Public History: An Inclusive Discipline

A year and a half ago my understanding of public history was exceptionally limited. Considering its name, I first assumed that this branch of history focused primarily on professional historians sharing their knowledge in nonacademic settings. I believed that public history was the medium through which people who share similar characteristics (e.g., nationality) came to understand their collective past. Although the latter is partially true (sort of), in the last several months I have come to realize that public history comprises much more than that. Through collaboration, inclusion, and shared authority, this field allows people from different socioeconomic and professional backgrounds the opportunity to contribute as well. As a result, these dynamics provide diverse audiences with the tools necessary to engage in substantive dialog and analysis. It also provides a channel where various aspects of the collective past (particularly the most controversial) are carefully disseminated to create a better understanding. Similarly, public history offers a voice to the neglected segments of society. In particular, those whose accounts have been distorted or dismissed deliberately by people who prefer to highlight the less contentious narratives of the past. With that in mind, I would tentatively describe public history as an interdisciplinary social discipline that analyzes and combines the various narratives surrounding a particular event, place, or person. This field provides a more inclusive interpretation of the past to close historical gaps, connect individual narratives to broader movements, and elevate the voices of the forgotten. But more importantly, in my view, public history affords professional historians the unique opportunity to engage in the often-controversial practice of academic activism.

After reading The Presence of the Past by Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, it became apparent to me that public history is actually innate in us all. This field of study is not necessarily exclusive to those who have become professional historians by trade. Actually, popular historians (i.e., everyday individuals) have the potential to construct, record, and conserve the past while contributing to a larger understanding of history as well.[1] These objectives may be achieved by taking photos, sharing experiences, investigating family histories, working on hobbies or collections, or by merely taking part in groups interested in the past. [2] This excellent book and study exemplifies the notion that people from different backgrounds also have an affinity for learning about and preserving history. It also shows that people tend to be more aware and interested in historical events when they have closer connections to them (e.g., family and friends). In fact, I would argue that the closer people are to historical events, the higher the likelihood that they become more interested in preserving its history. Evidence of the latter is the growing number of individuals and organizations in Maryland that are collaborating in preserving the narratives surrounding the Baltimore Uprising.

Another book that captured some of the important aspects of the influence of public history is From Storefront to Monument by Andrea A. Burns. Although the book also sheds light on some of the problems that arise when museums professionalize, the author demonstrates just how important people from the community are in the process of creating spaces of identity and self-worth. Focusing on the history of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, for instance, the author explains how this museum provided members of the African American community with a venue to highlight the group’s experiences and history. John Kinard (director of the museum at the time) perceived neighborhood institutions “as entit[ies] that encompass the life of the people of the neighborhood.” [3] Undoubtedly, Kinard was making the argument that people in overlooked communities “are vitally concerned about who they are, where they came from, what they have accomplished, their values and their most pressing needs.” [4] Through collaboration and shared authority, public history serves as an instrument to empower “forgotten” communities while instilling a sense of self-sufficiency. Similarly, what Andrea Burns demonstrates in her book is that activism plays a key role in the development and interpretation of collective narratives.

Because of the educational value and social responsibility that public history has with the audience, it is often challenging to create meaningful narratives without being bias. During the semester-long project, which focused on the examination of the history of UMBC in the past 50 years, I found it somewhat tricky to craft the stories of different pieces of art on campus.[5] The difficulty arose not because of a lack of research or a lack of existing literature on the two sites (although there was not a lot). Instead, it was the often-natural instinct to wanting to tell people how to perceive the sites and emphasize why it is important to learn about them. These challenges are what made me understand even further what renowned interpreters like Freeman Tilden have indicated: The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.[6] It became evident to me that the primary objective of public history is not to define what is significant or to tell people how to understand history. Instead, the central purpose is to identify the different narratives about the past and bring them together in a collaborative and inclusive manner.

Overall, my understanding about this still evolving field has developed considerably since I first showed up to History 300 – Introduction to Public History in 2014. In fact, throughout this semester, I had a chance to experience some of the many difficulties and advantages of this fascinating branch of history. It is truly a rewarding, yet complicated field where people can contribute to the community as a whole. More importantly, public historians (particularly those who focus on social issues) have the ability to induce social change.

[1] Rosenzweig, Roy, and David Paul Thelen. The presence of the past: Popular uses of history in American life. Vol. 2. Columbia University Press, 1998

[2] Ibid, 23

[3] Burns, Andrea A. 2013. From storefront to monument: tracing the public history of the Black museum movement. (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 15.

