A color photograph of a dam

Environmental History

A photograph of a landscape
Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico. Photo credit: Karen-Beth G. Scholthof

Practicing inclusive history requires accumulation of deep knowledge of the landscapes we inhabit and the environments that we influence over time. This knowledge derives from a close examination of features that our senses discern in the places where we live—the landscape—as well as the spaces that we inhabit and that our choices affect—the environment. Places that some may perceive as “natural,” such as Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico, have physical attributes that confirm human influences over millennia. Inclusive environmental history takes into account the landscapes, the places that we can see and touch, and the effects that we have on these landscapes. This influence may be invisible to our senses. Racism, sexism, political partisanship, economic systems, class, and other forces have shaped—and continue to shape—environments in which we exist. The effects of these forces accrue most devastatingly to frontline (and fence-line) communities, i.e., those who live closest to sources of pollution that result from human decisions. Human-caused (anthropogenic) effects are most evident in the past century with the foremost outcome being climate change.

When did humans begin to leave significant marks on the landscape, and when did their actions accumulate to influence the environment? An increased understanding of both of these—landscapes and environments— can inform our actions as we work toward a more just and equitable future. Environmental history addresses both, as analyses often apply an environmental justice lens to investigations of historical and contemporary land and resource use and consequences of that use. Learning more about the physical location (landscape) and how humans act as agents of change (the anthropogenic environment) over time requires assessment of a combination of tangible and intangible natural and cultural evidence.

The iterative process starts with a geographic focus, i.e., the landscape, associated with a museum or historic site. Historical interpretation at the site might center on 1880s rural life, but an inclusive environmental history needs to start long before 1880, and continue to the present, thus acknowledging the factors affecting the site before and after its perceived period of significance. Sources might include collections of natural objects housed at museums and specialized archives (e. g., minerals and gems, fossils, biological specimens), written records, visual or creative works (e. g., photographs, paintings, books), belongings resulting from extractive industry (e.g., a cast-iron stove or a sewing machine in a mahogany case), and intangible cultural heritage (storytelling, ritual, music, oral history, and other evidence of cultural practice). From this accumulation one can document change in landscapes and communities and include the museum or historic site as an agent of change.

Linking a site focused on the 1880s to current concerns requires high-level thinking, a synthesis of data about the soil, agricultural practices, water availability, power sources and energy use over time, processing industries, transportation networks, waste management, and numerous other examples of human manipulation as precursors to the Great Acceleration—the causes and consequences of the human footprint on the environment—within our era of the Anthropocene. All place-based history informs us about environmental change, be that past or present.

Consider the history of the site under consideration for an environmental history evaluation, the reasons for studying and protecting it, the controversies that swirled around it, and the power and influence wielded by those who preserved it. This viewpoint can illuminate crucial history within a site’s institutional history and help us link events from the past, collected and preserved, to today’s highly charged and politically divisive topics. Addressing embedded narratives is the historian’s duty—to facilitate inquiry and convene conversations that inform future decisions. Practicing inclusive environmental history can tease out evidence of injustice in a place over time, but it can also prompt more self-aware decision-making into the future.

A Sense of Place

Look out of your window—it frames, literally, a landscape, and figuratively, the environment. Do you have a view of a city center, farm, seashore, neighborhood park, or warehouses? How do you frame (or interpret) this view in terms of public history? Consider the window a lens through which we see the present clearly; but what about the past? What do we have to do to discern who and what was included and excluded then? Are there members of the community within this view who can speak to the causes and consequences of environmental and social injustice? Does a diversity of voices exist to convey experiences across lifetimes and across cultures? How has the physical environment changed over time and has this been documented in photographs, diaries, oral histories, and newspapers? Who has told the history of the place to date, and how does a more inclusive environmental history expand our understanding?

The Long Durée: Changing Landscapes

To have a sense of the environment today, it is important to know how the physical landscape changed through time. Geographical and geological features serve to inform why humans would settle in or avoid certain landscapes. What was the landscape like in spans of time: one million years ago, ten thousand years ago, one thousand years ago, five hundred, one hundred, fifty, ten, and today? What do we want it to be in the future? How we humans have changed landscapes also tells a story. When did humans arrive—that is, who first populated and then altered the local environment? How did they conduct their lives? Were they nomadic? Did they hunt or practice agriculture? What were their societies and cultures like? What precipitated change? These large timeframes can be used to learn about the physical environment and how it affected and influenced social changes over the centuries.

For example, Petroglyph National Monument in the Albuquerque suburbs reveals a landscape rich in geological and human history, being close by the Rio Grande River. Volcanoes, visible in the background, erupted as recently as 140,000 years ago. As noted by the National Park Service, some of the 25,000 petroglyphs in this area date to 2000 BCE, reflecting pre-Pueblo cultures. Most of the rock-drawings date from 1300 to 1650 CE, with illustrations depicting people, snakes, mammals, and birds. The Pueblo people settled in this region around 500 CE. Carvings made by the Spanish in the 1500s and 1600s, then other settlers, and graffiti deliberately defacing older petroglyphs represent phases of contact, colonization, annihilation, but also persistence. The casual observer might see the petroglyphs, but it requires attention to discern the evidence of centuries of contested occupation and engagement to develop cultural sensitivity to the magnitude of environmental injustice evident in what some may perceive as a natural landscape.

Landscape as Artifact

The landscape of a historic site can be its largest artifact, though few catalog it as such. The scrutiny of cataloging, requiring measurements and descriptions and statements of significance, can prove invaluable when focusing on the essentials of inclusive environmental history. The two examples that follow affirm how close analysis of elements of landscapes—water or trees—can open our eyes to the multiple meanings of landscapes more generally.

