Ambidexterity and Ambition: The Tuskegee Model Legacy

Last year Fazila Kabahita and I decided to nominate the Ambidexter Industrial and Normal Institute in Springfield, Illinois, to the National Register of Historic Places as a part of our Historic Preservation course. Fazila and I learned that the Ambidexter Institute was modeled after Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Deemed the “Tuskegee of the North,” Ambidexter was a private industrial school intended to teach trades and provide academic education to African American students. It received the name “Ambidexter” because its founder, Springfield clergyman G.H. McDaniel, believed that the students would have to be ‘ambidextrous,’ (in some sense-suggesting that they would have to be doubly as skilled as whites) using both their minds and their might, in order to make it in competition for employment with the white labor force. McDaniel intended to “accomplish for the negroes of the north what Booker T. Washington’s great school is doing for the colored people of the south.” He opened the school in 1901 with funding from prominent Springfield residents.[1] As we continue to work toward nominating the site through the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, I thought I’d share a little about the history of the school and similar institutions that followed the Tuskegee model.

Continue reading “Ambidexterity and Ambition: The Tuskegee Model Legacy”

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NCPH 2014: A Newbie’s Reflections

This post is part of a series from Loyola public historians attending NCPH 2014.

I do not know if it was the sea, the sun, or that California feeling, but I drank the Kool-aid. Throughout my graduate school experience, I have been told how NCPH is not like other conferences and how the people working in this field are supportive and encouraging of the work their colleagues are doing. From my experience at NCPH 2014 in Monterey Bay, California, I can testify to those statements. As I said to a professor on my return to Chicago, I had an odd, but exciting realization meeting others in the field, outside of my immediate circle.

Three instances stand out in my mind as indicative of the supportive and encouraging nature of the NCPH community. The first is my own experience. I participated in the poster session and a roundtable discussion, and both, produced some very insightful and productive discussions. My colleague, Laura Pearce, and I presented an exhibit proposal we developed for a required class, “Addressing Absences: Exhibiting African-American Suffragist”. At the beginning of the class, partnerships were being developed through our professor and community organizations.

Unfortunately, as things happen, the partnerships dissolved (scheduling conflicts and other distractions) and the exhibits never materialized. When we presented our work at NCPH, Laura and I were continually asked, “Where is this up?” “Is this still up?” “Is this online?” and when we informed visitors it had never actually come to fruition their response was simply, “Why?” Our colleagues wanted to see our exhibit realized, we received several recommendations of organizations we could and should approach with the proposal, and there was talk of going digital with it. So, after graduation, Laura and I have decided to pursue our exhibit proposal, using many of the connections and suggestions we received at NCPH.

 

Additionally, the roundtable I sat on “Sustaining Historic Preservation Through Community Engagement”, only reaffirmed the notion that our historical work must be centered in the contemporary community. My colleague on this panel, Rachel Boyle, makes several excellent points on this on this issue in her reflection on NCPH.

 

The third instance was in the panel “Pubic Historians interpret the Far West: A Field Report”. Danica Willis has been the Cultural Resource Manager at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in northern California for the last three years. As a National Recreation Area, Whiskeytown attracts people, as Danica put it “for the beautiful lake, and the beautiful waterfalls, and the beautiful hiking”, but these visitors don’t necessarily understand the historical development of the area they are playing in. Over Danica’s time at Whiskeytown, she has pushed and prodded more interpretation and community involvement to Whiskeytown. Some of these ideas have worked great, as it did with the “Whiskeytown Harvest Festival” in which Danica promoted apple picking from the recreational area’s substantial orchard. In addition, the visitors were encouraged to think about why the orchards were there, who put them there, and how the planters would have used them. And like all experiments, some failed. But, Danica is excited about continuing to create a fuller and richer understanding (she apparently has a large white board full of ideas) of Whiskeytown as a place.

The conversations and discussions I observed and partook in at NCPH’s annual conference made me excited for the field.

 

Four Views on the Shutdown and the National Park Service

From Civil War Memory.

Cross-posted at dvhunter.com

An unexpected media and political discourse has emerged as the Federal government nears a second week of being ‘shutdown.’ Access to sites under the watch of the National Park Service (NPS) became a political football. The conversation started almost simultaneous to the actual shutdown, when a squad of octo- and nonagenarian Mississippians stormed the barricades of the World War II Memorial in the middle of the National Mall. An irresistible media story, for certain. Politicians–as they do–seized on the spectacle. The next day a GOP Congressman berated an NPS ranger charged with manning the barricades, in truly a pathetic display even for Washington politics.

NPS closures became highly visible, with signs, barriers, and traffic cones juxtaposed against heritage sites and natural treasures. GOP congressmen offered the President a “compromise” that would have reopened the NPS sites while budget talks continued. President Obama turned down the proposal, and his rivals immediately attempted to seize the moral high ground. Some pundits ran with the idea that preventing access to “open-air monuments” was unconscionable, if not outright illegal.

Let’s turn to a bona fide, PhD’d historian for further discussion on the matter:

Continue reading “Four Views on the Shutdown and the National Park Service”

How “Environment” Became a Dirty Word and What Public Historians Can Do About It

A recent online discussion among fellow environmental historians revealed a troubling development: the word “environment” carries negative connotations for a large proportion of the American public.Some instructors at institutions in regions with predominantly conservative political cultures are witnessing an enrollment downturn in their environmental history courses listed in catalogs under that title. Students in some of these courses confirmed professors’ fears: the presence of “environment” in the course title dissuaded many from enrolling for fear that the course would be about “tree hugging” or a form of environmentalist indoctrination. The ensuing discussion focused on alternative titles that might circumvent this problem and the relative success creative renaming has obtained for instructors in the field.

