A Call to All Public History Employers

Little Round Top at the Gettysburg Battlefield
Little Round Top at the Gettysburg Battlefield

This past weekend I took note of a couple thought-provoking blog posts worthy of mention here. Both essays argue that public historians at National Parks, museums, and state/local historical sites need to find ways to use their resources and respond to last month’s Charleston massacre. Christopher A. Graham is trying to find examples of small museums and Civil War sites engaging in some sort of interpretive dialogue about Civil War history and memory in the aftermath of Charleston without much luck. He offers some thoughtful ideas on simple programs these places could embrace for discussing these topics and expresses his wish to see “small museums…wading constructively and imaginatively into this conversation about the Confederate flag.” Kevin Levin echos similar sentiments in calling for public historians to “get out there and do what you are trained to do.” He, like Christopher, is looking for examples of innovative programs like the one John Hennessy recently offered at Fredricksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. There are currently no comments with any specific examples on that post, so it looks like his readership has not found any noteworthy interpretive programs either.

I am in general agreement with these posts. The national discussion taking place about the Civil War’s enduring legacy offers a ripe opportunity for public historians and Civil War history sites to enter themselves into an important and highly visible conversation. I would only slightly push back against Kevin in that plenty of public historians at Civil War sites understand their responsibilities as interpreters and care a great deal about “getting out there.” We’ve been out there plenty, actually. In the aftermath of the Ferguson unrest, for example, we at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site here in St. Louis “responded” in May by hosting every 8th grader in the Ferguson-Florissant School District over a two-week period at the park to discuss slavery, the Civil War, and U.S. Grant’s presidency. I pushed the envelop even further by designing a short ten-minute facilitated dialogue in our museum about the ambiguous nature of the term “justice” and how racism affects our own contemporary society. While our park hasn’t yet formulated a program specifically connected to the Charleston Massacre, it’s not as if we stopped talking about these issues once the Ferguson kids went back to school. Our urgency to wade into these discussions has not diminished one bit and we’ve been having plenty of them with regular daily visitors to our site this summer.

It seems safe to say, however, that many Civil War sites including ours can do more to connect past with present through interpretive and educational programs. This shortcoming challenges us to ask tough questions about the purpose of public history in communicating accurate, thought-provoking interpretive histories to diverse audiences of all types. Kevin asks what public history sites are doing “to help their communities make sense of the relevant history behind our ongoing and very emotional discussion about Civil War memory.” That’s a good question, but we can also flip it to ask what local communities are doing to help their public history sites tell accurate, inclusive histories of the Civil War. Are the board members, museum directors, front-line employees, and volunteers that run a given public history site committed to fostering dialogue and a sense of community in their localities, or are they simply committed to placing fancy artifacts devoid of context on display for admiring cultural elites? I want to move Christoper and Kevin’s challenge to public historians upwards towards the people who employ these professionals at their institutions.

While I am still in the early stages of my public history career, I have thought much about the underlying values and philosophies needed to run a truly innovative public history site. I can think of at least three qualities for building a solid foundation at these places:

Vision: I know of and have visited a privately-run Civil War museum that explicitly states in its mission statement a desire not to debate or interpret the causes of the Civil War. The mission, they explain, is to pay homage to the soldiers of the war “without bias to either side.” Is it a surprise to anyone that this museum or ones like it don’t play any sort of public role in a larger dialogue about the Civil War and contemporary issues in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, or elsewhere? It is a surprise that public historians at these sites lack any sort of institutional support to develop programs in response to current events and are often told not to discuss them with visitors? Is it any surprise that many history museums that prioritize uncritical candle-making activities and Blue-Gray gala balls face declining attendance numbers?

The impetus for thoughtful interpretive programming starts with a vision from the top. That vision should offer support to public historians by giving them space to experiment with new methods for communicating history to public audiences. That vision should also embrace a willingness to challenge visitors with programming that checks their prior assumptions. Public historians, however, can only do as much as their employers (who often come from non-history/education backgrounds) are willing to let them do.