Water: Flowing from physical to social, from inequity to justice
Water is everywhere and because of its familiarity, some may overlook the power of water as an entry point for inclusive interpretation. Water shapes landscapes. It supports travel and trade. It draws livestock and wildlife to drink and people to fish, forage, and swim. It also separates those who have control over it from those who do not. When is water a commodity that people own? Who controls its use and sets its price? Who has clean, safe water to drink, and who does not? Water becomes an entry point into discussions of sewage, pollution in our rivers and oceans, and industrial agriculture with lagoons of animal waste spilling into creeks, rivers, and beaches. Severe storms, hurricanes, and floods destroy homes, neighborhoods, and public transportation. Drought and floods in agricultural areas greatly reduce crop production and increase food costs. Fracking, a process that diverts water to extract oil and natural gas, depletes aquifers. Dams and reservoirs address human-water needs but also destroy indigenous fisheries as well as natural waterways. Water is at once a physical feature of the landscape, stagnant or flowing, and evidence of environmental manipulation through human exploration and exploitation.

A color photograph of a dam
Norris Dam, Tennessee. Photo credit: Karen-Beth G. Scholthof

The view of Norris Dam (Rocky Top, Tennessee) belies the complexity of water. The Tennessee Valley Authority built the Norris Dam in the mid-1930s to reduce flooding and generate electricity. What did locals think about flooding or rural electrification before the dam project began? Who did the dam project displace, and was this temporary or permanent? Were residents of different races and ethnicities all affected in the same way by the project? Who built the dam, both as investors and laborers? Who profited from it? Today, the reservoir, marina, and park attract tourists and recreational boaters. On land, visitors can get a close look at kudzu, the leafy plant in the foreground, touted during the 1930s for its potential to reduce soil erosion, and now identified as an invasive species. Controlling water propelled this public works project, one with multi-faceted consequences. Today, aging dams are being dismantled to restore waterways, fisheries, and outdoor recreation. With this, there is increased interest in learning about historical uses of such waterways and Indigenous rights and beliefs about water systems. All of this reflects that clean water is fundamental to all life systems.

Trees: A Measure of Inequity in Urban Environments
More than 70,000 tree species exist. You can see the trees outside your museum or historic site window, but can you name them? Can you identify a tree like the one that yielded the wood in your house frame, floor, table, or chair? How do you document trees in one place historically in addition to using familiar tools such as maps and plat books, photographs, and weather records? The trees themselves are sources of information. You can measure tree girth to approximate its age. Trees recently cut down provide an “archive of nature,” in the words of Sam White, as tree rings provide a timeline into which you can insert key environmental and anthropocentric events.

Urban trees historically denoted prosperity as Catherine McNeur has shown in Taming Manhattan, a study of neighborhoods and land use in antebellum New York City. Shade trees such as oak, maple, and elm trees can survive for one hundred or more years if they do not succumb to environmental factors (drought, heat, cold, storms, disease, insects). When did tree-lined urban streets give way to treeless expanses of concrete? Answers lead naturally to a discussion of forces associated with global warming and the Anthropocene. Trees and green spaces sequester carbon, but human activities, including land-use practices, leading to increased accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions, have outpaced Earth’s carbon-capture capacity.

Local effects are evident in treeless urban environments where a lack of shade results in increased solar heat. The result is buildings, sidewalks, and parking lots that are heat-sinks by day, which then radiate that heat into the night. Daytime temperatures in urban neighborhoods (called heat islands) can be up to 7° F warmer than in tree-shaded neighborhoods. Humans do not thrive under conditions of continuous high temperatures. Thus, living in a heat island becomes an environmental justice issue. The resulting heat island inequity has known negative effects on human health, from loss of sleep to heat-related illness or death. Poverty exacerbates the negatives because impoverished people end up paying more for their utility bills because the built environment retains heat through the night. The organization American Forests has assigned a Tree Equity Score to more than 200,000 neighborhoods in the United States. This score shows the overlap between fewer trees and communities experiencing the stress of living in their neighborhoods. Thus, heat island inequity and tree equity can be used to develop compelling narratives of environmental justice in urban settings.

These examples indicate how elements of landscapes—water and trees—can add new dimensions to our understanding of the environment. Both indicate how assessing real experiences of life with or without water or with or without trees can result in more complete environmental history that forms the basis for inclusive interpretation of the environment.

A color photograph of a city showing a rail line
Downtown San Diego, California. Photo credit: Karen-Beth G. Scholthof

Environmental History in Images

You can start a more inclusive interpretation of the environment by looking at the familiar with a new lens. The photograph of downtown San Diego features a public transportation system (light rail) near a convention center and bordered by landscaped walkways. This building-scape contains no evidence of the historic landscape obliterated by urbanization and highways. Nor does it show the people of San Diego: the homeless, migrant workers, undocumented immigrants, navy personnel, and office workers. Without San Diego residents in city views, the issues they face relative to that urban environment remain invisible. One example, the ongoing crisis of hepatitis A virus infection among unhoused people, indicates a lack of access to public toilets and clean water and other resources essential for human health. It’s tempting to simplify peopleless urban landscapes and urban environments teeming with humanity as a simple dichotomy but instead we must investigate the complex human-landscape-environment relationships at the core of both to arrive at inclusive interpretations of the environment.

This human-landscape-environment relationship appears more prominently in the view of Jacob Riis Beach in New York City. The ruins of a tuberculosis hospital from 1915 loom in the background, acting as a shield protecting LGBTQ+ beachgoers from unwanted intrusions, as described by Iezzi and Ronan (2022). Such beach photographs can lay the groundwork for New York histories focused on neighborhoods, ethnic enclaves, public versus private spaces, public health and tuberculosis sanitariums, segregated recreation areas, and alternative land-use by farming and fishing families to name a few.

A color photograph of a beach with a large building in the background
Riis Beach, New York City. Photo credit: David Shankbone. Licensed under CC BY 2.0


You can start inclusive environmental history now. Look closely at the landscape in your neighborhood or at your museum or historic site. Itemize the features you see. Turn to tangible and intangible culture and archives that document the human, biological, and geological evidence of what came before, and explore current work that contributes to the long history of the environment of your site. With this context established, you can start to connect the historic to the present and provoke conversations that can lead beyond understanding to cultural change.

