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Honors College professor awarded prize for book on civil rights movement

Honors College professor Debbie Harwell was recently awarded the Julia Cherry Spruill Prize for her book, “Wednesdays in Mississippi: Proper Ladies Working for Radical Change, Freedom Summer 1964,” a historical exploration of an early civil rights movement that has largely gone unnoticed.

What began as a simple research paper in graduate school led to the Southern Association for Women Historians’ recognition of Harwell’s work, which she says could not have been accomplished without the ongoing support of UH faculty.

The Cougar sat down with Harwell and discussed her book, her recent award and how her time at UH has shaped her career.

The Cougar: How many years have you been teaching as a professor at UH?

Debbie Harwell: I started teaching here in 2012, so four years. When I was working on my master’s at the University of Memphis, I taught there as well. I taught Introduction to Women’s Studies. Here, I teach the Houston History class and also the second half of the U.S. History Survey, both in the Honors College.

TC: What made you want to write about this particular part of history?

DH: I went to the University of Memphis to see about getting my master’s in communications, and the first class that I took was a history class. We were required to find a book, read it and come back and tell the class about it. There were only three people in the class, so the pressure was on. I found this book the old fashioned way. I’d been out of school for 30 years, so I didn’t really think about how to search for books electronically, so I went to the history section of the library and started walking around. I found this book face up on the shelf.

It was the autobiography of Dorothy Height, who had for many years been the president of the National Council of Negro Women. And I vaguely remember having seen her on Oprah talking about the book, and I thought, “Oh, this sounds really interesting.” And so, inside was maybe a 10-page story about Wednesdays in Mississippi. I was intrigued by it because my years in debate involved reading and writing speeches that involved social policy.

TC: So you felt a personal connection to the story?

DH: I had a recollection of what it was like during the civil rights years. I was only 12 in 1964, during Freedom Summer, but I had very vivid recollections even before that of my parents talking about integration, which they didn’t agree with. And in my own life, getting to be associated with black students and faculty in later years of high school, and certainly in college, and seeing that some of the things I’d been taught growing up didn’t quite mesh with the reality of what I’d seen.

TC: How long did it take you to complete your research and write the book?

DH: I started out writing a paper for a class, and then that became my master’s thesis which became an article in the Journal of Southern History. I applied for the Ph.D. program here, I submitted my article, which was accepted, and then I just kept going until it became a dissertation. It has been a long time coming.

TC: What was it like to be awarded the Spruill Prize?

DH: It was an amazing experience because I’ve been to the conference before, and I’d seen other people get that award, so it was really very special. But I had no idea that I had even been nominated or submitted, so when I did receive the email notifying me, I just couldn’t believe it.

TC: How has your time at UH influenced your career?

DH: I have to say, at the University of Houston, faculty and mentors and advisers made it all possible because we have such a strong component here of research-based academic endeavors. I had people all along the way who helped me find out what I needed to do to make this into a journal article. And the Journal of Southern History is one of the most prestigious in our field, so as a Ph.D. student, to get an article in the journal is definitely something. And yes, I wrote a good article, but more importantly, I give credit to the people who taught me how to do that, how to be a better writer, a better editor.

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