Opportunity: The National Park Service is currently suffering from an $11 billion maintenance backlog. Reduced budgets and financial shortfalls since the government shutdown in 2013 and the 2008 recession have led to fewer rangers in uniform and reduced services in maintenance, law enforcement, park administration, and interpretation/education. Long-tenured employees are retiring and their jobs left unfilled. Some parks have almost no front-line staff and rely on volunteers to greet visitors and lead interpretive tours. Full-time, permanent jobs are scarce. It’s a dream of mine to become a park historian at a national park like John Hennessy someday, but I have no idea how to pursue that path because I’ve never seen a single posting for a park historian job in my whole time with the agency.

The NPS is but one example of a public history institution currently facing serious financial challenges. The Park Service and other public history sites at all levels often preach the importance of relevancy, diversity, and inclusion in their hiring practices, but such ideals are meaningless if there are no opportunities to establish a stable career and a livable wage to support yourself. While I realize that many sites must find ways to cut expenses and stay in the black, it always worries me when I see a lot of volunteers running the show at any given public history site. It’s not that I don’t value their contributions – far from it. But public historians don’t spend thousands of dollars for their education (and for internships that are often unpaid) to be volunteer museum docents for a living. Pay your interns. Invest in your employees with full-time jobs if at all possible. Do your best to pay your public historians and museum workers a living wage and offer them fair benefits.

Professional Development: Interpreting history requires specific skills and intensive training. A facilitated dialogue, for example, is not just a Q&A session with a sage on the stage. It requires the work of someone who has been trained to create structured conversations based on relevant questions that push participants to share their thoughts and experiences in a free exchange of ideas. Organizing a dialogue around a controversial topic like the Confederate flag is not something just anyone can easily do. How do you get a supporter of the flag and a person who finds the flag offensive into the same room talking with each other in a civil manner? It’s as tough as it sounds.

To repeat, while I value the volunteers who do so much to keep our Civil War sites running on a day-to-day basis, the process of creating an interpretive program, educational lesson plan, or facilitated dialogue often requires the skills of a trained professional who has the time and skills to put together such a plan. That means the professional’s employer must be willing to buck up for resources and training to aid the development of those programs. I have been fortunate enough to have some really wonderful training sessions with the National Park Service in facilitated dialogue and interpretation, but I know that many other public historians don’t have the luxury of getting any training once they join the workforce. We can’t expect these professionals to offer John Hennessy-like programs if they don’t have the training, resources, or support to put together such programs in the first place.

Finally, Aleia Brown’s article on museum practices and the Confederate flag is also relevant to this discussion and also worthy of your time.


Tearing Down the Barriers Between “Experts” and “Buffs” in the Historical Enterprise

Over the past few days I have been going back and forth with a commenter on a recent post I wrote about mediocre, good, and great biographies of Ulysses S. Grant. One of the issues raised in the conversation was my citing of a book written by a professional lawyer instead of an academically trained historian with a PhD. Without having read the book in question the commenter wondered aloud if the author’s choice to publish with a non-academic press reflected a desire to “bypass the normal refereeing process at a scholarly press” and, in a defense of scholarly publishing, warned that not all history writers are in a position to make sound judgements about the past. The commenter also equated the history profession with the medical profession: you wouldn’t trust someone not trained in medical practices to examine you for a disease, so why would you trust a non-historian with interpreting the past?

I believe these comments are unfair to the author in question, but looking at the bigger picture this conversation also reflects an unfortunate and all too common desire to create false barriers between “experts” and “buffs” within the historical enterprise. All would agree that training in historical thinking and interpreting primary/secondary source documents is very important to good historical scholarship. But the question of whether someone needs to hold a history PhD to be considered a competent historian is very much debatable.

My argument is simple: Some people focus on the players; I focus on the game. Some people focus on credentials; I focus on arguments.

