Friday, July 18, 2014

Mellon Scholars Program: Igniting a Scholarly Journey

In a series of occasional blog posts, participants in our Mellon Scholars Internship and Workshop programs will introduce themselves, discuss their experiences at the Library Company, and share their goals for pursuing careers in the field of early African American history. This program is generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Writing about myself is often one of the most difficult things to do. I mean, I could tell you my name is Sherri Cummings, I am a "native New Yorker," and I majored in Africana studies, history, and literature at Brooklyn College. I could also tell you that before my professor encouraged me to apply to the Mellon Scholars internship program at the Library Company of Philadelphia I had never heard of the institution ... and yet, I am here.

I am here because of my fascination with Atlantic world history, from the 17th century to the 19th century, and its relationship with the African Diaspora. My love for literature, especially from these time periods, and my profound interest in the history of Africa and her children in Europe and the Americas were the sparks that ignited my scholarly journey. For my graduate studies, I intend to explore the ways the events transpiring in the Atlantic world, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, affected the descendants of Africans in the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe. I would also like to explore women's narratives within this context because women's narratives are so often overlooked. 

Y. J. Grice. "To Miss Martina," from the Martina Dickerson
Friendship Album (circa 1840-1846).

After my first day at the Library Company, I was overwhelmed ... overwhelmed by the vast collection of African American history archived within the walls of the building neatly tucked into the block on Locust Street ... and overwhelmed with gratitude at the unique opportunity I had been blessed with. The first project I had the privilege of working on was transcribing pages from Martina Dickerson's friendship album. Emotionally, it was no easy task. Here I was leafing through the personal inscriptions of some of Philadelphia's black elite, written in the 1840s (let that sink in for a minute) ... who were responding to the death of Dickerson’s one-year-old son. Some wrote personal messages of sympathy, while others transcribed poems from William Wordsworth and Erasmus Darwin. Through their heartfelt sentiments, not only was I offered an intimate glimpse into the lives of these affluent and respectable African American men and women, I also got a sense of how educated they were and how informed about world events, and also how these events affected them.

This leads me to my independent research project here at the Library Company. I have chosen to examine the effects of the Saint Domingue (Haiti) Revolution on the City of Brotherly Love, paying close attention to the response of the African American community as they sought to define their space in the capital of the new republic. In doing so, I hope to place black Philadelphians in a transnational context actively reacting to occurrences in the 18th- and 19th- century Atlantic world that would ultimately shape the fight for liberty, equality, and the abolishment of slavery in Pennsylvania.    

Frontispiece from Saint-Domingue, ou Histoire de ses Revolutions (Paris, 1815). Hand-colored engraving. 
So there you have it, just a little bit about me. I am sincerely living in the moment, enjoying my time at the Library Company of Philadelphia surrounded by knowledgeable and passionate people who treasure this fabulous institution and all that it has to offer. 

Sherri Cummings
Mellon Scholars Intern, Summer 2014


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