Photo of a demolished store

Urban Renewal

Photo of a demolished store
Demolition of Joe Epstein’s store in Kingston, NY. Photo courtesy of Gene Dauner.

Urban renewal is the process of seizing and demolishing large swaths of private and public property for the purpose of modernizing and improving aging infrastructure. Between 1949 and 1974, the U.S. government underwrote this process through a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant and loan program. Although the money was federal, renewal plans originated with and were implemented at the local level.

In cities nationwide, the consequences of urban renewal included the destruction of historic structures, the displacement of low-income families, and the removal (often closure) of small businesses.[i] The local officials and business leaders who promoted renewal regarded the federal program as the best available method for addressing the problems attendant with suburbanization, a process fueled by HUD and G.I. Bill mortgages. For many black, Latinx, and low-income families, however, it was a tragedy and injustice, a loss of home and community. Urban renewal reshaped the geography and demographics of cities, and, in the process, exacerbated conflict and promoted resistance.

Federal Policy and Local Politics

Although some renewal projects, such as Stuyvesant Town in New York City, predated the Housing Act of 1949, this law, along with later iterations, effectively expanded the practice to cities across the nation. With the goal of improving the nation’s housing stock and reviving its cities, the federal urban renewal program provided grants and loans to municipalities, underwriting much of the cost of site acquisition and clearance. The program was attractive to city leaders both because it provided what appeared to be an answer to declining tax revenue and because the federal government defrayed two-thirds (three-quarters in smaller places) of the cost. The city’s share could be paid from state funds or through credits for capital projects, such as school construction or sewer-line improvements. Clearance completed, cities were responsible for transferring the parcels to private developers or public agencies for reconstruction.

Initially, support for the federal urban renewal program united business interests and housing reformers, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. Ultimately, however, commercial development proved more attractive than low- and middle-income housing to most city leaders.[ii] These same officials would use urban renewal funds to destroy much of their city’s stock of affordable housing.

Over the course of the program’s life, federal officials approved over $13 billion in grants to more than 1,200 cities, ranging in population size from a few thousand to several million. Although there is no precise count of persons displaced or structures demolished, we do know that hundreds of thousands of families lost their homes to urban renewal. State and federal highway construction displaced hundreds of thousands more.[iii]

By the late 1960s, the federal urban renewal program had become controversial, both for its destructiveness and for the slow pace of reconstruction. In 1968, for example, the National Commission on Urban Problems found that the application process alone took, on average, four and one-third years to complete. Even worse, of 37,200 acres cleared between 1949 and 1967, only 17,400 had been, or were in the process of being, redeveloped.[iv] In 1974, in the midst of a recession, federal funding for renewal was reduced and folded into the Community Development Block Grant program.

This is a photo of a file about a property that was subject to urban renewal
Appraisal file, Newburgh Urban Renewal Agency records, M. E. Grenander Department of Special Collections, University at Albany, SUNY.

Memory and Archives

Due, in part, to federal reporting requirements, the local story of urban renewal tends to be well documented in municipal and county archives. Of course, documents in government archives typically preserve the redeveloper’s perspective, giving little voice to the people who would lose their homes and businesses. Indeed, an over-reliance on archival records such as these has produced a scholarly literature too focused on the work and worldview of planners and politicians. Nevertheless, historians searching among the records of their local urban renewal agency will likely uncover the seeds of a social history of lost neighborhoods and missing places.

For the purpose of inclusion, perhaps the most important of these official records are photographs, especially pre-demolition images of the redevelopment area. Although produced for appraisal purposes or in response to litigation over reimbursement payments, these photographs preserve lost architecture, commerce, and street life. (See, for example, Finding Kenyon Barr: Exploring Photographs of Cincinnati’s Lost Lower West End.) Some photographs may even reproduce the interiors of public buildings and private homes. These interior photographs are particularly valuable when relocation records are unavailable. In the case of Albany, New York’s Empire State Plaza, for example, images of rooming house interiors provide a rare window into the lives of the many roomers who once made their home in the redevelopment area. The members of this transient group are largely undocumented by other archival sources and have been forgotten by most of the area’s former residents.

In our research on Albany (98 Acres in Albany), pre-demolition photographs have proved to be important outreach tools. Promoted on social media and in public presentations, these images have helped us both build an audience and, more importantly, identify potential informants among the residents and business owners who once populated redevelopment areas. Furthermore, these photographs provide something of value to share with our informants. Focused as they are on the details and condition of soon-to-be-demolished structures, they differ dramatically from family photographs and often have the effect of prompting memories, some happy, others painful.

This is a photo of a person in a rooming house
Unidentified rooming house tenant, Albany, NY, Office of General Services South Mall photos, New York State Archives.

In conversations with former residents, researchers should expect to uncover stories of emotional and economic hardship—an aged father who fell into depression after closing the family store, a divorced or widowed mother who struggled with alcohol after losing her rooming house. (Most rooming houses were woman-owned businesses.) Even those who did not suffer economic hardship are likely to have experienced a painful loss of place and community. Psychologist Marc Fried and psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove have analyzed the emotional impact of urban renewal. In 1963, Fried, who studied former residents of Boston’s predominantly white West End, described being forcibly dispersed as “highly disturbing and disruptive,” the emotional response as akin to grief. “It’s just like a plant,” one of his informants told him, “when you tear up the roots, it dies!” More recently, Fullilove diagnosed the trauma of displacement as “root shock.” Focusing on neighborhoods where southern migrants settled during the Great Migration, Fullilove blames urban renewal for the loss of “kindness” and cohesiveness that served as a “buffer” against personal sorrows and external prejudice. At the individual level, root shock is “a profound emotional upheaval” that “undermines trust, increases anxiety…, destabilizes relationships, destroys social, emotional, and financial resources, and increases the risk for every kind of stress-related disease, from depression to heart attack.”[v]

One challenge of collecting such emotionally charged memories is to recognize how nostalgia and anger may color them. For example, the children of former business owners and homeowners typically underestimate the value of reimbursements paid for seized property. This error of fact, nevertheless, contains an important kernel of truth, both emotional and economic. With justice, these informants feel unfairly dispossessed. Furthermore, due to redlining, buildings demolished for renewal were typically undervalued compared to similar structures in other parts of the city.[vi]

Citywide Disruption

Other stressors were felt citywide. In Albany, for example, the destruction of 3,300 housing units and displacement of roughly 7,000 residents produced a crisis of low-income housing, especially in the city’s overcrowded black ghettoes. A related problem was the lack of affordable housing for the elderly poor, who had previously found shelter in the urban renewal area’s rooming houses and single-room-occupancy hotels. The noise, dirt, and disruptions of demolition and reconstruction reverberated across the city. Conditions were worse in the areas adjacent to the redevelopment area and along the route from the construction site to the dump.

Urban renewal destroyed not just homes but also community institutions, including churches, schools, and ethnic and fraternal organizations. Some neighborhood bars served important social functions, by organizing bowling leagues, for example. Others quietly catered to LGBTQ patrons. In San Francisco, Damon Scott found that city leaders’ efforts to shut down such bars via urban renewal prompted the gay community to organize in the mid-1960s. Researchers in other cities are likely to find evidence of LGBTQ sociability—as well as of sex work and gambling—in taverns targeted for clearance.[vii]

Resistance

Urban renewal is not simply a story of trauma but also of community building, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, an era of civil rights organizing and urban revolts. By this time, many city residents had experienced the losses and disruptions of earlier projects and were wary of redevelopers’ promises. Local officials, likewise, had grown weary of construction expenses and delays; they were increasingly willing to listen to protesters. In Boston, for example, community activists successfully halted construction on the Southwest Expressway, convincing local officials instead to invest in mass transit improvements. In New York City, Jane Jacobs and her Greenwich Village neighbors led the most famous of such protests, against Robert Moses’s proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway.

Urban renewal’s threat to homes and neighborhoods sparked demands for social justice. In the West Town section of Chicago, for example, twenty-two Catholic parishes collaborated with Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation to form the Northwest Community Organization. The organization successfully resisted redevelopment by bringing community members together behind a “People’s Conservation Plan,” which emphasized rehabilitation, rather than demolition, and preservation of the area’s economic and demographic character. Community leaders initially used this plan as a rationale to block City redevelopment proposals and, later, to negotiate a “Program for Improvement” with business leaders who sought to revitalize Chicago’s core. Similar organizations were founded in cities across the nation, and although they might not have left papers behind, it is likely that the local press covered their stories and that former activists would be willing to be interviewed.

As a whole, the opposition to urban renewal was motivated by a commitment to protect both low-income communities and architecturally significant structures. Although the social justice and preservation strands of opposition were not necessarily united in their priorities, groups representing each strand did form alliances toward shared goals. In Albany, for example, a woman’s civic club, two homeowner’s associations, and the NAACP banded together to stop construction of a new arterial highway in 1968. Their priorities were, respectively, protecting a downtown park, preventing demolition of historic homes, and preserving access between low- and middle-income neighborhoods.

This is a drawing of building plans
Rendering of proposed but unrealized waterfront/central business district development from the 1969 Comprehensive Development Plan by Metcalf & Eddy for Newburgh, NY.

Reconstruction

In most but not all places, urban renewal is also the story of reconstruction. Modern housing complexes, shopping malls, office buildings, civic centers, sports arenas, parking lots, and college campuses all owe their existence to urban renewal. Funded through private investment and public bonds, erecting these new structures required the skill and labor of countless workers. Many of these men and their families remember this period as an era of economic security. Try contacting local labor federations or building councils. Be warned that because urban renewal has become controversial, these potential informants may be skeptical of your motives. Then again, you may find they are proud of their work.

The long history of black exclusion from the construction unions means that most of the tradesmen you meet will be white. Look for information on apprenticeship programs designed to address African American demands for equal access to jobs. Most of these programs failed to live up to the demands. As a result, you will likely find evidence of activism and protest.[viii]

Local planners, architects, and bureaucrats generated a great deal of documentation. Planning studies, architectural renderings, meeting minutes, and other related correspondence can be found in city and county archives, likely filed among housing authority, planning board, or urban renewal agency records. Together, these documents and drawings present a vision of a prosperous and populous future that the relevant projects seldom realized. They may also record how plans changed over time in response to changing conditions. (The process of applying for and receiving federal funds typically took four or more years, site clearance and reconstruction much longer.) Like construction workers, planners and architects may be reluctant to share their experiences, but their perspective is important for understanding how local leaders hoped to transform their city. Keep in mind that their intent was to improve urban environments, even if the results fell short of their goals.

Idealistic elements of planning and design deserve serious consideration. In New York State, for example, the goal of racial and economic integration drove the work of Edward J. Logue and his staff at the Urban Development Corporation. This state agency was formed in 1968 to address a flaw in federal policy—the overabundance of unproductive land cleared with renewal funds. Over the course of the next seven years, the UDC coordinated the funding and construction of almost 31,000 housing units in 42 New York towns and cities. Resistance to integration, combined with the recession of 1973-1975, led to the UDC’s premature demise.

Lasting Impact

The results of renewal are varied. In some places, private developers built convention centers, shopping malls, office towers, and luxury apartment buildings on the remains of communities condemned as blighted. In other cities, local housing authorities erected new low-income public housing complexes, where displaced families were given priority over other potential tenants. All of this served to intensify the racial and economic divisions that still exist in most, if not all, American cities.

At its worst, urban renewal was simply destructive. When interest rates rose and federal funding dried up in the mid-1970s, demolition halted along with reconstruction. Cities like Newburgh, NY, Atlantic City, NJ, and even New York City were left with empty fields or parking lots where neighborhoods once stood.

Since the mid-1970s, rehabilitation, rather than demolition, has become the preferred method of revitalizing historic downtown business and residential districts. As part of a process of gentrification, this strategy has successfully lured wealthy whites from the suburbs back to the city. At the same time, this new wave of redevelopment has displaced low-income minority communities. Compared to urban renewal, gentrification is a more varied and diffuse process and has thus far proved harder to fight.[ix]

Notes

[i] See Digital Scholarship Lab’s “Renewing Inequality,” part of the American Panorama series, https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/renewal/#view=0/0/1&viz=cartogram&text=sources.

[ii] For more on the politics of urban renewal, see Roger Biles, The Fate of Cities: Urban America and the Federal Government, 1945-2000 (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2011) and Jon C. Teaford, The Rough Road to Renaissance: Urban Revitalization in America, 1940-1985 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990).

[iii] The National Commission on Urban Problems estimated that by 1967, federally funded urban renewal projects were responsible for the demolition of 404,000 dwelling units. Eleven years of highway construction, 1956-1967, led to the displacement roughly 330,000 urban households. National Commission on Urban Problems, Building America’s Cities (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1969), 81.

[iv] Ibid., 165-69.

[v] Marc Fried, “Grieving for a Lost Home: Psychological Costs of Relocation” in James Q. Wilson, ed., Urban Renewal: the Record and the Controversy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1966), 359-60. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It (New York: One World, 2004), 14, 122-23.

[vi] Redlining was the informal term given to the practice by banks and other home mortgage lenders of denying loans in inner-city neighborhoods deemed risky due to the presence of immigrants and people of color. For more on redlining, see Digital Scholarship Lab’s “Mapping Inequality,” part of the American Panorama series, https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=5/39.1/-94.58.

[vii] Damon John Scott, “The City Aroused: Sexual Politics and the Transformation of San Francisco’s Urban Landscape, 1943-1964,” Ph.D. diss., University of Texas, Austin, 2008.

[viii] See Black Power at Work: Community Control, Affirmative Action, and the Construction Industry, edited by David Goldberg and Trevor Griffey (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010).

[ix] See “Cities for People, Not for Profit!” http://citiesforppl.org/.

Suggested Readings

American Association for State and Local History. “Conference Context: White Flight and Civil Rights in Johnson County, Kansas.” AASLH Blog. https://aaslh.org/conference-context-white-flight-and-civil-rights-in-johnson-county-kansas/.

Aylworth, Stephanie. “A Multifaceted Approach to Historic District Interpretation in Georgia.” The Public Historian 32, no. 4 (2010): 42-50. doi:10.1525/tph.2010.32.4.42.

Baumann, Timothy, Andrew Hurley, Valerie Altizer, and Victoria Love. “Interpreting Uncomfortable History at the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri.” The Public Historian 33, no. 2 (2011): 37-66. doi:10.1525/tph.2011.33.2.37.

Bendiner-Viani, Gabrielle. Contested City: Art and Public History at New York’s Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2019.

Cohen, Lizabeth. Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

Crockett, Karilyn. People Before Highways: Boston Activists, Urban Planners, and a New Movement for City Making. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2018.

Frieden, Bernard J., and Lynne B. Sagalyn. Downtown Inc.: How America Rebuilds Cities. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.

Fullilove, Mindy Thompson. Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted out Cities. New York: New Village Press, 2013.

Hurley, Andrew. Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010.

Lost Rondout: A Story of Urban Removal (film). Directed by Stephen Blauweiss and Lynn Woods. Kingston, NY: Lost Rondout Project, 2016.

Mirabal, Nancy Raquel. “Geographies of Displacement: Latina/os, Oral History, and The Politics of Gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission District.” The Public Historian 31, no. 2 (2009): 7-31. doi:10.1525/tph.2009.31.2.7.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (film). Directed by Chad Freidrichs. Columbia, Missouri: Unicorn Stencil Documentary Films, 2011.

Rae, Douglas. City: Urbanism and Its End. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Rotenstein, David. “Historic Preservation Shines a Light on a Dark Past.” History@Work blog. https://ncph.org/history-at-work/historic-preservation-shines-a-light/.

Zenzen, Joan. Fort Stanwix National Monument: Reconstructing the Past and Partnering for the Future. Albany: SUNY Press, 2008.

Zipp, Samuel. Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Authors

~ Ann Pfau, David Hochfelder, and Stacy Sewell are the 98 Acres in Albany project. They blog about the history of urban renewal at https://98acresinalbany.wordpress.com/. They were recently awarded two National Endowment for the Humanities grants to plan and begin prototyping a website tentatively titled Picturing Urban Renewal. Pfau is an independent scholar. Hochfelder is associate professor of history at the University at Albany, SUNY. Sewell is professor of history at St. Thomas Aquinas College.

This image shows the "Hall of Witness," in the interior of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC

Holocaust History

This image shows the "Hall of Witness," in the interior of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC
Hall of Witness at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, 2009. Photo credit: dbking, Wikimedia Commons.

Since the end of World War II, a worldwide network of sites dedicated to defining, preserving, and interpreting the history of the Holocaust has emerged and evolved. In the public history of the Holocaust, different institutions define the unfolding events in various ways, but for the purposes of this essay, the definition from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) serves well:

The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its allies and collaborators. Holocaust is a word of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire.” The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were “racially superior” and that the Jews, deemed “inferior,” were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.

