What To Do If You Are Concerned About People “Erasing History”

Confederate_soldier_monument,_Union_County,_AR_IMG_2583One of the arguments against removing Confederate monuments (or any monument, for that matter) is that such an act is the equivalent of “erasing history.”  I don’t think this concern should be dismissed so easily just because a bunch of white supremacists came to Charlottesville to defend a monument of Robert E. Lee.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I was appalled at Donald Trump’s failure to make a moral differentiation between the white supremacists in Charlottesville last weekend and the group that opposed them.  But I do think Trump asked a series of fair questions when he said “I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop.”

So where does it stop?  If you are asking this question, it doesn’t make you a racist, a white supremacist, a member of the alt-Right, or a neo-Nazi.  It is a legitimate historical question about how the past informs the present and how we should remember and commemorate what has happened in bygone eras.

I have done several posts on this issue that might help you to think this through.

  • Here is a post on Annette Gordon-Reed’s response to the very question Trump asked yesterday.
  • Here is a post on the 1776 removal of New York statue to George III.
  • Here is a post on W.E.B. DuBois on Confederate monuments.
  • Here is a post on Yale historian David Blight on this issue.
  • Here is a post on New Yorker writer and historian Jelani Cobb on this issue.

We can continue to debate what to do with Confederate monuments, but over at The Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gerhz has a message for all of those folks who are suddenly concerned about “erasing history.”

Here is a taste:

But if you’re one of those people who’s up in arms about the dangers of #ErasingHistory, then let me suggest a few ways you might better expend your time and passion in service of the past than by taking up a Lost Cause:

• Encourage your ancient Rome- or WWII-loving teenager to consider majoring in history. “But everyone knows that’s a useless major,” they’ll reply. “No, it’s not,” you’ll calmly respond. And hand them empirical data. (Because that’s how teenagers make decisions.)

• Complain to your alma mater the next time they fail to replace a retiring history professor, or when you find out that most of their history teaching load is born by overworked, underpaid adjuncts.

• Ask your local principal or school district superintendent to explain the budgetary and curricular implications for social studies of that shiny new STEM program they (like all their competitors) keep promoting.

• Call your representative or senator to protest the next federal budget proposal that threatens to defund the public endowment that makes possible dozens of valuable projects in historical research and interpretation.

• Or if you prefer free market solutions… Buy a membership in your local attendance-challenged historical museum or site, and purchase history books by actual historians: like this Davidthis Davidthis David, or this David instead of this David.

Great post!  Read all of it here.

Author’s Corner with Steven Lubar

lubarSteven Lubar is Professor of American Studies at Brown University. This interview is based on his new book, Inside the Lost Museum (Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Inside the Lost Museum

SL: It’s a book that I wish I had when I first started work as a curator – I wanted to know more about both the how and the why of the work. More immediately, the book was inspired by the “Lost Museum” installation, a student project with artist Mark Dion that explored Brown University’s Jenks Museum. Mark’s aesthetic-historical approach to understanding collections and exhibitions allowed me the intellectual distance to ask some big questions about the why? and how? of museums.  

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Inside the Lost Museum

SL: I argue museums are unique because of their collections – art, artifacts, and specimens – and that those collections are complex, not simple. To understand how and why museums collect, care for, display, and use things, we need to understand the ways in which history shapes museums’ connections with their communities, both source communities and audiences.

JF: Why do we need to read Inside the Lost Museum

SL: Understanding museum history is the best way to understand how museums can build on their strengths and overcome their disadvantages – to be useful. Museum curators and museum studies students will read Inside the Lost Museum to understand museum work and how museum history provides a foundation to build a new future. A general audience will read it to understand not only what goes on behind the scenes of museums, but also to understand their continuing importance. And I hope all readers will be fascinated by the thread that holds the book together: the curious story of John Whipple Potter Jenks, donor, director, and curator of the Jenks Museum.  

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? 

SL: As an undergraduate at MIT I became fascinated by the history and culture of science and technology, and went to graduate school to study alchemy and astrology. But I soon realized that reading Latin would never be my forte, and discovered more useful and interesting roots of modern science and technology in the business and political revolutions of the nineteenth century. That encouraged me to shift to American history, which led to a career in museums, which led to an interest in public humanities and museum history.  

JF: What is your next project? 

SL: For the next year, I’ll be a Mellon fellow at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, contributing to an exhibition project on “repair.” It’s a fascinating topic, encompassing both the material and the metaphorical, and I’m looking forward to exploring the museum’s collections and considering the meaning of mends, patches, and fixes in ways physical, moral, and political. 

JF: Thanks, Steven!

Live Tweeting a Historical Event

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Spokane’s Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture, the site of the Twitter “re-enactment”

Over at Northwest History, Eastern Washington University public historian Larry Cebula writes about how he and some local historians conducted a Twitter re-enactment of Spokane’s 1889 fire.  According to his post, several folks got together with historical documents and began composing tweets using the hashtag #greatfire1889.  They even got coverage in the local newspaper!

Cebula writes:

It was a blast. We each worked from a different resource about the fire, books and letters and newspaper articles, and pulled out striking and dramatic bits. The 144-character limit of Twitter was not as much of a problem as I would have thought, and we quickly figured out that 144 characters equaled about one-and-a-half lines on the Google Doc. We tried to keep the Tweets roughly chronological as we added them to the document. The Google Doc had the great advantage of allowing everyone to see what the others were working on and avoiding duplicate tweets on the same subject. We added brief citation notes to each tweet, not to be tweeted but to document where we had found the information in case there were questions later. We also looked at some of the dramatic photographs that Harbine had identified from the collections and wrote tweets to highlight those images.

