Photo of Jefferson Davis memorial in Richmond, Virginia with "racist" written in spray paint

Lost Cause Myth

Photo of Jefferson Davis memorial in Richmond, Virginia with "racist" written in spray paint
Jefferson Davis Memorial, Richmond, VA, 2017. Photo courtesy of David Streever.

The Lost Cause was a historical ideology and a social movement created by ex-Confederates that characterized the Confederate experience and defined its value for new generations. By the twentieth century, the Lost Cause became enshrined as part of the national story of slavery and the American Civil War era, and it evolved through that century’s most important revolutions. It was never just about the Civil War, but about slavery, Reconstruction, southern race relations, the place of the South in national life, and Americans’ self-identity. Today, the Lost Cause’s historical and cultural claims have been rejected by historians and museum professionals as a narrow distortion of history at best and a lie at worst, but many of its cultural tropes and political assumptions occasionally thrive, not only in the American South, but across the country.

Historical Claims

The Lost Cause began to emerge from “Ladies Memorial Associations” and men’s veterans groups in the late 1860s, and initially concerned itself with vindicating the Confederacy against ridicule and accusations of treason that ex-Confederates considered dishonorable. The term itself originated with Virginian Edward Pollard’s 1866 book, The Lost Cause. It matured in the late nineteenth century through historical writing, fiction, speeches, museums and shrines, reunions, monument building, funerals, magazines, and fundraising initiatives. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (founded in 1894) eventually became the chief propagators of the Lost Cause, but Confederate veterans, authors, academic historians, politicians, public historians, business leaders, and cultural producers all contributed to its life.

As a social and cultural movement, the Lost Cause was not monolithic. Some enlisted it to support Populist agrarianism in the 1890s, while others used it to promote the industrialization of the “New South.” Further, while it maintained a hostility to Unionist versions of Civil War history, it accommodated fraternal cooperation with United States veterans and support of patriotic adherence to the contemporary United States. In short, the Lost Cause could simultaneously revere an allegedly idyllic plantation life, condemn Abraham Lincoln, and rally southerners in contemporary American patriotism.

The Lost Cause maintained several basic historical claims that are now roundly disputed:

  • That cultural and constitutional differences—not a singular interest in preserving slavery—forced the slaveholding states to secede. While denying the centrality of slavery to secession, Lost Cause authors consistently described slavery as a benevolent institution in which white and black southerners engaged in a reciprocal relationship that secured a domestic peace that abolitionists threatened.
  • That Confederate armies—composed uniformly of gallant men and brilliant leaders—succumbed not because of poor leadership, sub-par military performance, or battlefield losses, but to overwhelming United States resources. In fact, a veritable religious cult developed around the Confederate pantheon of President Jefferson Davis and Generals Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee.
  • It regarded Confederate women as sanctified by wartime sacrifice and identified, in them, perfect examples of gender conformity.
  • Though ex-Confederates accepted the end of slavery, the Lost Cause maintained that because slavery had been beneficial to black and white people alike, emancipation had been a grave mistake. Further, it maintained that Reconstruction had been driven by a vindictive desire to impose a dangerous racial equality on a prostrate white South, and that the “redemption” of the South by Klan violence and electoral fraud had been a heroic moment in southern history.

By the early twentieth century, the Lost Cause had attained a status as the “official history” in the former Confederate states, as its promoters created a memorial and intellectual landscape that dominated public life. Veterans, the UDC, and countless municipalities erected monuments at a pace only outdone by the simultaneous erection of Union monuments in northern states. The UDC policed public school textbooks to ensure a history of the Confederacy that was “just,” censoring lessons that might be too admiring of Abraham Lincoln and too disparaging of Jefferson Davis, or which suggested that white southerners had been cruel slave masters determined to preserve slavery. Politicians and business leaders paid fealty to Confederate memory through designation of holidays and support for monuments, while civic boosters promoted tourism that venerated elite white historic sites, such as plantations and churches, and notable locations of wartime events like battlefields or the death sites of Stonewall Jackson, General J.E.B. Stuart, and Sam Davis. (Many of these sites still form the backbone of the modern tourism industry in several states.) Aside from the UDC, significant sources of the Lost Cause included the Southern Historical Society (1869), Confederate Memorial Hall (1891) in New Orleans, Confederate Veteran magazine (1893), and the Confederate Museum (1896) in Richmond, Virginia.

