Responding to Baltimore: A role for public historians? (Part 2)

Editors’ Note: Readers can find Part 1 here. This post continues a short list of what history, public and otherwise, as well as allied disciplines, can do in the face of events like those that have engulfed Baltimore.

Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson Museum, 1320 Eutaw Place, Baltimore. Restored by Morgan State University. Image credit: Baltimore Heritage.

Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson Museum, 1320 Eutaw Place, Baltimore. Restored by Morgan State University. Photo credit: Baltimore Heritage

Third, beyond documentation, history can support change in the present. History is rarely a direct catalyst for change–that comes from social movements. But it can be part of a public conversation that brings attention to the need for change, and it can serve as a means of empowering change-makers. The work of historians and our disciplinary allies can also inform policy, but we must research topics that are relevant to contemporary concerns and present our research in accessible ways. Public historians are at the forefront of these practices. Continue reading

Responding to Baltimore: A role for public historians? (Part 1)

Protest at the Baltimore Police Department Western District building at N. Mount St. and Riggs Ave. Photo credit: Veggies, Wikimedia Commons.

Freddie Gray protest at the Baltimore Police Department Western District building at N. Mount St. and Riggs Ave. Photo credit: Veggies, Wikimedia Commons

Events in Baltimore during the last couple of weeks following the death of Freddie Gray apparently after a questionable arrest have precipitated a great deal of commentary, ranging from the thoughtful to the bloviating. Likewise, interest in a more activist, civically engaged public history has been generating considerable discussion, both descriptive and hortatory. In an effort to add something useful to the discussion, I offer a short list of what I believe history, public and otherwise, as well as allied disciplines, can do in the face of events like those that have engulfed Baltimore. Continue reading

Public history and public libraries: A natural affinity

German coalminer Robert Prager was lynched in Collinsville, IL in 1918.

German coalminer Robert Prager was lynched in Collinsville, IL in 1918.  Photo credit:  St. Louis Post-Dispatch

I’ve always loved a public library. The public library in my hometown was just across the street from my dad’s office. In middle school, I would walk there after school and read books until my dad picked me up at five o’clock. Now that I teach public history classes at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, I have come to see how valuable public libraries are as forums for collaboration between university-based public history programs and local communities. Public history and public libraries have a natural affinity. We should work together more often and speak up about the value of these collaborations.

In 2014, I coordinated two semester-long collaborations between public history students and public libraries near my campus in southwestern Illinois. Students in my upper-division public history class designed a small exhibit on the 1918 lynching of German immigrant Robert Prager in Collinsville, Illinois. I challenged the students to interpret the history of this controversial event for public audiences. They quickly honed in on the idea of a small exhibit to raise awareness of the event, which is rarely taught in the Collinsville schools and has been largely erased from the town’s memory.

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Oral history as public history

Children playing at Euclid Beach, Cleveland, OH. Photo credit:

Euclid Beach Park conjures fond childhood memories for many participants in the Cleveland Regional Oral History Project. Photo credit: Cleveland State University Special Collections

Many of us have discovered what promised to be an exciting oral history project through a Google search, only to be crestfallen when the linked web page was nothing more than a description of a trove of interviews kept in an ivory tower hundreds or thousands of miles away. It’s a given that oral history can’t be public history if it’s a cache of CDs or transcripts squirreled away in a drawer.  Is it any less clear that an interview collection—no matter how voluminous, historically significant, or methodologically rigorous—also falls short of the mark when it rests in a library? A project’s outcomes should be publicly visible and audible. Continue reading

The Cuban refugee experience of Guantánamo Bay

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.

Remembering, an act of courage.

Speaking and listening, a gesture of empathy.

My understanding of the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay (GTMO) comes primarily from my experiences as a Cuban refugee between the years 1994-1995 after the Balsero Rafter Crisis but also through my attempt to shed light on the complexity of the Cuban Diaspora via my project EntreVistas and most recently by learning and participating in the Guantánamo Public Memory Project. In 2008, I began interviewing Cuban immigrants mostly living in the United States from different waves of migration in Cuban history: the Early Exiles of the 1960s, the Mariel Boatlift immigrants of the 1980s and the Balseros of 1994.

January 8, 2008 – Caguas, Puerto Rico

I placed a video camera in front of my father, handing him a microphone. “What is your name?” I asked. He looked at me in silence. At the time he was serving as a volunteer doctor in Puerto Rico. I wanted to ask him about how he felt about his decision to leave Cuba and the aftermath but ended up surrendering, understanding that he wasn’t ready to speak, at least not in front of a video camera. He went to the balcony to smoke a cigarette.

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Russell Lee in the Northwest: Documenting Japanese American Labor Camps in Oregon and Idaho

As a full-time consulting historian, it is difficult to carve out time for my own research interests. Michael Adamson has discussed this challenge in this space.

In graduate school, I studied Farm Security Administration documentary photography. Upon starting my business, I found little time to continue my research–until a year ago. While researching images in the FSA collection, I found several hundred photographs of Japanese American labor camps in the Pacific Northwest, taken by Russell Lee in the summer of 1942. The sole Oregon camp–near the town of Nyssa in Malheur County–was created to bring in laborers for the sugar beet crop. Continue reading

New uses for old interviews

four men at bar

Left to right: Roger Gregory, Eric King, Tom Robinson, Joel (J.T. Speed) Murphy at the bar at Blind Willies. October 24, 1990. (Photo: David S. Rotenstein)

Can you remember where you worked during graduate school? To pay my way through Penn in the 1980s and 1990s I worked in cultural resource management and as a freelance writer. Although history and material culture are my true professional loves, the writing gig was the more interesting, though less profitable, job.

During a two-year break from classes–it’s a long story–I began writing a blues column for a short-lived Atlanta alt-weekly called Footnotes. Between August 1990 and March 1991, I wrote performance reviews and feature stories about musicians derived from lengthy tape-recorded interviews. I also interviewed bar owners and others to develop background material for future stories.

By the time I decided to return to Penn to finish my coursework, Footnotes had folded and I had begun writing about folk and blues music for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Charlotte Observer, and other papers and magazines throughout the United States. Always the historian, I held onto my research files and interviews, including verbatim transcripts for many of them. Continue reading