For the past few months, articles from The Public Historian (TPH) have been featured in a blog series by the National Council on Public History showcasing how TPH articles have been used effectively in the classroom. With the American Studies Association conference this week, we thought it fitting to highlight the first three blog posts in the teaching series, along with their accompanying TPH articles. Learn more about The Public Historian at tph.ucpress.edu, and follow the rest of the blog series on the NCPH blog History@Work.
I find The Public Historian indispensable not only for keeping up with the field but also for introducing students to public history scholarship. And while I regularly assign more recent articles, I often return to David Glassberg’s“Public History and the Study of Memory” (vol. 18, no. 2, Spring 1996) in my undergraduate course, “Introduction to Public History.” Continue reading…
…As I set to work revising my syllabus, I searched for readings that could appropriately set up public investment in the telling of history, while outlining the role of public historians in framing that narrative. I selected an article on Civil War reenactors as a lead-in to our discussion of the current flag debates, and the article by Timothy Baumann, Andrew Hurley, Valerie Altizer, and Victoria Love, “Interpreting Uncomfortable History at the Scott Joplin State Historic Site in Saint Louis, Missouri”(The Public Historian 33, no. 2 (2011): 37–66), as a bookend to the discussion. Continue reading…
When Tammy Gaskell posted to the History@Work blog asking public history educators to recommend articles from The Public Historian that work well in the classroom, I immediately replied with several options. At the top of my list was Katherine Corbett and Dick Miller’s “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry,” which appeared in the winter 2006 issue. I teach an introductory public history course at a regional public university in Illinois. Continue reading…
The American public has long been enthralled with the mythology of the founding fathers. Though a recent (and recurring) trend within popular history writing, ‘‘founders chic’’ can also be experienced on historic house tours at places such as Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Hamilton Grange that focus on lauding while also humanizing the founders. Overall, the impression these sites give of the Revolutionary era echoes the majority of American history textbooks: the only people who lived during this period—or the only ones who mattered—were wealthy (often slaveowning) white men. There are exceptions to this pattern, such as the African American programming at Colonial Williamsburg, the interpretation of the mills at Lowell, Massachusetts, and the Smithsonian’s recent exhibition about the enslaved families at Monticello. Such challenges to the ‘‘exclusive past’’ are absolutely necessary for our present, as we strive to live up to an ideal of all people being equal and create a world in which women’s voices are no longer silenced and Black Lives Matter.
Currently on Broadway, MacArthur fellow Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical Hamilton brings to life the founding era of the United States in an engaging show that draws heavily on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, Alexander Hamilton. With a cast dominated by actors of color, the play is nonetheless yet another rendition of the ‘‘exclusive past,’’ with its focus on the deeds of ‘‘great white men’’ and its silencing of the presence and contributions of people of color in the Revolutionary era.
Race is, in some ways, front and center in this play, as the founding fathers are without exception played by black and Latino men. These choices, which creators and critics have dubbed ‘‘color-blind casting,’’ are in fact far from color blind. The racialized musical forms that each of the characters sings makes this particularly clear.
While most critics love the casting—calling it imaginative, accessible, and thought provoking, others take issue with the premise of casting black actors as the founding fathers. When asked directly in a Wall Street Journal interview about how it feels to portray a white slaveowner, Daveed Diggs, who plays Jefferson, avoided the question altogether. By contrast, theater critic Hilton Als perceives ‘‘something new and unrecognizable . . . on the stage—a dramatic successor to Derek Walcott’s and Jamaica Kincaid’s literary explorations of the surreality of colonialism.’’
This realization brings attention to a truly damning omission in the show: despite the proliferation of black and brown bodies onstage, not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play. For the space of only a couple of bars, a chorus member assumes the role of Sally Hemings, but is recognizable as such only by those who catch Jefferson’s reference to the enslaved woman with whom he had an ongoing sexual relationship. Unless one listens carefully to the lyrics—which do mention slavery a handful of times—one could easily assume that slavery did not exist in this world, and certainly that it was not an important part of the lives and livelihoods of the men who created the nation.
The play can thus be seen as insidiously invested in trumpeting the deeds of wealthy white men, at the expense of everyone else, despite its multiracial casting. It is unambiguously celebratory of Hamilton and Washington, and though it makes fun of Jefferson, he is nonetheless a pivotal figure. Sadly, that is where this revolutionary musical fails to push any envelopes: the history it tells is essentially the same whitewashed version of the founding era that has lost favor among many academic and public historians. Here there is only space for white heroes.
