Introducing Dr. Louis Porter!

Photo of Dr. Louis Porter

We are excited to welcome Dr. Louis Porter to Texas State this semester! He studies studies Russian and Eastern European history.

After getting my PhD in Russian History at the University of North Carolina, I am stoked to be joining the Texas State University Department of History to teach Russian and East European History.

I am often asked why I study Russia and never have a pithy answer. However, my background provides a couple of reasons. In…. West Philadelphia (“born and raised”), I grew up living in a bunch of different worlds, kind of like the Fresh Prince. My parents split so I went to school in the suburbs where my mother lived while visiting my Dad in Philly on the weekends. With a Black father from the Cleveland projects and a white mother from a working-class family in West Virginia, I had to negotiate a range of racial and class settings from as far back as I can remember. This made me eager to learn how hierarchies of class and race structure history and how various people have struggled to overcome these hierarchies.

But, as a bit of a cynic, I decided to study the greatest failed experiment in overcoming these hierarchies––the Soviet Union. I am fascinated by Marxism (in theory and practice) and its historical contexts. I am also passionate about recruiting students of all backgrounds to join me in studying Russian and European history. When not in the classroom, I am writing a book that examines how Soviet citizens reacted to the idea of international organizations.

My courses at Texas State will cover a range of topics in Russian and East European history. If you want to learn about medieval Ukraine, the Russian Revolution, or why Putin…is the way he is, I got you covered! For now, I am teaching surveys of Russian history (HIST 4333 in the Spring and 4334 in the Fall) as well as Western Civ. But I hope in the future to teach classes on the Russian Revolution, Marx and Marxism, and the Cold War.

In my free time, I chase a skedaddling nine-month old, LJ, around my house with my wife. Apart from that, I love swimming, running, hiking with my dog, canoeing, watching basketball (Sixers or whatever team Lebron is on), and listening to music (everything from DaBaby to My Bloody Valentine to Bruce Springsteen). My favorite movie is Disney’s Robin Hood.

A Note from the Chair on the Fall 2020 Semester

Photo of Dr. Jeffrey Helgeson

Every semester begins with a sense of possibility, bringing both anxiety and excitement for what will come. This year, our anticipation mixes dramatically with an experience of rupture, a loss of the kind of certainty about habits and continuity that generally provide us with a foundation on which we bring some order to our semesters. This year, then, we are all working harder. We—as students, as teachers, as workers who keep our classrooms and offices running—face exponentially more difficult challenges as we get back to workNonetheless, I return this fall confirmed in my belief that the people in this department face disruption head-on and forge new paths out of difficult days.  

Teaching and learning in the contemporary university are always challenging. Limited resourcesalong with inequities, injustices, anti-intellectualism, and divisions in the society at large—impinge on the classroom. We always have to work to build and maintain the space where we can come together to study. Yet we do create that space.  

We all have known those moments when the university fulfills its promise. We see it in the light of realization in a student’s eyes, we hear it in the laughter of people working together to solve a problem, we can sense it in the air when professors and students are locked in mutual concentration on a difficult question. These satisfactions, and our memories of them, are what make the return to school such a time of promise.  

This year, the obstacles in our path can seem nearly insurmountable. Much of the extra labor we are doing can feel incomplete, frustrating, and even at times distractingly prosaic. A global pandemic, an economic calamitythe exhausting work of anti-racism in a time of surging bigotry and violence—these crises have revealed with painful clarity the structural inequities and divisions that threaten our communities. These challenges also threaten the energy and opportunity to engage in the study of history—even as that work has never seemed more important. 

To help our students enter into the study of history, the department is building on its recent growth. Four new faculty members add to the great energy in our public history and European history offerings. Students can choose from several new courses, including African American and Mexican American history surveys, which count toward core curriculum requirementsa course on creating podcasts that lift up unsung voices in historythe history of 20th-century social movements in the U.S.; and the history of childhood in EuropeStudents can also visit the new library guide for researching #BlackLivesMatter, developed by Dr. Casey Nichols and subject librarian Margaret Vaverek. The department will be collaborating on public programs and courses with people across campus, including the history faculty leading the Center for Texas Music History, the Center for Texas Public History, the Center for the Study of the Southwest, and the Center for International StudiesThe TXST chapter of Phi Alpha Theta and the student-led History Club (open to all Bobcats) are organizing regular events—from film screenings to an academic conference—that will provide opportunities to connect and outlets for graduate and undergraduate student research. There is so much going on…follow it all on the department’s FacebookTwitter, and Instagram feeds. 

