Three Questions with Tom Phillips
Three Questions is an initiative to share the value that our faculty, students, and others in the UNT community derive from using The Portal to Texas History at UNT Libraries.
How important is the Portal in your teaching, learning or research?
Very: I am researching the late 1881 court martial of Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper held at Fort Davis, Texas. He was the first African American graduate of West Point (1877) and the first black commissioned army officer. Much of my research has focused on newspaper accounts of this case. I’m a late-comer to the Portal, but arrived familiar with other digitized historical newspaper archives, especially Chronicling America from the Library of Congress. The Texas Portal has allowed me to fully research how Texas newspapers reported on Lt. Flipper. I have found a wide range of text, especially editorial views, in the state daily and weekly press. This local perspective is a very important element in my research.
How has the Portal changed the way you approach your research, teaching or learning?
No changes: but a continued and deeper application of research methods/skills (with a much- needed dose of luck and pure chance) that I’ve used for many years. I still travel to archives and libraries and rely on materials obtained through Interlibrary Loan. The Texas Portal and similar sites allow me to quickly find the “good stuff” from the comfort of my home office. Early in my research such discoveries would have required hours of squinting while scrolling through reels of microfilm or inhaling the dust of old printer’s ink and newsprint paper when turning pages in brittle original bound volumes of period newspapers. No more: now the items I’m looking for appear on my computer screen, and with the added and very welcome bonus of yellow underlining of the search word (s).
What do you want others to know about your research, teaching or learning?
Back in the 60s when I was an American History grad student I learned that “doing history” meant finding often obscure, over looked or long-forgotten pieces of information and then properly placing them in the overall national historic mosaic. My research is a process of searching, sometimes finding-sometimes not, sifting and winnowing, and then trying to organize and make sense of what I’ve found. My use of Texas Portal has once again shown me that there are more sources to mine and filter into my ongoing research.
But…the ease and speed of using Texas Portal comes with a downside. I constantly have to force myself to stay on point and not use search words about subjects which have no relation to my research. Lieutenant Flipper’s story is of primary interest, but I can be easily distracted by reports of local crime, political hanky-panky (lots of both in 1880s Texas) and those wonderful period advertisement for $1 bottles of magic elixir that will cure everything from flat feet to lumbago to dandruff.
Tom Phillips is an independent historian and has a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin. His special interest is African American soldiers who served in the U.S. Army between the end of the Civil War and the early 1900s. He is the co-author of a book about these troops, The Black Regulars, 1866-1898, published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2001.