Student Perspectives – Robert Perry

I am a non-traditional undergraduate at UNL with a major in History and two minors in Ethnic Studies & Communication Studies.  As a junior, I was one of the original eight (8) advanced undergraduate History majors who enrolled in the History Harvest class in the fall of 2011, which focused on African American history in North Omaha.  I enjoyed the eye opening experience tremendously, so decided to enroll again for the fall 2012 History Harvest, which focused on the Lincoln refugee community.  In both History Harvest classes, students worked as a team, along with Dr. Jones and members of the local community, to organize, promote and execute the History Harvest.  We also conducted oral history interviews with community members and processed materials for the web-archive.

I saw this opportunity as a critical part of my ongoing development as a History major.  One of the reasons I wanted to be involved with this class was because it gave me that more hands-on experience doing history that I needed.  In turn, this direct involvement with historical work led me to new insights and a new depth in my evolving understanding of history and how you do it.  These projects provided me the experience of working directly with artifacts, conducting original interviews, and, overall, allowed me to better understand race relations and the experience of African Americans in Nebraska.  Each History Harvest class reaffirmed for me that our shared history is all around us, but is often hidden, or badly in need of collection and preservation.  My involvement also brought home to me the power of history to alter the way we see and understand our world, and in the process, better understand the diverse experiences of different people.  Overall, the History Harvest has helped me sharpen my professional goals as a historian and archivist and has made me all the more excited to continue down that path.

 I have seen the transformative power of this project and this history in both classes.  We saw first-hand the way the projects brought young historians together in a unique alliance between disparate groups, like UNL, the Great Plains Black History Museum, the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation and Birthsite, Love’s Jazz and Arts Center, The Center for People in Need, Division of Children and Family Services, Author, Mary Pipher, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, Good Neighbor Community Center, African Multicultural Center,  Nebraska Entertainment Television and others.  I have been told countless times by community members how important this work is and how excited they are about the project.  I was able to understand the way that history can be a part of the broader revitalization plans in North Omaha and how it might play a role in helping the established community in Lincoln, Nebraska, better understand the histories and cultures of new refugees.  And I think the History Harvest provides a great example of the way innovative new teaching approaches can help build bridges between what we do on campus and what is happening in communities across our state, and nation.  In this way, my participation in the History Harvest project gave me a new appreciation for the power of history to connect people and develop community. 

In addition, despite being an African American man in my late-40s, the North Omaha History Harvest was my first significant encounter with African American history in a direct, hands-on manner, and it made quite an impact on me.  As a military kid and later a serviceman myself, I moved around a lot growing up and into adulthood.  I never lived in a black community and my experience in the military did not reflect the complexities of race in civilian life.  Helping to capture, preserve and share this important local African American history was tremendously empowering and stirring.  Not only did this history fill in important silences in my mind, but also helped me better make sense of my own experience and my place in the broader society. It cast traditional narratives of American history in a crucial new light by bringing black voices into the mix.  In the end, my experience in the History Harvest clarified my continuing interest in history, material culture and African American experience.  Recently I was accepted to graduate school to continue this journey!

Robert Perry was an undergraduate student in the North Omaha (Fall 2011) and Lincoln Refugee (Fall 2012) History Harvest courses at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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