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Alumni Profiles Series: Daniel H. Usner

November 10, 2021
Daniel Usner, Ph.D.

Daniel Usner received his Ph.D. in History from Duke in 1981. Usner is currently the Holland N. McTyeire Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, a position he has held since leaving Cornell University in 2002. Usner has published six books on Native Americans in colonial Louisiana and the Lower Mississippi Valley. His recent research examines Native material culture in the region, particularly Chitimacha women’s basket-weaving.

What brought you to Duke for graduate study?

That was over forty years ago. I was fortunate to be an undergraduate majoring in history at Johns Hopkins in the early 1970s and fell under the influence of a few of my professors there, especially William Freehling who taught history of the South. He became my mentor, and I decided very early on that I wanted to study history of the South, mainly slavery. There was a monumental series of studies in the early seventies; I was mainly interested in the political history of slavery. Looking at graduate programs, I was looking at the predicable ones for specializing in the history of the South, and especially the antebellum South: Louisiana State University, the University of North Carolina, and Duke were my main targets. Duke was the only one that did not offer me a fellowship. So, I was able to gather funds with the help of my parents and spouse and took that risk. I had funds guaranteed from LSU and UNC, but Duke had just hired a new young historian named Peter Wood, whose book Black Majority pulled me back in time to the origins of slavery. I enjoyed Duke so much, and did well enough to receive fellowships in the ensuing years, so it was worth the risk.

I was assigned Peter as my advisor when I first landed there, and in my first meeting with him he said, “No one studies early slavery in Louisiana.” My first research project in his class, in addition to one for a class I was taking with Raymond Gavins in African American history, launched me into becoming an early Americanist specializing in the Deep South, especially the Lower Mississippi Valley. I would eventually, of course, become deeply engaged in Native American history, especially once I reached Cornell and helped start the American Indian Program there. It was only in the process of becoming a colonial historian interested in slavery that I started to read literature in American Indian history and culture. At the time I was at Duke, there was no one specializing in American Indian history. Peter Wood was the closest, and he encouraged me to broaden the definition of early American history. It was in studying what I thought was strictly African enslavement, and looking at the documents, that I realized you could not leave American Indians out of that story, even though for generations historians had done it. On my own, I started to learn about the nations in the region I was studying—the Choctaws, the Chickasaws, the Muscogees and so forth.

What professional or career plans did you have in mind initially? Was the goal always to enter the professoriate, to write books, to teach?

Yes. Let’s situate this in time. I was an undergraduate from 1971 to 1975. The job market for professors in history was very weak—dismal, in fact. There was very little growth in departments. But I loved history. Because of the job market, those of us majoring in history were discouraged from thinking about Ph.D. programs. Most of my peers majoring in history went to law school; that’s where people were being directed. Another thing about the profession—this is more personal background—I grew up in a family where my father was a service-station dealer. He leased a gas station and auto repair shop in New Orleans from major oil companies: first Conoco, then Shell. I grew up in a small-business family and saw my father with a degree of autonomy and independence that a lot of the other parents didn’t have, working for larger businesses or working a nine-to-five job. My dad worked from six to eight many days, but I also knew what that independence meant. Of course, in academia, we have a degree of independence that is also accompanied by security. We’re basically working for an institution with the benefits. So, it was the combination of autonomy and security, because security was something my father did not have, being a small businessman. Being a professor as an occupation looked like just the right combination. Really, it is all about the love of research and the passion for teaching and learning. Of course, I didn’t foresee that it doesn’t take long to get bogged down in administration and bureaucratic responsibilities. I was naïve on that front.

What is one of your favorite memories from Duke?

"One of my favorite seminars was with Raymond  Gavins. My first year, he taught a sequence of  courses in African American history from before  the Civil War to the present. Ray’s class was  important to me, and exciting, because he was very demanding, in terms of the reading we had to keep up with from week to week."Well, there are so many. One of my favorite seminars was with Raymond Gavins. My first year, he taught a sequence of courses in African American history from before the Civil War to the present. Ray’s class was important to me, and exciting, because he was very demanding, in terms of the reading we had to keep up with from week to week. The other dimension of that course that was so important to me was the fact that it was African American history, taught by an African American professor, and most of the other students were African American. At the time, Duke was becoming diverse in the history department partly because of the oral history program. I benefited immeasurably from that experience in the seminar room. To me, African American history and Native American history were central to the history of the United States and, specifically, of the South. That’s why I was studying it. That’s what the point was, to pull that history back to where it belonged, at the very center. 

Another experience at the time was being associated with the Institute for Southern Studies, co-founded by Julian Bond, along with Jackie and Bob Hall, and based in Chapel Hill. It published the journal Southern Exposure. In the mid-seventies, just when I arrived, there was this community of progressive scholars and community activists who periodically gathered. I remember some of those gatherings at the Halls’ home in Chapel Hill. Believe it or not, in the mid-1970s, there was a sense of North Carolina really becoming more progressive: labor activism, Civil Rights, the Equal Rights Amendment was being considered at Raleigh. It was an exciting time, not just to be a graduate student at Duke, but being a participant in a community that was engaged with civil rights and labor activism. I was able to publish a couple of articles in Southern Exposure. It was a very valuable experience for me as a graduate student to have that community.

What has your career path looked like since Duke?