Illustration of a white family with an older African American man
Illustration from Sallie May Dooley, Dem Good Ole Times, first published in 1906.

CULTURAL ASPIRATIONS

The Lost Cause was not just about the past. Among the white ruling class in the former Confederate States, it set expectations for the present and the future. It supported the white southern worldview that revered the past, deferred to elite rule, enforced conservative social values, exalted rural life, and marginalized black people.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Lost Cause offered guidance for people who were anxious about unchecked capitalism, mass immigration, and urban life. It defined slave plantations as pastoral idylls uncorrupted by the hurried pursuit of wealth. It looked to the courage of Confederate soldiers to steel the nerves of desk-bound corporate bureaucrats. In the wartime sacrifice of mothers and wives, the Lost Cause identified an admirable gender fulfillment against the growing suffrage movement.

Most importantly, the Lost Cause perpetuated the narrative of racial difference that had begun in slavery, describing competent white people well-practiced in self-control and incompetent African Americans simultaneously unserious and dangerous, preferring loyal deference to actual participation in public and political life. The Lost Cause reliance on a history of white competency fit well with—and supported—the late-nineteenth-century white supremacist theorists who looked to a larger history of Anglo-Saxon self-governance combined with an evolutionary framework to determine that black people lacked the temperament and training necessary for democracy. In politics, these racist assumptions justified the entrenchment of Jim Crow segregation in turn-of-the-century southern state constitutions.

The Lost Cause celebrated and promoted black men and women who acted the parts of loyal and submissive servants. When white people leaned on that historical imagination of paternalism, some Lost Cause adherents—like Richmond, Virginia’s Mary-Cooke Munford and Rev. W. Russell Bowie—made anti-Klan and anti-lynching statements and joined in relatively liberal interracial cooperation initiatives. But, in its veneration of the Reconstruction-era Klan and rhetorical reliance on the fiction of black sexual rapacity, the Lost Cause made space for racial violence and lynching. For example, the favorite novelist of the Lost Cause—Thomas Nelson Page, who wove romantic tales of gallant young Confederates and loyal slaves—accepted lynching as a necessary evil to stem the alleged tide of black assaults on white women. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, when polemicist Thomas Dixon’s novel, The Clansman (1905), was turned into an early Hollywood blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation (1915), the movie sparked the creation of the “Second Klan” in the year of its release.

The Lost Cause became part of the national historical narrative of southern and Civil War history. It also attained academic sanction by historians such as Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, who called plantations a “school” for “civilization” for enslaved people, and William A. Dunning, who described Reconstruction as a period of carpetbagger corruption. These interpretations were never uncontested, particularly in popular settings. In the 1870s and 1880s, United States Army veterans and northern politicians regularly denounced the veneration of rebel leaders. Black journalists like Richmond’s John Mitchell, Jr., similarly condemned it, claiming in 1890 that white southern memorialization of the Confederacy “serves to retard [the South’s] progress in the country and forges heavier chains with which to be bound.” In the early twentieth century, W.E.B. Du Bois regularly critiqued the white southern fetish for Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee as indicative of larger social pathologies. Many more African Americans contended with the conservative social ethos that the Lost Cause undergirded. For instance, in 1904, Mary Church Terrell directly challenged Thomas Nelson Page’s theories of race, rape, and lynching. Later, scholars like Du Bois, Rayford Logan, and Carter G. Woodson wrote searching histories of black life before and after slavery that exposed the falsity of the Lost Cause view of race. Yet, the power of white supremacist cultural regimes ensured that these voices remained submerged.

Young girl in uniform standing next to a cannon
Girl and cannon, 1951. Image courtesy of the American Civil War Museum.

ROMANCE AND TROPES

The Lost Cause gave rise to cultural tropes that shaped dominant public understandings of the Civil War and southern history—namely, the idea of plantations (and the American South at large) as sites of hospitality featuring white women “belles” as hostesses and black men and women as servants. These characterizations blended into mass culture as characters like Aunt Jemima sold pancake flour and beer companies compared their convivial brand promise to antebellum plantation barbecues. The 1939 film Gone With the Wind codified this imagery and made possibly the largest impact on public understanding of the Civil War in the twentieth century, creating a historical aesthetic replicated by hundreds of plantation tourist sites.

