In early June, Michael Chiarappa, a Haddonfield resident who serves as a professor of history at Quinnipiac University, received the Vernacular Architecture Forum’s highest honor for scholarly articles published in the last two years.
Chiarappa earned the Catherine W. Bishir Prize for his article, “Working the Delaware Estuary: African American Cultural Landscapes and the Contours of Environmental Experience,” which appeared in the journal “Buildings and Landscapes.”
Not too shabby for an Italian American with deep local and hardworking roots.
“I’m originally from Southern New Jersey. I grew up in Audubon, but I spent a lot of time in Haddonfield as my grandparents and my extended family lived in the borough,” Chiarappa said on July 1.
“I’m in the first generation of my immediate family to be a college graduate. My father had a truck route all over South Jersey, and that’s where I became fascinated with the lives of the people in the diverse communities which he visited, from the docks in Philly to the farms in Salem and Cumberland County.”
The Bishir Prize is awarded annually to a scholarly article from a juried North American publication that has made the most significant contribution to the study of vernacular architecture and cultural landscapes.
“We know African-Americans, in spite of their position in society, had a lot of environmental insight and acute sense of the environment, whether they worked down south in the fields, or along the bays and river,” Chiarappa explained of the method behind his research for the article.
“And so, I wanted to look at that environment, the boats and technology, to recover and reconstruct that history, because not everyone back then could keep diaries or journals.”
An environmental and cultural historian who joined Quinnipiac in 2011, Chiarappa earned a bachelor’s degree from Ursinus College and his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied the history of American vernacular architecture and landscapes.
He previously taught at Western Michigan University, where he was jointly appointed to the departments of history and environmental studies and directed the public history program.
“Once I left Ursinus, I figured out my interest was going to be the history of everyday life, investigating what did people in a community make and build, how did they craft places where they live?” Chiarappa revealed.
“I’d always been interested in history and biology and ultimately chose history for its broader scope. It’s a long way away from my grandfather, who was a plumber in Haddonfield.”
A significant portion of Chiarappa’s research focuses on maritime communities and history. After spending a lot of time in New England, specifically the fishing towns of Gloucester and New Bedford in Massachusetts, returning to the area to study the Delaware Bay and its history was an obvious choice.
While acknowledging the often hectic life of an academic, Chiarappa’s pursuits are clearly influenced by the nature of his work and his current locations.
“I like the outdoors,” he said. “I’m 61 years old and coming off of surgery, but I’m also a runner. I play a lot of ice hockey, played a lot of club hockey with my students up at Quinnipiac and in adult leagues down here at Hollydell. It’s fun as long as no one takes it seriously like the Stanley Cup Finals.
“When I’m not doing that, I like reading. I also like to bird and duck hunt whenever I get the chance.”
An active public historian and humanities scholar, Chiarappa is committed to fostering more collaboration and civic engagement between his students and the areas surrounding campus.
He has worked with a range of museums, government agencies and environmental groups, and appeared before the Historical Society of Haddonfield, presenting, “Planting Bivalves: The History of New Jersey’s Delaware Bay Oyster Industry.” in May of 2017.