I am far less concerned about a person’s academic background than I am with the substance of their arguments. I am far less concerned with what a person does for a living than what scholars in any particular field have to say about how that person’s work shapes their field. Take Gordon Rhea as an example. The fact that he holds a law degree from Stanford (and no history PhD) and has worked as a trial lawyer for 35 years means far less to me than the fact that his scholarship on the Overland Campaign of 1864 is highly respected by both Civil War military historians and general readers.

This is not to say that everyone’s opinion is equally valid when interpreting history. The point is that the historical enterprise should strive to cast a wide scholarly net that allows people from many different types of backgrounds to contribute their voice to the conversations we have about the past. Setting the bar for good historical scholarship to only include history PhDs who work in academic institutions impoverishes our field and shuts out many people who care about history but may not have pursued an advanced degree for any number of reasons, not least the fact that it’s damn expensive and time-consuming to get a PhD.

Equating the history profession’s standards with the medical profession is also a poor apples-to-oranges comparison. It might be better to compare the history profession to the music profession. There are musicians with PhDs in music, others who have more limited training through k-12 schooling and private lessons, and still others with no formal training whatsoever. Chances are that when you first discovered your favorite artist you probably didn’t go online to check that person’s formal training before determining whether or not their artistry was valid. The musician’s credentials matter far less than the fact that their music makes you feel good. Different types of music have different goals and required standards of training. You don’t need a PhD to play punk rock, but you might need it to teach classical music in a college setting.

Obviously the end goals of historical scholarship don’t necessarily compare to those of music, but the point stands that history is something that exists far beyond the walls of academia. Different works of historical scholarship–whether they’re written in a book or designed for a public history setting–call for different sets of training and expertise. Not every person who engages in these scholarly endeavors comes with a history PhD in their academic background, and that’s okay with me. Hit me with your best argument and I’ll look at it with an open mind.


Creating Sound Arguments: Personal Experiences vs. Structural Realities

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Do you remember that time about a year and a half ago when Duck Dynasty actor Phil Robertson made some questionable remarks about homosexuals and black people during an interview with GQ? A&E, Robertson’s employer, decided to put Duck Dynasty on hiatus; Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal misinterpreted the meaning of the first amendment; some of your friends probably joined an “I Support Phil Robertson” Facebook group on the website and claimed in harried status updates that Christians in the U.S. were now being persecuted for their beliefs; and then A&E–caving into the criticism against their choice to suspend Duck Dynasty–came to their senses and lifted the suspension nine days later when they remembered that ratings have always dictated the ethics of television programming.

The whole episode was a waste of time and maybe even a ploy by GQ and A&E to manufacture a controversy and garner attention for themselves. But I learned an important lesson during this “crisis ” that’s stuck with me ever since. That lesson is that there are many logical shortfalls to making arguments about the world based on personal experiences and perceptions. This lesson simultaneously applies to the ways we talk about contemporary society and how we talk about history.

When asked about racism in his native Louisiana in the 1950s and 60s before the Civil Rights Movement, Robertson relied on personal experience to argue that life wasn’t so bad for African Americans back then:

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

There are many ways to interpret these comments. A generous interpretation could suggest that Robertson really was telling the truth about his experiences and that life really wasn’t that bad for the black people in his community. A more cynical interpretation could argue that Robertson’s status as a beneficiary of a racist system of legal segregation, disenfranchisement, and violence against black people may have blinded him to the actual hardships of his neighbors, and that his suggestion about African Americans becoming discontented and “singing the blues” only after the rise of the welfare state is offensive. My thoughts lean towards the latter interpretation, but that’s beside the point.