[4] Ibid, 16

[5] My research focused primarily on the Mnemonic sculpture (1976) by the Arts Building and the Bio Mural (2013) by the Biological Sciences Department. Fellow UMBC students produced these two pieces of art, which contributed to providing the University with a sense of relative uniqueness.

[6] Tilden, Freeman. Interpreting our heritage: Principles and practices for visitor services in parks, museums, and historic places. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957), 9.

Baltimore Heritage App Content – First Drafts

The “Mnemonic” Sculpture (1976)

Location: West side of the Fine Arts Building, between the Engineering and Computer Science Buildings. GPS Coordinates 39°15’18.0″N 76°42’50.8″W

Sometime during the summer of 1976, a sculpture by Marc O’Carroll, an artist who worked and studied at UMBC, was installed on the west side of the Fine Arts Building. Entitled just Mnemonic, this piece of art reflects on the infrastructural expansion that UMBC underwent in the 1970’s.

During his time at the University, Marc O’Carroll grew fond of a massive and ancient sycamore tree that once stood behind the school’s Dining Hall. However, after the construction of the Commons Building started, workers cut down the tree in order to build a short driveway for trucks to pull into the site. As a result, once the school commissioned him for the project, and after two years of work at the UMBC’s studio, O’Carroll decided to pay homage to the sycamore tree by building the Mnemonic. He did so by designing the sculpture as a collection of steel trees in various stages of being chopped down.

By welding his memories in steel, Marc O’Carroll provided a dynamic sculpture that invites people to reminisce about nature and its surroundings. Although the artist is no longer at UMBC and neither is the massive sycamore tree, as the school’s paper once reported it, the Mnemonic carries on the memories of both.

 

Mnemonic Sculpture
Mnemonic Sculpture
Mnemonic Tree Sculpture-09
Mnemonic Sculpture

Photo Caption Text: Mnemonic Sculpture

Suggested Tags: UMBC Campus Art

 

The “Mural” by the Biology Department (2013)

Location: The main wall of the Biological Sciences Building on the first floor across from of the Chemical & Biochemical Engineering Building. GPS Coordinates 39°15’16.9″N 76°42’43.7″W

During the summer of 2013, Ganna Vikhlyayeva, a student in the Department of Visual Arts at UMBC, completed the Mural near the Biological Sciences building. Vikhlyayave spent two months formulating the concept, and a month and half bringing the entire project to fruition.

In 2012, Vikhlyayeva set out to compete in the annual challenge contest known as Prove It. She proposed to paint a mural outside one of the walls near the Biological Sciences Building depicting undergraduates engaged in science and their connection to other organisms. The idea was to utilize the space to foster community values and to emphasize the extraordinary research conducted in that Department.

Despite losing the Prove It! Competition, the Chair of the Biology Department invited the artist to paint the mural after he saw the design. As a whole, the process of proposing and completing the unnamed Mural was the result of collaborations between departments and the civic engagement of those involved.

Wall near Biological Science Building - Before
Wall near Biological Science Building – Before
Mural near Biological Science Building - After
Mural near Biological Science Building – After
Mural near Biological Science Building - After
Mural near Biological Science Building – After

 

Photo Caption Text: Mural near the Biological Science Department

Suggested Tags: UMBC Campus Art

 

 

 

 

 

 

Labeling and Interpreting: What a Pain in the App!

As we reach the second phase of our collective project, developing the content for the app, it is time to start thinking about how we are going to tell each site-specific story. After months of research and several visits to the Special Collections Department, we now have to go through all the findings and decide what is more relevant to each account. Although this seems like a relatively easy task to accomplish, for a young historian like myself (ahem), one who appreciates meticulous descriptions, this is where the tricky part begins. Mainly because, more often than not, I believe that in order to tell a complete story, historians should offer as much detail as possible to their audience. In fact, I consider that by providing plenty of information, there is a higher probability the audience is going to walk away with a somewhat better and concise understanding of a given place or event. Moreover, in my view, more information can lead to a better interpretation. Thereby, people can perceive, in a linear sort-of-way, how each detail contributes to the story as a whole, which in turn gives them an opportunity for more revelation[1]. Certainly, these are two of the key elements that Tilden addresses in the first part of his book. However, as is often the case, this approach is nearly impossible to accomplish. In most cases, given the complexity and extent of some stories, this approach results in a series of problems for the historian and the audience. For instance, by incorporating too many details in an exhibition it is easy for the “big idea” [2] to get lost in the process. Similarly, the historian runs the risk of turning months of hard work into mere “vague exhibitions [that] do not acknowledge to have, or hold themselves accountable for, any particular impact on visitors.” [3] As a result, the audience becomes confused with the exhibition, or even worse, disappointed with the work done.