The musical undoubtedly does have a special impact on this audience. Seth Andrew, the founder of Democracy Prep Public Schools took 120 students to see the show and reported, ‘‘It was unquestionably the most profound impact I’ve ever seen on a student body.’’ And Miranda has noted that young people ‘‘come alive in their heads’’ when they’re watching the show.If the goal is to make them excited about theater, music, and live performance, great. But reviews of the show regularly imply that what is powerful about the show is how it brings history to life. So I ask again: Is this the history that we most want black and brown youth to connect with—one in which black lives so clearly do not matter?
Lyra D. Monteiro is an assistant professor of history and teaches in the Graduate Program in American Studies at Rutgers University—Newark. She has published on issues in cultural heritage and archaeological ethics and is the co-director of the public humanities organization The Museum On Site.
Sixty miles from Washington, DC, residents can escape the frenzy of the nation’s capital at Catoctin Mountain Park, a small National Park Service (NPS) unit located in western Maryland. There, visitors can hike and camp just mere yards away from the Presidential Retreat, where presidents from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Barack Obama have come to relax, strategize, or meet with guests (or where First Lady Michelle Obama can have an all-girls weekend with Beyonce). Visitors can enjoy the same scenery as world leaders, but they shouldn’t plan on catching a glimpse of “Camp Number 3”; it is not open to visitors. Catoctin Mountain Park’s special relationship to American presidential history, however, belies it’s own complicated past.
The federal government established the park during the New Deal through the Recreational Demonstration Area (RDA) program that purchased “submarginal” land (where production is carried at an economic loss) for recreation and conservation purposes, often displacing the local population. The NPS then utilized a succession of work programs to transform the mountain landscape into a park, including the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps (two New Deal programs), the Job Corps (a War on Poverty program), and Youth Conservation Corps (still used by the NPS today). New Deal park planners intended for the RDA to serve underprivileged youth from Washington, DC, and Baltimore. Camp Greentop has been home to the Maryland League for People with Disabilities for over seventy-five (mostly consecutive) years.
When we think about the NPS, we tend to think about it as a land conservation and historic preservation agency, or “bunnies and battlefields.” But, parks are about people, too. The NPS has a long history of incorporating social policy into its management practices. Such policies have created complicated legacies often fraught with institutional biases regarding race and class, such as the dislocation of families from park lands or segregation of park facilities. There is a growing body of literature in which scholars have examined some of these instances, but in my article, forthcoming in the November issue of The Public Historian (38.4), I use Catoctin Mountain Park as a case study to chart the evolution of social policy on a national park landscape. It places these changes in the larger context of economic, social, and land use policies throughout the twentieth century. These policies and programs often created complicated relationships between the park and certain groups.
At Catoctin Mountain Park, for example, the creation of the RDA meant the dislocation of farm families from park lands, but the federal government offered little help in finding new places for them to live and farm. In fact, the NPS relied on the assumption that many would remain nearby and could be hired through work relief programs to help build the park. When the camps first opened to organizations serving underprivileged youth in Washington, DC and Baltimore, African Americans were excluded until World War II, when the NPS integrated parks to help bolster morale. And when President Lyndon B. Johnson announced a War on Poverty in 1964, Catoctin became the first site for a Job Corps Center, which brought young men from the lowest economic ladder to live, learn, and work in the park. The center was purposely integrated at a time when the rest of the country was grappling over race relations. The Catoctin Job Corps Center closed in 1969, but despite its short tenure, the center left an important physical imprint on the park’s landscape and provided valuable lessons to the agency as a whole.
Why should we care about this history in 2016? What does it mean for the park visitor or manager in this new century of stewardship? In the case of Catoctin Mountain Park, understanding the park’s history of social policy gives us a better appreciation of the park beyond its natural or recreational values. Acknowledging this past is critical for the NPS when reaching out to new groups. On a more general level, the NPS is involved in social policy now more than ever, through programs like the Urban Agenda and the variety of youth programming the agency employs. Oftentimes, old ideas are spun and rebranded as being new without careful consideration of how they worked in the past.
