the first U.S. Commissioner of Welfare in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW).

Not only is the history of the eugenics movement still a current issue in North Carolina and still drawing national media attention,  Russeau-Pletcher believes that some of the ideas of the eugenics movement “have never really left us,” and continue to find voice, for example, in the treatment of the disabled and the classification of disabilities today.  She says that the Ellen Winston Collection at UNCG allows her to explore, more than other collections she has consulted so far, the theoretical underpinnings of Winston’s support for eugenics.  Winston’s 1930 PhD dissertation for example, was on the topic of insanity and disability, and Winston apparently saw no conflict between her support for the welfare of the poor and her support of eugenics for the “feeble-minded,” a classification so Russeau-Pletcher says was so ill-defined that it came to mean anything from a rape victim to poverty to doing poorly on an IQ test.  Winston’s social science background, as well as her personal background, Russeau-Pletcher believes, led her to a view of “normal” that translated into policy to sterilize individuals “for their own good” and the good of society.   Winston was by no means alone in her belief.  Clarence Gamble, philanthropist, eugenicist and heir to the Procter & Gamble fortune, was another supporter of the movement and created the Human Betterment League to advance its goals.  Gamble contributed $6000 in 1946 to the Eugenics Board “to make a study in North Carolina to determine the need for sterilization and make the results of the study available for educational purposes.”

The Research Travel Grant was begun by the University Libraries in 2009.  The award allows for one researcher outside of the state to come to UNCG to conduct research in the archive.  Past award recipients have looked at a range of collections that included cello music, kinesiology records, and Girls Books in Series.  The Head of Special Collections and University Archives, Keith Gorman, is very excited about the scope of Russeau-Pletcher's research project.  "I am very pleased that University Libraries is able to support the promising research of this young scholar.  With the collection only being fully processed in 2010, Gorman believes that Diane Russeau-Pletcher is the first scholar to really draw on the rich collection of Ellen Black Winston's papers.

Learn more about the Research Travel Grant.

A UNCG M.A.L.S.graduate (’09) Russeau-Pletcher is now pursuing an M.A. in History at Illinois State, and also holds a M.A. from Kansas State in Academic Advising and a B.A. from Ball State. Her work brings glowing reviews from her faculty at Illinois State, where she was recently named best Master’s Student in History, and she expects to more fully develop this Master’s Thesis as the basis for an eventual PhD dissertation on the topic.  She would like, she says, to teach history at the college or university level.

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