After ninety minutes or so we had in excess of thirty tweets that did a really nice job of telling the story of the fire. Camporeale then assigned times to each tweet. The tweets went into Hootsuite, a social media tool that allows one to schedule tweets in advance, each set to be tweeted at the right time.

Cebula offers some tips for doing such a project in a public history or digital history course:

Live tweeting a historical event would make a great classroom project for digital and public history courses. This presentation lays out how they did a similar project on the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald has some good tips. Here are the steps as I see it

  1. Pick a historical event. Something dramatic, well-documented, and with contemporary interest. It needs to be an event that took place over a few days, not months. Choose a time period that you will be tweeting, maybe 3-7 days?
  2. Choose a hashtag. Make sure that it has not been taken.
  3. Assemble some resources. It really worked well to have different people pulling their tweets out of different sources. Resources could be a mix of physical and digital, with digitized books and newspapers offering a rich set of perspectives. Make a Google Doc with links to the digital resources.
  4. Write the tweets. If I were working with a larger class, I would organize the Google Doc a bit in advance by making headings for each days tweets. Encourage students to find relevant images to attach to the tweets.
  5. Schedule the tweets with Hootsuite or a similar social media manager

Read the rest here.

The Decline of Confederate Iconography: A Timeline

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Confederate soldier monument, Union County, Arkansas (Wikipedia Commons)

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin calls our attention to a timeline chronicling what he calls “The Long Retreats of Confederate Heritage.”

Here is a taste:

I found this detailed timeline at a website called The Confederate Society of America. It is difficult to tell whether it is comprehensive, but it certainly will give you a sense of the scope of and pace at which Confederate iconography has been removed from public and private spaces around the country. This timeline was compiled by Dr. Arnold M. Huskins for an article titled, “The Eradication of a Region’s Cultural and Heritage.”

1970‘s: The Univ. of Georgia’s “Dixie Redcoat Marching Band” drops the word “Dixie” from its name and discontinues playing the song which was played after the National Anthem; City of Atlanta, GA renames Forrest Street; University of Texas-Arlington drops its Rebel mascot

1990: NBNC-Texas asks Texas State Fair to discontinue the playing of Elvis Presley’s American Trilogy because of its “Dixie” content

1991: City of Atlanta renames street named after Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon; NAACP passes resolution “abhorring the Confederate battle flag” and commits their legal resources to removal of the flag from all public properties.

Read the rest here.

Public History and the Church (or why I do what I do)

Why Study History CoverIn the last few days, several folks have asked me why I get so “bent out of shape” about the likes of David Barton and the “court evangelicals.”  One noted American religious historian regularly implies on Twitter and in blog comments that I am “obsessed” with Trump.

I get so “bent out of shape” because I believe that part of my vocation as a historian is to bring good United States history to the church–both to the local church and the larger American church.  (And especially to evangelicalism, since that is my tribe).  I wrote about this extensively in the Epilogue of Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  When I speak at churches–and I do this often–I see it as a form of public history.

My critique of the court evangelicals is a natural extension of my ongoing criticism of conservative activist Barton and other Christian nationalist purveyors of the past.  It is not a coincidence that First Baptist-Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress often preaches a sermon titled “America is a Christian Nation.”  In this sermon he says. among other things:

We don’t restrict people’s right to worship [they can] worship however they choose to worship.  But that doesn’t mean we treat all religions equally.  This is a Christian nation. Every other religion is an impostor, it is an infidelity.  That is what the United States Supreme Court said.

Someone can correct me, but I think First Baptist–Dallas is the largest Southern Baptist church in the world.  Jeffress is an influential figure.  He goes on Fox News and claims to represent American evangelicals.  His profile has risen immensely since he announced his support of Trump.

It’s important to remember that Jeffress’s political theology (if you can call it that) is based on a false view of American history.  And it is not very difficult to trace it to the teachings of Barton.

In the aforementioned sermon, Jeffress comments on a recent Barton visit to First Baptist–Dallas.  He then says, referencing the prince of Aledo, Texas, that “52 of the 55 signers of the Constitution” were “evangelical believers.” This is problematic on so many levels.  First, only 39 people signed the Constitution.  Actually, I think Jeffress might be referring here to the men who signed the Declaration of Independence.  Second, to suggest that most of them were “evangelicalRevised believers” is a blatant misrepresentation of history.  In fact, Jeffress doesn’t even get Barton right here.  Barton says (wrongly) that nearly all of the signers of the Declaration had Bible school and seminary degrees.  Jeffress is confused about his fake history. 🙂  But that doesn’t matter.  People in his massive congregation applaud and cheer when he preaches this stuff.

Jeffress and the court evangelicals support Trump because they want to “make America great again.”  Jeffress’s congregation even sings a song about it.  Let’s remember that “Make America Great Again” is a historical claim.  The nation is “great,” Christian nationalists like Jeffress argue, when it upholds the Christian beliefs on which it was founded.  Christian Right politics, the same politics that carry a great deal of weight in today’s GOP, thus starts with this dubious claim about the American founding. From there it can go in all sorts of directions related to immigration, race, church and state, marriage, abortion, religious liberty, etc….

