The History Department is proud to announce that our own alum, Sarah Billheimer, has won this year’s CHASS Thesis Award. Billheimer joins a select group of History MAs in winning the College of Humanities and Social Sciences Thesis Award for “Champagne and Shakespeare: Bricktop and Sylvia Beach in Interwar Paris,” which was completed under the direction of Professor Katherine Mellen Charron.
Billheimer’s thesis compares and contrasts the life of two expatriates in Paris during the 20s and 30s – Ada “Bricktop” Smith, who ran nightclubs on the Right Bank of the Seine River, and Sylvia Beach, who ran the bookshop Shakespeare and Company on the river’s Left Bank – in an attempt to establish Bricktop as Beach’s equal in the position of hostess to the City of Light’s illustrious expatriates.
Billheimer came to NCSU with an undergraduate degree in French Education and minors in History and Music. These diverse pursuits gave her an interest in several historical subjects – modern Europe (especially France), African American history, and cultural topics like music, art, and literary history. She spent much of her first year wondering how she would tie all of these things together into a single thesis topic. Gradually, though, researching and writing papers on African Americans in interwar Paris and on post-World War I culture and memory helped to solidify her interests in that direction. Conversations with her advisor Katherine Mellen Charron and with committee member Lloyd Kramer at UNC helped her to narrow in on Bricktop (her great-great aunt by marriage) and Beach as the specific subjects of her thesis. As Billheimer recounts, “Though it felt like a very slow evolution, I had great guidance from my committee from start to finish. Professor Charron, in particular, was a godsend and really helped me get a clear vision for the project!”
Billheimer was very familiar with Bricktop, Beach, and their communities before she started her thesis, but she scoured area research libraries for anything about these topics that she could get her hands on throughout the process – even in the final stages of writing. Since it was obvious from the start that scholars had written the least about Bricktop, she traveled to Emory University and the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to look at their collections of her papers. She also spent time at Princeton University’s Sylvia Beach archives. Claims Billheimer, “If I had it to do over again, I would have budgeted much more time for all of these trips, but since my thesis topic took a while to crystallize, I ended up making all of these trips during various points in a single school year, scheduling them around classes and work as a TA.”
In between visits, Billheimer continued to research relevant secondary and available primary sources — such as published collections of Beach’s letters, Lost Generation literature and memoirs, and the autobiographical works of both Bricktop and Beach. During this time of information-gathering, she and Professor Charron also worked on outlines and ideas for the project, identifying parallel and contrasting experiences in the lives of both women which could guide each chapter. Once she completed her work at the archives, she spent another six to nine months writing and revising the thesis and successfully defended it in 2016.
Post graduation, Billheimer was hired as a 6th Grade Social Studies teacher at Horton Middle School in Pittsboro, NC. She will wed this summer and settle down in Chapel Hill. Says Billheimer about her fiance who is currently pursuing his own Master’s degree at UNC, “His complaints about all the pages of reading and hours of writing he must do have made me a bit wistful for my time at State and the wonderful experiences I had there!”