Suggested Readings

Iezzi, Annie and Katie Honan. “Demolition of Long-Abandoned Medical Center Could Leave Queer Beachgoers Exposed.” The City, May 8, 2022. https://www.thecity.nyc/2022/05/08/demolition-abandoned-medical-queer-beach/

Keogh, Luke, Liisi Jääts, Nina Möllers, and Libby Robin. “Environmental History in Museums: Past Practice and Future Opportunities.” In The Routledge Handbook of Environmental History, edited by Emily O’Gorman, William San Martin, Mark Carey and Sandra Swart. 385-398. New York: Routledge, 2024.

McNeur, Catherine. Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014, Chapter 2.

McNeill, J.R. and Peter Engelke. The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Reid, Debra A., and David D. Vail. Interpreting the Environment at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

Reid, Debra A., Karen-Beth G. Scholthof, and David D. Vail, eds. Interpreting Science at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2023.

Reid, Debra A., and David D. Vail. Technical Leaflet 289, “Interpreting the Environment at Museums and Historic Sites.” History News, 75, Winter 2020. https://learn.aaslh.org/products/technical-leaflet-289-interpreting-the-environment-at-museums-and-historic-sites

Fitzgerald Michelle, Julia Rose, and Ian Waggoner. “Naturally Beautiful: Finding Environmental Advocacy in a Historic House Museum.” History News 75, no. 4 (Autumn 2020). Pp.13-19.

White, Sam. “Communicating Climate Change with Archives of Nature and Archives of Societies.” In Interpreting Science at Museums and Historic Sites, edited by Debra A. Reid, Karen-Beth G. Scholthof, and David D. Vail, 3-8. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2023. https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781538172742/Interpreting-Science-at-Museums-and-Historic-Sites

Online Resources 

San Diego
Barona Cultural Center and Museum https://www.baronamuseum.com
California Museum https://californiamuseum.org
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=663
San Diego History Center https://sandiegohistory.org/archives/biographysubject/timeline/
New Mexico
Indian Pueblo Cultural Center https://indianpueblo.org
National Hispanic Cultural Center https://www.nhccnm.org 
Museum Hill https://www.museumhill.net
Petroglyph National Monument https://www.nps.gov/petr/index.htm
Manhattan Project, Oakridge https://www.nps.gov/mapr/oak-ridge.htm
Norris Dam State Park https://tnstateparks.com/parks/norris-dam
Tennessee Valley Authority https://www.tva.com/About-TVA/Our-History
New York City
Gateway National Recreation Area http://www.npshistory.com/publications/gate/index.htm
Jacob Riis Park https://www.nps.gov/gate/learn/historyculture/jacob-riis-park.htm
NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/beach-at-jacob-riis-park/
Trees and Heat Islands
American Forests Tree Equity Score https://www.americanforests.org/tools-research-reports-and-guides/tree-equity-score/
Urban heat islands https://www.epa.gov/heatislands/learn-about-heat-islands
US Environmental Protection Agency https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water
Water Alliance https://uswateralliance.org 


~ Karen-Beth G. Scholthof is professor emerita at Texas A&M University, Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology. As a plant virologist, she researched the molecular biology of host-virus interactions. Her historical research focus is the history of tobacco mosaic virus and the social and scientific influences of plant pathogens on our environment. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Phytopathological Society.

~ Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford and professor emerita at Eastern Illinois University, Department of History. She studied cultural geography at the undergraduate and PhD levels. Her historical research focuses on rural and minority cultures and Black farm owners among other topics. She is a fellow of the Agricultural History Society and recipient of distinguished service awards from the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums and from the Agricultural History Society.

Black and white photo of a group of African American women standing in front of a building

Women’s Suffrage in the United States

Black and white photo of a group of African American women standing in front of a building
Photograph of Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute faculty members (Mary Branch, Anna Lindsay, Edna Colson, Edwina Wright, Johnella Frazer, Nannie Nichols, Eva Conner, Evie Carpenter, and Odelle Green) who registered to vote in 1920. Virginia State University Special Collections and Archives. Wikimedia Commons.

Never monolithic, the U.S. suffrage movement catalyzed a process through which women determined what roles they sought in the polity and strategized ways to obtain them. Examining this process highlights the ways that true change in democracy begins with social justice activists, and seldom with elites. The inadequacies of the U.S. Constitution set into motion a movement that grew over time, drawing allies, confronting and surmounting challenges, and persisting until women’s demands were met. Even today, the Constitution does not guarantee its citizens the right to vote; it only guarantees that the right to vote cannot be denied on the basis of race (the Fifteenth Amendment) or sex (the Nineteenth Amendment). The commitment of women and their male supporters to expanding citizenship for women tells us much about the meanings of equality and citizenship in a democracy. Gender, race, class, and nationality intersect with the women’s suffrage movement in profound ways, and celebratory histories of the movement are complicated by some of its most prominent leaders’ racism and xenophobia and their inability to embrace full inclusivity. Yet the movement remains relevant in a democracy still struggling with the vision of a more perfect union.

From the Founding to the Civil War

The U.S. Founders modeled the U.S. government on the oldest participatory democracy in the world, the Confederacy of the Haudenosaunee, wherein each member nation (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora) has unique powers and responsibilities. They did not, however, embrace the Haudenosaunee principle of women’s political authority. While the Founders adopted aspects of governance from Indigenous nations, western models of exclusivity continued to hold sway and they rejected political roles for women in their model for the United States. In addition, the Founders left the details of voting rights to the states, thereby establishing a model with no clear guarantees of equal citizenship rights.

In the early national period, voting rights differed—sometimes significantly—by state. Examples of state-based voter qualifications included property ownership, class, religion (especially for Jews, Quakers, Catholics, and atheists), race, and gender. Black people and women in New Jersey voted from 1776 until 1807 when male legislators decided their votes affected election results and changed “he or she” to “free, white, male citizens,” disfranchising all women and men of color in the state. New York allowed Black male property owners who paid taxes on property worth at least $250 to vote after 1821; white men did not have property requirements. Women in a few states could vote on local issues.

