Volume 26 Number 2
Photo by Leslie Green
The Rest Will Be History
In south-central Indiana, the tiny town of Salem sits on the banks of the Blue River in Washington County. It's home to a large auto-parts factory and the Blue River Society of Friends, or Quakers. Both figure large in Kelley Greene's story.
When she graduated from high school, Greene, now a junior at Indiana University Southeast, went straight to work in the auto-parts factory like her father before her. She didn't think she had options. There was no money for college, and no one mentioned possible grants or loans.
After 10 years of factory work, though, Greene craved stimulation. With money she'd saved, mostly from working overtime, she decided to try a business course at IUS, figuring it could help her move up at the factory.
Instead, Greene discovered she disliked business classes and disliked the factory even more. She eventually quit her job. Inspired by Jimmy Carter's philanthropic work, she decided to major in political science, then get a master's degree in philanthropy at IUPUI. That required history classes. She enrolled in an introductory class at IUS (American History, 1865 to the Present) and fell in love.
"I fell in love with history's radicals," Greene says. Like Eugene Debs, for example. The Indiana labor leader and five-time Socialist candidate for president ran his 1920 campaign as a prison inmate. "It takes some spunk and character to do something like that," says Greene admiringly.
It took some spunk and character on Greene's part to pursue a new major in history. An older, first-generation college student, she was "really intimidated" by the thought of approaching IUS's history faculty. When she finally reached the office of Glenn Crothers, then coordinator of the history program, Greene began chatting about Indiana's Quakers. Growing up around the Blue River Friends, she'd been curious about Quaker history and beliefs since grade school. Greene had no idea that Crothers, associate professor of history, was studying Quakers in antebellum Virginia. "We both sat there with our mouths open," she says of the serendipity.
Crothers invited her to take his upper-level course on early U.S. history. That's when Greene began studying the life and influence of Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin, who lived in Newport, Ind., and was active in the Underground Railroad.
Like Debs, Coffin's crusading spirit attracted Greene, especially his anti-slavery work. Raised by a mother who taught her that God doesn't make distinctions according to skin color, Greene says she "stuck out like a sore thumb" in Salem, a largely white community where racism was all too often evident. "People may not have been aware of what they were doing and saying, but I was," she recalls.
It's hard to ignore the parallels between the strong-minded figures Greene studies and her own determined pursuit of a college education, though Greene declines to call herself radical. "I only wish I had more of their traits and qualities," she says of the reformers she loves. "Part of the reason I want to study issues about race is because I want to expose some of the sins that have been committed."
Greene, 34, predicts she'll be 43 before she earns a Ph.D. and begins looking for her "absolute dream job" as a professor of Southern history. She's worried about the future job market, so she's fixed on preparing well for graduate school. Now a full-time student, she works as Crothers' research assistant, analyzing historical Quaker meeting minutes. Last fall, she delivered her paper on Levi Coffin at the IU Undergraduate Research Conference, her first-ever public presentation. She's continuing her research on Coffin's life, with plans to submit the revised paper for publication. And she's interviewing former IUS faculty and students who were involved in Vietnam War protests for the Floyd County Oral History Project, which Crothers directs.
The guidance of IUS history faculty, particularly Crothers, has been invaluable, says Greene. She credits Crothers with pushing her to prepare papers for presentation as well as alerting her to leading graduate schools and professors in the field.
"It's like someone going ahead of you," she says, "turning on the light as you move from room to room."