In four decades at UMBC, W. Edward Orser’s research and teaching have helped uncover American triumphs and tragedies in city neighborhoods, small towns and parklands.
By Richard Byrne ’86
Forty years ago, when W. Edward Orser arrived in Baltimore as a young professor in American studies at UMBC, he was also planting himself in new soil. Orser had studied at Randolph-Macon College and Yale University before he and his wife, Jo Annette, were among the first waves of those who answered John F. Kennedy’s call to service in the Peace Corps. They spent two years in Ethiopia before he returned and took his Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico.
Yet Orser has done more than simply take root at UMBC. As a researcher and teacher, he has thrived. His 1994 book, Blockbusting in Baltimore (University of Kentucky Press) blazed a path for scholars and policymakers with its nuanced yet pungent analysis of how racism and opportunism transformed the racial makeup of West Baltimore in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And his research has also been accompanied by a knack for creating and leading classroom projects that meld the best practices of scholarship with a keen sense of the possibilities of public history.
“Ed Orser has also been among the most active and effective teachers in bringing students into his research,” says John Jeffries, dean of UMBC’s College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.
Those projects left a trail of books, pamphlets and exhibits that have knit the university more closely to its surrounding communities – and created avenues for local citizens to investigate and reflect upon their own communal history.
“His intellectual passions have helped make UMBC a nationally recognized site for exemplary scholarship in the field,” says Patrice McDermott, chair of the American Studies department. “But we also benefit from Ed Orser’s belief in the power of community to shape and sustain the core values of our campus, our department and our classrooms. His true gift is his ability to inspire others to join him in the pursuit of these ideals.”
Orser says he has sought to take advantage of the opportunities that a focus on place can have in understanding America’s story.
“How do you ground the American experience in something you can get your hands around?” asks Orser. “I always thought it was helpful to bring things down to a certain scale. Maybe because that’s as much as I could try to get my mind around, but also it is because in some ways, that’s where we live our lives.”
For Orser, the opportunities to teach and research great controversies of race and economics and war and peace have abounded in UMBC’s environs.
“I keep on trying to get students to look at what’s so nearby,” he says.
Town and Country
Orser’s earliest effort to get students to examine UMBC’s backyard came in 1972, when he led an American studies senior seminar in an examination of nearby Ellicott City – which was then a faded mill town still years away from its restoration and revival.
“We think of Ellicott City today as a booming place,” he observes, “but in the ’50s and the ’60s, before I came [to UMBC], it was pretty much on its last legs…. I think the notion of it that was so exciting was that we were trying to look at the community as a whole. It was something you could get your hands around: oral interviews, photographs and other records.”
Each student focused on an aspect of the community’s history and decline. “We put together a little book at the end of the semester,” Orser continues. “And the title we gave it – which was from one of the oral interviews – was ‘The Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.’”
Another early seminar project focused on Patapsco State Park. When Orser discovered that the park was built during the New Deal by the Civilian Conservation Corps [CCC], his interest was piqued. But when it also turned out that the camp used by the CCC was used by the federal government as its first camp for conscientious objectors in World War II, the professor knew that a teachable – and researchable – moment was on offer.
“The remnants of the old camp were there,” Orser recalls. “And that connected up with students at the time who were concerned, as I was, about the Vietnam War and the peace movement. So we did interviews with people who had been in conscientious objector camps – and if not that one, then others.”
Tales of Two ’Villes
These projects led to an even wider array of explorations, including one in nearby Catonsville. Students dug into old photos, census records, fire insurance atlases and maps to reconstruct how Catonsville grew from a modest community along the Frederick Turnpike into a thriving community. And the results of the Catonsville History Project, which was led by Orser and UMBC professor of history Joseph Arnold, were unveiled in exhibits at UMBC and in the community – and then published in 1989 in a book, Catonsville 1880 to 1940: From Village to Suburb that is still available for sale at the Catonsville Public Library.
It is, however, the local participation and input in the research process that Orser particularly insists on highlighting.
“There were local people who had done a wonderful job of creating a Catonsville room at the local public library,” he recalls. “They had gathered photographs, begun to do oral histories. They were diligent. There are always people like this in communities, who squirrel things away and have a good instinct, but they didn’t know how to take the next step. Make these things available. Organize them.”
Another student project led by Orser investigated the small African-American community of Cowdensville, which had existed since at least the 1840s on the southeast edge of what is now UMBC’s campus.
Jean Flanagan ’97, American studies, was one of the students who sketched out the history of the community, which was centered on an African Methodist Episcopal Church. Now the managing editor of the Moorefield Examiner in West Virginia, she says that the researching and interviewing skills that she acquired while compiling oral histories for the project have proven invaluable to her in her subsequent career.
Past adding to her skills, however, Flanagan adds that Orser “taught me there is much more to history than what is written in books. There is the life of everyday people, and their day-to-day struggles and triumphs in the context of ‘textbook’ history are what real history is about.”
