St. Olaf Campus News
St. Olaf College Professor of History Michael Fitzgerald has been awarded a prestigious grant by the American Council of Learned Societies to study a newly accessible trove of correspondence between a family of Ku Klux Klan supporters.
Fitzgerald will work with Lycoming College Associate Professor of History Sarah Silkey on the project, titled Wild Adolescence: The Pickens Family, the Ku Klux Klan, and Racial Terrorism in the Alabama Black Belt, and together they will examine thousands of letters that one family sent to each other throughout the Reconstruction era.
Their project, which received a $136,000 grant, is one of only nine selected for support from the ACLS Collaborative Research Award. It is especially rare that this award is granted to faculty at undergraduate institutions.
The reviewers of Fitzgerald’s award say, “This is an interesting and important study that uses newly available sources to enable a deeper understandings of KKK membership in a broad social context.”
The correspondence is from the Pickens family of Hale County, Alabama. Several teenaged Pickens relatives were implicated with the Klan, and witnessed and possibly engaged in terrorist acts. Two of the younger siblings were enthusiastic supporters of the Klan — a connection that made their mother and older siblings quite nervous.
These letters “provide a window into how a family’s day-to-day life intersects with their support of racial terrorism,” says Fitzgerald.
The Pickens family wrote thousands of letters from the 1840s to the 1890s. “This is a family of obsessive letter-keepers,” Fitzgerald says. “They were intensely focused on each other and quite close, and they kept every scrap of paper they wrote to each other.”
Fitzgerald believes that the letters survived as long as they did — largely untouched — because it was such a large collection that no one knew what was in them.
The letters were donated to the University of South Alabama, located in Mobile, a previous research area of Fitzgerald’s. This prior connection allowed him ready access to the recently acquired materials, which is where Fitzgerald and Silkey came in.
Collaboration on the project began in 2016, when Fitzgerald and Silkey began reviewing correspondence and mapping the Pickens family genealogy. The project builds on significant research each scholar has conducted separately, and it is grounded in a friendship of 20 years that began when Silkey was a student in a history class taught by Fitzgerald at Carleton College.
With a strong publication record bearing on the Alabama Klan, Fitzgerald has a deep knowledge of the social, economic, and political world in which the Pickens family operated. As a leading expert in Reconstruction-era history, he says that the insight that the letters provide is “really quite a dream.”
Silkey has a strong command of digital history techniques, enabling her to design a workflow management plan and a OneNote digital collaborative workspace for the project. Their team will be joined by five undergraduate researchers from St. Olaf and Lycoming.
“How can you beat this?” Fitzgerald says. “This is my speciality, and these letters just fell into my lap. And with this grant, I’ll have the resources to finish this.”
As a tour guide for the St. Olaf College Admissions Office, Karina De Leon ’18 leads prospective students around campus through the ever-changing weather of Minnesota — from the hot, humid days of early fall to the frigid, snowy days of winter.
But one thing never changes. She always makes a point to tell these students what drew her to St. Olaf: the sense of community.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants who had not attended college, De Leon found St. Olaf with the help of her high school counselor. The counselor saw that she thrived in smaller classes and had a big personality.
“When the St. Olaf admissions officer told my counselor about the school, he thought it was perfect for me,” says De Leon, a native of Houston, Texas. “It’s small, but it’s also a place where I can be myself and try new things.”
As part of the Fly-in Visit Program, De Leon was able to visit St. Olaf with 24 other students from around the world. Having already toured several colleges, she assumed this would be just another college visit. But that all changed when she arrived on campus and found a warm, welcoming community that offered seemingly endless opportunities to learn and grow.
During the college’s Admitted Student Day program, President David R. Anderson ’74 called prospective students to stand if they would be an Ole in 2014 and asked them to join in the college’s fight song. The choir burst through the back doors of Boe Chapel and ran down the aisles to meet at the front for a rousing round of Um! Yah! Yah!
As students rose to their feet, De Leon realized that she had finally found the school where she belongs. Walking out of the chapel, she called her mom. “This is the school for me,” she told her.
Once on campus De Leon got involved in Presente, one of the Latinx American clubs on campus. Presente hosts weekly meetings for the Latinx community and a variety of events for the broader St. Olaf community.
This year the group hosted a salsa-making competition with help of the Environmental Honor House and used vegetables from St. Olaf Garden Research and Organic Works (STOGROW), the student-run farm on campus. The group hosted a panel discussing the different terms used for Latin American people in the U.S. And the group also hosts a plethora of events during Hispanic Heritage Month, including chapel talks, dances, and spoken word events. De Leon serves as president of the group.