During the era of the Holocaust, German authorities also targeted other groups because of their perceived racial and biological inferiority: Roma (Gypsies), people with disabilities, some of the Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians, and others) Soviet prisoners of war, and blacks. Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals.[i]

“Race” was central to the Nazi worldview, inextricably linked to the idea of the “nation.” In Nazi racial theory, Germany was an “Aryan” nation, whose people were descended from ancient Indo-Europeans who settled throughout the European continent as well as in Iran and India. Thus, conflating “Aryan” with “German” meant that “non-Aryan” peoples could not be German, no matter how they thought of themselves prior to 1933; and German-speaking “Aryans” living within the post-World War I borders of other nations were German, and thus the territory they occupied must be part of Germany. The internal consistency of this worldview drove the actions of the Third Reich that led to both the Holocaust and World War II.

Efforts to preserve and present the history of the Holocaust launched the ethos of “Never Again.”[ii] Confronted by the reality of the Holocaust, historians and activists hoped that visitors would be inspired not only to prevent genocide, but to combat antisemitism wherever it rebounded in the world.

An Overview of Holocaust Public History

In 1978, driven by a sense of moral and ethical responsibility born from an evolving understanding of the United States’ lack of official response to the warning signs of the Holocaust and its atrocities as they began to unfold, members of Jimmy Carter’s President’s Commission on the Holocaust began the process that would lead to the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. This American effort was one among many, and it occurred about thirty years after the first international efforts to preserve Holocaust history.

The landscape of Holocaust public history includes “sites of conscience,” national museums, educational initiatives, exhibits, and archives. The following is a sampling of the variety of these initiatives.

Place-based sites of remembrance were among the first to be preserved and often fall under state administration. These sites include places such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum in Poland (founded in 1947) and Dachau in Germany (preserved as a memorial in the 1960s). They also include more recent initiatives like the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Memorial, created in China in 1993. Architecture and artifact-intensive sites include Yad Vashem in Israel (founded in 1953, with a modern museum exhibit added in 2005), the USHMM (opened in Washington, D.C. in 1993), and the Memorial de la Shoah in France (2005). Regional museums of significant size and scope exist in many states and provinces and include such places as the Holocaust Museum of Houston (1996) and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City (1997). Many were founded by survivors. Some, including the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles (1993) and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (2014), take a more broad-based approach to their mission.

Holocaust education initiatives (some of which include museums) exist at many colleges and universities around the world. These include places like the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education (CHHANGE) at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey (1979), the Shoah Foundation (1994) at the University of Southern California, and the Museum of History and Holocaust Education (MHHE) at Kennesaw State University in Georgia (2003).

Traveling exhibits, such as Anne Frank in the World or Remembering Ravensbrück: Women and the Holocaust, allow for portable explorations of sub-topics or introductions to the larger history which can be installed at multiple libraries, museums, and schools. Others with more specific themes, along with artifacts and mixed media, include Vedem Underground about a zine published by boys imprisoned at Theresienstadt/Terezen and Art and Remembrance based on the textile work of Holocaust survivor Esther Krinitz. Finally, there are blockbuster multi-national partnerships such as the 2016 exhibit Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away, which premiered at the Arte Canal Exhibition Centre in Madrid, Spain.

Temporary exhibits and initiatives at Holocaust museums and education centers allow for deeper exploration of important sub-topics and themes within Holocaust history. With its mission to evoke a sense of responsibility in its visitors, the USHMM has had a number of successful, well-executed temporary exhibits including, most recently, Americans and the Holocaust and Some Were Neighbors. Built with contemporary technology, temporary exhibits can make use of the staying power of digital media to live beyond their physical tenure. Educational initiatives also benefit from Web-based technology. These include Yad Vashem’s Echoes and Reflections, the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program of the Azrieli Foundation in Toronto, Canada, and Facing History and Ourselves, originally launched in 1976.

Strategies for Interpreting the Holocaust

With over seventy years of evolving public history to consider, what should today’s “inclusive historian” count as best practices for interpreting the Holocaust?

Accuracy and Evidence

The magnitude and specificity of the Holocaust tests the limits of human comprehension and credence. It has invited denial and diminishment since people were first aware of atrocities happening in Germany after the National Socialist (Nazi) party came to power in 1933. Efforts to define the Holocaust occurred first in the context of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Notably, the adoption of this convention occurred two years after the conclusion of the Nuremberg War Crimes trials for which mountains of evidence and witness testimony against top Nazi officials were compiled. The need to gather evidence and create a criminal narrative during judicial proceedings has led both to the preservation of evidence and to the parsing of precise definitions of crimes committed. Bureaucratic precision can sometimes obscure emotional truths, lead people to doubt witness testimony, or attempt to compare suffering. Thus, definitions of the Holocaust that foreground the Jews as the Nazis’ primary target for genocide, but also mention and contextualize “other” targets, are of paramount importance.

Comprehensive Coverage

The “other groups” targeted by the Nazi regime must be included in any comprehensive coverage of the Holocaust period. Discussing the unique characteristics and specific humanity of these approximately five million individuals honors their memory. It does not detract from the story of the Jews as the Nazis’ primary targets for genocide. However, it does help contemporary people to grasp the totality and complexity of the Nazi party’s murderous ideology.

Importance of Individuality

An event of such magnitude and darkness as the Holocaust (or Shoah—the Hebrew word for annihilation) invites understanding through statistics. Six million Jews were killed, two-thirds of the Jews of Europe and forty percent of the Jews in the world. More than 200,000 people, about one-quarter of the European population of Roma and Sinti, were killed in what the survivors recall as the “Porajmos” (Roma for great devouring). An estimated 1.8 million non-Jewish Polish civilians were killed during the “Zaglada” (Polish for destruction).[iii] On their own, such numbers provoke an intake of breath, a shaking of the head, but they do not do justice to the people who suffered and died or to the cultures that were erased from the great story map of the world. When people encounter and retain historical understanding, they do so through relating to the unique journeys of individuals both like and unlike themselves.

Juxtaposition

The ways in which these individuals’ stories are both like and unlike those of the public historian’s contemporary audience depends on the make-up of that audience. The years 1933-1945 are significant to the entire world. They encompass the Great Depression and World War II. Thus, the reality of the Holocaust is sometimes best understood through juxtaposition of other historical moments and events that may be familiar to visitors. In 1935, African American track star Jesse Owens was training for the 1936 Berlin Olympics while the German government was passing the Nuremberg race laws, based in part on the Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws of the American South.[iv] In the winter of 1942, American paratroopers were learning to jump in Georgia, preparing for deployment overseas, Japanese American civilians were being herded into concentration camps across the arid American West, and the architects of the “Final Solution” were planning for the destruction of the world’s Jews from the comfort of a classical villa in the Wannsee suburb of Berlin.

Relatability

Similar to the importance of juxtaposition for people to find resonance in this history, relatability is especially important to people who have no direct connection to the story. For these audiences, it is important to emphasize that just because the Holocaust happened in a particular time and place does not mean it was only experienced by “foreigners.” It is also important to counter stereotypes that people might hold about European Jews. The Jews of Europe were by no means monolithic. They were rural, urban, rich, poor, multi-lingual, gay, straight, Zionist, assimilationist, political, and apolitical. Underscoring the diversity of the targets of Nazi ideology is also an important way to increase relatability. The Nazi regime cast a wide net. They imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses who would not bow to the power of the state. They targeted gay men for incarceration and “annihilation through work.” They pitted German political dissidents against Poles, Slavs, and Russians in their complex of prisons and concentration camps. They targeted Afro-Germans (the so-called “Rhineland Bastards” of World War I) for forced sterilization, murdered people with disabilities, and rendered “asocials” like Roma and Sinti invisible before “liquidating” their family camps.[v] Each group targeted by the Nazis remembers the horror of the Holocaust years in their own unique way. All of their stories are human stories.

So, too, are the stories of the witnesses, the bystanders, and the perpetrators. Those who encountered the Holocaust in its immediate aftermath are as diverse as those who encounter it today. They include the African American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald and the women on the home front reading newspapers and listening to radio broadcasts. They include the children who learned about the events through hearsay, and then through published diaries and memoirs, and, if they were lucky enough, through the testimony of survivors. They include the soldiers of the USSR whose testimony and experiences were buried in the snow of the Cold War for fifty years after they liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau. And, they include people whose minds had been poisoned by years of antisemitic rhetoric and imagery; people whose nationalistic goals were better served by the fantasy of Jewish conspiracy theories than by the reality of the Holocaust.

Relevance

In the rhetorical universe of “Never Again,” it can be challenging to balance historical accuracy, reflection, and memorialization with inspiration of civic and moral responsibility, especially in a time when acting on behalf of human rights and against racism, antisemitism, sex and gender discrimination, ableism, and xenophobia seems increasingly urgent.[vi] Studying the Holocaust has helped us to codify the warning signs and conditions that can make genocide possible. It helps us recognize failures of the state and failures of individuals. It has helped us to understand the importance and the limitations of human choices. Under the “right” set of conditions, it is possible to shrink the universe of choices available to people over time until it seems there are no choices left at all. And, even when there are some choices left, they may be what theorist Lawrence Langer termed “choiceless choices.”[vii] Studying the Holocaust points out the limits of ethics under abnormal conditions. Placed in terrible situations, some people make decisions that seem to benefit them at the expense of others, but they may also feel that maintaining their power might allow them to intervene on behalf of a loved one, or simply to survive. The dilemma of “choiceless choices” leads some Holocaust educators to ask visitors, “What would you have done, had you been there?” Instead, however, we should consider the moral imperative of Holocaust education differently, asking people to consider their actions today. Everyone has a responsibility to use what power they have for good.

This photo shows the exterior of the Kigali Memorial Centre in Rwanda
Just as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was opening its doors, Rwanda was on the verge of genocide. The Kigali Genocide Memorial was opened in 2004. Photo credit: United States Department of the Treasury, Wikimedia Commons.

Potential Pitfalls

The “Echoes and Reflections” paradigm of Holocaust pedagogy cautions educators to avoid traumatizing their students by guiding them “safely in and safely out” of study. Of course, triggers are going to be different for different students, depending on their unique personal histories and sense of their heritage. Some strategies will work better for some than for others. It is also important to note here that simulation exercises and other forms of Holocaust reenactment, although they can foster empathy, are highly problematic and should only be attempted with the utmost care, if at all, by highly trained Holocaust educators.

There are problems as well with Holocaust heuristics. It is easy to portray the Holocaust as the ultimate in large-scale human cruelty. Characterizing the Holocaust as “the ultimate,” however, can lead people to try to compare suffering, in some cases diminishing or dismissing the suffering of some in order to gain attention for the suffering of themselves or their group, or others for whom they feel sympathy. History is not a zero-sum game, but the events of the past do compete for attention from teachers and students, governments and activists. Such a powerful story as the Holocaust lends itself to being politicized. Of course, historians need to be able to reference the present in discussions of the past in order to advance understanding, but this must be done with an eye toward precision and accuracy.[viii] It is similarly problematic to see Holocaust history only as a means to transmit a moral message. The story can be told extrinsically to support a particular agenda (such as genocide prevention, anti-bullying, claiming that everyone bears some responsibility for evil or, equally and oppositely, absolving people of responsibility within an oppressive system). Although learning from the past is important, problems occur when people perceive the agenda as supplanting the intrinsic importance of the story.

Problematic Holocaust pedagogy can be particularly burdensome for survivors and their families, because they can feel personally implicated or used for a purpose that might not be their priority. Thus, it is important for public historians to respect the rights of survivors and their descendants to speak or not to speak, to educate or to disengage. Historians must also treat testimony with respect even when using it to illustrate specific themes that may resonate with particular individuals or audiences. This responsibility grows ever greater as the generation of survivors and witnesses reach the end of their natural lives.

This is a photo of Holocaust survivor Herbert Kohn
Herbert Kohn spoke regularly to children at the Museum of History and Holocaust Education about his German childhood during the rise of the Nazi regime. He recorded the testimony seen in still image here in 2013. Since 2018, his poor health has prevented him from leaving his home. As of the writing of this piece, he is 93 years old. Photo credit: Georgia Journeys, MHHE, Kennesaw State University.

Responsibility

What, then, is the ultimate responsibility of public historians of the Holocaust? Tell the story simply enough that your target audience can understand the narrative, but don’t oversimplify or eliminate complexity. It is always possible to go deeper. Talk about the limits of choice in an increasingly oppressive situation, but talk about resistance and resilience too. Tell stories of victims, perpetrators, survivors, liberators, bystanders, and the people who played more than one of these roles at different moments in their historical journeys. Know the value and the limits of empathy. Place the story in context. Describe antisemitism, eugenics, segregation, and anti-miscegenation laws. Chronicle xenophobia and restrictive immigration policy. Discuss leading and following, militarism and conformity. Contemplate censorship and the spectacle of cultural unity, media and propaganda, scapegoating and dehumanization. Set the scene of the aftermath of World War I and the onset of World War II. Include discussions of communism and nationalism, isolationism and appeasement, and soldiers and strategy. Finally, talk about witnessing, gathering evidence, and preserving testimony. Narrate human resilience and compassion. Consider power and responsibility, memory and (re)membrance. Acknowledge your own unique subjectivity, and endeavor to understand that of your audience.

Public history is rooted in traditions of storytelling—gathering and sharing, telling and retelling. There are always new listeners. Every day, we ourselves, are new listeners. Our work is never done.

Notes

[i] “Introduction to the Holocaust,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/introduction-to-the-holocaust.

[ii] Emily Burack, “‘Never Again’: From a Holocaust Phrase to a Universal Phrase,” The Jerusalem Post, March 10, 2018, https://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/Never-Again-From-a-Holocaust-phrase-to-a-universal-phrase-544666. See also, NeverAgain.com and the #neveragain hashtag.

[iii] Luis Ferreiro and Miriam Greenbaum, Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away., ed. Robert Jan van Pelt (New York ; London: Abbeville Press, 2019).

[iv] James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

[v] During World War I, soldiers from parts of Africa under French colonial rule fought on behalf of France. After the war, a number of them occupied German territory along the Rhine river, the “Rhineland.” Although many German women married soldiers from the occupying forces, some had children out of wedlock, opening the rhetorical door for the “Rhineland Bastards” moniker that would first be used as a derogatory term to refer to Afro-Germans in German newspapers in 1919. For more details, see Iris Wigger, The “Black Horror on the Rhine”: Intersections of Race, Nation, Gender, and Class in 1920s Germany (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2017).

[vi] The rise of right-wing regimes in Europe with a predilection for Holocaust revisionism has also given Holocaust educators a sense of increased urgency. For example, see “Hungary’s New Holocaust Museum Isn’t Open Yet, But It’s Already Causing Concern,” NPR.org, accessed August 20, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/02/08/690647054/hungarys-new-holocaust-museum-isn-t-open-yet-but-it-s-already-causing-worry.

[vii] Lawrence L. Langer, “The Dilemma of Choice in the Death Camps,” Centerpoint: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 4 (Fall 1980): 53-59.

[viii] For a discussion of recent scholarly debates over the use of Holocaust analogies in political speech, see Liam Knox, “Scholars Push Back on Holocaust Museum’s Rejection of Historical Analogy,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 3, 2019, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Scholars-Push-Back-on/246615.

Suggested Readings

Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Revised edition. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Bergen, Doris L. War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust. Third edition. Lanham ; Boulder ; New York ; London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016.

Ferreiro, Luis, and Miriam Greenbaum. Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away. Edited by Robert Jan van Pelt. New York ; London: Abbeville Press, 2019.

Hersh, June Feiss. Recipes Remembered. Museum of Jewish Heritage, 2013.

Linenthal, Edward. Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum. 1st edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Lipstadt, Deborah E. Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Reprint edition. New York, N.Y: Plume, 1994.

Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus. New York: Pantheon, 1996.

Wiesel, Elie. The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, Day. First PB Edition, First Printing edition. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008.

Author

~ Adina Langer has served as the curator of the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia, since 2015. A 2009 graduate of the MA program in Archives and Public History at New York University, she has focused her career on interpreting traumatic historical events for diverse audiences while emphasizing the dignity and individuality of the people who experienced them. You can follower her on Twitter @Artiflection and find her on the web at www.artiflection.com.

Collaborative Practice

Representatives of various tribes, the National Park Service, state officials, the Colorado Historical Society, and local officials after meeting to mark the tenth anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site and discuss the status of the site and future plans. Photo by Karen Wilde, National Park Service, Kiowa County Independent (Eads, Colorado), May 10, 2017.

Defining “public history” precisely and succinctly has proven elusive, yet many recognize collaboration as one of public history’s most salient characteristics. Doing history for, and increasingly with, the public is a complex endeavor that combines the insights and contributions of multiple disciplines and participants. The ranks of the public historian’s potential collaborators are many: other public and academic historians, scholars from various disciplines, students in public history classes, museum professionals, archivists, architects, planners, governmental agency staff, corporate representatives, personnel of non-profits, members of neighborhood organizations, and a multitude of other publics. Collaborative practice empowers the discipline to put history to “work in the world,” an idea that Carl Becker advanced in his 1931 address “Everyman His Own Historian.”[i] This idea lies at the center of public historians’ sense of professionalism.