In the 1830s and 1840s, as the abolition movement gained traction, women who worked for the end of slavery recognized their oppression based on sex. Many of the earliest women’s rights activists came from the anti-slavery ranks. Angelina Grimké, born into a slave-holding family in South Carolina, called for equal rights (including voting rights) in a resolution at a Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of New York convention in 1837. The call created upheaval in her mostly white audience but clearly linked the end of slavery with the need to expand rights for women. The women’s rights movement also drew on Native American influences. In July 1848, Quaker Lucretia Coffin Mott, inspired by Seneca women exercising authority at the Cattaraugus Community, helped Martha Coffin Wright, Mary Ann M’Clintock, Jane Hunt, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organize the first Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, NY. From then on, a small, but growing cadre of activist women demanded equal rights through their writing, speeches, petitioning, and conventions.

Button with portrait of Elizabeth Cady Stanton
The Harlem Equal Rights League was organized in the early years of the twentieth century when Harlem—and the group’s membership—was predominantly white. President Maude Malone was a librarian and a militant suffrage activist. Under her leadership, the organization employed the then-radical tactics of outdoor meetings and a woman’s suffrage parade in 1908. Image courtesy of Kenneth Florey.

Setting aside their equal rights goals during the Civil War (1861-1865), white and Black women supported the Union war effort and the demise of enslavement. At war’s end, federal legislators sought to reconstruct the country through three constitutional amendments. The Thirteenth Amendment (ratified in 1865) officially abolished slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified in 1868) made former enslaved people citizens, but specifically excluded Native people on reservations. Additionally, in Section 2, it defined a citizen as male, using the word for the first time in the Constitution. The Fifteenth Amendment (ratified in 1870) enfranchised those male citizens. The thousands of Black men who served the Union army strengthened the connection between voting rights and military capability. Instead of universally enfranchising all adult citizens, this process led to conflict between those suffragists advancing Black male voting rights and other proponents of women’s suffrage.

The Potential of Universal Suffrage

The American Equal Rights Association, founded in 1866, challenged the male descriptor of a voter in debates prior to the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Association, comprised of Black and white women’s rights activists and former abolitionists, sought universal suffrage—a term meaning that the right to vote is based on adulthood, regardless of the race or sex of the person. Legislators flatly refused to consider Indigenous people in this debate. In 1866-67, Association members attempted to convince delegates to the 1867 New York State Constitutional Convention to remove the word “male” from voter eligibility, hoping it would influence other states to do the same. When the Association failed in its goal, white suffragists increasingly expressed their frustration in racist and exclusionary terms.

Between 1868 and 1873, suffragists used a “New Departure” strategy to test the premise that the Fourteenth Amendment did not exclude women. Historian Ann Gordon and her team compiled a comprehensive list of hundreds of Black and white women who attempted to vote in this period in the appendix of volume II of The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In extreme cases, most famously that of Susan B. Anthony, authorities arrested and fined women who attempted to vote. In Minor v. Happersett (1875) the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution did not give women the right to vote, ending the experiment of hundreds of women who attempted to vote in these years. Eventually, a federal court found in John Elk v. Charles Wilkins (1884) that because Native people were not citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment, they also could not vote. Even if Indigenous men lived off the reservation and paid property taxes, the federal government provided no paths for naturalization or citizenship for them.

The American Equal Rights Association had split into two new organizations after states ratified the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. The National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Stanton and Anthony in New York, now focused on passing a constitutional amendment to enfranchise women. Black women including Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Harriet and Hattie Purvis, and Charlotte E. Ray, who had long worked with the leaders of the National Woman Suffrage Association, joined them. At the same time, African Americans Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Charlotte Forten, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, and others who supported a state-by-state enfranchisement strategy, joined the American Woman Suffrage Association, directed by Lucy Stone and her husband, Henry Blackwell in Massachusetts. Sojourner Truth collaborated with both organizations. Black and white women had long been establishing suffrage clubs in villages, towns, and cities across the nation to influence the electorate. Educator Sarah Smith Garnet, for example, helped found the Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn in the late 1880s. Twenty-four states allowed women to vote in school elections by the end of the decade. Many activists saw these achievements as hopeful.

By the 1890s, western territories and states inspired suffragists to persist in their campaigns. Wyoming and Utah territories in the West had long supported women’s right to vote, primarily to meet the citizen requirements for statehood. Wyoming kept women’s voting rights when it gained statehood in 1890. Colorado became a state in 1876; although Catholic and Hispanic men opposed a referendum to enfranchise women the following year, they made up a smaller percentage of voters by 1893. With the help of African American leader Elizabeth Piper Ensley and white suffragists in the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association, that year Colorado became the first state to enfranchise women by a popular referendum. Six years after Idaho became a state in 1890, its women won the right to vote. And Utah’s women had suffrage from the beginning of its statehood in 1896. Non-Native women of color in these states do not seem to have been targeted for disfranchisement. Meanwhile, at the federal level, Congress first debated a women’s suffrage amendment in 1878. Tellingly, members of Congress rehashed essentially the same arguments for another forty years.

Yellow and white umbrella with text "Idaho" and "Votes for Women"
To satisfy the demand for parade accoutrements, the National American Woman Suffrage Association in the summer of 1913 began merchandising umbrellas such as that pictured above, selling them for a dollar each with discounts for larger amounts. Image courtesy of Kenneth Florey.

Increasing Conservatism in the Suffrage Movement

To reduce fears of what the women’s rights movement might mean more broadly, activist leaders focused less on more radical demands such as dress reform or a woman’s right to divorce. This narrowing of goals to concentrate on suffrage reflects a period of increasing conservatism. When the National Woman Suffrage Association merged with the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1890 to consolidate their energies, they established the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which had officially endorsed women’s suffrage in 1881 under the leadership of Frances Willard, also joined the campaign. The Union supported limits on religious freedom (a reaction to increased non-Christian immigration, including Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe) and the more conservative approach demanded by the leadership.

In protest, Matilda Joslyn Gage, then writing Woman, Church, and State, which connected women’s oppression to organized religion, resigned. She formed a separate organization, the Woman’s National Liberal Union, to promote women’s suffrage and the separation of church and state, and she edited The Liberal Thinker. Anti-suffrage women in New York and Massachusetts established their own organizations by 1895; anti-suffragists in other states followed their lead. Anti-suffragists resisted the changes that they feared suffrage would require of women and encouraged all women to remain in the private sphere. When anti-suffragists published their arguments, suffragists found it necessary to refine their own positions in response, revitalizing the movement and broadening its appeal. The public found the suffrage and anti-suffrage debates to be highly entertaining and newspapers and magazines increasingly published suffrage news.

