by Camesha Scruggs

I must admit, my spark for public history was not ignited by childhood vacations to historic places. My initial thought on the phrase “public history” was that it focused on the houses and spaces of famous old white people in the West and in the North. Why would that interest me, a young Black woman in the South? Little did I know then that I would eventually discover that spark.

My introduction to the field was an internship at the Abraham Lincoln Home in Springfield, Illinois, during my undergraduate years at a Historically Black College and University, based on a program designed to enhance diversity. After that experience and speaking with former NPS Director Robert Stanton, I changed my perception and decided to pursue further education in the field. Once I arrived at UMass Amherst, I began considering my options for the program’s internship requirement. I learned about the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and decided that was going to be a potential internship project. 

The first time I visited the site, it was the last weekend of tours for Felicia Jamison, a fellow doctoral student and docent at the time and now Assistant Professor of History at Drake University. Later, her knowledge and professionalism served as my example and unofficial training. 

Camesha Scruggs speaks with the public at the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite in Great Barrington, MA.

Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1979, the site is significant because Du Bois is considered “one of the most incisive thinkers and profound scholars of all time… [who] influenced much of the twentieth century black protest.”[1] I agree with the nominators and that spirit remains on the site through interpretation. UMass Amherst owns and manages the site, named its library after him and holds the largest collection of his papers. The university and its stewardship ensures that some of the legacy of Du Bois remains in the state.

Walking onto the land, it felt as if I was entering a special space. It is a feeling that visitors often remark upon once they step onto the site. The entrance, a nature path lined by overarching trees, creates a cathedral-like feel, setting the scene for visitors to immerse themselves in the experience of guided tours. The site continues as a half-mile wooded trail with interpretive signage, telling the story of Du Bois. Although the site lacks a physical structure and tangible artifacts, the design allows visitors to linger and learn about Du Bois and his ancestors, who walked this space more than one century ago. During my tours, we examine blueprints, discuss Du Bois’ writings about the space and approach a platform where the home once stood. I encourage visitors to imagine their home and hometown. This prompts visitors to connect to the ideas of nature and home at the site, including the feelings it evokes and intangible values it instilled. 

Since the summer of 2016, I have served as the tour guide at the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite Although the tour season lasts only ten weeks, hundreds of individuals interact and engage with his legacy. As the tour guide, I take visitors through various parts of his life, from his genesis in Great Barrington to his death and burial in Ghana. On these tours, visitors learn that some of his ideas and views were founded in the interactions with the local community. He took these hometown ideas and interactions to places all over the world. 

As a historian, I am accustomed to asking questions. However, I became accustomed to answering a variety of questions via calls, emails and on the tours. Questions range from demographics to the location of his descendants to his affiliation with Communism. Some are answered immediately, and others with a little research and a delayed reply. We discuss gender, race, family, community and conflict in this short half-mile, half-hour tour. Yet, one of the most intriguing questions was from a young visitor about whether Du Bois had a dog as a kid. Genuine inquiries like these shaped the tours, giving them uniqueness and unpredictability.

The reasons and ways that visitors engage with Du Bois always interest me. Some visit because they’ve read works of Du Bois, some come as part of their summer experience in the Berkshires. Others simply stop by accidentally due to the sign and small parking lot.  Each audience had a different experience and I was privileged to facilitate them. 

As a member of the NAACP, my perspective could have some bias. Yet, when I met one of the former editors of NAACP’s The Crisis magazine, which Du Bois was the first editor, it simply reminded me that I was being prepared for these types of moments of engaging with one of the influential figures in US and African American history. Of course, my presence at this site was significant and important. As a Black woman from the South, my perspective allowed opportunities for dialogue. Representation in public history spaces matters.

