U.S. Reconstruction Beyond the South

Are the Indian Wars--including the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn--a part of Reconstruction history? I emphatically say "yes." Photo Credit: Charles Marion Russell, "The Custer Fight" (1903).

Are the Indian Wars–including the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn–a part of Reconstruction history? I emphatically say “yes.” Photo Credit: Charles Marion Russell, “The Custer Fight” (1903).

The National Park Service recently announced that it would be publishing an official handbook on the history of the Reconstruction era to be sold at Civil War and nineteenth century historic site gift shops within the agency. I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of the book that I just finished reading, and yesterday I sat in on a one-hour webinar the agency hosted about the book and the NPS’s ongoing theme study to help designate a historic site dedicated to Reconstruction. No such sites currently exist within the agency.

I applaud all of these developments. It has been far past time for the Park Service to take Reconstruction history more seriously, and there are a number of crucial events that would make for an appropriate historic site worth preserving and interpreting. The recently-commemorated Memphis Massacre of 1866, for example, would be one such event worth commemorating in some way with an NPS site. Historians Gregory Downs and Kate Masur are in charge of the NPS Reconstruction Theme Study, and I have all the confidence in the world of their ability to lay out a blueprint for future NPS efforts. (I’d also add that there are plenty of Civil War-related sites that could be doing more right now to interpret Reconstruction in their educational programming, and this is something the entire agency should also be working on).

During the webinar, however, there was one element of the theme study that I found mildly concerning. For the time being the search for a potential site and the broader interpretive focus of the NPS’s educational programming on Reconstruction will be centered geographically on the former Confederate states and Washington, D.C. On the one hand I can understand this focus. The question of how to forge a political reunion between the former Confederate states and the rest of the country was paramount to establishing a stronger, consolidated United States in the future, and historians have traditionally emphasized the ways the South acted and was acted upon through the politics of the era. The political changes that occurred during Reconstruction include the establishment of three new Constitutional amendments, the expansion of federal power through government agencies like the Freedman’s Bureau and the Department of Justice (which was formed in response to growing Ku Klux Klan violence throughout the South), the expansion and protection of newly established civil rights for African Americans, and the process of transitioning white former Confederate soldiers and supporters into law-abiding U.S. citizens. To expand the NPS’s interpretive focus beyond the former Confederate states is probably too much at this point, and I understand that.

On the other hand, any holistic understanding of Reconstruction requires historians and the NPS to view the era as one of remarkable political, cultural, and economic transformation for the entire country, not just the South. The question of black voting rights was hotly contested and frequently rejected in statewide referendums throughout the North before the passage of the 15th amendment. Western settlement increased dramatically after the Civil War thanks the expansion of the country’s railroad infrastructure and the passage of the Homestead Act, which offered settlers publicly-held Western lands on the cheap. This westward expansion, however, directly led to some of the most violent clashes in American history between the U.S. Army and Indian Tribes all the way from the Dakotas to the Pacific Ocean as settlers encroached upon lands once thought to be protected for the Tribes through treaty agreements. The restructuring of citizenship and voting rights in the North and the push to impose a Northern “free labor” political vision for the West represent two additional goals of Reconstruction that furthered the push to establish a stronger political Union from the Pacific to the Atlantic. We might also look to border Union states like Missouri and Kentucky–where the federal government’s Reconstruction policies did not apply but where some of the most vehement complaints against policy initiatives and government overreach emerged–as places where a stronger historical analysis of the period are sorely needed. Reconstruction history is not just about the South.

Again, I understand the approach of the NPS theme study and the organizers’ caution to make the study too geographically broad. I do hope, however, that future academic and public historians will use the 150th anniversary of the Reconstruction Era and beyond to expand our historical inquiries to include events that occurred in the North, West, and Midwest. Let’s get to work!


3 Takeaways from “Interpreting Slavery: Building a Theoretical Foundation”

Last week a number of coworkers and I participated in a webinar hosted by the American Association for State and Local History on interpreting slavery at historic homes, plantations, and battlefields. After the webinar concluded AASLH asked me about writing an essay for them about the experience, and they generously edited and published the essay a few days ago. Please give it a read here and be sure to let me know what you think about it.


Should U.S. Grant Be Removed from the $50 Bill?

U.S. Grant 50 bill

As you’ve probably heard by now, the U.S. Treasury has announced that it will begin putting Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill while relegating Andrew Jackson to the back of the bill (which I find odd for multiple reasons). As soon as the news came out a friend on Facebook announced that he was ready to see none other than Ulysses S. Grant up for removal from the $50 bill, citing his allegedly weak Presidency and his ownership of a slave, William Jones, for a period of time in the 1850s. Although Grant has been on the $50 Federal Reserve note since they were first printed in 1914, calls to remove Grant have occurred in the past. In both 2005 and 2010 a minority of Republican legislators called for Ronald Reagan to be placed on the $50, but both proposals died fairly early in the legislative process.