So here I wonder, how can you capture the most relevant aspects of the analysis without being confusing, uninteresting, vague, or even soulless, especially in a constricted digital platform? Similarly, how can you tell a brief narrative in a way that the audience can understand and assign personal significance?

The second aspect that I reflected on while doing this week’s readings has to do with the underlying objective of our project and how to achieve it. It seems that by having to consider the upcoming 50th Anniversary of UMBC as we conduct the research, we are assuming that the resulting content might be a part of an educational mission. Not in the sense of how UMBC came into existence, for instance, but with regards to how the school played a role in the state’s and national history of the time. To that end, we must strive to find connections to the bigger picture and hope that the audience sees it and agrees with it. In this intrinsic process, we must focus mostly, although not exclusively, on two of the four points discussed by Sharon Leon: content strategy and audience. These two factors are particularly important considering that we are developing content for a very limited digital space. Sharon Leon argues that, “addressing a general “user” is not specific enough to produce good history writing on the web. We need research about the people we are writing for and we must tailor content to their specific interests and needs.”[4] In addition, “adequate forethought and planning can ensure that the audience receives and experiences content that is appropriate for the format and for their interests.”[5] When we couple these two notions, it makes me wonder: who is the main audience of our project? Are we collecting narratives only for those who have access to and use smartphones regularly and fully? If so, how does our collective narrative fit within the school’s mission? Likewise, if the purpose of the project is to shed light on some important historical aspects of the school, how do we want the app users to utilize the information we are giving them? [6] In my view, these questions are worth discussing considering that in the era of the 140-characters-tweet-stories, developing digital content while keeping people interested in it is not an easy task.

The third brief point worth considering, which directly relates to our project, is Freeman Tilden’s take on interpretative thinking in Part II of his book. Believe it or not, even in the contemporary frenetic digital era we live in, in which more often than not 140 characters tend say more than 500 pages, a lot of what Tilden suggested still applies. With respect to thinking, Tilden suggests that interpreters ask two paramount questions when developing content: “What would the prospective reader wish to read? And what can I say in brief, inspiring and luring terms about this area in language that he will readily comprehend?” [7] Clearly, these two questions are pivotal for our project since we want to engage our yet-undefined (at least to me) audience. However, the more that I think about the behaviors people tend to have with their smartphones, the more that I become convinced that our narratives might not be as relevant to many in the audience. I would almost argue that, considering how little time people seem to spend on any one particular site, what we have to say is not going to be as important as the images we can produce. In fact, there is a strong possibility that the photographs are going to become the focal point of our project, and where people are going to draw their conclusions. Despite this, what I take from the Leon, Veverka, and Sherrell readings is that the focal point for us should be to create concise and memorable narratives.

[1] Tilden, Freeman. Interpreting our heritage: Principles and practices for visitor services in parks, museums, and historic places. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957), 9.

[2] Serrell, Beverly. Exhibit labels: An interpretive approach. (Rowman Altamira, 1996), 1.

[3] Ibid, 9

[4] Leon, Sharon, M. Layers and Links: Writing Public History in a Digital Environment. Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University. 2.

[5] Ibid, 3.

[6] Veverka, John A. Interpretive Planning for “Exportable” Interpretation: Ideas to go away with. 1.

[7] Tilden, Freeman. Interpreting our heritage: Principles and practices for visitor services in parks, museums, and historic places. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957), 82.

