An oral history with Eva Laun-Smith
I had the privilege of interviewing Eva after years of working with her as a student worker in the College Archives and, more recently, collaborating with her on our senior history capstones and joint Symposium, which focused on the history of Black student demands to the college administration. Our conversations are always rife with inside jokes and hearty laughter — and this interview was no different. Consider yourself warned.
Meg Kulikowski: Eva, how did you decide to become a history major?
Eva Laun-Smith: I actually wanted to double major in education and history because I wanted to be a history teacher. Education didn’t really work out. I guess I kind of found a home in history. There’s a lot more perspectives that I think could be found through history. Also, being a history major makes it easier to argue with people, you know, so that’s probably the biggest thing.
MK: [Laughs] What about starting to work in the College Archives?
ELS: I did a special project the summer going into my sophomore year, thanks to Professor Emeritus Beatrice McKenzie of the history department, who hooked me up with it because I was staying in the area. I was working through the Beloit Historical Society to find information on African Americans in Beloit from 1840 to the 1900s. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison archives, the Wisconsin State Library, the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum in Milwaukee, and also a little bit at Beloit College. I did a lot of census work with College Archivist Emeritus Fred Burwell’86 with the help of Professor McKenzie. I had never done research before.
In the spring of 2019, I took the first History Harvest class with you and a couple other people. We did research, conducted oral histories, and made a website on African Americans in the Beloit area who came up from the Great Migration. I don’t even remember any initial conversation I had with Fred. I think it just came up because he knew I was from the Beloit area and he needed a summer worker. I think I declared as a history major already at that point.
I worked with Fred over the summer, and it was probably one of the best things I’d done [at Beloit]. I really came to enjoy my time working with Fred. I always appreciated that he tailored what you did in the archives to your interests. From the get-go, he already knew that I’d done [research about] African Americans in Beloit, so I did a lot of oral history transcriptions. It was very fun. And then I continued working there over the semester of my junior year until now.
MK: What are some of the other projects that you’ve done related to history and the archives?
ELS: For the History 190 class, I wrote my 10-page paper on counterculture at Beloit College, specifically looking at the underground newspapers. After taking the college’s first History Harvest class, I ended up TA’ing the class the following semester, which expanded [its scope] to European immigrants, Latinx immigrants.
I’ve done papers for Professor Kate Johnston looking at medicine within enslaved communities. I was in her capstone course, 1619: Legacies of Slavery. We did a literature review and made a website. Not to toot my own horn, but the website was my idea. I think it turned out pretty well. I did that project on the commodification of Black bodies and college athletics, and took a brief look at professional athletics.
I also helped co-curate a Logan Museum exhibit on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. We came up with the idea of representing enslaved people who were transported during the slave trade as grains of rice in a clear Plexiglass container. We also decided to put up smaller models with the populations of Beloit and then Beloit College for size comparison. We gave a virtual presentation for the project to the Black Business Resource Group at American Family Insurance.
MK: What have you learned from your time in the history department and working in the archives?
ELS: I think the big takeaway is that history is something to be shared. I take every chance I can to tell people about the archives, tell them there’s resources they can use, and share the history that I know of the college to other people.
One more thing. It didn’t come to complete fruition, but I did do research on Black students at the college from the earlier periods, which is what I based some of my Evenings with Eva off of.
MK: Yes, Evenings with Eva. Tell me more about that.
ELS: Great segue! I was talking to Student Success & Engagement Librarian Kelly Leahy. I had said that if I was Fred — if I were to be Beloit College’s archivist — I would use a similar moniker [to Fridays with Fred] for getting the history out there, and I said Evenings with Eva. So I was working here over winter break, and it was Black History Month. So I’m like, “Cool, we can do something for Black History Month.”
For Evenings with Eva, I ended up doing a history that had already been covered by Fred on George Hilliard’36, [a Black student] whose photo was removed from an admissions booklet. I featured the Mississippi Tutoring Center [a student-led initiative from the Beloit Plan era], and then also Jacob P. James, who attended Beloit’s preparatory school in the 1880s and was from the Dominican Republic.
I didn’t want to really do too much on Civil Rights, even though the Tutoring Center was a direct result of Civil Rights activism at the college and of the Black Power Movement. For Jacob P. James, thinking of a Black student not from the U.S. ending up at this small liberal arts college in Wisconsin was so interesting that I thought other people would be interested in it as well. I just wanted to cover happier things — interesting things about our Black students.
One thing I made sure happened was to get a Black History Night in the archives during Black History Month for BSU. Fred always conducted that. He gave really good presentations — brought out materials for people to look at.
MK: How would you describe your relationship with Fred now? Would you call him a friend? A mentor?
ELS: I would consider him both. I don’t know if I’m going to go into archives, but for that time that I was working for him, I definitely could see myself as an archivist. Maybe I will go for a master’s in library science with a focus in archives. I think I may want to go the teaching route. In the archives, you’re still teaching people, so it’s not really that different. I look up to Fred so much. He’s such an inspiration. I appreciated every conversation we had. He’s probably one of my biggest influences at the college. The reason why I love history and Beloit College’s Black history [in particular] is definitely because of him. I love you, Fred!
Eva Laun-Smith and Meg Kulikowski graduated in May 2021. Eva will head to South Korea in January 2022 to complete a Fulbright Student Award. Meg is working as a full-time writer and editor at Beloit College.