Mars McLeod ’23 can just about pinpoint the moment in her life when she realized she was destined to become a historian.
“I was eight or nine years old, and my family was visiting the Lincoln Memorial,” she remembers. “Someone was giving a talk about Lincoln, and I was so engaged, I wasn’t thinking about anything else in the world. I must have asked a thousand questions.”
However, McLeod says she was taken aback when the talk ended before the speaker finished explaining what became of Lincoln at the end of his life. “I asked her, ‘What happened to him?’, and she said, ‘Well, he was assassinated, here’s why,’ and that helped me to understand that in a sociopolitical context. I was fascinated and I just wanted to learn more and more. Since then, I’ve always wanted to understand the world through the lens of history. You can understand the past and use the past to understand the present.”
McLeod’s passion for history blossomed at Hollins through her major in the subject (she also completed a second major in gender and women’s studies), and the classes taught by Ruth Alden Doan Assistant Professor of History Christopher Florio were especially inspirational. “I’ve taken almost every single class he has taught, and learning with him has been a wonderful experience,” she says. “He has always taught history in a way that comes alive. His classes are taught mostly with primary sources, and I just love stepping into the mindset of someone who has lived in the past and experiencing that past through their own lens.”
Among McLeod’s favorite classes with Florio were the ones he has taught on African American history. “It was a part of my historical understanding that had been empty for a long time because of the way history is taught in a lot of middle and high schools. You learn about Black history as sort of an addendum to white history: You take small breaks to talk about slavery, the Harlem Renaissance, or the Civil Rights Movement, for example, but you’re missing everything else that was going on in Black history at a particular time. To teach Black history in that way is going to leave out a lot. It’s going to give this impression of Black history as unrequired learning and Black people as nonessential human beings.”
McLeod was determined to “discuss Black history as Black history,” and for her senior honors thesis, “I purposefully chose a topic that would allow me to talk about Black discourse as it exists among Black people and not necessarily with a focus on white commentary or sources written by white people about Black people.” She set her sights on exploring the emigration of Black Americans to the Caribbean island of Trinidad in the 1830s and 1840s, a little-known, rarely researched, but pivotal moment in 19th century Black history.
“A lot of debate took place during that time about whether or not Black Americans, particularly those who had been freed, should make an effort to leave the United States,” she explains. “There were many detriments to being a Black American citizen, and the movement to Trinidad was about seeking a better life outside of a white context. It was less about Black nationalism, such as the Back to Africa movement, and more about individuals finding a way to enjoy an improved standard of living, to have access to resources, to not be discriminated against on a daily basis, and to not be subject to violence. I wanted to talk about Black Americans doing things for their own betterment.”
The campaign to emigrate to Trinidad prompted a wide range of opinions because of who it would leave behind, McLeod says. “Would they be abandoning the enslaved to be enslaved forever? Who was going to fight for the rights of the enslaved if there were no free Black Americans to speak up? I wanted to talk about the discourse that was happening amongst Black Americans about emigration’s merits and problems.”
McLeod’s efforts to research her topic were unfortunately hampered by a dearth of source material. “I found one dissertation on that specific subject,” she says. “There are a lot of secondary sources about Black emigration movements, but they tend to center on the Back to Africa movement or forced colonization. It was very, very difficult to find sources.”
A breakthrough came when Florio sent her a 350-page packet of primary sources from Black newspapers of the time. Underscoring the back-and-forth debate over emigration, she says that “a lot of the newspaper writings in the packet were actually responses to other articles, so I had to track down those original documents, and they were not often publicly accessible. People changed their minds over the course of this, too; the same author would sometimes write completely opposite opinions.”
Despite the challenges she encountered, McLeod says she persevered through a lot of reading, rereading, organization, structure, and placing her narrative in a wider context. “Eventually, I got an understanding of who felt what at what time, who was talking to whom, and who actually emigrated and who didn’t. There were a lot of moving pieces and a lot of people involved in the discussion, but that’s part of why this was significant. There were so many Black Americans engaged in this discourse for the sake of their lives, for survival. I think it’s really important to know what Black people were discussing amongst themselves about this. There was such a wide variety of opinions and backgrounds.”
One of McLeod’s goals is to go to graduate school, and over Spring Break this year she attended the nationally competitive Catto-LeCount Fellows Program for Equity and Inclusion at Penn State University, which exposes students to doctoral study in the discipline of history. “They recruited a diverse group of students for discussions about what we’re looking for in grad school and how to find resources,” she says. “It gave me a jumping off point for how to apply and what to expect.”
Over most of her undergraduate career, McLeod has augmented what she has learned as a gender and women’s studies major by participating in Challenging Racism, a nonprofit organization that offers a full range of programs to build awareness and skills to talk about race in a number of environments, including higher education and business. “You learn about understanding your own internal biases and how to work against them on a daily basis. I’m interested in that as a topic of historical learning but also as a topic of discussion in the present. I found that working there and engaging in those discussions regularly has helped me understand antiracism as a practice and the ways in which it can be spread. I can also teach others to work through their own biases and express themselves in ways that are not going to hurt other people.”
A strong sense of self-assurance is one of the enduring qualities McLeod believes she developed at Hollins, and something that will endure long after she graduates. “I’ve gained the ability to analyze things in a way that I feel more certain in expressing myself, expressing my ideas, and expressing the way I came to those ideas. Over the last four years, Hollins has given me that confidence to speak my mind.”