 

The Emotional Toll of Interpreting

Public historians are essential figures within the discipline of history. They have both the ability and the task to provoke inquiry about historical events among different audiences. Although their role and impact in the field has evolved over the decades, arguably, some factors have remained the same. More often than not, for instance, their work tends to be unappreciated or underestimated as seemingly more relevant factors (read: profits and entertainment) become more valuable to visitors and managers of historical sites. This fact is a point of contention between public historians and investors considering that the former are, in fact, the “content holders and knowledge producers[1]” at historical sites. Amy M. Tyson’s book, “The Wages of History,” describes with astonishing detail the role and evolution of a subset of public historians: living museum interpreters. Although her book is based primarily on the experiences of the frontline interpreters at Minnesota’s Historic Fort Snelling (HFS), she also addresses some of the national trends that helped shape the field over the last few decades. In addition, she relies on her experiences as an interpreter at HFS, as well as data from a combined thirty-two interviews with supervisors and fellow interpreters, to explain the emotional cost of being in this profession. She also identifies the reasons that compel people to get involved in this complex field, but more importantly, why they choose to stay.

By focusing on the history of the evolution of interpretative programs at HFS first, Amy M. Tyson provides a window into a relatively convoluted past. Since its inauguration as a historical site, interpreters working at HFS have had to adjust to the commercialization of the field. Taking their cue from the existing programs at Williamsburg, Virginia, Old Sturbridge, Massachusetts, and Fort York and Fort Henry, Ontario[2], HFS began to craft their programs to attract an already growing tourist population. After HFS’s management had realized that it needed more qualified tour guides for the site in the late 1960s, they decided to focus on creating a closer visitor-interpreter relationship. To that end, a more experienced batch of interpreters became responsible with “carry[ing] out the educational mission of the historic site while also delivering individualized customer service to its clientele[3].” This vision led to a number of changes in the ensuing years, most of which formed part of the 1970s interpretive programs (IP). Among others, the HFS decided to increase the number of costumed performers to bring a broader sense of realism to the visitor’s experience. However, some of them were more interested in the performance aspect of their work than the vital interaction with visitors. The HFS also decided to include women on the post “to contribute tone and gentility to what would otherwise be a brusque and careless man’s world[4].” Similarly, in order to please the growing female audience, “female interpreters were usually [chosen] to staff and clerk the sutler’s store[5].”Despite that many of these changes provided a more enjoyable experience to visitors, some of them were simply historically wrong. As Tyson points out, “the decision to represent “women’s roles was chiefly driven by a customer service mandate, rather than by concerns about social history.”[6]

Although it can be argued that many of these changes broaden the role of interpreters, I can’t help but wonder: how much of what historical public sites have to offer (including HFS) is driven by commercial purposes today? In the same vein, if the history that’s presented at these locations is based on what seems to be orchestrated scripts, how much of that history is actually accurate?

Another point that Tyson makes regarding the evolution of interpreters is the significant discrepancies that existed concerning their jobs and their limited agency. By the early 1980s, historical administrators had a tight grip on the budget and hiring process. The reading suggests that many state organizations, including the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS), were more concerned with allocating funds to the creation of new historical facilities rather than investing in the existing ones[7]. Such absolute control prevented interpreters from openly voicing their concerns and disagreements; a fact that contributed to lower the morale among interpreters who saw both their work and opinions as depreciated. As a result, interpreters working for the MHS decided to form what they called the Caucus. This short-lived grassroots organization became one of first to embark on a process aimed to professionalize the interpretive workforce. However, unlike the National Association for Interpretation (NAI), an organization committed to advancing interpretation as a profession, they wanted to provide a platform for interpreters to redress workplace grievances[8]. After conducting a survey among interpreters in Minnesota, the Caucus soon realized that not all interpreters wanted the same stability. Most members favored the implementation of sick leave standards, better salaries, automatic rehire, and the establishment of a permanent employee status for seasonal staff[9]. However, others did not see interpreting as a career choice, as they seemed to prefer such posts only as “seasonal non-committal relationship that provides…a fine salary and excellent educational opportunities[10].” Moreover, despite the fact that they benefited from the role and by definition were considered as such, they essentially refused to be fully identified as interpreters[11].

While Tyson doesn’t reveal whether those who opposed being identified as interpreters had a background in history, it makes me wonder if their primary occupations had anything to do with their decision. To be precise, considering that a number of people working and volunteering at historic sites tend to prefer only certain aspects of their work (e.g. re-enacting) I question their actual commitment to interpreting and history at large. Should they be considered interpreters even if they lack certain qualifications? Is it fair to expose visitors to these interpreters?

