The Colgate Scene
March 2002

Natural history
Graham Hodges explores subjects that emerge from personal interests

"New York City is my muse," said Graham Russell Hodges. "It's what motivates me to try to understand life." A professor of early American and New York City history at Colgate since 1986, Hodges has followed his muse -- and found great satisfaction in bringing his students along with him.

"At one time, historians thought that New York was too complex to be studied," Hodges remarked. "But New York City now stands for the new America -- the polyglot United States. That human quality allows New York City to really grab hold. It makes the historian try to shape an understanding of it."

It's impossible to discuss New York without mention of September 11, especially with someone whose life's work dwells on the place, past and present.

"The tension between New York and the rest of America is widely known; it's part of folk culture and literature," said Hodges. "That has changed since Sept. 11. New York seems more a part of America, rather than this strange place where everyone's afraid but to which they must go. Internationally, this is even more true. Eduard Shevardnadze, the president of Georgia, said in a wonderful letter to the Times that an attack on New York City was an attack on the world. I'm enough of a New York lover to believe that."

Originally from upstate, Hodges went to college in the city, ultimately earning his Ph.D. at NYU and entering the emerging field of New York City history. For Hodges this "was a very natural thing." He garnered a unique understanding of the people who became the subject of his first book, The New York City Cartmen, 1667-1850 (ancestors of the Teamsters), during a five-year stint as a taxi driver.

"Having had that experience," he said, "I was able to translate it very easily into research and realize that these guys are the large rock in the front yard that everybody notices but nobody ever studies."

Hodges went on to become a leading scholar in a previously overlooked area of history. "I was part of a larger movement studying black history, but fairly singular in that I devoted my studies to black history in and around New York," he noted. "Blacks were there from the founding of the city in 1625 -- in fact, the first non-indigenous resident of New York was a black man, Juan Rodrigues, who was left behind by a Dutch explorer in 1613."

Hodges was working on a paper on William Livingston, the first American governor of New Jersey, "and I had a document about an escaped slave who came back to capture his master for the English. I learned quite a bit about him." This slave-turned-soldier, Col. Tye, became one of the subjects in Hodges' second monograph, Slavery and Freedom in the Rural North: African Americans in Monmouth County, New Jersey, 1660-1860. Hodges frequently returns to New Jersey to give lectures based on the book.

He is best known for his next book on this subject, Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613-1863. The journal of record for scholars of early America, the William & Mary Quarterly, suggested that a collection of his essays, Slavery, Freedom and Culture in Early America, should be "required reading for all graduate students in American history."

Hodges is quick to call many of his books Colgate productions, citing the tremendous work of his student assistants. Several helped compose statistical tables for Root and Branch. Al Brown '92 coauthored a book about a collection of runaway slave notices from New York and east Jersey. Paul Townend '89, who helped transcribe a directory of the blacks who left with the English in 1783, is now a professor of British and Irish history at UNC-Wilmington. "Student help has always been a vital part of what I've done here," Hodges says, "and a couple of them have gotten the bug and became historians."

His favorite part of his job is teaching. Last fall, his first-year seminar, New York in the 1950s, examined "people who had made something for themselves." They read a cabdriver memoir, a book on the Dodgers and a bio on Marilyn Monroe and visited the city.

"We went to the Met, and we had a great Chinese dinner in the evening," he said. He'd been emphasizing abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock ("a real New Yorker"), so they went to the Museum of Modern Art to see Pollock's painting One. "As the students saw it from a distance," Hodges described, "they started running towards it. `There it is!' We spent quite a bit of time looking at it and meditating on it. It had become much more real to them. This was one of those really nice moments in teaching."

Hodges won't allow himself to use the same books every time he teaches a course. "I don't want to get rusty, and I don't want to spiel out something I already know," he said. "I want to go there with my students." When he first offered his popular elective, New York City History, he took them through the entire history, mainly using Wallace and Burrows' 1,200-page book Gotham. "The students enjoyed it, but we wouldn't get to the 20th century until about two weeks before the end of the term," he explained.

This semester, he decided to focus entirely on the 20th century, using books that span that period. The events of Sept. 11 further prompted him to retool the syllabus in this way; he plans to show photographs, including one he found in a SoHo shop, of people looking towards the World Trade Center just after the first tower was hit ("the people are staring up and the world is changing right in front of them"), as well as a DVD of films taken there by French photographer Etienne Sauret. "We'll be looking at these things and reflecting about it."

Hodges attributes the course's popularity (at semester's start, it was filled to capacity, with 31 on a wait list) to the subject matter. "In broad ways, Americans are learning that New York City is fascinating," he said, noting also that the class is composed of seniors. "A lot of them are going to work in New York. They want to know about the history." This spring, he's also teaching the survey course American History to 1877 and The Nation on Trial, 1787 to 1861 and has an enrollment of about 90 students.

Hodges has four of his own books and a significant number of editorial projects forthcoming in the next two years. He's finishing a biography of black abolitionist David Ruggles for University of North Carolina Press. Johns Hopkins University Press will publish his history of New York City taxi drivers in 2004, and later, a history of the city covering 1776 through 1877.

The fourth book is a departure into Asian American studies, an interest first sparked by his 1998 Fulbright fellowship in Beijing, China. He was inspired to begin a biography of Anna May Wong, the celebrated Asian-American actress of the 1920s through 1960s, while directing the London history study group in 1999. "I was walking down Cecil Court, and I saw this picture in a window of this very beautiful woman. I bought it. It wasn't cheap, and so I said to myself, `What am I doing? Who is this person?'" he said. "I began to read some capsule bios of her and realized she was really sensational." St. Martin's Press offered him a contract, his first with a commercial publisher. "It's whole new area for me, but it's a lot of fun," he said. The book will appear in late 2003.

Among other current writing and editing projects, Hodges is associate editor for Scribner's new edition of the Dictionary of American History, a 10-volume set that will appear later this year. He's responsible for 900 entries, some of which are written by Colgate professors. For Routledge Publishers, he is editor-in-chief of Studies in African American History (more than 100 dissertations published since 1993) and Crosscurrents in African American History (12 volumes).

As editor-in-chief of the lead volume in Oxford University Press's forthcoming six-volume encyclopedic series on African American history and culture, Hodges said he will be able to "conceptualize and organize the best work on black history up to the 1840s. It's really exciting to organize these articles, get people to write them, and then shape them into a multifaceted vision."

Hodges has chaired the faculty promotion and tenure committee and served on the affirmative action committee. He says that his Colgate colleagues are inspiring.

"Working with such great scholars encourages me to step on the pedal and do everything I can with the time I have," said Graham Hodges. "It's great fun."

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