Some people may think the study of history involves retelling the same old stories over again, but Dr. Stacy Kinlock Sewell, professor of history and assistant dean of the School of Arts & Social Sciences at St. Thomas Aquinas College, believes that learning history is the key to understanding our present time.
“There are always new ideas and new stories to contemplate,” Dr. Sewell says. “We are always thinking about our past differently, depending upon our present. We ask different questions about our past. Now we want to know more about queer and transgender histories, disability histories, how immigrants became ‘undocumented’ — and I can bring those changing stories to our students.”
Dr. Sewell’s research centers around how society builds its living environment, starting from the 20th century. She studies how Americans create physical and social connections between neighborhoods, groups, and individuals in terms of their travel, commute, consumption, and civic life. According to Sewell, as much as we have built these environments, we have also destroyed them through disinvestment and redevelopment. She considers the history of our making and remaking our geography, and how that is tied to our identity.
“We seem to believe that geography matters less and less in a technologically connected world,” she says. “If that is so, why do such 20th-century problems still plague us, like unaffordable housing?”
In 2002, Dr. Sewell won the Paul S. Kerr History Prize from the New York State Historical Society for her article “Left on the Bench: The New York Construction Trades and Racial Integration, 1960-1972,” which was featured in the journal New York History. Her work has also been published in The Historian, Journal of African American History, and Journal of Planning History. Since 1997, Dr. Sewell has been invited to speak about her work at conferences across the United States.
As a professor at St. Thomas Aquinas College for more than 20 years, Dr. Sewell explores history with students through visual, textual, and material evidence, such as photographs, to better illustrate a particular era and provide a deeper understanding and connection to the past. She always pushes her students to uncover new ideas.
“It amazes me how much more information is available to students, but students need to learn to be careful consumers of that information,” she says. “They need to know the questions to ask about it, they need to understand what it can tell us, what it hides, and the truths it reveals. The truth lies in a careful reading of the evidence, from the past and our present.”
Dr. Sewell has hosted trips abroad to Nicaragua, where students explored the United States’ relationship with the country. While her expertise lies in 20th-century urban history, she’s expanded her research goals to create a broader learning experience for her students. After volunteering at the Sullivan Correctional Facility, she joined a college-educator consortium in New York that works to improve higher education in prison and also addresses matters of prison reform.
Before joining STAC, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Papers of Susan B. Anthony & Elizabeth Cady Stanton at Rutgers University where she completed her Ph.D. in African-American history and politics. Dr. Sewell earned her bachelor’s degree in history from the Eugene Lang College, New School for Social Research in New York City.
Her decision to attend college in New York City came from the inspiration Dr. Sewell found when visiting The Empire State Plaza in Albany, which has a huge collection of abstract artwork from the 1950s and 1960s. She originally wanted to be a painter or sculptor, but ultimately chose to study the history of that era instead.