[We’re grateful to Jillian Jacklin, PhD Candidate in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for this detailed recap of a panel at the Life & Law in Rural America Conference.]
An interdisciplinary dream, the Princeton University conference on rural America this past weekend was one of my most memorable moments as an academic to date. An array of fledgling scholars discussed their own research, compassionately and judiciously commented on each other’s work, and grappled with divergent and competing meanings of “rurality.” Gracing all of us with her wisdom on the subject and personal experience growing up in the Arkansas Ozarks, UC-Davis “ruralist” and Professor of Law, Lisa Pruitt, provided a compelling case for producing scholarship on the intersection between law and rural life. Arguably more importantly for a group of graduate students in the humanities, her talk urged us all to care about rural people; and she demonstrated a need for social justice beyond the borders of U.S. cities. Overall, our projects contributed to a lively symposium that the American Studies Program hosted, and my time at Princeton was insightful and inspiring.
Although not all of the participants would have referred to themselves as legal scholars upon initially attending, the conference certainly revealed the importance of law in U.S. history. One panel that I absolutely appreciated, titled “Rural Labor and Immigration,” focused on the juncture between rural work and matters of legality (and in interesting ways, law enforcement or lack their of) in the history of rural America. As conference co-organizer, Emily Prifogle similarly expressed in her post, I apologize if I have misrepresented in any way, the intentions of each of the contributors: Smita Ghosh, Tyler Gray Greene, Vanessa Guzman, and Daniel Platt. Postdoctoral Research Associate in African American Studies at Princeton, Jarvis McInnis, provided generous and critical commentary on the overall theme, as well as each individual paper.
Vanessa Guzman, graduate student in American Studies at the University of Minnesota, began with an important examination of the power of organizing and resistance on the part of a community of Latina/o laborers and their families in a migrant camp in the rural midwestern countryside. Using intimate oral histories that she conducted, Guzman narrated stories of struggle, emphasizing “the deplorable living conditions” of seasonal employees who worked for Lakeside Foods during the turn of the twenty-first century. Her historical subjects migrated from Mission, Texas by way of their established communal networks for employment, only to find themselves residing in abandoned prisoner of war detention centers in the rural-South of Minnesota.
Rather than focusing specifically on “shop floor” corporate injustices, Guzman discussed the cooperative efforts of parents who needed childcare and desired better homes for their kids. Initially successful in their endeavors, at least comparably to their former situation, these Latina/o workers won a designated childcare facility and remodeled bathrooms (if still unacceptable, they represented an improvement). Her research contributes a body of scholarship dedicated to connections between labor law reform and enforcement, migrant worker activism, and family studies. In response to the challenge to take rural livelihoods seriously, posed by keynote speaker Lisa Pruitt, Guzman persuasively argued in support of also studying the experiences of marginalized communities within the rural world.
Next, Tyler Gray Greene, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Temple, explored the growing industrial economy of rural North Carolina in the post-WWII era. Drawing on the influential scholarship of historians like Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Greene claimed that southern rural economies served as laboratories for new forms of industrialization that bypassed the challenges associated with the labor unrest of the urbanized North. In order to combat the limitations imposed by New Deal labor legislation, capitalist employers sought new methods to control their workers. Most interestingly, Greene’s work explained how the cultural geography of the North Carolinian rural landscape created an environment conducive to supporting low wages, limited corporate regulation, and a non-unionized labor force.
The particular emphasis that he placed on understandings of landownership in the state was instructive. And he offered a persuasive discussion of the ways in which the allegedly “wholesome” aspects of North Carolina’s small-town atmosphere supported a climate sympathetic to the perspective and desires of managers. Despite lacking an analysis of the role that workers played in the construction of what came to be an industrial utopia for factory owners and corporate investors during the mid-twentieth century, Greene soundly convinced me of his argument. His legal history contributions could become even clearer, if he decides to connect what he presented to us with an analysis of the ways in which North Carolina has been historically characterized by a collusive relationship between corporate owners, capitalist financiers, local politicians, and law enforcement officials. Though ultimately, Greene really got me thinking about the roles of political ideology and cultural beliefs in shaping industrial expansion in the rural South and how this occurred in a state without large working-class cities.