 To move through tribulation in a way that seeks not just the familiar but the possible requires persistent support for each other and our studentsWriting in the shadows of Nazism on the risethe historian Walter Benjamin declared that the struggle for a just world “is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist.” This phrase has been ringing in my ears as I have been working with the faculty, staff, and students in the history department to make Zoom work, to welcome our new faculty and students, to learn how to foster group discussions that are simultaneously inperson and virtualand to figure out how to clear the algae from the fountain in our courtyard and order the coffee that will keep the department running. It can make for days that sometimes seem distressingly fragmented. Yet it is in working with the people in this department that I am reminded of the other half of Benjamin’s point: that the “spiritual things” we win out of the struggle come not as “spoils,” but “as courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude.”  

Dr. Jeff Helgeson

Chair and Associate Professor
Department of History
Texas State University

History Faculty Recognized by College of Liberal Arts

Faculty photos

Congratulations to our History faculty members who have been recognized by the College of Liberal Arts!

Scholarly/Creative Activity

Dr. José Carlos de la Puente (Achievement Award)
Dr. Louie Dean Valencia-García (Golden Apple)


Dr. Nancy Berlage (Achievement Award)
Dr. Shannon Duffy (Golden Apple)


Dr. Sara Damiano (Golden Apple)
Dr. Jeff Helgeson (Achievement Award)

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter Image

The Department of History at Texas State University affirms that #BlackLivesMatter. We study, teach, and strive to understand the historical continuum of racisms in this country. We recognize the many ways that racism is intertwined with deep and constantly evolving structures and cultures of inequity, domination, exclusion, and exploitation in the United States and across the globe, throughout the long expanse of modern history. We have learned from this history that, in order to advance the cause of anti-racism, we must identify the many forms of violence that sustain racial injustice and affirm both the dignity of Black lives and the interdependence of all human beings.

We stand in solidarity with our Black students, colleagues, and their families, and we are grieving and committed to act against racial injustice with you.

Dr. Thomas Alter
Dr. Gregory Andrews
Dr. Nancy Berlage
Dr. Elizabeth Bishop
Dr. Ronald Brown
Dr. Victoria Bynum
Adam Clark
Dr. Sarah Coleman
Dr. Sara Damiano
Dr. Peter Dedek
Dr. José Carlos de la Puente
Dr. Shannon Duffy
Trace Etienne
Dr. Bryan Glass
Dr. Dwonna Goldstone
Dr. Jeff Helgeson
Dr. Debra Law
Dr. Deirdre E. Lannon
Dr. Bryan N. Mann
Dr. Kenneth Margerison
Dr. John Mckiernan-González
Dr. James McWilliams
Dr. Jason Mellard
Dr. Margaret Menninger
Dr. Rebecca Montgomery
Dr. Angela Murphy
Dr. Joshua Paddison
Madelyn Patlan
Dr. Jessica Pliley
Dr. Leah Renold
Dr. Caroline Ritter
Dr. Joaquín Rivaya-Martínez
Dr. Allison Robinson
Dr. Anadelia Romo
Roberta Ruiz
Katie Salzmann
Dr. Ellen Tillman
Dan K. Utley
Dr. Louie Dean Valencia-García
Dr. Joseph Yick

New General Education Offerings in African American History and Mexican American History

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The History Department is excited to announce new options to students for completing state general education requirements in History!

In the past, History 1310 and 1320 – the general surveys of US History – were our only offerings that fulfilled state general education requirements. Going forward, we will be offering surveys of African American History (HIST 2381 and 2382) and Mexican American History (HIST 2327 and 2328) to our general education offerings. Students interested in those topics can take 2381 or 2327 in lieu of 1310 and/or 2382 or 2328 in lieu of 1320.

The Fall 2020 class schedule includes the following options for those interested in these alternatives:

  • HIST 2381: African American History to 1877 with Dr. Dwight Watson, MW at 2pm (would replace 1310 in general education requirement).
  • HIST 2328: Mexican American History since 1865 with Dr. John Mckiernan-González, MW at 11 am (would replace 1320 in general education requirement).

