“Them” in Atlanta: A gentrification photo album

book coverIn 2007 Atlanta journalist Nathan McCall’s novel Them was published. The book is a fictionalized account of a very real Atlanta neighborhood–the Old Fourth Ward–undergoing gentrification. The neighborhood is a place where civil rights historic landmarks jockey for attention and dollars among hip bars and restaurants. A recent historic preservation battle exposed tensions that pit adapting old buildings for new uses versus tearing them down for new developments. Continue reading

Pulling back the layers: Participatory and community-based archeology

Editor’s Note: In “What I’ve Learned Along the Way: A Public Historian’s Intellectual Odyssey,” outgoing NCPH President Bob Weyeneth issued a call to action to public historians to include the public more fully in our work by “pulling back the curtain” on our interpretive process—how we choose the stories we tell. In this series of posts, we’ve invited several public historians to reflect on projects that do exactly that, assessing their successes and examining the challenges we face when we let the public in through the door usually reserved for staff.

Early on a July morning, as the sun rises above the trees that line the eastern half of our urban dig site, the crew prepares for work. They use modified milk containers to bail the rain of last night’s thunderstorm from the plastic-lined 1-meter square excavation units. We are all beginning to sweat as we remove the dripping plastic sheets from the squares, and resume our efforts to discover what we can about life in this 19th-century textile mill town.

Most of the crew, composed largely of Baltimore City High School students who live in nearby neighborhoods, prepare to man the screens. They will spend the next couple of hours searching soils, excavated layer-by-layer, for artifacts. A few with sufficient experience are asked to begin digging in the unit. We are at the bottom of a stratum, all of our notes are up to date, and we’ve drawn and taken photographs of the walls and floors of the unit. We’re ready to dig through the next level of soil, so I instruct my students: “Go ahead and carefully begin pulling back the next layer…,”

A HCAP student helps to survey a Hampden archaeological site. Photo by David Gadsby

A Hampden Community Archaeology Project student helps to survey a Hampden archaeological site. Photo by David Gadsby

One of archeology’s oldest and richest metaphors is “pulling back” layers of soil to reveal the remnants of a hidden past. Archeologists, concerned with drawing conclusions about the human past from multiple, sometimes fragmentary lines of evidence, can use their data to tell stories that complicate or revise conventional understandings of that past. In recent decades, a growing number of archeologists has sought to pull back the layers, or “lift the veil” on their research practices, to produce more inclusive interpretations of data, recruit people to form a more diverse discipline, and cede some authority to members of descendent communities and the public, as we did with the Baltimore project described above. Continue reading

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