AHA Member Spotlight: Paul Ortiz
Paul Ortiz is a professor of history and director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida. He lives in Gainesville, Florida, and has been a member since 1998.
Alma maters: AA, Olympic College, 1988; BA, Evergreen State College, 1990; PhD, Duke University, 2000
Fields of interest: African American, Latinx, labor, social movements, oral history
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?
I am a first-generation college student and a third-generation military veteran. My service in the US Special Forces in Central and South America in the 1980s led me to question most of what I had been taught about US history. When I returned to the US in 1986, I began a search for answers about imperialism, racism, and capitalism. My experiences as a labor organizer with agricultural laborers and service workers also taught me to question typical historical narratives of “the middle class republic” that were then current when I was in college.
What do you like the most about where you live and work?
First, the students! I love being in the South. It is one of the best places in the world to be an oral historian. A multicultural region of storytellers, writers, civil rights activists, and international labor organizers—many of whom we are just now learning about. With all of the political challenges we face in Florida, the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program enjoys the support of a growing base of alumni, donors, and public museum professionals who are excited about out social justice research programs in underserved communities.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am writing the epilogue for the newest edition of the American Social History Project’s text, Who Built America: Working People and the Nation’s History. I am writing two books: A Social Movement of the United States and Settler Colonialism and the “War on Terror”: 1492 to the Present. Both will be published by Beacon Press. The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program is partnering with the National Park Service to interview descendants of Underground Railroad freedom seekers. Thanks to a generous NEH grant, the Proctor Program is also collaborating with colleagues in linguistics to use artificial intelligence technologies to more effectively provide African American history lesson plans to K–12 teachers.
Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how?
Yes. When I finished my PhD I was mainly teaching courses in African American and Latina/o histories. Due to student demand, I now regularly offer graduate seminars in comparative race and ethnicity with a focus on the Global South. Plus, students are far more interested in labor history than ever before. My labor history class at the University of Florida is full the first day of enrollment. I am more interested in the importance of literary traditions of dissent reflected in the works of writers like Edwidge Danticat, Rudolfo Anaya, Luisa Captetillo, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Junot Diaz, and others. In my classes, lectures, and writings I am increasingly thinking about what radical poetry and musical genres like punk and hip-hop can teach us about people’s histories.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?
Conducting oral histories with African American elders in the Jim Crow South when I was a graduate research assistant for the NEH-sponsored Behind the Veil Project in the 1990s was a revelation. I learned that Black communities sustained vibrant cultures of community, resilience, and resistance against white supremacy in the countryside that historians were only then beginning to rediscover. In writing An African American and Latinx History of the United States, I was astonished to discover generations of Mexican and Mexican American anti-slavery abolitionists and activists. Recently, I have been exploring the life of Jose Manuel Gallegos, the first elected Hispanic territorial delegate to Congress. Gallegos was so outspoken in his antislavery beliefs that the Confederacy kidnapped him and held him as a prisoner of war during the Civil War!
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
Christina Heatherton’s new book, Arise! Global Radicalism in the Era of the Mexican Revolution and Thulani Davis’s The Emancipation Circuit: Black Activism Forging a Culture of Freedom.
What do you value most about the history discipline?
In graduate school, Professor Lawrence “Larry” Goodwyn challenged us to go beyond the standard tenets of American exceptionalism and innocence that continue to characterize US history textbooks to this day. I value above all traditions of dissent maintained by generations of radical scholars including W.E.B. Du Bois, Staughton Lynd, Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez, Cedric Robinson, Howard Zinn, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, and many others. I strive to uphold these traditions in my scholarship, teaching and service to our profession.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you?
Being a member of the AHA connects me with K–12 teachers, independent historians, and college-based scholars engaged in the common enterprise of promoting history learning.
Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?
Watching John Hope Franklin and Leon Litwack telling stories about decades of their remarkable friendship and mutual research experiences.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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