So I ask you, dear readers: Is it time for Grant to go? You tell me.


The Pruitt Igoe Myth

The other night I had a chance to watch the above documentary, The Pruitt Igoe Myth, about a failed public housing complex in St. Louis. Pruitt Igoe was billed in the 1950s as an example of smart urban planning and a model for future cities dealing with housing crises. The complex quickly ran into a myriad of funding and maintenance issues, however, and the complex became so dangerous that St. Louis police officers sometimes refused to go into the area. Pruitt Igoe was torn down in 1972, and the area where the complex was located is littered with dilapidated trees and brush today.

The “myth” that the movie describes is the idea that Pruitt Igoe failed mostly because of the poor black residents who lived there. Instead, the movie argues that other factors such as structural racism, government subsidization of outlying suburbs (aka White Flight) in St. Louis county that drove away crucial tax revenues for the city, and political ineptitude within the St. Louis Housing Authority all contributed to an idealistic initiative that was arguably too expensive to financially sustain long-term. As one interviewee says in the film, “you can’t build yourself out of poverty.”

Even though I’ve been a St. Louis resident for most of my life, I learned a lot of new things about the city’s history from this film. There’s a nice mix of oral histories from former residents of the complex and historical analyses from urban historians. If you’re into St. Louis or urban history and have 90 minutes to spare, give it a watch.


Historians and Cultural Criticism of Popular Media

I believe that cultural and political critiques don’t need to offer workable solutions in order to be valid. The act of criticizing is valuable in and of itself. I remember one time, for example, when a National Park Service official visited my place of employment and argued that “if you come to me with problems without offering solutions, you’re just whining and complaining.” I thought at the time and still believe today that that line of thinking is absolute crap. A problem doesn’t go away because there are no foreseeable solutions. Sometimes problems require teamwork, dialogue, and extended time for workable solutions to be implemented. Demanding that the critic bear the responsibility of solving the problem at hand is, in reality, a subtle defense of the status quo.

I mention this belief because we historians are a criticizing people. We interrogate the meaning of anything and everything, and we formulate interpretations of past and present events in ways that can elicit heated debate between members of the profession and between historians and their many publics.

Some of the most interesting and passionate conversations within the historical community occur when new films, performing arts pieces, and historical literature about the past are released and gain widespread popularity beyond the boundaries of the profession. Whenever something like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is released to critical acclaim, historians are always quick to throw their voices into the discussion and wag their fingers about historical inaccuracies and potential problems with the interpretive thrust of these cultural artifacts. Oftentimes they present thoughtful critiques that refrain from offering workable solutions that would enhance the historical accuracy of a given production, and that’s okay! But I must admit that I sometimes wonder what good these sorts of critiques really do for anyone besides making the reviewer look like a grumpy curmudgeon. Don’t historians realize that mediums like film, theater, and children’s books are not the same as academic scholarship and therefore require a different form of communicating the stuff of history to audiences? What would these historians do if they were tasked with writing a film, play or piece of literature? How would they interpret something like the American Civil War in ninety minutes as opposed to four-hundred pages?

The latest examples of historians-as-cultural-critics are taking place around Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical Hamilton and Ramin Ganeshram’s children’s book A Birthday Cake for George Washington.

