Leo Frank commemoration: Museum partnerships and controversial topics

Leo Frank circa 1910. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-B2-1234]

Leo Frank circa 1910. Photo credit:  Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-B2-1234]

As museums increasingly become spaces for engaging challenging topics, three metro Atlanta institutions joined together to address a century-old rift in the community. Using expanded audiences, a shared strategic mission, and a network of public historians, the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History forged a partnership with the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum and the Museum of History and Holocaust Education to present the exhibit, “Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited.” The following reflective case study provides an example of how public history can address a controversial subject in its most sensitive geographic location.  Continue reading

Civil War memory and American gun culture

The cover illustration of The American Rifleman for August 1957 featured members of the North-South Skirmish Association, founded in 1950. Source: Author’s collection

Ashley Halsey Jr. was frustrated when the civil rights movement defeated the Lost Cause. The United States Civil War Centennial Commission had invited the Saturday Evening Post associate editor and Civil War buff to be the featured speaker at the 1961 centennial commemoration of the firing on Fort Sumter in his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. The event exploded in controversy because a local hotel refused to accommodate an African American delegate to the assembly. The John F. Kennedy administration moved the meeting to a nearby naval base, which led delegates from former Confederate states to secede from the event in protest. Continue reading

A Confederate on campus: The case of MTSU’s Forrest Hall

"Forrest plaque on the MTSU Keathly University Center, from Sidelines campus newspaper, March 1968."

Forrest plaque on the MTSU Keathly University Center.  Photo credit:  Sidelines campus newspaper, March 1968

Editor’s note: This post continues our series addressing recent debates over Confederate memory and symbolism in the wake of the shooting of nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina.  Here is the opening post for the series.

On April 4, 1968, an altercation occurred at Middle Tennessee State University’s newly constructed student union building, where a large crowd of students had gathered to await breaking news about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. A white male student cut through the crowd to turn off the news program in a deliberate attempt to provoke other students. This led to a fight, which at least one African American student connected to the unwelcome influence of Confederate symbols on campus. Indeed, an elaborate 600-pound bronze plaque of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest adorned the month-old building where students had gathered to mourn the death of a Civil Rights leader.

An African American student present at the union that night, Sylvester Brooks, later wrote in the campus newspaper Sidelines, “Are you proud of your school’s mascot, General Nathan Bedford Forrest?; the man who founded the Ku Klux Klan; the man who captured Black soldiers fighting for the Union; and the man who marched into Fort Pillow in West Tennessee and murdered 250 Black men, women, and children? . . . Black students have just as much right to feel a part of this campus as anyone else.”  Brooks became the most recognizable voice of opposition to MTSU’s Confederate iconography in the late 1960s. The fight he started continues to this day.

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No mere morality play: Why we need Confederate memorials now more than ever

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of posts addressing recent debates over Confederate memory and symbolism in the wake of the shooting of nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina.

St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Photo credit: Doug Kerr. Wikimedia Commons.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Photo credit: Doug Kerr. Wikimedia Commons

In the wake of the June 17 shooting tragedy in Charleston, SC, numerous cities, institutions, politicians, and members of the general public have engaged in an array of important discussions about Confederate imagery and iconography. These discussions have illuminated for a large segment of the public the integral link between slavery and the coming of the Civil War and have prompted important conversations about the evolutionary meanings and appropriations of Confederate symbolism since the war. They have also resulted in necessary revisions of public displays of the Confederate flag, most notably the removal of the flag from the South Carolina state capitol grounds. However, these discussions have also produced a wave of interest in the wholesale destruction of Confederate memorial landscapes, including the removal of century-old Confederate monuments, plaques, and artwork.

Numerous historians, such as Jill Ogline Titus, Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle, and Gordon Rhea, have smartly delineated the differences between Confederate flags and historical, memorial landscapes. I strongly support these historians’ findings, and am in favor of the proposed creation of “counter-monuments” to slaves, African American abolitionists, United States Colored Troops, and Civil Rights activists which, I feel, would conform to the best practices of sharing authority, community engagement, and both activist and cathartic civic dialogue upon which our field has long prided itself. However, I worry that St. Paul’s Church, in Richmond, Virginia, might be contemplating the removal of its own memorial landscape in its discussions about the future of its Confederate memorial Tiffany-stained glass windows. Although the congregation’s discussions to this point are far from conclusive, I believe the importance of these discussions to the overarching debate about Confederate iconography bears address here. Continue reading

Public history and video gaming: Spontaneous digital remembrance

“Death is difficult under any circumstance. The death of a friend you only knew via the internet is something that this generation is just learning how to deal with.”–Matthew Miller, MMORPG.com

Players gather at the Shrine of the Fallen Warrior in World of Warcraft. Photo credit:

Players gather at the Shrine of the Fallen Warrior in World of Warcraft. Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment. Screenshot.

At the 2015 National Council on Public History (NCPH) annual meeting, I participated in a working group titled “Can Public History Play?” organized by Mary Rizzo and Abby Perkiss. It got me thinking a lot about play, virtual worlds, and how digital spaces–and the history of digital spaces–relate to our “real” lives. In many ways, digital worlds are designed to be spaces of play, but many also bring people together in new and sometimes very serious–even somber–and emotional ways.

Based on my personal experience, one of the serious ways gamers come together is through the creation of virtual world memorials dedicated to people who pass away in “real life.” What happens in digital communities when people die? What happens to that person’s digital presence? How do their in-game friends react? How does the company react? What does memorializing look like in a society of people who have never met, seen one another, or (in some cases) heard each other’s voices? Continue reading

Place-based epistemology: This is your brain on historic sites

Wilder Homestead Hill, South Dakota. Photo credit: Michelle McClellan

Wilder Homestead Hill, South Dakota. Photo credit: Michelle McClellan

The summer before last, I found myself driving around the back roads of DeSmet, South Dakota, with people I barely knew but with whom I felt a kinship based on our mutual devotion to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House books. We periodically stopped the car, got out, and gazed in rapt attention at….the prairie. Occasionally a fence line or post marked the spot, but sometimes our destination had been determined by the odometer, and there was nothing on the landscape to distinguish that spot from any other. Nevertheless, we oohed and ahhed in appreciation because this place had been the homestead claim of one or another of the people Wilder described in her books. By being there, right there, we hoped we just might move through time. Continue reading

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