During my tenure at the Homesite, I’ve discussed Du Bois in a variety of ways. I’ve scheduled tours, provided public programming, given podcast interviews, shared informal chats and created social media videos. Each of these engagements allow me to do this thing called public history. I have the opportunity to present history to the public in palatable formats. The joy comes when someone comes away with new knowledge about Du Bois. Although he was an extraordinary man, there were moments that made him human. I try to convey these images and ideas at various presentations. 

These experiences are supported by various groups and individuals vested in the desire of Du Bois to keep this place that he cherished. Local organizations such as the Upper Housatonic Valley Heritage Area provide logistical daily operations support. Local residents like Wray Gunn and the late Reverend Esther Dozier gave the foundation and continual support of this work. The Friends of Du Bois Group expands the reach of the site to broader and larger audiences. The University of Massachusetts Amherst history, Public History and Anthropology Departments, Du Bois Library Special Collections and University Archives, and the W.E.B. Du Bois Center ensures that I am capable of providing accurate information for visitors. However, when I accidentally met Dr. Edmond Gordon, one of the originators of this site, our conversation reminded me that people and organizations can come together in acts of preservation, whether large or small. Dr. Edmond Gordon, a friend of Du Bois and Walter Wilson, a realtor, raised funds, resulting in the purchase of the land, creating the site in October 1969.

Walking the woods while discussing Du Bois is an indelible experience. It continually shapes my work in the field of public history.

Camesha Scruggs is a doctoral candidate in history at UMass Amherst in addition to pursuing a public history certificate in the program. As a native Texan, she recalls oral histories from community elders and wanted to tell their stories as she got older. Her public history work reflects that ambition, through projects with the Abraham Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Humanities Action Lab, W E B Du Bois Boyhood Homesite and The Center for Design and Engagement. In her work and scholarship, she desires to present unknown stories to larger audiences while making public history palatable to all that partake.

[1] Department of the Interior, National Park Service Du Bois Boyhood Homesite National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form  https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/440b0922-0e6d-4011-95ea-404ec06ef81b Accessed August 2, 2019.

By Marla Miller, Past@Present Editor

In Spring 2021, the Hatfield Historical Society received funding from Mass Humanities for an innovative project to explore how best to recruit and support digital volunteers; the work will unfold over summer and winter 2021-22 and conclude in early 2022.  Like many small local history organizations, the society grapples with issues of accessibility that have been exacerbated by the global pandemic. Digital engagement seems like a possible solution, but how might the HHS (and groups like it) engage and train mostly senior volunteers in a way that will fulfill existing needs for the Society, and incorporate the skills, interests and social needs of the volunteers?  To explore those questions, the HHS has received grant funding to consider how best to build a vibrant and sustainable volunteer program.  To contribute to the process, the HHS project will tap the experience and insight of two members of the UMass Amherst History community: alumnus Robert Forrant and Public History Program director Marla Miller.  In the interview below, Kathie Gow, curator of the Hatfield Historical Museum, Forrant and Miller discuss the project’s aims and potential, work that will surely be of interest to organizations across Massachusetts.

MRM: Kathie, can you kick us off by sharing a little bit about how you came to develop this project?  What activities will the grant funds support?

KG: When Meguey Baker (Hatfield Historical Museum Collections Assistant) and I sat down in January to discuss the coming year’s priorities — based on more general priorities set by the Hatfield Historical Society (HHS) board, which funds our two positions — we knew we wanted to do projects that would hit a lot of our goals. Those goals included engaging our community in Hatfield history, expanding our reach beyond those who already knew us, discovering and connecting stories about artifacts in the collection, and building a volunteer corps. (Oh yeah, and then add some reality in–like, we’re challenged to keep on top of collections management and project work as it is, with funds the Society has been able to raise from its generous supporters, AND, we’re in a pandemic, and no volunteers have been allowed into the museum since mid-March 2020). 

So Mass Humanities’ Digital Capacity grants couldn’t have come at a better time!