Hamilton focuses on the life of Alexander Hamilton and the politics of early American history. The show has consistently sold out on Broadway and is slated to earn hundreds of millions of dollars as it prepares to tour theaters across the country. In recent months, however, historians have been pushing back against some of the musical’s themes and interpretations. I see Lyra D. Monteiro’s review in The Public Historian as a catalyst in pushing these critiques towards a larger discussion with Hamilton’s viewing audience. In the musical Manuel employs people of color to depict the founding fathers, partly as a way of showing how contemporary Americans of all backgrounds have the power to take ownership of American history. Monteiro, however, rightly points out that no actual people of color from the time period are depicted in the musical, and that while Hamilton is billed as “the history of Americans then, interpreted by Americans today,” such a distinction is actually hurtful in that it suggests no people of color were around during the Revolutionary Era. She also takes issue with the themes of individualism and the glorification of the American Dream that are prevalent in the musical. Meanwhile, William Hogeland and David Waldstreicher take issue with Hamilton’s portrayal as a leading progressive thinker, Jason Allen calls the musical “a color-blind Stockholm Syndrome,” Nancy Isenburg argues that Hamilton’s arch-nemisis Aaron Burr was actually not that bad a guy, and the front page of the New York Times on April 11th includes an extended discussion with other historians who have weighed in on the musical’s accuracy.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington was pulled from the shelves in January by its publisher, Scholastic, after intense criticism about the ways it allegedly depicted slavery in a benign fashion. Ganeshram discussed the banning of her book in the Huffington Post, arguing that she wrote the book under the “reasonable assumption that understanding the overarching horror and criminality of slavery was a given — and that parents and educators would share that context in a way that was most appropriate for their young listener,” but the essay has not brought her book back to the shelves at this point. One of the most vocal critics of the book was living history interpreter Michael Twitty, who, writing in The Guardian, argued that “our society has poorly dealt with slavery in relation to our children,” and that A Birthday Cake for George Washington represents a larger truth about America’s inability to deal with its history of slavery. But curiously, Twitty acknowledges that while he knows Ganeshram personally, he has never talked with her about the book, nor has he even read the book itself. And while Twitty is certainly right to point out that we need to do a better job of discussing slavery, especially with young children, his failure to further explain how he proposes to solve this problem leaves readers wondering how future authors can improve upon the messages conveyed in A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Perhaps we really don’t have a solid blueprint for discussing slavery with children, which in turn opens the door for historians to start discussing solutions for writing better historical stories about slavery rather than constantly critiquing each children’s book that comes out about the topic.

Again, I think it’s important that historians contribute their voices to larger conversations about the ways history is depicted in popular media, film, and literature, but I also wonder if and how we can add legitimacy to our viewpoints by going beyond the “historians say ______ is inaccurate” model. Historical interpretations in an artistic, entertainment-based medium are not going to meet the exacting standards of someone used to having books published by an academic press or someone working in a professional public history setting for a living. Historians should acknowledge that and act accordingly when critiquing popular media.


A Quick Word on the “Sadness” of Appomattox

Appomattox Tweet ULSG

One part of my job with the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site consists of running the park’s Twitter account. I promote upcoming events at the park, take scenic pictures of the grouds, share relevant news and history articles, and periodically tweet “on this day in history”-type facts about U.S. Grant’s life. Yesterday, April 9th, marked the 151st anniversary of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, and I put together a tweet to commemorate this important event. For better or worse the “on this day in history” tweets get the highest number of likes and retweets for the park’s account, which in turn exposes us to some interesting characters in the Twitter world. The Appomattox tweet offers tangible proof for this claim. An anonymous conspiracy theory account quickly tweeted us saying that the U.S. is still under martial law today because of Presidents Lincoln and Obama, another woman who expressed her support for Ted Cruz as President replied by ranting about the Constitution allegedly falling apart, and a Confederate apologist commented that Appomattox was the “saddest day in southern [sic] history.” All of these claims are baloney, but I think the most frustrating one for me is this idea that Appomattox is a sad day that should be lamented by (white) Southerners.

The Appomattox surrender marks the beginning of the end of the Civil War and the beginning of a new future for the United States. The generous terms laid out by General Grant and the calls by General Lee to all Confederates to peacefully accept those terms created the foundation for a political reunion between sections (although not necessarily sectional reconciliation) that would be mostly bloodless and free of future internecine warfare and Guerrilla attacks. As Mark Snell argued in a blog post that has since been deleted, Appomattox saw the end of the killing and chaos of war. We might add that it also spared the lives of countless younger Americans who would have put their lives in danger had the war continued for months, years, or decades. Appomattox created a path towards the emancipation of four million (Southern) enslaved people, the establishment of birthright American citizenship no longer determined by skin color, condition of servitude, or the whims of the Supreme Court, and the expansion of voting rights to all male citizens regardless of color (and later all women). It also paved the way for a new conception of freedom that ensures that all people will be protected equally under the law regardless of their background, even though this county has often and continues to fail at meeting that ideal.

The American Civil War was a sad four-year event in our nation’s history that saw the deaths of roughly 750,000 soldiers on both sides. Lives and property were destroyed, fortunes were ruined, and ways of life were drastically altered. But it’s worth asking how this war came about in the first place and why a country dedicated to the principles of republicanism and popular government came to engage in war with itself. The answer can be explained in large part through the lens of slavery and freedom in prewar America, and how the former gave meaning to the latter in the formation of this country. From Jedidiah Purdy’s A Tolerable Anarchy:

Why did American slaveholders call so loudly for freedom? . . . The slaveholders’ special passion for freedom was not despite owning their slaves but exactly because they were masters in a slave society. Slavery gave shape and power to the American idea of freedom. Wherever slavery was widespread, [Edmund] Burke insisted, “those who are free are by far the most proud and jealous of rank and privilege.” For the freemen of a slaveholding country, freedom was the root of identity and dignity. Freedom gave men’s lives value in their own eyes and honor in others’ . . . Slavery made masters uniquely sensitive to any invasion of their independence (9).