Relying on personal anecdotes to explain a society’s political, economic, and social foundations generally results in poor arguments that don’t advance the conversation because they are used at the expense of compelling evidence about a society’s systematic and structural regulations, policies, and philosophies. Robertson’s perceptions of racism or lack thereof in his own community tell us something about Phil Robertson’s view of reality in 1950s America, but they don’t necessarily reflect the structural workings of 1950s American governance. Across the United States blacks in impoverished communities at this time were offered fewer opportunities in the labor market, education, housing, and quality health care. It is not difficult to find this information or accept these realities, regardless of what Phil Robertson says or whether or not he is accurately describing an objective reality of his upbringing.

I make these points because it’s so easy to rely on personal experience as the final arbiter of truth without acknowledging the limited and flawed nature of our perceptions. Here in St. Louis, for example, I had no idea that various municipal governments were using aggressive policing and exorbitant ticket fees from petty misdemeanors to fund their operations on the backs of impoverished people until Radley Balko reported on it for the Washington Post in September. A Robertson-esque response to the Balko report might argue that “the police in my community treat everyone with respect. Nobody is discriminated against by the police on account of race, ethnicity, or class. People just need to follow the law and they’ll be just fine.”

That argument might very well be true for some people, myself included! Every police officer I’ve met in my area of St. Louis has treated me with kindness and respect. I have no doubt that those hard-working people are doing everything they can to keep my community safe. But just because I haven’t been witness to the corruption of these municipal governments does not mean that they don’t exist or that no one else has suffered. My experiences and those of others here in the area only make sense once they are fit together within a larger social, political, and economic context that explains how structures shape our society.

And just like Phil Robertson, we are always relying on personal experience to explain the past. Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of arguments from ancestors (typo!) descendants of Confederate soldiers who claim that their ancestors did not fight for the Confederacy on account of their support for slavery but instead fought for things like honor, defense of home, allegiance to the South, etc. For that reason, they argue, the Confederate flag is not just a flag of white supremacy. Again, that might very well be true for some. I readily accept that the Confederate flag has many layers of meaning, but the personal experiences of your ancestors tell us more about the experience of soldiering during the Civil War than anything about the political disagreements that precipitated the war. Soldiers and politicians often have very different motivations for participating in wars, and the vast majority of Civil War soldiers on both sides had no political role in the debates over secession in 1861. Therefore any discussion of a Confederate soldier’s desire to fight on behalf of “defending his family” (and not for slavery) is inadequate until you also take a look at the bigger picture and acknowledge what the politicians were willing to go to war over in the first place. It wasn’t states’ rights.

Are personal experiences unimportant or useless? Of course not. I would argue, however, that they are inadequate determinants for explaining how the world works. Our experiences don’t happen in isolated bubbles. We must account for that.


Public History: From Preservation to Narrative

My latest essay for the Society for U.S. Intellectual History recently went live in two separate installments. Part one is here and part two is here. My aims in the essay are threefold:

1. I argue that the standard narrative for explaining the roots of public history in the United States is in need of serious reconsideration and revision.

2. I review three works of public history scholarship that represent larger trends within the field’s recent historiography.

3. I present ideas on how intellectual and public historians can learn from each other and improve their respective crafts.

Hope you enjoy reading. Cheers.

The Paradoxical Nature of the “Enslaved Person vs. Slave” Name Debate

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

NOTE, 2/10/20: Having a blog with seven years’ worth of posts can be a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, I have an extensive digital archive of my own thoughts on various historical topics. Thanks to this blog, I can see how my thinking has evolved over the years. The bad side is that readers may find one blog post on a particular topic and miss later blog posts that reflect a change in my thinking. That is what happened with this blog post. A friend notified me that an essay on the Chronicle of Higher Educationcited this blog post and mildly critiqued me for my skepticism about the terms “slaving” and “enslaved people.” While I still don’t like the term “slaving,” I have fully embraced “enslaved people” and am not as worried about presentism as I once was. An updated post in 2016 on this website reflected those changes in my thinking, but they didn’t get cited in the Chronicle piece, which was written in 2017. So… the below blog posts captures my thoughts as they were several years ago, but not necessarily as they reflect my thinking today.