Smita Ghosh, a graduate of the Law School and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at The University of Pennsylvania, presented on the growth of immigration detention and policing during the 1960s and 1970s in rural Texas. A lawyer indeed, Ghosh definitely has a solid sense of immigration law, as she provided important historical context and an interesting look at what is arguably the most rural political boundary of the United States. Emphasizing the importance of place to understanding immigration policing, she discussed the legally questionable practice of “administrative searches” of automobiles that traveled along the amorphous, yet hyper-regulated border of the U.S. Southwest. Ghosh noted two important legal changes that led to this law enforcement procedure, the end of the Bracero Program in 1964 and the famous 1965 immigration legislation that instituted a quota system that she claimed, unequally affected ethnic Mexicans and led to a perceived crisis over the management of “illegal aliens.”
With the majority of her sources being governmental in nature, Ghosh illustrated the implementation of “administrative searches” by tracing one victim’s story through a legal lens. Questioning the constitutionality of this form of “border policing,” she cited the Fourth Amendment, indicating that law enforcement officials used potentially extralegal means to keep what they referred to as “contraband” out of the country. Ghosh thoroughly explained how INS lawyers were able to support a claim for the “unique unmanageability” of the Southwest border. Surpassing constitutional measures created “functional border equivalents” that permitted officers to essentially stop and search anyone at any moment. Concerned with making the judicial real, she wonders how people experienced these “administrative searches,” planning to explore a broader base of sources in the future. Ghosh’s project is fascinating and profoundly important in relation to the current national debate over the extent of immigration restriction and international security. And her research and legal analysis revealed the inextricable link between local and national laws and rural America.
The final panelist, Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at Brown University, Daniel Platt, offered a methodologically and contextually creative historical examination of the practice of debt peonage in the Jim Crow South. His work contributes to what he claimed to be an underrepresented theme in American political history: expressions and experiences of political agency within the judicial system by indebted people, who despite remaining exiled from electoral politics, resisted their corporeal enslavement and “defended their national citizenship.” Referring to these “clandestine complaints” as a form of “aspirational citizenship,” Platt’s research suggests that prisoners of debt bondage institutionally reacted to the lived reality that indebtedness had somehow become attached to their bodies— and they did so by petitioning for assistance through “formal legal processes” and from “federal legal institutions.” Citing a 1907 case in Alabama, Platt discussed how a former laborer on a Montgomery County cotton farm found himself charged with defrauding his onetime employer out of thirteen dollars and seventy-five cents. In response to this conviction, the accused and others in similar situations challenged their local conditions by attempting to garner support from the federal legal justice system.
Despite being in direct violation of the 13th Amendment, the debt bondage practice, Platt argued, was alive and well during the early twentieth century in the U.S. rural South. The national press however, framed peonage as an “extension of national economic relations” rather than a sectional phenomenon or a race-specific issue, therefore occluding the systemic inequities rooted in forms of human bondage. Here is where he revealed one of several important historical contributions, especially to the histories of U.S. slavery and free-market capitalism, as his work challenges scholarship that suggests that these stories are divergent rather than reliant upon each other. For, as his paper demonstrates, the development of the Northern industrial economy had everything to do with continuing a system of unregulated control over black bodies. By doing so, Platt’s work clearly presents compelling reasons for legal scholars to examine rural spaces in order to better understand the history of local and national laws and legislation, as well as the role of U.S. media outlets in creating national consensus narratives.
Postdoctoral Research Associate in African American Studies at Princeton, Jarvis McInnis, offered important feedback for each of the panel participants. And he spent considerable time providing thoughtful theoretical and content-specific questions and suggestions. But what I found to be most interesting and useful for an American Studies gathering was his emphasis on the interdisciplinary nature of the conference. Focusing on what he believed to be the greatest contributions of each paper, he simultaneously critiqued them through his own disciplinary lenses. As a scholar of African American & African Diasporic literature and culture (as his Princeton University bio states), Jarvis also demonstrated his knowledge of a vast collection of fields. He made sure to contextualize the literary, historical, anthropological, and cultural studies suggestions that he gave to each graduate student by explaining that he was recommending certain titles and bodies of scholarship based on his research and training.
Both humble and smart in his comments, Jarvis captured the meanings and complexity of “Life and Law in Rural America” as a conference. He encouraged each of us to avoid complacency or becoming overly rooted in any academic field, and by way of his thoughtful commentary, he inspired us to become more communicative and collective as scholars. Legal historians can learn from exploring rural spaces for sure; but as Jarvis suggested, we need to move beyond the silos created by our specific disciplines as well.