The public engagement that is inherently part of collaborative practice also highlights the role of history in civic culture. For much of the twentieth century, the American public valued history as an essential component of education and a contributor to national identity. Studying the past helped foster an understanding of American institutions and served to promote good citizenship and democratic change. By the 1970s, however, the importance of history in civic culture began to diminish. An employment crisis among university historians was partly to blame. So too were the budget cuts at the federal and state levels that ravaged many history-related institutions including museums, libraries, and historic sites. Arguably, the most significant factor concerned the growing insularity of academic historians who increasingly perceived their scholarly peers, not the public, as their primary audience. Research-focused colleges and universities have long considered peer-reviewed monographs and articles as the gold standard of scholarship, and these works intended for other academics became a requisite for faculty promotion and tenure. This trajectory only intensified in the volatile political climate after 1980 that, ironically, helped accelerate the rise of public history.

Public historians welcome collaboration with the public. Many believe that a holistic, collaborative examination of the past that confronts both the good and the bad can promote positive social and political changes. This willingness to engage with the public, public historians contend, can help restore the discipline’s beneficial influence in the civic culture.

Basic Principles of Collaboration

In the direct collaborative practice of history, every project is different and presents unique challenges, but following a number of basic principles contributes significantly to successful partnerships. Engagement and communication are key. All the collaborators must be fully vested in the project and willing to listen and learn from one another. Ideally, this starts with the planning of a project and continues through its completion. Every stakeholder should be involved in formulating the research design. This assures that all perspectives receive their due. Similarly, the project timeline and the setting of benchmarks requires mutual agreement. Throughout the course of a project, all involved need to remain in touch with one another and discuss what, if any, changes might be necessary to the research design, timeline, or other project matters. This deliberative and ongoing methodology is part of what is termed reflective practice.

Memorandum of Understanding

A written Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) or Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) is an excellent tool with which to forge a collaboration. Although seldom legally binding, a carefully crafted memorandum addresses exactly what will be done, who is responsible for certain tasks, when these tasks will be completed, and by whom. It also stipulates any necessary information if compensation is involved. A well-executed MOU or MOA clearly delineates the roles and responsibilities of all parties involved and is essential for collaborative practice to be successful.[ii]

Professional-to-Professional Relationships

As public history gained ascendancy in the mid-twentieth century, much of its collaborative practice entailed professional-to-professional relationships, many of them forged through the federal government. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 required assessing the impact of federal undertakings on historic resources and under certain circumstances mitigating adverse outcomes. Similarly, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 sought to protect the environment from harmful actions that accompanied federal projects. In addition to natural considerations, the law included determining impacts on the human environment, including historic sites and properties. Through these two pieces of legislation, public historians—some of them by establishing their own consulting firms—partnered with archeologists, architects, planners, engineers, and a variety of natural scientists. During this period, many federal agencies also increasingly valued the knowledge of the past as a foundation for formulating policy and helping to meet their stated missions. As a result, public historians found employment throughout the federal government, and their collaborators expanded to include bureaucrats. The same dynamic applied to public historians and state and, to a lesser degree, local governments. These alliances between public historians and other highly educated experts, sometimes including even academic historians, occasionally proved contentious. The advanced academic training and professionalism the partners shared, however, tended to facilitate the settling of differences.

Collaborating with Stakeholders

Since the 1980s, the collaborative practice of public history has progressively entailed the more challenging reality of professional practitioners working with partners having no formal academic training. These collaborators commonly are also among the project’s stakeholders. Oral history offers an excellent example. Professionally trained interviewers record informants who were involved in, or have special knowledge of, a project’s topic. Oral history informants work in partnership with skilled interviewers, engaging in a process of both historical inquiry and interpretation. Reconstructing and interpreting the past through oral history requires active participation by the trained professional and the interviewee. Their partnership produces the history. Similarly, a museum exhibit examining the role of a particular community—be it geographic, ethnic, racial, gender-based, political, economic, or social in nature—needs to be informed by members of that community. These public engagement practices in both oral history and museum exhibition have a long tradition, but have become even more common as the public history field has matured. The inclusion of non-academic partners in public history projects runs contrary to the traditional experience of many academic historians accustomed to self-defining and self-directing their own research. This collaborative practice of history with multiple, often non-academic, partners is one of the defining characteristics that sets public history apart from most academic history. It fundamentally involves doing history for and with the public.

The Question of Authority

Working with an array of collaborators, and especially those from outside the profession, potentially raises the question of authority. Where does authority rest when differences—subtle or profound—emerge among the partners? Where does agency lie? Who tells the story? Whose history is it? Public historians wisely recognize that the answers to such questions are rarely absolute. In wrestling with these conundrums, they have adopted the concept of shared authority, set forth originally by historian Michael Frisch. Born out of the dialogic methods of oral history, sharing authority entails taking into consideration the interpretations and perspectives of all stakeholders and collaborators, not just the trained professionals. It involves going beyond the scholar’s expertise as the sole basis for analysis and conclusions to include incorporating and respecting the viewpoints of all with an interest in the project. The intent is to create a more inclusive understanding of the past.

Public historians thus often find themselves situated in a middle ground between their collaborators and academics. While sharing authority requires openness to multiple perspectives, it does not mean ignoring the historical method, historiography, or well-established facts that historians use to craft a coherent and defensible interpretation of past. Nor does it result in self-serving relativism, history being whatever a particular group or party says without substantiating evidence. Sound scholarship serves as the foundation for the collaborative practice of history, whether the collaborators are project partners or the entire public. It enables the fulfillment of the historian’s role in civic culture, a critical achievement in a society in which demagogues and other self-interested manipulators promote “alternative facts” and “fake news.”

Since there is no one way to practice history collaboratively or to pursue shared authority, the process can be messy and challenging. For example, one of the tasks faced by the National Park Service while establishing Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, opened in 2007, was locating the exact site of the 1864 attack on Black Kettle’s village near present-day Eads, Colorado. Volunteer cavalry under Colonel John Chivington killed more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho, many of them women and children, in the brutal assault. To address this question, the Park Service brought together a variety of collaborators: Cheyenne and Arapaho elders; local landowners; academic and public historians; and, archeologists. At first, traditional, empirical evidence derived from historical research and archeology, along with the work of a historically minded ex-detective, seemed to decide the question. Cheyenne elders strenuously disagreed. Taking into account both the academic conclusions, and the stories shared among generations of tribal members with deeply personal spiritual connections, led project leaders to a different, synthetic, and arguably better understanding of how to interpret where the massacre occurred. The Park Service’s attempt to locate the massacre site certainly exemplified collaborative practice by bringing the stakeholders together, but it failed to answer the question definitively. The solution required the expansion of the site’s originally envisioned boundaries to include both locations. In effect, this transcended traditional scholarly methods by accepting two culturally different ways of revealing the past.[iii]

Ethical Issues

Anyone navigating through the complexities of collaboration—and authority—will also need to consider related ethical issues. In 2007, the National Council on Public History issued its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. This document organizes the ethical practice of public history around the public historian’s responsibilities, as well as those pertaining to three different constituencies: the public; clients and employers; and members of the profession. Guiding principles for all these categories apply to collaborative practice, but those attached to responsibility to the public are most germane. They recognize that many diverse publics exist and can complement or compete with one another in interpreting the meaning of the past. Nevertheless, the public historian has an ethical obligation to conduct research with scholarly integrity, while also striving to be culturally inclusive and respecting the interpersonal dynamics that the collaborative practice of history inherently entails. Sometimes this can be challenging. Strong-minded collaborators may be unable to reach a consensus, but the public historian bears the final responsibility for the ultimate results of a project.[iv]

Examples of Collaborative Practice

Contemporary examples of collaborative practice in public history abound, simply because the interests of both professionals and non-professionals are intertwined. The Organization of American Historians and the National Park Service, for example, collaborate in a program designed to incorporate the best and most current scholarly research into historical interpretation at national parks. Museums, libraries, historical organizations, historic sites, and other history-related institutions routinely seek to give voice to the publics they serve in the history-making process by following the principles of collaborative practice. Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World (2011) provides intriguing case studies of this dynamic in museums seeking connections with the public in an increasingly digital world.[v] Public history educators commonly employ collaborative practice in their courses by having students undertake museum exhibits, conduct oral histories, and other projects with both on- and off-campus partners. One need not delve deep in the field’s literature to discover discussions of the influence of collaboration on the practice of public history. The winter 2006 volume of The Public Historian, organized around the theme “Public History as Reflective Practice,” is a valuable place to start exploring the many practical, ethical, and theoretical dimensions of doing public history collaboratively.[vi]

Doing public history almost always demands a degree of collaborative practice, and successful collaboration can often be challenging. It requires employing the deliberate planning and execution inherent in the concept of reflective practice. A willingness to be inclusive and share authority with different publics is absolutely essential. At the same time, the professional public historian must be mindful of the ethical considerations that arise between academics and their non-scholarly collaborators. Nor can the relevant academic scholarship and the historical method be ignored. Collaborative practice is often complex and messy, and sometimes succeeds and sometimes does not. At its best, the collaborative practice of public history provides valuable perspectives that help us better understand the present and envision the future by creating a history that is nuanced, inclusive, and useful to everyone.

Notes

[i] Carl L. Becker, “Everyman His Own Historian,” American Historical Review 37 (January 1932): 221-236. Also available online at https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/presidential-addresses/carl-l-becker. The National Council on Public History uses the phrase “putting history to work in the world” in its mission statement.

[ii] Searching “Memorandum of Understanding” or “Memorandum of Agreement” on the National Park Service’s web site, www.nps.gov, will yield numerous example of such documents. They involve a variety of partners, the most numerous being other governmental agencies at the federal and state level. Despite the diversity of partnerships they reflect, all the memorandums include language that assures the purpose of the collaboration, the responsibilities of each party, timelines, and other details meant to assure a successful outcome. For an example of a Memorandums of Understanding used for student internships in a collegiate public history program, click on the link to Washington State University’s MOU, accessible though the web page https://history.wsu.edu/graduate-studies/public-history-track/public-history-internships/.

[iii] The website for Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site can be found at https://www.nps.gov/sand/index.htm. The story of Sand Creek, the effort to determine the location of the massacre, and the influence of memory in establishing the site are the subject of Ari Kelman’s A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[iv] NCPH’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct can be found at http://ncph.org/about/governance-committees/code-of-ethics-and-professional-conduct/.

[v] Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds., Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc., 2011).

[vi] “Public History as Reflective Practice,” The Public Historian 28 (Winter 2006).

Suggested Readings

Babal, Marianne. “Sticky History: Connecting Historians with the Public.” The Public Historian 32 (Fall 2010): 76-84.

Corbett, Katharine T., and Howard S. (Dick) Miller. “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry.” The Public Historian 28 (Winter 2006): 39-66.

Frisch, Michael H. A Shared Authority:  Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Lindsay, Anne. “Student and Community Organizations: Creating Productive Partnerships.” Technical Leaflet 279. American Association for State and Local History.

Tyrell, Ian. Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Weible, Robert. “What’s Happened to Historians.” History News Network, May 28, 2017.  Available online at: https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/165805.

Author

~ Bill Bryans has been putting history to work in the world for over forty years in a variety of capacities. During that time, he has been a consultant, and until his retirement in July 2019 directed the public history program at Oklahoma State University for thirty-one years. He also has served as president of the National Council on Pubic History, president of the Oklahoma Museums Association, and chair of the Oklahoma Humanities Council. Locally, he also has long served as a board member of the Payne County Historical Society and the Stillwater Museum Association.

Reconstruction

“Robert Smalls, S.C. M.C. Born in Beaufort, SC, April 1839,” c. 1870-1880. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

The Reconstruction period following the American Civil War marked the transition from slavery to freedom and citizenship for nearly four million enslaved African Americans. Traditionally defined as running from 1865 to 1877, but perhaps more accurately understood as encompassing events taking place between 1861 and the 1890s, Reconstruction was a period of dramatic social, economic, and constitutional change for Americans north and south. While some of its transformations proved lasting, others were rolled back on a tide of violence within twenty years of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

During the Reconstruction era, voters ratified three new constitutional amendments, including one that redefined citizenship in the United States, and Congress passed the first federal civil rights laws in American history. Black men and women sought to define freedom through reordering their daily lives; asserting their rights as free laborers; pursuing access to land; establishing community institutions such as schools and independent black churches; and reestablishing family bonds that had been torn apart under slavery. Black men began to organize politically, and after 1870, to exercise the right to vote, even in the face of intense and frequently violent opposition from southern whites.

Free public school systems emerged across the South during Reconstruction, and constitutional conventions rewrote southern state constitutions. Economic modernization and debt relief became key economic issues across the formerly Confederate South, and the first black colleges in the region opened their doors. In the American West, Reconstruction propelled the expansion of the reservation system and the end of federal willingness to treat tribes as sovereign nations, as well as gave rise to heated conflicts between a federal government that sought to “subdue” native populations and Native Americans who had no desire to enfold themselves into the expanding American republic. Economic panic struck the nation in 1873, the women’s rights movement fractured over the issue of black male suffrage, and a series of fraudulent and violent elections unfolded across the South. In the 1870s and 1880s, the Supreme Court issued a series of decisions that rendered the Reconstruction amendments nearly unenforceable; and mass-scale violence and political terrorism paved the way for the restoration of white supremacy in the South.

Changing Interpretations

Reconstruction is one of the most important—yet least well-understood—periods in American history. For generations, scholars influenced by the Lost Cause portrayed Reconstruction as the lowest point in American history, a period characterized by political corruption and retaliatory action against former Confederates, which “mercifully” came to a close with the withdrawal of the U.S. Army and the restoration of “legitimate” (i.e., white) government in southern states in 1877. Generations of Americans grew up with this deeply racialized interpretation of the era, which implicitly (and at times, explicitly) justified white supremacy; expunged the complex history of community-building, labor negotiation, and political action by freedpeople; and vilified black southerners and their white allies as corrupt, incompetent, and dangerous.

As historian Eric Foner argues, “historical writing on Reconstruction has always spoken directly to current concerns,” and in the wake of the mid-twentieth-century freedom struggle that toppled the system of racial control established in the wake of the Civil War, scholarship on Reconstruction has dramatically transformed.[i] Most scholars now understand the period as one characterized by an expansion of democracy and civil rights, a noble, albeit unsuccessful, attempt to transform the United States into an interracial democracy. In current scholarship, Reconstruction’s most tragic feature is understood to be the fact that it ultimately failed to solidify and sustain the economic, political, and social transformations that it promised. But scholars actively stress its successes in the face of tremendous opposition: particularly the schools, churches, mutual aid societies, clubs, and other community institutions built by freedpeople, and the concessions they forced white landowners to make in the struggle to determine the role of the black laborer in the postwar South.

Alfred R. Waud. “The First Vote.” Harper’s Weekly, November 16, 1867. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-19234 (5-21), Wikimedia Commons.

Public Understanding of Reconstruction

Yet scholars’ understanding of the era as characterized by an expansion of democracy only reaches so far. As Foner has contended, “For no other period in American history does so wide a gap exist between current scholarship and popular historical understanding.”[ii] The era often gets short shrift in many K-12 history curriculums, and sometimes in college classrooms as well, due to its complexity and its timing, and—with notable exceptions—Reconstruction continues to be broadly underrepresented and under-interpreted on the nation’s public history landscape. The consequences of this marginalization are real, and troubling. When the Civil War era is artificially divorced from its aftermath, the long legacies and unresolved questions of the war years can be easily subsumed in a wave of romantic nostalgia. Disassociating the Reconstruction period from the war makes it possible to cast the fierce debates over Confederate memory that have convulsed communities in recent years as a simple matter of “preserving history” versus “erasing history,” rather than as struggles to understand how constructed narratives of Confederate and postwar history have been used to legitimize the restoration of white rule.

Americans’ poor collective understanding of the triumphs and failures of the Reconstruction era also affects our ability—as a society—to have thoughtful, honest, and historically-informed conversations about many issues that are hotly contested in today’s world. The definition and boundaries of citizenship; the relationship between political and economic freedom; the appropriate federal response to episodes of terrorism; concerns about election fraud and voter suppression; and the relationship between the federal government and individual Americans may be contemporary questions, but the way we experience them in the present has been shaped in part by the legacies—plural, not singular—of Reconstruction.

Contemporary Examples of Public Interpretation of Reconstruction

Though Reconstruction is still under-interpreted on the public history landscape, great strides have been made in recent years. Although some of the National Park Service’s Civil War battlefield parks, presidential sites, and homes of eminent black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Maggie Walker have been introducing visitors to certain aspects of the period for years, the NPS did not have a site primarily devoted to Reconstruction until 2017. Reconstruction Era National Monument, an assortment of sites located in and around Beaufort, South Carolina, is the culmination of a fifteen-year effort to highlight and protect buildings and landscapes associated with the transition from slavery to freedom. Beaufort, which came into Union hands early during the war, was the site of a wartime community where freed people farmed confiscated lands, attended schools, governed themselves, and supported the Union war effort in numerous ways. Their efforts convinced many observers that free labor would transform the South and built support for black education, voting rights, and land reform among progressive white northerners. Beaufort was also the home of Robert Smalls, a formerly enslaved sailor who commandeered a Confederate vessel and sailed it to Union lines in 1862, freeing himself, his family, and 14 others. In the aftermath of the war, Smalls purchased his former owner’s house, and represented his home area in the state legislature, state senate, and U.S. House of Representatives, where he championed free public education and public support of the elderly.[iii]

The monument was designated by President Barack Obama, using the president’s executive powers under the Antiquities Act, leaving the door open to congressional designation of other sites of significance. The NPS’s 2017 National Historic Landmarks theme study on Reconstruction, spearheaded by historians Greg Downs and Kate Masur, has identified a wide range of additional sites that hold great significance for public understanding of the Reconstruction era. Some of these properties already bear landmark status, and some would require further study prior to potential designation. Put simply, Reconstruction’s complexity, significance, and long legacy will be best served by preservation and interpretation across a broad network of sites—both inside and outside of the NPS—rather than restriction to a handful of specifically designated properties.