The Department of History is grateful to be able to build on persistent efforts of Texas State students, faculty, and staff to work for these constructive curricular developments, including groups such as: Pan African Action Committee, Black Women United, Student Community of Progressive Empowerment, Black Students Alliance, and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Meet the Chairs: Dr. Murphy and Dr. Helgeson reflect on the History Department and its future

Photo of Drs. Murphy and Helgeson

Dr. Angela Murphy, who has served as chair of the department since 2017, reflects on her time as chair and shares some of her upcoming research. Incoming chair, Dr. Jeffrey Helgeson, gives us a glimpse into his vision of the future of the department.

Join them both on 9 March 2020 from 5:30-6:30 PM in Taylor-Murphy Hall 101 for a discussion sponsored by Phi Alpha Theta History Honors Society.

Murphy and Helgeson FlyerA Note from Dr. Angela Murphy

It has been rewarding serving as chair of the History Department for the past few years. It has given me a chance to get to know students on a different level, beyond the classroom, and to help further the vision of my fellow faculty. Students should know that they are front and center in that vision. I am proud to say that although the department is made up of world-class researchers, student success has remained one of its highest priorities.  This can be seen not only in the way in which faculty interact with students both in and out of the classroom, but also in the type of people we have hired over the past three years, in the efforts that have been put into modernizing the curriculum, and in the accomplishments of our students both while they are enrolled with us and afterwards.

While I am grateful for the experience of serving as chair, I am very much looking forward to stepping back into to my old faculty role in which I get to teach more (hands down my favorite part of my work) and engage more heavily with my research. Next year I will return to teaching the first half of the U.S. history survey and upper level and graduate courses on the history of the United States during the Antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction Eras. I also will be able to dedicate more time to writing a monograph that has been long in the making – a biography of 19thcentury African American activist, Jermain Loguen, who was one of the primary Underground Railroad operatives in New York State.

I am excited to pass the torch to Jeff Helgeson, who is a natural leader in the department already and whose dynamism and commitment will surely take the department to new heights!

A Note from Dr. Jeffrey Helgeson

It is an incredible honor to be able to say that in September 2020 I will be beginning my eleventh year here at Texas State in a new role as chair of the department of history. Over the course of the past decade, I have had the great good fortune to learn from, and have the support of, our previous chairs: Dr. Frank de la Teja, Dr. Mary Brennan (now Dean of the College of Liberal Arts), and Dr. Angela Murphy. To a great extent, as leaders of the history department, they have created the foundation for my success here as a scholar and a teacher, and they have helped guide the energy I have put into helping to foster the growth of Texas State as a whole (the kind of work academics label, “service,” that includes not just serving on committees, but, among other things, making decisions about how we will teach our classes, who we will hire, and how the university can live as a community of inclusiveness and student growth in difficult times). I hope to follow in the footsteps of the previous chairs, to support my colleagues in their work.

The history department has a reputation for being a well-run department. This means that the chairs who have come before me have been highly successful at doing the work of managing the department. They lead the way on the work that happens behind the scenes to make sure that students have the classes, advising, and academic support they need. They work to ensure that our faculty has the resources they need to develop their research, as well as coursework and extracurricular programs (study abroad, study in America, student clubs, teacher training programs, etc.) that make the Texas State history department such a vibrant place.

The Department of History is a dynamic living community, the health of which depends upon the dedicated work of dozens of people. Our academic counseling and teacher training leaders are amongst the leaders in Texas and the nation. Our public history program has established itself as a national leader, placing graduates in internships and jobs with institutions like the National Park Service, the Smithsonian, and dozens of museums, archives, and history enterprises nationwide. Our undergraduate major in history prepares students to be leaders in the professional worlds of education, the media, public service, the arts, and much more. Moreover, through our connections with vibrant areas of study across campus—including, but not limited to, the Center for International Studies, the Center for Texas Music History, the Center for the Study of the Southwest, the Center for the Study of Gender and Diversity, and minors in African American and Latino/a Studies—the history department opens doors for students to have a grounding in sophisticated historical thinking while pursuing academic and career paths that could take them literally anywhere in the world. None of this wide-ranging work would be possible if not for the department’s outstanding administrative staff—I know I am going to learn so much from Madelyn Patlan, Roberta Ruiz, Adam Clark, and the student staffers in the office.

As you can see, I am a big believer in the ongoing work of the Department of History. I have seen my colleagues dramatically transform the lives of thousands of students over the years. I want to do nothing that will slow down those achievements. Indeed, one of my goals is to sustain the department’s record of continuous excellence, and to build upon recent gains we have made in funding graduate student research and travel, in creating resources to foster undergraduate research, and to support our faculty in their awe-inspiring research on historical themes that span thousands of years of global history.

In addition to maintaining our ongoing success, I also pledge my energies to the tasks of making the Department of History a place where even more students—undergraduate and graduate, alike—can find a path for themselves, while gaining the kinds of skills and worldview that will give them the power to constantly reinvent themselves in the face of life’s inevitable challenges. This means that I am committed both to the fostering of a community of scholars, even as I show up day in and day out to ensure that the nitty gritty work of making the department run well gets done.

Looking forward, I have to admit that I find my new role to be somewhat daunting. Yet I return to advice I received years ago from none other than my own mom. She said, if you want to take on big challenges in life, be sure to surround yourself with people whom you respect and who are doing interesting things. The Department of History is a complex institution, it is also my academic home—a place where I look forward to learning from, and working alongside, fellow faculty members, deeply competent and friendly staff, as well as curious and profoundly interesting students.


Call for Abstracts—Southwest Historical Quarterly Special Issue “The Persistence of Forced Labor in the Southwest, 1865-2000”


The Southwestern Historical Quarterly is seeking expressions of interest to submit articles to a special issue on coerced labor, forced labor, and slaveries in the Southwest in the period between 1865 and 2000. The Southwest is defined as the border states of the United States west of the Mississippi. Sitting at the crossroads of empires, nation states, and migration streams, the American Southwest has long been a site of labor exploitation, and it continues to be a home to modern slavery. Since the 2000 passage of the Trafficking victims Protection Act and the formation and adoption of the United Nations’ Palermo Protocol, human trafficking and modern slavery has captured the attention of human rights activists, academics, jurists, labor organizers, and many others. Reports that the number of people caught in conditions of modern slavery continue to rise, as do the types of interventions to fight modern slavery. At the same time scholars of contemporary trafficking note that trafficking correlates to immigration restriction. Consequently, the Borderlands of the Southwest provide a fertile ground for interrogating the history of modern slavery. This special issue seeks to take the global phenomenon of modern slavery and trafficking, and ground it in the Southwest, considering the ways that labor migration, immigration restriction, border violence, and economic inequality combine to produce the soil that can give rise to modern slavery.

We are especially interested in work that:

  • Engages critically with the historical production of categories such as “peonage,” “forced labor,” “slavery,” and migratory “illegality” as they have pertained to the Southwest.
  • Examines ways border control regimes produced or exacerbated new vulnerabilities.
  • Explores the historical lived experience of forced labor in public and private institutions (such as reformatories, detention centers, prisons) in the Southwest.
  • Places trafficking and forced labor within a wider discourse of indenture, slavery and un-freedom; as well as imperialism, mobility, and globalization, while showcasing the ways these dynamics played out in the Southwest.
  • Explores how vulnerability, co-ethnic exploitation and solidarity, or disability, age and/or sexuality can serve as catalysing factors in producing forced labor.

All submissions must be historical in focus.

Prospective contributors to this special issue are asked to send an extended abstract of 1,000 words to the issue’s guest editors, John Mckiernan-González ( and Jessica Pliley ( by 15 January 2020. Abstracts should describe the prospective article and how it explicitly engages with the theme of the special issue. Authors should also include a discussion of the sources—archival or published—they will be using in the article.

Selected contributors will be informed within two weeks and asked to submit a complete manuscript by 1 March 2020, which will go through the Southwestern Historical Quarterly’s standard process of peer and editorial review. If the manuscript is accepted for publication at the end of this process, it will be published in the special issue.

Transatlantic Migration History with Visiting Fulbright Fellow Dr. Torsten Feys

Today we interview Dr. Torsten Feys, who will be a Visiting Fulbright Fellow at Texas State from the Netherlands beginning spring 2020. Look for his class Transatlantic Migration (History 4318N), 11am-12:20pm, Tuesday/Thursday, in Spring 2020!