My approach to critiquing Jeffress, the Christian Right, and the court evangelicals is structural in nature. It is fitting with my vocation as a historian.  Theologians and pastors are probably better equipped to make a direct biblical case for why Jeffress’s Christian nationalism is idolatry and harmful to the witness of the Gospel. Greg Boyd, Richard, Hughes, John Wilsey, and others have already made such a case. I encourage you to read their books.  But early American historians are best equipped at taking a sledgehammer to the foundation of Christian nationalist politics.

So yes, I do get “bent out of shape.”  Maybe I am obsessed.  Somebody has to be.  We need good American history more than ever. Christian historians have a public role to play in such a time as this.

 

Museums in an Age of Fake News

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Canadian Museum of History (Wikipedia Commons)

This piece in the Toronto Star recently caught my attention.  In an age of fake news, museums are stepping up to the plate to help “separate fact from fiction and spark critical thinking.”

Here is a taste of reporter Stephanie Levitz’s article “In an era of ‘fake news’ people are turning to museums for facts.”

The value of people having tactile experiences with objects from history or science can’t be overstated, Beckel said. Where else but in a museum can one get a sense of the size of the dinosaurs?

But the value of challenging people’s understanding of those objects is equally important, said Lisa Leblanc, director of creative development for Canadian history hall at the Museum of History.

The “cacophony of channels” has put more information at people’s fingertips than ever before, but also allows for them to only engage with information that reinforces their world view, she said.

For museums to keep the public’s trust and also do their job sparking critical thinking, bursting those bubbles is important, she said.

Read the entire piece here.

On the Mission of Colonial Williamsburg

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The Editorial Board of The Virginian-Pilot has something to say about this:

A taste:

If that core mission is some variation on being a “tourist attraction,” an entity that helps support the local Williamsburg economy, that touts “a preserved Colonial neighborhood with musket echoes, horse carriage rides and actors playing the roles of early settlers,” as recounted in The Pilot last week, then it probably will slowly die.

And should. This was never the idea.

It only became the idea, in part, when so many people began showing up in the post-World War II era. That’s when much of the commercial growth occurred in areas surrounding Williamsburg. That’s when the collective mentality began to shift toward making money.

 

Now that the crowds have thinned and appear unlikely to return in grand numbers, this may be an opportunity to restore the purposes of the restoration, which was, in the words of John D. Rockefeller, Colonial Williamsburg’s great benefactor, so that “the future may learn from the past.”

What does that mean?

It means a style and approach to public and civic education unique to Colonial Williamsburg, that involves — first and foremost — seriousness of intent and technique.

It means providing a safe haven for scholars and professionals, ensuring that the passing whims of the foundation’s leadership do not come at the expense of the people who have given their careers to the study of early American Colonial life, meaning the ones who do the research, the writing and the instruction that effectively sets the foundation apart from some half-baked tourist draw.

It means less fixation on the needs of the local Williamsburg economy and vastly more on the civic needs of America and the extension of democratic ideals throughout the world.

It means that nothing — virtually nothing — occurs within the historic area of Williamsburg that has the effect of trivializing or diminishing the values that long distinguished the foundation’s work.

It means making Colonial Williamsburg “important” once again, by drawing to its historic venues authors and public figures who reflect the same civic excellence and commitment of those who first inhabited Williamsburg, brought it international fame and locked it into history.

Does that mean engaging and illuminating the American Revolution as both an historic and political event? You bet.

Read the rest here.  Sounds good to me.

How We Got Our Historical Markers

Dexter

Over at Smithsonian.com, Kevin Levin, the proprietor of the excellent blog “Civil War Memory,” gives us a history lesson on historical markers.

Some of you may recall that it was a Levin blog post that triggered our recent post “Is Jimmy Carter a Lost Causer.”  Levin mentions this again in his Smithsonian piece.

Here is a taste:

Historical markers are a ubiquitous presence along many of the nation’s highways and country roads. You can spot their distinctive lettering, background color, and shape without even realizing what they commemorate. And their history is more fraught than you might think.

States have celebrated their pasts since the United States was born, but it took more than a century—and the creation of modern roads—for roadside markers to become a tool for public memorialization. Virginia’s historical marker program is one of the oldest, beginning in 1926 with the placement of a small number of signs along U.S. 1 between Richmond and Mount Vernon. A small number of markers were erected in Colorado, Indiana and Pennsylvania even before this date. By 1930, Massachusetts had 234 markers along its roads—and these early tallies don’t include markers placed by local individuals, organizations and larger heritage groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The largest number of state-sponsored programs, however, followed World War II.

In the two decades after the war, American families took to the roads on vacations that had as much to do with pleasure as a desire to explore and embrace historic sites that reflected the country’s national identity and democratic values. In 1954 alone, around 49 million Americans set out on heritage tours of the United States, including Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, Washington, D.C., and Independence Hall in Philadelphia. These sacred places allowed Americans to imagine themselves as members of a larger community bound together by common values—and encouraged good citizenship at the height of America’s ideological struggle against the Soviet Union.

These pilgrimages also reinforced a traditional historical narrative that catered specifically to middle-class white America. Stories of Pilgrims and Puritans, Founding Fathers, westward-bound settlers, and brave American soldiers dominated this consensus-driven picture of the nation’s past. The vast majority of historical markers reinforced these themes on a local level, pointing out important events or notable residents—most of them white and male—as travelers wound their way to their final destinations.

