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History Speaks Truth to Power

Award-Winning Student Finds Her Voice

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History major Mary-Kate Hazel has won the Laska Award, which includes a scholarship for the study of U.S. history.

By Sandra Seitz

Junior history major Mary-Kate Hazel has won the prestigious Laska Award, given by the New England History Teachers’ Association.

“I ‘blame’ my grandmother,” she says. 

“When we kids visited, our grandmother would organize make-believe and acting games with us,” says Hazel. “We would be Native Americans, or pioneers – something from American history. I never lost my love of it.” 

The competitive award includes a cash prize to be used to further the study of U.S. history.

Engage Hazel in a conversation about history, and settle in for a wide-ranging and passionate discussion.

“In this country we have so many misconceptions about our own history,” she says. “History that’s taught as names and dates of major events doesn’t help us understand the broader implications of those events, what led to them and what happened as a result of them.”  

Hazel’s epiphany on the importance of history came in a class with Prof. Michael Pierson, when he posed the question, Why do we study history? If asked the same question about their majors, engineering or nursing students might say their work is so important, mistakes in it put people’s lives at risk.

“But when a historian makes a mistake, fails to make a truthful account of the past, we get racial inequality, disenfranchisement and violence,” says Hazel. “People get hurt and it permeates our entire society.”

She adds, “History is important to us now. If people don’t understand the Civil War and the development of racism, they don’t know why the Trayvon Martin case is so important. To misunderstand the past is to misunderstand the present.”

Hazel has little patience for public figures – like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann – who make false statements about past events to spread a kind of “pop” history. In her essay for the Laska Award, she wrote, “Through historical education, my eyes have been opened to the ways history is bent to fit political and social motives of those in power or of the collective public will.”

Truth telling, she thinks, is the responsibility of the historian.

Women in Politics, Long Before the Vote

Hazel has a special interest in the political history of women, a group often overlooked in their political roles well before the agitation for the vote.

“African-American women were politically astute and active in the years after the Civil War,” she says, explaining that through membership in benevolent and charitable organizations, “they took on issues of access to education, the Jim Crow laws and racism. They called out the white male power structure for injustices.”

Working with autobiographies and journals as source material, Hazel sometimes found it tough going emotionally.

“Right after the Civil War, there was this flowering of expectation that the federal government would combat racism, but segregation laws were passed and Supreme Court rules went against [the women]. This note of desperation began to appear in their writing,” she says. “Sometimes I’d be reading and bawling my eyes out. Then I’d remember that they endured challenge and adversity, and did so much against all odds.” 

Hazel’s plans include graduate degree studies and teaching – history, of course – either at the secondary or college level. Being part of the Honors Program, she’s taking advanced courses and working on a thesis.

“We have a great History Department,” she says. “I would just like to pack them up [when I leave] and take them all with me.”