As “new woman” suffragists benefitted from higher education and greater social freedom, they appropriated innovative technologies and media to promote their cause. The material culture of suffrage included wearing the purple, white, and gold suffrage colors and jewelry to all kinds of public events, and distributing stamps, postcards, and letter paper. They called friends on the telephone, used automobiles as speaking platforms, and designed and marketed fashionable clothing, playing cards, games, china, jewelry, ribbons, buttons, toys, and souvenirs. Pro-suffrage activists also found journalism to be compatible with marriage and motherhood, and they frequently provided copy to newspaper and magazine editors. When anti-suffragists claimed that “real women” did not need political power and that suffragists “unsexed” themselves by stepping out of their appropriate sphere, suffragists held beautiful baby contests and demonstrated their cooking abilities. In the process, they simultaneously undermined and reinforced traditional ideas of femininity.

Suffrage and the Quest for Citizenship

Indigenous, Latin American, and Hispanic/Latinx women related women’s suffrage activism to their quest for self-determination and citizenship. American Indian Association member Marie L. Bottineau Baldwin (1863-1952, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa) and her colleague Zitkala Ŝa (1876-1938, Yankton Sioux) worked tirelessly for rights for Indigenous people. Both publicly supported women’s suffrage. Californian Maria Guadalupe Evangelina de Lopez (1881-1977) advocated for suffrage, translating documents into Spanish during the successful 1911 campaign. In New Mexico, Adelina (Nina) Otero-Warren also used Spanish to advocate for women’s suffrage during the debates leading to statehood in 1912. Nevertheless, New Mexican women had to wait until the signing of the Nineteenth Amendment to vote in their state.

In other efforts to broaden support for women’s right to vote, suffragists targeted the burgeoning immigrant and working-class population. Male immigrants who became citizens could vote, and suffragists sought their support. For example, in New York City, suffragists distributed propaganda in the languages of the new immigrants. They published campaign literature and broadsides in Greek, German, Russian, Italian, Irish, and other languages. Suffrage parades featured sections of various immigrant groups or African American women. Over seventeen thousand participants, including Chinese American Mabel Ping-Hau Lee, marched in the huge suffrage parade in New York City in 1912. Although she could not vote because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Lee’s appearance reminded observers of the promise of women’s enfranchisement in connection with the recent revolution in China.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, women’s suffrage activism dominated political life in the United States and all current events seemed connected to women’s quest for the franchise. It seemed that no one could remain neutral on the issue any longer. Political party leaders found themselves required to take a stand on women’s right to vote, competing against the more radical anarchists and the Socialist party, as well as the labor unions, for membership support.

Printed poster with text
“Mass Meeting!” poster for women’s suffrage meeting in Wakeeney, Kansas June 1894. Kansas Memory, Kansas Historical Society. Wikimedia Commons.

State-by-State Successes

By 1913, women in nine states—Wyoming (1890), Colorado (1893), Utah (1896), Idaho (1896), Washington (1910), California (1911), Oregon (1912), Kansas (1912), and Arizona (1912)—had the power of the franchise. These enfranchised women then could publicly advocate for women’s suffrage in the states where women still had no voting rights. On March 3, 1913, thousands of women and their male supporters marched in another huge parade, organized by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns of the NAWSA’s Congressional Committee on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in Washington, DC. Although warned that whites would oppose African American marchers, Paul followed the official policy of NAWSA and “quietly” accepted twenty-two Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sisters from Howard University, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell, and other Black women who joined the parade as marchers. While newspapers printed photographs of white participants, a few artists focused on the participation of Native and Asian American women marchers in their sketches or cartoons. When some of the hostile onlookers became violent toward all the marchers, police looked the other way and officials called on the U.S. Cavalry to restore order.

Picketing the White House

Alice Paul and her supporters began picketing the White House in January 1917. Holding the Democratic Party, with the president at its head, responsible for keeping women disfranchised, picketers, known as “silent sentinels,” held banners quoting the president. Women from all over the country traveled to Washington to take up banners; Mary Church Terrell and her daughter joined them. After the declaration of war against Germany in April, a once sympathetic public and press became increasingly hostile to picketers they perceived as unpatriotic. By June, police began arresting women for minor charges such as obstructing the sidewalk. When they refused to pay the fines, the judges sent them to Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. Over the eighteen-month period of the picketing, 168 women went to prison; many of them engaged in hunger strikes and suffered forcible feedings.

Because of the picketers, or perhaps despite the controversy they caused, 1917 marked a tipping point in the suffrage movement. New York women won full suffrage by the November 6 referendum. Nebraska, Michigan, Vermont, Arkansas, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Rhode Island approved full or partial suffrage for women that year. By the end of November, public outrage over the treatment of the incarcerated picketers forced their release from Occoquan. A highly experienced and determined cohort of women could then shift their attention from state campaigns into winning a federal amendment.

Although Wilson announced support for women’s suffrage as a “war measure” in 1917, members of Congress procrastinated on amending the Constitution. After several failed attempts beginning in January 1918, the proposed amendment, stating that the right to vote shall not be denied on account of sex, passed the House of Representatives in May 1919 and passed the Senate the following month. Suffragists remained vigilant as across the country state legislatures called special sessions to vote on the amendment and the requisite thirty-six states ratified it. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the Nineteenth Amendment on August 26, 1920, making it officially part of the United States Constitution. Despite decades of women’s activism on behalf of suffrage, none of the political officials bothered to invite any women to observe the signing.

