Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014

In Memoriam: History Professor Michael Mizell-Nelson

Michael Mizell-NelsonMichael Mizell-Nelson

The University of New Orleans community is mourning the loss of history professor Michael Mizell-Nelson, who died of cancer on Monday at the age of 49. Mizell-Nelson, a UNO faculty member since 2004, was a lifelong New Orleanian and a foremost authority on two quintessential New Orleans topics: the po-boy and the streetcar. He served as the public history coordinator for the UNO history department.

“As a scholar of New Orleans, Michael was unique not only in the depth and breadth of his knowledge, but also in his approach to the city's history,” said Mary Niall Mitchell, associate professor of history. “He broke away from the familiar stories about New Orleans and found new ones, particularly regarding the city's relationship to food and New Orleans' strong working class history. It isn't overstating it to say that we've just lost one of the most important historians to ever study New Orleans, and a scholar who still had so much to do.”

Mizell-Nelson, an associate professor of history, co-produced “Streetcar Stories,” a one-hour documentary that aired on PBS affiliates around the country and was screened at the American Film Institute Festival and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He also devoted years to researching the name and origin of po-boys. In collaboration with Tulane University, Mizell-Nelson helped create New Orleans Historical, a web and mobile platform that features stories and scholarship about New Orleans.

“Michael personified the University’s urban mission,” said James Mokhiber, associate professor of history. “He was deeply committed to both exploring the history of the city and empowering others – on and off campus – to tell their own histories. His work in urban, labor and food history went hand-in-hand with his pioneering efforts in public and digital history, as well as service learning.”

Mizell-Nelson was a driving force behind the creation of the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. Launched in 2005, in partnership with George Mason University, the memory bank uses electronic media to collect, preserve, and present the stories and digital record of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The website includes first-hand accounts, on-scene images, blog postings and podcasts. It is the largest free public archive of Katrina and Rita material with more than 25,000 items in the collection.

"Michael Mizell-Nelson was a prolific historian of his beloved city and an incredible teacher and mentor to me and so many of his students and colleagues," said UNO alumna Polly Rolman-Smith, special projects coordinator of the exhibits department at the Louisiana State Museum. "Many of his contributions to the field were groundbreaking and helped to inspire many to research those underrepresented by recorded history. He will be greatly missed by his community."

Mizell-Nelson helped organize historical panel discussions at the annual Oak Street Po-Boy Festival and even his imprint on social media conveyed his devotion to his city and its cultural traditions; his Twitter handle was @poorboyologist.

“He was the best of colleagues – and we can learn from his example: his unfailing good humor, his clear vision of the future of his discipline, his belief that the student comes first,” said Connie Atkinson, associate professor of history and the director of the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies. “He believed everyday life was worth serious study, and his legacy lives in the young men and women he inspired.”

He is survived by his wife, Cathe; his son, Arlo; and his daughter, Keely. A memorial service is being planned at the University of New Orleans. Details will be announced when they are finalized.


The University of New Orleans will hold a memorial service for Michael Mizell-Nelson from noon to 3 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 11 in the Homer L. Hitt Alumni Center. The memorial service will air livestream on YouTube for loved ones who may not attend.

Learn all about it here.