Emma Lapsansky is motivated by her love of the past,
her present spirituality, and her goals for the future.
It seemed inevitable that Professor of History Emma Lapsansky would pursue her chosen field of study.
She has been intrigued by the past for as long as she can remember. As a child in Washington, D.C., her bedroom in her family’s Victorian home had a fireplace bordered by blue delft tiles; she would look at the tiles and wonder about their origins. Her house was crammed with books of all kinds, tomes owned by her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, each with their own secrets. Her mother shared her interest in architecture and historic costume with her children, and took them to Washington's many museums.
Lapsansky was also raised in a family with deep respect for its own history, and she thrived on stories of the women who came before her. There was a great-grandmother, Patience, who took immense pride in having put 10 of her 13 children through college (two died in infancy). One of Patience’s daughters, an early feminist educated at Oberlin at the turn of the 20th century, went to great lengths to ensure that her personal physician treated her with respect. “She always paid him in cash so he would never know her first name and couldn’t call her Jeannette,” says Lapsansky, a self-described “gregarious recluse” whose words come swift and easy when relating such tales. “He would have to call her Mrs. Jenkins.” One time, however, she fell ill and didn’t have any cash handy, forcing her to pay with the dreaded check. “Thereafter, he started calling her Jeannette, and she immediately fired him—and told him why.” It didn’t matter how he addressed his other patients, both male and female; she wanted to be called Mrs. Jenkins or nothing at all.
Her family’s stories filled a void left empty by Lapsansky’s classroom experiences. “I was raised in an African-American family,” she says, “and I was always aware that when I opened a textbook, there was nothing in there about what I knew to be true. There was nothing about black poets, doctors, or lawyers.” In college she endured mediocre-to-poor history teachers and thought, “It’s got to be more interesting than this.”
Now, as an academic, it is Lapsansky’s job—and pleasure—to show just how interesting history can be. Her research branches off into myriad directions—family and community life, Philadelphia urban development, material culture, community planning, Quakerism, and American social history—but all are rooted in her fascination with the past. And all aspects of her work are imbued with her Quaker spirituality, which she owes, largely, to a grandfather’s early influence.
“My grandfather was a very traditional, Drew University-educated, conservative kind of Methodist minister,” she remembers. “When I was eight or nine, and becoming cognizant of religious things, he said to me, ‘Let me tell you that heaven and earth are not places you go when you die. They are states of being you create by what you do here.’ Only later did I realize that this is not what they were telling us in the Methodist church.”
Her attitude was also affected indirectly by her father, who, not wanting to raise his children entirely in the city, bought a farm to take the family every summer. She received much of her “spiritual energy” from the farm, witnessing the birthing of cows and pigs and the growing of crops from the earth.
“I lived a bifurcated existence,” she laughs. “My mother put our Mary Janes on us and took us to museums, and my father took our shoes off us and took us to the farm.” Years later she would complete her spiritual journey to Quakerism, sending her children to a Friends school and joining a local Meeting in Lansdowne, Pa., (as well as teaching at the oldest Quaker college in North America).
Following in the footsteps of one of her great-grandmother Patience’s sons, Lapsansky entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1963, where, after a year off to join the civil rights movement in Mississippi, she received a bachelor’s degree in American history in 1968, a master’s in American civilization in 1969, and a Ph.D. in American civilization with a concentration in American social history and material culture in 1975. Her dissertation, an architectural and sociological study of an ethnically and racially diverse Philadelphia neighborhood as it transformed from a suburb into an urban community during the years 1752 and 1854, became her first book, Neighborhoods in Transition: William Penn’s Dream and Urban Reality (Garland Press, 1994).
“I chose a street in Philadelphia, which is now South Street but was then Cedar Street, that was a border between the city and the suburbs, and I talked about its transition from being at the edge of the city to being absorbed into the city,” says Lapsansky. “I wanted to see how it went from being green grass—my father’s world—to built environment, my mother’s world.” She lured that same mother into being a research assistant, and together the two pored over city directories, maps, newspapers, insurance surveys, and even the wills of some residents from the 18th and early 19th centuries.
