“EDUCATION IS THE pathway to the future,” says Nancy Bristow, author and History Department chair at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.
Well, yeah. That’s a pretty standard maxim for a dedicated educator. What else has Bristow got? This: “I love my students.”
After spending several hours over several days talking with Bristow, the deep sincerity in that latter remark both rings true and proves surprisingly touching. Not only does the buoyant, 63-year-old academic mean what she says about her students, but you also can make an easy bet that the blend of empathy, respect and rigor she brings to field work as a writer of benchmark histories is also evident at school.
Bristow’s 2012 nonfiction book, “American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the Influenza Epidemic,” is a thorough and stirring account of the 1918-19 “Spanish flu” cataclysm. She gives extensive consideration in her work to a subject that has also recently preoccupied the United States during our current COVID-19 pandemic: inequities in how medical treatment has been allocated to people of different classes, color and political power.
“When it comes to hierarchies that allow some people to have more than others,” says Bristow, “to have more social or political or economic status than others, those kinds of things were really reinforced during the 1918 pandemic. They were maintained, for instance, in emergency hospitals. Only men could be doctors, and women could only be nurses.
“There was a hardening of position, class and racial bias during the 1918 pandemic. And that’s true today, too. Yet there were, and are now in the current pandemic, ways in which people do become their best selves outside of inequities. Disaster movies always show complete chaos and that everybody’s out for themselves. But we saw a huge amount of kindness and humanity this past year, just as we saw in 1918.”
Along with studies about the broad-based, human and institutional toll of the Spanish flu — and how, in many ways, the grisly phenomenon was eclipsed by America’s 1917 entry into World War I — Bristow offers more close-up, flesh-and-blood tragedies.
Children as young as 7 caring for their entire infected families. Bodies stacked like kindling outdoors. U.S. troop movements proceeding as scheduled, despite everyone in charge knowing servicemen would be gravely exposed to the virus.
One of the most interesting niche subjects in “American Pandemic” is turn-of-the-century scientific debate over the very biological basis for this human illness. Is germ-based study credible? Is getting the flu the result of some failure in one or another bodily system? Even this subtopic is infused with Bristow’s passion for gradually emergent truths.
In the international community of researchers who study pandemic history, Bristow is considered a star for “American Pandemic.” Yet the book is as accessible as someone personally sharing a tragic, illuminating and, in the COVID-19 era, prescient story.
BRISTOW RECEIVED similar raves and respect for last year’s release of her latest book, “Steeped in the Blood of Racism: Black Power, Law and Order, and the 1970 Shootings at Jackson State College.” A history of an all-but-forgotten incident of white-on-Black carnage at Jackson State College (now Jackson State University, in Jackson, Mississippi) on the night and early morning of May 14-15, 1970, “Steeped in the Blood” is Bristow’s extraordinary unraveling of an act of wanton and lethal violence. White police officers and highway patrolmen opened fire on unarmed, peaceful Black students convened at the front of a women’s dormitory called Alexander Hall.
“I came to the Jackson story because I’ve been teaching African American history for three decades,” says Bristow. “One of the through lines when you teach a survey of African American history is the persistence of violence. It’s there in slavery, Reconstruction, post-Reconstruction. It continues on up to the present. I was really interested in the way a new language of ‘law-and-order’ was being employed at the time by whites in the aftermath of some of the major civil rights victories of the mid-1960s. That was a time when some of the most blatantly racist rhetoric and assaults on Black citizens had become unacceptable. So there was a new need for another, more coded language between whites to signal reckless disregard for the welfare of Black citizens.
“I was interested in how that process worked. I looked at how this law-and-order theme was employed by [then-President Richard] Nixon and [then-Vice-President] Spiro Agnew and others, and I began my research with Jackson, where law-and-order was used to criminalize Black students who did nothing wrong. They were shot, and there was this important question about state violence and the ways in which we excuse it with the rhetoric we use.”
