Wow, our colloquium this week sounds amazing. If you’re in the Cities and not doing anything on a Friday afternoon, this is the place to be.

University of Minnesota
History of Science and Technology
Spring Colloquium 2007

Friday, February 9
Room 131, Tate Lab of Physics
3:35 p.m. (refreshments at 3:15 in Room 216)

Nina Lerman
Department of History
Whitman College

“Jim Crow and the White Way: Thoughts on Race, Progress, and Early Electrification in the US”

Electricity has been linked, by cultural historians of the US and by historians of technology, with American ideologies of progress, civilization, and, in turn, whiteness. Perhaps most obviously demonstrated at the Columbian Exposition of 1893, but evident in any number of late 19th- and early 20th-century sources, electricity seems to have been entwined with a kind of moral obligation to modernity – at least for the white nation. In a period of increasingly entrenched racism, when civilized progress was routinely contrasted with the dark primitive and material privileges were increasingly denied (on trains, in bathrooms, on sidewalks) in demonstration of legal and social segregation, electrification would seem an unlikely feature of any spaces of designated blackness. Yet Tuskegee Institute was electrified by 1898, and several of its spin-off schools in the rural south had generators at a time when, overall, electrification was still rare, and northern African Americans had trouble putting technological knowledge to economic use. This paper seeks to link the material dimensions of technological choice with ideological context, exploring the entwined and regionalized understandings of race, technology, and social order in a period of rapid industrialization.