Deacon Profile: Michele Gillespie

Michele Gillespie, Kahle Family Professor of History, joined the history department in 1999. Between 2007-2010, Gillespie served in the provost’s office. She recently published Katharine and R. J. Reynolds: Partners of Fortune in the Making of the New South.

Did you teach during those three years in the provost’s office?

I didn’t teach at all and desperately missed it, especially after the first year. It was strange not to be connected to my students and working with them. I missed the faculty-student experience that goes on here.

Meenu Krishnan/Old Gold & Black

I would define myself as an historian of the American South, of the United States. Much of my work has been on the history of labor, working people and women in the South, really from the late 18th century into the early 20th. The latest project took me out of my comfort zone, because it really took me right into the 20th century.

How does Partners of Fortune fit into these larger interests? And how did you first become interested in the Reynolds family?

When I came to Winston-Salem, I was bowled over by this story of Katharine Reynolds, and I was surprised as someone who did Southern women’s history that I didn’t know anything about her.

She struck against the Southern ladyhood ideal that was expressed in much of the literature of that period, so I had wondered why nobody had done her story, except an article by Margaret Smith, in the art history department here. When I got into the archives at Reynolda House, I realized there was a book there.

How did you expand the tale to a dual biography of Katharine and R.J. Reynolds?

To tell her life story, I also came to realize more and more that I had to tell the story of her husband, R.J. Reynolds, because she would have never had the opportunities  that she did, both in terms of the economic resources and in terms of the personal support that he gave her. The fact that she had the freedom that she could build the estate and be the kind of leader in reform movements and to in essence be his business confidant, led me to go back and research his life.

The book kept mushrooming, just with their own lives, but I think the other part of the book that is just as important as the biography of those two people is the kind of impact they had on the city of Winston — the kind of growth that the city experienced.

So it’s kind of a biography of place?

Exactly, it’s a biography of this place, and I look at how one community goes through the transformation from being a little market town in a rural countryside to being an industrial city in two short generations.

Doing this book was almost a labor of love for this place where I made my new home, because it complicates the ways we tell stories about who we are now in Winston-Salem.

We like to celebrate the success of the R.J. Reynolds company and the success of the other early industries in this place, but we don’t like to tell the more complex parts of the story.

What do you feel is the role of the historian? Do you feel that Partners in Fortune does “work in the world?”

One of my favorite quotes is by Henry David Thoreau. He says, “It is the province of the historian to find out not what was, but what is.” And in some ways this project let me explore all the popular conceptions we have about ourselves as Winston-Salemites and to rethink the ways that we tell about our past.

In the act of writing the book, I came to understand that we may have certain needs to tell the story the way we do that tell us more about  who we are right now than who we were in the past.

Can you speak about working in administration versus teaching?

My time in administration was really helpful to me in writing this project, because I did a lot of  work in the entrepreneurship program at that time, and it led me to think a lot more about the history of business and what an entrepreneur is. Just administration in general allowed me to have  a better understanding of what RJR was doing as a businessman over the course of his life and to see how unusual it was for him, who really was an entrepreneur.

Teaching is helpful to me all the time, because I really like to work with students using the newest scholarship. I find the teacher-scholar to be ideal because there is such cross-fertilization  going on all the time. It is really just a privilege and joy to have that kind of interaction between the two main parts of my professional life.

Elaborate on your writing style. How do you distract yourself? Guilty pleasures?

I don’t time myself, but I always start with a cup of coffee. I’ll turn my email off, so I don’t get distracted, and I will tell myself you must write for an hour. I also love really hot showers, and I think about what I’m going to write about in the morning. I love to take long walks, and I’m always thinking about what I’m going to be working on.

A guilty pleasure is getting lost in the archives. You never know what you’re going to find. That experience of being in the archives and being with these materials — it is a very deep, focused time, where you are paying attention to your work. I miss closing up ship here and going down into the archives in the basement of Reynolda, and I miss having that walk to the archive where I close the door to one part of my professional life and go into the other.

Do you pleasure read while you write ?

Yes. I try and be disciplined about that. I want to write better for my audience, so before bed I will read something that I think is beautifully written or that I find to be powerful. And I hope through osmosis I will pick up their style.

In this book, I tried to write in a way that not only my fellow historians would respect, but that a well-educated public would like as well.

In trying to write for both, I was trying to write in a way that was more accessible so I did really try to think about ways of really good writing.

I wrote this book absolutely in my study, at home. That’s where I write. I rarely write in my office at Wake.

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