When asked if there was a quote that best described her, Jewel Parker, a PhD student in the Department of History, chose John Lennon for inspiration: “When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”
In reflecting on her past experiences, Jewel has determined that she can’t measure her path according to the standards dictated by others, and Jewel acknowledged that she used to worry about what people thought of her. In fact, when she first began her educational journey, Jewel recalled receiving well-intentioned comments and advice from the people around her in which her decision to pursue graduate-level research was seen as different.
“I used to feel guilty about this and compare myself to others my age who were already done with school, working full time jobs, and having families,” she said.
However, even though some people questioned her educational and career choices, her family, friends, and boyfriend have been incredibly supportive of her efforts. In fact, because of their active involvement, Jewel’s path became a collaborative effort of its own, offering financial and familial support and guidance that has allowed her to prosper as a student.
Her grandparents have funded much of her education, her parents have always offered their unwavering support and dedication, and her boyfriend has firmly stood by her side for the past seven years. “I realize that not every student has this kind of financial and familial support. I’m grateful for their help along the way and also for that of all my professors at UNCG. I could not have picked a better history department to work with for my PhD, and I am so glad they chose me,” she said.
With the added support of her family and friends, Jewel has started to realize that she should pursue her interests for herself, and her future is hers alone to dictate. “I have also learned that sometimes people ask questions not because they are trying to be judgmental or condescending but because they truly don’t understand, so it’s an important opportunity to facilitate discussion about graduate student experiences. I feel like a lot of graduate students have faced similar scenarios,” she explained.
For a long time, Jewel Parker knew that she wanted to pursue her PhD in History and become a History professor. In 2012, she was a fresh-faced college student filled with promise and ambition, and after finishing her Master’s degree at Appalachian State University in 2018, she immediately enrolled here at UNCG for her PhD. “I realize that might sound unusual—As a brand new college student in 2012, I fell in love with my college history classes and knew it was the path for me,” she explained.
It turns out that Jewel’s research interests have emerged from a fascinating combination of familial influences and her own educational experiences: “My maternal grandmother and mother are nurses, so this has influenced my desire to learn more about the history of medicine,” she said. In 2013, she also completed a genealogy book for her father’s Christmas gift and found herself interested in the colonial era—starting from the early 17th century.
The captivating intersections of her interests culminated in a Master’s thesis in which she explored the roles of women healers in early New England and Virginia witchcraft trials. From that point forward, her research has only continued to evolve: “The geographical and temporal range of my research has expanded to the American South from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, and I look at a variety of historical perspectives rather than just that of colonial white women,” she said.
For her current research, Jewel is looking at the origins and evolution of intercultural medical practice in the American South. “When European explorers and colonists came to the American continents, they were not familiar with the environment, so they sought medical knowledge from those who knew the region best—Native Americans,” she explained.
According to Jewel, Indigenous Americans and Africans learned medicine through interactions with their environment, and captive Africans preserved botanical medicinal knowledge across the transatlantic middle passage. “My research exposes these multicultural origins of medical practice in the antebellum south and seeks to restore the place of Native Americans and Africans in that history,” she said.
In her department, Jewel works under the guidance of her committee chair, Dr. Greg O’Brien—the Head of the Department of History. Under his mentorship, Jewel began her research early, and Dr. O’Brien encouraged her to explore connections between her research and the sources on her comprehensive exam list: “As a result, I felt very comfortable discussing the historiography of my subject matter when I completed my comprehensive exams during the Fall 2020,” she said.
In an independent study course on secondary sources, Jewel, Dr. O’Brien, and another graduate student explored a similar topic during her Fall of 2019 semester. Throughout the course, discussion pertaining to monographs related to Creolization, African, Native, and Euromerican healing influences in rural areas strengthened her research skills. “The discussions were also important for understanding how those early settlers understood themselves and their land, as well as their need to develop and share local botanical remedies due to inaccessibility to doctors trained at medical schools,” she said. “The independent study also helped me to understand how intercultural interactions occurred and why Native Americans, enslaved and free Africans, and Euromericans would be willing to share medicinal knowledge with each other.”
Jewel also noted that Dr. O’Brien offers invaluable advice and opportunities to grow under his experienced eye. “Dr. O’Brien continuously challenges me to apply for fellowships, present at conferences, and publish. [He] often shares valuable written sources and webinars that are related to my research topic and has so graciously provided me invaluable feedback on my writings and grant applications,” she said.