In September of last year I wrote an essay on this website where I discussed an ongoing debate about whether the standard noun we use to describe chattel enslavement–“Slavery”–should be replaced by an active verb–“Slaving”–to more accurately reflect what historian Joseph Miller describes as the “ever-changing historical contingencies” that mark the long history of enslavement around the world. Since then a few co-workers and myself have engaged in a parallel conversation about the terms “enslaved person” and “slave” and which one we should use when discussing enslavement with visitors to the White Haven estate in St. Louis, Missouri. Two essays inspired these discussions. One was written by fellow NPS employee Jacob Dinkelaker in 2011 and describes his experiences at a National Association for Interpretation workshop where a presenter argued against using the word “slave,” while the other essay by journalist Katy Waldman was published in May of this year and is currently featured in Slate (I ran into a paywall a couple times when trying to load this article, but not every time. Good luck).

Critics of the word “slave” point out that it’s a nameless, passive noun that strips enslaved people of their humanity. As scholar Angela Roberts-Burton argues, “No one asked to be a slave. This is not what or who they were. When people are referred to as slaves, it is dehumanizing. They become ambiguous, without feelings, thoughts, or individual personalities.” But, as the historian Eric Foner suggests, referring to slaves doesn’t necessarily mean stripping away one’s humanity: “Slaves are human beings and can be husbands, wives (in fact if not in law), fathers and mothers, members of religious groups, skilled craftsmen . . . All people have multiple identities, including slaves.”

I believe there is an unavoidable paradox we must address when engaging in this discussion. While I think that enslaved person more precisely acknowledges the humanity of those forced into slavery’s chains, the term is unavoidably presentist. We today acknowledge the humanity of these people, but the institution of slavery was horrible precisely because it made humans into pieces of property to be bought, sold, and abused at will. People were stripped of their humanity and forced into the condition of slaves under threat of violence by their enslavers and the state. Do we run the risk of downplaying these horrors by doing away with the term historically employed to describe the ways slavery dehumanized its victims/survivors?

I suppose the big question, then, is whether we should use and redefine the master’s linguistical tools to describe slavery’s evils or whether we should throw out the master’s tools and create our own tools to achieve a better description of these realities.

My own imperfect solution has been to use “slaves” and “enslaved people” interchangeably during my own historical tours and educational programs. At the beginning of my tours I will often start with a generalized talk about slavery in American society and explain that African American “slaves” did the labor at White Haven before the Civil War, but when I point out specific outbuildings in the back of the house I will point out where the “enslaved people” cooked, cleaned, played, etc. etc. I also apply the latter terminology when talking about individuals at White Haven. Mary Robinson was “an enslaved cook,” Mary Henry was “an enslaved nurse,” and Jim and Bob were “enslaved laborers” at the plantation.

I have a bigger problem with the term “servant,” which implies a voluntary, contractual relationship between a willing laborer and an employer. I also have a problem with any reference to “the dependents,” which is what one couple from the Deep South called the slaves during one of my tours (they also admitted that they heard the term during other plantation tours they had taken over the years). Referring to slaves/enslaved people as “dependents” implies that they could not take care of themselves without the assistance of a benevolent enslaver. The opposite was actually true in reality: the enslavers at the big house depended on the labors of the enslaved for their economic well-being.

What do you think?


What Does it Mean to Come to Terms With the History of American Slavery?

Amid the hustle and bustle of this Independence Day weekend I had a brief, interesting discussion with a person about this nation’s recent and widespread conversation about the Civil War and slavery in the United States. The person agreed with me that acknowledging slavery’s presence in America since 1619 was an important step towards a fuller understanding of our past, but he/she took issue with the calls of various media outlets, social activists, and even historical sites for people to “come to terms with America’s troubled slaveholding past.” More specifically, this person questioned the phrase “come to terms” and what exactly these organizations and people were trying to imply about the ways we should now approach our collective understanding of slavery’s legacy.