Slavery’s opponents understood this tension and came around to believe the institution was antithetical to American values and a threat to everyone’s freedoms. When the Republican party formed in the 1850s with the explicit goal of taking steps to limit slavery’s growth westward, war became inevitable. The tragedy of slavery–the “freedom” to buy, sell, and own black people as chattel property–died a severe death at Appomattox that was later cemented by a constitutional amendment in December 1865. That anyone could lament that day as a “sad” one speaks to how many Americans still choose to romanticize the Civil War as a noble experiment in Confederate Nationhood or a Brother’s War where “both sides fought for what they believed in” while the legacy of slavery is casually ignored, deflected, and dismissed as a factor in shaping the conditions for war in the 1860s. I want nothing to do with that nostalgic view of such important history.


A Response to James C. Cobb’s Article on Renaming College Campus Buildings

Forrest Hall

I made a personal vow to myself at the beginning of this year to scale back the amount of blog posts I wrote about the ongoing Confederate iconography discussion now taking place throughout the United States. While I find the discussion fascinating in some regards, it has also been frustrating to see it turned into a series of fearmongering, reactionary claims about the “destruction of history” that could come along with the removal of any particular icon. Alex Beam’s screed in the Boston Globe in which he felt compelled to compare the takedown of Confederate icons to ISIS-led destruction of historical artifacts in the Middle East is a particularly harrowing example of this fearmongering in action. But last month’s NCPH roundtable on Confederate monuments and an ongoing controversy at Middle Tennessee State University about an ROTC hall named after Nathan Bedford Forrest have me fired up again, and I’m ready to jump back into the fray for a least a little while longer.

The root of these “destruction of history” claims lie partly in what I consider a basic misunderstanding of the reasons why honorific monuments, statues, memorials, and other icons are erected in the first place. Historical icons are established to designate a place of honor for people, causes, events, and ideas that political and cultural elites consider worthy of recognition by the rest of society. For some people, however, they are viewed only as artifacts that tell a pure, objective story about the facts of history and nothing else. In this line of thinking public iconography is devoid of politics, interpretation, and myths, so therefore any effort to remove an icon that is now seen by many people as offensive and historically inaccurate is a threat to our nation’s history and ultimately a flawed effort that will do nothing to change the politics of the present. The idea that a monument to the Confederacy erected in 1914 might be more reflective of the politics of 1914 and the ways rich elites understood their history at that time rather than the history that actually occurred in 1864 is often unappreciated in this discussion. Historians have sometimes missed these points as well. The latest example comes to us in Time from James C. Cobb, a retired history professor from the University of Georgia.

I find Dr. Cobb’s essay very odd. His overall argument is that “slavery was far more integral to America’s development as a nation than we have chosen thus far to acknowledge,” but because slavery’s influence colors the legacies of so many historical figures and institutions that we choose to venerate today, any effort to rename a building or remove an icon related to slavery and slaveholding is futile and a path towards the eventual destruction of All Historical Things That Make Us Feel Bad. Removing a few names doesn’t give society “a definitive resolution of so intricate and complex a historical dilemma,” so why bother?

This is akin to arguing that it’s futile for me to clean my room because its dirtiness is simply too overwhelming for me to deal with in an effective manner.

Cobb assumes that people advocating for removing the names of figures like Forrest, John Calhoun, and Jefferson Davis at college campuses are doing so because they don’t want to talk about slavery and in fact want to “cleanse American culture of ties to slavery.” On the contrary, the arguments in favor of renaming these halls are rooted in a belief that the legacy of slavery and its connections to the present aren’t talked about enough in college classrooms and society as a whole, and that a more critical approach to understanding U.S. slavery that removes its most vocal advocates from their places of honor is necessary for a better historical understanding of slavery that doesn’t casually gloss over past and present inequities, be they social, economic, or political. It’s not apparent to me that removing Nathan Bedford Forrest’s name from MTSU is going to end all classroom discussions of his legacy as a slaveholder, Confederate General, and founder a member of the Ku Klux Klan*, but I do see how removing his name would demonstrate MTSU’s willingness to acknowledge its history of supporting racial segregation in public education (Forrest Hall was named in 1954 for those ends) and advance its commitment to fostering a campus culture that’s more welcoming to people of all colors and backgrounds today.

