Cornell University

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Faculty Profile

Nick Salvatore

Maurice and Hinda Neufeld Founders Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations


Nick Salvatore is a self-described “outrider, but not outsider,” in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and yet, he is the embodiment of the educational scope that founding faculty member Maurice Neufeld had in mind when he and Jean McKelvey created the ILR curriculum. This makes Salvatore an appropriate choice as the first Maurice and Hinda Neufeld Founders Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations. In fact, Salvatore credits Neufeld with bringing him into the fold of the ILR faculty, despite the fact that he sees himself as more of a biographer than a labor historian whose approach to teaching American history is broad and interdisciplinary. However, Salvatore possesses the qualities that Neufeld valued in a scholar: a universal view of education, including an appreciation of the classics, a devotion to books and reading, and a commitment to participate as a citizen of ILR and the larger University community.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Salvatore took seven years to complete his bachelor’s degree at Hunter College in the Bronx (now Lehmann College), stumbling through the process of choosing a major and a profession. Early on, he was a classics major (which may have been one of the factors that endeared him to Neufeld), but he didn’t feel drawn to that path. He left school for a couple of years and worked as a trucker’s helper, a member of Teamsters Local 808, with the Railways Express Company. Even when he was not studying under a formal program, however, Salvatore avidly read books about politics and social movements. At 22, he had an epiphany. “You’re not going to be able to hump these packages when you’re 55,” he told himself, and decided to study to become a high school teacher. This path was altered slightly by a second epiphany: Salvatore realized that if he went to graduate school, he could actually get paid to read the books he wanted to read anyway. So after finishing his undergraduate work, Salvatore entered the University of California at Berkeley to pursue advanced degrees in history.

At Berkeley, Salvatore focused his studies on the place of non-elite people in history. He describes his interest in history as “trying to figure out how all of us as individuals live in the society and culture we are given.” His particular focus is 19th and 20th century political, social, and cultural history. The form that these studies have taken—biographies that look at multiple dimensions of an individual’s life—emerged with Salvatore’s graduate research on Eugene V. Debs, one of the most prominent labor activists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and a five-time Socialist candidate for president. The research later evolved into the book Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, which received the Bancroft Prize in History and the John H. Dunning Prize from the American Historical Association.

After graduation Salvatore taught at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. for five years. Though happy in Worcester, he was drawn to the opportunities that a position at Cornell University would offer, and applied when ILR was looking for a faculty member in labor history. He was skeptical of his chances at getting the job because he was not, by strict definition, a labor historian. His interest was both in how social and political events not of a person’s own making shaped their lives and responses. The overlap with industrial and labor relations came in the central role that work played in their lives. Salvatore liked the people he met at Cornell, particularly Maurice Neufeld, and the committee thought that he would be a good fit. He joined the ILR faculty in 1981.

One of the reasons that Salvatore was attracted to Cornell, and ILR in particular, was the amazing depth of resources on campus, particularly the library holdings. The expertise of the ILR library staff also proved an invaluable asset. While thinking through some possible topics for a research subject after his book on Debs, Salvatore talked with Richard Strassberg, associate director of the Catherwood Library and director of the Kheel Archives, who suggested that he visit the archives of the Baker Library at Harvard’s Business School. His counsel led Salvatore to an academic goldmine: a 2,000-page diary of Amos Webber, a free-born African American janitor who lived in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts during the 19th century, was active in the Underground Railroad, and a soldier in the Civil War. All of Salvatore’s interests came together with this discovery: race, the working class, labor movements, social justice, and political action. Using the nine-volume Webber chronicle and much additional research, Salvatore produced We All Got History: The Memory Books of Amos Webber, which won the New England History Association’s Outstanding Book Prize in 1996.

His current research is focused on Reverend C. L. Franklin (Aretha’s father), who was one of the most influential preachers of his generation and an important social activist. Based in Detroit as the pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, Detroit’s largest black working- class church between 1946 and 1984, Franklin recorded 75 albums of his sermons on Chess Records, which became best sellers in black America; they are still available to buy today. At the core of Franklin’s life, religious faith, social and political activism, and race pride met and engaged the world he lived in. In addition, in Salvatore’s words, “His Detroit home was a crossroads of black urban culture in the post-1945 decades.” The book on Franklin’s life is tentatively titled Singing in a Strange Land: The Life and Ministry of C. L. Franklin and will be released in 2005.

“This place has been immensely supportive of me,” Salvatore adds when talking about the school. His research on Franklin required him to be in Detroit three or four days a week and research money from the School supported his work. Since 1997, Salvatore has shared a joint appointment in the American Studies Program in Arts and Sciences and the ILR School, which suits the interrelated nature of his historical focus. Salvatore is active on campus projects and committees, viewing them as an opportunity to reach out from his home base at ILR to the broader University community, particularly on issues relating to the undergraduate experience. Following these interests, Salvatore is currently serving on the West Campus Council, working to create a new academic and residential learning environment for undergraduate students (see related article on inside front cover). Among other responsibilities, he just finished a term as chair of the Department of Collective Bargaining, Labor Law, and Labor History, and also previously served as chair of the Presidential Research Scholars Committee.

He and his wife, Ann (Cornell grad ’69), have two daughters, Gabriella and Nora, (also Cornell graduates), and one grandson. Though neither daughter graduated from ILR, Gabriella is now working in the human resources field, and Nora has returned to attend Cornell Law School. Because he is pushing to finish his book, Salvatore has not had much time for hobbies; but in addition to reading, he also enjoys hiking, and music and is looking forward to a trip to a warm beach in the Caribbean this winter when his manuscript is finished.

ILR Connections, Winter 2004

- Nick Salvatore