Voting Rights and the Nineteenth Amendment

Infringements on the right to vote affected women in communities that faced oppression and limits on suffrage due to literacy, national origin, and other factors. Native people did not gain citizenship rights until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. However, the act did not guarantee the right to vote and many states kept Indigenous people disenfranchised until the 1965 Voting Rights Act. African Americans faced Jim Crow restrictions in the South and those who tried to vote risked racist violence, intimidation, and lynching. From the late nineteenth century to the post-World War II era, Asian exclusion legislation, Supreme Court decisions, and federal policies prohibited Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and other Asian immigrants from citizenship and voting. It took until the McCarran-Walter Nationality Act of 1952 to secure the right to vote for naturalized immigrants from Asia. Literacy tests kept some citizens from voting until 1975 revisions to the Voting Rights Act required that ballots be printed with translations for voters who spoke Spanish or Indigenous and Asian languages. The Nineteenth Amendment removed the restriction of sex but did not enfranchise women if they were subjugated on grounds other than gender.

Even in the twenty-first century, several state governments continue to prevent people from exercising their right to cast a ballot. Such restrictions intersect with inequality of gender, race, class, income, and often affect women. After the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which states that key aspects of the 1965 Voting Rights Act were unconstitutional, many states have revised their requirements for voting. Examples of these requirements include accepting only government-issued photographic identification, restricting easy access to the polls by relocating polling places away from communities of color or by closing them entirely, or by limiting voting hours and days. Many of these restrictions on voting have had a disproportionate impact on women, demonstrating that the need to protect voting rights remains imperative.

Suggested Readings

Anderson, Carol. One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018.

Cahill, Cathleen D. Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020.

Florey, Kenneth. Women’s Suffrage Memorabilia: An Illustrated Historical Study. McFarland & Company, 2013, and American Woman Suffrage Postcards: A Study and Catalog. McFarland & Company, 2015.

Hunter Graham, Sara. Woman Suffrage and the New Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Goodier, Susan. No Votes for Women: The Anti-Suffrage Movement in New York State. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.

Goodier, Susan, and Karen Pastorello. Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017.

Gordon, Ann D., ed., The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: Against an Aristocracy of Sex, 1866-1873, vol. 2, 6 vols. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Harrington, Page. Interpreting the Legacy of Women’s Suffrage at Museums and Historic Sites. American Association for State and Local History Series. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2021.

Hewett, Nancy, ed. No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010.

Huyck, Heather. Doing Women’s History in Public: A Handbook for Interpretation at Museums and Historic Sites. American Association for State and Local History Series. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2020.

Jones, Martha S. Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. New York: Basic Books, 2020.

Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Mead, Rebecca. How the Vote Was Won: Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868-1914. New York: New York University Press, 2004.

Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850 to 1920. Bloomington: Indiana Press, 1998.

Tetrault, Lisa. “Lessons from the Constitution: Thinking Through the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments,” Social Education 83, no. 6 (November/December 2019): 361-368.

Wagner, Sally Roesch. Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists. Summertown, TN: Native Voices, 2001.

Women and Social Movements Database and the Crowdsourcing Project (which collects women’s suffrage biographies). https://documents.alexanderstreet.com/VOTESforWOMEN.

For a general timeline of the US suffrage movement, see https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/People/Women/Nineteenth_Amendment_Vertical_Timeline.htm.


Susan Goodier, PhD, is an assistant professor at SUNY Oneonta where she teaches courses in women’s history and other topics. She authored No Votes for Women: The New York State Anti-Suffrage Movement (University of Illinois, 2013), and co-authored, with Karen Pastorello, Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State (Cornell University, 2017). It won an Award of Excellence from the American Association for State and Local History.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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 the 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.


[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.


~ 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.


“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.


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.


[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.


~ 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 [email protected].

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).


~ 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.


~ 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.


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.


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


Food History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Roots of Food in Public History

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

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

A Broader View of Food History

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

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

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

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

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

Reshaping Food History

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

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

A Toolkit for Inclusive Food Interpretation

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

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

  1.     Be reflexive.

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

  1.     Tell stories without endings.

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

  1.     Think like a community organizer.

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

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


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

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

Suggested Readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Organizations and Associations Doing Food History

American Community Gardening Association

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

Agricultural History Society (AHS)

Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS)

Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS)

Farm-Based Education Network

Native Seeds/SEARCH

Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance

National Black Farmers Association

Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery

Southern Foodways Alliance

United States Department of Agriculture

Databases, Archives, and Link Lists

Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project

The Food Timeline

The FOOD Museum

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

New York Public Library list of food history resources


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

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

Outdoor History Museums

Living History Farms Spring 2009. Photo credit: billnwmsu, Creative Commons.

Outdoor history museums are immersive historical environments created by collections of buildings that might be preservations, restorations, or replicas. Thinking about the term broadly, outdoor history museums can refer to living history farms, agricultural museums, pioneer museums, or even “open-air museums.” It is what happens in these environments, however, that makes them a powerful lens through which to explore issues of inclusion, equity, diversity, and service.

As they developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, outdoor history museums were expressions of two sometimes competing impulses. On the one hand, they challenged established museum collections practices by displaying the material culture of ordinary people. On the other, many founders used them to promote a nostalgic version of the past that ignored painful and difficult histories. Starting in the 1970s, outdoor history museum administrators and frontline employees transformed these sites by adding more historically accurate interpretations. Often, historical accuracy meant interpreting painful and traumatic pasts. At the same time, the use of living history, or performing the past, became increasingly popular at outdoor history museums. In some cases, outdoor history museums developed programs that used living history to engage audiences in some of our nation’s most fraught histories. While some of these efforts were lauded, others were met with criticism and concern from both audiences and interpreters. Administrators, frontline employees, and audiences began conversations that continue today about how to interpret diverse and inclusive pasts in an ethical way that serves both the public and employees.

