A Husker team is launching a curricular, research and collaboration hub that will position the University of Nebraska–Lincoln as a national leader in education and scholarship focused on the relationship between U.S. law and race in American history.
With a four-year, $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Nebraska historians William Thomas, Katrina Jagodinsky and Jeannette Eileen Jones, with collaborators from the College of Law, will establish an academic program that enables undergraduate and graduate students to study how marginalized groups in American history — enslaved people, racial minorities, women and Indigenous people, among others — used the law to contest and advance their rights. The project will also develop an open educational resource featuring unpublished U.S. cases and illuminate that collection using documentary films and oral histories produced in collaboration with community partners.
The grant, the largest arts and humanities research grant in the university’s history, comes at a crucial moment, the researchers said. In a time of polarization and misinformation, an enhanced emphasis on civic education and previously undocumented legal history is key.
The primary reason we need this project is that, for the most part, Americans and American students are exposed to only a thin slice of American cases in history,” said Thomas, Angle Chair in the Humanities and professor of history. “There are a few landmark cases that students encounter. But think of the thousands of courthouses around the United States. This is the biggest set of historical evidence that’s untapped in American history. We want to bring it into the light, share it and talk about it.”
Nebraska is well-positioned to lead the way. The team has been successfully working in this area for years; the Mellon grant formalizes and expands those efforts. The university is home to the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, a project partner in designing and developing the digital case repository. And the university’s geographic location provides a unique lens.
“We are very much committed to bringing the Great Plains into the discussion. Sometimes, students think of race and racialization as very Southern things, or as coastal issues, or as something that happened in the past,” said Jones, Carl A. Happold Associate Professor of history and ethnic studies. “But they play an important role in our own state history and the broader region. We’re going beyond the cases that everybody knows and adding in cases that happened around homesteading, Indigenous sovereignty and other issues.”
The project is innovative for its focus on undergraduate students. The curriculum will include a 100-level, team-taught gateway course focused on race in American law and history, open to all majors across campus — the first of its kind at the university. Undergraduates can also participate in an upper-level course sequence that includes an experiential capstone, such as an internship, media experience or research partnership.
“A lot of these conversations are already happening at the graduate instructional level,” said Jagodinsky, Susan J. Rosowski Associate Professor of history. “We are distinguishing ourselves by the extent to which we bring the research and teaching to the undergraduate level.”
The initiative also represents one of the university’s most significant efforts to develop team teaching, both among history faculty and in partnership with law faculty and external scholars. Prior efforts to do this have been popular and eye-opening for students, who are able to better see how their studies fit into a broader context.
Jessica Shoemaker, Steinhart Foundation Distinguished Professor of law, said all students can benefit from the tenets of legal instruction.
“Law teaching is really about training students to think critically and to analyze a problem rigorously from all perspectives. Law professors also have a lot of experience helping students learn to disagree in a civil way. Both aspects seem especially important for all students in these polarized times,” she said.
At the graduate level, the program will establish a non-degree certificate program called “U.S. Law and Race,” available in a hybrid format to students from around the world. It will also create a summer fellowship program for graduate students aimed at fostering scholarship on law, policy and history.
The researchers will develop a first-of-its-kind open educational resource of digital and legal research tools for educators, scholars, students and the public. The goal is to provide open access to a body of cases that highlights the sophisticated ways in which ordinary, marginalized people used the law to contest their rights.
“In every jurisdiction we have looked at as researchers, we have found concerns about race and gender,” Jagodinsky said. “We want to bring this history to the broader public and help people become comfortable with engaging these materials directly and seeing them as part of the evolution of law in the United States.”
To create the resource, Thomas, Jagodinsky and Jones will build on their existing projects at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, which have already made accessible thousands of unpublished legal cases. These include freedom suits by enslaved people; habeas corpus cases filed by women, children and others; and information about racial-legal categories in the U.S. and abroad, particularly Africa. They’ll also leverage existing open-access collections and select digital media objects for inclusion.
The repository will include the voices and perspectives of people and communities directly affected by this history. With community partners Vision Maker Media and the Institute of Politics, Policy and History at the University of the District of Columbia, the team will produce multimedia content, including documentaries focused on a case or historical event. Michael Burton, assistant professor of textiles, merchandising and fashion design, and Kwakiutl Dreher, associate professor of English, of the Animating History team will also contribute their expertise in creative storytelling.
Francene Blythe-Lewis is executive director of Vision Maker Media, a Nebraska-based public media outlet that helps Native people share stories. She will connect the university team to media specialists who can make history accessible to broader audiences.
“We are in a day and age where people are so tuned in to social media. People are really paying attention to short clips and video content, particularly Millennial and Gen Z audiences,” she said. “We want to use this platform to increase awareness and education, especially for the younger generations.”