In a recent blog I suggested that we ask our students to think about statues and memorials in their local communities that they would change. One of my goals for the coming school year is to encourage my students to be more aware of their local history and try to place it within the larger narrative of our nation’s past. In 1944 the American Historical Association published American History In Schools and Colleges in which they addressed the vast field of US history education. While there is much about the document that is now out of date -- content recommendations, for example, completely exclude women and non-white people -- I find one of the authors’ many conclusions still worthy of consideration: “The study of American history can help to produce loyal, intelligent, cooperative, well-rounded citizens only if our society honors citizens who possess these qualities.” (Chapter Two) I am struck by this statement as someone who relishes teaching my students about the uncooperative and disloyal. The Patriots were not cooperating with the mother country when they tarred and feathered Loyalists and declared their independence in the 1770s. Nat Turner refused cooperation with his master when he led an insurrection in 1831. Abolitionists expressed disloyalty to the nation when they rallied against anti-slavery petition gag orders and the Fugitive Slave Act. The 20th century has no shortage of intelligent but disloyal un-cooperatives: Alice Paul, WEB DuBois, Malcolm X, Dolores Huerta, and Gloria Steinem to name just a few. What draws me to this aged quote from 1944, however, is that some semblance of this ideology still lingers today: the sentiment that certain people should be memorialized as examples to the rest of us. Who we choose to honor is a central question present in today’s public debates about monuments, statues, flags, and names of military installations. Recently journalist Murray Whyte grappled with this topic in an insightful article titled “Weighing the fate of our most problematic public art” ( Boston Globe , July 10, 2020) Whyte describes the challenges faced by communities struggling to decide what to physically do with monuments determined to be no longer welcome or acceptable. “While defenders, such as the president, cite ‘heritage,’ there is no getting around a simple fact: Colonial monuments were always about domination -- powerfully, clearly, and publicly,” Whyte argues. “In the Jim Crow South, Confederate monuments were symbols of an old racist order, alive and cruelly dominant long after the Union victory in the war. But does locking away history, however ugly, counter the damage it causes?” Whyte’s piece encourages us as students of history to think about ways in which memorials and public art that reflect problematic historical moments in our nation’s past can encourage further discourse. Historians and artists that Whyte spoke to expressed concern that complete removal of certain monuments may mean a loss of opportunity for public conversation about uncomfortable historical realities. Where do these relics go? How do we continue to engage with them even if we as a society have acknowledged that they should not be revered? As historians we need to be continuously cognizant of what our students take with them from our classrooms into the public space. Students who understand that the disloyal and uncooperative have made significant, often positive changes in our nation’s history will, I believe, be better able to contextualize memorials and recognize that the nation’s historical record is far more complicated than any singular monument. As we look toward a future of new public efforts to document our nation's past I hope that we as a society are able to embrace a more diverse and honest conversation about our collective history.
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The former state hospital in my town has been repurposed into an office building and luxury apartments. I drive by it regularly on my way to the grocery store. Its existence inspired the research I began in 2015 seeking to better understand the care of mentally ill women in the late 19th century. My initial curiosity about that building has contributed to my reading dozens of books on the history of mental illness and women’s healthcare, in addition to spending many, many hours in libraries and archives. The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed my research considerably. The archival work I was conducting is paused for the time being because access to the libraries is no longer available. Moving all of my courses online and planning for a seemingly un-plan-able fall semester have meant that time I would have spent this summer on research and writing has instead been dedicated to lots of online meetings and e-mail discussions about this past spring and the fall semester ahead. And yet, the voices that have spoken to me through my research still constantly weigh on my thoughts. Group exercise classes were allowed to resume outside last week here in Massachusetts so my favorite yoga teacher held our class in the courtyard space at the former state hospital -- beautiful green grass, benches, flowering trees and shrubs surrounded the students who remarked on the beauty and tranquility of the space. What played over and over in my head, however, were the stories of men and women who had lived amidst the walls of what formerly was a state institution for those deemed “insane.” I was struck in that moment by how easy it is for history to be forgotten and stories lost -- for kind, well-meaning people to have absolutely no idea of the space they are in, its history and significance. The history teacher in me had to resist the urge to interrupt students’ friendly banter about the beauty of the place with anecdotes of the sadness that would have surrounded us in that same space many years before. The experience has me thinking about voices that are lost as we re-purpose old spaces and contemplate the monuments that decorate our communities. Most of us spend very little time considering their meanings or wondering why one building is saved and others are demolished; why one person is memorialized and others forgotten, until we are forced to consider such questions. Right now, for example, statues of Christopher Columbus, Theodore Roosevelt, and Confederate leaders, among others, are being removed nationwide. It is time, as a society, to start really thinking about whose likeness should be erected in place of these relics of the past. Part of my planning for fall, then, is to design an assignment that will ask students to “replace” -- in essay form -- a historical monument/statue in their community. I’m asking the students to think not only about the history of the chosen monument as it stands today -- what/who it memorializes, when it was built, etc -- but also about ways in which the local community has celebrated or protested the memorial’s existence. What reactions does the current monument elicit from people in the community? From visitors? And, most importantly, to the student, does the monument represent the community’s past, present and future? I’m hoping that this assignment will force students to think more seriously about the issue of historical monuments: who makes decisions about the figures that a community chooses to publicly revere and why. For my students here in New England, I think this is especially relevant to ensure that they do not see the issue of Confederate statue removal as specific to only southern states but as a challenge to all communities throughout the United States to do better.
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