One site where important preservation and interpretation work is already going on is New Philadelphia, Illinois, the first town in the United States to be founded, planned, and registered by an African American, Free Frank McWhorter.  Though founded in the 1830s, the population and prosperity of the town peaked during Reconstruction, when it functioned as a multiracial community in which African Americans owned land and property, sent their children to school, and exercised political rights. Beginning in the late 1990s, descendants, local residents, archaeologists, and historians have come together to mark, excavate, preserve, and interpret the site. Like many sites associated with Reconstruction, no extant buildings survive, and those committed to providing visitors to New Philadelphia an educational experience have thus pursued Augmented Reality (AR) technology as a means to interpret the site. New Philadelphia’s AR walking tour embeds the stories of the people who lived, loved, and struggled there into the physical space, anchoring this past on the contemporary landscape. In so doing, AR allows “historically significant landmarks that have traditionally fallen outside of the notion of authorised heritage discourse—but which are no less important—to be brought into the fold of public consciousness through a new means of experiencing the past.”[iv]

In cases where surviving buildings do exist, they are being used to give voice to a wide range of historical experiences and perspectives. The centerpiece of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Reconstruction exhibit is a home built in the 1870s by Richard Jones, founder of a Maryland freedmen’s settlement. The museum presents the home as “a tangible symbol of Reconstruction,” a testimony to African American creativity and engineering skills, and a window into both the physical hardships of freedmen’s lives and their aspirations for the future. Conversely, in Columbia, South Carolina, the boyhood home of Woodrow Wilson has been transformed into a museum dedicated to exploring how Reconstruction played out in the city, and across the state more broadly, which in 1868 became the first to elect a black-majority legislature. The museum confronts topics head-on that receive little coverage elsewhere, such as the transition from enslaved to paid domestic servants, the temporary desegregation of the University of South Carolina, the formation of black churches in the city, and the rise of political and racial terrorism across the state. Though the connections between the larger narrative and the Wilson family’s own politics are not always clear, the irony of the home of a man who played a significant role in the campaign to discredit Reconstruction being reinvented as a place for visitors to grapple with the era and its legacies is remarkable.[v]

On the digital front, the After Slavery Project houses an array of primary source materials, interpretive essays, and interactive timelines and maps on Reconstruction in the Carolinas, most of them centering on labor. The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture has launched a crowdsourcing effort to transcribe nearly two million files from the Freedmen’s Bureau records, an initiative that not only makes essential Reconstruction-related materials newly available online, but invites digital volunteers to read, transcribe, and otherwise actively engage with the records. These are only two of an assortment of digital resources now available to assist those interested in better understanding, contextualizing, and reanimating the narratives of this still widely-misunderstood era.

Conclusion

Given the deep-seated misconceptions that have long characterized Reconstruction in the public mind and the continuing underrepresentation of the period in much of the public history realm, it is crucial that public historians make a concerted effort to address the post-Civil War years through as many avenues as possible. Improving public understanding of the Reconstruction period can not only provide vital historical context for many contemporary debates, it can also shed important light on the workings (and failings) of democracy in a highly fractured society. Finally, educating the public about Reconstruction can provide an excellent case study for discussing how and why interpretations of the past change over time.

Notes

[i] Eric Foner, “Epilogue,” in The Reconstruction Era: Official National Park Service Handbook, eds. Robert K. Sutton and John A. Latschar (Eastern National, 2016), 179.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] National Park Service, “The Era of Reconstruction, 1861-1900: A National Historic Landmarks Theme Study” (National Park Service, 2017), 103, 111; Cate Lineberry, “The Thrilling Tale of How Robert Smalls Seized a Confederate Ship and Sailed it to Freedom,” June 13, 2017, Smithsonian.com, accessed May 19, 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/thrilling-tale-how-robert-smalls-heroically-sailed-stolen-confederate-ship-freedom-180963689/.

[iv] Paul Shackel, New Philadelphia: An Archaeology of Race in the Heartland (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 38; Jonathan Amakawa and Jonathan Westin, “New Philadelphia: Using Augmented Reality to Interpret Slavery and Reconstruction Era Historical Sites,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 24, no. 3 (November 2017): 317, 321, 327, https://doi.org/ 10.1080/13527258.2017.1378909.

[v] Kriston Capps, “Rebuilding a Former Slave’s House in the Smithsonian,” The Atlantic, September 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/09/this-old-house/492767/; Lauren Safranek, Review of Woodrow Wilson Family Home, The Public Historian 37, No. 2 (May 2015): 121-123.

Suggested Readings

Capps, Kriston. “Rebuilding a Former Slave’s House in the Smithsonian.” The Atlantic, September 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/09/this-old-house/492767/.

Dudden, Faye E. Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Egerton, Douglas R. The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction. Updated Edition. New York: Harper, 2015.

National Park Service. “The Era of Reconstruction, 1861-1900: A National Historic Landmarks Theme Study.” National Park Service (2017). https://www.nps.gov/nhl/learn/themes/Reconstruction.pdf.

“Reconstruction in Public History and Memory at the Sesquicentennial: A Roundtable Discussion.” Journal of the Civil War Era 7, No. 1 (March 2017): 96-122. https://journalofthecivilwarera.org/forum-the-future-of-reconstruction-studies/reconstruction-in-public-history-and-memory-sesquicentennial-roundtable/

Safranek, Lauren. Review of Woodrow Wilson Family Home. The Public Historian 37, No. 2 (May 2015): 121-123.

Sutton, Robert K., and John A. Latschar, eds. The Reconstruction Era: Official National Park Service Handbook. Eastern National, 2016.

Author

~ Jill Ogline Titus is Associate Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College and a former seasonal historian for the National Park Service. She is the author of Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 2011) and is currently at work on a study of the convergence of civil rights, Cold War politics, and historical memory during the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. She can be reached at jtitus@gettysburg.edu.

Sexuality

Poster created by the Health Education Authority for the National Aids Helpline promoting safer sex practices, c. 1990. Photo credit: Wellcome Collection.

The history of sexuality is a history of bodies—how they fit together and achieve pleasure—and of minds—how desire and pleasure are experienced and rationalized given social and cultural norms and political ideologies. Public-facing histories (like twentieth-century LGBTQIA+[i] activisms) lend themselves well to the excavation of primary source materials—newsletters, picket signs, photographs, etc.—and their respectable interpretation (de-sexualized narratives of identity and equal rights). However, the inclusive historian must remain cognizant of who produced and preserved what evidence, when, where, and why—and how it has been and will be understood by new generations and audiences. This information shapes and comprises extant narratives of sexuality.

Much of human sexuality has played out behind the bedroom door of history, private and concealed. The evidentiary basis for such history is scant. As an inclusive historian, it is your job to expand how these histories can be told using the resources available to you. How can we commit to being more inclusive, equitable, and service-oriented historians given the gaps and silences of the archive? We must always consider who or what is missing from our narratives, and why. Even given a wealth of materials and perspectives, how can we showcase the breadth and depth of sexual experience throughout human history given respectability politics, institutional censorship, and cultural expectations? Studying the history of sexuality brings with it questions of (in)decency and taboo, sex and gender norms, anachronism and bias—all of which create a maze of roadblocks the inclusive historian must continually navigate. This article will equip you with the tools necessary for understanding these challenges, the complexity of the history of sexuality, and examples of best practices for interpreting it.

Defining Sexuality

For the purpose of this article, sexuality can be taken to encompass the following:

  • Sexual orientation—an internal experience, our desires or lack thereof, and who we are or are not attracted to.
  • Sexual behavior—an external and usually private experience, the acts we do or do not engage in, and with whom we do or do not share them.
  • Sexual identity—an external and usually public experience, how we conceive of our sexual experience and what we call ourselves.

These concepts are crucial for an inclusive historian to understand when interpreting sexual experiences of the past. As will be discussed in a later section, the frameworks and language we employ to encapsulate sexuality often present social, cultural, and political biases.

Historicizing Sexuality

Historical actors’ desires, actions, and identities will not always coincide with our expectations. In fact, they rarely do. Take, for example, Michael Wigglesworth, a seventeenth century Puritan minister known for his best-selling poem The Day of Doom. An ardent Christian, father, and husband three times over, Wigglesworth struggled with his sexuality, as revealed through diary entries. An inclusive historian would not automatically declare him “gay” or “prudish” upon learning of his attraction to his male students and his shame about nocturnal emissions. Instead, the inclusive historian would differentiate his inner thoughts and desires (evinced in his diary) from his actions (marriage and children) and identity (or lack thereof).

An inclusive historian is wary of presentist assumptions about the sexuality of historical actors. Modern identifiers like “gay” or “homosexual” reinforce anachronistic ideas about how sexuality was experienced in the past. These words come with their own social, cultural, and political connotations. In the history of sexuality, language serves a very important purpose— contextualizing a specific time and place, and how a particular desire, act, or identity was named (if it was named at all). Wigglesworth serves as a nexus between Puritan sexual mores, their internalization, and individuated experiences of desire. In order to responsibly interpret his history, one must ask how he experienced his sexuality as well as how it might have been read by others. Did Wigglesworth identify himself as part of a nameless underclass of “sodomites” persecuted by society or as a sinner comparable to a drunkard or a murderer? Is the “incongruity” between Wigglesworth’s desires and behavior something to be read as a lack of self-acceptance (by today’s standards) or a spiritual struggle (by Wigglesworth’s own perspective)? The inclusive historian must balance the agency of historical actors (like Wigglesworth) to conceive of their experiences on their own terms, with a critique of the social, cultural, and political constrictions placed on them that shaped their self-conceptions.

American scholar David Halperin once argued that sexuality “is a cultural production: it represents the appropriation of the human body and of its physiological capacities by an ideological discourse.”[ii] In other words, sexuality is a social construct and it is our job, as historians, to trace its genealogy—how experiences and conceptions of sex[iii] have changed over time. As French philosopher Michel Foucault argued in The History of Sexuality, sexuality has been framed by power dynamics that constitute “normal” and “abnormal” sexual experience.[iv] When we say that present-day American society is cisheterocentric,[v] we mean that it continually reinforces those norms about how sexed bodies and sexuality are experienced and described. But was this always the case?

The Importance of Language and Cultural Context

Queer theory serves as a useful framework for the inclusive historian because it encourages us to examine the sexual norms of a given context. “Queerness” (or what a given society deems sexually deviant) is a fluid concept and subject to change. Essentialists argue that sexual experience is innate to historical actors—that people are born with immutable desires. This position often connects to “born this way” and “gay gene” rhetoric, seeking scientific evidence to validate the experiences of queer people. While an important agenda, especially in campaigns against gay conversion therapy, essentialism is also tied to a long tradition of sexological activism and the medicalization of queer experiences. It also tends to conflate orientation and identity—such that “gayness” itself is timeless and universal, rather than homoerotic desire. Conversely, social constructionists find that sexual experiences are shaped by social, cultural, and political contexts—especially behavior and identity. Even if certain sexual desires are inborn, they, too, can be shaped by a person’s environment.

“Gender and sexuality inclusion” is typically considered a catch-all for (or, alternative to) the lengthy acronym of LGBTQIA+. But it has the potential to be much more than that. As inclusive historians, we recognize LGBTQIA+ identity is a specific set of identities, subsumed within a political movement that emerged from a particular time and place. Such terminology, its predominately Euro-American, present-day connotations, threatens to limit the scope of our scholarship. In reading backwards western queer experiences, historians have haphazardly applied modern identities to the sexual past and sought to derive a progressive political narrative. The inclusive historian must contend with this combination of presentism and Euro-Americanism. The misapplication of terminology such as gay, homosexual, or queer to sexual desires and behaviors of the past allows historians to describe non-normative experiences in terms relatable to present-day Euro-American audiences.

However, in order to best interpret and delineate queer histories, we must emphasize relevant temporal and geographic contexts—so as to avoid imposition of modern meanings and allow narratives of non-normative eroticism to emerge on their own, with their own language and self-conception. For example, Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, argues—“the many vocabularies possible under the umbrella ‘women who love women’ work to dismantle the closet by decentering it, by positioning this trope in a spectrum of constructions of sexuality in which mati, zanmi, bull dagger, or lesbian all carry their own cultural and historical weight.”[vi] Likewise, consider nineteenth-century German lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who originated the identifier Urning (also known in English as Uranian) as a way of describing his inner desires. An attraction to men, Ulrichs believed, was an inherently feminine attribute. Consequently, he considered himself and others like him to be part of a third sex—with female sex drives (or psyches) and male bodies. In a conflation of what would now be considered intersexuality, transgender identity, and homosexuality, Ulrichs’ self-conception demonstrates the historical construction of sexed bodies and desires. Sex, gender, and sexuality have not always existed as separate concepts and, indeed, still do not in some cultures. The inclusive historian takes these facts into account when studying unfamiliar contexts.

Statues from the Saas Bahu mandir / Sahastrabahu Vaishnavite temple depicting scenes from the Kama Sutra, c. 11th century AD. Photo credit: Kandukuru Nagarjun, Flickr.

Similarly, the expansion of queer American histories into nonwestern contexts necessitates a broadened vocabulary to describe sexual experiences. The globalization of queer narratives presents the conundrum of a neocolonial occupation of nonwestern epistemologies. For example, localized identities may be reclaimed from precolonial times and/or originated in the present-day to dispute the claimed universality of Anglo sexuality. Their persistence is irreducible to the American constructs of gay, homosexual, or queer. Localized identities directly oppose Euro-Americentrism in queer history because, as in all transnational and cross-lingual surveys of sexuality, translation is an act of approximation and cultural connotation is never fully captured. Therefore, sexual histories in nonwestern contexts are entities unto themselves and should not be treated otherwise. For example, tongzhi is the contemporary Chinese word for a member of what westerners might call the LGBTQIA+ community, but was specifically adopted to counter Anglo identifiers. In other words, even if tongzhi is a modern identity, it may be anachronistically (mis)applied to Chinese history more readily than queer, which is not only anachronistic, but Euro-American in origin. The inclusive historian aids in the decolonization of history through selective language choice.

Modern distinctions of eroticism and romance between women is another example of how language informs the history of sexuality. Queer historians tend to resist ascribing “queerness” to female relationships, and are hyper-vigilant about presentist interpretations of affection. In lieu of same-sex sexual encounters, queer women are often said to have “romantic friendships” due to the absence of an explicitly articulated physical component to their bonds. Most queer women’s narratives rely upon private experiences articulated in the form of correspondence and journal entries, rather than more public records of the court and early activist treatises because female same-sex activity was rarely criminalized. Thus, historical work that glosses over the lives of queer women rests both in the seeming limitations of available primary source materials and in the phallocentric interpretations of extant evidence—in other words, claiming what constitutes intimacy (i.e., penetrative).

Political cartoon of Lady Strachan and Lady Warwick making love in a park while their husbands look on with disapproval, c. 1820. Photo credit: Wellcome Collection.

We must also bear in mind that queerness, while particularly relevant to a discussion of inclusive language, is only one facet of many in the study of the history of sexuality. Indeed, normative sexual desires, acts, and identities (and the language used to describe them) are much easier to excavate because they were openly reinforced rather than marginalized or erased from history. For example, Tom Reichert, Professor of Information and Communications at the University of South Carolina, considers how capitalism has reproduced cultural ideas about bodies, pleasure, and self-conception in The Erotic History of Advertising. Or we may consider the liminality of normative taboos and subcultures—wherein “acceptable” heterosexual desires and behaviors manifest in “unacceptable” contexts such as pornography or sex work. In turn, such experiences are re-eclipsed in the archive.

Ultimately, inclusive historians reorient themselves in an attempt to understand a different sexual experience or perspective, rather than fit those narratives into modern frameworks that are palatable to general audiences. The inclusive historian is successful in educating their audience about unfamiliar or even uncomfortable sexual experiences that challenge their preconceived notions on how sexuality may be experienced, acted upon, or identified.

Collection & Preservation: Considering Your Audience, Crafting the Narrative

The inclusive historian prioritizes provenance. The history of sexuality is often erased from lack of preservation of materials or, when materials are available, from a lack of context. As a collector for an archive, museum, or other repository, one must bear in mind how important source information is for interpretation.