Similarly, the popular conception of the actual war came to be dominated by an almost exclusive focus on the Confederate and United States armies, their leaders, strategies, and tactics. The Lost Cause ideal of plantations and battlefield courage coexisted with a larger national paradigm about the Civil War that began during the Spanish American War and was nurtured in the Great Depression and World War II. It celebrated the national union that produced modern American power. The outcome was a focus on military tactics at public history sites that obscured the larger causes of the Civil War and muted any recognition that the Confederacy had fundamental differences from the United States in its outlook on race and cultural politics. The Lost Cause fixation on Lee and Jackson flourished in this environment. This military history, combined with conventional political histories that equivocated on slavery, dominated the Civil War Centennial celebrations between 1961 and 1965, and it thrived in mass produced toys like Marx playsets and in television series like The Gray Ghost (1957-1958) and The Rebel (1959-1961).

In the mass culture of the twentieth century that celebrated national stories, some threads of Lost Cause history—like the alleged Reconstruction-era oppression of white people by corrupt carpetbaggers—became universal in the dominant American story, regardless of region. These tropes settled firmly into the interpretation of post-World War II museums and historic sites. The Civil War became a story of a military contest among white men against a backdrop of southern belles and silly, but loyal, slaves. Even as segregation laws began to erode in the 1960s, this common interpretation at public history sites made for an exclusionary setting.

EVOLUTION AMONG REVOLUTIONS

After World War II, the Lost Cause continued to evolve in American life, even in the face of challenges to its dominance. In the academic world, historians such as Kenneth Stampp, John Hope Franklin, and John Blassingame undermined its basic historical assumptions. This generation wrote compellingly about the horrors of slavery and the resistance of black men and women to their oppressors. They portrayed enslaved people as human beings and agents in their own lives. At the same time, opponents of the emergent Civil Rights Movement harnessed Lost Cause racial tropes and Confederate iconography in an aggressively political fashion. Whereas the elite female protectors of Confederate history in the early twentieth century had done so through genteel ceremonies, ice-cream socials, fundraising, wreath-laying, and essay-writing contests, the new generation—growing ever-more blue collar and male—relied on that same history to fuel violent confrontations, the brandishing of Confederate flags at civil rights protestors, and the embrace of a militant Confederate cultural identity.

By the 1980s, mainstream museums and historic sites had begun to reflect the interests of social historians, and took African American history and interpretation seriously; while Civil War battlefields, both at National Park Service sites and state and local sites, continued to cater to the interests of military history aficionados. At the same time, Ken Burns’ The Civil War (1990), though flawed in some ways, was a landmark in introducing the general public to contemporary interpretations of Civil War history that elevated social history and centered slavery and African Americans in the story.

The June 2015 murders of black worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina by a young white man who had expressed racial sentiments that would not have been unfamiliar to Thomas Nelson Page forced the most widespread reckoning with Confederate iconography in American public life to date. South Carolina removed the Army of Northern Virginia Battle Flag that had flown on its statehouse and grounds since 1961. New Orleans, Baltimore, and a few smaller cities and towns took down statues and monuments to Confederate leaders and soldiers. However, most monuments that were erected in the heyday of the Lost Cause remain in place.

TODAY

Outside of partisan heritage organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and a few private and state funded historic sites, the Lost Cause in its fullest expression has no credibility. Some institutions born of the Lost Cause have adapted and evolved to reflect this ideology. For instance, Richmond’s Confederate Museum became the Museum of the Confederacy in 1976, with the intention of rooting its interpretation in modern scholarship and the new social history. It merged with another Richmond institution in 2014 to become the American Civil War Museum. In 2001, the National Park Service responded to audience needs, pressure from Congress, and the calls of academic historians to move its battlefield interpretation beyond just military tactics and topics to include consideration of the larger issues at stake in the war in its Rally on the High Ground initiative. Other institutions—most notably private plantation historic sites—continue to appeal to the alleged romance of southern agricultural life and avoid fully explaining slavery.

