Oral history as public history

Children playing at Euclid Beach, Cleveland, OH. Photo credit:

Euclid Beach Park conjures fond childhood memories for many participants in the Cleveland Regional Oral History Project. Photo credit: Cleveland State University Special Collections

Many of us have discovered what promised to be an exciting oral history project through a Google search, only to be crestfallen when the linked web page was nothing more than a description of a trove of interviews kept in an ivory tower hundreds or thousands of miles away. It’s a given that oral history can’t be public history if it’s a cache of CDs or transcripts squirreled away in a drawer.  Is it any less clear that an interview collection—no matter how voluminous, historically significant, or methodologically rigorous—also falls short of the mark when it rests in a library? A project’s outcomes should be publicly visible and audible. Continue reading

Uncovering the hidden paradise of Guantánamo

Editor’s Note: This piece continues a series of posts related to the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, a collaboration of public history programs across the country to raise awareness of the long history of the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay (GTMO) and foster dialogue on its future.  For an introduction to the series, please see this piece by the Project’s director, Liz Ševčenko.

My most vivid memories of Guantánamo was everything just being free down there and the closeness of all the people. There was no crime, none whatsoever. It was summer all year round.”

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The Guantanamo Public Memory Project online stories collection.  Photo Credit: Guantanamo Public Memory Project

Anita Lewis Isom first arrived at Guantánamo Bay forty years before the orange-suited detainees that would make the US base infamous around the world. Her description of an idyllic life at the base seems far removed from the images of leg shackles and barbed wire typically associated with Gitmo in its current function as a “black site,” an extra-legal and extra-territorial space. Images of Gitmo as prison and military base and as island paradise are not, however, mutually exclusive. Indeed, it is in part its isolation that makes Gitmo such an effective black site and its tropical location that has long made it an attractive destination for military families. Continue reading

Is Deadwood gambling with history? (Part 2)

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The recently destroyed Sinclair filling station, ca. 2013. Photo credit:  City of Deadwood Department of Planning and Preservation

Continued from Part 1.

Originally built in 1927, a small, unassuming Sinclair filling station on the edge of Main Street bespoke the pragmatic style of small rural industrial towns and stood as a monument to Deadwood’s mid-twentieth century history. It also survived a devastating fire that nearly destroyed the town in 1959. But over the years—and at least in part because the station did not comport with Deadwood’s dominant Wild West image—the Sinclair structure slipped into disrepair.

These events set the stage for the structure’s demise. In 2006, the owners of First Gold Hotel, a lucrative gaming resort, purchased the Sinclair station. This March, they razed it, claiming that time, disuse, and damage from a powerful blizzard last fall had stripped away the building’s historic value. Because the local Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) sanctioned the demolition, it might seem that the Sinclair station simply died of natural causes. Continue reading

Is Deadwood gambling with history? (Part I)


The close relationship between Deadwood’s gaming and a specific version of its history is clearly represented upon entering the town’s limits.  Photo credit: Patti McNeal

The close relationship between Deadwood’s gaming and a specific version of its history is clearly represented upon entering the town’s limits.
Photo credit: Patti McNeal

Twenty-five years ago, the state of South Dakota legalized commercial gaming within the boundaries of Deadwood, a small mining town nestled high in the Black Hills. Ever since, everyone from tourists and gamblers to film crews and rock stars have flooded its streets. The town’s unique history helped transform Deadwood into a hotbed for heritage tourism. As Jay D. Vogt, director of the South Dakota State Historical Society, recently wrote, “the colorful legends of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane,” two storied characters from the town’s brief flirtation with the “Wild West” of the 1870s, “make Deadwood a nationally recognized destination.” From 2004 to 2006, HBO even aired a popular television show set in (and named after) Deadwood, a portrayal which enhanced the town’s rugged visage and broadcast its regional past to national audiences. But community members and public historians, who have long struggled to make sure that Deadwood’s comfortable, tourist-friendly image includes diverse and critical perspectives on the past, have faced an additional challenge in recent months as at least one casino has destroyed a historic site in the name of expanding its business. Continue reading

A lesson in racial profiling and historical relevance

people at meeting

Don Denard is hugged by supporters as he arrives at the Decatur City Commission meeting, February 18, 2014. Photo by author

In December 2013, an African American man was detained by Decatur, Georgia, police after he was seen leaving his home. An officer issued a suspicious person alert based on the “reasonable articulable suspicion” premise–the legal basis for many states’ “stop and frisk” laws.

Don Denard has lived in the Decatur home he was seen leaving since 1987. He is a former school board member and an active participant in Decatur’s civic life. Yet on December 15, 2013, he was just another black man walking in a community that is becoming steadily whiter and wealthier and where all such men are regarded, as Denard says, with the presumption of guilt. Continue reading

Rethinking a local historic site

Long Branch’s fields once produced vast quantities of wheat. Today, these fields are home to a herd of retired horses.

Long Branch’s fields once produced vast quantities of wheat. Today, these fields are home to a herd of retired horses. Photo credit: Cassie Ward

Every day I am asked, “You’re a public historian–what the heck is that and what do you do all day?” I smile from ear to ear, climb on top of my soapbox, and begin to talk about how fortunate I feel to have turned my love of history into a challenging and fulfilling career.  I then begin to talk about the many great triumphs and challenges that I have experienced in my new position as the Director of Public Programs at Long Branch Plantation, a local Virginia historic site, located a little over an hour from Washington, DC.  Long Branch, nestled in the shadow of the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains, preserves an over 200-year-old stately plantation home and nearly 400 acres of rural Virginia land.

In February 2013, I joined the small staff at Long Branch with the full understanding that the historic site was in the middle of a major year of transition and reorganization. While the site had operated as a museum for the past 20 years, the home’s furnishings and tours represented only a small chapter of Long Branch’s 200-year history–that of the last owner, Harry Z. Isaacs, the successful Baltimore textile executive who had performed a massive updating of the home in the 1980s.  Isaacs purchased Long Branch with the intent of making it his full-time residence; sadly, however, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and did not have the opportunity to live at Long Branch full time.  Upon his death, Isaacs left Long Branch and a portion of his estate to a foundation he created to keep Long Branch open to the public for the community’s benefit and enjoyment. Continue reading