Read the entire piece here.

What is Going on at Colonial Williamsburg?

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Don’t forget the hatchet-throwing site, Jim!

Colonial Williamsburg appears to be in trouble.  The mecca of American history tourism is laying off workers and outsourcing its operations.  Last year it lost $148,000 a day.

Here is a taste of the AP report that American Historical Association Director Jim Grossman references in the tweet above.

The foundation that operates the eastern Virginia attraction is in final negotiations with four companies that will manage its golf operations, retail stores, much of its maintenance and facilities operations and its commercial real estate, President and CEO Mitchell Reiss said.

“For a variety of reasons – business decisions made in years past, less American history being taught in schools, changing times and tastes that cause us to attract half the visitors we did 30 years ago – the Foundation loses significant amounts of money every year,” he wrote in a letter shared publicly.

The foundation’s operating losses last year totaled $54 million, or $148,000 per day. It also borrowed heavily to improve its hospitality facilities and visitors center and ended 2016 with more than $300 million in debt, Reiss said.

Combined, those factors put pressure on the foundation’s endowment, with withdrawals reaching as high as 12 percent per year. At that rate, the approximately $684 million endowment could be exhausted in just eight years or perhaps sooner.

Reiss said in an interview that the foundation’s financial straits meant its mission of historic preservation “was at risk, quite frankly.”

Colonial Williamsburg is the world’s largest living history museum, with costumed interpreters who re-enact 18th century life amid more than 600 restored or reconstructed original buildings.

Read the entire piece here.  We asked this same question back in October.

I am not expecting a search for Philip Vickers Fithian anytime soon.

 

Master Local Historians

Tennesse State Archives

This looks like a great program.

Humanities Tennessee has awarded the American Association of State and Local History a grant to pilot Master Local Historians (MLS).

Here is the press release and description of the program:

AASLH is proud to announce that we have been awarded a grant from Humanities Tennessee to pilot our newest program, Master Local Historians.

The Master Local Historians project is a training program that highlights the relevance of historical inquiry for the general public and provides people with an opportunity to hone their historical research, writing, and interpretation skills. Participants will learn the basic tools and methods of the craft of history to better understand, and even explain, the world around them. By the end of the course, they will have a greater appreciation for the work of public history and be better able to assist history organizations in a variety of ways.

This project is funded by a grant from Humanities Tennessee, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and in-kind matching support from AASLH.

History—both knowledge of the past and the practice of researching and making sense of what happened in the past—is crucially important to the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and the future of our nation. On a state-by-state, community-by-community basis, people are figuring out what history means in the context of today. AASLH continually evaluates the opportunities history organizations have to employ history’s essential role in nurturing personal identity, teaching critical skills, helping to provide vital places to live and work, stimulating economic development, fostering engaged citizens, inspiring leadership, and providing a legacy. The Master Local Historians program is one such opportunity.

In the beginning stages of this project, AASLH has pulled together a team of national and Tennessee humanities scholars and advisors to review existing materials from similar programs and map a framework for a Master Local Historian program. This includes a curriculum that focuses on the basics of the historical profession, with three of those basics being piloted by partner organizations in West, Middle, and East Tennessee, including the Morton Museum of Collierville History, the Tennessee State Library and Archives, and the East Tennessee History Center. After the completion of a successful piloting period, AASLH plans to seek funding to launch the Master Local Historians program nationally.

The institutions will host the workshops in winter 2017/2018. AASLH will evaluate the individual sessions and the success of the program as a whole and in 2018 begin to create the full Master Local Historian curriculum based on the Tennessee pilots. The program highlights the continued relevance of history, a major theme of AASLH strategic plan since 2016.

AASLH is proud to have the following people serve as Humanities Scholars on this project, including Dr. Lorraine McConaghy (Public Historian), Myers Brown (Tennessee State Library and Archives), Dr. Carroll Van West (Tennessee State Historian), Adam Alfrey (East Tennessee History Center), Dr. Larry Cebula (Public Historian), Dr. Teresa Church (Public Historian), Dr. Jay Price (Public Historian), Brooke Mundy (Collierville Museum of History), Steve Murray (Alabama Department of Archives and History), Stuart Sanders (Kentucky Historical Society), Dr. C. Brendan Martin (MTSU) and Local Historians: Betsy Millard (Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum), Carol Kammen (Tompkins County (NY) Historian), and Beverly Tyler (Three Villages Historical Society).

For more information about Master Local Historians, and other Continuing Education opportunities, contact Amber Mitchell at Mitchell@aaslh.org.

Early American Religion at the Smithsonian

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Are you looking for something to do this weekend?

Why not head to Washington D.C. to see the new “Religion in Early America” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History?  The exhibit, which is curated by historian Peter Manseau, is part of a larger exhibit on American identity titled “The Nation We Build Together.” It opened this week.

Over at Religion News Service, Adelle Banks reports on the new exhibit:

Enter the “Religion in Early America” exhibit and there are objects you expect to find: Bibles, a hymnal and christening items.

But on closer inspection, a broader picture of faith in the Colonial era emerges: a Bible translated into the language of the Wampanoag people, the Torah scroll of the first synagogue in North America and a text written by a slave who wanted to pass on the essentials of his Muslim heritage.