Yet outside of historic sites, museums, and academic history, popular conversations on social media and other informal arenas reveal that plenty of Americans continue to discount the cruelty of slavery, deny the role of the institution in secession, revere Robert E. Lee, and disregard the promise and tragedy of Reconstruction. A new, and false, historical claim that black men served in an integrated Confederate army is both an updated version of the loyal slave trope and a completely modern attempt to make the Confederate States acceptable to the world of diversity and inclusion. Lost Cause tropes rarely appear in credible historical publications or museums, but they continue to surface in popular expressions of white racial identity politics where resentment over African American history and a sense of beleaguered whiteness continues to permeate discussions.

Image of a museum interpreter speaking with visitors
Historic Stagville, Durham, NC. Photo courtesy of Kenan Hairston/Discover Durham.

TOWARD AN INCLUSIVE CIVIL WAR HISTORY AT MUSEUMS AND HISTORIC SITES

The Lost Cause did near-irrevocable damage to the long term inclusivity of museum and historic site audiences. In its original iteration, it directly supported white supremacy and racial exclusion. It fostered many racist assumptions and a very narrow narrative story of romantic plantations and courageous military actions. Therefore, museums and historic sites that approach southern and Civil War history need to be particularly careful not only to avoid perpetuating Lost Cause tropes, but also to develop interpretive and methodological approaches that actively refute its assumptions.

While a proven solution to the alienation of non-white audiences from Civil War era historic sites has yet to be discovered, some reconsiderations of interpretive and methodological approaches may be useful. For instance, do not use the word “yankee” when referring to United States soldiers, avoid calling northerners in the Reconstruction South “carpetbaggers,” and do not refer to the perpetrators of violence in Reconstruction as “Redeemers.”

Museum scholar Gretchen Jennings describes “institutional body language” as “messages that come through loud and clear even when the mission statement, website, and marketing materials say something different.” Intentionally inclusive voices in marketing and social media can be belied by interpretive programming that centers picturesque columned plantation houses, or that prevaricates about the Confederate cause and handles the experience of Confederate and Union soldiers as being without difference. This institutional body language includes the physical appearance of a museum or site. Many Civil War battlefields and sites continue to fly reproduction Confederate banners on flagpoles adjacent to national and state flags in front of visitor centers, and to sell Confederate themed memorabilia with no interpretive context in gift shops. This practice gives the impression that contemporary hateful practices are tolerated and possibly endorsed by the institution, or at least that the historical experience inside will be distorted in the name of “balance.” This practice should end.

Interpretive approaches should shift. For instance, the history of the Reconstruction era remains the most misunderstood aspect of the Civil War era (because it was written by Lost Cause authors). It should be relentlessly interpreted as part of any Civil War museum or site. The creation of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park in Beaufort, South Carolina, will raise the postbellum period’s profile nationally and yield useful interpretive practices for other sites to adopt.

The Confederate experience should continue to be discussed. After all, the Confederacy was not an exceptional element in American history, but rather, it represents particularly American impulses regarding politics, culture, and race. Interpretation should intentionally avoid romanticizing the very real pain, trauma, and loss that southern people endured, but also fully cover moments of dissent, coercion, and disaffection in the South during the antebellum period, the Confederate years, and Reconstruction.

Similarly, interpretation at plantation historic sites should not romanticize the landscape, but clarify for visitors the core economic reason for plantations. It should also foreground (or at least equalize) the lives of enslaved people that lived on them. Stagville State Historic Site in North Carolina has done so for a generation, and others, like McLeod Plantation Historic Site in South Carolina, and the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters in Savannah, Georgia have recently set new interpretive bars for centering the African American experience in Old South settings.

The usual academic grounding of good contemporary interpretation of slavery may often leave unacknowledged visitors’ need to process historical trauma in a safe and reflective way. Sites like Whitney Plantation in Louisiana and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama effectively incorporate artistic expressions of suffering and moments for memorialization that are usually lacking at museums and sites.

Finally, support front line staff with appropriate training. Many visitors may have a negative emotional reaction when encountering historical interpretation that conflicts with personally held beliefs. Useful is Julia Rose’s “loss-in-learning” methods wherein interpreters assist visitors through their process of grieving the loss of old knowledge and help them learn to accept new information.

