Enoch Pratt Library exterior and cover of Chicory

Mary Rizzo Named Whiting Public Engagement Fellow for Baltimore Cultural History Exhibit

Mary Rizzo
Mary Rizzo

Mary Rizzo, Assistant Professor of History and Associate Director of Public and Digital Humanities Initiatives at Rutgers University-Newark, has won a $50,000 Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship to produce a traveling exhibit about Black cultural activism in Baltimore co-created with local middle- and high- school students and grounded in the evolution of Chicory, an African American literary magazine published from the 1960s through the 1980s.  

The story of Chicory— rediscovered by Rizzo after falling into relative obscurity and now fully digitized in collaboration with Pratt Library—overturns the usual narrative of Baltimore’s Black history, which sees the riot in 1968 as the starting point of an inexorable decline leading to increased poverty, drug use, and violence, culminating in the 2015 uprising. Looking at Baltimore through the lens of Chicory reveals Black working-class neighborhoods as vibrant sites of cultural, social, and political activity. In its pages, debates raged over Black Nationalism and revolutionary Marxism and women and men questioned gender roles in the family, at work, and in society. Meanwhile, activists built new institutions from Black Power schools to bookstores to empower local communities. 

In 2018, Rizzo used a Whiting Public Engagement Seed Grant to create the Chicory Revitalization Project, hosting civic dialogues where young people interpreted and responded to poems from Chicory as historical sources. 

Cultural Activism and the History of Black Baltimore takes that work further, into a traveling exhibit by and for youth about Black cultural activism in Baltimore from the 1960s-1980s as told through the story of Chicory. Rizzo will co-create the exhibit in collaboration with the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the nonprofits Writers in Baltimore Schools and Dewmore Baltimore, and Bard Early College High School.  Middle and high school students in Baltimore will lead the curatorial process, defining themes and identifying which historical issues are most relevant to their lives today, and will work with Rizzo and undergraduates at Rutgers University-Newark to write interpretive text and create accompanying audiovisual materials. 

"I'm honored to be chosen for the Public Scholar Fellowship by the Whiting Foundation,” said Rizzo. “This fellowship gives me and my collaborators the support to envision a truly co-creative process to produce our traveling exhibit. I'm particularly excited to work with students here at Rutgers-Newark and in Baltimore." 

When the media talks about African American life in Baltimore, it's usually a story of despair and victimization. Our project resists that narrative.

Rizzo, who recently published Come and Be Shocked: Representing Baltimore from John Waters to The Wire, is one of seven 2021-22 Fellows. The Whiting Public Engagement Program (WPEP) is a distinctive national grant founded to champion the public humanities in all forms, and to highlight the roles scholars play in work to deploy the humanities for the public good. Since it began in 2016, the WPEP has given $2.4 million to launch and expand projects in the US and beyond. Winners are selected through a highly competitive process beginning with nomination by a university, scholarly society, or state humanities council and proceeding through two further stages of peer review by expert public humanists. Seven $50,000 Fellowships and five $10,000 Seed Grants were awarded this year.  

Rizzo is passionate about bringing this exhibit to the Baltimore community and the wider public. "When the media talks about African American life in Baltimore, it's usually a story of despair and victimization. Our project resists that narrative by highlighting the history of how Baltimore's Black community used art and culture to create networks that imagined social change." The exhibition will launch at the Central branch of the Pratt library, Baltimore’s free public library system, before touring the state. By involving young minds in the activation of a historical record of Black Baltimore’s resilience and creativity, the Chicory exhibition will connect past and present to resonate with Maryland audiences across generations. 

“The humanities make a crucial difference for all of us, in so many ways,” said Daniel Reid, Executive Director of the Whiting Foundation when announcing this year’s awards. “These twelve projects – and the many others being led by scholars and other public humanists in every part of the country – will build bridges within and across communities, enrich our understanding and help us interpret the world around us, and make our lives more meaningful through deep context, rich exchange, and careful inquiry.” 


More info about the project is available at the Whiting Foundation website.