Yet the dilemma facing environmental historians is more than a sales issue. It reflects a transformation in American political culture decades in the making: “environment” has become conflated with “environmentalism,” and both equated with liberal elitism, economic stagnation, infringement of property rights, and a government overstepping its mandate. The EPA is a favorite boogeyman of an increasingly populist conservative movement and many consider environmental consciousness, at best, a luxury reserved for a meddlesome few who already enjoy material prosperity and, at worst, outright hypocrisy. Continue reading “How “Environment” Became a Dirty Word and What Public Historians Can Do About It”

Review: The Wright Brothers National Memorial

WB Portrait
Two brothers, one mustache, one soaring moment in history.

Over Thanksgiving break, I visited North Carolina’s Outer Banks, home of sprawling vacation homes, wild horses, and the site of the humankind’s first flight on December 17, 1903. On that day, Orville and Wilbur Wright (respectively) piloted a self-powered aircraft, achieving four separate flights of increasing distance and duration. A monument to the brothers was erected in 1932 on the top of Kill Devil Hill, overlooking the field where they conducted their flight experiments. The National Park Service took over the site’s administration in 1933 and built a visitors center in 1960.

I accompanied my father, an ex-Air Force Pilot and aviation history enthusiast, to the Wright Brothers National Memorial on November 21, 2012 and was impressed by how NPS uses several different types of material culture to interpret the first flight and commemorate the men who achieved it.

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“Slave for a Day” and the Tensions in Historiography (Part II: Peter Kotowski)

“[It] is often forgotten that the concept of social death is a distillation from Patterson’s breathtaking survey – a theoretical abstraction that is meant not to describe the lived experiences of the enslaved so much as to reduce them to a least common denominator that could reveal the essence of slavery in an ideal-type slave, short of meaningful heritage.  As a concept, it is what Frederick Cooper has called an ‘agentless abstraction’ that provides a neat cultural logic but ultimately does little to illuminate the social and political experiences of enslavement and the struggles that produce historic transformations.”

Vincent Brown, “Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery”

I must preface this piece by admitting that I have no formal training in public history.  As such, I cannot offer the same type of illuminating critique that my colleague, Will Ippen, has provided in the companion piece to mine.  What I can do, however, is frame the debate over the Hampton National Historic Site’s “Slave for a Day” event within the context of the extant historiography on North American slavery.

In his excellent essay on the legacy of Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death, historian Vincent Brown articulates a tension between scholarship emphasizing the dehumanizing aspects of antebellum slavery and the overwhelming power of the institution and those works that focus on the collective agency of the enslaved population and the ways in which they resisted enslavement.  In my opinion, the outcry over the “Slave for a Day” event reflects a tendency among many  to adopt the interpretation of slavery stressing the power of the institution to oppress enslaved people.

Continue reading ““Slave for a Day” and the Tensions in Historiography (Part II: Peter Kotowski)”

“Slave for a Day”: Perspectives on Interpreting Slavery (Part I: William Ippen)

There has been no paucity of reactions to Hampton National Historic Site’s “Slave for a Day” event, which took place this past Sunday under the new name “Walk a Mile, a Minute in the Footsteps of the Enslaved on the Hampton Plantation.” While the event and its underlying theme enjoyed a significant degree of support, outrage at the event, as well as its title and promotional literature, prompted the National Park Service to change its title and omit exclamation points from the announcement. Criticism of the event–all of it coming before it was actually held–has taken two forms: a distasteful title and the interpretive method’s inability to truly convey the lived experience of the enslaved. The former criticism, which NPS staff promptly addressed, is both superficial and moot at this point. The latter critique, however, calls into question the interpretive program’s very validity and is severely misplaced. Continue reading ““Slave for a Day”: Perspectives on Interpreting Slavery (Part I: William Ippen)”

Building Heritage

While working  at the St. Croix National Park Service I have had the opportunity to watch the park administration help a budding friends organization create a National Heritage Area. While you can read more at the NPS website, basically a National Heritage Area is cohesive region that shares common natural, cultural and historic resources that are nationally important. While NHAs originally had some federal funding  for administration and promotion when they first came around in the 1980s, that aid has dried up. The driving force behind an NHAs success in generating a heritage tourism economy supported by a community, telling a cohesive story about its past to outsiders.

Predictably there are a lot of ins-and-outs to the process especially in getting the NHA approved by Congress, but before that and by far the most fascinating part of the process is community building. This is the stage where the St. Croix Heritage Initiative  is at. The St. Croix Valley Foundation, and the St. Croix River Association, along with several other community partners began initial planning  two-years ago and last winter they began a campaign to generate community interest in the concept. Hiring an outside community-building consultation firm (I know, right?) to facilitate the process, the movement became the Heritage Initiative, building a web 2.0 site to allow participation and launching a feasibility study through public “Discovery Workshops.”

Using the St. Croix Watershed as the study area (and a natural starting point for creating a Heritage Area centered on a river), the Heritage Initiative held these workshops in 10 of the  11 counties that make up the watershed. I attended one of these workshops in late May as part of my job with the Park Service.

Continue reading “Building Heritage”