Historians and museum professionals have rejected the Lost Cause for a generation, if not more, but much work remains. Any attempt to expand the meaning of southern history and the American Civil War era that continues to center slavery in the story and humanize the enslaved goes a long way toward eroding the Lost Cause.

Suggested Readings

Brown, Thomas J. Civil War Canon: Sites of Confederate Memory in South Carolina. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

Cox, Karen L. Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.  Gainesville, FL.: University Press of Florida; with a new preface edition, 2019.

Foster, Gaines. Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause and the Emergence of the New South, 1865-1913. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Foster, Gaines. “Today’s battle over the Confederate flag has nothing to do with the Civil War.” Zocalo Public Square, October 23, 2018. https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2018/10/23/todays-battle-confederate-flag-nothing-civil-war/ideas/essay/

Hillyer, Reiko. “Relics of Reconciliation: The Confederate Museum and Civil War Memory in the New South.” The Public Historian 33, no. 4 (November 2011): 35-62.

Kytle, Ethan J., and Blain Roberts. Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy. New York: The New Press, reprint edition, 2019.

Levin, Kevin M. Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

Palmer, Brian, and Seth Freed Wessler. “The Costs of the Confederacy.” Smithsonian Magazine (December 2018). https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/costs-confederacy-special-report-180970731/

“Reconsideration of Memorials and Monuments” issue. AASLH History News, Vol. 71, No. 4 (Autumn 2016).

Rose, Julia. Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

Author

~ Christopher A. Graham is the Curator of Exhibitions at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia.

Leadership Principles

Advisory Board member for the President’s Economic Recovery Laura Tyson, Director in the Strategic Client Group of Morgan Stanley Carla A. Harris, and Citi Personal Wealth Management CEO Deborah McWhinney at the Women in Finance Symposium at Treasury on March 29, 2010. Photo credit: US Department of the Treasury.

“We need leadership!” is a cry heard from within the ranks of many organizations, but what does that mean, exactly? Often it is a longing for a clearer sense of direction or an explanation of an organization’s decision-making process. It may be the frustration caused by a lack of communication or employee inclusion in matters that affect them. It may even be a manifestation of outright contempt because of diminishing levels of trust and respect. Pleas for leadership are often as fundamental as the desire for a clear articulation of the core values of the organization—what it most values, as well as how it envisions its role and fulfills its mission. It may be about answering key questions: What kind of organization are we? What exactly are we doing? How, why, and for whom are we doing it?

It is the leader’s responsibility to guide these discussions, but first the nature and meaning of leadership must be fully understood. Like articulating what makes for good music and art, defining the nature of good leadership is challenging. It is largely a reflection of individual perspective and circumstances—what works for one leader may not work for another and what works in one situation may not work in another. There is no magic formula for effective leadership; it is far more art than science. The world is growing increasingly complex, and technology is changing the way we communicate and conduct business. The business environment (both for-profit and not-for-profit) is more competitive, and audiences are more sophisticated and demand more services. At the same time, political winds have shifted and financial resources are shrinking. The efficient use of time, money, people, and other resources is imperative. In her book Leading Museums Today, Martha Morris enumerates key leadership challenges that today’s museum leaders face, including issues related to environmental sustainability, security, repatriation, physical expansion (often with disastrous financial repercussions), and low wages. Lack of employee inclusion in decision-making is a serious concern, as is the need for new skills and flexibility in the workplace and meaningful recognition of diversity.[i]

What, Then, Is Leadership?

There are countless definitions of leadership, but they are often incomplete. While most definitions include similar elements—such as setting direction, aligning resources, and communicating with, motivating, and inspiring people—they often confuse leadership with management and do not recognize the true essence of leadership. Author and entrepreneur Kevin Kruse offers an excellent and concise definition, writing that leadership “is a process of social influence which maximizes the efforts of others toward the achievement of a goal.”[ii] It is social because it is largely about relationships with people and less about technical expertise or power. It is about influence because its primary goals are to align resources and communicate with and inspire people.[iii] It is about recognizing and maximizing the efforts of others because it acknowledges that people are our key resources. And, it is about achievement of a goal because there must be a clear and common mission with intended outcomes. Kruse’s definition might be enhanced by noting that effective leadership is not bestowed but instead earned and must be exercised in a way that motivates people to want to move in desirable directions.

