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

Revisiting Monterey 20 years after “The Politics of Public Memory”

book cover

Norkunas’s 1993 book was an early contribution to the literature focusing on silence, history, and power.

When I was researching the The Politics of Public Memory: Tourism, History, and Ethnicity in Monterey, California (State University of New York Press, 1993) in the late 1980s, I was deeply affected by the disparity between the haves and have-nots in Monterey. Nearly every day I saw Jaguars, BMWs, and Mercedes on the streets, and from time to time I saw a Rolls Royce. Pebble Beach and Carmel (and the then-mayor of Carmel, Clint Eastwood) joined with Monterey to create an atmosphere of wealth: old wealth, new wealth, and the wealth of those who knew great places in the world.

Where, I wondered, did the workers live? How could they afford an apartment anywhere near their places of work? Who lived in Monterey? Who once lived there? I could see that many of the workers were of Mexican or Latin American heritage. I knew there had once been a significant Chinese population on the peninsula, that Native peoples lived there, that African Americans lived in the area, and that there were other ethnic and cultural groups in the past and present. Continue reading

Project Showcase: Newruskinarchives

group of men 1906

The back of this postcard reads “Engineers at Ruskin College Oxford, 1906, sent and supported by their fellow trade unionists at a cost of 1d each.” Photo source: Hilda Kean

The newruskinarchives database website has recently been launched in response to the destruction last year of most of the archive of student records at Ruskin College, the historic trade union and labour movement college in Oxford.

There was much press coverage of the scandal and widespread criticism of the actions of the (now former) Principal, Audrey Mullender. The international petition drew over 7,500 signatories including those of many public historians. However the vast bulk of the student records, as well as dissertations, were unnecessarily destroyed. Continue reading

Cold War civil rights at Gettysburg


South Carolina’s monument to its troops offers a smoldering defense of states’ rights. Photo courtesy of Jill Ogline Titus.

South Carolina’s monument to its troops offers a smoldering defense of states’ rights. Photo credit:  Jill Ogline Titus.

In July 1963, tens of thousands of visitors flocked to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the battle widely touted as the turning point of the American Civil War. Despite the profusion of toy souvenirs and 19th-century garb, the fact that this anniversary coincided with heightened street confrontation over civil rights, increased international condemnation of racial injustices in the US, and shifts in Cold War politics did not go unnoticed. Political leaders, heritage enthusiasts, and members of the general public all offered interpretations of the battle that advanced their own positions on the contemporary issues confronting the nation.

Some of these interpretations have proven more lasting than others, for they are inscribed in stone. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the vast majority of monuments – regimental, state, and individual – erected on the Gettysburg battlefield marked key moments in the Union defense. In the mid-20th century, Confederate heritage groups and southern state governments began to claim space of their own on the field. Of the 11 southern state monuments on the battlefield today, four were erected during the Civil War Centennial, and two – Florida and South Carolina – were dedicated during the actual100th anniversary commemoration. Continue reading

Collecting Guantánamo Public Memory

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 and foster dialogue on its future.  For an introduction to the series, please see this piece by the Project’s director, Liz Ševčenko.

Soccer Ball

Outdoor cages at the detention center, 2006, courtesy of Christopher Sims

When I began working as a researcher with the Guantánamo Public Memory Project (GPMP) in 2011, I knew very little about the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay (GTMO) and its uses prior to 9/11. Tasked with compiling resources for university teams across the country to use in the production of their exhibit panels, I commenced an unconventional “tour” of GTMO’s long history through the countless images, manuscripts, and other objects donated by individuals with experience on the base.

Today, as we work to build GPMP’s archives on the Digital Library of the Caribbean and at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library through its Center for Human Rights Documentation and Research, information about new sides of the base continues to emerge.  In contrast, the GTMO I first learned about from the evening news remains mysterious and impenetrable, and many personal possessions are considered classified intelligence; they are certainly not yet public records of the past. But because the snapshot photographs, letters, and other personal artifacts included in the archives uniquely document the expansive range of lived experiences GTMO cultivated prior to 9/11, they play an important role in our efforts to understand it today and to envision its future. Continue reading

The meeting of two Marxists on the 40th anniversary of the Chilean coup

people around tables

A human rights workshop with university students at José Domingo Cañas (Photo: Yenny Aros). Read more about this site here.

I do not know how many of the learned people who follow this forum know that 40 years ago today the United States government—and to point political fingers at political figures: President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and CIA Director Richard Helms—actively and illegally supported a bloody military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government in Chile.  A lot, I suppose and hope.  But I feel compelled to write not only in order to gently remind History@Work’s audiences of the historical importance of this, but also to draw attention to the public history work that has happened to make it worthy of the international attention that it so rightly deserves—and receives. Continue reading

Missing the history from the historic march on Washington commemoration

50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, photo courtesy YWCA USA

50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, photo courtesy YWCA USA

Several months ago in this space I reflected on the large crowds that flocked to Washington to witness President Obama’s historic second inaugural. Again, this past Wednesday, crowds assembled in Washington to hear the President offer “historic” remarks, this time on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in commemoration of the March on Washington in August 1963.