“Religion in early America was not just Puritans and the Pilgrims, and then the Anglicans and the negotiation of Christian diversity,” said Peter Manseau, curator of the exhibit that opens Wednesday (June 28) at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

“It was a much bigger picture. It was a story of many different communities with conflicting, competing beliefs, coexisting over time with greater and lesser degrees of engagement with each other.”

Read the rest here.

Catherine Allgor is the New President of the Massachusetts Historical Society

AllgorHere is the press release:

The Trustees of the Massachusetts Historical Society announced today the appointment of Catherine Allgor, Ph.D. as the next President of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Allgor will assume her position in early October 2017. The announcement comes after an exhaustive national search led by a committee co-chaired by MHS Trustees Lisa Nurme and Olly Ames. She succeeds Dennis A. Fiori, who is retiring as President.

Paul Sandman, Chair of the Board of Trustees said, “In Catherine, the MHS has found a charismatic leader, an accomplished scholar, and a captivating spokeswoman. She will bring not only creativity and vision to fulfilling the Society’s mission but also a track record of successful execution.”  He continued, “She is a perfect fit for the MHS and we are excited by her commitment to propelling the Society forward.” 

Allgor is currently the Nadine and Robert A. Skotheim Director of Education and Volunteers at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, where she has served since 2013. As she prepares to take the helm at the MHS, Catherine acknowledged her admiration of the MHS, its dedicated staff, and its commitment to making history accessible to all. “I am honored that the Trustees have entrusted me with leading the MHS. American history is a wonderfully diverse continuum of experiences that we all share. The MHS provides a forum to share insights and learn about the long, unfolding human story in which we all participate. There are so many wonderful opportunities and I can’t wait to get started.”

In her current role, Allgor is responsible for the Huntington’s education programs ranging from school tours and teacher training to school partnerships with Title One schools in Pasadena, Los Angeles, and surrounding communities. These programs serve a broad audience and provide enrichment for members, visitors, teachers, and children. As well, she supports and furthers the work of Advancement and provides funding opportunities for the donor community. She manages a staff of 20 full- and part-time employees and oversees an eleven hundred-member volunteer corps.

Allgor previously held an appointment as Professor of History and UC Presidential Chair at the University of California, Riverside.  She is a leading historian and has created and taught numerous courses in women’s history, American history, history of race, slavery, and political history at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. She is known for her scholarly work on Dolley Madison and Louisa Catherine Adams, among others. Her political biography, A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation (Henry Holt, 2006), was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize. In 2012, she published Dolley Madison: The Problem of National Unity (Westview Press) and The Queen of America: Mary Cutts’s Life of Dolley Madison (University of Virginia Press). President Obama appointed Allgor to a presidential commission, The James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation.

Allgor has also taught at Claremont McKenna College, Harvard University, and Simmons College.

Allgor holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Mt. Holyoke College, and two master’s degrees and a doctorate in history from Yale University. 

Political commentator, author, and MHS Overseer Cokie Roberts expressed her enthusiasm for Allgor, “She is not only a first rate historian but she is a true public spokesperson for the institution she serves as well as for the profession of history.” She continued, “In addition to her scholarship and public speaking abilities, Catherine is a prodigious fundraiser and an excellent teacher as her years at the Huntington have amply demonstrated. In short, I can’t think of a better fit for the job of taking MHS into the future than Catherine Allgor.”

Dennis Fiori has led the MHS since January 2006. Under his leadership, the outreach efforts of the MHS have expanded with enhanced public programming, rotating exhibitions, and the establishment of the Center for the Teaching of History. As he prepares for his retirement, Fiori couldn’t be happier with the choice of his successor. “The MHS will certainly be in capable hands with Catherine Allgor. As I hand off the reins, I trust that the MHS will continue to soar under her leadership,” he said.

A Virginia United Methodist Church Restores a Slave Cabin and Opens it to the Public

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It may be the oldest building in Manassas, Virginia.  Grace United Methodist Church has restored it and opened it to the public.

Here is a taste of a Washington Post story on this restored slave cabin:

Grace United Methodist in Manassas combined two historical matters in one event June 11.

One was the unveiling of a city historical marker for the church, which has ministered to Manassas-area residents for 150 years. That was a cause for celebration, the Rev. Rudy Tucker said.

The other, the public opening of a restored slave cabin on the church property, was more solemn. But while refurbishing the building meant researching one of the most gruesome times in American history, Grace United Methodist and local historic preservation volunteers considered it an important task.

“With nooses showing up on public school grounds, college campuses, and even national museums, and Klan rallies occurring with alarming frequency, we are reminded as we stand before this 19th-century building which once housed slaves that racism remains an issue we are still dealing with in this country,” Tucker said in remarks prepared for the June 11 ceremony, attended by a crowd of at least 150.

Grace United Methodist took over ownership of the slave cabin in 1987. The Johnson family, which owned and operated the last farm in Manassas, donated eight acres of land on Wellington Road to the congregation so it could build a new church building. But the family stipulated that a cemetery on the tract be preserved, along with the 1½-story structure that housed slaves who worked on the property, known as Clover Hill Farm.

Read the rest here.

The Noose That Brought History To Life

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Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, has turned to the op-ed pages of The New York Times to address the noose found recently at the museum.

