Brian Purnell, PhD
Brian Purnell grew up in the unique enclave of New York City that is Coney Island, with its beaches and boardwalks as his backyard. The son of a transit worker and secretary, it was a life immersed in the immigrant communities and blue-collar culture of Coney Island that still exists today. His mother was born in Barbados, and his father and uncle were both veterans; these complex identities gave Purnell an early interest in the ways everyday Americans come to interact with their country.
New York City gave ample reflection of such diversity, played out daily for Purnell as he traversed the city to attend a Catholic boys school in lower Manhattan. Arriving at Fordham University in the Bronx as a freshman, Purnell had a voracious appetite for learning but waffled a bit in concentrating on a particular subject (including a brief and unfruitful foray into medicine).
However, when he landed in Claude Mangum’s “Introduction to African American History” class Purnell began to see a path forward. It was a trip to the Schomburg Center in Manhattan to research Black Civil War soldiers that introduced Purnell to the very alive world of history, particularly social history - or the study of everyday people. Reading through first-hand accounts from soldiers Purnell recalls realizing, “I could do it all day, and never get tired of it.” Twenty years later, he still hasn’t.
Purnell continued to work with Claude Mangum and also Mark Naison, a leading professor of African & African American Studies. It was Naison who first suggested Purnell pursue work as a historian after advising him on his college senior paper, which explored protests against racial discrimination in the New York City construction industry in the mid-1960s.
Purnell continued work on that paper as he entered graduate school at New York University, eventually developing it into his dissertation, which would go on to become his first book.
Purnell’s graduate work explored the legacy of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) northern chapters, and more broadly, the political and social life of the United States in the twentieth century.
Purnell teaching at Bowdoin College.
At the core of Purnell’s work is an effort to highlight the
unique activism in the Northern Civil Rights Movement, particularly its origins and legacy within New York City. Compared to the prominent Civil Rights Movement of the South, easily captured in public imagination, activism in the North was decidedly of a different stroke. These are the particularities that fascinate Purnell. How does racial discrimination manifest in a place that has laws against it? How do people fight against those disparities?
The answer lies in a legacy of liberalism reflected in property, citizenship, public services, and the many ways powerful people have created systematic and structural racism within these mechanisms. It’s a work of unveiling that Purnell continues to do.
After working as an assistant professor at Fordham University, in 2010 Purnell accepted an assistant professorship at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, as a member of the Africana Studies Program. Since then, Purnell has become an associate professor of Africana Studies and History at Bowdoin, where he served as the director of the Africana Studies Program (since made into a Department) from 2015 to 2019.
In 2013 he published his first book, Fighting Jim Crow in the Country of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn (Lexington KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2013), which was a winner of the New York State Historical Association 2012 Dixon Ryan Fox Manuscript Prize.
More recently, Purnell served as co-editor on The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North: Segregation and Struggle Outside of the South (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2019), which explored the labor protests of the Northern Civil Rights movement.
He teaches a wide selection of classes, covering everything from slave revolutions in the Americas to worker’s protests in a post-War United States. His offerings include an introduction to the field of Africana Studies and a comparative class on the philosophies of Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. For years, one of his most popular courses has been “‘The Wire’: Race, Class, Gender, and the Urban Crisis,” in which students critically review the five-season HBO American crime drama television series.
In recent years, Purnell has worked to translate his research outside the bounds of academia. An active contributor to publications like Black Perspectives, The North Star, and The Washington Post, Purnell has spent much of the last decade making his academic work more accessible to the public.
In fact, Purnell sees it as a fundamental aspect of his work as a historian to create opportunities for people to engage with history. In the summer of 2020 Purnell served as the lead historian on the Center for Brooklyn History’s exhibit, "Brooklyn Resists," a multi-media installation exploring Brooklyn’s legacy of fighting against racist violence.
He is currently working on a history of Black people in New York City. Its working title is The Capital of Black America: New York City’s African American History, 1613 to the Present, and it is under contract with Yale University Press. Additionally, he is compiling a series of oral histories into a book exploring the legacy of Jitu Weusi - a prominent Black Power educator in Brooklyn during the late twentieth century.
Other projects include serving as the 2021-2022 Smith Visiting Scholar for the Roxbury Latin School and the development of a narrative audio project for Audible exploring the history of Brooklyn.
Alongside his work as a historian and professor, Purnell is busy raising a family. Purnell met his wife, Leana, in New York City. Committed to justice and equality, Leana has worked as a public defender in Brooklyn, an administrator in higher education and most recently in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in state government.
Brian and Leana are the parents to four spirited children, who champion both of their parents' work and bring levity and humor to their world. As ardent Yankees fans in Red Sox Nation, the family stays true to their New York roots, while making a home in Brunswick, Maine.
Purnell with his wife, Leana, and four children, 2021.
Brian and Leana.
Purnell with his family, Spring 2022.