I love these sorts of questions and can usually find an answer within my head to help advance the conversation, but I was stumped here. The tenuous intersections between past, present, objectivity, and activism all came to a head in one very complex question.

I think the question requires two separate answers – what coming to terms with slavery means for our historical understanding and what coming to terms with slavery means for our future.

The first answer, upon further reflection, is easier for me to address. Although it doesn’t happen on too frequent a basis, I’ve interacted with enough people in my years as a public historian to know that the things people say about slavery on historic plantation tours in this article by Margaret Biser reign true for me too. I can’t tell you how many times visitors have suggested something along the lines of “slavery wasn’t as bad as the historians want us to believe,” “slavery was a part of our past and we must now move on from it,” “the Civil War was fought over economics/states’ rights,” “some slaves were treated well,” etc. etc. These sorts of comments suggest that some people are still skeptical about the horrific violence of African-American chattel slavery and its all-encompassing presence in America’s economic, social, cultural, and political evolution.

“Coming to terms” in this context, it seems, simply means acknowledging that slavery’s presence in the U.S. during its early years ensured that the process of putting its founding ideals into practice would proceed from an inherently unequal starting point, one that we are still trying to rectify today. The legal right to human property was tolerated, accepted, and even encouraged for more than 75 years after the nation’s founding, and the deadliest war in American history occurred in the 1860s as the nation’s white political leadership failed to come to a peaceful agreement about what to do with slavery moving forward. Many Americans understand these truths, but there’s no doubt in my mind that “coming to terms” with this past will be a monumental undertaking for some people.

But what are the future implications for society’s coming to terms with slavery? Does it matter whether or not we acknowledge the past so that we can ensure a more just future? Does coming to terms with slavery mean historians should be advocating for policy reforms and other collective actions like peaceful protests? What can I say and not say as a professional historian in uniform speaking on behalf of the federal government to the public? These are the sorts of questions I wrestle with all the time at work, and in this particular instance I was at a loss for words.

What does coming to terms with slavery mean to you? The floor is yours.


After Appomattox, the Task of Reconstruction Begins

Ulysses S. Grant

I wrote the following short essay about General Ulysses S. Grant’s 1865 tour of the South for our park’s quarterly newsletter. I liked how the final version came out and decided to re-post it here. Enjoy!


United States General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant called for a quick restoration of the Union and reconciliation between Unionists and former Confederates following General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. “The Rebels are our countrymen again,” explained Grant, and he wanted to end military rule and restore civil state governments in the South as soon as possible. When President Andrew Johnson expressed his wish to hang General Lee for treason in the summer of 1865, Grant threatened to resign. He argued that Lee had been protected by the surrender terms at Appomattox and that hanging him would only complicate efforts at sectional reconciliation.

In the fall of 1865, President Johnson asked General Grant to take a tour of the South to assess the sentiments of local residents and write a report on his findings. During his fifteen-day tour (November 27 – December 11) Grant made stops in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. He met with political leaders, Confederate veterans, and black Southerners during his tour. In a letter to his wife Julia while in Georgia, Grant stated that “people all seem pleasant . . . at least towards me, and I think towards the Government.” At the same time he told a reporter that “my faith in the future rests on the soldier element of the South. I feel assured that those who did the fighting may be depended upon to restore tranquility.”

When Grant returned to Washington, D.C., he reported that white Southerners were “more loyal and better-disposed that [I] had expected to find them.” But he also believed that some whites were still vengeful and that black Southerners still needed the protection of the U.S. military. These concerns were validated when Grant’s commanders wrote him a month later stating that black and white Unionists in the South were subjected to persecution, fraud, and violence by former Confederates. In May 1866 a series of riots in Memphis, Tennessee, saw 46 African Americans killed and more than 100 homes, churches, and schools destroyed. Grant now realized that the protection of black Southerners trumped reconciliation with angry rebels.

The work of reconstruction was only beginning.