Newest Robinson Professor Sees History as ‘A Great Connector’

Posted: May 27, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Black farm workers in Civil War era
Spencer Crew, the newest Robinson Professor at Mason, has been a public historian for much of his career, often focusing on African American history. Before joining the university he headed the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. Above, black workers at Aiken’s farm in Virginia during the Civil War era.
Photo from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

At many universities, the most distinguished professors teach only graduate students. But at George Mason, thanks to the vision and generosity of the late Clarence J. Robinson, undergraduates have the opportunity to learn from faculty members who are recruited to George Mason from senior positions at prestigious institutions.

The mission of these educators, the Clarence J. Robinson Professors, is to enrich the academic experiences of undergraduate students while continuing their scholarly pursuits on broad and fundamental intellectual issues.

The first cohort of Robinson Professors arrived after the university started receiving income in 1984 through a historic bequest from Robinson. A leading businessman and civic leader in Northern Virginia, Robinson was prominent among a group of Northern Virginia citizens who sought to establish an institution of higher education in the region.

This is the ninth in a series of profiles of the Robinson Professors. Paul D’Andrea, Shaul Bakhash, Roger Wilkins, Harold Morowitz, James Trefil, Carma Hinton, John Paden and Robert Hazen were previously profiled.

Spencer Crew

By Daniel Walsch

Spencer Crew
Spencer Crew
Photo by Evan Cantwell

For historian Spencer Crew, the Underground Railroad that existed in the United States in the 19th century represented much of the best the nation had to offer during that timeframe and even into the present.

“Much like those who were in the French Resistance in World War II, those who participated in the Underground Railroad believed in doing what they could to support the ideals of our country: equality and freedom,” says Crew, who came to Mason in fall 2007 as a Clarence J. Robinson Professor of American, African American and Public History.

“These people had the odds against them and placed themselves at great risk. But at the same time, they believed in what they were doing.”

A Public Historian

Crew has been an active student of history for more than 25 years, and he has been deeply immersed in the topic of the Underground Railroad, the term for the system in place before the Civil War to help fugitive slaves reach freedom in the North, for the past five years.

Crew, who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, has worked at public history institutions for much of his professional life. He served as president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center for six years and worked at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) for 20 years, directing the museum for nine of those years.

At each of those institutions, his driving goal was to make history accessible to the public through innovative and inclusive exhibitions and public programs. The highlight of his efforts was “Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration 1915 – 1940,” an NMAH exhibition that generated much national discussion about migration, race and creating historical exhibitions.

Crew also co-curated “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden,” which proved to be one of the Smithsonian’s more popular exhibitions.

“History,” he says, “is a great connector in that it helps guide us in how we build on what has occurred in the past. As an historian looking back at the Underground Railroad, for instance, I see the efforts of many individuals and small groups of people and families who showed such great courage in very difficult times. My challenge is to build on each of those small stories and try to place them in a larger context in ways that best capture the spirit of the time and that make connections to today’s world.”

Sharing Knowledge of American History

Crew’s decision to join the faculty at Mason revolved around his desire to share his own knowledge of American history and to help more directly engage students’ understanding of the evolution of the United States.

Spencer Crew with student
Crew with student Stephanie Gibson-Williams.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Throughout his career, he has published extensively in the areas of African American and public history. Among his publications are: “Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration 1915 – 1940,” which accompanied the NMAH exhibit; and “Black Life in Secondary Cities: A Comparative Analysis of the Black Communities of Camden and Elizabeth, N.J.” He also cowrote “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden” and “Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives,” a companion book to an HBO documentary.

“I have, of course, worked for many years as an administrator and found that to be enjoyable on many levels. But the direct interaction with students is extremely stimulating. Students bring a special kind of energy to the classroom and perspective to the topics we discuss. They are also not shy about raising questions and initiating good discussion,” Crew says.

“I am enjoying my time here at Mason. It is a very dynamic institution. Being part of the Robinson program is an honor,” he adds.

Crew is past chair of the National Council for History Education and currently serves on the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the board of the American Association of Museums.

He graduated from Brown University and is currently president of its alumni association. He holds a master’s degree and a doctorate from Rutgers University. In 2003, he was inducted into the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni.

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