A legal battle challenging a formerly widespread practice used to disenfranchise African American voters became the subject of public conversation thanks to efforts of undergraduate historians at Davidson and the N.C. History Museum.
When a museum patron pointed B.J. Davis, the museum's education section chief, to the book Law and Society in the South: A History of N.C. Court Cases, Davis was intrigued. The book, co-authored by 72 Davidson students and their professor, John Wertheimer, inspired Davis to devote his podcast, "Bits of History," to a story about the successful efforts of N.C. lawyer James R. Walker Jr. to overturn the formerly widespread use of literacy tests to suppress voting by African American citizens.
The chapter is one of a compilation of eight cases researched for more than a decade by students in seven episodes of the class "Law and Society in American History."
The podcast focuses on the chapter titled "James R. Walker Jr. and North Carolina's Literacy Test."
Walker was a small-town African American lawyer who represented North Carolina clients challenging the state's discriminatory literacy tests that were applied by election registrars to prevent African American citizens from voting. Walker's efforts eventually were heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, and they helped lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The podcast describes not only Walker's efforts to overturn the status quo, but also Wertheimer's unique method of teaching the class, which he has offered 13 times since its debut in 1997. Rather than assigning class members to each produce a separate research paper, Wertheimer guides the class in an in-depth, collaborative investigation of a single subject.
"The goal is to produce a research paper that is so well conceived, so thoroughly researched and so finely written that it gets published," Wertheimer said.
In addition to publication of the book Law and Society in the South, several of the class's collaborative research projects have been published in journals and presented at professional meetings. Wertheimer also wrote an essay about the class in 2002 for the Journal of American History. In it, he describes how group collaboration ignited in his students a passion for history usually restricted to honors students and departmental groupies.
"Students came to care deeply about the issues because they lived with them the whole semester," he wrote. "They also came to feel like teammates, and didn't want to let down their peers."
Wertheimer is planning to compile scholarship on South Carolina cases into a book similar to the compilation of North Carolina cases.