Additionally, Dr. Linda Rupert, who teaches courses on the Atlantic World in the History department, is also on Jewel’s dissertation committee. Her guidance will be vital to the completion of her third chapter, and Jewel’s other committee members—Dr. Mark Elliott and Dr. Warren Milteer—offer their own expertise as well.
For her research dissertation thus far, Jewel is able to rely on the skills and knowledge that she sharpened from her Master’s thesis in which she examined women healers’ involvement in early American witchcraft trials. “I am already familiar with many primary and secondary sources related to gender and healing and the differences in lay healing and healing practiced by those who attended formal medical schools throughout the colonial era,” she explained.
However, in consideration of both the broad scope of her research, and pre-existing Covid-19 protocols, she predominantly worked with published online sources throughout 2020 using archive.org, HathiTrust Digital Library, and other online repositories including interlibrary loan services. She also mentioned that some university archives waived fees for copies of their documents, and they even sent primary sources for small donation fees which proved to be tremendously beneficial in cutting down on travel requirements.
“Since getting the Covid vaccine, I have travelled to more in-state research locations, including Western Carolina University and the Anne P. and Thomas A. Gray Library at Old Salem Museums & Gardens, where I gathered valuable information on the healing contributions of the Cherokees. I also received a stipend from the Outer Banks History Center to complete a research trip this December,” she said.
The Anne P. and Thomas A. Gray Library, which is part of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), at Old Salem Museums & Gardens is located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. According to their website, the library contains over 20,000 cataloged volumes, including books, periodicals, rare books and manuscripts, and microforms. “The collections of both historical sites house important information on healing, Moravian interactions with Native peoples, and the Moravian church’s thoughts on race that are beneficial to know for my exploration of intercultural medical practice,” Jewel said.
This information is both relevant and useful to Jewel’s own research, and she explained that Old Salem had recently acquired a Cherokee Advisory Committee that incorporates Moravian archival material to explore the Moravians’ relationships to the Cherokee and other Native Groups preceding the Indian Removal Act. “I hope to follow their approach in recognizing the voices of Native people in primary source documents written by Euromericans and seek their guidance for finding additional source material if needed,” she said.
The Outer Banks History Center also offers resources and materials concerning the intercultural contact between Euromericans and Native peoples. The Center has opened new opportunities for exploring sources on natural, ecological plant life within the geographical area that would become the Southern United States. “There, I hope to find valuable information in several written sources reflecting instances of colonists’ and Euromericans’ contact with Native Southerners and several collections of family papers revealing information on enslaved African-Americans in North Carolina” she said.
Examples of these sources include bills of sales and insurance information with explanations of enslaved people’s knowledge and special skills. For her dissertation research, Jewel hopes to examine these critical primary sources and search for salient examples of injuries or illnesses sustained by enslaved people. She also hopes to find evidence of African healing knowledge or information pertaining to Euromerican doctors treating enslaved people.
“Among the sources housed at the Outer Banks History Center that would be beneficial to my project are many maps that demonstrate the geographic proximity of settlers to various Native communities. Such maps also demonstrate whom the settlers had been in contact with, perhaps from exploring or for trading purposes,” she said.
Her next research trip in March will be to the South Carolina History Society funded by her well-deserved Atlantic World Research Network Grant.
Atlantic World Research Network
The Atlantic World Research Network Graduate Student Research Grant offers up to $500 to a graduate student to complete research toward their final project. For Jewel’s particular topic, “The Intercultural Origins of Health Care in the Antebellum South,” she has been chosen by the committee to receive this amazing award.
“The grant will help me further my research by funding a week-long trip to the South Carolina Historical Society, located in Charleston,” Jewel explained.
The research she plans to conduct during this trip will contribute to the third chapter of her dissertation, “The Transatlantic Slave Trade: New Ideas of Health and Healing in America.” According to Jewel, this particular chapter will examine unexplored aspects of the transatlantic slave trade, including Africa’s botanical legacy in America and how African peoples preserved their medical knowledge and practice.