Chapters four and five, quite honestly, address much of what public historians continue to debate to this day: creative autonomy and how to tackle the painful history of the country. Considering that most visitors expect a high level of authenticity in these sites, interpreters and management have to agree on what that is precisely. The discussion between the two sides regarding what is more appropriate or more historically correct turns into a power conflict. That is; interpreters want to implement historical activities or scenarios that, in their opinion, fit the criteria for the period they are re-enacting. However, management needs to control what goes on in these sites for the purposes of, among others, consistency, liability, and profit. This disagreement reveals “the quality control structures in place…[a]re largely aimed at managing, rather than cultivating, interpreters .” This dynamic seems to suggest that public historians at these sites have very little control over content and delivery. On the other hand, when the topic becomes too uncomfortable to address (i.e. slavery), both sides seem to prefer not to discuss it at all. At least that was the case until 2007 before the HFS changed its policies. Before then, as Tyson puts it, “the Fort’s programming tended to erase the history of slavery at the site[12].”

Another point that is persistent throughout the narrative, which may not come as a surprise to many, is that historical interpreters do, in fact, value their jobs. This comment is not to suggest that they necessarily appreciate the long hours they have to put in, or the sometimes adverse weather conditions they have to endure. Nor that they are pleased with the low wages they receive, or even the disrespect and disregard that visitors, coworkers, and management often show. However, based on the relentless commitment they exhibit, it is clear that most interpreters regard their work as a dynamic and artistic craft. This fact is surprising considering that some in the general public often stigmatize them due in part to the career they have chosen. This mark of disgrace seems to be bestowed upon them, mainly, because they continue to pursue what others see as nothing more than seasonal employment. Because of this, interpreters constantly feel the urge “to defend the honor of their job[13]”as a way to justify its importance. Despite this, it is here where the reader can understand just what the author means by “Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines.” Living museum interpreters really try to emulate as much as possible the characters they are portraying and the times visitors come to experience. It seems that in spite the various issues they face in their personal lives, these dedicated public historians are only interested in making positive connections with the public. Even if the reward is sometimes nothing more than a smile, a wink, or a nod.

As a whole, the Minnesota’s Historic Fort Snelling case study provides meaningful insight about the growth, struggles, and objectives of one of the most undervalued, yet, important group of historians in the field. But most importantly, this case study exemplifies the notion proposed by Dr. Meringolo that “public History is a form of public service…[in which]… public historians help create historical understanding by sharing authority and inquiry with a variety of partners.” This is an excellent read for those who are not as familiar with the world of living museum interpreting.

[1] Amy M. Tyson. The Wages of HIstory: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 5.

[2] Ibid, 34

[3] Ibid, 36

[4] Ibid, 41

[5] Ibid, 43

[6] Ibid, 42

[7] Ibid, 56

[8] Ibid, 61

[9] Ibid, 64

[10] Ibid, 67

[11] Ibid, 69

[12] Ibid, 149

[13] Ibid, 90

Capitalism & Slavery: A Profitable Immorality

For decades, people have come up with a variety of reasons to justify the practice of slavery in the United States. Some of those explanations generally tend to be along the lines of: “slave-owners were just people of their time,” “people didn’t know any better,” or “everybody was doing it!!!” With these simplistic and reductionist explanations, those that are uncomfortable addressing this issue aim to diminish the magnitude of such an immoral practice. Moreover, it either suggests that there’s an inability among people to understand and critically analyze the darkest period of U.S. history or that people are willing to sweep this period under the rug for the sake of patriotism. —You know, because it kind of goes against the whole “Land of Free” philosophy. Whatever the case may be, historical accounts suggest that even among some slave-owners and slaveholders there was a pervasive understanding of just how bad this practice was. One of those slaveholders was Hope H. Slatter. Born in Clinton Georgia, this individual became one of the most prominent figures in the slave-trading business in the city of Baltimore. Here’s his story.

Critical Summaries of Existing Literature

Loren Schweninger “Freedom Suits, African American Women, and the Genealogy of Slavery” William and Mary Quarterly, Volume 71, Number 1 (January 2014), pp. 35-62

African American women have been instrumental to the process of preserving and passing down the history of this particular group. Their memories and contributions provided many subjugated men and women with a fighting chance to gain their freedom. This was particularly true of those who had white ancestry and had evidence (usually the testimony of others) to demonstrate it in the courts. In fact, during the 18th century in the Northern part of the nation, in the midst of slavery and the relentless tyranny of its proponents, these testimonies encouraged hundreds of African American men and women to file lawsuits against their masters in their pursuit of freedom.

Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Dr. Loren Schweninger, explores and expands on these facts in the article “Freedom Suits, African American Women, and the Genealogy of Slavery.” In it, she describes in detail the process by which many enslaved people relied primarily on oral history as a way to seek and, in some cases, successfully achieve their freedom. The author uses as the primary focus the enslaved descendants of Maria, a Spanish or Portuguese woman (her actual place of origin is still unknown) who was brought to Maryland and sold into slavery in 1686. Despite being a white woman, Maria worked as an indentured slave in the small farm of Robert Lockwood near Anne Arundel County. In the decades that followed, the different individuals who were directly related to Maria –described by the author as the Boston family, were passed down and resold as slaves despite their white ancestry. However, starting in 1795, many of them were successfully freed by Maryland courts after they filed lawsuits and presented testimony from twenty-four witnesses. In fact, the oral testimony of free and enslaved African Americans who acknowledged Maria’s white ancestry (as the story was passed down by their relatives and neighbors) were pivotal for the few members of the Boston family that achieved their freedom. It is important to highlight, however, that the author makes special emphasis on the oral depositions of Anne Brown. This is because she was the daughter of Mary Brown, an African American woman who knew Maria when she was alive and who was responsible to pass that information down to her relatives.

Although the main focus of Dr. Schweninger is the Boston family and Maria herself, throughout the article she also presents examples of other similar cases. She reveals that several biracial individuals who were held in bondage and who claimed that their white relatives entered into a willing relationship with a male or female slave filed numerous lawsuits against their white subjugators. In addition, Dr. Schweninger also discusses how and to what extent the Maryland court system allowed (at least temporarily) enslaved people to use the same legal resources that were generally for white people only. As a result, the court’s decision to allow the different plaintiffs to use hearsay (be it from free or enslaved blacks or white people) “reveals a legal system that was more egalitarian at that moment than it would be for generations to come” (p. 41). As a whole by examining freedom suits, this article provides scholars and students alike with a succinct analysis of some of the legal maneuvers that many African American relied on to seek their freedom. But more importantly, as indicated by the author, these “Freedom suits reveal cultural interactions among slaves, free blacks, and whites; the power that court actions could give to those held in bondage; and the role of African American women in maintaining family histories and sustaining oral traditions” (p. 37). Moreover, considering that Anne Brown and several other slaves who helped in the lawsuits resided near Anne Arundel County in a section of Maryland that is also known as the Swamp, both the Swamp and Brown are worth examining even further. In fact, for the purpose of our project, there is a possibility that their stories could provide us with relevant information regarding the preservation of oral history among enslaved people in the state of Maryland.

Stanley Harrold “On the Borders of Slavery and Race:  Charles T. Torrey and the Underground Railroad” Journal of the Early Republic, Volume 20, Number 2 (Summer, 2000), pp. 273-292.

Professor of History at South Carolina University and author Dr. Stanley Harrold discusses the contributions made by white abolitionists in the Underground Railroad movement. Specifically, he examines the involvement of Charles T. Torrey and the circumstances that led him to become interested in helping the slave communities of the south, including those in Maryland. In addition, the author addresses some of the discrepancies that have existed among historians “concerning the involvement of white abolitionists…the extension of their activities in the South, and the relationship of the antislavery movement to the sectional conflict” (p. 275). But ultimately he makes the overall argument that Torrey’s participation in this movement is in fact what contributed to “his arrest on charges of helping slaves escape, his imprisonment in the Maryland Penitentiary, and his death there in 1846” (p. 274). From this perspective, the author argues against traditional historical views about the involvement of white abolitionists in the movement. Instead, his article suggests that the Underground Railroad movement benefited significantly from the participation of white abolitionists such as Charles T. Torrey who despite the many issues they faced at the time, they were able to break-down racial barriers and promote interracial organizations.

In addition to analyzing the involvement of Charles T. Torrey, the author also aims to dispel the notion that this movement needs to be examined from a compartmentalized perspective as other historians have done it. That is, he suggests that despite the myriad of articles proposing otherwise, there is enough evidence to indicate that both African Americans and whites worked together in this influential movement on different levels. In order to validate this claim the author uses the relationship between Torrey and Thomas Smallwood as an example. – Thomas Smallwood was an African American man who despite having been born into slavery in Prince George’s County, he was later emancipated. Soon after, he became increasingly committed to help other African Americans to achieve freedom all while being part of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church of Washington. – The two men met near Washington D.C. years after Smallwood was freed and both “created what Smallwood called ‘our new underground railroad’” (p. 283). The relationship between the two suggests that both men shared many similarities and qualities. In fact, as the author hints about it, these similarities are what turned the movement into a biracial effort and created a strong alliance between members of the two groups. Considering that Dr. Stanley Harrold focuses primarily on this relationship to defend his argument, it would be helpful for the purpose of out project to further investigate other aspects of Charles T. Torrey contributions. As it is, the article seems to suggest that there is significant evidence to propose that white abolitionists did more than just harbor those who were fleeing slavery. In that sense, it might be useful to determine how many people and to what extent Charles T. Torrey help others in the state of Maryland.

Public History & Slavery: Why the Narratives are Skewed

The narratives surrounding the issues of slavery and freedom in public history are mostly characterized by a ubiquitous absence of broad honesty. While it is true that most public historians describe in detail the atrocities associated with this “peculiar institution,” there is a significant segment of this population that tends to do it from a politically correct and reductionist perspective. Evidence of this is the type of terminology used, the degree to which those who were mainly responsible for this practice are discussed, and the vast oversimplification of one of the darkest periods in American history. For instance, the language used in some interpretations tends to label the enslaved peoples as nothing more than mere objects for individual economic profit. While this was the case in the chattel slavery system used in the United States at the time, this approach offers nothing more than a perpetuation of the same ideas that degraded and dehumanized the victims of this practice to begin with. It does nothing to address these victims for the individuals they were and the contributions they offered.

Another problem that makes it difficult for public historians to interpret the antithetical issues of slavery and freedom is the presence of segregated histories. Considering that today a vast majority of sites that were somehow connected to slavery tend to be owned by private individuals or groups, they usually have complete control of the narratives presented there. As a result, there seems to be an explicit inclination to disclose only the positive aspects about the history of these sites. This is clearly a predisposition to highlight only the characteristics that are less uncomfortable to certain segments of the public (i.e. white folks) about the people who lived there, as well as their practices. Consequently, as it is often the case with history in general, the audience is left with an incomplete and manipulated narrative that pivots away from the actual truth. Paradoxically, the controlled descriptions presented by these historic sites, coupled with their evident desire to produce financial revenue, suggest that slavery is one of those topics that is best not to address in public.

Closely related to the issue of segregated histories, the questions of national identity, the legacy of the Founding Fathers, and the often-overwhelming sense of blind patriotism found in the discourse, represent another set of problems. This is the case considering that in order to address the topic of slavery in the “Land of the Free,” public historians are inevitably required to include the roles in this practice of figures such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, among others. More often than not, the reaction of certain segments of the population (i.e. mostly white folks) to the inclusion of these descriptions is generally negative. It seems that people are not ready to accept the fact that the very same thinkers who formulated and adopted the notion of freedom as the hallmark of American democracy, benefited significantly from keeping people in bondage. For many, in their interpretation, these inclusions translate into a mischaracterization of the Founding Fathers and the national values that made the U.S. synonymous with moral virtue. As a result, public historians have to deal with a complex set of facts and the challenging task of presenting them without offending some individuals.

In order to address some of these issues, the Mapping the Past: Slavery and Freedom on the Regional Landscape project should focus on creating an understanding that African-American history and the history of slavery in the U.S. is in fact American history. We must not continue to distinguish one from the other as if they did not occur concurrently or as if they were not interdependent. Also, as indicated by anthropologist and author of Speaking for the Enslaved Dr. Antoinette T. Jackson, we must create conscience that “heritage involves the construction of a story about the past that affects the present.” Only by openly acknowledging the dark aspects of the history of the nation, we can (hopefully) incite dialog that helps people examine these issues and its consequences today in an all-inclusive and critical way. Similarly, we must not rely on the existing descriptions and findings of historians only. As suggested by Dr. Cheryl Janifer LaRoche author of the book Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad, we should strive to seek and analyze the accounts of people in the community directly. After all, “oral tradition, memory, and newspapers stories, as well as recollections of local families and communities…carry a large measure of oral tradition and memory” (p. 21). But most importantly, and considering that neither private investors nor the need to draw masses for economic gain bind us, this project should address the issue of slavery in an open and unrestricted manner.

Sources:

LaRoche, Cheryl. (2014) Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: the geography of resistance. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Jackson, Antoinette T. (2012). Speaking for the enslaved. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Addressing the sometimes uncomfortable truth

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