The grant will support staff time to work with a half-dozen volunteers over the coming year, plus our two Humanities scholars (you and Bob), all of whom bring great skills and experiences to the project. It will also pay for the first year of an upgrade to the Pro version of our free website builder (Weebly), which gives us capabilities we’ll need for the project, and help fund our upgrade to the paid version of Zoom, which will be our primary platform for engaging with volunteers.

This was one of the last times volunteers and visitors were allowed into the Hatfield Historical Museum in February 2020, just before Covid shut the museum down. Volunteer Wunderley Stauder is writing up artifact intake sheets with Megue Baker.

MRM:  Bob, how did you come to get involved?  What priorities will you bring to this initiative?

RF: During Covid Times I have been continuing to do research and have spent time in the Lawrence Public Library and the Lawrence History Center. I also exchanged frequent emails with archivists at the Massachusetts State Archives. Through the efforts of these institutions I was able to get quite a bit of work done and it made me realize how difficult the last fifteen months have been for dedicated people who care about, collect, archive, and make available the historical record for us. I had also spent a great few months working on a research project in Hatfield with boxes and boxes of materials lovingly organized by the folks at the Hatfield Historical Society. 

When I was asked about whether I would want to be involved in a project in Hatfield again, it was an easy decision. For people like me who engage in public history projects and want to utilize local history in their classroom efforts, it is incumbent that we do everything we can to support local history organizations. As a researcher and board member of the Lawrence History Center, I can add my knowledge of how institutions like this work to the project. At the same time, by being involved with a local history organization, I can learn lots about best practices for working in such organizations. It may also help me to identify how I want to volunteer when ever I decide to retire from UMass Lowell!

MRM: How has HHS been coping with the effects of the pandemic, especially around Hatfield’s anniversary year?

KG: Like for most museums and historical societies, especially small ones, it has been a challenging year, made all the more frustrating and sad because 2020 was our town’s 350th anniversary year. It was also the Hatfield Historical Society’s 50th anniversary, which should have been a great opportunity for us to promote the work HHS has been doing. It meant that most of 2020’s scheduled events got cancelled, and our opportunities to engage in person with the public disappeared.

But we did not sit idle! We shifted gears, and of course with growing pains (we are still figuring things out), we embraced the digital platform. We were delighted to be asked last fall by Bill Hosely (of Terra Firma Northeast) to participate in the Mass Historical Society Zoom program, “A Treasury of Massachusetts House Museums and Local History Orgs: Part III: Hidden Gems” (you can watch the program HERE) to introduce our organization and the collections we manage for the Town of Hatfield to their audience.

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By Emily Whitted

Stephen Girard—the wealthiest man in the Early Republic—had a secret hidden inside his shoes. From his knees to his ankles, his legs were clad in fine silk stockings imported from France, with delicate silk embroidery, known as clocking, on display when wearing breeches. But below the ankle, his stocking feet were thick with mended areas, known as darns, made to repair holes in the fabric (fig. 1). Twenty pairs of Stephen Girard’s stockings are housed in Girard College’s collection and are rare survivals of extensively repaired early American textiles. If the wealthiest man in the Early Republic had his stockings mended, then one can only imagine the sheer scale of textile repair work in early America as both a domestic task and a professional occupation.  But why is textile repair worthy of notice, and what can its visibility tell us about the lives of early Americans? 

Fig. 1 – A pair of frame-knit silk stockings made in France and owned by Stephen Girard in the early nineteenth century show extensive darning in the feet. Stockings. Girard College Archives, Accession Number: 0323. Courtesy of Girard History Collections, Philadelphia PA.

Mending is having a moment. The New York Times informed me and the rest of its readership in an article last March, as stay-at-home orders began to go into effect throughout the U.S., that “now is when we all learn to darn our socks again.”1 The article featured an in-depth look at the visible mending movement, a craft practice-turned-social commentary on fast fashion and twenty-first-century throwaway clothing culture that mends damaged clothing in bright thread colors and distinctive sewing techniques (fig.2). I don’t think that article could have predicted how accurate its title would soon become; for many, extended time at home due to the pandemic would generate a mass return to textile mending and a renewed sense of relationship with clothing through the act of repair. Mending is certainly experiencing a resurgence, but only time will tell if its popularity continues once COVID-19 dictates less of our daily routines.

