Welcoming our Newest Historian and Interviewer: Todd Holmes

We are proud to announce the arrival of a new interviewer at the Oral History Center, Todd Holmes. Todd is joining us from the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, where he was a researcher and Affiliated Scholar. Todd completed his PhD from Yale University, where he studied the political history of California and its impact on national politics in the late-20th century. His book manuscript is called The Fruits of Fracture: The Corporate West, The United Farm Workers Movement, and the Rise of Reaganism in American Politics. We were intrigued by Todd’s interests, skills, and promise as an oral historian, and thought he would be a great addition to our group, helping us with our series on Politics and Government; Business; Food and Wine; Natural Resources, Land Use, and the Environment; and Social Movements.

We thought it would be appropriate to conduct an oral history interview with Dr. Holmes to learn a bit more about him and to share what we learned with you. Although Todd’s doctorate in history was from back East, he in fact hails from California. He grew up in Roseville, northeast of Sacramento, with both sides of his family farming in the Central Valley. As a child, Todd showed a passion for history, especially the history of US presidents. But unlike many, he persisted in his passion by earning a B.A. and M.A. in history from Sacramento State, resulting in a comparison amongst some of his relatives between him and the Forrest Gump: “Well, Todd just kept going to school because no one told him he had to stop.” At Yale, Todd broadened his interests in subfields of history, and other disciplines as well, including political science and anthropology, which was particularly facilitated by his four years as coordinator of the interdisciplinary Agrarian Studies Program.

In this interview, Todd also discusses the evolution of his dissertation/ book project, which views the rise of Reagan’s brand of politics through the lens of the struggle between the California farmworkers movement and what he calls the Corporate West, a unified front in California that coalesced partly in response to labor organization in California’s farms and fields in the 1960s. Todd’s extensive archival research ranged from politicians to corporate ledgers to the documents of the United Farmworkers. But it was the oral history collection here at the Bancroft Library that he feels helped him to understand what was going on beyond the documentary record:

… there’s no archival material that could give you this type of insight. Reagan’s business advisors, Holmes Tuttle, Henry Salvatori, the kind of influence and relationships and how that worked. There is no paper trail. Holmes Tuttle didn’t write letters with Ronald Reagan; he talked to him on the phone every single day.

Todd then went out on his own to interview housewives who made the consumer choices that supported the boycott, labor activists whose views revealed a range of perspectives on the farmworker movement, and larger growers who stood to lose from the UFW grape boycott. In these interviews, Todd realized the extent to which political identity in his story failed to cleave neatly along lines of party affiliation, occupation, socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity. As one example, Todd recounts his interview with a self-identified conservative housewife who supported the grape boycott.

Notwithstanding this political complexity on the ground, Todd argues that the farmworkers’ bid for social justice ultimately produced a better organized, more broadly based conservative movement in California and, later, in the entire United States.

So at the end of the day you could say that the movement did this, this, and this. The unintended consequence is you just strengthened and galvanized and politically mobilized the very corporate entity that you thought you were challenging… And that kind of insight, what really pushed me to look at that, came from talking to a number of growers who had been in agriculture for a very long time.

It is from this conclusion that the interview turns to a discussion of the purpose of oral history, which is usually understood as a practice of social justice in itself, of redressing an imbalance in the documentary record that favors, well, the record keepers, the winners of history. While this is an important goal of oral history, Todd recalls that oral history is essential to understanding how people make sense of their world in every conceivable context, including the governance of the state of California.

After Todd completed his PhD, he took a post-doctoral fellowship at the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, where he again immersed himself in an interdisciplinary environment that was devoted to historical scholarship, policy research and educational outreach about the region he knows best. At the Bill Lane Center, Todd became intrigued by the possibilities of working in a para-academic environment, one that is devoted to public history and making use of new technological platforms to reach more people: researchers, policymakers, students, and a curious public.

We are delighted to have Todd join us, and we look forward to collaborating with him on large oral history projects and on new ways to present our work online, using the latest tools to do so. Watch these pages for Todd’s contributions to the Oral History Center!

Paul Burnett, Oral History Center