Interview with Heather Curtis (Warren Center Visiting Scholar)

Conducted by Anthony Trujillo, Phd Candidate in American Studies
You are currently working on a biography of Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), a prominent African American journalist, public educator and activist in the late 19th and early 20th c. What is it about Ida B. Wells that initially seized your attention and inspired you delve into her biography?
Ida B. Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and became one of the most famous black women in the English-speaking world during her lifetime through her pioneering work for civil rights, racial equality, women’s suffrage, and prison reform. I began work on Ida B. Wells’ biography, while finishing my recently published book, Holy Humanitarians. In a chapter on the racial politics of domestic charity and international aid, I argued that Wells’ critique of evangelical philanthropists for ignoring lynching in the United States while spearheading campaigns to relieve distress in distant lands exposed the limits of white Christian benevolence in the Jim Crow era. Since the completion of Holy Humanitarians, I have been collecting and analyzing archival material and scholarly literature on Well’s life-long effort to combat the violent and systematic oppression of African Americans.

What drew you in particular to the religious dimension of Wells’ life and activism?
Despite being such a prominent figure during her lifetime, Wells was largely forgotten for at least a half-century following her death in 1931. The posthumous publication of her autobiography in 1970 helped foster a renewed interest in her legacy and offered historians and biographers additional sources for understanding her activism. Though most studies of Wells’ crusade for justice acknowledge her faith convictions, her associations with black churches, and her criticisms of white evangelicals, few offer sustained analysis of the religious beliefs, practices, and communities that shaped her contributions to public life.

As a lifelong Christian, Wells consistently turned to biblical narratives and theological precepts in her efforts to assess the tangled connections among US empire, African American political aspirations, and religious identity.
This raised a number of questions for me as a scholar trained in the study of religion: What might we learn about her fight for equality if we foreground the theological ideas and environments that informed her efforts? How can paying particular attention to the spiritual dimensions of Wells’ story expand our understanding of the religious, social, and political worlds she influenced? What alternative histories of American Protestantism, the black religious press, evangelical humanitarianism, US Empire, and transnational Christian reform movements could emerge if we take seriously Wells’ significance in these overlapping arenas?

The title of your presentation on September 30, is "Black Suffering and Spiritual Protest in the Age of U.S. Empire."  How does considering religion, suffering and empire alongside each other bring her story to life in a unique way?
Wells described her struggle to alleviate the affliction of African Americans as an expression of her faith. She undertook this work within the context of several overlapping imperial projects, including the United States’ acquisition of overseas territories following the Spanish-American War, the ongoing emigration of African Americans from the South to the West and to Liberia, and the emergence of black anti-colonial religious movements in the early twentieth century.

My presentation explores how Wells worked alongside a range of Christian actors whose attempts to address black affliction in these various imperial settings have yet to be fully examined. It shows how she participated in wider movements of spiritual protest against white supremacy that spanned several continents and involved a diverse array of Christian activists. Bringing these global networks into view reveals the critical role of theological ideas, religious institutions, and transnational communities in constructing and contesting the racial hierarchies that that fueled the expansion of US empire and aggravated the distress of African-descended people across the world at the turn of the twentieth century.
As a public figure, what are some ways Ida B. Wells’ religious life and activism links to the work of those who came after her even into the present day?
By analyzing Wells’ Christian commitments and the spiritual worlds she inhabited and influenced, I hope to illumine more fully the intersecting histories of race, religion, and public life in and beyond the United States. Over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the disputes Wells was involved in have remained at the center of American public life. Examining how she brought her faith to bear on debates about the religious and racial dynamics of citizenship, education, capitalism, humanitarianism, nationalism, and internationalism, I contend, reveals her contribution to a long tradition of black spiritual protest stretching from Maria Stewart and David Walker through the Reverends Pauli Murray and Martin Luther King, Jr., and, more recently Michelle Alexander, the Reverend William Barbour, and Bryan Stevenson.

You have been very active in the public sphere in university administration with the formation of the Department of Race, Colonialism and Diaspora at Tuft, and activism with your involvement in Tufts Education and Re-Entry Network Program for people who have been impacted by the carceral system. How have these experiences shaped how you see the importance of attending to religion in the public sphere in the present moment? What have you learned from your students in this regard?
I have been very fortunate to work alongside visionary colleagues and students who are striving to transform curriculum, cultures, and institutional structures at Tufts to make a more just institution. Fellow faculty in the newly formed Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora have been involved in encouraging engaged scholarship that is both interdisciplinary, relational, and deeply connected to activist struggles for justice in a range of settings within and beyond Tufts (including, for example, policing, mass incarceration, indigenous sovereignty, and many other areas). Students have initiated many of these struggles and their commitment has been crucial to making key changes in the past several years (such as the creation of a Native American and Indigenous Studies program). My own teaching has been deeply influenced by student interests and concerns: the courses I offer on Religion and Politics in American History, and Religion, Race, and American Nationalism, for example, were created in response to student demand. I am persuaded that studying religion is essential for understanding American public life, and I hope through my teaching and administrative work to support ongoing scholarship and activism. At the moment, I am especially grateful for opportunities to be involved with Tufts’ initiatives in prison education and reentry support for formerly incarcerated persons. Working on a biography of Ida B. Wells while doing this work is providing both inspiration and important critical frameworks for my own engagement in struggles for justice.

What are your hopes for engaging with the community of Harvard faculty, faculty fellows, post-doctoral fellows, doctoral students who will be part of the Warren Center program this year?
My work on Ida B. Wells is still in a formative stage. After spending the past year gathering and examining sources from collections in the United States and Great Britain (where Wells undertook two speaking tours in the mid 1890s), I am now beginning to draft chapters for the biography. I cannot imagine a better place to undertake this work than the Charles Warren Center for studies in American History. Developing my ideas in conversation with participants in a seminar on Religion and Public life will enable me to connect my work to broader scholarly discussions about the religious and racial dynamics of a whole range of topics: freedom, war, democracy, social reform, capitalism, citizenship, education, humanitarianism and the common good. These are all issues Wells addressed and cared about deeply.

About Heather Curtis
Heather D. Curtis is a scholar of the Christian tradition specializing in the history of American Protestantism and the globalization of Christianity in the modern period. She is Professor in the Department of Religion at Tufts University, where she also holds appointments in the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora; the Department of History (courtesy); the International Relations Program; and the Tisch College of Civic Life.
Curtis is the author of Faith in the Great Physician: Suffering and Divine Healing in American Culture, 1860-1900 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) which was awarded the Frank S. and Elizabeth D. Brewer prize from the American Society of Church History for the best first book in the History of Christianity. Her recent book, Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid (Harvard University Press, 2018) examines the crucial role popular religious media played in the extension of US philanthropy at home and abroad from the late-nineteenth to the early twentieth century.