Historian Elizabeth Herbin-Triant just celebrated an obscure anniversary: the centennial of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that threw out laws requiring residential segregation.
Herbin-Triant celebrated by writing an op-ed column for The Washington Post about Buchanan v. Warley, a November 1917 decision in which the court found that a Louisville, Ky., ordinance forbidding blacks from buying homes on majority-white blocks and vice versa was unconstitutional – not because it interfered with black people’s right to live where they chose, but because it interfered with a white man’s right to sell his private property.
Herbin-Triant, an assistant professor, has delved into the history of residential segregation laws in both the urban and rural South – laws that, had they been upheld, might have created a system of segregation similar to that of South Africa’s under apartheid.
“By 1915 or so, all the Southern states segregated public accommodations, from cemeteries to hospitals for the insane,” Herbin-Triant says. “I’m interested in attempts to segregate private spaces: people’s homes and land.”
Her conclusion: Efforts by middle-class whites to win legal residential segregation failed because white elites wanted their African-American servants, workers, sharecroppers and farmhands to be close at hand. The topic is the subject of her book-in-progress, “Legislating Jim Crow Neighborhoods.”
Herbin-Triant became fascinated by Southern history because her father, who grew up in the segregated South, told her stories of his own youth.
She studied the Harlem Renaissance as a history and literature major at Harvard University, then researched the emigration of African-Americans to Liberia for her master’s degree at Columbia University. She then wrote her dissertation at Columbia on agricultural reformers who sought to revitalize the South’s rural communities – in part by segregating farmland, using South Africa’s system of confining native Africans to separate areas as a model.
After a research fellowship at Yale University and a faculty position at St. John’s University in New York, Herbin-Triant came to UMass Lowell four years ago. She was intrigued to learn on a personal walking tour with History Prof. Robert Forrant about some of Lowell’s connections to Southern history, including the negative reaction of textile mill owners who depended on slave-grown cotton to visiting abolitionist speakers.
Herbin-Triant teaches African-American History, U.S. History through Film and Introduction to Historical Methods, and she has created new courses as well: The Age of Jim Crow, American Slavery: History, Fiction, and Film, and The History of the U.S. South. She won the History Department’s teaching award for 2015-16.
“I admire the students here, especially the ones working full time,” she says. “They have a deep commitment to getting an education.”