Andy Battle: “IBM Comes to Brooklyn”

Andy Battle

“IBM Comes to Brooklyn”


Friday, April 25th

‘In his talk, Watson acknowledged a second role for IBM Brooklyn—in addition to manufacturing computer cables, the plant would serve as something of a social experiment. Unlike other plants, IBM Brooklyn was the product of impulses that transcended the simple profit motive. Watson recounted his friendship with the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated in California two weeks before the plant opened in June. Kennedy had a “vision” of what could be done in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Watson explained, and IBM Brooklyn was in some measure the fulfillment of that vision. The company had at first planned to locate in Harlem, but Watson’s friendship with Kennedy had resulted in a post on the board of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Development and Services Corporation, a group of business executives assembled by Kennedy to serve as the “power” half of his new community development corporation for Bedford-Stuyvesant. This association had in turn sealed IBM’s commitment to Brooklyn.’


Emily Brooks: “Marijuana in La Guardia’s New York City: The Mayor’s Committee on Marijuana and Federal Policy, 1938-1945”

Emily Brooks

“Marijuana in La Guardia’s New York City: The Mayor’s Committee on Marijuana and Federal Policy, 1938-1945”

April 4, 2014


In 1938 Mayor Fiorello La Guardia wanted to talk about marijuana. The Mayor, whom President Franklin D. Roosevelt had once described as “the most appealing man I know,” frequently got what he wanted. La Guardia had been a staunch opponent of alcohol prohibition, and questioned the danger posed to New York City by the drug the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics had dubbed the “surest road to insanity.” The conversation that La Guardia sparked spanned six years, engaged psychiatrists, police officers, politicians, and criminals, and resulted in the publication of one of the most comprehensive and divisive studies that the country had yet seen on marijuana. This paper explores the story of this conversation, which highlighted the conflicting agendas of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which sought support for marijuana prohibition, and municipal actors led by Mayor La Guardia, who questioned the value to the city of prohibiting the drug. The conflict between these two sets of actors, which occurred primarily in committee meetings and the pages of academic journals bore little direct connection to the concerns or opinions of a broader public. The work of the Mayor’s Committee and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics response to it, however, reveals one set of tensions in policy making and within what scholar Wendy Brown has described as the “unbounded terrain of powers and techniques, an[d] ensemble of discourses, rules, and practices,” that constitute the state.

Jonathan Hill: “Currents of Change: Water, Electricity and the State in Late Porfirian Mexico”

Jonathan Hill

“Currents of Change: Water, Electricity and the State in Late Porfirian Mexico”

March 21, 2014


When ground was broken on La Boquilla in 1905, it was one of the largest and most ambitious damming projects in the world. Built in the narrow canyon mouth of the seasonal Rio Conchos in Mexico’s arid northern state of Chihuahua, La Boquilla represented the cutting edge of engineering and hydroelectric technology, featuring the concave arch, structural concrete, and high-tension transmission lines characteristic of later projects. The first two of these allowed for the production of smaller, stronger dams and far larger reservoirs, while the latter made long-distance electrical transmission viable for the first time. With a booming copper mining industry located nearby, La Boquilla became an attractive opportunity for both investors and state officials interested in increasing economic activity in the region. By the eve of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, Mexico’s hydropower ambitions rivaled those of United States, Germany, and British India.

Katie Uva: “Dawn of a New Day: New York City Between the Fairs”

Katie Uva

“Dawn of a New Day: New York City Between the Fairs”

February 21, 2014


On a balmy spring day in 1939, the New York World’s Fair officially opened for business. That day, it welcomed roughly 200,000 visitors to its extensive grounds, which had only recently been developed out of the old Corona ash dump. The Fair’s numerous pavilions and attractions all loosely coalesced around a single theme, “Building the World of Tomorrow,” and its desire to compel and reinvent and present visitors with the idea of a technologically­enhanced future was epitomized by the Fair’s two symbols, the Trylon and Perisphere. The Perisphere contained an installation called Democracity, designed by Henry Dreyfuss and sponsored by the Fair Committee, which took visitors on a journey into the city of the future. Not far away at the General Motors Pavilion another exhibit, Norman Bel Geddes’ Futurama, reinforced this vision of the city. Both exhibits provided a bird’s­eye view of a massive urban area, but an urban area that had been planned, rationalized, and streamlined in such a way as to eliminate the ills that plagued the American city of 1939. There was no crime in the city of tomorrow, no slums, and no poverty. Human conflict and hardship had been eradicated by the heroic efforts of planners and designers. Progress was described as inevitable and uniform. As Norman Bel Geddes himself put it, “for years there was talk that machinery had enslaved the individual, but now it can free the individual…the country as a whole will follow. Living in such a world of light, fresh air, open parks, easy movement, the man of 1960 will more naturally play his full part in the community and develop in mind and body.”

Call for Papers, Spring 2014

Announcing ‘The 20th Century Historians’ Working Group:’ a new project at CUNY’s Graduate Center for the exploration of 20th century history and society.

