Student’s essay honored by Organization of American Historians

The Organization of American Historians has awarded its Louis Pelzer Memorial Award, given annually for the best essay in American history by a graduate student, to Bench Ansfield, a Ph.D. student in American studies.

Ansfield’s winning essay, “The Crisis of Insurance and the Insuring of the Crisis: Riot Reinsurance and Redlining in the Aftermath of the 1960s Uprisings,” is from their dissertation, “Born in Flames: Arson, Racial Capitalism, and the Reinsuring of the Bronx in the Late Twentieth Century.”

The essay looks at the 1960s, when urban protesters burned neighborhoods in several U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Newark, and Detroit. Ansfield (preferred pronoun: they) draws a critical distinction between those early uprising fires and the “far more destructive” arson-for-profit fires that raged through the 1970s, yet demonstrates that the two were closely related, notes the award committee. In response to protest fires, the federal government and the insurance industry offered Fair Access insurance pools to underinsured neighborhoods. Ansfield writes that these FAIR plans proved “prohibitively expensive” to almost all residents, but they were affordable to absentee landlords. Ironically, they note, though created as a progressive response to insurance redlining, FAIR plans ultimately incentivized landlord arson.

Ansfield worked as a researcher on the documentary “Decade of Fire” (2019), and their work has appeared in American Quarterly, Antipode, the Washington Post, as well as the collection “Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis” (2015), edited by Katherine McKittrick. Their work has been supported by the Council on Library and Information Resources, the Social Science Research Council, and the Mellon Foundation, among others.

Their dissertation advisers at Yale are Joanne Meyerowitz and Michael Denning.

Founded in 1907, the Organization of American Historians is the world's largest professional association dedicated to American history scholarship.

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