Here is a taste of his piece:

The person who recently left a noose at the National Museum of African American History and Culture clearly intended to intimidate, by deploying one of the most feared symbols in American racial history. Instead, the vandal unintentionally offered a contemporary reminder of one theme of the black experience in America: We continue to believe in the potential of a country that has not always believed in us, and we do this against incredible odds.

The noose — the second of three left on the National Mall in recent weeks — was found late in May in an exhibition that chronicles America’s evolution from the era of Jim Crow through the civil rights movement. Visitors discovered it on the floor in front of a display of artifacts from the Ku Klux Klan, as well as objects belonging to African-American soldiers who fought during World War I. Though these soldiers fought for democracy abroad, they found little when they returned home.

That display, like the museum as a whole, powerfully juxtaposes two visions of America: one shaped by racism, violence and terror, and one shaped by a belief in an America where freedom and fairness reign. I see the nooses as evidence that those visions continue to battle in 2017 and that the struggle for the soul of America continues to this very day.

Read the entire piece here.

I also recommend this conversation between Bunch and American Historical Association director Jim Grossman.

Will There Be a Smithsonian Museum of Women’s History?

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Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.)

Momentum is building for a national museum of women’s history.  The Hill reports:

Momentum for a museum of women’s history on the National Mall is building, with 198 lawmakers signing on to co-sponsor legislation to create it.

That’s a jump from 150 co-sponsors on June 6, a surge in support that is edging closer to a House majority.

“I believe that there’s no reason not to support it,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who introduced the bill. “It helps the country, it helps women, and it’s truly bipartisan.”

Maloney took a letter to the White House Thursday asking President Trump, first lady Melania Trump and adviser Ivanka Trump for their backing.

The top Republican sponsor, Rep. Ed Royce (Calif.), said he is encouraging House members from both sides of the aisle to support it.

Read the entire article here.

When Removing Monuments Strengthens Our Knowledge of the Past

St. Paul

Earlier this week we posted on Kate Shellnut’s Christianity Today article on the way that churches in the South are dealing with their Confederate legacy and monuments.

Since I wrote that post I learned about similar efforts at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, the so-called “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”  Jefferson Davis was a member of this church.  Robert E. Lee worshiped there during the Civil War.

In recent years the church has formed the “History and Racial Reconciliation Initiative” to deal with Confederate symbols in the church, including Confederate battle flags. According to this article at Episcopal News Service, some of these symbols have been removed. Others have not, but the church continues to have conversations about what is appropriate.

Some of the comments on the Episcopal News Service piece have not been pretty.  Here are a few:

Historical “censorship” and revisionism as demonstrated above, is intellectually dishonest, spiritually counterfeit and an anathema to freedom. Actions like these, as innocuous as they appear, are small steps on the path to totalitarianism.

What seems to be lost in all of this is that History is important. We don’t need to be erasing it, we need to learn from it! If we destroy all of the symbols of periods of history we do not like, what have we accomplished? Nothing except a little misguided “feel good” for those in favor of the destruction of the symbols. The same symbols that people want to destroy provide us with a chance to explain how we have resolved those issues, grown as a Church and as churchmen, and understand and respect the journeys of those who lived though those times struggled with their own faith. What can be wrong with that? Have we not learned from the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and from the Civil Rights Movement? Should we destroy the Holocaust Museum, etc.. I hope not.

The confederacy is a part of our history. It is wrong to glorify it, but I think we need to remember it so that we don’t let this happen again. Sweeping things under the rug don’t make them go away, compassion and justice keep them from happening again. I was born and raised in Miami. My family lived in Key West and had slaves and freed them but still provided for them as long as they lived. It is our history, we can’t make it go away – we need to remember.

Political correctness has gone too far when it results in the re-writing of history. It’s our past and we all live with it. The USSR was the last regime in my lifetime to attempt to re-write history. I am saddened the U. S. is going that way.

One of the leaders of the History and Racial Reconciliation Initiative is public and religious historian Christopher Graham.  (He is mentioned in the article).

Graham has turned to his blog “Whig Hill” to address some of the negative comments. He argues that the history conversations at St. Paul’s have actually led the members of the congregation to have a better understanding of their shared past.

Here is a taste of his post:

To the main point; I’ve heard this charge often—that pulling down monuments is erasure; that we’ll know less and be deprived of the opportunity to learn and be inspired—even if by the transcendence of error. Never have had an adequate response to it until now.

What has happened at St. Paul’s is a rebuke to the assertion that we’re erasing the past. Since removing a small number of Confederate icons from the sanctuary, St. Paul’s now knows more about its own history than it ever has.

Even at this early stage of the HRI process, the people at St. Paul’s are able to articulate:

  • Who congregants were in the 1850s and how they fit into Richmond’s slave based economy.
  • How their faith reconciled slaveholding with Christianity, and how they enacted that faith to shape the racial-religious landscape of Richmond.
  • How sharing wartime anxiety, adrenaline, and grief (and yes, faith in the Confederacy’s ultimate cause) tied the church’s identity to the Confederate nation and its leaders.
  • How the narrative of racial difference forged in slavery continued to shape Episcopalian practice in Virginia (and beyond) for a century after 1865.
  • How the stories this church told itself with its memorials contributed to the “Lost Cause” explanation of the Confederacy—and in doing so constructed a history of race and slavery that reinforced efforts to disfranchise and marginalize African Americans in political, economic, and social life in Richmond in the twentieth century.
  • Who among its parishioners that supported the movement toward legal segregation in the 1902 Constitution, the 1912 and 1914 city segregation ordnances, the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, and the 1926 Massenberg Bill. (Most, likely, at the first, but a decreasing number by the last.)
  • Who among its parishioners and clergy (Bowie, Munford, Tucker, Carrington) that tirelessly and passionately opposed the adoption of these laws, and promoted anti-lynching and anti-Klan legislation, even if we recognize that they did so because of their racial paternalism.
  • How churchmen and churchwomen of St. Paul’s—along with the rest of Richmond’s elite—challenged and shaped the geography and culture of segregation that dominated the twentieth century and that we still see the vestiges of today.

