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Orser’s Local Odysseys
Ed Orser, professor of American Studies, has a special interest in examining the history in places around UMBC and its immediate environs. His own research – including his 1996 book, Blockbusting in Baltimore: The Edmondson Village Story and his 2008 book, The Gwynns Falls’ Baltimore Greenway to the Chesapeake Bay – has unpacked the complexities and changes in Baltimore neighborhoods, waterways and parks.
- By Richard Byrne ’86

Yet many of his students point to work that they pursued, under Orser’s direction, in exploring the same local byways of history. These students pursued projects in places including Catonsville, Cowdensville, Ellicott City and Patapsco State Park.

Lindsay Loeper’ 04, American Studies, observes that Orser “went beyond the standard lecture format and really drew students into the topics which made the theories we were learning less abstract and more immediate, more accessible.” Loeper says that Orser’s guidance on her senior honors project on the Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project not only created work that she presented at UMBC’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement Day, but also spurred her to pursue a career in library science.

Loeper, who is now an archivist in UMBC’s Albin O. Kuhn Library, says that she “enjoys that I am able to work with the history of Baltimore and Maryland and assist current UMBC students with learning from these materials.”

Orser’s help outside the classroom says Karen Lewis Law ’97, American Studies, also stands out. As a student, Law recalls that her tours around campus as a guide for UMBC’s admissions office would often run into Orser as he headed to class. “He would always take the time to stop and say hello,” Law says, “which showed the prospective students and their parents just how accessible faculty at UMBC really are.”

Law is now an academic advisor in UMBC’s Department of Information Systems, and she credits Orser’s influence for that decision. “I wanted to pay forward to other college students what he did for me,” she says.

Catonsville Cooperation

Orser says that from the beginning of his career, “I keep on trying to get students to look at what's so near by.” A few of the projects that he has supervised at UMBC have resulted in books and exhibits that have broadened both the knowledge of the UMBC community and of the residents of the towns that surround the university.

In addition to the projects in Ellicott City and Cowdensville (See “Locale Hero”), Orser’s most impressive local project was focused on Catonsville.

Orser recalls that “the project did begin with this impulse to look at local areas. But another thing that happened was that there were local people who had done a wonderful job of creating a Catonsville room at the local public library. They had gathered photographs, begun to do oral histories. They were diligent….but they didn't know how to take the next step and make these things available. Organize them.”

Using manuscript census records and other data (including insurance atlases and local newspaper records), Orser and his colleague Joseph Arnold, a professor of history and their students pieced together a picture of Catonsville that was eventually published as Catonsville 1880 to 1940: From Village to Suburb.

Orser says that manuscript census data allows researchers “to really pinpoint particular families, and also to analyze social trends.” Arnold and his students tackled the newspapers which were still on microfilm at that time. “Each student took one decade and combed through the microfilm” Orser recalls.

The result is a rich weave that builds the history of Catonsville not only through a chronological march through the town’s history, but in wonderfully-etched portraits of individual families. Those portraits included an African-American family, Livous and Annie Coe, who lived on Winters Lane in the late 19th and early-20th Century.

“Catonsville has had – and always has had – an African-American presence,” Orser observes. “And that presence has been pretty much confined to one part of the community. When most people would tell the story of Catonsville they would leave that part out.”

It was not that local residents weren’t unaware of the African-American legacy or had decided to ignore it, Orser continues. “They had just been unsuccessful. And, I must say, as a white researcher, I've never been as successful as I'd like either. Ultimately, we did have some success.”

The project not only produced the book (which is still available for sale at the Catonsville Library), but also exhibits on UMBC’s campus and in Catonsville.

“Bringing [the study of communities] to a local level gives you a feeling that you have some way of defining it,” Orser concludes. “Even though that's deceptive, because the tighter you draw your circle, the more you realize how complex it is.”

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