Cobb also makes a mistake in my opinion by lumping George Washington into this discussion. As I have previously argued here, the discussion about Confederate iconography is also about the merits of honoring the cause of disunion. Washington was a slaveholder but also an ardent Union-loving nationalist who was obviously long dead by the time of the Civil War, so lumping him with people like Robert E. Lee indicates to me that Cobb thinks these campus renaming discussions solely revolve around questions of slaveholding and slavery and not also patriotism, federalism vs. nationalism, unionism, and disunionism.

Finally, Cobb’s rundown of Northern support for slavery in the years before the Civil War does little to advance the discussion besides essentially arguing that “Northerners were bad people too.” It is well known, of course, that the economic engines of cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston used slave-produced goods in the South as fuel for their factories, commerce, and trade. New York City during the Civil War Era in both politics and finance was run by conservative Democrats who understood and profited from the economic benefits of slavery, and who were alarmed by the rise of the Republican party and its opposition to the future westward expansion of slavery. But Cobb seems to ignore the fact that the North was not a monolithic political entity and that a range of views towards slavery existed in that region. Many white Northerners by the time of the Civil War felt that slave labor was inferior and less productive than free labor and that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of republicanism and popular government. This is not to suggest that white Northerners were advocates for racial equality and black rights – the vast majority were not. But it suggests that Cobb’s interpretation of Northern perspectives towards slavery is inadequate and not truly representative of the full spectrum of political beliefs leading up to the Civil War, and therefore not very convincing for his larger argument about Confederate icons.

It bears repeating once again that the best approach going forward for addressing these Confederate iconography discussions is to look at each case individually on its own merits. A one-size-fits-all approach such as the one pushed by Cobb (and currently being written into law in some states) lacks the necessary historical context for understanding individual cases and runs the risk of paralyzing any future efforts to rename campus halls or remove offensive icons and simply bad history from our commemorative landscape.


*Addendum: It’s been brought to my attention several times that Nathan Bedford Forrest was not the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, although he was an active member of the group during its early years after the Civil War. I did some fact-checking to verify the claim and it looks like I screwed up in saying he was the founder of the organization. I regret the mistake on my part and have amended this essay to correct it. The factual error, however, does not change the arguments I make in this essay one bit.


When Dialogue Isn’t Enough

My work as a public historian over the past year has been heavily informed by a number of training sessions I attended about the concept of facilitated dialogue. I’ve also had some opportunities to develop educational programs around the concept, most of which I think have been successful in the sense that people asked questions, listened to each other, and hopefully left the experience wanting to learn more. I think dialogue is an important counterpoint to the debate-heavy culture that dominates popular media on television and the internet. The two communication methods are not the same: debate focuses on convincing others of your point of view, whereas dialogue focuses on establishing an understanding of different perspectives, questioning established biases and assumptions, and expanding our “empathy muscles.” In the main I think the goals of dialogue are laudable. If we can get people talking about important topics in a civil manner, perhaps we can all understand each other a little better and work towards making the world a better place. The public history field as a whole is embracing dialogue and, for better or worse, the word runs the risk of losing its meaning as it quickly enters the dreaded jargon buzzword section of our lexicon.

I have advocated for more dialogic programming at my workplace and continue to sing its praises on this website, but by no means do I believe that dialogue is a flawless method without any shortcomings. Last week’s NCPH 2016 meeting has only fueled more skepticism within me and I feel myself moving towards an intellectual space where “I don’t know” reigns king.

My skepticism about dialogue was heightened in the wake of a webinar with National Park Service officials in Washington, D.C. a few months ago about the NPS’s “response” to last year’s Charleston shooting. That response took form through Director Jon Jarvis’s directive banning all Confederate flag merchandise from NPS giftshops and bookstores that was not being interpreted in a historical context. The webinar hosts are thoughtful people who’ve been working with history parks throughout the country to commemorate the Civil War and Civil Rights Eras through educational programming, but I thought this particular discussion was completely devoid of any meaningful substance. One host preached the importance of “healing,” “reconciliation,” and “dialogue,” while another host argued that the NPS’s response was informed by a strong belief that the agency embodies the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, specifically that “all men are created equal.”

But what does healing and reconciliation mean in this context, and who benefits from the process? Does it mean promoting healing for white people so they don’t feel guilty about their history? Are we saying it’s still okay for people to wave Confederate flags as long as they first engage in dialogue? If someone is offended by the presence of a Confederate flag and another is offended by its removal from public spaces, how do we achieve true reconciliation between the two parties? If I interact with an angry visitor who’s frustrated by the removal of Confederate icons throughout the country, what good is it for me to babble about the Declaration of Independence, especially when we all know that the Confederacy and its apologists today also use the language of the Declaration to promote their political ideals? What’s the point of entering into a dialogue with someone who is completely opposed to meeting halfway with anyone else or changing their views? Are there times when dialogue runs the risk of legitimizing hateful viewpoints as equal and valid with other viewpoints? Are there times when dialogue is inappropriate and forceful arguments that take a stand for or against a particular viewpoint the most necessary path for achieving healing and reconciliation?