Inclusion and Diversity

In 1965, only 5% of Americans were foreign born; by 2016, that number jumped to nearly 14% of the country’s population. Growing racial and ethnic diversity is changing the face of the United States. The Pew Research Center projects that by 2055 the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority.[iv] Yet, in a 2017 study of nonprofit boards, Boardsource noted that 90% of nonprofit CEOs and board chairs and 84% of all board members were white. Only 16% of board members were people of color. Two-thirds of CEOs expressed dissatisfaction with their organization’s level of leadership diversity.[v] According to a recent report by the American Alliance of Museums, 46% of museum boards are all white. While non-white people are 23% of the U.S. population, only 9% visit museums[vi] and 84% of jobs related to museum mission and leadership are held by white staff members.[vii] Furthermore, women continue to face significant gender discrimination, as Anne W. Ackerson and Joan Baldwin document in their recent survey of “Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace.” The survey, which also uncovered bias against LGBTQ individuals, recorded serious workplace discrimination in a range of forms, including salary inequity and verbal and sexual harassment. Clearly, we have work to do.

Leaders in our field must aggressively seek the diversity that reflects changing demographics lest we render ourselves irrelevant. This begins with individual and organizational commitment and leadership with a focus on both diversity and inclusion. Authors Patricia Bradshaw and Christopher Fredette note that organizations that promote diversity and inclusion have greater success when they employ both functional practices (policies, employment practices, recruitment, and training) and social practices (meaningful participation, relational connections, respect for different values, and trust). Functional practices alone do not create an inclusive organization because they often lead to patronizing attitudes and tokenism. Social practices are essential if organizations expect to be genuinely inclusive.[viii]

It is critical that we embrace a rich diversity of race, ethnicity, nationality, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, religion, socioeconomic status, and physical, intellectual, and developmental abilities in all we do. It broadens our audiences and encourages participation. It helps us develop more meaningful and relevant programs. It improves and more fully informs our collecting activity. It ensures our continued relevance and helps us make more meaningful contributions to the public we serve. It expands our fundraising efforts and makes us more sustainable. And, it makes our work and organizations better. Cultivating diversity and inclusion is the right approach and a smart philosophy to embrace, especially when it is guided by the phrase, “Nothing about us without us.”[ix]

Being Authentic and People-Centered

In order to create an environment that is truly diverse and inclusive we must genuinely live it in everything we do.

Good leaders in our field embrace the notion that we are, above all else, for and about people. Our organizations are managed by people, programs are presented by people, exhibits are developed by people—and they are for people. It is people, with their rich and diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and skills that help us foster a meaningful understanding of our world. Moreover, our work is not just for, and presented by, some people; it must be for, and presented by, all people.

Ultimately, diversity and inclusiveness are about relationships with people—welcoming people, being empathetic and listening to people, working with people—being decent to people, really. It is the leader’s role to set this tone and make it the very ethos of the organization. Being people-centered does not mean over-the-top hand-holding moments. It does not mean acquiescing to every need or demand. But, it does mean involving people in decision-making, listening to them, respecting their needs and perspectives, treating them with respect, and developing a keen sense of empathy. The essence of leadership is about creating relationships among people.

Effective leaders solicit involvement and listen to diverse groups outside the organization and develop leaders within the organization—nurturing their growth and maximizing their involvement. They insist on a diversity of perspectives and encourage dissent and they are not threatened when they hear criticisms. Effective leaders are willing to trust staff and delegate both responsibility and authority. They recognize that effective authority is shared authority.

Leaders lead by example and are sensitive to the needs of employees while balancing those with the needs of the organization and the public it ultimately serves. They communicate transparently and often. Leaders trust in order to be trusted and give respect in order to receive it. Authentic leaders build a repertoire of leadership skills as a result of their lifetime of experiences. Through experience, they learn how best to respond in certain circumstances. How a leader handles a major illness or an untimely death in the family, for example, provides a foundation of empathy and influences how that leader processes and manages difficult situations. It is these experiences that inform an inclusive leader.