Please forward our Spring 2014 call for papers far and wide.  As always, we welcome submissions on any twentieth-century history.  Our particular interests this semester include:

  • Fresh labor history, turning the new historiography of capitalism on its head
  • Diplomatic history and empire
  • Sex, gender, and the culture wars
  • Immigration history, immigrant politics, and diaspora
  • Voting rights and the state
  • The working class in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement
  • Popular cultures
  • Rural and small-urban history

For more information, please see the full call for papers below.


The 20th Century Working Group is a standing, critical conversation among doctoral students about our respective research, our scholarly interests, and our broader orientation, as historians,toward contemporary political and social questions.In the interest of encouraging participation and building the organization, we are casting a widenet. Here are the guidelines for submissions:

  • We are seeking papers on a broad array of topics—anything that could be consideredpart of the “long twentieth century,” from the late 19th century to the present.
  • We are seeking papers that focus on the social, broadly defined, with an eye to theeconomic, political, and cultural transformations of the “modern” era.
  • There are no regional, national, or linguistic constraints on the subject; we welcome localstudy of anywhere, in the same way we encourage submissions that cross borders. Full disclosure: The membership of our network currently centers on students of modern U.S.history. We welcome and encourage membership and contributions from all otherspecialties centered on the “long twentieth century.”
  • The paper should be a work in progress—that is, part of an ongoing research project, achapter of a larger work, or a piece of scholarship aimed at developing a larger project.Of particular interest for this semester’s sessions of the Working Group are the following histories—though we continue to welcome and encourage submissions beyond these categories:
    • Fresh labor history, turning the new historiography of capitalism on its head.
    • Diplomatic history and empire.
    • Sex, gender, and the culture wars.
    • Immigration history, immigrant politics, and diaspora.
    • Voting rights and the state.
    • The working class in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement.
    • Popular cultures.
    • Rural and small-urban history.

The paper should be 20-30 pages of text (roughly 10,000 words) or shorter.

TO SUBMIT: Please send an abstract of 2-3 paragraphs, along with a brief description ofyourself and your research interests and objectives. Please send these submissions (just the abstract for now, not the paper itself) as a word-compatible attachment to: 20thcentpapers(at)gmail(dot)com.

The group meets every other Friday for peer-led discussion in a workshop format. Readers andpresenters exchange ideas, criticism, and general inquiries in a relaxed but rigorous conversational setting.

Ben Hellwege: “‘The Federal Government Can and Should Provide Maximum Leadership’: The Problem of Age Discrimination and the Failure of Executive Order 11141, 1956-1967”

Ben Hellwege

“’The Federal Government Can and Should Provide Maximum Leadership’: The Problem of Age Discrimination and the Failure of Executive Order 11141, 1956-1967″

Friday, February 7


On February 12, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued Executive Order (E.O.) 11141, which sought to provide “maximum leadership” by the federal government on the issue of age discrimination in the workplace by expressly affirming that “it is the policy of the Executive Branch of the Government that contractors and subcontractors engaged in the performance of Federal contracts shall not, in connection with the employment, advancement, or discharge of employees, or in connection with the terms, conditions, or privileges of their employment, discriminate against persons because of their age except upon the basis of a bona fide occupational qualification, retirement plan, or statutory requirement.” The idea for the order, a Department of Labor initiative, had originated in a memo which President John F. Kennedy’s staff had circulated within the various Executive branch departments nearly a year beforehand in March 1963. After a period of heated internal agency review, Executive Order 11141’s language was reworked and made more amenable before its formal announcement. The revamped order was a shadow of its former self. Its length had been increased but its language had been weakened: in its final form, the Executive Order lacked any implantation device or enforcement language; nor was it placed under the supervision of any federal agency. In other words, it was a paper tiger, and a particularly toothless one at that. Despite the high hopes of well-placed individuals in the Kennedy-Johnson administration that Executive Order 11141 could function cut down on workplace discrimination, the order failed to accomplish its stated purpose.

Michelle Chen: “Deportation Politics and Social Change under an Evolving U.S. Immigration Regime”

Michelle Chen

“Deportation Politics and Social Change under an Evolving U.S. Immigration Regime”

Friday, December 13


America has always been of two minds about its immigrants—often, it has been of a multitude of minds. Some are considered newcomers—those grainy figures flocking toward the beacon of freedom embodied in Manhattan’s totemic Statue of Liberty. Others are not so openly embraced, eking out a bare- bones existence in the dregs of the labor market, trying to do right at the edges of the promise of capitalist prosperity. Untold numbers are in a state of exit or exclusion—detained, forcibly removed, their possibility of citizenship denied in a state of sometimes indefinite exile. My research will focus on this latter group, who intersect heavily with the two other contingents of the immigrant population, across the twentieth century. This was the era in which the modern immigration system was legislated, its enforcement mechanisms hardened. It was also a period of social tumult that gave rise to a groundswell of popular resistance movements in ethnic communities. In all these movements, immigrant identity was at least an ancillary part of the social development of their institutions, culture and organizing tactics. Often, resistance to draconian immigration policy became central to their political platform.