For instance, many of the pornographic films at the Kinsey Institute Library and Archives—one of the largest repositories of sexual history in the United States—were acquired from anonymous donors. Beyond the occasional date of production, no information is offered regarding where the films were produced, by or for whom, or even how they were acquired and viewed. Understandably, taboo and stigma may have prevented the donors from revealing this information or even their identities. However, we are, once again, left with many gaps and silences in our narratives. What are the contingencies? The inclusive historian must identify creative methods of (re)interpretation and future preservation. Ultimately, absence is as telling as presence. What histories of sexuality get censored, based on the norms of their narrators, audiences, or the materials themselves?

For example, Sara Hodson, the Curator of Literary Manuscripts at The Huntington Library, processed the personal documents and correspondence of a gay man, containing the intimate details and confessions of their authors. In accordance with the Society of American Archivists’ Code of Ethics (“respect the privacy of people in collections, especially those who had no say in the disposition of the papers”), Hodson considered the possibility of outing anyone were the letters made publicly accessible.[vii] Similarly, we must prioritize the consent of those whose names and images appear in pornographic materials, lest they be unwillingly identified as sex workers. And what if all involved parties are unidentifiable or deceased? Is attempting to locate and contact them (or their next of kin) for permissions already a violation of their privacy?[viii] Hodson’s “decision-by-avoidance”[ix]—allowing enough time to pass to ensure that public access has, in all likelihood, become a nonissue—while practical, does not allow us to tackle the larger philosophical conundrums of our work.

How are ideas about sexuality in a given historical context evinced in these materials? Conversely, how are these sexual materials evinced in particular historical contexts? In other words, sexuality both shapes and is shaped by history and society. Consider again pornographic materials—while certainly not unique to queer collections, they tend to be more prevalent, thus jarring a placid archivist or curator into recognizing the intractability of attempting to be both inclusive of sexual minorities and keeping their repository “respectable.” Indeed, once pornography intersects with identity and community, it is difficult to accurately position the “objectivity” of the processor. How do we reexamine the role of historians in crafting erotic histories, making them “suitable” for public consumption, especially when said histories are a part of a larger narrative of liberation and representation (e.g., the increasing visibility of queer material culture)?

How is the history of sexuality sanitized for public consumption at the cost of inclusivity? For example, the Western Australian Museum came under fire in 2018 for acquiring and exhibiting a glory hole. The glory hole is part of a wooden toilet door from a demolished train station—a popular hookup spot prior to the 1990 decriminalization of sex between men. This piece of material culture was part of a historic site, where a queer counterpublic was formed. As described in the introduction of this article, sexual behavior is an external and usually private experience, but not always. When sexual behavior is public, it could be identified as hookups, sex work, or masturbation. Such taboo history is not often discussed in museum, archives, or other public history contexts. “Public” sex takes many forms, is not easily defined, and has various social, cultural, political, and legal implications. Critics were primarily concerned with audiences—children who might see the glory hole on display. Despite the lack of anything explicit in the object itself, its implications are enough to shock.

The inclusive historian seeks to interrogate stigma. However, social, cultural, political, and economic considerations may constrain this process. Do you work at a small local archive or historic site, a national institution, private or nonprofit organization? Are you a Catholic schoolteacher with students under eighteen years of age or a tenured professor at a prestigious, liberal university? The inclusive historian’s dependence on private funders, corporate sponsors, and/or public opinion ultimately informs their work. Capitalism censors and drives the narrative, as does racism, sexism, classism, and ableism (past and present). The history of sexuality shapes and is continually shaped by the power dynamics of our society. As historians, we may, unfortunately, end up as cogs in the machine, churning out the narratives most palatable to those in power.

Crafting Grassroots Narratives

When attempting to craft grassroots narratives apart from institutionalized history-making, the inclusive historian prioritizes the direct involvement of the historical “subjects” themselves (if alive) or, if not them, then members of their community. Consider the differences and similarities between your audience and your “subjects.” Whose experiences are being studied and explained—and for whom? An inclusive historian does not speak for their “subjects” or give voice to their experiences.

The inclusive historian is wary of discordant curation, as well as collection—for example, white scholars “specializing” in Black HIV/AIDS history being chosen to consult on an exhibition over actual Black HIV/AIDS activists whose materials and oral histories were included in said exhibition. The inclusive historian understands that equitable practice permeates all facets of historical production—collection, interpretation, and consumption. Whose materials are preserved, who fits them into a narrative, and who gets to learn about the history? Consider the (in)consistencies in demographics between these three groups. In this example, tapping into public power-knowledge—elder community leaders’ memories and legacies, as well as younger constituents’ reflections and connections to this past—would have guaranteed the practitioners involved in the project did not fall into the trap of claiming working-class, queer, and trans histories of color and history-makers of color “don’t exist” but are, rather, excluded from and within elite structures.

The inclusive historian must move beyond the notion that only “professionals” or “practitioners” can bestow historical authenticity. Even with “community-based” work, bear in mind that problems can arise. Oral history projects often appropriate people’s testimonies without compensation or involvement (such that practitioners take without giving back and are, in turn, celebrated for their “scholarship”). Similarly, “advisory groups” may invite token minorities to “sign off” on a predetermined narrative late in the planning process. But the inclusive historian values, supports, and prioritizes the knowledge and cultural production of people outside of the so-called public history field. What does the community get out of a history-making project? What does the community want from a history-making project? What rich and valuable experiences and insights can the community exchange equitably through a history-making project?

Conclusion

Interpreting the history of sexuality encompasses myriad subjects—movements and activisms; kinship and family-making; interracial relationships and mixedness; sexed people; stigmas against particular sex acts and desires; pornography and erotica; BDSM; sexology and medical institutions; eugenics, enslavement, abuse, and assault; reproductive health, STDs, and HIV/AIDS; sex work and the advent of cybersex. Once again, as an inclusive historian, it is your job to expand how these histories can be told using the resources available to you. Documentary evidence for sexuality includes how-to books, skin mags, and medical literature. The material culture of sexuality includes sex toys, film, and contraceptives. At a historic site, where does sexuality hold relevance? Was sexuality truly confined to the bedroom? Bear in mind that sexuality can be experienced anywhere, anytime. And how do we move beyond treating the history of sexuality as something “dead,” to be mediated through materials separate from their original contexts? How do we involve the living in their interpretation—the first-person narratives of historical actors themselves? Finally, with the advent of the Digital Age, we may consider how our sexualities are mediated through technology and encourage our audiences to reflect on how their sexual experiences are similar to, or different from, sexual experiences of the past. As an inclusive historian, you must continually challenge yourself (and your institution) to expand what comes to mind when you think of the history of sexuality and, in turn, what sorts of materials and stories should be included in your narrative production.

Notes

[i] LGBTQIA+ is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and additional identities.

[ii] David M. Halperin, “Is There a History of Sexuality?,” History and Theory 28 (1989): 257.

[iii] In another entry on “Gender,” a co-author will elucidate the differences between sex (as in a combination of biological and anatomical characteristics unique to an individual body) and gender (a fluid combination of roles, identities, and expressions). One thing to note on how interrelated these concepts are with sexuality is that they are all social constructs. We might often hear that gender is a social construct—born of societal expectations for sexed bodies. But what we do not often discuss is how sex is also a social construct—created by modern, western medical establishments to fit bodies into categories. The dichotomous categories of male and female are each a specific combination of myriad elements—such as hormones, chromosomes, and primary/secondary sex characteristics. Each of these elements has myriad manifestations—different balances of estrogen and testosterone, other chromosomes besides XX and XY, internal and external genitalia in different forms and sizes, etc.—and they occur in different combinations. In other words, sexed bodies are infinite and diverse. In turn, an inclusive, historical approach to sexuality would examine not just how different genders (roles, identities, and expressions) have interacted sexually over time but how different sexes (different bodies and the categories placed on them) have been desired and identified, fit together, and achieved pleasure over time.

[iv] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction (New York: Random House, 1978).

[v] Cisheterocentric comes from ciscentric and heterocentric. Ciscentric comes from cisgender—cisgender people identify with the sex they were assigned at birth (as opposed to transgender people, who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth). Heterocentric comes from heterosexual—heterosexual people are attracted to people of another sex.

[vi] Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha. Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism between Women in Caribbean Literature. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

[vii] Sara S. Hodson, “In Secret Kept, in Silence Sealed: Privacy in the Papers of Authors and Celebrities,” The American Archivist 67 (2004): 200–201.

[viii] For an example of privacy rights violation posed by the advent of new technologies, please refer to Luke O’Neil, “How Facial Recognition Software Is Changing the Porn Industry,” Esquire, September 27, 2016, http://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/sex/news/a48942/porn-facial-recognition.

[ix] Hodson, “In Secret Kept, in Silence Sealed,” 200–201.

Suggested Readings

Ferentinos, Susan.” Lifting our skirts: Sharing the sexual past with visitors.” History@Work. 1 July 2014. https://ncph.org/history-at-work/lifting-our-skirts/.

Hansen, Karen V. “‘No Kisses Is Like Youres’: An Erotic Friendship Between Two African-American Women During the Mid-Nineteenth Century.” Gender and History 7 (1995): 153-182.

Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (2008): 1-14.

Liu, Petrus. “Why Does Queer Theory Need China?.” positions 18 (2010): 291-320.

NOTCHES: a peer-reviewed, collaborative, and international history of sexuality blog. At: http://NotchesBlog.com/

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. and George Chauncey. “Thinking Sexuality Transnationally: An Introduction.” GLQ 5 (1999): 439-449.

Tang, GVGK. “Sex in the Archives: The Politics of Processing and Preserving Pornography in the Digital Age.” The American Archivist 80, no. 2 (2017): 439-452.

Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha. “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage.” GLQ 14 (2008): 191-215.

Author

~ GVGK Tang is a public historian and community organizer with a background in transnational queer politics. Tang serves on the Long-Range Planning Committee and Diversity & Inclusion Task Force for NCPH. To get in touch, visit @gvgktang on Twitter and gvgktang.com.

Memorials and Monuments

View of “A Quest for Parity: The Octavius V. Catto Memorial” Statue. Photo credit: Mark Jason Dominus, Wikimedia Commons.

Memorials and monuments punctuate our lives. Many of us are taught to revere them early on—in town squares, at museums, throughout our national parks, and everywhere in between. We may repeat the ritual with our own children, who may someday bury us beneath smaller though no less meaningful monuments. All the while, we live our lives before the silent gaze of granite soldiers, towering obelisks, historic buildings, roadside crucifixes, memorial bridges, and no end of scattered mementos. Some of them were left by ancestors for reasons that may be obscured by time. Some appear as if overnight, often born of grief for a loved one lost to violence or disregard. People have given their lives in the service of monuments; others have killed to protect them. Love, hate, fear, faith, determination, and deception all inhere in our nation’s commemorative landscape. But what do we really know about these silent sentinels?

We know quite well from our vantage point in the early twenty-first century that memorials, monuments, and other expressions of our nation’s complex public memory are not, in fact, as silent as we might suppose. They have, rather, since the beginning of our national saga, witnessed and prompted impassioned dissent, vocal nationalism, and sometimes lethal violence. We know too from decades of scholarship that memorials and monuments trade in all matter of perceptual trickery. One person’s hero was another’s worst enemy. One town’s achievement meant another’s demise. One empire’s victory signaled the death of families and kingdoms and ecosystems elsewhere. Choices made about which of these memories to enshrine, and which ones to erase, are the messages that memorials and monuments convey today. In this sense, then, memorials are never silent, and they certainly do not reflect consensus. They are rather arguments about the past presented as if there were no argument.

We need monuments, even despite their tendency to misrepresent. At their best, monuments can bind us together and fortify our communities in the face of tragedy or uncertainty. They can also remind us that to be great is worthy of aspiration. The meaning of greatness, however, is never fixed. Indeed, how we define it—how, that is, we choose to remember—has become a matter of pointed concern, especially as Americans seek to expand opportunity among those whose forebears were so long erased from public memory. Is it possible to change a monument’s meaning once it has been built? Is there such a thing as a public memorial that respects the infinite diversity of the American public? These and other questions underlie what headlines and pundits characterize as our nation’s “monument wars,” longstanding contests of memory wherein the very meaning of citizenship is up for grabs.

Defining Terms: Memory, Commemoration, Monuments, and Memorials

Making sense of our monument wars and their history is complicated by the variety of words that are used, often interchangeably, to describe them. Words such as “monument,” “memorial,” and “commemoration” all share in their deep history a root in another complicated word: “memory.” Memory, of course, is as old as humankind, and perhaps older. Historians study memory, as do neuroscientists, physiologists, physicists, sociologists, philosophers, and others besides. The remarkable scope of memory studies and the field’s growth in recent decades, signals how deeply memory runs through all facets of modern life. Historians cannot make sense of memory alone. We have, however, made important contributions to the conversation, especially concerning memory’s capacity to shape ideas about nation and citizenship.

In the United States, for instance, leading memory scholars—including Michael Kammen, David Blight, James Young, and Erika Doss—have advanced a set of propositions, drawn from an array of social and cultural theory, that explain how memory promotes a common sense of American identity over time and across lines of difference. They include the possibility that, in addition to each person’s individual memory, there exists a collective memory too—a stew of facts and images and stories—that shapes and is itself shaped by our personal recollections. There is also the notion that memory can reside in objects and places, and that attending to these is one way that nations sustain our loyalties. Historians are concerned, too, with traumatic memories, such as those associated with war and genocide, and have recently begun to explore the monument’s capacity to aggregate and deploy deep wells of emotion. Running through all of this is an awareness that, if we listen closely, monuments can speak volumes about the intent of their makers. They usually tell us more, in fact, about the people who made them than whatever it is that they commemorate.

The monuments and memorials we are concerned with, then, are expressions of public memory. They are born of individuals whose personal memories get bound up by some common interest within some common corner of some community’s collective memory. The process whereby this confluence of individual memories is vetted and repackaged for public consumption is what we refer to as commemoration. Commemoration itself can be an event, such as is the case with some parades, festivals, and even the preservation of old buildings. What we witness in those instances is a process whereby individuals are instructed—both by watching and by participating—in the performance of fealty to a shared set of ideas about the past: the war was noble, our ancestors were great, remembering is patriotic. These are powerful lessons, so much so that commemoration tends to obscure the possibility of believing otherwise.

The terms that we use to describe the products of commemoration, words such as “monument” and “memorial,” may vary in purpose. “Monument,” for instance, usually refers to a commemorative structure or edifice, whereas “memorial” applies to almost anything—including buildings, books, roads, stadiums—that recalls the dead or the experience of profound loss. The Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, D.C., is also a monument, because the structure itself functions as a well of national regard for Lincoln’s sacrifice and vision. Across town, however, only sports fans likely consider the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium a monument. Its tribute to Kennedy’s memory is in name alone. The rules are neither hard nor fast. The National Park Service, for instance, applies the designation “monument” to any unit—whether or not it foregrounds commemoration—that is established by executive order. More significant than these shades of meanings is the ubiquity of words such as “monument” and “memorial” in our daily lives.  Language reveals the extent to which memory surrounds us everywhere and always.

Cemetery Monument, Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo credit: Daniel Mayer, Wikimedia Commons.

A Brief History of Commemoration in the United States

There is nothing that obligates Americans to remember in the ways that they do. Indeed, the nation’s founders railed against the excesses of memory. In their eyes, the corrosive influence of ancient traditions—such as those that sustained Britain’s monarchy and its landed aristocracy—was precisely what prompted the American Revolution. So how then did commemoration end up being so prevalent in the United States?

Two common explanations deploy two different histories: one deep, the other more recent. In the first case, the American preoccupation with commemoration, and especially the mingling of objects and memory, reaches all the way back to medieval Europe. The early Christian church, as the story goes, sought by the ninth century to entice converts by deploying an array of sacred objects, the so-called cult of saints’ relics. The appeal of these relics—bits of hair, bone, and other vestiges of bygone saints—resided in their power to connect worshipers to the divine, literally, through touch or by mere proximity. Elaborate rituals of belief grew up around these objects and the reliquaries that contained them. Increasingly their power mingled, in early modern Europe, with secular objects of curiosity gathered by explorers and exhibited alongside relics in cathedrals, princely chambers, and curiosity cabinets. Mastery of worlds, human and divine, might be had by whomever could amass the largest collection. Even mystics and clerics got in on the game, imagining elaborate memory theaters from within which one might see, and thus learn to recall, knowledge of all times and places. The ways of knowing associated with these practices, as has been shown by Stephen Greenblatt and cleverly illustrated by Lawrence Weschler, penetrated western culture so deeply that they travelled along with Europeans into North America. Modern-day museums thus recall the ancient impulse to venerate remarkable objects, as do memorials and monuments where visitors might commune with the past by bringing themselves near to all manner of markers and cenotaphs.

In the other case, made by historians such as Alfred Young and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, American commemorative preoccupations are associated with a sense of historical discontinuity that seems to have originated by the 1770s, during the “Age of Revolution,” and which reached a fevered pitch by at least 1900. This story explains why, though the founding generation distrusted monuments, the deaths of its most prominent leaders—first George Washington and, later, Thomas Jefferson—prompted an early wave of commemorative activity by the 1820s. The Civil War, of course, exacerbated this sense of historical rupture and set into motion a commemorative spree that has not yet abated. By the end of the nineteenth century, Americans erected obelisks, collected old things—clothes, quilts, furniture, tools, and more—opened museums, founded historical societies, preserved old homes, and staged fetes and festivals all in hopes of staving off their nagging concern that something had been lost amid the ravages of modernity. Their efforts, especially during the years spanning the World Wars, were so expansive that much of the commemorative infrastructure they built remains today.

