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‘Race in the City of Destiny’: Professor Andrew Gomez awarded fellowship to collect oral histories

Pictured: Professor Andrew Gomez — Photo credit to Sy Bean

Professor Andrew Gomez of the History department was recently awarded the Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship for his project on race in Tacoma. The project is titled “Race in the City of Destiny: Tacoma, Displacement, and Reconciliation,” and he will be working on it with help from collaborators and students throughout the next year.

“The project … is a digital oral history project that looks to cover three case studies in Tacoma’s history: the construction of the Chinese Reconciliation Park, the history of the Hilltop neighborhood and the more recent history of the Northwest Detention Center. The broad idea of the project is to show the varied role that race has played in the development of Tacoma. In each of these case studies, displacement is a key feature,” Gomez said.

“Whether talking about the expulsion of Chinese-American workers in 1885, the history of redlining in Tacoma or the more recent detention of undocumented immigrants, this form of rupture has been a persistent theme in Tacoma’s history,” Gomez said.

Redlining is when certain neighborhoods of cities are denied services because they are of a lower financial status.

“However, just as importantly, there have been real attempts at combating these efforts via community organizing, public commemorations and other forms of activism. The goal of the series is to collect these types of narratives from long-term community members, activists, legal professionals, politicians and others that are essential to these stories,” Gomez continued.

Gomez went on to say that the students and other collaborators will be helping him to collect and record these oral histories, which will be available online.

“In addition to these efforts, there will also be a few public events through the 2019–20 academic year that will revolve around the issues explored in the oral history series,” Gomez said.

Professor Gomez has been interested in Tacoma’s history since he started working here at Puget Sound in 2015.

“One of my first interests was in the ‘Tacoma Method’ of 1885 when local Tacomans expelled the city’s Chinese population. I started doing archival work on the project during my first year and ultimately taught a Digital History class in 2017 where students under my direction built a website on the event and its legacy (TacomaMethod.com),” Gomez said.

“I’ve also had students conduct oral histories on the Northwest Detention Center before and had them look at the way that the facility reflects many facets of national immigration policy. So, in some ways, the project is a fully realized extension of this work,” Gomez continued.

Professor Gomez has two main goals on this project. The first is to make sure that certain parts of Tacoma’s history that might usually be forgotten are documented.

“Part of the power of oral history is the ability to capture voices that would typically fall on the margins of traditional archives and more popular sources. I’m interested in trying to show how everyday people have shaped the city’s trajectory in powerful ways while also pointing to the overarching role that race has played in the city’s development,” Gomez said.

His second goal is to make sure that the Tacoma community is aware of and can access the information that he finds. The Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship can help him achieve this goal.

“A critical feature of the Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship is to connect scholarship to a broader public. The public-facing nature of the project and the public events tied to it are being made in an attempt to spur a bigger discussion about the role of race in the history of Tacoma,” Gomez said.

According to Professor Gomez, this work of collecting local histories has been going on for a long time. Professor Gomez’s work and the assistance of the fellowship will help both his work and the work of others reach a broader audience.

“To be clear, others have been doing different aspects of this work for a while. Our own Race & Pedagogy Institute has been doing this in powerful ways for years and people like Mike Honey at UW-Tacoma (who is a collaborator on this project) has been working with students to conduct oral histories relating to Tacoma for decades. The project is simply another attempt at trying to create public-facing scholarship that includes and speaks to our broader community,” Gomez said.

Professor Gomez made sure to highlight that those who collaborate with him in this work are a key part of its success.

“We have a series of community partners that will be involved throughout the year—the Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation, Advocates for Detained Voices and the Hilltop Action Coalition will all provide important guidance. There are also a broader set of collaborators that will advise on the project—this includes Teresa Barnett from UCLA and Mike Honey and Charles Williams at UW-Tacoma,” Gomez said.

“Students will also be essential. I’ll be hiring a graduating senior, Rose Pytte, to help me begin to collect oral histories this summer. In addition, students in two of my classes next year will also work on projects collecting oral histories,” Gomez concluded.

Those interested should register for Tacoma Public History, HIST 379, which takes place this upcoming fall, in order to get involved in this important work.

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