Angela Sirna is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Middle Tennessee State University, where she recently completed an administrative history for Stones River National Battlefield. Her research interests include cultural landscapes and the history of the National Park Service. In particular, she has been examining the Job Corps program in national parks. Sirna has worked as a cultural resource specialist at C&O Canal National Historical Park and Catoctin Mountain Park. Read her full article at tph.ucpress.edu.
Last summer, an opinion piece in The New York Times asked, “Why Are Our Parks So White?” The lede introduced readers to a 58-year-old African American woman living in Seattle, in view of Mt. Rainier, who steers clear of the associated park for fear of what she knows she will find: “mosquitoes, which she hates, and bears, cougars and wolves, which she fears.” This is, of course, far from the first time the title question has been asked. For decades now, external critics, and the Park Service itself, have expressed repeated, and repetitive, concerns about the lack of diversity among visitors to Park Service units. This statistic, first noted in a 1962 congressional report about Americans’ engagement with outdoor recreation, has experienced a resurgence of attention in the media fueled by Park Service surveys conducted in 2000 and then again in 2009. The more recent survey found that those US residents who could name a unit of the National Park Service they had visited in the two years prior to the survey, “were disproportionately white and non-Hispanic.” As the National Park Service (NPS) approached its 2016 Centennial, articles lamented the failure of the Park Service to engage a diverse public, even given the outreach to communities of color associated with the anniversary. (See here.) This failure to connect with “nonwhite communities” is figured, in a similar article, as a threat to the Park Service’s “own long-term sustainability.”
My article, forthcoming in the November issue of The Public Historian (38.4), explores this prevailing narrative – that people of color do not visit parks “enough”– and argues that it is both reductive in its implications about what it means to visit the parks, and in its construction of race, including whiteness. The desire for a visiting population that better reflects the nation’s racial demographics is surely driven in large part by the admirable value that everyone benefit equally the “scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein” conserved by the directives of the Organic Act of 1916 that established the National Park Service. However, there are consequences to this logic that have not been carefully scrutinized. My paper looks at the argument’s embedded narratives, including the reduction of an appreciation for nature with park visitation and the implication that people of color do not share a concern for the environment. It analyzes the presumed link between park visitation and national belonging, and thus a threatened democracy in the face of unequal attendance. “A democracy can’t flourish without the participation of all of our citizens, yet some people from diverse backgrounds may not feel welcome in the parks,” according to a July 2015 Houston Chronicle article.
Such a logic harkens back to Frederick Jackson Turner’s attribution of the “vital forces” that fed the American character to an engagement with the “wilderness.” Indeed, in 1916, when the Park Service was founded, it had been less than twenty-five years since Turner had delivered his frontier thesis. The Park Service retroactively incorporated national parks and monuments (including Yellowstone, Sequoia, Yosemite, and Mount Rainier) already cherished for their majesty and beauty and already integrated into the national imaginary. Certainly, the conventional understanding of the relationship between landscape and the forging of an American identity was foremost in the minds of the men who created a model for setting aside the most pristine places not only for protection but for communion and rejuvenation. In many ways, then, the cultural logic that defined the National Park Service a century ago was a product of its historical moment, when white men became Americans at civilization’s edge.
One hundred years later, our understanding of the relationship between nature, history, and nation is arguably more complicated. Decades of scholarship have documented the variety of encounters and events significant to the nation’s history. The environmental movement of the twenty first century includes a significant global (expanded from a purely national) orientation. Demographically, we are less homogenous and more urban, and scientists and social scientists are more engaged with the urban landscape and with a widened scope of environmental protection and sustainable practices (that might not include a cross-country car ride to Yosemite!) And yet to hear some who speak for the National Park Service tell it, Turner’s thesis is alive and well: “we” are all inherently products of a “frontier experience,” and the park provides “an opportunity to go home.” My paper suggests that we look more carefully at arguments about race, inclusion, and diversity in the park system, so that rather than relying on the tropes of a century past we might engage with an altered landscape and a new century in ways more attune to all we know about race, identity, access, history, land, and national belonging.
Laura Schiavo teaches museum history and theory and collections management in the Museum Studies Program at The George Washington University. Her two current research projects look at the historic roots of U.S. museums and civic engagement, and the concept of inclusivity and diversity in the National Park Service. Schiavo has years of experience as a curator at the National Building Museum, City Museum of Washington, DC, and the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.