Margo McBane

Margo McBane

Instructional Faculty,  


What research questions currently preoccupy you?

I have focused my research on two particular topics. My most immediate research is a public history project called, “Before Silicon Valley: A Mexican American Path to Civil Rights, 1920–1960.” This project documents the history of Mexicans in Santa Clara Valley and their pivotal role in the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement before the tech boom. In 2011 Dr. Anne Fountain (World Languages and Literature) and I (History) received an NEH Museums and Historical Organizations Planning Grant that SJSU. I worked to leverage this $40,000 to raise $30,000 more dollars over the next 4 years (through contracts with the City of San Jose and Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation and a grant from the Castellano Foundation through MACLA). We used this money to complete our research and to submit last August 2015 a $400,000 NEH Implementation Grant for an online exhibit, traveling exhibit, k-12 curriculum living history character, and exhibit guidebook that will go to six cities throughout the country, including two southern civil rights museums.

I am also converting my dissertation into a book. My dissertation documented the role of race, gender and citizenship in creating, from 1890 to 1941, the world’s largest lemon ranch, The Limoneira Company, whose founders also established Union Oil Company.

What personal factors contributed to your study?

As a public historian I work in two worlds, the world of academia as well as the community, as evidenced in my previous position as the Los Angeles Program Officer for the NEH state affiliate the California Council in the Humanities. As far as research projects, I always choose public history and research projects that address issues of class, gender, race or ethnic inequality, particularly focusing on rural workers. This interest in agricultural social history stems from my 20s at which time I worked as a union organizer for the United Farmworkers of America.

What has been most challenging in your research and how has your position at SJSU contributed to your research?

The most challenging aspect for undertaking these research projects is my position as a lecturer. In 2000 I held a tenure track position at an out-of-state university serving as an oral history institute director, US Women’s History professor and graduate coordinator for Public History. I had to move to this region for family reasons. From 2000 to the present, I have been fortunate to be hired as a lecturer at SJSU. However, I also want to continue my academic research and public history projects. As a lecturer, I am unable to take time off to work on research through sabbaticals. Also, I am ineligible for many SJSU grants, offered only to tenured and tenure-track professors, to provide time or money to pursue research projects. As a result I have had to establish a public history consulting business to generate funds to undertake my research. In addition, because I have a Ph.D., SJSU generously allows me to serve as a university PI and apply for government grants and corporate funding. I use some of this money to buy myself out of courses so that I can put that time into project research and coordination.

A hidden (research) talent?

I love to cook and one thing that really puts oral history interviewees at ease, particularly women, is to ask about meals and swapping recipes, it really opens more personal communications. I guess this is the same premise of NPR’s Kitchen Sisters, one of who is a past oral history compatriot of mine from the 1970s and 1980s.

One book that changed your life (or research) and why.

The most influential author I have ever encountered is Carey McWilliams. In college I read all his scholarly works, but after reading his book The Education of Carey Mcwilliams, I was inspired to contact famous people who have influenced me, which is what he did. He researched his favorite philosophers and authors, compiling this research into his book. So I contacted Carey McWilliams! I sent him one of my Public Radio documentaries that I wrote and produced, “Talking Farmwork Blues: An Oral History of California Farmworkers” as well a union organizing book I wrote for the UFWA, California Agriculture: Focus on Women Farmworkers. He was editor of The Nation magazine at the time, and invited me back to New York to meet him. I was so excited that when I used the phone booth at Union Square in New York City, I left the letter he had sent me complimenting my work! I found out later from his son that my union organizing book was one of the last books he kept until his death and he donated it to a Special Collection at California State University Sacramento.

A website/journal/newspaper (in your field?) you follow without fail?

I love a variety of multi-media sources. On TV I often watch “The Charlie Rose Show”, “60 Minutes” and “Sunday Morning on CBS”. These shows give me ideas of ways to expand my public history projects. I read both local and national newspapers. I always look at Perspectives on History, the magazine of the American Historical Association. I also regularly look online at public history projects from museums, humanities councils, and community groups. Networking with SJSU faculty in related fields is also inspiring. Manolo Callahan, a new SJSU lecturer in Mexican American Studies, is undertaking a fascinating multi-national, multi-generational community history/community organizing project.

Advice you’d give to newer faculty or students?

For faculty, take advantage of all the courses SJSU offers you in technology and proposal writing so you can pursue more projects. For students: visit your faculty regularly because the university is so large, that it is hard for faculty to become acquainted with you and remember you if you do not meet and spend time with them.