Alisea McLeod, Slice of Life

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“McLeod – Teacher, Researcher, Writer” – a Slice of Life article (text as printed in The South Reporter on March 6, 2014)

Dr. Alisea McLeod, Professor of English and Humanities at Rust College, was recently appointed to be Rust’s new Interim Chair of Humanities. As part of the job, she’ll oversee multiple courses including Religion, English, Foreign Languages, Speech, Communications, and Mass Communications, as well as a tv and radio station.

From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like an overwhelming amount of work, but McLeod is delighted with the opportunity. There’s so much potential in this job to teach, and she’s excited to see students discover their life’s work. After all, it was during the pursuit of higher education that she found hers. And she’s been researching, and writing about it ever since.

Grounded in history and genealogy, the subject of McLeod’s work was inspired by the personal experiences she had growing up. Her point of interest: the emancipation and migration of African-American families from the South.

“Like many families, my family didn’t talk about the past very much. My father tried to, but I think at the time he was raising us, people expected you to have a new identity in the city, and in the north,” she says. “And so, there were certain ways that you could talk about the south. But there were definitely limits.”

Though her family didn’t openly talk about their past, McLeod knew that they had experienced a recent migration of their own. Both sets of grandparents left Memphis for Detroit after World War II, and it was there that her parents were born.

McLeod calls herself a “born nosey person”, and over time, this limited history wasn’t enough.

In 1977, ‘Roots’ aired on television. She was 12 years old. Her family watched the mini-series together, and midway through, it dawned on her and her siblings that they knew nothing about their great-grandparents. Not even their names.

The kids resolved to ask, but the answer they received was brief. Their grandparents told them their names, and nothing else. McLeod wondered why they hadn’t heard these names before, and why her grandparents didn’t tell them more. It’s a moment that she thinks about often.

In 1983, McLeod left Detroit to attend Stillman College in Tuskaloosa, Alabama. She then pursued a Masters in English at the University of Ohio, and a Ph.D. in English and Education at the University of Michigan.

For her Ph.D., she opted for a multi-disciplinary program. She had the freedom to choose her courses, and she studied a range of subjects including anthropology, social movement theory, sociology, and language. It was an unconventional approach to her education that she doesn’t regret.

Actually, she credits the experience for making her more adventurous in her career later on. It was also during this program that she began working on the dissertation that became her life’s work.

It was almost an accident, or an act of fate. Her class had been scheduled to meet for one last session in their mentor’s home. They were planning to present their dissertation topics. McLeod had nothing prepared.

She paced around her apartment, searching for ideas. She found one; it was a Polaroid that belonged to her grandfather. In the picture were her two grandfathers together with her great uncle. She loved the picture because both sides of her family were there.

She took the picture to class and presented it as her project. While most of her classmates were writing about literacy or teaching, she announced that she would write about family, and the influence their migration had on their sense of time. Her mentor agreed to the topic.

The dissertation was personal. Through it, she examined African-American history and many of the unanswered questions she had as a child. She was passionate about the work for this reason. However, she soon realized she wasn’t ready to publish it because it was so personal. She didn’t know when she would be ready.

Over the years, her dissertation has expanded, and McLeod feels her arrival to Holly Springs (a move she made in 2011) has given her the necessary resources to complete it. She’s gained direct access to local archives, and now, has more supporting documents in hand than she could have ever hoped for.

The documents, a combination of ledgers, bank notes, and journals, have allowed her to track the course of several families, including her own. McLeod found that her ancestors had been enslaved in Marshall County, and were among those who fled to Camp Shiloh in Memphis during the war.

Shiloh, one of six “contraband camps” in the Memphis area, was established by Union soldiers during the Civil War. These camps housed thousands of African-Americans during, and after the War, and have become a point of interest for McLeod.

She’s thrilled to be in the South, where she has direct access to this information.

“I tell students that I had been here for all of two months, and after an hour in Ole Miss’ Special Collections, I had the will of my ancestor’s owner with my ancestor’s names listed,” says McLeod. “That’s the kind of access I have by being here. That record has existed since 1844.”

She adds, “I feel very blessed, but I do have this ongoing sense of injustice. There are hundreds of thousands of records buried in archives all over this country that hold the key to African-Americans’ ancestors.”

McLeod stresses that we can’t wait for academic writers to find and share these stories. She believes that anyone with a passion for history can discover them, and begin sharing stories instantly through online social media.

It’s a step she’s taken herself. She manages several blogs where she shares her work, and communicates with historians on a global level. She encourages her students to do the same.

“I can go to the archives with or without a (history) degree, take my phone and snap a picture, and have people everywhere reading about what I’m researching, instantly,” she says. “It’s revolutionary, and it’s an equalizer. Students can do that at Harvard, but students here at Rust College can do that too.”

One of McLeod’s goals as the Interim Chair of Humanities at Rust is to introduce these tools to students, and give them a head start on building global connections that will lead to career opportunities.

“The miles just disappear if you have an active life online,” she says. “You don’t want limit yourself in this day and time. You don’t want to say ‘no’ to the internet.”

Dr. Alisea McLeod blogs about writing, history, and genealogy. Two of her favorite blogs, “The Last Road to Freedom,” and the “HASTAC Blog,” (short for Humanities, Arts, & Sciences Technological Advanced Collaboratory) can be viewed at: http://www.amcleod.lastroadtofreedom.com/index.php/blog/ and http://www.hastac.org/blogs/amcleod

Megan Wolfe
About the Author:
I'm a San Francisco photographer and writer currently based in the South. My work is inspired by weathered history, interviews with locals, and wanderlust.


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