Thomas Thurston Retires as GLC Director of Education & Public Outreach

Tom Thurston with a group of CT and Sierra Leonean history teachers at the Amistad Memorial in New Haven, CT (2019)
August 7, 2023

On Friday, August 11, Thomas Thurston ’07 M.Phil. will retire from his role as Director of Education and Public Outreach at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition (GLC) at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale.

“For 18 years, Tom has been a crucial part of the identity and leadership of the GLC, an ambassador for Yale and our many programs to teachers across the United States [and the world],” said GLC Director and Sterling Professor David W. Blight. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of classroom teachers of history have come to know Tom as an advocate, innovative advisor, source of primary documents about slavery and abolition, and especially as a friend.”

Thurston, who moved with his family to New Haven three decades ago to begin a PhD in American Studies at Yale, took a fortuitous professional detour from dissertation-writing when he was recruited to build an educational website run by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. There, he developed the New Deal Network, one of the first online archives for primary history materials related to the Great Depression era. Originally conceived as a resource primarily for researchers, Tom was excited to see a high level of engagement from middle and high school history teachers.

“Before the web came along,” he explained, “if a teacher had a collection of documents, it would be something like a poster of the Declaration of Independence, and there’s not a lot you can do with that, other than mount it on your wall. But suddenly, with the online archive, you could read letters to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt from children during the Great Depression, or later, on the GLC archive, a newspaper advertisement for escaped enslaved people, and all these detailed types of documents that teachers and their students could really dig into.” Thurston realized that a robust online archive gave students at the middle and high school level “the opportunity to think about history as something that’s constructed, using evidence,” rather than being a static chapter in a textbook.

Having decided that he wanted to be a public-facing historian who worked with teachers and collaborated with multiple institutions, in 2004, Thurston joined the Gilder Lehrman Center as its inaugural Director of Education and Public Outreach.

Over the past eighteen years, Thurston has—by Blight’s account—applied “his scholarly knowledge of the field, his vast educational connections, his personal understandings of the perils and pleasures of teaching, his political savvy, his wry and always accessible sense of humor, and his technical skills” to countless projects that seek to further the GLC’s mission of studying and disseminating knowledge about slavery and its legacies across all borders and all time.

Soon after his arrival at the GLC, Thurston dove into his passion to educate teachers, organizing a series of Teaching American History Grant programs for Connecticut teachers on topics including the Civil Rights Movement, Slavery and Abolition in the US, Women’s History, and the History of Immigration, which ran from 2004-2013. These included extended summer field trips for Connecticut teachers to sites in the Deep South, the West Coast, and New England. Also throughout his first decade in the role, Thurston organized the annual New Haven regional National History Day contests for middle and high school students.

“The work Tom has done at the GLC, with the support of the Center’s outstanding staff and through a range of collaborations within and outside of Yale, has been critical to our mission of reckoning with the past and working toward a just future,” notes GLC Associate Director Michelle Zacks. “Tom is a treasured colleague and friend. We will miss him but are proud of the solid foundation he has laid for continuing this work.”

One of Thurston’s proudest achievements at the GLC was the creation of two TransAtlantic Teaching Institutes, one with teachers from the US, Ghana, and the UK, which ran from 2009-2011 and examined the transatlantic slave trade from those three different locations; and one with teachers from the US, Sierra Leone, and South Africa, which ran from 2017-2019 and compared those post-conflict societies and their racial histories.

“At any one time, I’ll have a fantastic collaborative project I’m working on,” Thurston said. “For the TransAtlantic teaching institutes, I recruit the teachers and talk to professors, figure out their travel, set up preparatory workshops, put together the readers. And it is always reciprocal. I’ve never taken a group of Americans to another country without having them work with teachers and academics in that country as an equal exchange.”

Thurston has also collaborated with Yale School of Drama and the Sterling Memorial and Beinecke Libraries on workshops for teachers who were taking their students to see the Yale Repertory plays “Native Son,” adapted from Richard Wright’s novel by Nambi E. Kelley, and “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” a Civil War epic by Suzan-Lori Parks.

In recent years, Thurston initiated several outreach programs for local New Haven youth of color. In 2018-19, he created a five-week summer enrichment program for youth in New Haven’s LEAP program on Black and Latino History and Culture, which culminated in a visit to NYC to see the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Thurston also helped New Haven high school students develop a lecture series on subjects of interest to them and arranged for New Haven student activists to participate in the Schomburg Center’s February “Teen Black Lives Matter” conferences in 2019 and 2020. Most recently, Tom has developed the Black & Latino History Project, a Connecticut Humanities sponsored project for Connecticut teachers and students that is still ongoing.

“In addition to working with teachers, I found working directly with students to be fun; they ask great questions,” Thurston said. “And it’s nice to see a group of teenagers who are willing to spend part of their summer talking about these kinds of issues. I also enjoyed working more and more with some of the student activist groups that we have in New Haven, such as Students for Educational Justice and the Citywide Youth Coalition.”

In the digital humanities space, since 2014, Thurston has compiled an annual “Bibliography on Slavery and Abolition” for the journal Slavery & Abolition, a job that has now found safe harbor with Daniel B. Domingues da Silva, Associate Professor of History at Rice University. Thurston also recorded several dozen interviews for the GLC’s “Legacies of Slavery” podcast, worked on NEH grants on Reconstruction and on the Civil Rights Movement, and organized a Digital Humanities symposium.

Thurston and his wife plan to stay in their home in New Haven, where they are deeply involved in the New Haven community above and beyond Thurston’s work at Yale. And he is excited to watch the next chapter of public outreach at the GLC unfold.

“The GLC is fortunate that we’ve hired Daisha Brabham, who is an educator and a New Haven native, to be the new Director of Education and Public Outreach,” Thurston said. “She is an amazing person with lots of great ideas. She’ll pick up some of the things that I’ve been doing, and really move them forward in a whole different way. I’m excited to see what Daisha does with the program, especially to engage younger teachers, to engage students even more, and to address contemporary issues as well as historical issues.”