Inclusiveness is essential to high performing organizations. Why not maximize all the people and resources we have available to us? Just as our institutional goal is to be inclusive to all people (our audiences), great leaders are inclusive within their organizations, encouraging participation at all levels, listening to concerns and ideas, delegating broadly, and embracing failures as an important part of innovation.

In a productive workplace, people participate in decision-making and feel valued for their contributions. They know how and why their efforts matter, leading to greater job satisfaction and productivity. They are motivated and strive to do their jobs at extraordinary levels with renewed enthusiasm. With proper support, encouragement, and recognition, people are capable of achieving amazing things—for themselves and the public they serve. This shared-authority democratic approach, rather than the top-down autocratic approach, allows for maximum participation and morale. But, one must also recognize that the responsible leader is still decisive and willing to make unpopular or difficult decisions when there is no clear agreement among stakeholders or there is a need to act quickly and decisively.

Great leaders are comfortable with the notion that being open-minded offers an opportunity for much learning. There is nothing to be gained from over-control. Leaders also foster a culture of calculated risk-taking and accept certain levels of failure as part of growth and experimentation. The best leaders are not afraid to expose their vulnerability and show that they, too, are human, imperfect, and make mistakes. Moreover, good leaders are viewed as thoughtful, calm, and deliberate—not petty and impulsive. True leaders are perceived as fair and honest and develop trusting and respectful relationships. They are the very embodiment of the values they espouse. They keep their eyes on a vision of what can be and do not let day-to-day distractions shake their convictions. Leaders have the courage to try new things, seek new audiences, and expand the reach of their organizations.

Inclusive leaders recognize the importance of being good to people. When they are, people are more committed, invested, happier, and productive, and they feel part of something that truly matters. These are the people who come to work not because they have to, but because they want to.

There is no recipe for how to become an authentic leader because, by definition, one cannot pretend to be authentic. But, why do we need to be authentic anyway? The simple answer is that, good relationships must be grounded in honesty, trust, and respect. Leaders know that for people to follow, people must believe in and trust the leader. They know the leader as a person and discern true levels of genuineness and honesty. Nothing is more hollow than a leader who stands for nothing in particular, is not trustworthy, betrays confidences, takes credit for the accomplishments of others, and quickly assigns blame to others for organizational failures. People know a con man. Leaders do what they say; they walk the walk. Good leaders know that it is actions that inspire beliefs—beliefs alone do not inspire sustained actions. Good leaders stand for something and act on it.

Becoming a Good Leader

There are thousands of works on leadership and lists almost as long of the personal characteristics necessary to become a good leader: honesty, integrity, vision, passion, enthusiasm, sense of humor, collegiality, trustworthiness, to name just a few. While they may all have some merit, the qualities of a good leader may be best summarized by author Daniel Goleman in his seminal work on emotional intelligence.[x] Goleman’s view is that as one moves up the leadership ladder it is not IQ and technical knowledge that become increasingly essential (although still important), but rather a well-developed sense of emotional intelligence. There is much evidence to suggest a strong link between organizational success and leaders’ emotional intelligence, especially in senior leadership roles.

Goleman defines emotional intelligence as understanding and managing our emotions and those of others. He identifies five major components to becoming a great leader through self-management of emotions and building relationships with others.

The first is Self-Awareness, which means that good leaders have a keen understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, emotions, and needs. They are honest with themselves and others and know how their feelings affect them and others. Self-aware leaders know their strongly held values and principles and live by them. They know where they are going and why. They understand their strengths and have confidence in them. They also understand their weaknesses and do not set themselves up for failure. They are risk takers, but not reckless. They know their limits and those of the organization. They assess themselves honestly and do the same for their organizations.

Self-Regulation is the ability to manage and control emotions, and to think before acting. A self-regulated leader does not pound on the table or throw pencils. The leader is in control (not out of control), reasonable, and chooses their words and actions carefully. The leader is respected because of fairness and well-considered statements and actions. The leader’s approach is calm, not frenzied, and tends to encourage the same behavior from subordinates. Judgment is suspended and impulses are controlled. Reflection, thoughtfulness, and comfort with change are hallmarks. Although sometimes misconstrued as lacking passion, the self-regulated leader knows that high emotion and impulsiveness are often counterproductive.