Since World War II, Americans have experimented with new commemorative forms. During the postwar years, named municipal buildings and commemorative highways replaced a previous generation’s fondness for granite soldiers and obelisks. Monuments to shared loss have also become increasingly common. Inspired by Maya Lin’s widely influential 1982 Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, modern monuments often feature abstract forms and reflective surfaces in place of the figurative literalism preferred a century ago. Impermanent or impromptu memorials have also become a staple of modern commemorative practice. Mounds of stuffed animals, ghost-white bicycles, roadside shrines with hard-hats and t-shirts, car windows airbrushed with sentimental tributes, tattoos, and scores of commemorative websites all reveal our own era’s concern to mourn publicly. It is a shift, as Erika Doss argues, that signals a new period in our commemorative history, one wherein national belonging is reckoned emotionally in acts of public feeling.

Oklahoma City National Memorial on the 10th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Photo credit: Executive Office of the President of the United States, Wikimedia Commons.

The Contours of Memory

Commemorative trends notwithstanding, memorials and monuments are endlessly diverse insomuch as acts of public memory always reflect the particularities of time and place. An uneasy grid of concrete slabs recalls the Holocaust at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany. The “Door of No Return”—part of the Maison des Esclaves on Senegal’s Gorée Island—commemorates the terrors of the Atlantic slave trade. And a commemorative complex in Vietnam’s Quảng Ngãi Province testifies to the rape and slaughter of civilians by U.S. Army soldiers in a place Americans remember as My Lai. These monuments demonstrate that commemoration need not always seek resolution. Indeed, commemorating sites of shame offers an important corrective to triumphant portrayals of the past that inevitably obscure historical complexity. Monuments like these, that are indelibly bound up with American history abroad, also remind us that memory is not confined to national borders. The circulation for centuries of people, capital, and ideas has ensured that all of our memories are entwined within deep networks of global remembrance.

Some monuments and memorials seek to redress lapses in what is presented as “official” public memory. The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Colorado, for instance, now insists—after more than a century of white Coloradans deliberately mischaracterizing the massacre as a battle—that the Arapaho and Cheyenne be reinscribed onto our national memory of westward expansion, which for generations has either omitted Native Americans or dismissed them as mere obstacles to progress. Such is the function of so-called counter monuments. Counter monuments, as James Young suggests, demand a reappraisal of collective memory by demonstrating awareness of their own contrivance. They do so, in some cases, by insisting on the inclusion of people—and, sometimes, entire segments of American society—that have been persistently absented from public memory. In 2017, Philadelphians honored Octavius V. Catto with a statue, the first ever in Philadelphia to commemorate an individual of African descent. Elsewhere, counter monuments do their work by modifying extant monuments or presenting them in a different light. Artist Krzysztof Wodiczko complicated our understanding of the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, Massachusetts, for instance, with a temporary 1998 installation that projected onto its sides towering videos of mothers torn by the loss of children to neighborhood street violence.

Removing or relocating monuments and memorials can also reveal the deep intensity of contested memory. Beginning in 2015, in response to a mass shooting at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, cities across the United States—including New Orleans, Baltimore, and Los Angeles—opted to remove monuments valorizing the Confederacy and white supremacy from courthouses and parks. Scores of these monuments had been erected throughout the twentieth century to legitimize white supremacy and otherwise shift Americans’ commemorative gaze away from the degradations of slavery. The removal campaign turned violent in August 2017 when white supremacists and their supporters rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, ostensibly in defense of a monument portraying Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Clashes with counter-protesters resulted in one death and multiple injuries, and appeared to many Americans as a metaphor for the heated debates about race and citizenship that consumed the nation during the presidential election of 2016.

Tomorrow’s Monuments and Memorials

Removal debates remind us that commemoration is always political. Even the most benign monuments are products of choices made about how to remember, what to remember, and how to pay for it all. Faced with this certainty, then, how might we create monuments today that speak beyond our immediate concerns, and to audiences who may not remember in the same ways that we do? History shows us that a good first step is to engage as many constituencies as possible in the commemorative process. Commemoration grows from conversation, and as such should include as many voices as possible. Archiving the conversations that produce monuments is another important step. By preserving a record of our deliberations over public memory, we leave for future generations an indication of what is at stake in our commemorative aspirations. Above all, we must remember that monuments and memorials are neither silent nor innocent. The harder we think about their meanings today, the more likely they are to speak with clarity tomorrow.

Suggested Readings

Allison, David B., ed. Controversial Monuments and Memorials: A Guide for Community Leaders. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2018.

Bruggeman, Seth C., ed. Commemoration: The American Association for State and Local History Guide. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Doss, Erika. Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Duppstadt, Andrew, Rob Boyette, and Sgt. Damian J.M. Smith. “Planning Commemorations.” Technical Leaflet 241. American Association for State and Local History.

Glassberg, David. “Public History and the Study of Memory.” The Public Historian 18, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 7-23.

Savage, Kirk. Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Reconsideration of Memorials and Monuments. A special edition of History News 71, no. 4 (Autumn 2016).

Author

~ Seth C. Bruggeman is an associate professor of history at Temple University, where he directs the Center for Public History. His books include Commemoration: The American Association for State and Local History Guide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), Born in the USA: Birth and Commemoration in American Public Memory (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), and Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument (University of Georgia Press, 2008). You can follow him on Twitter @scbrug and explore his website at https://sites.temple.edu/sethbruggeman.

Armenian American dancers

U.S. Bicentennial, 1976

Armenian American dancers (Nayiri Dance Group) in New York City, July 1976. Photo credit: Nick DeWolf, Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout the “Bicentennial Era” (1971-1976), Americans commemorated the two-hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and American Revolution in different ways. In Ogden, Utah, the city restored its historic Union Station and opened a railroad museum inside. In Washington, D.C., two brothers formed the Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation and, with grant money from the National Park Service, researched and designated black history landmarks. Bowling Green State University moved a historic one-room schoolhouse onto campus. In Boston, members of the National Organization for Women marched in the parade commemorating the Boston Tea Party, connecting their own struggle for rights with that of the colonists. Boosters in Biloxi, Mississippi created a Seafood Heritage Trail. At the end of the period, the American Revolutionary Bicentennial Administration reported that over 90% of Americans participated in at least one Bicentennial-related activity.

The Bicentennial—as it was celebrated—was ultimately very inclusive: that is, many different groups and individuals found purpose in the commemoration and were able to observe it in ways that were impactful to them. But it certainly did not start this way. Originally, planners conceived of it as a top-down and centralized tribute to American achievement. Thinking critically about the Bicentennial is useful not only because of its place in the origin stories of many public history institutions and initiatives, but also because commemoration is often a key reason for, and part of, local history efforts of all kinds. Moreover, because of its unique juxtaposition of federal and local efforts, the Bicentennial continues to hold important lessons for contemporary planners of national commemorative events. For these reasons, it’s useful to track the way that the Bicentennial was envisioned, planned, and ultimately celebrated, both nationally and in local communities.

Contexts: “The New Nostalgia”

The Bicentennial occurred during an era in which Americans were much more interested in history than they had been in the forward-looking 1950s and ’60s. Many commentators remarked upon “the new nostalgia” that seemed to be permeating American culture—from fashion trends for platform shoes (originally seen as a 1930s throwback) to films such as American Graffiti and television shows like Little House on the Prairie, Happy Days, and The Waltons. While this cultural turn exceeded the Bicentennial, it helped stoke excitement about history. And, in many cases, as with CBS’s nightly Bicentennial Minutes and the landmark miniseries Roots (called by its author, Alex Haley, a “Bicentennial present to America”), which inspired so many, public and popular history efforts were inextricably connected, further evidence of how wide-reaching the Bicentennial was.

Planning for The Bicentennial

From the beginning, government leaders saw the upcoming Bicentennial celebration as a means to encourage patriotic feeling and behavior in Americans. By the mid-1960s, the consensus that had characterized the United States in the period following World War II was rapidly fracturing. Both federal and corporate interests saw the Bicentennial as an opportunity to unite Americans in their support for the larger political project celebrated by the commemoration.

Planning for the commemoration began in 1966, a full ten years before the actual event. President Lyndon B. Johnson created a bipartisan American Revolution Bicentennial Commission (ARBC) made up of a mix of elected officials, business leaders, and public figures. Under Johnson, the ARBC planned a World’s Fair, like the 1876 Centennial that had been held in Philadelphia. In the beginning, the ARBC conceived of the Bicentennial as forward-looking, an extension of Johnson’s Great Society programs; it was an opportunity to take stock and to bring new resources to as many Americans as possible. After the 1968 election of Richard Nixon, the ARBC changed tenor. Nixon made new appointments of political cronies and longtime supporters, and, rather than seize the opportunity to extend socio-economic benefits more broadly, the Nixonian Bicentennial was to be a celebration of American supremacy.

Critiques of Celebration

Throughout the 1970s, Americans questioned the meaning of the Bicentennial and Nixon’s plans for it. These critiques came from a variety of sources, including elected officials, commentators in the media, and activists. Despite the different origins, the concerns voiced by these individuals and groups were similar: Nixon was politicizing the Bicentennial planning by linking it too closely to his presidency and the 1972 campaign; the ARBC was corrupt and unwieldy; the Bicentennial effort was not representative; and—most significantly—an expensive, celebratory international exposition was out-of-step with the troubled contemporary moment.

Other challenges were even more pointed and reflected a critique of not only the shape of the celebration but also its cause. A group called the Bicentennial Without Colonies sought to use the commemoration to point to the disjunction between the ideals and realities of the Revolution, specifically the ongoing inequality, disenfranchisement, and imperialism evidenced by U.S. actions in Puerto Rico. Local and national organizers for the Black Panther Party and American Indian Movement were involved in this latter effort and in interviews, speeches, and publications, also drew attention to the federal Bicentennial’s erasure of both the histories of inequality and the contributions of people of color to the nation, while celebrating the histories and accomplishments of African Americans and Native Americans.

But suspicion of the ARBC and lack of enthusiasm for the World’s Fair model did not dampen excitement for the upcoming commemoration itself. All over the country Americans were finding their own ways to make the Bicentennial meaningful. A group called the People’s Bicentennial Commission emerged as the most sustained critics of the ARBC and Nixon, accusing the President of “stealing” the Bicentennial and seeking to use the commemoration for his own political purposes. Instead of following the “official” celebration, the PBC advised, Americans should find their own ways to celebrate, whether that meant researching local history, planning community events, or using the American Revolution as inspiration for contemporary social movements.

Grassroots History

Various groups, communities, and institutions found their own ways to commemorate the Bicentennial, many of which were historical in scope. AASLH’s Above Ground Archaeology taught people how to do local history. Historians Leticia Woods Brown and Ruth Edmonds Hill inaugurated the Black Women Oral History Project at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Above all, the Bicentennial stoked new excitement in all kinds of histories: family histories, house histories, and community histories. The majority of grassroots Bicentennial projects were hyper-local; they spoke to the experiences and needs of their own immediate communities.

Although the majority of Bicentennial efforts were local in nature, there were a few projects—usually partnerships between federal, state, and commercial interests—that were national in scope. These included OpSail, a parade of sixteen tall ships that sailed into New York Harbor, the Bicentennial Wagon Train, a “history in reverse” yearlong journey by Conestoga wagons from western states to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and the Bicentennial Freedom Train, which displayed artifacts from the National Archives and elsewhere. Notably, even these national projects reflected the local character of the Bicentennial as they planned journeys across communities in the United States.

Likewise, many national institutions used the Bicentennial as an opportunity to plan special exhibits, events, and programs. At the Smithsonian, this included the Festival of American Folklife and the new National Air and Space Museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art worked with Charles and Ray Eames to plan “The World of Franklin and Jefferson,” an exhibit that traveled to Paris, Warsaw, and beyond.

The Bicentennial Era also saw the creation of many new institutions including the African American Museum in Philadelphia and the Mid-America All-Indian Center in Kansas. Projects like these, which emerged from activist efforts at inclusive histories, were an important part of challenging and changing narrow and non-representative local and regional histories. From the beginning, Bicentennial efforts in states and communities exceeded those on the federal level.

Changing Course

By 1972, the critiques aimed at the ARBC and the Bicentennial effort had grown too loud to be ignored, and the Commission fell under investigation from the House Judiciary Committee and the General Accounting Office. ARBC also accepted that a large, centralized World’s Fair-type commemoration was unrealistic and changed gears. By early 1973, ARBC had settled on a project called “Bicentennial Communities” that would allow the national organization to support, publicize, and record more local Bicentennial programming and initiatives. The decision was a recognition of the community-based and grassroots efforts that were, by this point, characterizing commemorative planning across the nation. Bicentennial Communities would allow the federal body to preside over a decentralized commemoration that was different in shape and scope from any before it. At the end of the commemoration, more than twelve thousand Bicentennial Communities would be recognized by the federal body.

At the end of the Bicentennial, ARBA had disbursed over $20 million in administrative funding and grants-in-aid to each state, territory, and commonwealth—funding raised partly from the sale of commemorative coins, and partly from government appropriations. State legislatures added about $25 million towards projects and initiatives. Finally, the Department of Commerce used Title X funding to create jobs for over a hundred Bicentennial projects, including a transportation project in Vermont and a water and sewer improvement project on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.

Legacies of the Bicentennial

It is the availability of these resources that is ARBA’s—and perhaps the Bicentennial’s—greatest legacy. It is no coincidence, for example, that so many public history institutions and initiatives were founded in the mid-1970s; this is a result of both the excitement and the opportunities afforded by the commemoration. Projects inaugurated or expanded during the Bicentennial Era include the restoration of the historic utopian community site New Harmony, Indiana and the creation of Liberty State Park in New Jersey and Historic Fort Wayne in Detroit, among many others. For these projects, the commemoration was the impetus for more sustained efforts that extended in impact far beyond the scope of the Bicentennial Era.

By the end of 1976, official planners were congratulating themselves on a pluralistic, diverse celebration; however, the Bicentennial was inclusive because people made it so. Americans—informed and inspired by the black freedom struggle, women’s liberation, and other social movements—made the commemoration matter to their own communities and their own experiences. Ultimately, the way the Bicentennial was envisioned, planned, coordinated, and remembered by official agents was a response to this. In order to be successful, commemorative events and efforts must always be responsive to the needs of their audiences and constituents.

Lessons for Anniversary Commemorations

Several key points about the Bicentennial may be useful for those thinking about how to become involved in commemorations, such as the upcoming 250th anniversary (semiquincentennial) of the American Revolution:

The commemoration became an opportunity to question the relationship between the past and the present. Anniversaries are often an opportunity to take stock, and in the case of the Bicentennial, activists and historians started important conversations about not only the legacies of the American Revolution (most notably, who exactly benefitted from “independence”), but how the story was told—who was included and who was not. These conversations, in turn, informed many Bicentennial efforts.

Resources were used to develop and start initiatives, many of which are flourishing today. Federal and state funding helped kickstart projects, and public interest in history gave these projects their first audiences and supporters. Projects sought to involve as many people as possible in collecting, recording, researching, and interpreting history. Because so many projects were local in scope, they involved community members in oral history efforts and collection and archiving projects. Interactive, inclusive projects invited individuals to connect with the past and make their own meaning. Participating in grassroots local history efforts gave many people a chance to find and engage with histories that were relevant to them.

The culmination of ten years of planning at all levels of government, the final form of the Bicentennial—a pluralistic, grassroots celebration—was a symptom of larger shifts in how Americans used history to build and affirm individual and group identities. But more importantly, it was the result of concerted efforts by individuals and groups across the nation to make it meaningful: to question both the historical narrative and its official observation, to create projects and programs that reflected their own communities, and to take advantage of resources the commemoration made available. Although each commemoration is different—a result of its own social, cultural, and political contexts—it is worth looking to the Bicentennial for perspective on how subsequent commemorations might be successfully designed to maximize inclusivity and social impact.

Suggested Readings

American Revolutionary Bicentennial Administration. American Revolution Bicentennial: A Final Report to the People, (Vols. 1-6). United States Government Printing Office, 1977.

Burns, Andrea. From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

Capozzola, Christopher. “It Makes You Want to Believe in the Country: Celebrating the Bicentennial in an Age of Limits.” In America in the Seventies, edited by Beth Bailey and David Farber. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2004.

Cook, Robert J. Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007. See, especially, pages 29-49.

Gordon, Tammy S. The Spirit of 1976: Commerce, Community, and the Politics of Commemoration. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post Civil Rights America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006

Lepore, Jill. The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010

Rymsza-Pawlowska, M.J. History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

Walker, William S. “Finding National Unity Through Cultural Diversity: The Smithsonian and the Bicentennial,” 153-95. In A Living Exhibition: The Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

Zaretsky, Natasha. “The Spirit of ’76: The Bicentennial and Cold War Revivalism,” 143-82. In No Direction Home: The American Family and the Fear of National Decline, 1968-1980. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Author

~ M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska is Assistant Professor of History and Co-Director of the Graduate Program in Public History at American University. She is the author of History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s (2017), and is currently working on a new book about time capsules in the twentieth century. M.J. is also involved in a number of local history initiatives, including the D.C. Humanities Truck and the Washington History Conference. She can be reached at Rymsza at American dot edu.

