Growing up in Philadelphia, Autumn Womack was a bit of a history nerd. “I loved ‘Anne of Green Gables’ and the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ books when I was young,” said Womack, who would immerse herself in the worlds of these books and imagine living in those times and places. In the summer after sixth grade, Womack attended a city-sponsored camp at the now-closed Atwater Kent Museum that sparked her curiosity for the objects, people and moments tied to the historical stories she loved. “Every week we would study a different era of Philadelphia history,” Womack said. “To help us relate, we were given an identity of an individual who lived during that time.”
Using the census records in the museum’s archives, each camper was encouraged to keep a journal as a person living in the city at that time. “We were being invited to think with archives,” she said. “We went where they lived and worked, retracing each of their individual lives by way of the census information.”
It was the first time Womack did archival research, and she was captivated by the ability of physical records to articulate a living history: “I began to see that there wasn’t just an imaginative world to these historical moments I was obsessed with, but also tangible material evidence of it.”
More importantly, she said, there was a different way to tell stories about the past using historical documents. Now, as an associate professor of English and African American studies who focuses on the 19th and early 20th centuries, Womack has honed her deep and longstanding interest in archival research to open up a world of deeper understanding. “I love the idea of material objects like photos, clothing and letters offering another life with a fuller account of a person, a historical moment or a book,” said Womack, who authored “The Matter of Black Living: The Aesthetic Experiment of Racial Data, 1880-1930” in 2022. “It’s not just about what’s on the page, but what’s behind it.”
Teaching Students to Dig Deeper
Womack recently finished teaching a survey class on the evolution of African American literature. The syllabus included the writings of Harriet Jacobs and Charles Chestnutt and a range of genres — poetry, novels, articles and plays — from the mid-18th to the early 20th centuries.
Despite the class being a core requirement for both African American studies and English majors, many of the 24 students were from other disciplines who took the class to fulfill a language arts requirement. No matter their concentration, Womack hopes all her students become inspired to see the world differently through the historical and literary figures they encounter in her class. “I had a student who’s a biochemistry major tell me that he doesn’t know how to read literature,” she said. “I told him, ‘You read cells, so you can certainly read writing.’” Rather than adapting the coursework to where the students are, she insists that they challenge themselves: “I’d be doing everyone a disservice if I don’t assume these students can do difficult things.”