From a young age, Susan Gaunt-Stearns has been interested in America’s past. In college, after trying out Slavic Linguistics and English, she finally chose her undergraduate major — and the rest, you could say, was history. Today, her research involving the economic and political history of the Mississippi River has come full-circle to connect to her personal life as a resident of Mississippi.
How did you choose your career path?
I’ve always loved history and I started off loving history because I have a pretty severe learning disability. I didn’t learn to read until I was 10. And before that, my mother insisted that we go places where I could learn in ways other than reading. We went on tours of all kinds of historical places where I could listen instead of reading. We went to historic Plymouth and it snowed. And we went to Colonial Williamsburg and we went to Mark Twain’s house. My mother would make us go and we’d all protest, but I’d always enjoy it when we got there. So that’s kind of how I got into history.
When I was in college, I was struggling because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to major in. By that point, I really liked to read stories. I didn’t like taking them apart the way you do in English, though. I realized actually that what I really liked doing instead was putting stories together. And that’s what we do in history.
After I graduated from college, I moved to Louisville, Kentucky. When I was back in graduate school, I decided I would start doing a little bit of research about Kentucky and I quickly came across a project about the Mississippi River and Kentuckians’ desire to have access to it in the 1780s and 1790s. That lead me to a project that took me from Kentucky to Tennessee to Pennsylvania to New Jersey, New York, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Spain, France and England. I started off in Kentucky and ended up all over. In particular, I do a lot of work with southern Mississippi and the town of Natchez.
If I’m correct, you focus on the politics and economics that the Mississippi River created.
That’s exactly right. I look at how the region that’s west of the Appalachian Mountains, in the time period I study, mostly Kentucky, Tennessee and the Ohio valley, came to be included in the national economy and national politics as the American state was taking shape. I’ve learned a lot about how Mississippi came to be included in the United States.
Similarly, do you think you’ve found in your research that communities located around the Mississippi have similar difficulties because of their similarity in proximity to the Mississippi River?
I actually do think that some of what I research has direct consequences for today in this region. A lot of my work on the Mississippi does speak to why certain places are kind of easily overlooked in the region because for most of the people I look at, when they talk about Mississippi access, they’re getting on a boat somewhere in Louisville, Kentucky and riding on the Ohio River down to the Mississippi River. Then riding down the Mississippi to New Orleans and they’re not stopping. The areas between those places tend to be largely overlooked, even by today’s standards. The ability to get in your car or get in your boat and just go past places makes it pretty easy to neglect those places.
You mentioned that your work, even though it’s with stuff that happened a rather long time ago, still has implications in our world now. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
In my project, I look a lot at what happened in 1784 when Spain closed the Mississippi River to American trade. That essentially meant that anyone who lived west of the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio had no access to markets for the goods the produced. And without access to markets, they had no cash.
Is there anything else that I haven’t asked about you that’s interesting to know?
I have two sons, Jack and Oscar, who are twins. They were born extremely prematurely at 25 weeks. They spent 186 days in the hospital. My son, Oscar, has cerebral palsy as a result of brain damage he received during that time period. I am increasingly an advocate for people with disabilities and also for access to healthcare for people with preexisting conditions. This year for Mother’s Day, I received 500 postcards with pictures of my sons on them at birth and at their one-year birthday that we sent to every member of Congress saying “please protect my healthcare.” I feel really strongly about that.
Does the atmosphere of Mississippi, where the healthcare system is probably not as great as in other places, also interest you as an advocacy avenue to pursue?
One thing I’ve seen is the way in which there are just not enough healthcare providers in Mississippi and there’s not enough money going to the providers here. For instance, every state is required to have an early intervention program that serve children from zero to three. I started calling the early intervention office for this region in February to make an appointment to get my sons evaluated. It took them until July 22 to get that appointment made. That’s ridiculous for a program that’s only going to serve people from zero to 36 months. Plus, they told us that for services like physical and occupational therapy, which are two of the primary therapies that are provided in early intervention, we might face up to an 11-month waiting period. Which, again, for a program that serves kids from zero to three, that’s almost a third of that time period. And then the coordinator said, “oh, but you’re moving to Oxford. That will be a week, week and a half.” And it was. But that means that if we lived in Tupelo, Pontotoc, we might’ve been facing an 11-month waiting period. And that is just enraging to me.
Especially to think that as someone living in Oxford, a town that is a bubble of wealth in a state of poverty, it’ll be a better situation for you. It makes sense a little bit, but that shouldn’t be the case.
It’s not fair. It shouldn’t be the case. I’m glad we benefit from it, but there are other children and they deserve PT, too. I also call my senators basically everyday here. When we lived in Chicago, I’d call and say “protect my healthcare.” And they’d be like “Okay!” Whereas here, they have a different approach to these issues. That’s a challenge for me because, for me, it’s not a matter of abstract principle. It’s about the little kids at home who have these needs. The disconnect between talking about abstract principle versus what’s happening to these kids is a big one for me.
Interview has been condensed and edited.