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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

URI history professors author books
focusing on women’s rights, slavery, and mercury poisoning

KINGSTON, R.I. -- June 15, 2001 -- A strong woman dedicated to social reform, children who grew up in bondage, and the effect of environmental poisoning on democracy in postwar Japan are subjects of three books by history professors at the University of Rhode Island.

Sharon Hartman Strom of Narragansett, professor of history and women’s studies and graduate director of URI’s History Department, first learned of Florence Luscomb from a friend who lived near Luscomb in co-op housing in Cambridge, Mass. Strom, who was in her second year of teaching at URI in 1971 and interested in women’s issues, invited the 84-year-old ardent suffragist to speak to a class. Luscomb, energetic, witty, and engaging, spoke of her life experiences including organizing CIO office worker’s unions, protesting against fascism, McCarthyism and Vietnam and her unsuccessful bid for Congress. Strom, whose own activism was ignited during the civil rights movement, discovered in the elderly woman a kind of maternal political guide. A friendship was born. The result is Strom’s book Political Woman, Florence Luscomb and the Legacy of Radical Reform.

"Don’t concentrate too much on me," Luscomb told her biographer, "but use my life to tell the story of the movements of which I’ve been a part."

Using Luscomb’s lifelong commitment to activism and women’s rights –- sparked at age 5 when she heard Susan B. Anthony speak--- Strom deftly explores those important connections. Strom also shows the private woman. Luscomb was an avid hiker, an early member of the Appalachian Mountain Club, and according to Strom someone whom always appreciated a good joke.

Childhood Slavery
When URI historian Marie Jenkins Schwartz of Wakefield learned that one half of the slaves in the antebellum south (from 1820 to 1860) were under 16, and a third of them under 10, she wondered… how did the children survive? After finding the answer to a question that has been largely ignored, Schwartz wrote Born in Bondage, Growing Up Enslaved in the Antebellum South.

Congress ended the slave trade in 1808, therefore the only "new" slaves where those born in bondage. That placed slave children in a complex position, says Schwartz. They were of particular economic interest to slave owners who wanted them to be loyal, productive, and obedient workers. The children’s parents, on the other hand, had other objectives. They wanted their children to be loyal to the enslaved community.

Little Mattie Gilmore is a good example. Her owner suspected that slaves were stealing from the main house. Therefore, she brought young Mattie inside and instructed her to spy on the slaves, threatening her with a whipping if she didn’t tell her who was doing the stealing. Mattie’s stepmother disagreed. She admonished Mattie to always be loyal to the slave community and threatened Mattie with a whipping if she told.

Particularly rich sources for the book were the published interviews of thousands of former slaves during the 1930s. The interviews were part of the federal Work’s Progress Administration (WPA) initiative.

Mercury poisoning in Japan
Minamata is a word, like Vietnam or Pearl Harbor, that has come to be much more than a location. The manmade environmental and human tragedy that unfolded there came to symbolize both the dark side of high growth and the flowering of Japan's citizens' movement.
Here’s what happened: The year was 1956. Chisso, a chemical company employing up to 5,000 on the island of Kyushu used mercury as a catalyst in the process of creating plastic products. The mercury was discharged into Minamata Bay and consumed by fish. Residents who ate the fish began getting ill, with headaches, a loss of sensation or involuntary shaking. Some became totally immobile.

"No one knows the exact number of victims," says Timothy George of Wakefield, assistant professor of history, whose book Minamata, Pollution and the Struggle for Democracy in Postwar Japan, describes the first two of three rounds of responses for redress by victims and their supporters. "As of last year, 13,000 victims were certified as victims by the government and could receive some kind of compensation. Half of those certified have died."

In 1959, Chisso discovered it was responsible. Rather than publicly acknowledging its culpability, the company offered "sympathy" money to the victims and announced it had implemented pollution controls fully aware that the controls did not remove the mercury before discharge into the water.

By 1968, Minamata became a national issue, largely because of the grassroots effort and media exposure. (Many Americans may remember the photo essay of the victims in Life magazine -- particularly the poignant photograph of a mother bathing her paralyzed son.)

But George argues it is more than an Erin Brockovich story. It is a story of collusion and confusion at all levels of government and society. It is an example that illustrates that post-war democracy in Japan is ad hoc, and defined and redefined every time a new issue comes up.

For Information: Jan Sawyer, 874-2116

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