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Professor Works To Shed Light On Family's Dark History

Feb. 18, 2013
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt
Story by: Kim Morgan

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Associate professor Bernadette Pruitt embraces all history the way she has embraced her own. In documenting the history of African Americans in Houston in the early 20th century, Pruitt has chosen to view their hardships, as well as her personal hardships, as a reflection of the resilience of the race, and herself. —Photos by Brian Blalock

 

Look at the bright side. See the glass as half full. Turn that frown upside down. When life gives you lemons…well, you know the rest.

If anybody embodies optimism, it's Bernadette Pruitt, associate professor of history at Sam Houston State University.

"I want people to embrace history the way I've embraced history," Pruitt said. "If people could see even an inkling of the hope and determination of their ancestors…they might be inspired. My desire is to uncover the good."

Even when it comes to the dark days of slavery, Pruitt tries to shine a light on the positive side—the tenacity, determination and resilience of African Americans, traits observed in her own family history.

Pruitt's great-grandparents on her father's side and her great-great-grandparents on her mother's side lived as American slaves in Mississippi and Tennessee. Her grandparents made a living in the South as "unskilled workers and sharecroppers" but eventually left their rural communities in Mississippi and Memphis in search of a better life in Detroit.

Many African Americans sought to escape racial oppression by leaving the South behind, but some simply left the rural South for the “urban South.” This is the basis of Pruitt's book The Other Great Migration: The Movement of Rural African Americans to Houston, Texas, 1900-1941, which will be released by Texas A&M University Press this fall.

"People don't realize this, but Houston's black community compared quite favorably with African American communities in major cities outside the South," Pruitt said. "In the early 20th century, we were the wealthiest southern city. In 1929, we were third in per capital sales coming from African American businesses in select U.S. cities, only behind New York and Detroit. Black Houstonians were able to construct a community it could depend and rely on."

Pruitt wasn't always able to see the good in life. Growing up in inner-city Detroit was far from easy, and she carried those memories with her well into adulthood.

"I'm short, wore thick glasses, had a very dark complexion, suffered from eczema, had to wear a patch over my left eye to strengthen my right eye…I was always teased," Pruitt said. "My childhood was not pleasant at all."

The History of a Professor...

At one point, Pruitt was suspended from middle school for getting into trouble with a teacher, and in high school, she said, she had a "really bad GPA." She was also suspended from high school her freshman year for “engaging in inappropriate relations with the opposite sex.”

"I imagine some people were thinking I wouldn't amount to anything," Pruitt said.

Pruitt's uncle wasn't thinking that.

"She seemed to always be sitting at the table reading books, studying," said Malcolm Lively.

In fact, uncle and niece often inspired each other. Before joining the U.S. Air Force, Lively attended the University of Detroit. After leaving the military, he became a machinist. Today, he's an instructor at the Focus: Hope Machinist Training Institute in Detroit.

After high school, Pruitt entered Texas Southern University, at the time an open-enrollment Historical Black College/University (HBCU), she said. Her insecurities followed her south, but as she tapped into her deep desire for history and discovered a natural flair for it, things changed. In 1991, Pruitt earned a master's degree in history, and in 2001, became the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in history at the University of Houston, a moment her Uncle Malcolm was there for.

"It was tremendous," he said. "Whatever she puts her mind to, she accomplishes. Her mind just generates ideas."

Pruitt joined the history department at SHSU in 1996 and has since enjoyed several honors and awards, including “Outstanding Campus Adviser,” “Faculty Excellence,” and “Outstanding Faculty Who Goes Above and Beyond for Students.”

"When Bernadette preaches, students listen because they know that she knows," said James Olson, distinguished professor and former chair of the department of history. "To come from such a difficult background and to emerge from it optimistic…yet she doesn't lessen the significance of racism. She's very honest about the realities. She's just a woman of faith and hope."

Pruitt actually considered a career in law at one point, but she couldn't deny her interest in history. She recalls being fascinated by the 1977 television miniseries Roots, an Emmy-award winning show based on a novel detailing one family's history from slavery to emancipation.

"That," Pruitt said, "was amazing to me."

As Pruitt learned more about her own family history, she heard the story about her paternal grandfather Clinton Pruitt, a man who died four years prior to her birth. While working as a sharecropper in Mississippi, he saved the life of his employer by pulling him out of a cotton gin when his shirt became trapped in the machinery. This same grandfather also made sure his younger sibling graduated high school, the first in the family to do so in the 1920s.

This “put-others-first” characteristic is apparent in Pruitt, who now cares for her mother, stricken with Alzheimer's, in her Huntsville home—even as Pruitt, an only child, deals with her own health issues. Pruitt was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1997 and is now struggling with Retinoschisis, a retina disease that results in deteriorating vision.

Despite all this, it's clear that Pruitt's colorful history has taught her to embrace adversity.

"People shouldn't see their history as all negative," Pruitt said. "Instead of seeing slavery, see resilience. Instead of thinking about the pain of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic and the suicide victims who jumped overboard, think about the determination of those who survived the journey. We are here because of them; we are their legacy."

 

 

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