The book reveals a distinct contrast between public opinion of the suburbs then and now. “At that time, the city was where you lived if you had the money and influence to do so, and the suburbs were where people escaped after they had committed some crime in the city,” says Lapsansky. “The city had no jurisdiction over them out there.” She also found that neighborhoods did not become segregated by race or class until the advent of effective public transportation: “It wasn’t until the 1880s and 90s that public transportation made an attractive suburb, where you could live in the country and still get to the city easily.”
While pursuing her doctorate, Lapsansky joined Temple University as an assistant, and then associate professor of history. She remained there until 1990, when Haverford came looking for her. Later, she would reflect that it was her fate to join the College: “Twice, in succession, I unknowingly bought houses built by prominent Quakers. About 15 years ago, long before I even thought much about Haverford College, I purchased a house built by descendants of Abraham Pennock, who matriculated at Haverford in 1843, and whose great-niece taught my daughter in second grade. That teacher is also the niece of the Roberts for whom Haverford’s Roberts Hall is named.
“Our little lives are all in the stars,” she smiles.
If her life was in the stars, then her decision to enter teaching was definitely in the blood. “My mother was an elementary school teacher, all her siblings were college professors—my mother’s sister taught at Atlanta University and knew W.E.B. DuBois,” she says. “The conversation at family gatherings revolved around classroom anecdotes, and the excitement of bringing ideas alive for students at all levels. It seemed a good life; it still does.”
At Haverford, Lapsansky not only teaches but also curates the College’s Quaker Collection. Housed in Magill Library, it is one of the most extensive collections of Quaker history in the world. She oversees the care and maintenance of 40,000 books and several hundred thousand manuscripts, and helps meet the needs of the few thousand researchers from around the world who travel to Haverford each year to use the collection’s resources. The staff is currently involved in increasing the collection’s presence on the Internet. “We’ve just hired a two-year person,” she says, “whose job it is to set a prototype for how we scan and code letters to make them available and searchable on the Internet.”
Her most recently published academic work is the book Quaker Aesthetics: Reflections on a Quaker Ethic in American Design and Consumption, 1720-1920, a compilation of essays she co-edited with Anne Verplanck, curator of prints and paintings at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware (see review, p. 6). Released by University of Pennsylvania Press in 2002, the book of 11 essays describes how Quakers have held to their belief in “plain living” while actively consuming fine material goods. “It’s a way of reopening a discussion that began in 1652 about what constitutes the outward way of being Quaker—what constitutes simplicity, sharing of resources, good stewardship, and the struggle that the Society of Friends has had over the last 200 years to define what they mean by that,” says Lapsansky. “There’s an essay by me, for example, where I talk about presentation of simplicity or plainness to a modern world.” Other essays discuss the dress, interior home designs, and architecture created or purchased by Quakers in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries.
Her next accomplishment, due out from Penn State Press by the end of 2003, is A View to Encourage Emigration: Benjamin Coates and Colonization, 1848-1880, a study of 19th-century Quaker abolitionist Coates as told by more than 100 letters exchanged between him and prominent African-American and white abolitionists in the era of the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott decision. The letters, purchased for the Quaker Collection in 1999, were annotated by Haverford students trained in History 361, “Seminar in Historical Evidence,” which requires them to analyze documents from the College’s Special Collections.
“What the letters show are both the big ideas and the small people having the big ideas,” says Lapsansky, who introduces the letters with an essay putting their contents in the context of the African-American world. She describes Coates as “an interesting, complex fellow,” a peacemaker within the abolitionist movement and “the hub of a very complex wheel” that included abolitionists both white and black, conservative and radical, and Quaker and non-Quaker.
An ongoing book project for Lapsansky (“I’ve been working on this most of my life, it seems”) explores a 20th-century Quaker cooperative in the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia, which thrived during the late ’40s through the early ’70s. Established by some staff members of the American Friends Service Committee, the Friendship Co-op was an “intentional community,” a group of people who choose to live together under a common philosophy. The goal of Friendship was to serve as a model living situation where a diverse blend of people created an environment of sharing and mutual support. Within the community many races and religions came together, gender roles were equitably defined, meals were shared, and resources were pooled.
