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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The room is now so still

The restored Den at the Frances Willard House Museum in Evanston, IL. Photo courtesy of Leslie Schwartz Photography.

The restored den at the Frances Willard House Museum in Evanston, IL. Photo credit: Leslie Schwartz Photography

This post had its genesis in an undergraduate course, “Doing Local and Community History” (taught by Amy Tyson) at DePaul University in Spring 2015. Through the course, the author, then-senior Juan-Fernando León, partnered with the Frances Willard Historical Association in Evanston, IL.  Drawing on archival research he conducted at the Willard Archives, he was inspired to write the following.

In 2006 the Frances Willard Historical Association completed a faithful restoration of a key room in the Frances Willard House Museum in Evanston, Illinois: the upstairs den. Serving as a library and study for suffrage and temperance reformer Frances E. Willard (1839-1898), the restored den visually freezes the space to a single moment in time: in this case, a period between 1889 (when the den was renovated) to 1898 (when Willard died). But what of the space’s longer history?

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Genealogy from below

Editor’s note: In “On Genealogy,” a revision of the plenary address delivered in October 2014 at the International Federation for Public History’s conference in Amsterdam, Jerome de Groot argues that widespread popular interest in genealogy, and the availability of mass amounts of information online, challenge established historiography and public history practice. He invites other public historians to contribute to a debate about how we might “investigate, theorize, and interrogate” the implications of this explosion of interest in genealogy. We invited four scholars to contribute to this discussion. Paul Knevel is the second of these scholars.  We hope you will post your comments to add to this discussion. 

The largest family tree in the world, as claimed by the International Family Museum in Eijsden, the Netherlands.  Image credit: www.internationalmuseumforfamilyhistory.com

The largest family tree in the world, as claimed by the International Family Museum in Eijsden, the Netherlands. Photo credit:  International Museum for Family History

As could be expected by the author of the broad and lucid Consuming History, Jerome de Groot demonstrates in his article in The Public Historian an amazing ability to discuss thoroughly topics and themes that would for others take book-length or even career-length considerations. “Genealogy and Public History” thus not only deals with the various ways that genealogy and family history could be undertaken and imagined by various people and groups but also with such large and profound issues as the impact and construction of “knowledge infrastructures” in a digital age, the silencing character of the archive, the ethical sides of dealing with the dead, the neo-liberalisation of public space generated by commercial websites, “digital labour,” and many other themes and ideas. The result is a clever, multi-layered, insightful, and thought-provoking essay that challenges public historians to rethink today’s digital historical culture and practices, their own role, and the activities of millions of people (see the stunning figures mentioned by De Groot) who are doing genealogy and family history and thus trying to connect themselves with the past. Consequently, it is impossible to address in this short reaction all the topics and themes raised in De Groot’s article. Continue reading

Remembering David Kyvig

David Kyvig. Image source: The Public Historian

David Kyvig. Photo credit: The Public Historian

He was tall–but not intimidating.

He was funny–sometimes in the “bring down the house” style; sometimes just for chuckles.

He was balding–and joked about it.

He was a hard worker–which prompted others to match the pace.

He was a well-known public historian–with many publications.

He was a well-known constitutional historian–with many publications.

He always provided timely responses–for support letters, papers, committee work, articles, books.

He was a model collaborator.

He had many, many friends.

And in early March 1990 he became “Chair” (later President) of the National Council on Public History for one year, which he continued to remind us was actually 14 months. Continue reading

Project Showcase: Working History podcast

slsa-logoThe Southern Labor Studies Association (SLSA) has launched a new podcast, Working History. Hosted by SLSA President Beth English, Working History spotlights the work of leading labor historians, activists, and practitioners focusing on the U.S. South. The podcast is available for listening on iTunes and SoundCloud.

Working History seeks to inform public debate and dialogue about some of today’s key labor, economic, and political issues, with the benefit of historical context. Through the podcast SLSA is able to bring the research and expertise of its members to bear on an array of topics.