“Even though Europeans took captive Africans and forced their enslavement, there is ample evidence that Africans not only preserved their medicinal knowledge and practices in resistance to the institution of slavery, but white physicians and slave owners relied on their curative practices to treat other slaves, as well as control African women’s reproductive health,” she said. “I would like to find examples such as in Londa Schiebinger’s Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World (2004) in which she describes the findings of Maria Sibylla Merian, a seventeenth century German woman naturalist who documented African women’s use of plants such as the Poinciana pukhenima to induce abortions, knowledge that they learned from Native American women. Schiebinger states that Merian saw Amerindian and African women’s use of this plant to induce abortion as a form of resistance to settler colonialism and slavery.”
She describes the South Carolina Historical Society as a vital research location for her dissertation project. She also plans to use additional information from the South Carolina Historical Society in other chapters in her dissertation as well. “For example, a follow-up chapter on ‘American Indian Interactions with Enslaved Africans: The Forgotten Origins of Intercultural Medical Practice in the Early United States,’ explores American Indian connections with African people living in the early United States south and the healing practices that they learned from each other,” she said. “Such intercultural interactions were complex and occurred because of American Indians also being enslaved by Euromericans, intermarriages, some southern Native groups allying with runaway slaves, and other Native groups enslaving Africans.”
Her next research trip after visiting the South Carolina Historical Society will be to the Clements Library located at the University of Michigan this upcoming summer.
For Jewel, the decision to choose UNCG for her PhD work was due to a variety of factors. Not only was the program here at UNCG more affordable in comparison to other programs, but it was close to home. Jewel also liked the campus, and she enjoys easy access to amazing professors who provide their knowledge in helping her complete her dissertation.
Throughout her time in the program, Jewel has also been able to teach as an instructor of record since the Fall of 2020. “I love teaching with my whole heart. It is my passion,” she said.
She’s taught four different courses, both online and in-person, ranging from a general survey of United States History to Women and Gender in Early America, and she has always been committed to engendering a positive learning experience for her students. From her perspective, teaching means more than lecturing at the front of a classroom, but getting to know each student and recognizing their potential. It’s also important to amplify diversity which sometimes might be invisible within classrooms and online. “It is not only important for me, as the instructor, to recognize this, but for students to also become cognizant of their peers’ diversities. It is principal to create inclusive learning environments that increase students’ and my own intercultural competency,” she explained. “I seek to take this approach in my writing as well. I want my work to be accessible to more people because the origins of the United States pharmacopoeia should matter to all people living in America today.”
Jewel is also teaching a class in the upcoming Spring 2022 semester. The class is called Women, Gender, and Power in the Premodern Atlantic World, and she encourages interested students to join her for timely and relevant discussion.
Ultimately, the combination of both her research skills and teaching experience will only push her to new heights as she seeks a teaching position as a professor in the future: “Through my research and my teaching, I hope to impact the surrounding community by helping people, by talking with people rather than at them, and by being transparent with people about experience as growth,” she explained. “I hope that through my teaching and writing, I can be an example to those in the UNCG community who own their truths and experiences and realize that hard work and transparency is a far better measure of success than pretending to be someone they are not. I hope they realize the financial and experiential value of pursuing an education through a state school and are proud of that.”
Future Research and Impact
When asked about long-lasting goals for her research, Jewel spoke to what impact she hopes it will leave behind: “My hope is that my research will inspire others to learn more about the intercultural origins of the U.S. Pharmacopeia and consider that, in particular, the contributions of Native Americans’ and Africans’ curative knowledge has perhaps been forgotten, but is no less important, and should be acknowledged,” she said.
For prospective students interested in pursuing similar research to her own, Jewel encourages students to start their process as soon as possible and to not wait until they are done with classes and comprehensive exams. “Even if they just begin reading the relevant secondary source material, that is an important first step to understanding what has already been written and will help one to comprehend the subject matter better before trying to decipher primary sources in the archives,” she explained.
Finally, Jewel spoke to the Graduate School about her plans following graduation—negotiating a book contract for her dissertation after graduation and then, even later down the road, accepting a full-time teaching position and traveling around the world.
As for long-term aspirations even further in the future? “I see myself living in Appalachia, teaching college history classes, and probably serving on a museum board. I’m working on my next book project. My boyfriend and I are married, and he so graciously obliges the copious amounts of book clubs, book talks, dinner parties, and volunteer events that I have signed up to participate in. I have a house, a garden, a Boston Terrier, and maybe a kid.”
For more stories like this, check out the rest of our blog!