Motivation is another key component of a great leader. Leaders are driven and strive to exceed their own and others’ expectations. They are motivated by a desire to achieve. Passion for the work is real and they take great pride in their achievements and those of the organization. They are always raising the performance bar and optimistic about the organization achieving more. They see opportunities, not problems. They are deeply committed to the organization and want it to be the best of its kind. Their attitude and enthusiasm are contagious.

Empathy may seem akin to mushiness and non-businesslike behavior, but what it really means is treating people through an understanding of their emotional needs and reactions. This is especially important in a fast-paced environment in which changes happen frequently. It is important to understand and appreciate everyone’s viewpoint to gauge the full implication of decisions and their impact. Related to this is the importance of coaching and mentoring, understanding the needs and aspirations of employees, and responding to them. This often leads to a happier workforce and more retention. Understanding employees as people and practicing cross-cultural sensitivity are hallmarks.

Social Skill is the last component of emotional intelligence. Leaders with this skill set are very good at working with people and establishing rapport and relationships. They are experts at managing teams and have keen abilities of persuasion. They recognize that leaders cannot achieve things alone, and if the leader cannot communicate and build relationships and teams, little will be accomplished. They are skilled at finding common ground and excel at articulating and leading change.

Ultimately, leadership is about getting work done through people and understanding that individual and organizational success are inseparable. Recognizing and cultivating this important truth is perhaps the most important leadership lesson of all.

Notes

[i] Martha Morris, Leading Museums Today (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), 2-7.

[ii] Kevin Kruse, “What is Leadership?” Forbes, www.forbes.com, April 9, 2013.

[iii] John P. Kotter, John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Books, 1999), 51-62.

[iv] D’vera Cohn and Andrea Caumont, “10 demographic trends shaping the U.S. and the world

in 2016,” Pew Research Center, March 31, 2016, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/31/10-demographic-trends-that-are-shaping-the-u-s-and-the-world/.

[v] Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices (Boardsource, 2017), 10-11.

[vi] “Facing Change: Insights from the American Alliance of Museums’ Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion Group,” American Alliance of Museums, p. 9, https://www.aam-us.org/programs/diversity-equity-accessibility-and-inclusion/facing-change/.

[vii] Brian Boucher, “Mellon Foundation Study Reveals Uncomfortable Lack of Diversity in American Museums,” Artnet, August 4, 2015.

[viii] Patricia Bradshaw and Christopher Fredette, “The Inclusive Nonprofit Boardroom: Leveraging the Transformative Potential of Diversity,” Nonprofit Quarterly, December 29, 2012, https://nonprofitquarterly.org/the-inclusive-nonprofit-boardroomleveraging-the-transformative-potential-of-diversity/.

[ix] The phrase “nothing about us, without us” is closely associated with the disability rights movement.

[x] Daniel Goleman, “What Makes a Leader?” Harvard Business Review Best of HBR 1998, 1-11.

Suggested Readings

Ackerson, Anne W., and Joan H. Baldwin, Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord. Revised edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2019. See also, the companion website.

Baldwin, Joan H., and Anne W. Ackerson, Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace. New York and London: Routledge, 2017.

DePree, Max. Leadership is an Art. Dell Publishing, 1989.

Drucker, Peter. Managing the Nonprofit Organization: Principles & Practices. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.

Harvard Business Review. On Leadership. Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2011.

Kotter, John P. John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Books, 1999.

Maxwell, John C. Developing the Leader Within You. Thomas Nelson Inc, 1993.

Morris, Martha. Leading Museums Today. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Peters, Thomas J., and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. In Search of Excellence. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.

Roberts, Wess. Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun. New York: Warner Books, 1987.

Author

~ Brian Alexander is Visiting Professor of Museum Administration and Director of the Institute for Cultural Entrepreneurship at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, SUNY Oneonta, in New York. Prior to coming to Cooperstown, Alexander worked for 38 years in the museum field. Among other positions, he served as President & CEO of the National World War I Museum, President & CEO of the Historic Annapolis Foundation, Executive-Vice President & Director of the Shelburne Museum, and Director of the State Museum of North Dakota. He has also been a trustee of the American Association for State & Local History. He can be reached at brian.alexander@oneonta.edu.

 

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.