“While some suggest organizations as a way boost your resumé, I do it for myself, apart from my schoolwork,” De Leon says. “It is through Presente that I found my place at St. Olaf.”
De Leon has also found her place at St. Olaf through the support of encouraging professors. While her parents went through the process of filing the paperwork necessary to remain in the United States, for example, a Spanish faculty member offered support. “Besides being my professor, she was there for me to trust and talk about my feelings with,” says De Leon.
Over the summer of 2015, Leon did an internship with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) in San Antonio, Texas. She worked as a translator, telling the stories of refugees to lawyers.
One of the most meaningful experiences she had at this internship was translating the story of a woman who not only lost her husband to gangs, but also had her son’s life threatened. De Leon struggled to find a way to interpret the story to the lawyer and realized the value of a person who can both speak Spanish and fight for the rights of these people legally.
De Leon has seen the value of the liberal arts education at St. Olaf, with majors in both Spanish and psychology as well as a concentration in education. With a wide array of interests, De Leon was able to explore academic disciplines ranging from dance to religion.
“I appreciate the fact that I get to take classes in different departments,” says De Leon.
This semester, she is broadening her horizons even further by studying abroad in Sevilla, Spain.
“I hope to grow as an individual by experiencing a different culture and applying my academics in a different setting,” says De Leon.
When looking for the college that he would call home for four years, Jack Goldstein ’18 knew that he wanted a place where he could combine rigorous academics with the opportunity to continue playing the sport he loved.
“St. Olaf offers a world-class education, and I was sure it would prepare me well for a career in medicine,” Goldstein says. “This, combined with the chance to continue playing football, made me feel that St. Olaf provided the best opportunity.”
In his time on the Hill, Goldstein has jumped at every chance to develop his talents — in addition to finding new passions and ways to make an impact.
A biology major at St. Olaf, he has worked with some of Minnesota’s most prestigious medical institutions.
Last Interim, Goldstein, along with Abhishek Chandra ’18 and Daniel Hogan ’18, compiled research through the Innovative Minds Partnering To Advance Curative Therapies (IMPACT) program at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic.
A competition sponsored by Regenerative Medicine Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic Office of Applied Scholarship and Education Science, IMPACT aims to encourage students to pursue research or careers in medicine. Goldstein’s team contributed to Mayo’s work to find the underlying cause of hypoplastic left heart syndrome, and the St. Olaf students presented their work to physicians and researchers at the clinic.
Goldstein then spent last summer working at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) through the Rockswold Health Scholars Program, a clinical and research internship program that provides St. Olaf students with an unparalleled hands-on experience in medicine. While at HCMC, Goldstein worked at the Traumatic Brain Injury Research Lab with physician Uzma Samadani.
“My summer at HCMC was an incredibly meaningful experience. I spent close to every day in the Emergency Department of a Level 1 trauma center and was able to work with patients suffering from the most extreme injuries,” Goldstein says. “Through my 10 weeks at HCMC, I was never once bored and truly enjoyed every second — and that experience reinforced my desire to become a physician.”
In addition to finding the academic and research experiences he had been looking for, Goldstein has also continued to pursue his passion for football. He was the starting quarterback for the St. Olaf football team this fall, and has formed lasting friendships with his teammates.
Goldstein also played a leadership role in the team’s relationship with Team Impact, an organization that connects college teams across the country to children who are facing life-threatening and chronic illnesses.
“The relationships I have made through this are so much greater than I could have ever imagined,” Goldstein says. “Working with Team Impact has been one of my favorite experiences here at St. Olaf.”
In keeping with a nearly century-old tradition, representatives from St. Olaf College and Carleton College presented the city of Northfield with an annual donation that this year totals $157,000.
Each college gifted its host city $78,500. Carleton Vice President and Treasurer Fred Rogers and St. Olaf Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Janet Hanson presented the checks to Northfield Mayor Rhonda Pownell and Northfield City Administrator Ben Martig.
The gift dates back to the 1920s, as Carleton and St. Olaf are among the first colleges in the United States to make such a gift.
Nearly 5,000 college students from the two colleges call Northfield home for the academic year. The city provides the students with a wide array of services, including restaurants, shopping, emergency and professional services, plus employment and other opportunities to expand their academic experiences with internships in local professional settings. Northfield, in turn, benefits from a large base of potential clients and consumers for its businesses, and volunteers for local organizations and schools.
Local citizens also are able to enjoy a wide range of athletic, art, and musical offerings from both colleges — most of which are free and open to the public.
The two colleges are among the largest employers in Northfield, with more than 1,500 employees combined.