AbouttheOI AbouttheOI

About the OI

J. L. Bell, Independent Scholar

I’m not an academic historian, and I had no institutional affiliation when I attended my first Omohundro Institute conference. Al Young welcomed me and introduced me around. On Sunday morning, as many attendees left early, we had hours of one-on-one conversation about his upcoming work on Deborah Sampson and my research on kids.

Al was always eager to make connections, to bring new folks into the conversation. Though he felt that some of the “consensus” school of American Revolutionary history missed important points by focusing on the top, he didn’t spend his time complaining about those omissions. Instead, as a speaker and writer Al emphasized the good work he saw people doing and tried to ensure more people heard about it.

I helped Al with computer research for his book Liberty Pole, collecting and analyzing newspaper reports about Liberty Trees and Liberty Poles in pre-Revolutionary America. Did they have the same meaning, or were they independent symbols? We spent many emails on that question. Earlier this fall I sent Al a description of my first visit to the new Boston Tea Party Museum as he planned a new essay.

Al also helped me win a contract for a study of Gen. George Washington in Cambridge for the National Park Service. I saw the first printed copies in October, around the same time that Ray Raphael told me Al had fallen ill. I didn’t want to weigh Al down with the whole tome, so I sent him a few pages that I thought he’d like, piecing together the life of a teen-aged girl who worked at the general’s Cambridge headquarters. I ended my letter this way:

“Your advice, inspiration, and unflagging encouragement over the past several years have been a great strength for me. You welcomed me into the historical field when I made my first, uncredentialed steps into it, and you’ve given me the confidence to take on greater challenges. I know you’ve done the same for many other researchers, and I’m gratified to have been in that company.”

Al was a giant.

J. L. Bell, Independent Scholar