The Cowdensville study, she adds, strengthened UMBC’s ties to the local community. “Some Cowdensville residents remarked it was the first time they had set foot on the UMBC campus,” says Flanagan. Orser is also proud of how the body of scholarly knowledge about the region has been advanced in the work of students on these projects.
In the Cowdensville study, for instance, Orser notes that “residents were fairly sure, from oral histories, that their families went back to before the Civil War, and that they were free and were property owners. But they couldn’t come across documents to nail that down. One of our students traced the family names back as far as the 1840 census, and established that there were members of that family that were free and property owners.”
The Cowdensville project also spurred Orser to write his own paper about a little-known case taken on by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the mid-1930s. Orser’s paper, which was published in Maryland Historical Magazine in 1997, argued that Marshall’s failed attempt to win the right for Cowdensville students to attend white high schools in Baltimore County foreshadowed the lawyer’s ultimately successful efforts in Brown vs. Board of Education to strike a fatal blow to segregation in schools.
Blocks as Battlefields
Excavating untold stories of the region’s contentious race relations in student projects is important to Orser. And classroom discussion also led him to the idea for his most significant scholarly achievement – the comprehensive study of racial upheaval in West Baltimore housing in the 1950s and 1960s.
“It came on my radar screen when I had students in my classes doing family histories,” Orser recalls. “It would come up in the family histories of white students and in family histories of black students.” It would turn out that their families at one point or another had crossed the same territory. So it was clear to me that this was a very difficult moment.”
“Blockbusting” was a practice in which real-estate agents would sell a house on an all-white block to an African-American family. Often, the sale would ignite a panic amongst the other white residents on the block, who would sell at a loss to move away. The real-estate agents would then sell the properties at a profit to African-American families who would then move in.
Orser’s initial research turned up numerous tales of the practice. But Blockbusting in Baltimore was the first systematic look at the practice, using census data, historical documents and even telephone directories of the era.
“One of the things about oral accounts is that you’re always skeptical,” Orser says. “You need to be wary. Maybe people are exaggerating. So I did what I did with a lot of other projects… I went to the census. And sure enough, it is so vivid.”
Orser developed a method of looking at how blockbusting radically altered certain blocks in the Edmonson Village section of Baltimore. “What I found there is that it was not a 10-year process,” he observes. “It was a one-month process on particular blocks.”
Blockbusting in Baltimore has spurred numerous subsequent studies of the phenomenon in other cities, and Jeffries asserts that the book “is one of the finest histories written about the resistance to integration.” What remains with Orser about the study of blockbusting, however, is the sheer trauma that the experience inflicted on blacks and whites alike who were caught up in it. – and the difficulties in navigating the terrain of racial conflict that occurred so relatively recently.
“Race is such a sensitive issue and so complicated and so hard to treat fairly,” says Orser. “The hardest thing with the book was to try and represent the experience fairly. There were harder feelings than I felt willing to report.”
Parks and Progress
Orser’s recent work has plunged him more deeply into public history, and specifically how the public interacts with one of the region’s recreational pleasures: the Gwynns Falls Trail. Last year, he published a book, The Gwynns Falls: Baltimore Greenway to the Chesapeake Bay (The History Press), which expanded on a series of trail markers that Orser created in his role as urban historian for a National Park Service-funded project.
The Gwynns Falls traces the use of the trail by Native Americans and its early explorations by John Smith through its key role in the burgeoning Baltimore economy of mills and other industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. It takes the reader up to the present day, in which the grand 1904 Baltimore parks plan proposed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. set aside the land that is now enjoyed by so many as a hiking and biking trail. Orser calls tracing the history of the development of specific paths of egress and ingress “horizontal archaeology,” and says that it can be remarkably revealing.
“If you take any corridor of an urban area like Baltimore, and you follow it – York Road, Reisterstown Road, Edmondson Avenue – you have this incredible chronology of the history of the area: from early settlement and changes that have happened over time.”
Orser says that “the Gwynns Falls captures my imagination in a similar way. It is a stream valley that even today is – parts of it still – very urban, out of sight, out of mind land.”
As he pursues his explorations of local history and the possibilities of rooting that work in specific places, Orser also continues to mentor students and help them create change in communities. Just last year, Simran Noor ’08, political science and American studies, created a plan for redeveloping the Coppin Heights/Greater Walbrook area of West Baltimore under Orser’s direction. (Noor’s research was recently published in the university’s undergraduate research journal, UMBC Review.)
Noor says that Orser “spent endless hours giving me feedback on my work and meeting with me both in and outside of school to develop the project. Using much of what I had learned from [him], I was able to develop a strong plan.”
Rooting the study of history in the local, Orser says, “gives you a feeling that you have some way of defining it.” But in that definition, he concludes, there are multiple layers of complication that enrich the study, rather than simplify it.
“The tighter you draw your circle,” he says, “the more you realize how complex history is.”