Can you tell us a bit about your background and your research into transatlantic steam shipping and migration?

Dr. Torsten Feys: My dissertation analyzed how the transport of millions of transatlantic migrants turned into a big business managed by passenger shipping companies between the 1840s and its decline in the 1920s. It looks at the business aspects of how such companies competed to attract passengers to their homeports. The research analysed how the most important shipping companies formed a powerful cartel to coordinate the lucrative passenger market, ranging from price agreements, set routes, advertising rules, fixed passengers’ quotas between its members while trying to prevent outsiders from entering the market. By the turn of the century, the biggest threat to their trade became the growing anti-immigration movement in the U.S., which pressured for more legal restrictions and stricter enforcement. The research shows how the shipping cartel became the driving force of the American pro-immigration lobby influencing the enactment of the laws. Shipping companies, much like airline companies today, also played a central part in the enforcement of the laws. To compensate for its lack of resources, the U.S. immigration administration transferred part of its controlling responsibilities to shipping lines. This principle of imposing carrier penalties on transport companies for bringing in irregular passengers is still in use today. This commercialization of border control put the shipping companies in a privileged position to assist passengers to pass controls and develop alternative travel means to evade inspections.

My postdoctoral research focused on this impact on migration laws by drawing comparisons between the transatlantic migration system and the transpacific migrations from Asia to the U.S. It highlights how two migration regimes and policies developed simultaneously to govern European and Asian migrations. It led to different means of bypassing restrictions that, however, gradually collided at the land borders through routes via Canada and Mexico. They pioneered strategies and routes of illegal migration that are still very much in use today.

What you are hoping to do with your Fulbright and what brings you to Texas State?

Dr. Feys: Meet new people, exchange ideas, add to my teaching experience in a totally new environment, do some research and writing—in sum, having fun! I have had the opportunity to spend time abroad with various exchange programs in the past in Italy, Spain, Norway and the United States (Colorado and Pennsylvania). Each of these experiences has been very enriching and rewarding and now, as in most past occasions, the place tends to pick me than the other way around. Texas State was suggested by Prof. Jessica Pliley who I met at various conferences and I am very grateful she did. Many people in the History department and beyond contributed to the successful application of the Fulbright grant. They made it possible and I really look forward to finally meet everyone in person, experience the campus life of Texas State and discover San Marcos and Austin. It is my first trip to Texas and my first research stay abroad with the whole family, traveling with my wife, Malika, who is also doing a research stay and my son Basil who should be learning to walk and speak his first words in Texas. We are curious to hear what language that will be in!

We have a robust public history program here; can you tell us a bit about your work at the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp?

Dr. Feys: The Red Star Line is the name of the shipping company who transported more than 2 million people, mostly migrants, across the Atlantic between Antwerp and New York from 1872 until 1934. The museum tells their story through the eyes of the shipping company and how Antwerp functioned as a transit hub. I have collaborated with the museum as a member of the scientific committee of the Red Star Line since 2004, from its inception, development until its opening (in 2013). After completing my PhD, I also worked as full-time freelance researcher for various months. The experience offered me a unique opportunity to translate academic findings to a broader public. It allowed me to contribute to the development of the museum’s storyline, provide contents and materials, and translate these in different installations within and outside the museum walls. The latter consisted of collaborating to documentaries, museum catalogues, public talks etc. Because of the prominent place that migration has taken into the public debates, the responsibility of migration historians to provide historical context has increased. My experience and research topics lend themselves to continue doing so in and around Austin.

Tell us a bit about your Transatlantic Migration course; what students can expect?

Dr. Feys: The course uncovers how migration processes function, breaking these down into economic, social, cultural and especially political aspects. Who migrated, why and how did transatlantic migration patterns develop (1815-1930)? What actors steered it and how did the enactment, enforcement and evasion of American migration policies take shape? This will be linked to current debates by opening each class week with a discussion of migration in media during the past week.

The class uses both literature and primary sources. Each week the students will analyse a primary source ranging from migrant letters, a file of a deported migrant, reports of the United Nations, newspapers, interviews, etc. learning to draw valuable information from these, while at the same learning to assess the pitfalls and apply historical criticism. The discussion on these will be tested with academic articles using such sources to uncover parts of the process of transatlantic migration.

