Suzanne E. Smith

Suzanne E. Smith

Suzanne E. Smith


African American, 20th century Cultural History, History of Death in America, American Popular Music, African American Religious History

Suzanne E. Smith received her Ph.D. from Yale University. She specializes in African American history with a particular interest in exploring how the history of African American entrepreneurship can transform our understanding of African American culture.  Her current research agenda focuses on the history of African American religion in modern America. She regularly teaches courses in African American history, American popular music, and civil rights and citizenship.

Her first book, Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Harvard University Press, 1999), examines Motown and its relationship to the black community of Detroit and the civil rights movement. Rolling Stone magazine, in conjunction with BMI and New York University, awarded Dancing in the Street third prize in the 2000 Ralph Gleason Music Book Award competition for excellence in writing about popular music.  Her second book, To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010), explores the central role of funeral directors in African American life and was a finalist for Best Non-Fiction at the Library of Virginia’s 14th Annual Literary Awards.

Professor Smith has done numerous interviews for National Public Radio, C-Span, and the BBC as well as public lectures at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Berklee College of Music, and the National Funeral Directors Association Annual Meeting. She has also contributed to various public history projects and documentary films including: Boss: The Black Experience in Business (PBS, 2019) and Hitsville: The Making of Motown (Showtime, 2019). 

Current Research

Professor Smith is currently working on her new book project tentatively titled, "'The Best Known Colored Man': Race, Religion, and the Rise of Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux.

Selected Publications

"Haunted by the Dreamland: Black Wall Street, Collective Memory, and Reparations," Black Perspectives, African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), June 4, 2021.

African American Religious Identities in the Twentieth Century,” The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Race in American History, Paul Harvey and Kathryn Gin Lum, Editors (Oxford University Press, March 2018).

"Tuning into the 'Happy Am I' Preacher: Researching the Radio Career of Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux," Sounding Out! Sound Studies Blog, March 5, 2015.

To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010).

Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Harvard University Press, 1999).

“‘Where Did Our Love Go?’: Contemplating the Life and Death of Motown and the Motor City,” Michigan Quarterly Review, (Fall 2010).

 “To Serve the Living: The Public and Civic Identity of African-American Funeral Directors” in Public Culture: Diversity, Democracy, and Community in the United States. Marguerite S. Schaffer, Editor (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

 “‘Laid Out in Big Mama’s Kitchen’: African Americans and the Personalized Theme Funeral,” in American Behavioral History. Peter N. Stearns, Editor (New York University Press, 2005).

 “‘Boogie Chillen’: Uncovering Detroit’s African American Cultural History.” Michigan Historical Review 27:1 (Spring 2001): 93-107.

Grants and Fellowships

National Endowment for the Humanities, Research Fellowship, July 2013-July 2014

National Endowment for the Humanities, Research Fellowship, July 2006-July 2007

Spencer Library Travel Grant, University of Kansas, October 2002

Courses Taught

African American History Survey, Transatlantic Slave Trade to Present

History of Death in America

Race and Visual Culture

American Roots Music

American Popular Music

Medical Ethics in Twentieth-Century America

Race, Criminal Justice, and Memory in Twentieth-Century America

Grassroots Politics in Twentieth-Century America

Civil Rights and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

African Americans in Sports

Radio in American Society

The Civil Rights Movement and the Culture Industry

The History and Culture of New Zealand and Australia 

Recent Presentations

Moderator, “Grief, Mourning, Race and National Memorial: A Conversation with the Editors of Till Death Do Us Part,” University of Mississippi Press 50th Anniversary Book Series, Online Meeting, June 30, 2020.

“Blessed at the Ballpark: Elder Michaux’s Griffith Stadium Big Baptizing Service,” DC History Conference, University of the District of Columbia, November 22, 2019.

“Spirit in the Digital: Audio and Film Conservancy and African American Religion,” Spirit in the Dark: A Symposium to Commemorate the 50th Anniversary of James Cone’s Groundbreaking Publication, Black Theology and Black Power, University of Virginia, March 30, 2019.

“The Spirit Travels: Understanding Race, Ethnicity, and Nationhood through Religious Biography Roundtable," American Society of Church History Meeting, Washington, D.C., January 5, 2018.

“Preserving the Audio History of the ‘Happy Am I’ Preacher: Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux’s Radio Church of God Digital Archive,” Radio Preservation Task Force Conference, Library of Congress, November 4, 2017.

“’Come Get These Memories’: Motown and the Commemoration of the Detroit Rebellion of 1967,” Shock Waves: The Detroit Rebellion and Its Reverberations, Making Michigan Symposium, University of Michigan, March 31, 2017.

 “Elder Michaux and the Massenburg Law: Rethinking Resistance to Jim Crow Virginia,” Virginia Forum, Norfolk State University, Norfolk, Virginia, March 4, 2017

"The National Memorial to the Progress of the Colored Race in America: Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux and the Commemoration of Slavery in Virginia," Virginia Forum, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, March 13, 2015.

"The Global Mission of Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux's Radio Church of God" Organization of American Historians Conference, San Francisco, California, April 12, 2013.


In the Media

Press Interview, "The Coronavirus Claims Black Morticians, Leaving Holes in Communities," The Associated Press, September 12, 2021.

Press Interview, "'We Are the Last Responders': Black funeral homes see the Heavy Toll of COVID-19 on Their Communities," Washington Post, June 25, 2020.

Press Interview, "George Floyd's Homegoing: A Black Funeral Inspiring Change," NBC News, June 9, 2020.

Film Interview, Hitsville: The Making of Motown, Showtime, Debuted August 24, 2019.

Film Interview, BOSS: The Black Experience in Business, PBS, Debuted April 23, 2019.

Radio Interview, "Music and the Civil Rights Movement," John Hines Show, WCCO Radio, Minneapolis, MN, February 4, 2016.

Press interview, "The Disappearance of a Distinctly Black Way to Mourn", The Atlantic, January 26, 2016.

Press interview, "African-American Woman Hopes to Break Down Racial Barrier in Funeral Home Business," St. Louis Post Dispatch, February 15, 2015.

Radio interview, "Black-owned Funeral Homes Face Existential Challenge," Marketplace, National Public Radio, November 4, 2014.

Radio interview, "Motown: Speaking in the Streets," BBC Radio 4, January 9, 2014.

Television interview, Discussion of To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death, C-Span-TV, George Mason University Interviews, September, 16, 2011

Radio interview, "A.G. Gaston: From Log Cabin to Funeral Home Mogul," Morning Edition, National Public Radio, December 21, 2010.

Radio interview, Discussion of To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death, The Kojo Nnamdi Show, WAMU 88.5 FM, March 24, 2010.

Radio interview, Discussion of To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death, With Good Reason, Virginia Public Radio, February 6-11, 2010.

Harvard University Press, Author Interview on To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death, Off the Page Podcast, November 2009.

Press interview, “Cemetery Scandal: Honoring the Dead Disturbed at Burr Oak,” Chicago Tribune, July 19, 2009.

Dissertations Supervised

Jessica Dauterive, Imagining Acadiana: Cajun Identity in Modern Louisiana, 1920s-1970s (2024)

Eric Gonzaba, Because the Night: Nightlife and Remaking the Gay Male World, 1970-2000 (2019)

Celeste Tường Vy Sharpe, They Need You! Disability, Visual Culture, and the Poster Child, 1945-1980 (2016)

Jennifer Lansbury, Champions Indeed: The Emergence of African American Women Athletes in American Society, 1930-1960. (2008)

Dissertations Supervised Outside of CHSS