By Robby Hardesty
UK Libraries has recognized seniors Seth Garcia and Anna Watrous with the 2023 Dean’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Scholarship. The annual prize celebrates exceptional and original scholarship in a traditional paper and a media or digital project, and is awarded to students whose research makes substantive and creative use of UK Libraries’ collections, services and resources.
Garcia, a history, anthropology, and secondary social studies education major, was awarded for “A Peculiar Institution: White Supremacy and the Black Guides of Mammoth Cave.”
Analyzing mid- to late-19th century diaries, guidebooks and travelers’ accounts, Garcia examined the white perspective of enslaved and emancipated Black guides at one of the United States’ earliest major tourist attractions. Working under the mentorship of Dr. Kathryn Newfont, associate professor of history, Garcia found that despite being empowered by their environmental expertise, the guides’ occupation became part of a racialized performance put on for white visitors as their lives remained controlled by white supremacy.
Research for Garcia’s project was conducted using ExploreUK, a gateway to UK Libraries’ extensive holdings of archival and primary source materials.
Garcia describes coming across a tourist guidebook on ExploreUK and being struck by a passage.
“As soon as I read that blurb, the gears started turning. The project was born out of the jolt I felt reading that single page.”
Garcia wrote the paper for Newfont’s history capstone course, "Kentucky Woods and Waters."
“The framing of the course really enables students to take advantage of the resources at UK Libraries,” Newfont said. “Matthew Strandmark and Jennifer Hootman have always been such a wonderful help to the senior seminar. They make themselves available and offer to work one on one with the students. The students who take them up on their offer are rewarded with excellent research support. They are research magicians.”
“I had never used ExploreUK before, but we took a class visit to the Special Collections Research Center and Matthew Strandmark introduced us to several research tools," Garcia said. "That visit really demystified the research process. ExploreUK made the research process very easy. Everything was digitized, which meant I could conduct my research anywhere and anytime. With everything I needed at my fingertips, I was able to focus solely on the research, which helped make the process incredibly exciting. I wish more students knew about these tools. I found so much that was so fruitful.”
“The work Seth is doing is true undergraduate scholarship,” Newfont said. “Other scholars have written about the Black guides of Mammoth Cave, but no one has taken seriously their environmental expertise in the way that Seth did, while also taking seriously the role of white supremacy in shaping their lives, and in framing them as racial performers for white visitors.”
Such a framing allowed Garcia to take a long view that is unique among scholarship surrounding the guides, tracing their story from slavery to freedom to the cave’s designation as a National Park in the 1940s, when it became a “whites only” place.
“Seth’s paper shows the way the federal government closed the door on a long lineage of black expertise at Mammoth Cave,” Newfort said. "With the resources available through our libraries, we have such an excellent opportunity to promote innovative undergraduate scholarship in the humanities. We should be encouraging undergraduate scholarship at the level that Seth Garcia is producing it. Undergrads coming to UK have the opportunity to pursue research that will advance scholarship and truly push forward what is known. Seth, given that opportunity, grabbed it with both hands and ran with it all semester. I am absolutely delighted he won this award. It was richly deserved.”
Garcia plans to pursue a doctorate in history or anthropology and continue studying the tourism industry.