The assessment will consist of the class participation, a short presentation for ‘Migration in Media this week’, a research paper based on an oral history assignment interviewing a migrant and mid-term and final exams.

Background image from The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

“Chasing Slavery”: An Interview with Dr. John Mckiernan-González

Photo of Mckiernan

In preparation for the upcoming symposium, Chasing Slavery: The Persistence of Forced Labor in the Southwest, to be held at Texas State University from 24-26 October, in Flowers  Hall 230, we will be running a series of posts focused on the conference participants and organizers. The conference will bring together dozens of scholars, with a keynote from Ambassador Luis C.deBaca (ret.). See the conference website for more details.

Today, conference co-organizer Dr. Mckiernan-González, Director of the Center for the Study of the Southwest and Associate Professor of History at Texas State University, helps introduce the conference for our readers. He can also be found on Twitter.

Give us your elevator pitch for the conference. What is it about?

Dr. John Mckiernan-González: In a broad way, this conference aims to help us understand why forced labor continued after the 13th amendment banned slavery in the United States, and how people used the constitution to change their situation.  There is a thread in anti-immigrant politics in the United States that uses the rank exploitation of people in a given community to justify the expulsion or restriction of the presence of that community in the United States – rather than treating exploitation as a shared situation and part of a broader economic relationship.  This problem has been explored in depth in the U.S. South for year, from the rise of peonage during Reconstruction to the establishment of Jim Crow, and that deserves continuing exploration. By bringing a variety of perspectives, we can understand the many ways the 13th amendment shaped labor relations in the past and present of our multi-ethnic, indigenous and immigrant Southwest.  I want people to consider the criminal exploitation of workers, when conditions become visible and harsh enough to be considered a crime worth prosecuting.

In another sense, people should consider the way the challenge to forced labor, from peonage to labor trafficking, also involves a transnational response.  Our keynote speaker, Ambassador Luis C. de Baca, worked with the founders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to prosecute their contractors and, in the aftermath, the C.I.W workers went on to create one of the more successful migrant labor movements in the country. As historians, we have the disciplinary space to explore what happens before and after a labor conflict becomes a criminal matter, and track what different people do after slavery and human trafficking has been charged. One answer can be: create a labor movement.  Most of all, the conference should help us become more aware of the ways forced labor has shaped the Southwest.

What was the most surprising thing you encountered when researching the conference?

Dr. Mckiernan-González: Putting together the conference and the associated class on forced labor in the Southwest has been deeply educational.  I now tend to see forced labor almost everywhere, either directly or lying in the wings.  Most frustrating, of course, is when you realize key chapters in your work – in my case, my chapters on the (African American) Tlahualilo Colony and Camp Jenner in Eagle Pass would have been vastly improved.[1] I wish I had named the ways the medically detained refugees in Eagle Pass had to explain and challenge the contract they signed with William Ellis and the Tlahualilo corporation to demand help and resources from U.S. federal agencies.  Along with a deeper appreciation of the presence of forced labor, organizing the conference has helped me think more broadly about the labor constraints facing men and women in stigmatized communities – from juvenile inmates in state asylums to deaf migrants in a transnational forced labor key chain ring.

What do you hope people will take away from our conference on trafficking, forced labor and labor exploitation?

Dr. Mckiernan-González: Hope.  People have consistently challenged the constraints they have faced. Hopefully, people will leave the conference aware of the ways institutions maintain and have maintained forced labor in the Southwest and leave with an awareness that these struggles have a long and continuing history.

What challenge(s) raised by your research are you still trying to reconcile?

Dr. Mckiernan-González: Talking about the Chasing Slavery conference with soccer teammates and extended family has highlighted the way solidarity and coercion often coexist, from people sharing stories about adoption, smuggling debts to coyotes, to informal apprenticeships in semi-skilled trades like housecleaning and construction.  As a historian who prefers text, I see a distant connection between what appears on paper and the everyday coercions working-class people face; the challenge lies in tracing these connections.