Origins and Early History

A brief discussion of the history of outdoor history museums highlights how the dual and sometimes conflicting goals of educating and entertaining audiences have shaped the outdoor history museum experience. The origins of the outdoor history museum idea can be traced to the mid-nineteenth century. Echoes of the form can be found in historic house museums and the New England kitchen exhibits at Sanitary Fairs. Another form of the outdoor history museum approach can be seen at the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris where participating nations were invited to display their architecture and folk culture. Swedish folklorist Artur Hazelius was in attendance and went on to open what is widely recognized as the first outdoor history museum, Skansen, in 1891. Hazelius hoped to democratize museum collections by displaying the material culture of the wealthy alongside that of ordinary people. He was also driven by a desire to provide a cultural grounding for Swedes as they experienced the transformations of the industrial revolution, which was reflected in his motto: “Know Thyself.” The Skansen model proved quite popular in Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany, where numerous outdoor history museums were established during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[i]

The Growth of Outdoor History Museums in the United States

In the United States, the earliest outdoor living history museums were founded by wealthy industrialists. These men sought to solidify their interpretation of the past using the built environment. In 1929, Henry Ford opened Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, just a short drive from downtown Detroit and adjacent to the Rouge, at the time the largest factory in the world. The Village included over 90 buildings (some preserved, some replicas) all of which predated the automobile. The centerpiece was a re-creation of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory. Ford wanted to celebrate middle-class farmers and inventors whom he believed were left out of written histories. He moved buildings, such as the home and bicycle shop of the Wright Brothers, as well as his own birthplace to the Village. Ford also moved several buildings representing African American history, including two brick slave cabins. Greenfield Village was ahead of its time because it venerated vernacular architecture, but histories of conflict, especially the conflicts between labor and capital, were absent. This kind of forgetting was endemic in the earliest iterations of outdoor history museums.

In the same period, Episcopal priest W.A.R. Goodwin had approached Ford about the possibility of restoring Williamsburg, Virginia to its colonial glory to boost the town’s economy through heritage tourism, but he passed on this invitation and instead focused on Greenfield Village. Goodwin found an interested patron in John D. Rockefeller, Jr. After purchasing Williamsburg from its residents, Rockefeller hired professional architecture firm Perry, Shaw, and Hepburn to preserve, restore, and recreate the town as it was in the eighteenth century. Rockefeller believed that Americans were losing sight of their cultural and political origins and saw the site as a way to shore up democratic patriotism. Unlike Greenfield Village, Colonial Williamsburg recreated a real place and a specific moment in time. When it opened to the public in 1934, the site’s approach to preservation became a model for best practices in preservation work. The Colonial Williamsburg project came at a cost, however, especially to many of Williamsburg’s working-class and black residents who were forced to relocate or leave the town altogether. Despite the fact that in the eighteenth century much of Williamsburg’s population was enslaved, that history was ignored in the interpretation. In fact, the Colonial Williamsburg workforce was segregated and the site essentially denied service to African American tourists by refusing to provide separate accommodations at hotels and restaurants.[ii]

By the end of the 1950s, several outdoor history museums had opened in the United States including The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York (1944), Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts (1947), Old Salem, in North Carolina (1950), Historic Deerfield in Massachusetts (1952), and Plimoth Plantation (1957). Although they continued to be limited in the histories they communicated, many began to experiment with living history interpretation. The model was first used at Pioneer Village in Salem, Massachusetts (1930) when interpreters wore Puritan clothing and demonstrated seventeenth-century crafts. This third-person living history approach was also adopted at Old Sturbridge Village. At Plimoth Plantation, interpreters took it a step further, performing in first-person as famous figures like William Bradford, John and Priscilla Alden, and Miles Standish.

Changing Interpretive Models

The establishment of the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM) in 1970 indicated the popularization and professionalization of interpretation at outdoor history museums. Through annual conferences, bulletins, skills workshops, and other publications, ALFHAM has provided countless resources for professionals who seek to “bring history to life.” According to the organization’s website, “at the heart of ALHFAM’s mission is the responsibility to share practical knowledge and skills among those who make history relevant to contemporary lives.” Consequently, the organization provides invaluable and extensive resources for both their members and the general public who aim to better understand living history and living history farms.[iii]

The 1970s brought the tensions between entertainment and education at outdoor history museums to the fore. The employment of more academically trained historians at outdoor history museums led to challenges and changes to some of the interpretive practices at established sites like Colonial Williamsburg and Greenfield Village. For example, during the 1970s, Dr. Cary Carson led a team of scholars to develop a new interpretive program for Colonial Williamsburg that addressed criticisms that the site offered a sanitized version of the nation’s history. And in 1979, six African Americans were hired to interpret the history of enslavement. Under the leadership of Dr. Harold K. Skramstad, Greenfield Village also overhauled its interpretive plan. Historical research changed the interpretation of several buildings, a new African American Family History and Culture program was established, and a new living history farm opened. The expanded and more historically accurate interpretations of the past created more opportunities for education, but also raised new questions about how to ensure audiences departed with the intended message.[iv]

The decision to recreate a slave auction at Colonial Williamsburg brought these questions into sharp relief. In 1994, Christy Coleman, director of Colonial Williamsburg’s African American interpretation program, organized a performance titled Publick Times. Local African American political and religious groups opposed the event before it even began, arguing that performance trivialized a traumatic and painful history. Members from the Virginia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) arrived on the day of the performance to protest. After witnessing the auction, NAACP political action director Jack Gravely changed his mind, explaining that the event had made the pain of enslavement real. But SCLC member Reverend Curtis Harris said that it was “a show, not an authentic history.”[v]

Conner Prairie in Fishers, Indiana has also been lauded and criticized for its experimental living history program, “Follow the North Star.” Conner Prairie interprets pioneer life through an 1886 farm and since the 1990s has also focused on the history of indigenous peoples. In 1999, staff member Michelle Evans worked with black leaders in Indianapolis to develop a ninety-minute program called “Follow the North Star” for visitors twelve years of age and older. Visitors played the role of fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad and interpreters were either “sympathetic allies” or “racist antagonists.” Four years later, the program won an Excellence in Programming Award from the American Alliance of Museums and in 2012 it received an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). But the program also drew criticism. Some white audiences reportedly giggled during the program and there were accusations that the program could be a traumatic experience for children of color. In response to criticisms, Conner Prairie CEO Norman Burns announced that it would “update” the program to “reflect the learning and needs of today and tomorrow’s audiences” in 2019. Burns explained that the new program would be reorganized in partnership with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. [vi]

