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Partners in Scholarship: American Studies, CHAPS, and History class collaborates with Rutgers University Libraries to explore unique history of Seabrook Farms during World War II

March 22, 2016
Seabrook Farm exhibit

Please join us for the opening event on Wednesday, April 20, 2016 at 4:00 p.m. Alexander Library, Teleconference Lecture Hall, 4th Floor New Brunswick, NJ.

“Seabrook Farms has long interested me as a historian of labor, migration, and race. Despite receiving more than 2,500 paroled Japanese Americans from Western internment camps, Japanese Peruvians facing deportation, contracted guest workers from the Caribbean, and displaced persons from Eastern Europe, the site has rarely penetrated the consciousness of New Jersey residents. It exists as a type of hidden or lost history, orif it is told at allis narrated in a sanitized manner. This project will change that.”

—Professor Andrew T. Urban, assistant professor of American Studies and History, Rutgers University–New Brunswick

Graduate and undergraduate students in Professor Urban’s course, “Public Histories of Detention and Mass Incarceration,” spent the fall 2015 semester working on two main projects. Their first project was to curate an exhibit panel that will be included as part of the Humanities Action Lab’s national, travelling exhibition, “States of Incarceration.” This exhibit will open at the Arnold and Sheila Aronson Galleries at The New School in New York City in April 2016 before traveling to at least 19 other cities. It will be on display on campus at Douglass Library in the spring 2018.

The other project, scheduled to be launched in mid-April, is a more in-depth online exhibition, “Invisible Restraints: Life and Labor at Seabrook Farms,” which will be hosted by the New Jersey Digital Highway.

By the 1950s, family-owned Seabrook Farms—located in Cumberland County, New Jersey and founded in 1913—was the largest agribusiness in the United States. At the height of its production, the company employed more than 6000 laborers and was famous for its frozen foods.

”Invisible Restraints: Life and Labor at Seabrook Farms” explores the site’s layered histories, in particular, the wartime relationship between captive labor and capitalism that defined Seabrook. World War II created new opportunities for Seabrook to procure laborers with limited options who existed in varying states of confinement. This included approximately 2500 American citizens and immigrants of Japanese descent incarcerated by Executive Order 9066 and considered national security threats due to their ancestry, despite never being charged with any crime.

Released to Seabrook after pledging their loyalty to the United States, paroled internees worked alongside European refugees, German POWs, and Caribbean guest workers—groups whose free mobility and choice were similarly restricted. A company town, Seabrook Farms exercised forms of control and surveillance that continually blurred the line between captivity and freedom. 

In order to bring this history to light, Urban and his students worked closely with the librarians and staff of Rutgers University Libraries, a process that Kayo Denda, Women’s Studies librarian and head of the Margery Somers Foster Center at the Mabel Smith Douglass Library, describes as “one of the most important collaborative faculty projects,” on which she has worked.

The students learned principles and practices of exhibition curation that apply to both physical and digital exhibitions, including identifying and organizing items in an exhibition, navigating rights and permissions processes, using metadata to manage online resources, and curating digital data. They also made use of the considerable resources and capabilities of RUcore, the Rutgers University Community Repository, both to conduct research and to mount a digital exhibition."

“The students used Seabrook resources from the New Jersey Digital Highway, as well as resources from the National Archives, primary source material from Rutgers University Libraries, and other sources,” explains Denda. “It has been gratifying to deeply engage with the materials and students and we are very grateful to Andy for the opportunity to work with his class.”

Andrew Urban, professor of American Studies, agrees with Denda’s assessment: “This project represents a unique collaboration between classroom learning and the Libraries, and shows what can be accomplished when various resources are working together in concert. The exhibit that we have created will be a lasting resource for students and members of the public around New Jersey, the country, and even the world.”

Janna Aladdin, one of the students in the class, agrees with Urban’s assessment of the historical importance of the project, noting, “This project is important because the established history favors celebratory narratives. [This project] offers a more nuanced approach to this specific time period in history.”

Other students expressed appreciation of the learning opportunity afforded by this engaged research and coursework.

Amy Clark describes the project as “a great opportunity to explore and critique the layered histories of a local site that holds contemporary relevance.” A sentiment echoed by fellow student Sabah Abbasi, who notes, “Seeing this exhibit come together has been a rewarding and enlightening process. This project has helped me hone my analytical writing skills and my ability to critically engage with history.”


Explore the exhibit here: