How the Great Chicago Fire Festival burned history

One of the floating Victorian houses awaiting a burning that never quite arrived during the Great Chicago Fire Festival on October 4. Photo credit: Richard Anderson

One of the floating Victorian houses awaiting a burning that never quite arrived during the Great Chicago Fire Festival on October 4. Photo credit: Richard Anderson

As a public-historian-in-training and recovering theater nerd, I attended last month’s Great Chicago Fire Festival with high hopes. Redmoon Theater–one of the city’s most innovative companies–staged an elaborate pageant on the Chicago River commemorating the infamous 1871 fire that destroyed much of the city. Organizers promised the festival would “unite Chicago’s neighborhoods and celebrate Chicago’s grit, greatness, and renewal following the fire of 1871.” Unity and celebration certainly seemed palpable among the estimated crowd of 30,000 packed three-deep along the bridges and esplanade overlooking the river. I appreciate any effort to bring strangers together for a shared experience, especially one related to history. Yet the evening left me disappointed. The Great Chicago Fire Festival presented a version of history too sanitized and too simple. Redmoon lacked the courage to ask more discomfiting questions about the presence of the past in Chicago today. Continue reading

Project showcase: “Cotton Memories” sessions

Cotton Kingdom SymposiumAs part of a larger project focusing on the history and legacy of cotton-picking and sharecropping in the Mississippi Delta, the non-profit organization Khafre, Inc. is holding weekly sessions throughout the summer of 2014 to gather memories and oral histories from people with roots in the Delta region, especially older African Americans with first-hand knowledge of work in “America’s Cotton Kingdom.” Khafre is based in Indianola, Mississippi, and is led by C. Sade Turnipseed, an educator and cultural preservationist who is compiling the data for a doctoral dissertation in the Public History program at Middle Tennessee State University.

Khafre, Inc. and Turnipseed are working to inspire a “community-driven historic preservation” movement that brings together heritage tourism with community empowerment and commemoration. They hope to reframe public perceptions of cotton-picking, sharecropping, and tenant farming through public education programs and the establishment of a “place” planned as the Cotton Pickers of America Monument complex (Sharecroppers’ House Museum and Sharecroppers Interpretive Center), designed by sculptor Ed Dwight for Mound Bayou in Bolivar County.

This fall will see the third annual “Sweat Equity Investment in the Cotton Kingdom” symposium and Cotton Pickers Ball event at Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, a gathering that combines performance, scholarship, memorializing, and fund-raising. (The poster for the 2013 event is shown above.) The summer 2014 “Cotton Memories” sessions will take place in two locations: da’ House of Khafre in Indianola on Wednesday afternoons and at Mound Bayou City Hall on Thursday afternoons. More information about the sessions and the larger project can be found on Khafre’s website.

Project Showcase: At Home in Holland

holland-screenshotAt Home in Holland,” a new digital history project by students at the University of Amsterdam, responds to the way that hostile reactions to immigrants have undermined the traditional idea of Dutch tolerance and hospitality in recent years. The current Dutch asylum policy was developed in the 1980s. In that same period, Amnesty International Netherlands held its first campaign to draw attention to the problems faced by refugees in the Netherlands. How did a human rights organization usually focused on the plight of people abroad end up campaigning against human rights abuses back at home? Continue reading

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

Race, politics, and property: Two cases of gentrification (Part 2)

city and ocean

View of Muizenberg from Buoys Drive.  Photo credit:  Flickr user André van Rooyen

Continued from Part 1

Shortly after it was established in 2005, the Muizenberg Municipal Improvement District (MID) Board went to work to eliminate the refugee/renter population.  This was obviously not how things were described, but the intention was unmistakable.  Moreover, MID insiders were quite prepared to admit this to residents – as long as they were white and middle class – on the assumption that those qualities guaranteed agreement with the board’s course of action.  I was one of those regularly taken into confidence by my MID-leaning neighbours because of my skin colour.

Two initiatives stand out.  First, the MID filed a flurry of code complaints against the absentee owners of the multiunit structures, as well as some of the row houses in the central village area.  Crucially, they were unable to bring action directly against the landlords but rather had to file complaints with the City of Cape Town calling for enforcement of by-laws against crowding, dilapidation, and so on.   Unfortunately for the MID crowd, the City of Cape Town had reverted to control by the African National Congress in the municipal elections of 2006.  Because of this, the City dragged its feet in responding to these complaints, mainly because the Muizenberg City Council seat was held by the opposition Democratic Party and therefore considered low priority. Continue reading

Race, politics, and property: Two cases of gentrification (Part 1)

aerial view of city

Aerial view of Muizenberg, Cape Town, South Africa (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I moved to Decatur, Georgia, six years ago, after 25 years living in a small neighbourhood of Cape Town, South Africa, called Muizenberg.  David Rotenstein’s recent blog posts  about his experience in Decatur – which led to his abandoning the suburb – struck me as an interesting opportunity to compare and contrast the politics of gentrification in the two places.

Muizenberg and Decatur are similar in many ways.  Both are small, well-defined enclaves of a larger metropolitan area.  Both have a history of decline, followed by rapid gentrification.  Both communities are riven by disagreements over the nature and desirability of that process. Continue reading

Where is the next generation of gender studies in public history?

mill model

Lowell National Historical Park’s interpretation of women’s industrial labor, as reflected in this model of an integrated textile mill, remains ground-breaking after 35 years.

This summer I had the pleasure of being part of a tour organized by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage in Philadelphia. A group of practitioners from across the arts and cultural sector spent several days in the Boston area exploring questions relating to gender and sexuality in public historical interpretation.

When I was first invited to accompany the tour as a kind of traveling-scholar-in-residence, my first thought was, “But I don’t do gender in my work.” That was quickly followed by the realization that in a world inflected by feminist and queer scholarship and activism, most of us do indeed do gender, at least implicitly, whenever we think about interpreting the past in public. Like race and class, it’s become something that we automatically tend to ask ourselves about. It’s a crucial way to pry open received histories and connect to present-day concerns. And the question that I found myself returning to as we visited museums, historic houses, a textile mill, a ship, a college campus, a settlement house, and a cemetery or two, was, “Is there a new interpretive landscape beginning to take shape now that we’ve made gender a more central part of public historical inquiry?” Continue reading