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Professor Uncovers Historical NYC’s Underbelly

Kimberly Sims, assistant professor of history, spends much of her time immersed in the shadowy confines of New York City’s criminal past. Her research focuses on the link between race and crime during the first half of the twentieth century. “It is a fascinating era,” she says, “a time when desperately poor immigrants and southern blacks poured into northeastern cities, a time when vigilante crime-fighting societies sprang up across the country, and when new scientific disciplines seemed to provide objective proof that there was a causal relationship between race and criminality.”

Sims scours such archival sources as the records of New York City’s Urban League and the police department, mayoral papers, and newspapers to explore how Americans’ ideas about race and crime have developed and changed. Her research is going into a book, tentatively titled “Blacks, Italians, and the Politics of Crime in New York City, 1900–1945.”

 

Recognizing Stereotypes

The subject first captured Sims’ interest in graduate school. She was researching the assassination of President McKinley when she stumbled across the testimony of a guard who was assigned to the president the day he was assassinated. The guard claimed he did not notice the blond, blue-eyed man who actually fired the gun because he was distracted by, in his words, a “suspicious-looking, swarthy Italian man with a large mustache.” Meanwhile, a now-famous black man named James Parker tackled the real assassin, Leo Czolgosz, before he could fire a third shot at the president. “It made me stop and think about historical relationships between race, crime, and politics,” said Sims.

 “I chose New York because the city is a great laboratory. The city is watched by the world. For much of its modern history, it has had a reputation as a hotbed of criminal activity and as a place people of all races called home.”

Her research examines familiar stereotypes. “Blacks and immigrants from southern Italy were stereotyped in some similar ways at the beginning of the century—as racially inferior, violent, reckless, and sexually deviant,” she says. “These perceptions began to diverge after World War I. My work aims to uncover and explain the reasons why.”