Professor Melissa Cooper in her office
Toggle caption Photo by Lawrence Lerner

Historian Melissa Cooper Named 2019 Andrew Carnegie Fellow

Rutgers University-Newark History Professor Melissa Cooper is working on a new book that will examine the ideas that shaped interpretations of black suffering in South Carolina’s Low Country from the 1920s to 1970s as a member of the 2019 class of Andrew Carnegie Fellows.

She is one of 32 distinguished scholars and writers from among nearly 300 nominations selected for this prestigious honor. Each winner will receive up to $200,000 to support a research sabbatical focused on their studies in the social sciences and humanities.

Cooper, who specializes in African American cultural and intellectual history, and the history of the African Diaspora, will study the practices, writings and dual mission of the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals, in Charleston, S.C., along with wider race relations in the region during that 50-year period, to tell the aforementioned story, while tracing the evolution of the Society through the Civil Rights Era and Black Power movement to gauge what its writings and practices tell us about incessant denials of black suffering in contemporary America.

“The Andrew Carnegie Fellowship will allow me to go deeper in my exploration of the questions that drive my work,” says Cooper. “I am looking forward to spending more time in the archive, and to immersing myself in my research and writing. I enjoy so much support—from my family at home to my Rutgers family on campus—and I am truly grateful.”

We are thrilled that Carnegie is recognizing Melissa’s promise and supporting her work with this fellowship.

Cooper will work on the manuscript during the 2019–2020 academic year while on competitive leave from RU-N. She’ll use the fall semester to mine archival material at libraries and archives in South Carolina, New York City and Washington, D.C., and collect oral history interviews. In spring 2020, Cooper will do a second round of interviews and conduct a wider survey of historical material that describes racial dynamics in Charleston and other communities in the area. Thereafter she’ll review her interview transcripts, compile data, examine documents and draft chapters for the book.

“Melissa has an exceptionally mature research acumen; her discerning eye for critically important, yet untold, stories is informed by her decade of experience as a classroom social studies teacher, including work in an alternative school,” says RU-N Chancellor Nancy Cantor. “This has sharpened her awareness of both the yawning gaps in K-12 curricula and our desperate need for scholarship that at once exhumes histories of groups that previous generations have allowed to become buried and connects them with cultural currents of the present in revelatory and engaging ways. We are thrilled that Carnegie is recognizing Melissa’s promise and supporting her work with this fellowship.”

Cooper's Carnegie-supported project comes on the heels of her most recent book, Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), an intellectual and cultural history that examines the emergence of "the Gullah" in scholarly and popular works during the 1920s and the 1930s. Using Sapelo Island, Georgia as a case study, the book explores the forces that inspired interest in black southerners’ African heritage during the period, and also looks at the late 20th and 21st-century legacies of the works that first made Sapelo Islanders famous. Cooper garnered widespread media attention for the book, including outlets such as The New Yorker and NPR.

Cooper also is the author of Instructor's Resource Manual--Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans with Documents (Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 2013) and is a contributor to Race and Retail: Consumption Across the Color Line (Rutgers University Press, 2015).  

“I am passionate about the topics I study,” says Cooper. “I am especially interested in trying to figure out what the past can tell us about our world today.”