There had been some problems at Jackson State on the night of May 14, 1970. Lynch Street, a Jackson city street that controversially and dangerously crossed through campus — a long-running issue between Black students and white commuters — drew some rock-throwers. Accounts differ as to whether they were students or outsiders, but in any case they were aiming at white drivers. Later that night, someone lit a dump truck on fire.
The police sealed off Lynch Street at either end of its route through campus. After that, police and the state patrol were supposed to be replaced as a security presence by National Guardsmen, who were waiting at the edge of campus. Instead, the police moved up Lynch Street, i.e., the campus stretch of the street, and stopped in front of Alexander Hall.
Some people on the scene say a bottle was thrown. True or not, for the next 28 seconds, shots were fired by Jackson and state lawmen at young men and women who were lingering at the front of the dormitory. The women who lived there had a curfew, and some of them had been brought home by dates, who then stayed around to talk.
BEFORE THE SHOOTING began, some of Alexander Hall’s female residents stuck their heads out their windows to chat. One of those was Mary Gibbs, whose brother, Phillip — a prelaw student, a married man and father of an 11-month-old son — was looking up and talking to her. It was mid-May and end-of-term, and graduation for some was in the air.
When the guns stopped, Gibbs was dead. So was James Earl Green, a 17-year-old high schooler who was walking home from his part-time job at a grocery store. Of note is that Green was not at Alexander Hall but rather opposite it. That means at least one cop pivoted around to shoot him or else was just firing indiscriminately.
There were also 12 injuries.
In the days after the incident, the country’s mainstream media generally captured the general facts of the shooting with accuracy. But something else happened that obscured a general and lasting understanding of what and why the violence occurred. As opacity persisted over decades, the Alexander Hall atrocity disappeared from collective memory.
Here was the problem: the Jackson State College massacre took place 11 days after the shooting of anti-war protesters by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine.
For those of us who were alive at the time, it was easy to conflate Jackson State with Kent State. All the victims were students, after all, cut down by authorities who fired without having been fired upon. The students at each school were offensive to one or another powerful group. The Kent State men and women were raging — as were students everywhere — against America’s expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, an incursion announced April 30 by a popular president, Richard M. Nixon. The African-American students at Jackson, meanwhile, lived in Mississippi, a state shocking for its murderous, white supremacy. Shootings on campus by authorities were not unknown.
IT WAS THAT blurring of the line between Kent State and Jackson State, along with her interest in “law-and-order” as a populist, racist dog whistle, that led Bristow to reach out a few years ago to survivors of the Jackson shooting. (She also spoke with family members and friends of those who had been fired upon.) She did it all gingerly, respectfully and ethically, earning confidence and trust in those she interviewed.
Bristow wanted to hear the accounts of anyone who had been there that night, and who would talk to her, as well as anyone else who had been on campus then. She wanted not only to counter the “Kent State II” (as Time magazine called it in 1970) myth, but to get at something vital to and mysterious in the work of historians: memory.
“An important part of what historians do is not only explore forgotten moments, but to try to figure out the process by which amnesia sets in and the past is erased,” says Bristow. “This is work I have been trying to do, to literally look at the process of that erasure.
“Historians are always bringing back to the foreground that which has been forgotten, or reconceptualizing what has been remembered — challenging old imaginings, reconfiguring our understandings based on new evidence and new perspectives. Here in the United States, we have a marked tendency to push aside, misremember and even erase some of the most profound moments of our past if they trouble our existing narratives about ourselves.”
Is there a memory-related link for Bristow between her two very different books, one on a century-old pandemic and the other an act of 50-year-old police violence perpetrated against innocent Black Americans?
“In 1918,” she says, “Americans were stunned to discover they were not exceptional, that science had its limits, that the natural world could still wreak havoc across our communities, and that this was not necessarily the land of the free for all who lived here. This did not fit with a vision of the nation as special, as invincible, as always progressing, as living up to its values. So the public chose instead to remember World War I, a narrative that better fit the nation’s imagined identity. But losing the memory of the pandemic cost us in terms of our preparation for future scourges, and kept us from recognizing the failures of that moment, not least of which must be the inequitable care received by people of color and by the poor.