After I wrote an essay last week on my takeaways from NCPH 2016, Elizabeth Catte of Middle Tennessee State University wrote her own essay about the conference that in large part revolved around questioning the usefulness of dialogue in public history practice. I consider it one of the strongest critiques of dialogue I’ve ever read. To wit:

I approached this year’s conference – and closed out my tenth year in the field – with a sense of uneasiness about a number of questions, themes, and mandates in our field. Throughout the last year, I’ve often wondered if the principles and concepts we hold dear – community engagement, dialogue, shared authority – hinder rather than help diversity. As a field, are we really comfortable with demanding, for example, that non-white practitioners ‘share authority’ with individuals or institutions that do not value their lives and identities? I’ve often also wondered if an emphasis on ‘dialogue’ further privileges a distinctly white perspective within public history. This question, in our field, is perhaps most striking in the context of debates concerning Confederate monuments, community response, and the ‘appropriate’ role of public historians in these ongoing conversations. I don’t have answers to these questions, but I see them everywhere.

It would be safe to say that Elizabeth’s perspective is shaped by her work on the front lines of MTSU’s ongoing controversy over an ROTC building on campus named after Nathan Bedford Forrest. In a different essay she convincingly argues that the naming of Forrest Hall in 1954 came as a response to Brown v. Board of Education and other racial desegregation efforts in the 1950s, and that the current campaign to remove the name from the building has its roots in criticisms among the student body dating back to the 1960s. In chronicling this history, Catte demonstrates how repeated calls for “dialogue” and “public conversations” have allowed the issue to fester for years without any sort of meaningful plan of action going forward. Last night marked the final meeting of the current “public conversation” about Forrest Hall before a task force committee makes a decision on the name next month. While I’m not there to witness what’s going on firsthand, reading tweets from the meeting this morning has been infuriating.

From my distanced vantage point the Forrest Hall debacle highlights real shortcomings with dialogues and public conversations. Such conversations include white committee members belittling people of color who express criticisms of the Forrest Hall name and Confederate-apologizing white supremacists being given a powerful platform to bully and lecture MTSU students–including those in a history department that has one of the most successful public history programs in the country–to “learn their history.”

This is not the sort of “dialogue” I would ever want to be a part of.

Dialogue is pointless if it doesn’t turn into meaningful action. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a notorious slave trader, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, and an all-around despicable person. Moreover, he has absolutely no ties to the history of Middle Tennessee State University. The time for dialogue has come to an end. The argument in favor of keeping the name is flawed beyond repair. The most recent attempt to have a “public conversation” about Forrest Hall and an “impartial” Task Force to adjudicate the process has been an absolute farce that has unnecessarily prolonged what should have been done a long time ago. It’s time to change the damn name and remove it from the place of honor it was given by university administrators in 1954 who opposed racial desegregation in public education.


Challenging the Exclusive Public Historian

A statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I have just returned from the National Council on Public History’s 2016 Annual Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. I had a really great experience overall. It included attending many thought-provoking sessions and working groups, contributing a small part to my own successful (I think) working group panel, mentoring a graduate student about to enter the field, receiving news that I will now be co-chairing the NCPH Professional Development Committee for the next year and, above all, time to reconnect with old friends and make new ones in the process. I have attended the past three NCPH meetings and can say that participating in this network of scholars and practitioners has a sort of familial quality to it. No other history organization has made me feel so welcome or given me so many opportunities to present my scholarship to a knowledgeable and expanding membership base.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Challenging the Exclusive Past.” In thinking about the big themes conveyed throughout the meeting my thoughts are evolving around two important takeaways.

The first takeaway reinforces the importance of being a literate public historian. What I mean by this statement is that we in the field must enter into a perpetual struggle to properly define the terms we use to describe the work we do and the terms we use to describe the historical content we interpret with our many publics. What does it really mean to “engage” with an audience? What does a “welcoming” and “inclusive” museum look like? What does a successful “dialogue” with audiences look like? How do we define “community,” and how do we serve the needs of those defined communities while acknowledging that no one community has a uniform relationship with the legacy and meaning of the past? How do we describe historically-ignored topics like slavery, Indian removal, and racial violence with language that is historically accurate and respectful to communities today? These are the types of questions that dominated my thinking as I went from session to session during the conference.

