I have always thought of public history as a tool to assist us in mediating unchartered territory. More specifically, museums can serve as public forums to tackle persistent forms of oppression that have escaped clear resolve. This vision seems particularly relevant today. There is a wide gap between understanding the inaccessible civil liberties and rights black people struggled for and acknowledging operations of oppression that persist into the present day. Rather by willful ignorance, genuine unawareness, or fear, much of the American public lives in that gap. Through exhibits, collections, community outreach projects, and continued dialogue, museums can assist the public in mediating that gap where we have not gained much traction. Continue reading →
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 →
Banners telling the stories of particular El Paso buildings were the first iteration of the Museo Urbano project. Photo credit: Bruce Berman
Hardball history that places historians at the center of politics, advocacy, and activism can be a difficult journey, but it can also be inspiring. My introduction to public history coincided with the 2006 unveiling of a controversial downtown revitalization plan in the city of El Paso, Texas. The plan included the demolition of more than thirty acres of El Segundo Barrio, a historic and predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood.
I was twenty-two and a senior at the University of Texas at El Paso. I learned about the downtown plan in a political science class, where everyone was given a brochure and a map of the area slated for construction. In place of churches and homes were shopping malls and parking lots. The woman giving us the presentation also mentioned that residents who could not afford new tax increases would need to be relocated. I was not the only student that had questions about the plan, the residents, and the process. The same semester I was also taking a Mexican-American History class taught by Dr. Yolanda Chávez Leyva. Her class incorporated the rich history of the area. Ironically, I had Dr. Leyva’s class right before the political science class. Continue reading →
Mike Alewitz’s “The City at the Crossroads of History” mural was commissioned for the City Museum of New York, which has declined to display it. Photo credit: Mike Alewitz
Muralist and activist Mike Alewitz has finished his tribute to the labor and social justice movements, an imposing four-panel painting titled The City at the Crossroads of History–but the museum it was commissioned for doesn’t want it.
The Puffin Foundation, a grant maker that frequently supports politically left artists, engaged Alewitz to create the mural for a new gallery at the Museum of the City of New York. The gallery is now open with an inaugural exhibit about social activism without the mural, while the artist has launched a petition drive to try to have it displayed as originally planned. Continue reading →
Protestors demonstrating down West Florissant Ave., Ferguson, Missouri, August 15, 2014. Photo credit: Loavesofbread, Wikimedia Commons
How should public historians address Officer Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown, the grand jury’s decision, and protests in Ferguson and across the country? This is a vital question many of us are discussing on Twitter, Facebook, and in person. The discussion has broadened recently to include the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the July chokehold death of Eric Garner, and the Justice Department’s citation of the Cleveland Police Department for civil rights abuses. What are the best approaches to creating public programs and exhibitions at museums and historic sites or leading classroom discussions? Continue reading →
As well as trying to convey a sense of these enslaved workers as people, the team of graduate students working on the “Slavery at South Carolina College” website also sought to connect this history to the physical landscape. Harnessing the power of place to tell the story of slavery, we emphasized the built environment of the historic college. The antebellum section of the campus, referred to today as the Horseshoe because of its shape, survives as the historic heart of the modern university. But the most important reason to emphasize the built environment is that slaves physically constructed it. Continue reading →
This 1820 watercolor shows an early view of the campus. Photo credit: South Caroliniana Library of the University of South Carolina
Written on the landscape of the University of South Carolina is an untold yet well-documented story of slavery. Enslaved people constructed the buildings of the university’s antebellum predecessor, South Carolina College, attended to the wants of white students and faculty, and performed countless tasks essential to running the college. This story is not unique in the history of American colleges and universities. Even in places where slavery was not widespread, the profits from slavery helped fund institutions of higher learning. Scholars have been slow to examine American universities’ historical association with slavery, and universities have been even slower to acknowledge it. The current momentum, however, favors expanding the discussion of these complicated topics. Continue reading →
Last Thursday, the US Supreme Court and a federal district court issued separate rulings striking down voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Texas. The Texas ruling should be of particular interest to public historians because of the extent to which history is at the center of US District Court Judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos’s decision. Continue reading →
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.
Before his inauguration and during his first moments in office, President Barack Obama pledged that his administration would pass significant immigration reform to reduce deportations and provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants, as well as close the prison at the US Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay. Yet in the last six years, while Republicans in Congress have repeatedly blocked immigration reform from being passed, President Obama’s administration has overseen the deportation of a record number of migrants from the United States—two million and counting. Guantánamo, meanwhile, remains in active service, with 149 individuals detained there as of June 2014.
Skyrocketing rates of immigrant detention and deportation and the continued operation of Guantánamo may seem to be only tangentially related. But the apprehension of suspected terrorists and attempts to deport immigrants have similar consequences—individuals being forcibly removed from their homes, from their families, and from their communities to be detained for prolonged periods of time, waiting, while US authorities determine their fate.
“At Home in Holland,” a new digital history project by students at the University of Amsterdam, responds to the way that hostile reactions to immigrants have undermined the traditional idea of Dutch tolerance and hospitality in recent years. The current Dutch asylum policy was developed in the 1980s. In that same period, Amnesty International Netherlands held its first campaign to draw attention to the problems faced by refugees in the Netherlands. How did a human rights organization usually focused on the plight of people abroad end up campaigning against human rights abuses back at home? Continue reading →