AHA Member Spotlight: Melissa Jane Taylor

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.

MJTaylorMelissa Jane Taylor is a historian in the Office of the Historian, US Department of State.* She lives in Washington, DC and has been a member since 2001.

Alma mater/s: BA, Presbyterian College, 1999; MA, University of South Carolina, 2001; PhD, University of South Carolina, 2006.

Fields of interest: Holocaust, immigration, modern Europe, diplomatic, history of the US Foreign Service.

When did you first develop an interest in history?

I grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and spent a lot of time at Old Salem when I was elementary-school aged. Salem was a community established by the Moravians in the late 18th century. Old Salem is a living history museum that interprets the Moravians’ settlement of Salem and the community that they established there. Old Salem had wonderful tours and experiential learning opportunities for kids. It’s where I first fell in love with history.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am interested in American diplomats’ interpretation of immigration policy as it was applied to Jews trying to flee Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The historiography on American restrictionism during this period is deep; however, I am curious about the men and women who broke with the precedent of restrictionist immigration policy. In my research, I seek out those who diverged from the Department of State’s policy, how they did it, and why. I am currently researching John Wiley and the years that he was the US Minister to Latvia and Estonia (1938 – 1940). Prior to serving in Latvia and Estonia, Wiley had served as consul general in Vienna, Austria. Wiley was very much shaped by having witnessed Austria’s annexation to Germany, and he realized that Austrian Jews’ plight was dire. As a result, Wiley let as many people leave as he could within the boundaries of the law. I am interested to see how Wiley’s implementation of policy changed or varied once he reached Latvia and Estonia.

Have your interests changed since graduation? If so, how?

My interests have definitely deepened and broadened. While I have always been interested in immigrants and immigration, I have become interested in how the immigration experience is shaped by gender and age, which was the subject of my most recent article.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog, etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?

Two really excellent books that I have read within the last year are Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields and Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtmann’s FDR and the Jews. Both of these books provide deeper understandings of their subject areas and challenge us to reexamine what we thought we already knew.

What do you value most about the history profession?

I have always been struck by the collegiality of the profession. Most historians are very invested in their craft and are willing to share their expertise, engage in dialogue, and answer questions.

Why have you continued to be a member of the AHA?

One of the great services that the AHA provides is to advocate for historians and the historical profession. In this day and age, with budget cuts affecting historians at the national, state, and local levels, I think advocating for our profession is a must!

Other than history, what are you passionate about?

When I was in high school, I was an exchange student in Germany through AFS Intercultural Exchange program. That experience changed me and changed how I viewed the world. I think intercultural exchanges at a young age provide fantastic opportunities for the participants to learn about themselves and the world. I am a volunteer for AFS now and work with high-school-aged exchange students in DC.

In addition to volunteering with AFS, I love photography! I enjoy viewing great photography. I am engaged in learning about new techniques and trying to improve my skill base. I relish being in nature and taking photographs and experimenting with techniques. Photography has taught me to be patient, to see things differently, and to linger longer in nature than I often would.

* The views represented here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Office of the Historian, the US Department of State or the US government.

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