‘Serendipity’ leads to summer research for history major

Abi Bernard ’19 says her experience is pretty typical at Cornell: she came in with one plan – to major in linguistics – but that changed in her first semester when she took a history course with Professor Russell Rickford that she enjoyed more.

“The historical perspective is so powerful,” she says. “What’s happening in the world is not new: Looking at what has happened in the past gives us courage to face today.”

Another course, Introduction to Comparative Government with Professor Nicolas van de Walle, inspired her to add government as a minor. 

Last summer she interned at Library Company, the oldest library in the U.S. (it was started in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin) through a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program. One of her tasks was to transcribe archived minutes for the Colored Convention Project

These conventions were held from 1830 until the 1890s, explains Bernard – before the Civil War, by free Blacks in the North and after the Civil War in the South as well. They were held to discuss political strategy on how best to achieve emancipation, education and legal justice. 

Inspired by her internship, Bernard decided to apply for the Mellon-Mays Undergraduate Fellowship at Cornell. The application requires a research proposal and Bernard turned for guidance to Jamila Michener, assistant professor of government, who was teaching her Politics and Public Policy class. 

Ultimately Bernard submitted a proposal to explore the rise of conservatism in Southern California from the New Deal Era until Reagan, and how this shift was evidenced in changes in districts and demographics. She was chosen as a fellow and Michener suggested she also talk to David Bateman, assistant professor of government.

“It was serendipity,” says Bernard. “It turned out that Professor Bateman was working on the Colored Conventions. My summer plans weren’t working out so I asked him if he could use a research assistant. I’ve never taken a class with him, so he really put a lot of faith in me.” Bernard encourages undergraduates to be “willing and humble to ask their professors for opportunities—it really goes a long way.”

Bateman says that Bernard is “extraordinarily diligent, one of the best research assistants I’ve ever had. She’s found things I’d never have thought about looking for.”

This summer’s work with Bateman is similar to Bernard’s work at the Library Company. She’s collecting and studying legislative petitions on issues related to African-American political/civil rights in the antebellum north. The petitions ask for things like the right to vote, funding for Black schools and the right to jury trials. 

 “Abi has been doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the project,” says Bateman. “She’s going through the legislative journals largely by hand so she can find the names associated with them and putting the information into a database. As we find interesting patterns we prepare case studies about who was involved and the background of the petition campaign.” Once particularly interesting petitions are identified, Bateman hopes to correlate them with the timing of Colored Conventions and eventually to digitize them. 

“I think it’s encouraging to see that people were actively trying to use the political system to end segregation and slavery,” Bernard says. “Sometimes we have a tendency to make excuses for people in the past based on their ignorance or what was culturally acceptable and sometimes that’s appropriate — we have to make sure we don’t project 20th century values on 19th century people — but these kind of petitions really show that people understood the system was wrong and were trying to do something about it.”

Some of the petitions were presented by legislators again and again, says Bernard. “Their perseverance is really humbling and should encourage us to be patient. One of the blessings and curses of the American political system is that change takes a long time...seeing how people didn’t lose faith in what they believe gives us an example to follow today.”

After graduating in December 2019, Bernard plans to pursue a Ph.D. in political science rather than history. “But I’ll end up doing both anyway,” she says. “One crosses into the other.”

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		 Abi Bernard standing amidst library shelves