Sarah Washington ’17 Studies Trajectory of Black Activism in the US

Sarah Washington is the second recipient of a new Bowdoin fellowship, the Irma Cheatham Summer Research Fellowship, which supports summertime research in Africana studies.

Seth Glickman ’10 established the fellowship in honor of Irma Cheatham, a “close family friend who cared deeply about the black experience in America,” according to Glickman. Last summer, Matthew Williams ’16 received the fellowship to research black identity in literature.

Washington, a double major in government and Africana studies, is spending the summer investigating the evolution of black activism in Baltimore, from the Civil Rights struggle through the Black Power era of the 1960s to today’s Black Lives Matter movement. She is one of about 200 students working on campus over the summer engaged in faculty-mentored research.

Washington grew up in D.C., so the events going on in Baltimore are “real to me,” she said. She has closely followed the case of Freddie Gray, who died in 2015 of a spinal cord injury in the back of a police transport van. She said she wants to understand the social conditions in the city and the country that led to large protests after Gray’s story became public.

Because the Black Lives Matter movement is still relatively young, there has not been much scholarly research published on it yet, according to Washington. But she is reading up on the history and analysis of black activism from the ’60s to today, and is consulting newspapers and social media for coverage of Black Lives Matter activities. She is being advised by Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History Brian Purnell.

Washington is searching for threads connecting the three periods of civil rights activism in Baltimore, threads that may help explain why each has arisen in its own form. “It’s been interesting for me to learn the history, and also see history unfolding,” she said, adding she’s found it fascinating to watch the social media reaction and to see her friends “take action and exert their own agency.”

Washington says she is considering pursuing a law degree after Bowdoin, and then perhaps working as a public defender. “I want to help people who have not had the privileges I’ve had, and make a difference in their lives,” she said.

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