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

History without vision: A struggle over art at the City Museum of New York

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.

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

Revealing slavery’s legacy at a public university in the South (Part 2)

This handprint on one of the bricks of the wall surrounding the old campus was very likely made by a slave.  Photo:  Slavery at South Carolina College team.

This handprint on one of the bricks of the wall surrounding the old campus was very likely made by a slave. Photo credit: Slavery at South Carolina College team.

Continued from Part 1.

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

Revealing slavery’s legacy at a public university in the South (Part 1)

This 1820 watercolor shows an early view of the campus.  Image:  South Caroliniana Library

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

Invoking history in voter registration law

Register to Vote signs

2008 voter registration drive in Texas. Photo credit: Barack Obama’s photostream on Flickr

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

Project Showcase: At Home in Holland

holland-screenshotAt 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