The second takeaway is that this conference was in many ways an extended meditation on the meaning of “public” in the term public history. Most notably I met several attendees who described themselves as community organizers in their work as public historians. Collaboration has always been a central tenet of public history practice, but this particular conception of the term as a form of community building and public service forces us to view collaboration as not just groups of historians working together on history projects for their own benefit but groups of historians working together with communities to meet their needs and to help tell their stories about the past. This idea is important to keep in mind because our collective voice as historians and scholars is only one voice (and often a pretty small one) within a community’s relationship to the past. One conference attendee explained it by saying that “a historian’s voice is not everyone’s voice.”

People will blog, participate in online discussion forums, share history-related memes on social media, and create history podcasts whether or not public historians are there to mediate the experience. People will visit museums and national parks in their own way and form their own takeaways about historical iconography whether or not public historians are there to write historical markers or do interpretive programs. People who don’t visit public history sites will find other ways to preserve and tell their stories and will do so without worrying about our perspective or influence as historians. The ability to shape powerful historical narratives about the past rests largely in other places besides the institutional structures that public historians are employed to do their work. If we construct a definition of public history that excludes the importance of community from its lexicon, we will fail. If we engage in discussions about interpretation, narrative, and the historical process through a language of exclusion that includes only public historians, we will fail. If the people who work at public history institutions don’t look like or reflect the values of the communities in which they work, we will fail. If we don’t take the “public” in public history seriously, we will fail. If we don’t constantly strive to meet people and communities where they are, we will fail. Perhaps the real theme of NCPH 2016 isn’t so much “Challenging the Exclusive Past” as much as “Challenging the Exclusive Public Historian.”

There is no one path for meeting people where they are. I saw a number of good practical examples at play in the sessions I attended. One session included Liz Covart, whose popular history podcast Ben Franklin’s World does a really nice job of highlighting not just historical content but also the ways history functions as a method and process for making sense of the world. Another session on museums and civic discourse included a number of museum professionals who challenged me to think more about the historical legacy of exclusion that has pervaded many public history institutions. Revamping historical interpretations to be more inclusive will not automatically bring new audiences to these sites if we don’t extend an extra hand for outreach or place them in a position of power within the institution’s hierarchy. The history of these institutions matters a great deal and shapes perceptions about whether or not these places are truly for everyone. Yet another session on the Brooklyn Public Library highlighted a program called “Culture in Transit” that aims to digitize and archive the family photos and memorabilia of local residents. Library employees go out into the community with mobile scanning technology, scan residents’ materials and assist them with filling out metadata/consent forms in multiple languages, and then return the materials to residents along with digital copies on flash drives. When I talked to one of the library’s employees about any follow-up interactions with these residents after the community scanning event, she stated that many people felt more connected to the library and came back to do further research using its resources. That right there is public history with a focus on community building and organizing.

For better or worse, discussions about all of these sessions on and offline have been overwhelmed by what happened at the last session of the conference, which focused on the role of public historians in interpreting Confederate monuments. The tone of this discussion was a marked contrast to the spirit of the rest of the conference. I don’t wish to repeat everything that occurred during the session in this essay. You can see the tweets here and a Storify here on what happened along with a thoughtful response from Kevin Levin here. I do want to point out a few things, however.

One of the problems of this session was that it was largely framed around questions of race and racism in contemporary society, yet the participants were four white historians who really had nothing new to say about communities’ relationship to Confederate iconography (the exception was Jill Ogline Titus, whose talk was largely based off this good article she wrote in July). One attendee astutely pointed out that it was the only session where some participants talked about books they wrote and bragged about institutional affiliations they held as a way of claiming authority on this topic. There was much talk of establishing context, historical markers, counter-monuments, and dialogue about Confederate iconography, but nothing in terms of public historians meeting people where they are in this discussion. The only people I see really taking historical markers and counter-monuments seriously are public historians, and I have yet to see any sort of comprehensive study confirming those mediums as effective tools for historical understanding. As Levin mentioned on Twitter, “what I want to better understand is how I can best serve communities struggling with what to do with Confederate iconography” (emphasis mine). Hear hear. I am struggling with what I can do to aid the St. Louis community’s own discussion about the Forest Park Confederate Monument and would love to move beyond the “historians talking to other historians” model that has been demonstrated at both NCPH and AHA conferences this year. In this regard I want to draw attention to the work of Elizabeth Catte and Josh Howard, both recent public history graduates of Middle Tennessee State University, who have been working on the front lines at MTSU in an ongoing controversy about a campus ROTC building named after Nathan Bedford Forrest.

I had a great time at NCPH this year and look forward to next year’s meeting in Indianapolis. Thank you to the NCPH staff and committees for putting together such a great conference year in and year out.