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on his first day in office

U.S. Presidents

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on his first day in office, January 21, 2009. Photo credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, Wikimedia Commons.

As long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible. . . . But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts—that out of many, we are truly one. ~Barack Obama

Barack Obama here expresses one of the most enduring ideas about the United States: America as a land of opportunity, where anybody (well, so far any man) can aspire to be president. The National Park Service, National Archives, state and local governments, and private nonprofit organizations operate at least eighty-seven places commemorating forty-four past presidents. The list includes Mount Vernon, the homes of John and John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, James Madison’s Montpelier, and most recently the Bill Clinton Birthplace and the George W. Bush Childhood Home (also the home of George H. W. Bush between 1951 and 1955). There are also presidential libraries, tombs (Monroe, Grant, and McKinley), and monuments in Washington, D.C. (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and both Franklin Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt).

Memorializing Presidents

Why do we memorialize presidents? One answer is that presidents themselves consciously worked to secure their legacies as patriotic and revered leaders. George Washington, for example, sat for twenty-four portraits during his lifetime, and modern presidents—beginning with Franklin Roosevelt—have had a hand in creating their presidential libraries.

Many of us memorialize presidents because we have been taught—and we believe—that the presidents literally personify the nation. From the start, when the nation was a fragile union of thirteen contentious former colonies, writers, artists, and educators tried to bind the country together by portraying George Washington as the human face of the abstract principles on which the nation was founded. Never was this more evident than when The Apotheosis of Washington was painted in the oculus of the Capitol Dome in 1863. As the divided nation tore itself apart during the Civil War, the deified first president looked down from the heavens beneath a banner declaring E Pluribus Unum.

Apotheosis of Washington, United States Capitol. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

It is for good reason that Washington became known to succeeding generations as “the father of his country.” He was unanimously elected president in an age of hereditary kings whose subjects believed him to be the embodiment of the nation-state. Washington instilled in the office of the presidency republican values that rejected European traditions of inherited rule, but the belief that the president personifies the nation nevertheless crossed the ocean and lives on to this day.

Indeed, the idea that the presidency is synonymous with the nation makes patriotic nationalism a central component of America’s traditional narrative. Even though there was no direct connection between FDR’s presidency and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, for example, visitation spiked at his presidential library immediately afterward—likely because Americans were seeking a meaningful way to express and reinforce their patriotism.

To many Americans and many historians, however, the history of the presidency is full of examples that contradict the traditional celebratory and patriotic narrative. Three Founders who became president, for example, held other human beings in bondage even as they declared that “all men are created equal.” Beginning with Jefferson, presidents tried to remove Native Americans from their lands—Andrew Jackson, in the name of national security, even pursued policies that were arguably genocidal. Abraham Lincoln chose saving the Union over freeing the slaves until half-way through the Civil War. And he, like James Monroe, advocated resettling freed slaves in Africa rather than allowing them to share the “blessings of liberty” in the country of their birth. Seventeen men would occupy the office of the presidency after women gathered at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 to promote their equality before gaining the right to vote with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Woodrow Wilson, father of the League of Nations, was also responsible for the establishment of Jim Crow policies. Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal brought hope, dignity, and financial security to the nation’s most forgotten men and women, is also remembered for interning nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Ronald Reagan restored popular faith in the presidency but also seriously undermined the rights of the American worker.

Relevance

Many everyday Americans have—for a variety of reasons—grown alienated from American history and come to believe that the presidency is no longer relevant to their lives. Some, driven by anti-government rhetoric in the media, may have even come to regard the nation’s history as a betrayal of the patriotic values that they learned in school. Obama’s “out of many, we are truly one” sometimes rings hollow, and too many people have grown unwilling to memorialize the presidency or visit presidential historic sites.

Lots of Americans, though, remain committed to the democratic values of the Founders and many (if not all) of the presidents. For their part, social historians have for years been exploring the experiences of immigrants, workers, racial and ethnic minorities, enslaved people, Native Americans, women, children, families, and people with disabilities or different gender identities to create a more inclusive historical narrative. And while often critical, the underlying point of this history is that by protest and/or working together Americans have generally succeeded in extending their freedoms and overcoming the forces that have divided them—whether by race, ethnicity, gender, or class. This is inclusive history and it carries a very powerful message that historians should embrace and aggressively pursue.

Engaging Audiences

Many people who visit presidential sites come to demonstrate their patriotism and often hold emotionally charged opinions about their presidents. Still, while presidential sites may occupy sacred ground, they are also educational institutions where historians can introduce the public to historical context and the many nuances of historical interpretation. Because history resonates differently with different audiences, however, historians at these sites first need to acknowledge and show respect for the diverse points of view they are likely to encounter at their museums and libraries. History professionals can learn from visitors who hail from different cultures and understand history differently than they do. At the same time that historians respectfully engage visitors in the give and take of democratic discourse, they also need to remember that they too have valuable expertise. Historical interpretation should be based on the best available evidence.

Public audiences sometimes need help moving beyond myths and legends to understand why a given president made the decisions he did. Did he marginalize certain groups out of bigotry or prejudice? Or did he believe that he needed to make a hard decision because of other circumstances? Could he have chosen a different course? Did others in positions of power make different choices? What are different historians’ perspectives on the subject? A useful rubric for an inclusive history of the presidency might pose this question: How well did a given president employ the power of his office to advance equality, civil rights, liberty, and democracy?

Addressing Controversy

Every presidential site is different, just as every presidency offers different opportunities for exploring its own narrative. Consider, for example, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum. Twenty years ago certain subjects were taboo in the museum’s permanent exhibition. Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust was one of them, because museum leaders felt that discussion of the subject might tarnish the memory of Roosevelt’s presidency. Still, historical studies in the 1980s criticized Roosevelt for inaction or even charged him with complicity in the deaths of millions of Jews, and the museum recognized that it needed to include some representation of the Holocaust. But instead of an interpretation that placed the subject in context and presented alternative historical interpretations, the museum offered a single object: a de-consecrated manuscript scroll of the Torah that had been rescued from a Czechoslovakian synagogue in 1938. There was no interpretive label, just catalog information that the National Council of Young Israel had presented the Torah to Roosevelt on March 14, 1939, to “inspire thousands upon thousands of young people with deeper respect and reverence for the eternal values contained therein.” Displaying the Torah implied (but did not explicitly state) the message that the museum hoped to convey—that the Jews of his day admired Roosevelt and that, even though the Holocaust took place during his presidency, there was little Roosevelt could do beyond his central goal of winning the war and defeating Hitler as quickly as possible.

This institutional response to responsible criticism was good as far as it went, but it failed to acknowledge any alternative interpretations. Worse, it did not mention the fact that the overwhelming majority of Czechoslovakian Jews died in Hitler’s extermination camps; neither did it engage its audience in a conversation about the causes and legacies of the Holocaust.

The museum has since recognized the problem, and today has made a deeper story of the Holocaust an important part of its permanent exhibition. Two of ten interactive touch screen kiosks now feature digital flipbooks (titled “Confront the Issues”) that encourage visitors to explore for themselves Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust: FDR and the Prewar Refugee Crisis and FDR and the Holocaust 1942–1945. Visitors get to examine facsimile documents and photographs and, under “Historical Perspectives,” read historians’ differing views on the subject. They consequently learn to appreciate and respect alternative—more inclusive—narratives, and they come away with their own, now more informed, interpretations.

While the interpretation of this and other controversial issues questions the traditional celebratory narrative of the Roosevelt presidency, it has not led to any outpouring of protest at the museum. Nor has it damaged Roosevelt’s reputation. Quite the opposite. Visitors instead feel more respected and appreciative of thought-provoking museum displays and texts that encourage them to better understand Roosevelt and the democracy that he and Americans of his era championed.

Civic Obligations and an Engaged Citizenry

Americans in all eras have faced challenges to their democracy. Historians have a civic obligation to help people understand the complexities of the past so that they can make better decisions in the present. After all, the idea that an educated citizenry is essential to democracy is written into our national DNA. As Jefferson wrote to Madison from Paris in 1787, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. . . . They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” Washington agreed. He wrote in his Farewell Address, “In proportion as the structure of government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”

The question we sometimes ask ourselves today is whether or not Barack Obama was a great president. Only time will tell. But the measure of Obama’s success—like that of every other president—lies not in his group identity, but in his dedication to the great principles on which the nation was founded and his mastery of the forces that shaped his presidency. Obama himself understood this. Remember his contention that “the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts—that out of many, we are truly one”? It suggests that Obama recognized that the success of his presidency was possible only because of the durability of the nation’s founding principles.

Historians have important work to do. Franklin Roosevelt, a keen student of history, knew this when he wrote that a “Nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.” If Americans—all Americans—hope to learn from the past, they need to find better ways to learn it together. For historians, certainly, working with the public to develop a more inclusive history of the presidency is an essential way to strengthen the nation’s democracy and make it work for the diverse, multi-racial, and multi-ethnic society we are today.

Suggested Readings

Atkinson, Rick. “Why We Still Care About America’s Founders.” New York Times, May 11, 2019.

Koch, Cynthia. “The American Story: From Washington to Roosevelt, Reagan and Beyond.” The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation@Adams House, Harvard. November 10, 2015.

Koch, Cynthia. “The End of History? FDR, Trump and the Fake Past.” The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation@Adams House, Harvard. May 15, 2019.

Lepore, Jill. “A New Americanism.” Foreign Affairs.com. February 5, 2019.

Loewen, James W. Teaching What Really Happened. New York: Teachers College Press, 2010.

Moss, Walter G. “Which Presidents—If Any—Did Right by Native Americans?” History News Network. October 7, 2018.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. 1980. Reprint. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1999.

Author

Cynthia M. Koch is Historian in Residence and Director of History Programming for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation at Adams House, Harvard University. She was Director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York (1999-2011) and subsequently Senior Adviser to the Office of Presidential Libraries, National Archives, Washington, D.C. From 2013-16 she was Public Historian in Residence at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY where she taught courses in public history and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a member of the Board of Directors of the National Council for Public History (2010-2013) and Executive Committee (2011-2014). Previously Dr. Koch was Associate Director of the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community, a national public policy research group at the University of Pennsylvania. She served as Executive Director (1993-1997) of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was Director (1979-1993) of the National Historic Landmark Old Barracks Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. A native of Erie, Pennsylvania, she holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania and a B.A. in History from Pennsylvania State University.

 

Food History

Food justice projects often invoke iconic and historical images that can create openings for public historians to connect with community organizing. Photo credit: David Garten on Flickr

Food: chances are you’ll be thinking about it at some point today, like almost everyone sharing the planet with you. Interacting with food may be as close as we’ll ever get to a universal human experience. But can we say that the public history of food is equally inclusive?

Food has certainly long been present in historical interpretation—often as an entry point. Thanks to our human wiring, food offers immediate appeal—to the mind and to the senses. Food traditions anchor communities, communicate continuity and belonging, and creatively infuse identities.

Yet people also draw sharp dividing lines using food. Ask a politically-committed vegan and a pasture-based husbandry advocate what kind of farming is best for the environment and you’ll get two very different answers. Food is also often subject to borderlines of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. Ali Berlow, in her Food Activist Handbook, shares an anecdote titled “We See What We’re Willing to See.” Looking at the “bucolic” farms of her own town, Berlow sees

. . . a peaceable kingdom: fertile lands producing good food for all, equanimity, access, balance, and respect between people, animals, land and cultivation. But as my friend the author Alice Randall pointed out, we all see things through the lens of our personal histories. My great-grandparents were German immigrants who moved to the Midwest, bought land, then worked the land they owned. My relationship to the landscape that I’ve inherited is different from that of some of my African-American friends and colleagues like Alice. I think it’s safe to say that most of their ancestors did not own the land they worked. When Alice looks at those same cornfields, grand old trees, and pastures, she may not envision a peaceable kingdom but rather one of terror, violence, and oppression.[i]

Food history can quickly lead to big questions about identity, equity, and sustainability. Those questions dig to the root of social, economic, and environmental challenges facing us today. This double-edged nature makes food an outstanding starting point for public historians working toward an equitable and engaged practice.

Let’s take a quick tour of the problematic past and hopeful present of public interpretation of food history, and identify some skills and resources that public historians can bring to food-related projects.

The Roots of Food in Public History

In museums, historic sites, and public history projects, food has often been loaded with assumptions, habits, and traditions that get in the way of inclusion. The earliest generation of historic preservationists preferred to keep the messy work of food cultivation and preparation (and the people who did it) hidden behind kitchen doors, but during the Civil War and succeeding decades, nostalgic “colonial” kitchens became a popular draw at public fairs and appeared in some early historic house museums. These feel-good spaces served unchallenging ideas about the past with their cups of chowder and slices of pie, setting long-lived expectations that public food history would provide comforting, patriotic reinforcement of existing power structures.

These interpretive tropes persisted. They can still be found today in museum displays of groaning farmstead tables, frothing butter churns, and tokenized “multicultural” food presentations that erase or mask histories of struggle, disparity, and oppression. Food historian Ken Albala identifies this mode as “culinary history,” focused on ingredients, cooking equipment, methods, and the re-creation of cooking processes, as opposed to a wider “food history” that investigates the social, economic, ethical, and political dimensions of food production and consumption.

A Broader View of Food History

A wider “food history” point of view began informing public interpretations of food starting in the 1960s, when emerging social history and public history movements brought critical approaches to the past. It also gave rise to a new museum genre: the living historical farm. Its birthplace was Old Sturbridge Village, where in 1970 a group convened to envision a national network of agricultural museums, to be funded in part (they hoped) by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though that scope was never realized, the living history farm began to dominate public history’s food and agriculture conversation by the 1970s. Key leaders organized ALHFAM (the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums) to share research and skills and to promote the vision of a new age of agricultural museums. ALHFAM’s influence has been enormous. Its annual national and regional meetings, publications, and workshops have amassed and disseminated practical knowledge on the reconstruction and interpretation of food processes.

But ALHFAM’s history reflects the tension between the narrower scope of “culinary history” and the more complicated questions raised by critical approaches to food. At its 2013 annual meeting, ALHFAM co-founder Darwin Kelsey challenged the group with a call to action, arguing that food interpreters (himself included) had been focused on the “what” of food history, at the expense of the “why.” It was past time, in his view, to engage with the present-day, global consequences of the histories they presented. AHLFAM’s creation, he noted,

. . . coincides almost precisely with the most radical change in the way humans feed themselves since homo sapiens began. We call this grand-scale experiment the industrial food system. For most Americans the industrial food system provides a food supply perceived to be abundant, cheap, and convenient. Yet in the last couple of decades it has become increasingly clear that this system has an inherent pattern of problems: Food of inferior taste and nutrition, fertilizer and herbicide pollution in streams and lakes, degradation and loss of farmland, depleted aquifers, farm worker abuse, inner city food deserts, intensive energy consumption, exacerbation of climate change, and narrow corporate control of the nation’s food supply . . . In 2013, it is clear that such problems make the current system unsustainable without radical change—fundamental culture change. Couldn’t—shouldn’t—playing an active, intentional role in that culture change become part of the why shaping the what of most living history farms?[ii]

Kelsey, who by 2013 was directing an innovative farm partnership within Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, was speaking as a participant in what is sometimes termed “the food movement.” Sometimes parodied and minimized as a collection of affluent white people obsessed with local, organic, humanely raised kale, in its full dimensions the food movement is notable for its depth and complexity, aptly described by food writer Michael Pollan as a “big lumpy tent.” People of varied backgrounds are drawn to food activism through multiple entry points: hunger and economic access; food sovereignty and food justice; nutrition and health; farm and food service labor and human rights; animal welfare; land conservation, rural redevelopment, and farmland preservation; gardening and urban farming; gastronomy and agritourism; environmentalism and climate change; and more. Like food history, these issues may begin with food, but expand outward to touch on the most pressing issues of our times.

Culinary historian and educator Michael Twitty links past and present in his work on race and Southern food. Photo credit: Ryan Lash/TED on Flickr

Reshaping Food History

Many current practitioners are reshaping the role of history in addressing those issues. Critical perspectives, shared authority, community engagement, and collaborative decision-making and leadership are now being integrated into many sites that present histories of food production, processing, and consumption.