These are just a small and incomplete sampling of the points upon which we’re developing a new narrative about our own past.

We haven’t erased history. Indeed, the removal of a small number of tablets has served as a catalyst for knowing more. And that may be my key takeaway in this particular moment: whether you alter a memorial landscape or not, the action can’t be the only thing, but just one point in a larger process of discovery and re-inscription. Moving things may not even be the most important element of that process in the end.

I can’t say (because nothing has been decided) what will become of the items removed, or those that remain. In fact, this process and the discussions around it have ranged far beyond the location of memorials. But I do know that the knowledge that we’re beginning to carry about our past, present, and future, feels far more consequential right now.

Read Graham’s entire post here.  This is a wonderful model for how to bring good history to bear on the life of religious congregations.  I am glad that Graham is involved in this initiative.

I wonder what it might look like to have a similar conversation in a church that places an American flag in the sanctuary.

No One in New York Yelled “You’re Erasing History” When the Statue of George III Was Torn Down in 1776

George III

Johannes Adam Simon Oertal’s “Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, N.Y.C., 1859 (Wikipedia Commons)

A few weeks ago I wrote a post titled “Removing Monuments: How Far Should We Go.”

Nick Sacco, a public historian and park guide with the National Park Service at Ulysses S. Grant National Historical Site, has made an excellent contribution to this conversation in a piece at History@Work

Here is a taste:

The people at King George’s monument that day understood the complex purposes of public icons in ways we often forget in our contemporary debate about the role of Confederate icons in America’s commemorative landscape. The King George monument was not a neutral commemoration of historical fact but a political statement of values. British leaders erected the statue because they believed their King deserved a public place of honor among the loyal subjects of their empire. By tearing down the monument, these New Yorkers understood that they were making their own value statement: that King George was no longer worthy of honor and not reflective of their changing values. Breaking with the past and forging a new, independent future required the removal of public symbols that no longer reflected the local community’s values. Indeed, it would be rather awkward today to have this monument to a foreign monarch standing in Manhattan simply because removing it constituted “erasing history.”

To be sure, I am not supportive of a one-size-fits-all solution to the country’s Confederate iconography in which all icons must be removed or kept in place. I also believe a distinction should be made between iconography at a historical site and iconography in a public space such as a park or state capitol. But I have come to embrace the fact that America’s commemorative landscape is always changing as society’s values adjust to new circumstances and our understanding of American history evolves. As Kenneth Foote argues in Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy, the meanings we ascribe to historical places sometimes necessitate alterations to the commemorative landscape. We don’t need to take down a monument for the sake of change, nor do we need to keep up a monument for the sake of tradition. We in 2017 have the right to question a monument erected in 1917, and people in 2117 will certainly question any monument we might erect this year. Rather than asking whether a change in the commemorative landscape constitutes “erasing history,” it might be better to ask whether that change is taking place because the history being removed is inaccurate and/or not worthy of being honored. If a change is required, how can public historians use those changes to foster new and better understandings of the past?

Read the entire piece here.

Paul Revere’s Church Bell

Revere Bell

Yesterday we reported on “The Nation We Build Together,”  a new floor of exhibits at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.  One of those exhibits is “Religion in Early America.”  It was curated by Peter Manseau, the Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History at the museum.

Over at “O Say Can You See,” the blog of the museum, Manseau writes about one of the featured items in the exhibit.

Here is a taste:

For several decades after the Revolution, Paul Revere was as famous for his church bells as for his midnight ride. His role as a horse-powered early warning system filling the Massachusetts countryside with shouts of “The British are coming!” in 1775 did not become the stuff of legend until Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published his heroic poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” in 1861. Yet he was always known as a man who could use sound in the service of his country.

While he is often remembered simply as a patriot silversmith, Revere’s career and reputation were far more complex during his lifetime. The opening days of the struggle for independence included the events that would eventually make him known to history, but he spent the latter part of the war under a cloud for the charges of insubordination leveled against him during the disastrous Penobscot Expedition, a chaotic naval operation that cost Continental forces hundreds of lives in 1779. Eventually exonerated of any wrongdoing, he continued to work to clear his name and improve his standing in the new nation.

With military laurels beyond his reach, Revere sought to rise socially through business. He broadened his metal-working to include a bell foundry in 1792, when the congregation to which he belonged, the New Brick Church, required a replacement bell for its tower. Between 1792 and his death in 1818, Revere’s company—Revere and Son—made more than 100 bells. The family-run foundry would ultimately cast 398, with the last bell sold in 1828.

Read the entire post here.

 

“The Nation We Build Together”

Aerial_view_of_National_Museum_of_American_History (1)

Erin Blasco, the social media manager at Smithsonian National Museum of American History, calls our attention to “The Nation We Build Together,” a new theme-centered floor scheduled to open on June 28, 2017.

