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
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
History and Reconstruction project storyteller Denise Valentine (center), psychologist Dr. Thomas Gordon (right), members of the cohort, and friends. Photo credit: Courtesy of Phillip Seitz
How can public historians and their audiences come to terms with the traumatic and ongoing legacies of racism and slavery in the United States? This is the question motivating a project I’m currently working on in Philadelphia with a group of ex-offenders, ages 21 to 72. The project is a collaboration with Reconstruction Inc., a grass-roots group (William Goldsby, chair) that supports returning citizens as well as youth at risk and lifetime prisoners. Continue reading
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
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
Clue Town Piedmont Park scavenger hunt. Photo credit: Jay Carlson
I can’t even tell you how many crackpot business ideas I’ve had over the years, from producing greeting cards to owning an art supply store to selling candy in vending machines. They never came to fruition, but then I had an idea to create ready-to-solve scavenger hunts. The hunts would be self-guided tours of walkable areas, but a person or team has to solve puzzles using landmarks in order to know where to go next. When my wife, the realist, thought it was a good idea, then I knew I wasn’t just looking through rose-colored glasses. I started selling Clue Town Books in September 2012 with only two hunts: Piedmont Park and Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia.
It’s easy to articulate what Clue Town is now, but at the time of its creation I had no idea how it would work. I spent weeks surveying the 190 acres of Piedmont Park in its entirety. I spent months designing paths, beta testing with adults and kids, redesigning paths, and beta testing some more. When I experimented with a path that used permanent landmarks (for example statues and historical markers) instead of self-planted signs, that’s when things fell into place. Folding in history allowed me to transform Clue Town from a series of puzzles to interactive storytelling.
I have a theory that a person doesn’t have an interest in local history until he or she has been affected by change first-hand. Perhaps a favorite restaurant closes or a new skyscraper alters the skyline. This makes each witness a historian for the short term. These bits of change compound over time to make one realize that nothing is constant. The city is different now than when you first arrived, and the city was drastically different generations ago. People and events are changing cities all the time, even while traces of the past often remain. Continue reading
I remember well the day that I received my first copy of my first book, Independence Hall in American Memory. I picked it up in person from the offices of the University of Pennsylvania Press and could barely manage the walk home because of the temptation to stop, admire the beautiful dust jacket, open those pages, smell that new-book smell, and read. Every page contained memories of places, people, and experiences of piecing together a history that spanned more than two hundred years in a building’s life and nearly a decade of mine.
With that book, first published in 2002, I achieved tenure and promotion, and I was pleased to generate some new conversation about the long history of a landmark most commonly associated with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But while the monograph opened some doors (and perhaps some minds), it also carried with it some inherent limitations. 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.
“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.”
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
“It was a big war a long time ago.”
That was all that a young man shopping recently at a farmers market in Santa Monica, California, could say about World War I. He’s not alone. Most Americans seem to know very little about the war, which somehow has gotten lost in our collective memory about our past.
That’s why my colleagues and I – all of us former reporters, producers, or editors at National Public Radio – are embarking on what we call the Great War Project. The goal is to produce radio documentaries and shorter pieces, plus a website, making World War I come alive for contemporary audiences. Continue reading
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