  • The Museum of Ventura County (California) developed a three-part exhibition called At Table: The Business of Food and Community. Through art-inspired installations, programs, and historical interpretation, At Table built awareness and invited consideration of how ongoing immigration into the county has “influenced local recipes, menus and dining habits, as well as food-related businesses and restaurants.”
  • San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora created a Chef-in-Residence program. In 2015, its first resident chef, culinary celebrity Bryant Terry, worked with the museum to curate a program including panels on “Black Women, Food and Power” and “Feeding the Resistance”; a historically-themed dinner; and an interactive talk on food justice and public health.
  • The Queens County Farm Museum preserves New York City’s largest tract of undisturbed farmland. Its sustainable agriculture program interprets the history of organic farming in America and features a year-round growing program. Farm produce is featured in NYC’s Greenmarket, with any surplus donated to the recovery project City Harvest. The farm also provides eggs and hatchlings to the City Chicken program of the food justice group Just Food!, teaching city residents how to raise and keep egg-laying hens.
  • The National Museum of the American Indian features food sovereignty in its online exhibit Native Knowledge 360, with a focus on the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project to recover the foodways of Salish-speaking people of the Pacific Northwest. Discussion questions, informative resources, definitions, and quotations allow users to engage more deeply with perspectives on food sovereignty.
  • The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s Food History project brings together contemporary and historical investigations of American food culture from diverse perspectives through programs, an annual symposium, and online collections.

A Toolkit for Inclusive Food Interpretation

Despite this work, older interpretive tropes die hard. Institutional engagements with food still often stop at simplistic representation. It’s not difficult to understand why: the issues food connects to—health, environment, identity, economy, energy—are dauntingly vast and highly politicized. Inclusive food interpretation work digs into logistical, political, and regulatory challenges—aligning goals and agendas with commercial partners, including those who struggle to survive in a competitive marketplace; confronting the deep-rooted whiteness that has historically characterized both public history and many sectors of the food movement; and negotiating the constraints of health regulations and zoning. Between logistical challenges, internal resistance, insufficient knowledge, and skeptical leadership, many organizations freeze at the contemplation stage, or assume they can’t take on such charged and complex topics.

But public history can have a profound and powerful role in these conversations. For our book Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient, we interviewed eight people who draw on history in their progressive work in fields as disparate as fisheries activism, indigenous food sovereignty, and public policy. As we spoke, common themes emerged. They point toward ways to apply—and extend—historians’ skills toward a more inclusive practice of interpreting food.

  1.     Be reflexive.

As in all public history practice, the work of internal transformation comes first. We should interrogate our own professional past, asking what traditions we have inherited, who authored them, and whether they still serve our purposes. We also need to examine and acknowledge our own positionality—as individuals, as members of the public, and as representatives of our organizations. An excellent place to start this work is with the MASS Action Toolkit, a collection of articles and self-assessment tools created by a grassroots coalition of museum practitioners working to position museums as sites of positive action for social justice.

  1.     Tell stories without endings.

The legacies of living history have encouraged a focus on the minutiae of culinary history—tools, ingredients, methods. Inclusive public historians shouldn’t stop at simply showing how people did it in the old days. Push toward those critical “why” questions: Why did most people stop using these techniques? Why are certain kinds of skills and labor—and the people associated with them—valued or devalued in our food system? Why is hand-processed food so much more expensive than industrially-produced food? If we can pose critical, contextualizing questions, we will be well on the way to telling what we call in Public History and the Food Movement “stories without endings”—stories that connect past to present and historicize unresolved contemporary questions about food culture, dealing directly with the most urgent social, economic, and environmental issues of today. Our existing interpretive and communicative tools are unique contributions to the work of rebuilding more just and inclusive food futures.

  1.     Think like a community organizer.

The practitioners we interviewed were going beyond the “advisory group” consultation model, and instead using the toolbox of community organizing, defined by activist and educator Marshall Ganz as “practicing democracy by mobilizing people to combine their resources to act strategically on behalf of common interests.” This approach is grounded in ongoing relationships with community members and discussions about forms of activity that would be meaningful and useful to them. Is your organization involved in local and regional food organizations and coalitions? Do you know who works on food access locally? Have you had a presence at farmers’ markets, diabetes expos, or town hall meetings? Written op-eds? One entry point can be creating a Community Food Map to identify the players in your local or regional food system. Seeing the lay of the land can help you identify where public history work can be helpful.

An engaged, critical approach to the history of food asks for long-term commitment and a good deal of learning and reflection for public historians as well as their partners and audiences. Some resources to get you started are listed below.

Notes

[i] Ali Berlow, Food Activist Handbook (North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2015), 72.

[ii] Darwin Kelsey, “What is a Living History Farm? Introductory Comments,” Proceedings of the 2013 AHLFAM Conference, Vol. 36 (2013).

Suggested Readings

Berlow, Ali. The Food Activist’s Handbook: Big & Small Things You Can Do to Provide Fresh, Healthy Food for Your Community. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2015.

Laudan, Rachel. “Getting Started in Food History.” www.RachelLaudan.com. https://www.rachellaudan.com/getting-started-in-food-history.

Moon, Michelle. Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2016.

Moon, Michelle, and Cathy Stanton. Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient. New York: Routledge, 2018. The book’s companion website can be found here: http://themissingingredient.net/.

Oliver, Sandra. “Interpreting Food History.” Technical Leaflet 197. American Association for State and Local History.

Reid, Debra A. Interpreting Agriculture at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2017.

Organizations and Associations Doing Food History

American Community Gardening Association

Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM)

Agricultural History Society (AHS)

Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS)

Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS)

Farm-Based Education Network

Native Seeds/SEARCH

Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance

National Black Farmers Association

Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery

Southern Foodways Alliance

United States Department of Agriculture

Databases, Archives, and Link Lists

Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project

The Food Timeline

The FOOD Museum

Growing a Nation: The Story of American Agriculture (timelines from USDA)

New York Public Library list of food history resources

Authors

~ Michelle Moon is Chief Programs Officer at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City. She has also worked at the Peabody Essex Museum, Strawbery Banke Museum, and Mystic Seaport, and received her Master’s degree in Museum Studies from Harvard University Extension School. In addition to co-authoring Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient (Routledge, 2018) with Cathy Stanton, she is the author of Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2016).

~ Cathy Stanton teaches anthropology at Tufts University. Her book The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City won the 2007 NCPH Book Award. Her current scholarly and public work focuses on the uses of knowledge about the past of U.S. food and farming. She has collaborated and consulted with a number of community farms, national parks, land trusts, museums, and others working to present farm history in public.

View from the Field: The Challenges to Being Inclusive in Museum Collections

Annie in the Mississippi Delta, 1920s. Photo credit: From the private collection of Marian Carpenter.

The quest for museums to be diverse and inclusive in staffing, leadership, and programs is not a new challenge. At a recent American Alliance of Museums (AAM) annual meeting, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, former director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, delivered a landmark keynote that challenged museums “to be of social value by not only inspiring but creating change around one of the most critical issues of our time—the issue of diversity.” Cole’s speech compelled AAM to recognize the need for diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion to ensure that the field remains relevant and sustainable.

In response to the need to be diverse and inclusive, museums, historic sites, and related institutions have written strategic plans that promise to include all voices, cultures, and histories in their board membership, staffing, policies, educational programs, collections, exhibits, and events. Efforts to make museum collections more diverse and inclusive, however, have been slow and problematic. Why? The biggest contributing factor is the lack of diversity within curatorial and collections departments. According to the 2018 Art Museum Staff Demographic Report, produced by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and Ithaka S+R, the number of employed curators who are people of color is 16%, compared to 84% of curators who identify as white. Museums with specific cultural and ethnic collections often do not hire curators, collections managers, or registrars representative of the cultural origins or background of these collections; nor do they establish meaningful relationships with diverse communities.

Throughout my 23-year career in the museum field, I have experienced several occasions where I have had to defend appropriate cultural representation in the areas of object interpretation, documentation, and care. I will endeavor to describe three incidents at various levels within my career where I have had to tackle challenging scenarios around proper cultural representation of difficult objects, overcome personal trauma and emotion associated with racially sensitive objects, and combat discrimination within historical collections. These specific accounts are shared in hopes of motivating my colleagues working in the museum field to be aware of these issues around inclusivity in collections, spark discussion, and speak up in defense of proper cultural representation.

Appropriate Interpretation of Racially Sensitive Collections

Newly established in my career and armed with the scholarly lessons that earned me my graduate degree in history with a special emphasis in African American history, I thought I was equipped for the curatorial responsibilities neatly outlined in my job description and evaluation. However, there were no university courses or examinations that could have prepared me for the encounter that I had with the chief curator involving the display of racially offensive African American toys that dated from the 1930s and 1940s. The museum didn’t know quite what to do with these toys and how to interpret the sensitive subject of race. Before my arrival, these toys received very little attention and care. They were stored behind different objects as if they didn’t even exist. In fact, the small African American collection that was housed at the museum had been overlooked and no additional funding was allocated to support the growth of this collection. My predecessor was tasked with developing a gallery designed to highlight the history of African Americans and this task left her very little time to grow and care for the collection.

My responsibility as curator of the African American collection was to acquire new objects through loans and purchases as well as interpret and develop exhibit displays that would appeal to the museum’s targeted audience: children. My assistant and I worked with the museum registrars to properly document the collection, including the racially offensive toys. In planning for several upcoming exhibit displays to showcase the African American collection, one of the chief curators asked me to incorporate the racially offensive toys into the exhibits. Because of the sensitivity of the subject matter and the possible lack of understanding by children along with the potential to offend parents, I turned down the initial suggestion, offering several justifiable reasons.

The “Be-Bop” toy from the 1950s. Image credit: Jim Crow Museum, Ferris State University.

Eager to create a teachable moment for both my colleagues and museum visitors, I provided the chief curator with an alternative way to showcase these toys. I volunteered to develop an interactive program that would allow visitors to learn about the negative stereotypes that were attributed to African Americans and recognize how these toys contributed to prejudices and discrimination that were taught in American popular culture. Because the program would be geared toward children of all ages, I explained that this would be a great teaching moment to demonstrate the importance of respect for all cultures and ethnicities. I was shocked that the chief curator didn’t share my ideas nor was she interested in expounding on the history of negative representations of African Americans. She demanded I place the racially offensive toys in the exhibit displays. Was this really happening? What book or guidelines could I reference to stop this insensitive act? What about all of the meetings that I attended that encouraged me to display African American objects and to develop exhibits that celebrated the historic achievements and culture of African Americans? I can’t remember how many days passed before the chief curator and I discussed again the usage of the racially offensive toys. I do recall that when we spoke, I warned her that this plan to display these toys would shatter the relationship between the museum and the African American community. She responded by telling me “maybe that’s the type of attention we need from the African American community.” Stunned by her answer, I told her that I would not display the toys. The chief curator was secure in her decision. I asked another African American museum colleague for advice and she was prepared to alert the local news stations. My connections with the African American community gave me the support I needed to challenge the chief curator. The museum was spared any unnecessary publicity and the racially offensive toys were not exhibited. Was this a victory, or was I unearthing the reality that some of the curators in this museum were not willing to accept inclusiveness?

Learning Points: As a member of the collections and exhibition departments in your museum, you have a duty to interpret cultural collections truthfully and with respect. Never compromise your integrity due to the pressures of colleagues who may not share the same ethical understanding or responsibilities. Always look for teachable moments to enlighten colleagues and the public when dealing with sensitive materials. I can’t stress enough the importance of building meaningful relationships with communities that are not appropriately represented. Their support and trust will be key to measuring the museum’s goal to become more inclusive.

Receiving and Processing Racially Sensitive Collections

After working in the museum field for over 12 years as a curator and registrar, I considered myself well experienced. I had the awesome opportunity to work at several different museums which allowed me to manage and exhibit a number of diverse collections that represented American culture. My interest and ongoing training in public history gave me the advantage in connecting with local African American communities to help them preserve and interpret their histories. I received invitations from colleges and universities, including historic Black institutions to teach and mentor students about museum careers with a special focus on professions as curators, registrars, and collections managers. I mostly appealed to history students and emphasized the importance of object documentation.

Throughout my career, I have processed hundreds of racially sensitive objects and my ability to identify and research these collections became second nature. I was accustomed to documenting objects that were both uncomfortable to look at and to discuss. I often had to console many donors that were uneasy about having these racially sensitive objects connected to their families and thus many of these donors opted to remain anonymous. However, I never expected that a particular donation would almost hinder my ability to fully document an object.

In routine fashion, I accepted a call from a donor that wanted to remain anonymous. Emotionally distraught, the caller informed me that she had found a post card while cleaning out the home of an elderly relative. She was utterly disgusted to know that the relative had saved this particular item. I assured her that the museum would accept the post card along with any historical information. The caller mentioned that she would enclose it in stationary and mail it right away. She didn’t describe the content of the post card and I didn’t ask. The object arrived within a few days. When I opened the beautiful stationary paper, I was horrified to see a black-and-white post card of four African American men hanging from one tree. I knew that lynching photographs were often sent as post cards, but I had never actually seen one.

The post card was sent with no additional information so I had to examine the photograph carefully to find clues that would reveal the timespan and possible location of the lynching to help me find out more about the African American men that were murdered. It took me weeks to process this post card. I was haunted by the bodies hanging from the trees and the faces of the African American onlookers that were standing nearby. I wanted to pass this to the registrar or slip it into a folder to be processed later, but an upcoming collections committee meeting forced me to complete the documentation. To heal from this emotional trauma, I incorporated the lynching post card in my lectures and workshops to teach other museum professionals how to accept racially sensitive materials.

Learning Points: How do museums prepare their collection staff to handle the uncomfortable emotions of processing racially sensitive collections? How can the community help? I challenge museum professionals to ask these questions. Because museums want collections to be more diverse, there must be an investment to make resources available for collections staff to learn how to work with sensitive materials. I encourage staff to openly discuss with other colleagues and communities that share these difficult histories. Be willing to listen and learn from community or local historians and invite them to help with the documentation of these objects.

Preventing and Advocating against Discrimination in Collections

As a seasoned museum professional in collections, I was comfortable working with various types of cultural objects. Collections care is paramount for all objects donated to or purchased for the museum—at least that is how I was trained, in accordance with AAM collections stewardship policies. As collections manager at a history institution, I worked collaboratively with the museum curator. Our relationship soon became frayed when the curator refused to store a significant Latino Art Collection on the same shelves with framed European paintings. At first I thought the curator had misunderstood my request to rehouse the Latino Collection in the permanent storage area. The reality became clear to me. This was not a mistake. The curator purposely devalued the need to administer equal care to an object simply by its cultural affiliation. This was unbelievable. Apparently, my predecessor had tried unsuccessfully for two years to incorporate the Latino artwork on the shelves of the main collections storage. Instead, the framed art pieces were either hung in various staff workspaces or stacked in the hallway. Was I experiencing firsthand cultural object discrimination?

I immediately alerted my supervisor to this act of subtle racism that was practiced through selective storage of objects based on culture and race. He supported me in my plan to care and store all collection objects equally. With several interns, I moved the entire Latino Art Collection to the designated art storage in the main collections building. It took several weeks before the curator noticed the newly stored artwork on the shelves. She retaliated by trying to get other staff to move the objects out of the main collections building. Her efforts became pointless when I reminded the curator that it is the duty of the museum to care for all collections as stated in our collections management policy.

Learning Points: The degree of object care should not be determined based on cultural affiliation or race. Cultural object discrimination does exist, but in subtle ways. The way to detect this is by asking questions: How and where are cultural objects housed in collections storage? Have they been properly documented and accessioned or are they stored in uncatalogued or unmarked boxes? Do the collections that represent a specific ethnicity or race receive the same financial funds and treatment?

I applaud the museums and institutions that are conscious of the care of their collections on an equal scale regardless of their cultural affiliation, but there are many that do not exercise that level of consciousness. I witnessed this inequality at a history institution several years ago when my interns and I were conducting research for an upcoming online exhibition. The African American collection of rare photographs and documents from World War I needed serious care and treatment. The collection was stored in worn archival folders and boxes. I was shocked that the institution allowed us to physically handle the photographs because of their fragility. When I asked the assistant if this collection would be digitized soon to prevent unnecessary handling, she told me that was their hope, but there were no definite future plans. Sadly, the donors gave these priceless photographs and papers of their military service with the museum’s promise that their items would receive the best quality of care.

Collections managers, conservators, and curators should feel empowered to speak up for the care of all collections. Don’t be afraid to correct colleagues. Challenge leadership to allocate appropriate funds to treat and document objects, particularly the ones that have a significant connection with local communities that are not represented in the museum.

Defending cultural representation in the areas of object interpretation, documentation, and care takes courage and a lot of patience. I credit my friends, mentors, and fellow colleagues for giving me direction and advice to speak out and educate colleagues and leadership on the importance of diversity and inclusion. I hope these examples will alert my colleagues of cultural exclusivity “red flags” within collections, generate meaningful conversations, and encourage individuals within the profession to take action where needed.

Suggested Readings

American Alliance of Museums, Facing Change: Insights from the American Alliance of Museums’ Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Working Group, 2018, https: //www.aam-us.org/programs/diversity-equity-accessibility-and-inclusion/.

Schonfeld, Roger C., Mariët Westermann, and Liam Sweeney, “Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey,” The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, January 28, 2019, https://mellon.org/resources/news/articles/art-museum-staff-demographic-survey-2018/.

Author

~ Marian Carpenter has over twenty years of experience in collections management and exhibitions. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in History and Afro-American Studies from Indiana University and a Masters of Arts in American History with a concentration in African American History from the University of Cincinnati. Currently, she is the Associate Director of Collections/Chief Registrar at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.