Continue reading

Insta-Memory: Dismantling the Boston Marathon bombing memorial

barlow-crossesThe City of Boston took down the Boston Marathon Memorial on June 25.  The memorial began life at the sites of the twin bombings on Boylston Street in the immediate aftermath of the explosions there on April 15.  The city relocated the memorial to Copley Square once Boylston and surrounding streets re-opened to traffic the following week.  Since then, the memorial continued to grow, as people left behind their mementos to the three people who died and the over 260 who were injured. Eventually, most of the materials in the monument will find their way into the City of Boston’s archives.

That, of course, brings up an interesting question of what the memorial means when it’s dismantled.  It seems to me that the memorial is only that memorial when it’s whole.  The entire site has been carefully curated by city workers, as well as some locals whom I’ve seen moving items around so that the general organization of the memorial remained intact.  Either way, disembodied in some basement, with running shoes, baseball caps, placards, chalkboards, and photographs catalogued and placed in plastic bags and archival boxes, all these items will be is what they are, rather than the intensely powerful statement they were when they were carefully arranged and curated at the northwest corner of Copley Square.

barlow-chalkboardIt’s very easy to be cynical about insta-commemoration and a society that appears to mediate its experiences through the lenses of the cameras on their iPhones.  I have been to concerts where people spend the entire time watching the events on the stage through their cameras.  The same is true of the Boston bombing sites, Boylston Street in general and the Marathon Memorial in particular.  Each and every time I’ve walked along Boylston or been at Copley Square in the past several months, there have been rafts of people, of all ages, genders, ethnicities, Americans and not, Bostonians and tourists, clicking away at the actual locations of the bombs, at the outside of Marathon Sports, located at the finish line, at the finish line itself, which has received a new paint job.  Many people, I have thought in my more cranky moments, are not getting a chance to experience the atmosphere, the hushed sounds, of the actual memorial because they’re too busy taking pictures or filming video.

And yet, it is also not trite to talk about the sense of awe and wonderment that one got looking at the memorial, in walking through it, talking to the people there, and chatting with the police who were always there standing guard.  When the TV trucks were still there throughout April and early May, it felt like this was performative.  TV cameras were aimed up and down Boylston, they were aimed at the memorial, and occasionally, reporters would be standing in front of them, talking about the investigation, about the city healing from the wounds of the bombings.  Once the cameras left, it seems like Bostonians and visitors (including some who were wounded on April 15) let out a collective sigh of relief and went about their business of grieving, of feeling overwhelmed, of feeling a sense of loss, if not of innocence, of something akin to that.  Boston is not the first American city to feel the bite of terrorism, nor is this the first time that Boston itself has experienced such acts (look back to the immediate World War I era).  And yet, as one woman explained to me, Boston is a small city, it’s a friendly city and a relatively quiet one. Why would someone want to hurt us?

barlow-hats2This is what made the memorial so visceral.  I walked through it some four or five times between late April and mid-June.  Every time there was a sense of awe in the air, whether those cameras were pointed at us or not, and people became softer, gentler, more vulnerable even.  Certainly that is the end result of terrorism, and the desired outcome for the terrorists, to leave the victim population feeling vulnerable.  But that’s not quite what was in the air at the memorial. In this case, it was a sense of awe and being overwhelmed by the response of people, feeling vulnerable through that, our connection as human beings.  There were countless pairs of running shoes, the obvious symbol of the bombing.  But there was also hundreds, if not thousands, of hand-written notes, offering prayer, thoughts, and encouragement, as well as exhortations to remain Boston Strong.  There were Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins, Revolution, and Celtics hats, of course, but also the hats of the Boston teams’ greatest rivals, a gesture of solidarity.  Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Montréal, Los Angeles, Miami, sports fans from all those cities were saying they stood by Boston.  Tourists from all over the world left their best wishes.  And people left behind their photos of Marathon Monday.  They left behind their memories of where they were when the bombs went off.

So, rather than be cynical, I think that memorials like the one that sprouted up spontaneously on Boylston Street in Boston should be taken seriously and be recognised for what they are: an attempt by people living in an inchoate, technically mediated, and ultimately isolating society to come to terms with individual and collective grief.  The memorial was about remembering what happened on Marathon Monday and never forgetting those events, but it was also about healing and coming to terms with the attack on the city and its most visible international event.  And I think the memorial has gone a long way towards allowing Bostonians, and Americans as a whole, to begin the process of healing in the aftermath of the shock of the bombs.

barlow-hatsAnd so now the memorial is gone, Copley Square has returned to business as usual; there is nothing visible to mark the Marathon bombings.  Bostonians and tourists no longer gather at Copley Square to express their grief.  I find myself wondering what will happen to all those ball caps, running shoes, and Marathon bibs in the basement of the Boston City Archives.  With no memorial for an event that occurred not even three months ago, and none planned, what, ultimately, do these instantaneous, temporary memorials mean?  Is the work of healing in Boston done?

~ John Matthew Barlow is current Visiting Lecturer at Salem State University, and a Canadian transplant in Boston.

All photos are by the author.