Historic preservation shines a light on a dark past

Trinity High School demolition, 2013. Photo credit: David Rotenstein

Trinity High School demolition, 2013. Photo credit: David Rotenstein

Editor’s note: This post continues a series commemorating the anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act by examining a past article published in The Public Historian, describing its significance, and relating it to contemporary conversations in historic preservation.

Between 2011 and 2014, the city of Decatur, Georgia, demolished 200 public housing units built in 1940, under the auspices of slum clearance. In 2013, Decatur’s two city-owned former equalization schools were demolished for a new civic complex and police headquarters. In one gentrifying neighborhood, the private sector sent more than 120 former African American homes to landfills, continuing a cycle of serial displacement begun a century ago. In another neighborhood, a developer demolished a historic black church to clear land for new upscale townhomes. The widespread disappearance of African American landmarks began just two years after the City of Decatur released a citywide historic resources survey that made no mention of the community’s black residents, past and present, nor their historic places.1

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Responding to Baltimore: A role for public historians? (Part 2)

Editors’ Note: Readers can find Part 1 here. This post continues a short list of what history, public and otherwise, as well as allied disciplines, can do in the face of events like those that have engulfed Baltimore.

Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson Museum, 1320 Eutaw Place, Baltimore. Restored by Morgan State University. Image credit: Baltimore Heritage.

Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson Museum, 1320 Eutaw Place, Baltimore. Restored by Morgan State University. Photo credit: Baltimore Heritage

Third, beyond documentation, history can support change in the present. History is rarely a direct catalyst for change–that comes from social movements. But it can be part of a public conversation that brings attention to the need for change, and it can serve as a means of empowering change-makers. The work of historians and our disciplinary allies can also inform policy, but we must research topics that are relevant to contemporary concerns and present our research in accessible ways. Public historians are at the forefront of these practices. Continue reading

Responding to Baltimore: A role for public historians? (Part 1)

Protest at the Baltimore Police Department Western District building at N. Mount St. and Riggs Ave. Photo credit: Veggies, Wikimedia Commons.

Freddie Gray protest at the Baltimore Police Department Western District building at N. Mount St. and Riggs Ave. Photo credit: Veggies, Wikimedia Commons

Events in Baltimore during the last couple of weeks following the death of Freddie Gray apparently after a questionable arrest have precipitated a great deal of commentary, ranging from the thoughtful to the bloviating. Likewise, interest in a more activist, civically engaged public history has been generating considerable discussion, both descriptive and hortatory. In an effort to add something useful to the discussion, I offer a short list of what I believe history, public and otherwise, as well as allied disciplines, can do in the face of events like those that have engulfed Baltimore. Continue reading

Hardball history: Knowing the people’s history requires being on their side

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Project narrator David Campbell explains to the media in August 2002 why he will not leave his encampment, known as Camelot, while the city bulldozers wait to move in. Photo credit: Steve Cagan. Used with permission from the collection of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.

On May 30, 1995, wearing an orange construction helmet, I stood behind a makeshift barricade on E. 13th Street in New York City. Hundreds of squatters faced off against larger numbers of riot police who were armed with a tank and supported by snipers on the surrounding buildings. They had come to evict people from five buildings, and as they moved in, we locked arms to prevent them from gaining entrance. One by one they arrested us and dragged us away as the media reported the event live throughout the day. While we lost the buildings and over one hundred people lost their homes, the action paved the way for the remaining squats in the neighborhood to become legally recognized.

We had a sense we were making history, putting our mark on a long tradition of radical activism in the community. It was a history told though stories on park benches; documented in old photographs; archived in personal collections of dog-eared papers, yellowed flyers, and ‘zines; and memorialized with graffiti and punk anthems. The history was sustained by the elders, who had little materially to show from life, but captivated the attention of irreverent younger people who affectionately heard their stories as a boast and a challenge. To make history, we needed to know the history. Knowing the history necessitated knowing the people and knowing the people required being on their side. Continue reading

Project Showcase: Lakota Emergence

PrintThe Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies (CAIRNS) in South Dakota will present an innovative exhibit in early May 2015 called “Lakota Emergence.” The exhibit focuses entirely on the short Lakota emergence narrative titled “How the Lakota Came Upon the World,” published in 1917. The exhibit divides the 1,251-word narrative into 16 “passages,” and pairs each passage with an outstanding example of a practical or artistic object from the Sioux Indian Museum (one of the three Indian Arts and Crafts Board museums in the United States). The selected objects span a period of time from before the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty all the way to the early 1970s. All were created by Lakotas and were collected from within the boundaries of the 1868 Treaty, including what is now Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Standing Rock Reservations, as well as the community of Rapid City.

In addition to the passages and museum objects, original artworks by distinguished and emerging contemporary Lakota artists will be featured, thereby creating what are called “vignettes.” These 16 vignettes will recount the Lakota emergence narrative in written words, museum collections, and contemporary artworks. Dr. Craig Howe, director of CAIRNS and curator of Lakota Emergence, says “the exhibit was conceived to illustrate that the emergence narrative continues to be a source of creativity, and that Wind Cave was and always will remain a landscape of special significance in Lakota cosmology.”

Fragile history in a gentrifying neighborhood

1.Valetta Anderson at an Atlanta Studies Network event in 2014. Photo by the author.

Valetta Anderson at an Atlanta Studies Network event in 2014. Photo credit:  David Rotenstein

Over the past few years, I have been writing about gentrification and how it intersects with history in an Atlanta, Georgia, suburb. Twenty-five months and more than 50 interviews after I started talking with people and documenting neighborhood change in the Oakhurst area of Decatur, I met playwright Valetta Anderson, who works at Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center. In 2008, Anderson’s play about gentrification in her neighborhood, Hallelujah Street Blues, had been performed during the 2008 National Black Arts Festival. A Chicago native, Anderson had lived in Oakhurst for 18 years and was a participant in one of Decatur’s first public gentrification battles when she and a handful of neighbors sued the city in 2003 over a proposed property rezoning and townhouse development. The experience became Hallelujah Street Blues, a unique critical commentary on Decatur from an African American writer.

Yet no one had mentioned the play in any of the conversations I had with neighborhood residents. Nor did it appear in the neighborhood’s listserv; the Oakhurst Neighborhood Association’s monthly newsletter The Leaflet; or the Decatur Focus, a bimonthly magazine published by the city. The play had actually been staged in Decatur before its debut at Atlanta’s Horizon Theatre, and it received some press attention during its downtown production, including a profile of Anderson in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a review in Creative Loafing, Atlanta’s long-lived alt-weekly paper. But it seemed strangely invisible–or at least submerged–in Decatur community memory. Its seeming erasure has led me to new questions about storytelling as a window on the recent past and a barometer for community values.  Continue reading