The inaugural episode, posted in June, features an interview with Hood College Assistant Professor Jay Driskell who discusses his book, Schooling Jim Crow, and traces the roots of black protest politics to early 20th century Atlanta and the right for equal education there. The latest episode features Professor Elizabeth Shermer of Loyola University Chicago, who talks about her forthcoming book on the impacts of corporate influence and the politics shaping higher education, past and present.

To keep up to date on future episodes, subscribe to Working History on iTunes or SoundCloud.

The Southern Labor Studies Association promotes the study, teaching, and preservation of southern labor history.  All podcast inquiries should be directed to Beth English at workinghistorypodcast[at]gmail.com.

Considering oral history as scholarship: Comments welcome

By Selena Wilke.  Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Selena Wilke. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 2007, a professor at a Texas university began a thread on H-Oralhist, the oral history listserv.  “I am up for tenure next fall,” she wrote, “and am struggling to prove to my dean that the gathering, transcribing, editing and archiving of oral history is ‘scholarship.’ I am regularly applauded for the fact that I have begun an oral history program, trained forty undergraduate and graduate students in oral history methodology, gathered and processed over eighty-five interviews (in the past three years), and reconnected dozens of former students with our university (I began a ‘former student’ oral history project). Despite all of this, the dean of my college does not seem to recognize this as valuable, original scholarship. She is very supportive and enthusiastic about the oral history program, it just seems I need to help her redefine it.”

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Developing your synthetic powers

Photo credit: Suzanne Fischer.

Photo credit: Suzanne Fischer

Doing public history, in all its diverse manifestations, requires certain specialized habits of mind. One of the most vital but also the most mysterious is synthesis.

When I begin work on an exhibition, such as the one I’ve been developing for the past two years, I read as many books and talk to as many people as I can, and then–I wait. I wait to wake up at 5 am with an exhibit concept plan fully formed in my head. I wait to discover an important idea by talking it out with a friend over coffee. I wait to be suddenly struck in the middle of a meeting with the solution to a convoluted conceptual problem that I immediately scribble down as if I’m taking notes on whatever the meeting is actually about. I wait–and I trust the process because I know it works and because I have developed and exercised my synthetic powers before and I know that they require patience. In comes 100 scholarly monographs, out comes 30 accessible fifty-word labels, without fail.

Though it can feel magical, especially once you’ve internalized the work it takes, synthesis is a creative skill that public historians can learn and teach. Continue reading

Top Gun “Introduction to Public History” for general education?

By Kucingbiru13 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A ‘top gun’ introduction to public history course for general education might be simpler than you’d think.

In 2006, when I arrived as “the public history hire” at DePaul University, in Chicago, my charge was to create an undergraduate public history concentration for history majors. At the time, the only public history course actively being taught was “Introduction to Public History,” a lower division course that served the university’s general education requirements. I decided that this course should stay on the books and that it would be one of two required courses (along with the internship) for would-be public history concentrators.

Looking back, I’m pretty sure my decision to keep this course on the books was a result of my being a bit overwhelmed. Not being native to Chicago and as a new tenure-line Assistant Professor with this public history charge, much of my time was absorbed with the business of forging new community connections while also designing (and getting approval for) an entirely new repertoire of public history courses. What? The “Introduction to Public History” has already been approved? Great! More time to develop internship prospects!

Within a few quarters, I resurrected the public history internship and developed a bevy of other courses: “Doing Local and Community History;” “Oral History Project;” “Women, Gender, and Public History;” “Living History and Historical Interpretation: American Historical Memory” (among others)–all courses for history majors and minors. Evaluations tended to be strong, but the “Introduction to Public History” course? I just couldn’t seem to ever get it quite right. Continue reading

Editing in public: Online identity and the Wikipedia Edit-a-thon

wikipedia1Recently I attended two “Wikipedia Edit-a-thons.” The name evoked images of committed scholars and students gathered together to pursue an all-nighter that would generate scores of new articles, hundreds of meaningful edits. What actually transpired was the opportunity to address questions of public history and online scholarly identity.

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