Addressing the Lack of Racial Diversity in National Parks

A picture I took at Gettysburg National Military Park

A picture I took at Gettysburg National Military Park in 2014.

Over the past few years the National Park Service’s leadership has made a serious push to make its visitor base more racially and demographically diverse. A few years ago the agency established its Office of Relevancy, Diversity, and Inclusion, and since then numerous studies have been conducted to better assess what can be done to make parks more diverse. In 2013 scholars Joe Weber and Selima Sultana wrote an extended study on the Civil Rights Movement and the future of the NPS; journalist Ryan Kearney wrote a piece the same year for The New Republic with a specific focus on camping and hiking; and now NPR has a piece by Nathan Rott on racial diversity that uses data from visitor use surveys. All of these works establish theories for why National Parks are mostly white and conclude that the lack of racial diversity is a problem for the agency. Few practical solutions are offered in these essays to amend the problem, however. That’s understandable, and I don’t think anyone has a good solution at this point. But in recent conversation with fellow NPS employees on our Facebook page I was struck by how many people argued that there really is no diversity problem within the agency.

A common idea suggested in our discussion attributed cultural differences as the root cause of the agency’s whiteness. One discussant made the following observation:

The NPS makes a big deal over “cultural sensitivity.” The fact is that different cultures value different things, including different ways of recreating. That’s pretty much what “culture” is. If other cultures don’t enjoy parks, it’s not because we aren’t welcoming them or closing the gates to them. The crowd at a truck pull or rap concert won’t be “representative of America” either, but nobody loses sleep over it.

We are an overwhelmingly White organization, but we need to stop thinking that Black people, Latino people, Asian people, are just like us but have different color skin. They are different. They have backgrounds, different dreams, different ideas of fun, THAT’S diversity, not thinking we are all the same inside, just different on the outside.

Another discussant suggested that the NPS and “white liberals” were engaging in “cultural imperialism” by forcing different cultural groups to patronize National Parks.

The point is taken that people of different ethnicities maintain different cultural practices and traditions, but this line of thinking is wholly inadequate for explaining the issue. Each of the aforementioned articles discuss legitimate socioeconomic factors as well: inadequate transportation methods, lack of money to take trips to National Parks, and a lack of awareness about the presence and mission of the parks. All of these factors need to be taken seriously. By framing the lack of diversity solely to culture, an assumption is made that people from all walks of life have an equal opportunity to visit a National Park, but that people of color voluntarily choose not to visit because “they are different.” By this logic the NPS is wholly absolved of any responsibility for its racial makeup (both in its workforce and visitor population) because the onus is on communities of color to take an interest in National Parks. But the data convincingly demonstrates that the NPS is at least partly to blame for its lack of diversity. While the agency’s ability to spend money to get people from disadvantaged communities to a park is fairly limited, we can at least see that the need to raise awareness about the parks to communities who have historically had little stake in them is fairly acute.

I think the agency has done a lot of good work to make parks accessible and welcoming to all people, but that hasn’t always been the case. Numerous parks like Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains maintained racially segregated and unequal facilities for a long time after their establishment in the 1930s. Some of the federal government’s efforts to acquire land for national parks has been controversial and alienating to local communities: Stephen Hirst’s book on the Havasupai people of the Grand Canyon, for example, shows how the Havasupai fought for nearly 100 years to reacquire native land that had been taken from them under dubious circumstances. And the stories of people of color have often been absent from the agency’s interpretive programs at both nature and cultural sites. As I discussed in my last post, the push to discuss slavery and the causes of the Civil War at NPS nineteenth century history sites only came about in the 1990s. On the surface it could be easy to dismiss these factors as having all taken place in the past and are therefore irrelevant. But a young person of color whose parents and grandparents who might feel alienated at National Parks because of the agency’s past will most likely not come to the park on their own volition. Again, “culture” is only one element of a more complex picture that includes other socioeconomic factors, the agency’s own behavior and actions, and perceptions of those behaviors and actions by communities of color.

Making national parks more diverse is a great challenge with no easy solutions. But we as an agency will never achieve a workable solution to the problem if we don’t first perceive that a problem exists and that we should act to solve it. If the perception among NPS employees at all levels is that the agency’s whiteness is due solely to cultural differences, then I think we will continue to see a lot of the same faces in national parks that we’ve seen for a long time. That might okay for now given that the agency broke another attendance record in 2015 with more than 305 million people visiting a park, but I believe this drive is largely attributable to Baby Boomers who are retiring from the workforce and taking more opportunities to travel. These people won’t be around forever, so we’ll have to continue working to ensure that future generations will take advantage of and appreciate our National Parks.



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