Here is a taste of her interview with John Gray, the Elizabeth MacMillan Director at the museum:

The museum’s new floor unites several different exhibitions under the unified theme of “The Nation We Build Together.” Can you talk about what that theme means to you?

We really want our visitors to have the opportunity to explore the largest ideals and ideas in America. And the name, “The Nation We Build Together,” says we are a people and a nation that works collectively through our democracy to forge our nation. This is an ongoing and complicated process—but we are always working toward our national motto: E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One). It is so important that, as Americans, we view ourselves as part of the body of America, working together, being together, and building this nation together.

We know “The Nation We Build Together” has been in development for many years. But why is that theme an important one to explore in 2017?

“The Nation We Build Together” is an important theme that resonates across our history, one that’s fundamental to understanding America, ourselves, and the larger political process—not limited to party politics, but how we learn, make, and determine how we are governed together.

That said, there’s never a better time than the present to understand America. Every election turns out to be different than some people expected. That was true last year, four years ago, four years before that, all the way back to our founding—it’s the nature of democracy as we practice it in America! Our new exhibition American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith will help our visitors understand and contextualize the inherent changes we see over time in America. It’s both reassuring and inspirational.

What are we trying to inspire visitors to think or do differently after visiting “The Nation We Build Together”?

The whole floor is about inspiring engagement—understanding that you are part of the process in a bigger way. Many Voices, One Nation inspires all of us to participate in building American communities—really build them! American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith reminds all of us that we must play an active role in our democracy to keep our nation vital and responsive. And Religion in Early America helps us understand the historical underpinnings of how we practice and celebrate the diversity of religious experience in America.

Read the rest here.

I wonder if there will be anything in the exhibition on the history of philanthropy? Check out Episode 23 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast (“Giving in America”) with Amanda Moniz, the David Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy at the museum.

I am also eager to see Peter Manseau‘s “Religion in Early America” exhibit.  I played a very small consulting role on the companion volume.

Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour: Day 1

As I wrote earlier this week, I am spending the next seven days on a Civil Rights bus tour. Todd Allen and his staff have been running the “Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour” since 2002 and they do a great job.  Messiah College, the school where I teach, sends several faculty and staff on the tour each year as part of its Christian commitment to racial reconciliation.  This year I am traveling (along with my wife and daughter) with several faculty members, admissions counselors, residential life workers, students, alumni, and even a member of the Board of Trustees!

We left Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania (Todd’s base of operation and, I might add, the home of Joe Namath) early yesterday morning.  We spent most of the day on the bus, but did make a scheduled stop in Greensboro, North Carolina.

GReensboro1

We started the tour with some Oram’s donuts–a Beaver Falls, Pa. tradition,  Thanks Todd!

Our first major stop was North Carolina A&T University (Go Aggies!), a historically black college in Greensboro.  On February 1, 1960, four A&T freshman–David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and Joseph McNeil–staged a lunch-counter sit-in at the downtown Woolworth 5 &10.  Today, the Woolworth building serves as the home of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum (ICRCM).  (The Greensboro Woolworth was open from 1939 to 1993.  A non-profit organization saved the building from destruction and turned it into a museum in 2010).

Jean, one of the docents at the museum, gave a very lively tour.  The highlight, as you might imagine, was our visit to the room where the Woolworth’s lunch counter was located.  A refurbished counter, with original signage and dumbwaiters, is part of the exhibit. The sit-in is re-enacted on video screens that provide a perspective from someone standing behind the counter.  Frankly, I wish we could have spent more time in this room.  I wanted to soak it all in and reflect on the courage of these four students.  I often wonder how many of my own students sit in their dorm rooms, ponder the life-transforming ideas that they encounter in class, and put those ideas into action in ways that bring meaningful change to their local surroundings.

If you are in Greensboro, the ICRCM is a must visit.  A lot of the original Woolworth building remains.  As we walked down the stairs into the lower level of the building, Jean informed us that the chrome railings and staircase were original.  I had flashbacks to a nearly identical set of stairs, complete with chrome railings, at the J.J. Newberry’s store on Main Street in Boonton, New Jersey.  I spent a lot of time in that store as a little kid–mostly buying candy and baseball cards.  There was no lunch counter.

The museum is small, but it packs a big punch.  The exhibits themselves invoke empathy at every turn.  For example, an exhibit room called “The Hall of Shame” is filled with graphic images of violence against civil rights activists.  The “Colored Entrance” is a maze-like exhibit that forces visitors to see the world from the perspective of African Americans during Jim Crow.  The rooms in this exhibit are small, tight, and uncomfortable, forcing the visitor to “feel the way Blacks felt everyday” during segregation.  An older African American women in our group was particularly moved by the exhibits.  She told the group that she had been part of “week one” (February 8-15, 1960) of the lunch counter sit-ins in Durham, North Carolina while she was a student at North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University).

After dinner, we drove from Greensboro to Greenville, South Carolina.  We watched documentaries in the bus during the day, but on last night’s drive we watched Denzel Washington’s Fences.

We are off to a good start.  Stay tuned.  We are in Atlanta today.

A few more pics:

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The “Greensboro Four” Monument at North Carolina A&T University

GReensboro3

Front entrance to Greensboro Woolworths (now ICRCM

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“Colored Entrance” to Greensboro Woolworths (now ICRCM)