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Some people believe that history should be left in the past, but Lafayette junior Martha Osier ’06 (Nairobi, Kenya) is attempting to use history to make predictions about the future.

Osier, a double major in economics & business and international affairs, is continuing research from this summer that uses census information to track free African Americans from 1850 to 1860 in an attempt to learn what factors affected their economic condition.

By understanding what conditions changed the upward mobility of this small, developing segment of people, when the country itself was developing, economists will be able to draw comparisons to other growing groups in developing areas, such as her home country, Osier says.

“I can take a lot from this particular project and try to apply it to the Kenyan situation,” Osier says. “We’re trying to see what economic influences improve people’s wealth and that’s something we’re lacking back home. There’s not enough research on things like this because we didn’t have a census taken in 1850. I think this will uncover a lot of interesting corollaries.”

Osier working with Howard Bodenhorn, professor of economics and business, through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

Once any connections are made, the information could not only be used in developing countries, it could explain much within the United States, Bodenhorn says.

“We do think there might be some lessons for the modern world in terms of if you move to a new neighborhood, can you improve your condition,” he explains.

A research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, Bodenhorn had a book nominated this year by Oxford University Press for the prestigious Alice Hanson Jones Prize, awarded every other year by the Economic History Association for the outstanding book in North American history. He received grants from the National Science Foundation and Earhart Foundation for his research on the economic conditions of African Americans living in the shadow of slavery, which will result in a book.

Learning if free African Americans in 1850 could improve their poor economic state by moving to a city could explain much about modern African Americans, who as a group tend to be relatively geographically and economically sedentary.

“We’re curious about whether or not this has historically been true or something that’s occurred as a result of the ‘ghetto-ization’ of blacks,” Bodenhorn says.

Although the connections could very well have far-reaching implications, those associations won’t be made for quite some time.

Osier must first go through census documents from 1850 and 1860 and gather specific information about the free blacks living in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

“We’re finding all the free blacks in 1850 and then we’ll find them in 1860 to see if they changed jobs, moved, accumulated more wealth, got an education, all those things,” Bodenhorn says.

The work itself can be quite tedious at times, he says, adding that Osier’s patience, motivation, and persistence are a huge advantage.

“Dealing with statistics and history can be monotonous,” Osier says. “If you don’t really know why you’re doing it, it’s easy to lose focus and I think that happens in the classroom. [The research] is really helping to just bring the concept alive because I’m actually doing it.”

“I’m curious; I want to see what’s going to happen at the end–that’s what’s keeping me going,” she adds.

Osier also finds it interesting that so much information is available from that time period.

“We’re trying to delve into people’s lives at that time and seeing what made the difference in someone’s lifestyle. That can be applied to today’s situation in immigration and people migrating within a country,” she says.

It’s also helping shape her ideas on how developing areas should be characterized –not as an uninteresting, undifferentiated mass of people, but as a place filled with myriad people in distinct situations.

It seems as if Osier is accomplishing everything Bodenhorn set out for her to do.

“I hope she develops a bit of appreciation for what life was like then, in looking to see what kind of jobs people had, how much wealth they had, to see that America was not always the wealthy country that we think it was. A lot of people lived on the margins of society,” he explains.

Founder of Africans Creating African Consciousness and Interest Abroad, Osier is secretary of the International Students Association and a member of the editorial board of the literary journal Aya. She also is a writing associate, a resident advisor, and a tutor for middle and high school students. Through the Lafayette Association of Fair Trade Advocates, she sought to educate the campus community about issues dealing with fair trade in global markets, promoting Fair Trade coffee.

As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Forty-two students were accepted to present their work at the last annual conference in April.

Categorized in: Academic News