[1] John Mckiernan-Gonzalez, “’At the Nation’s Edge’: African American Migrants and Smallpox in the Late Nineteenth-Century Mexican American Borderlands,” Martin Summers, Laurie Green and John Mckiernan-Gonzalez, ed. Precarious Prescriptions: Contested Histories of Race and Health in North America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 67-90

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“Chasing Slavery”: An Interview with Dr. Jessica Pliley

Dr. Pliley photo

In preparation for the upcoming symposium, Chasing Slavery: The Persistence of Forced Labor in the Southwest, to be held at Texas State University from 24-26 October, in Flowers  Hall 230, we will be running a series of posts focused on the conference participants and organizers. The conference will bring together dozens of scholars, with a keynote from Ambassador Luis C.deBaca (ret.). See the conference website for more details.

Today, conference co-organizer Dr. Jessica Pliley, Associate Professor of the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities at Texas State University, helps introduce the conference for our readers.  She can also be found on Twitter.

Give us your elevator pitch for the conference. What is it about?

Dr. Jessica Pliley: This conference tackles the question of the various ways that forced labor has persisted in the US after emancipation. My interest in this topic was born out the research I conducted for my first book, Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI. While I was deep in the investigative case files of the FBI looking for cases of investigations into violations of the 1910 White Slave Traffic Act, I regularly encountered investigations into cases of peonage in the American South. After my book was published in 2014, I became more involved in international conversations occurring among scholars thinking about trafficking and forced labor, which led me to co-organize the Working Group on Modern Slavery and Trafficking at Yale University. That two-year working group considered the ways that history can and should shape our understandings of the development of liberal political economy that is predicated on unfree labor. Partnering with the Center for the Study of the Southwest allows me to look at the ways that forced labor persisted in a discrete region—the borderlands of the Southwest. This conference aims to being together historians, sociologists, and other scholars to consider the different sites of persistent labor abuse, while attending the ways that race, ethnicity and gender shape that abuse. The other aim of the Chasing Slavery project that excites me is more pedagogical. John Mckiernan-González and I are co-teaching a graduate seminar that features the writings of many of the participants of the conference. By hosting this conference, we are providing our students a unique opportunity to meet the scholars whose ideas they have been substantively engage with in class.

Symposium flyerWhat was the most surprising thing you’ve encountered when considering forced labor?

Dr. Pliley: I am consistently struck by the routine quality of extreme labor exploitation. In many ways it hides in plain view, both historically and now. It is almost impossible to find products with supply chains that are clean of labor exploitation. Everything from the tea we drink to the fast fashion we wear is produced through extreme labor exploitation. Until workers’ voices are more firmly incorporated into accountability schemes, I fear this will remain the case.

What do you hope people will take away from our conference on trafficking, forced labor and labor exploitation?

Dr. Pliley: I hope the conference will prompt attendees to look at work in new ways. I also hope that it will lead to dynamic conversations among the attendees.

What challenge(s) raised by your research are you still trying to reconcile?

Dr. Pliley: I struggle with the dominance of contractual thinking as it pertains to ‘labor’. Often times reformers will argue that the solution to poor working conditions is a better contract. But when you look at the history of contracts it becomes clear that large swaths of people, like women and people of color—the very same people who are most vulnerable to labor exploitation—were excluded from liberal contract theory. And instead the work these people labored at became racialized and gendered to justify unfree, uncompensated or poorly-compensated work. In my own area of expertise of intimate labor, the question revolves around the paradox of intimate labor. In tradition liberal thinking, laboring is a public act that can come under the protections of a contract, yet work that is intimate labor—child care, elder care, domestic labor, wifely labor, sex work—is often done in private domains of the family outside of public view.

Also, I am endlessly vexed and fascinated by the ways that extreme labor exploitation has been conflated with trafficking under the rubric of modern slavery. Like many other scholars, I am deeply critical of the use of the term “slavery,” yet I find myself bound be the term. Again and again, historical actors pulled on the evocative power of the metaphor of “slavery” to describe their own experiences or to agitate for reform. Yet, the term slavery can have a conflating effect, on the one hand, while also dismissing the horrors of chattel slavery, on the other hand. Furthermore, once ideas of trafficking get introduced into the mix, what I find is a general lack of precision about the specific abuses, processes, and choices people have faced and continue to face. I am hoping that our conversations at the conference will help me find a better vocabulary to describe the practices associated with forced and coerced labor.

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