“The story of the murders at Jackson State,” she continues, “may seem distantly removed from 1918. But again we see the nation, and here I must say more directly white Americans, refusing to remember this chapter in the ongoing violence wielded by the state against Black Americans. To look closely at what had happened would have disrupted two essential narratives — that of liberal white Americans who wanted to believe that the civil rights movement had solved the nation’s race problem, and that of conservative white Americans who wanted to see the shootings as a reassertion of law-and-order.”
REACHED AT HER HOME in Phoenix, Linda Braddy, who lived in a first-floor dorm room at Alexander Hall, says she hid under her bed during the shooting. Now a retired administrator for the Tacoma School District, Braddy’s thoughts about May 14-15, 1970, reflect a different kind of issue with memory: burying scars.
Here is Braddy talking about the moment the shooting stopped and she opened her locked door.
“It finally died down,” Braddy says. “I opened the door and there was blood up and down the hallway. A strong smell of blood. My door was about 20 feet from the exit. I could see that windows were broken. So I closed my door and looked out my window. There was [Phillip] Gibbs. Someone was with him trying to give mouth-to-mouth. But he was gone. They were crying.
“The next day when I came back to get my things to go home, at the base of the stairs, about three steps leading to the front door, there was clothing and pools of blood and shoes. There was membrane there from Gibbs’ brain. He had been shot in the back of his head and fallen down there. There were huge bullet holes in the walls and stairwell, the doors.
“I did not go back to Jackson for any memorials. I did not stay connected to what had happened. I just blocked it from my mind. There was still not a clear understanding for me of any of the issues going on at that time.”
Were the police looking for an excuse to shoot Black students?
“It felt that way,” she says.
About the interviews Bristow conducted with her, Braddy says, “She’s a very warm person. I became very intimate in my feelings when it came to the memory of that particular night. I remember closing my eyes and it was an experience I’d never had before. I could almost smell the blood. This was so deep inside of me. I had never addressed the impact it had upon me. Nancy apologized, but it wasn’t necessary. It helped me address something that I had covered up and never really talked to anybody about. I didn’t talk to my family about it.”
“Black students during their time at Jackson kept their noses to the ground,” says C. Liegh McInnis, a member of the English faculty at today’s Jackson State, and a board member of the Margaret Walker Center, an African American museum at JSU that annually commemorates the shooting.
“That kind of horror happened to Black people so much, their natural reaction was to get up and keep working and keep living, rather than commemorate. You talk to the folk who were there, who know they were wronged, who know it was an attack on Black intellect and Black political development. Their response was, Black people are mistreated every day in Mississippi. Let’s go back to school.”
As for Bristow, McInnis is grateful for her approach with those who survived.
“She’s letting the primary actors and characters tell their stories. That is the best part of looking back: letting the artifacts speak for themselves.”
BORN AND RAISED in Portland, Bristow is the third of three children of an upper-middle-class couple who married young. Her late father was a cardiologist, her mother a homemaker.
“My parents always had a sense of justice. I’m grateful to both of them for helping me know that our advantages didn’t make us better than anyone else.”
Bristow recalls her first public act expressing an opinion: campaigning against Nixon in 1972, when she was 14.
She received her Ph.D. at the University of California-Berkeley in 1989. She lives with her husband, Gordon Jackson, on 15 mostly-wooded acres on Vashon Island.
Reaching out to some of Bristow’s other colleagues and admirers in the pandemic world, accolades come in from South Africa, Israel and elsewhere. Of those, Dr. Ida Milne, vice-chair of the Oral History Network of Ireland, perhaps says it best when it comes to understanding what Bristow and her fellow historians have to offer us:
“Nancy’s work offers really useful, present-day applications for this [current] pandemic,” says Milne, “showing its impacts on society, how various bodies react. It’s really important that work like hers and ours is listened to.”