Many have noted that these experiments with living history can have complicated effects not only on audiences but also on interpreters. African Americans who interpret enslavement at Colonial Williamsburg often describe their feelings about their work as complex. As James Oliver Horton explained, the “prestige attached” to being an interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg is accompanied by the “somber realization that their workday centers on ‘playing slaves’ for a public audience that is often unsympathetic.” Thus, black and white interpreters frequently discuss the range of feelings that arise. Amy M. Tyson examined the cost of this kind of “emotional labor” in her study of Historic Fort Snelling in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 2008, the Fort began to expand its focus on military history to include histories of enslavement and American colonialism. Tyson explains that some interpreters were reluctant to share these histories because they sought to create a positive, meaningful connection with visitors. When interpreters did share the traumatic and painful histories of the Fort, the emotional cost was high. Further, she asserts, “between demonstrating tasks like blacksmithing or laundry, drawing meaningful connections across time, and monitoring their own and the visitors’ emotional states, interpreters engaged in presenting painful histories might find themselves working . . . on an ever-accelerating assembly line of emotional production.” These increasing demands on frontline employees are rarely, if ever, met with adequate compensation.[vii]

Best Practices and the Visitor Experience

Professionals working at outdoor history museums continue to work toward emphasizing the educational experience by honing living history techniques and developing best practices. In 2009, AASLH, the Institute for Learning Innovation, Conner Prairie Living History Museum, and Old Sturbridge Village engaged in an expansive study of visitors through a leadership grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services titled “The Outdoor Living History Museum Interpretation Research Project.” The goals of the study were to test the best practices used at each site and to understand how the visitor experience at outdoor living history museums changed over time. The study of visitors included not only on-site questionnaires and interviews with audiences and interpreters, but also follow-up telephone interviews with the same visitors at two weeks and three months after their visits. The findings included extensive discussions of the value of various living history methods, an assessment of the best practices used, and an analysis of visitors’ experiences.[viii]

The power of outdoor history museums to connect audiences with the past is undeniable. Due to their form, they offer abundant opportunities to experiment with learning through hands-on, immersive activities. Visitors are transported into the past through interactions with preserved or replicated buildings and by living history interpreters. But what are the consequences for audiences and interpreters immersed in painful pasts? Are these opportunities for consciousness raising or do they trivialize experiences of social injustice? What are the emotional costs for interpreters? How do outdoor history museums balance their natural affinity for entertainment with educational goals? Like many museums, numerous outdoor history museums have struggled financially since the 2000s. As pressures mount for them to stay afloat, these questions will become more pressing.[ix]


[i] Rodris Roth, “The New England, or ‘Old Tyme,’ Kitchen Exhibit at Nineteenth-Century Fairs,” in The Colonial Revival in America, ed. Alan Axelrod (New York: Norton, 1985), 159-183; Sten Rentzhog, Open Air Museums: The History and Future of a Visionary Idea (Kristianstad, Sweden: Carlssons, 2007), 4-32.

[ii] Anders Greenspan, Creating Colonial Williamsburg (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002), 16-76.

[iii] Greenspan, 142-43; “Our History,” The Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (2014), https://www.alhfam.org/Our-History#history; “ALHFAM Resources,” The Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (2014), https://www.alhfam.org/Resources-main.

[iv] Greenspan, 148-177; Cary Carson, “Teaching History at Colonial Williamsburg” (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1985); “Greenfield Village Didn’t Always Get It Right,” UPI Archives, June 2, 1991, https://www.upi.com/Archives/1991/06/02/Greenfield-Village-didnt-always-get-it-right/1950675835200/; “Firestone Farm—Dedication—Item 30,” The Henry Ford, https://www.thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-collections/artifact/406616/; “America’s Stories Come to Life,” The Henry Ford, https://www.thehenryford.org/history-and-mission/americas-stories-come-to-life/.

[v] James Oliver Horton, “Slavery in American History: An Uncomfortable National Dialogue” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, eds. James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 50; Greenspan, 163-164; “‘Slave Auction’ Divides Crowd in Williamsburg,” The Baltimore Sun, October 11, 1994, https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1994-10-11-1994284095-story.html.

[vi] Cherstin M. Lyon, Elizabeth M. Nix, and Rebecca K. Shrum, Introduction to Public History: Interpreting the Past, Engaging Audiences (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2017), 141-46; “Good Morning: Conner Prairie to Change Its Follow the North Star Program,” The Herald Bulletin, April 22, 2019 https://www.heraldbulletin.com/news/local_news/briefs/good-morning-conner-prairie-to-change-its-follow-the-north/article_48ecefc8-47f2-50ea-b840-74f2e416fb1a.html; Scott Magelssen, “This is Drama. You Are Characters’: The Tourist as Fugitive Slave in Conner Prairie’s ‘Follow the North Star,” Theatre Topics 16, no. 1 (March 2006): 19-34; Olivia Lewis, “Conner Prairie Slavery Re-Enactment Draws Criticism,” Indianapolis Star, August 7, 2016, https://www.indystar.com/story/news/2016/08/06/conner-prairie-slavery-re-enactment-draws-criticism/82987036/.

[vii] Horton, 52; Amy M. Tyson, The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 145-171.

[viii] “The Outdoor Living History Museum Interpretation Research Project,” American Association for State and Local History, March 2009, http://download.aaslh.org/AASLH-Website-Resources/The+Outdoor+Living+History+Museum.pdf.

[ix] Mitchell B. Reiss, “An Open Letter to the Colonial Williamsburg Community,” Making History: Inspiration for the Modern Revolutionary, June 29, 2017, https://www.scribd.com/document/352531032/Open-Letter-to-Colonial-Williamsburg-Community.

Suggested Readings

Allison, David B. Living History: Effective Costumed Interpretation and Enactment at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2016.

Greenspan, Anders. Creating Colonial Williamsburg. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.

Magelssen, Scott. Living History Museums: Undoing History Through Performance. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007.

Peers, Laura. Playing Ourselves: Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press, 2007.

Rentzhog, Sten. Open Air Museums: The History and Future of a Visionary Idea. Kristianstad, Sweden: Carlssons, 2007.

Swigger, Jessie. History is Bunk: Assembling the Past at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.

Tyson, Amy M. The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.


~ Jessie Swigger is an Associate Professor in the History Department at Western Carolina University where she also serves as Director of the Public History Program. Her book, “History is Bunk”: Assembling the Past at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2014. She is currently writing a history of the first four children’s museums in the United States.