Skip to main content Skip to footer

January 28, 2020

SVSU professor's book to focus on 'understudied' figure in black history in U.S.

Backed by a prestigious national fellowship, a Saginaw Valley State University educator hopes to inspire a new appreciation for a 19th century African-American activist whose influence touched many aspects of American culture during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.
Eric Gardner, an SVSU professor of English, recently was awarded a highly-competitive National Endowment for the Humanities research fellowship for the second time. The opportunity this time will allow him to complete research needed for a planned book about the life of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, an activist, orator and writer.
“Harper’s career — especially the critical period between 1861 and 1877 — remains surprisingly understudied, even though her efforts shaped African-American literature, abolitionism, suffrage and civil rights struggles, the temperance movement, the black press, and American lyceum culture,” Gardner said.
He said the book ideally will expand conversations on a broad range of subjects such as American literature and history, African-American literature, women’s literature and history, civil rights, print culture and public speech.
“Harper was amazing,” he said. “In an era dominated by discrimination against both African-Americans and women, she fashioned a public career as a black woman writer and activist that lasted for decades.”
Her work included poems, novels, speeches, and sketches that remain ripe for discussion in the fields of history and politics as well as literature, he said.
“Harper’s work has been the basis for rich discussions in a number of my courses, and students have asked tough questions that have pushed me to dig further into the archive and to think hard about what I’ve found,” Gardner said.
That archival research has allowed students in Gardner’s classes to be among the first in the nation to read rediscovered literary texts by early African-American writers, he said. It has also given Gardner opportunities to remind his students that he is also "always learning."
“Curiosity, research, and dialogue are at the core of good learning,” he said. “That’s why we have classrooms, libraries, and colleges — to help us work together to build communities of learners.”
He said the National Endowment for the Humanities funds will allow him to focus full-time on research and writing for the project in 2021.
Out of 1,220 people who applied for the fellowship nationally, Gardner was one of 99 people — or about 8 percent of all applicants — in the nation to receive it.
His status as a two-time recipient of the fellowship is an even more rare accomplishment.
Gardner’s first fellowship with the organization was awarded eight years ago to support the book that followed, titled “Black Print Unbound: The Christian Recorder, African American Literature, and Periodical Culture.” Published by Oxford University Press in 2015, the text can be purchased in a variety of formats from outlets such as Amazon. In 2017, the book received the Book Prize from the Research Society of American Periodicals.
Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at
Gardner joined SVSU’s faculty in 1996. He received a Ph.D. in English from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign earlier that year.