“They wanted to rehearse living in a multicultural community,” says Lapsansky, who lived in Powelton Village during the last years of the Co-op and counts several former residents among her friends. “This wasn’t easy in the 1940s, and they wondered how world peace could be achieved if diverse people could not live together. So they worked very hard to create a community of people from a variety of cultures and backgrounds, and to provide leadership equality for them all.”
Lapsansky has so far interviewed about 40 former residents of Friendship, and most of these interviews were conducted during her extensive 1989 road trip through the United States, where she traveled 10,000 miles, pasted stickers from each state she visited on the back of her Subaru, and had her picture taken in South Dakota at the geographical center of the country. She is passionate about travel, and her role as a historian has allowed her to spend at least one night in all 50 of the United States and in four continents. She’s gone south of the equator in Kenya, and taken the train across America three times. She aims to visit the remaining continents (she needs to see South America and Australia, but doesn’t mind missing Antarctica) and ride all 30,000 miles of passenger railroad track in North America.
But for now, she’s content to simply travel from her home in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, to her office at Haverford, where she writes essays and articles for such publications as Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth (Penn State Press, 2002), the upcoming Historical Dictionary of America and Encyclopedia of Colonial America, and numerous scholarly journals. She continues to consult to local museums and historical societies. She may be interviewed again for historical series and documentaries, as she was for PBS’ “Africans in America” and “Woman of Steel,” the story of 19th-century Quaker industrialist Rebecca Lukens. She still meets with local public school teachers to demonstrate innovative methods of using historical objects in their classrooms. And she delights in her dealings with her students, helping them write their papers and theses, recommending them for internships and graduate schools, and involving them in her research.
On the home front, Lapsansky plans to be married in May to her companion of more than a decade, Dickson Werner, who is also a member of Lansdowne Meeting. She glows with pride when speaking of her children: Jordan, a gaffer in Los Angeles who’s worked on such films as Murder by Numbers; Jeannette (Nette), a fourth-year medical student at the University of California, San Diego; and Charlotte, a program assistant at Breakthrough TV, an international non-profit that seeks, through popular media methods, to raise awareness for social justice causes. And she is deeply devoted to her extended family, attending frequent reunions and keeping a photographic journal that begins with her great-grandparents in the late 19th century. Emma Lapsansky may have a happy present, and anticipate a bright future, but a part of her will always be wedded to the rich mysteries of the past.
Emma Lapsansky currently teaches or has taught the following classes in history:
Colonial North America:
Surveys the political, economic, and community aspects of North America, with an emphasis on the areas that became the United States and the varieties of peoples and cultures that helped shape the convergence of cultures
History and Principles of Quakerism:
Examines the development of Quakerism and its relationship to other religious movements and to political and social life, especially in America. Includes the roots of the Society of Friends in 17th-century Britain, and the expansion of Quaker influences among Third World populations, particularly the Native American, Hispanic, east African, and Asian populations.
Topics in American History: The American West in Fact and Fiction (Spring 2002):
The American western “frontier” has caught the nation’s imagination as myth and symbol, photograph and painting, costume and politics, definer and redefiner of gender and race, and technological challenge. Through individual and group readings, discussion and bibliographic exploration, the class pursues the elusive “truth” of the American western frontier.
Seminar on Historical Evidence:
Consideration of the nature and forms of historical evidence and of critical techniques for handling it; an essay interrogating/exploiting material and visual artifacts as evidence; and an essay involving a “professional” exercise in historical editing, to wit: fashioning a critical edition of a manuscript source.
Lapsansky’s publications include:
Neighborhoods in Transition: William Penn’s Dream and Urban Reality (Garland Press, 1994); Quaker Aesthetics: Reflections on a Quaker Ethic in American Design and Consumption, 1720-1920 (Co-editor; University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002); and A View to Encourage Emigration: Benjamin Coates and Colonization, 1848-1880 (to be released in 2003).