Volume 8, Number 4, 1999

Historian of American labor wins MacArthur award

Jacqueline Jones, AS '70, Truman Professor of American Civilization and chair of the Department of History at Brandeis University, prefers to go by the much less formal moniker of Jackie. She's probably the friendliest "genius" you'll ever meet.

"I'm uncomfortable with the term," she says of the genius label that goes along with her winning a MacArthur Fellowship--the so-called "genius award," which is given annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to deserving mid-career professionals.

Jones, a social historian, found out she was one of 32 award recipients for 1999 on June 17-her 51st birthday. It was a totally unexpected $350,000 gift. Jones is the second UD alumnus in as many years to be honored by the MacArthur Foundation. Chuck Lewis, AS '75, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity, received a $275,000 MacArthur Fellowship last year.

There are no strings attached to a MacArthur award. A recipient can use the award, which also comes with free health insurance and is distributed over a five-year period, at his or her discretion. Nothing needs to be produced for the foundation in return.

Recipients are selected secretly. There is no application process. The amount of the awards depends on the recipients' age-the older you are, the more you get. The foundation, which shies away from the term "genius award," describes the awards as "grants to experts who are particularly gifted in their fields."

"We'd been out to lunch for my birthday and when we got home, there was a message on my answering machine from the director of the MacArthur Foundation. The message said this was a call I'd definitely want to return," Jones recalls.

Having the money to spend is a "nice problem" she says, adding that she plans to take her time and think about what to do with it.

"I doubt I will go on sabbatical," she says. "I really like my job. My colleagues and students are a constant source of inspiration.

"The award is a validation of the work I've done in the past-work that I hope gives a voice to ordinary working people from history," she says.

Jones' research examines the experience of American workers through the lens of economic transformations throughout American history. She has explored the history of labor as it relates to African Americans, women and the South, examining such themes as the transition from slavery to free labor, technological advances, the rise of the global assembly line and the history of the labor union movement.

Along the way she has published several notable books.

Her 1998 book, American Work: Four Centuries of Black and White Labor, was called "an engaging analysis of the role of race in the history of the working class-provocative and courageous, solid and incisive [it] will be a central work on this topic for years to come."

In her 1992 book, The Dispossessed: America's Underclasses from the Civil War to the Present, she paints a clear picture of more than 100 years of the American underclass.

Her 1985 book, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family from Slavery to
the Present
, examined the work experiences of emancipated slave women and their female descendants and won the prestigious Bancroft Prize for work in American history. The work also made it to the final round for the 1985 Pulitzer Prize in history.

Her latest book, A Social History of American Laboring Classes from Colonial Times to the Present, is scheduled to be published later this year by Blackwell Publishers. Her next work will be of particular interest to Delawareans, she says, as she's writing about growing up in the First State in the 1950s.

Jones' mother, who lives in Christiana, Del., taught for years at Delaware Technical and Community College. Her father, the late Albert P. Jones, worked for DuPont and was the president of the Delaware State Board of Education for many years. As such, he was an ex officio member of the University's Board of Trustees. A year after his death in 1995, an elementary school in Christiana was named in his memory.

Jones says she became interested in the history of work while an undergraduate at UD.

"In 1968 or '69, I took a new course in African-American history," she recalls. "It was a very new field at the time, and I became fascinated by the whole topic. I did my senior honors thesis [supervised by John Munroe, H. Rodney Sharp Professor Emeritus of History] on the Quaker philosophy in Delaware-their movement to run schools for black students during the Civil War. It was with Dr. Munroe's encouragement that I went on to earn a master's degree and doctorate in American history from the University of Wisconsin."

Before joining Brandeis, Jones was a professor of history at Wellesley College. From 1988-1990, she was the Clare Boothe Luce Visiting Professor of History at Brown University. In addition to her books, she has published numerous articles and is
a sought-after speaker.

"Jackie is much beloved by her students and very modest about her accomplishments," Dennis Nealon, spokesperson for Brandeis University, said. "We considered her a stellar member of the University before her MacArthur Award. She is much admired and respected not only by colleagues in her own department, but across the campus as well.

"She is just a really nice person. The campus and the president are all very proud of her."

Jones is married to Jeffrey Abramson, who holds the Louis Stulberg Chair in Law and Politics at Brandeis. They have two teenage daughters, Sarah and Anna.

-Beth Thomas