As I already said, the job market was very tight at that time. I was in my fourth year in the graduate program at Duke, and Anne Scott, who was then Director of Graduate Studies, caught me in the hall in the Allen building and told me about a job announcement at Cornell University. The job was in American Indian and Western history. My first reaction was, “I’m not qualified to teach courses like that.” I had never taken a course in American Indian history. I was learning fast about Southern Indians, for my own research, but at the time never could foresee specializing in it or even teaching it. But she encouraged me for the experience of applying for the job.

When I got to Cornell, I found that there was a small group of faculty, students, law students, and a few people on the staff of the university who were just getting underway a petition to the administration to start an American Indian program. Because I was the person teaching American Indian history in the History department, I had to be involved. That shaped my future—being able to work with a community, including Native Americans, who step-by-step got the university to develop a program, which included recruiting Native American students, eventually from around the country, mostly from the Northeast. So, I was able to grow as a scholar leaning more toward American Indian history and teaching American Indian history classes, and eventually becoming director of the program for a few years, before coming to Vanderbilt. I was there for twenty-two years; that’s where—one might say--I grew up.

What drew you to Vanderbilt after so long at Cornell?

Personal as well as professional reasons. My two sons were graduating high school, and the isolation and long winters of Ithaca were always a challenge. We had great friends there. I loved the university. I loved the diversity of the school itself, the fact that it was public and private. But, Vanderbilt’s history department, at the time, was rebuilding its U.S. history team. Out of the blue, I was called by someone on the faculty here at Vanderbilt who was chairing the search committee and encouraged to apply. I was offered the job at Vanderbilt and, in my job interview and visits here, I was learning about the new vision of Vanderbilt. E. Gordon Gee was the chancellor of the university at the time. There was an effort to expand the student body, to diversify faculty, and to—the best way to put it is—get Vanderbilt to where Duke was at the dawn of the twenty-first century. The resources were here, and the commitment was here, so that was instrumental in my decision to move. After being here for one year, I was asked to chair the department.

In the early 2000s, at the beginning of my career at Vanderbilt, before all of its diversification, Vanderbilt looked like a very homogenous campus to me. Most of the students were white students from the suburbs—Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago. I was sorely missing the diversity of students that I left behind at Cornell. Not just ethnically, but socially and economically. Many of my Cornell students were in the Ag School and other public colleges; they came from very different backgrounds. Thankfully, that has changed. The vision was fulfilled. Vanderbilt’s history department has expanded the department and diversified the department in remarkable ways. What was a department of maybe twenty tenure-track faculty has doubled since then.

Of course, throughout all of this, also lacking at Vanderbilt was a Native American student population. We’re on the cusp of that change now. There’s a critical mass of Indigenous students who are organized in a way I saw happening forty years ago at Cornell. There’s a long way to go, but there’s a small group of faculty starting to initiate through the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities an endeavor to get the top administration interested. So, we’ll see. This is happening toward the end of my own career, but I’m looking forward to seeing this develop.

Do you have an interesting projects or professional plans in the works?

I see myself working on Indigenous communities in Louisiana, in one way or another, for the rest of my career and my life. This Chitimacha project started a decade ago from a surprising discovery of documents at Avery Island, where Tabasco sauce is made, in a cache of letters written by a Chitimacha woman, Christine Paul. It gave me this opportunity. I was interested in the Chitimachas as one group in the region; I never dreamed they would become the focus of my research. So, because of that research and working with the Chitimacha Tribe, as well as with the Mcllhenny family, I’ve maintained this relationship, keeping them up to date on my work, sharing my work with them. Last year, the Frist Art Museum here in Nashville hosted an amazing exhibit, “Hearts of Our People,” including over one hundred objects created by Native American women over the centuries. When I found out that a set of Chitimacha baskets would be displayed in that exhibit, I immediately thought of the current chairwoman of the tribe, Melissa Darden, who also happens to be a basket weaver. Melissa agreed to come up to Nashville and did an exhibition of the craft on a Sunday afternoon at the museum, and I got the thrill of walking through the museum with her. That’s the kind of work that I’m always going to pursue—bridging public history. Because I’m now so involved in material culture and art history, there are more opportunities for that. Then, just getting more Native American people into those institutions. That was one relatively modest example of what I hope to do more of.

From the very beginning, from my first book on, it was clear that I was interested in the exchange of objects—deer skins, food items, even labor. I never paid enough attention to the objects themselves. I find myself now not just studying exchange but the objects themselves. Going inside collections and pulling baskets out of cabinets or off shelves… It’s been a rather odd experience, but it’s infectious, to want to touch and learn about the composition about the objects, then connect the objects to their creators and their communities. So, that’s been my pathway to now: from exchange of objects to the objects themselves.

Do you have any advice for current graduate students?

Sometimes scholars land at a university that is making some effort to diversify, then the burden falls on young scholars because they’re Indigenous or African American. You want to take on that responsibility, but you have to balance it with your own career. They also expect you to fulfill what is required for tenure. So, I’ve seen colleagues and former students suffer through that, taking on too many administrative responsibilities out of a sense of duty to the profession and to community. Then, they have to desperately catch up in order to get tenure in their department. It’s important to maintain balance between your personal interests as a scholar and your sense of responsibility to the institution and wider community.

Author

Nikki Locklear

Nikki Locklear

Ph.D. student, History

Nikki Locklear (Lumbee) is a Ph.D. student in the History department whose research interests center on 19th-century Southern U.S. and Native American histories. Within these broad categories, her areas of inquiry include community coalescence, identity, and survivance as well as the historical racialization of Native and Afro-Native peoples in the Upper South during the early republic and removal periods. She is also a member of the University Scholars Program and Society of Duke Fellows.

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