Fig. 2 – Visibly-mended cashmere socks by Flora Collingwood-Norris, knitwear designer and visible mender. Her work can be found at @visible_creative_mending on Instagram or her website
https://www.collingwoodnorrisdesign.com/visible-mending.
Courtesy of Flora Collingwood-Norris.

While eye-catching color and embroidery in visible mending wants viewers to notice repair work, in early America those executing textile repair work—the overwhelming majority of whom were women—were much more concerned with their mends escaping notice. With needles and thread, damaged textiles could be repaired to extend the life of garments without drawing any additional attention. Threads could be selected to match fabric colors, and even woven or knit patterns could be mimicked. Function was also important; mended textiles would need to sustain additional wear, as necessity often justified the time and labor spent repairing garments. But need was not the only motivating factor for mending. Like many of us today, repair in early America could also be motivated by sentimentality, as objects that are meaningful then, as now, felt worth the additional care and attention of repair work.

Girard’s stockings attract special notice because they were repaired multiple times with different techniques, all designed to extend their period of wear for as long as possible. The most common form of mending, executed in white cotton thread, mimics woven fabric structure to mend a hole. Swiss darning, executed in the tan silk thread, mimics knit fabric structure and could be used to mend a hole or  strengthen weak areas of knit fabric. Girard’s stockings also sport “run heels,” a technique that layers thread onto stocking heels which were likely to wear through first, for additional strength and padding (fig. 3-4).  

Fig. 3 – A close-up image of the mended areas of Girard’s stocking. White darning thread mimics woven fabric structure, while the light grey Swiss darns mimic the original knit structure of the fabric and are meant to escape notice. Stockings. Girard College Archives, Accession Number: 0323. Courtesy of Girard History Collections, Philadelphia PA.

Fig. 4 – The reverse of Girard’s stocking heel, which reveals the complex rows of couched thread that make a “run heel.” This technique provides additional cushion and padding to delay the emergence of holes in the fabric. Stockings. Girard College Archives, Accession Number: 0323. Courtesy of Girard History Collections, Philadelphia PA.

Each of these techniques were part of many early American women’s plain sewing education, although the skill and frequency in which they were executed depended on each particular woman’s socio-economic status and individual talent for needlework. A homework sampler housed in the collection of The Library Company of Philadelphia offers multiple examples of repair techniques, including a basic darn and a run heel technique (fig. 5). Made by Emily Bell in 1830 while attending the Bethlehem Female Seminary in Pennsylvania, this sampler offers an example of more common needlework. A 1790-1830 sampler by Anna Hofmann, part of the Winterthur Museum’s collection, showcases more elaborate darning techniques, including mending that mimics multi-colored woven patterns in fabric and mends that recreate knit stitches (fig. 6). In lieu of written sources, these early American women are documented by the needlework of textile repair. 

Fig. 5 – Eleven samplers, mounted on board in the form of a book, made by Emily Bell while attending the Bethlehem Female Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. 1830. Courtesy of Library Company of Philadelphia. https://www.librarycompany.org/

Fig. 6 – Darning sampler, Anna Hofmann, possibly England or North America, 1790-1830, Plain-woven linen and cotton thread, 1964.1702, Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont. Courtesy of Winterthur Museum.

Within museum collections, early American textile repair work is difficult to spot, assuming that mended textiles even make it into museums in the first place. Collecting, whether on a personal or institutional level, has often privileged objects that seem perfect, authentic, and without flaws. Some museum objects may have damage, often due to age and prior storage conditions, but it is much rarer to find damaged objects that were also repaired in the same time period in which they were made and used.

Several reasons, some practical and others less so, explain this absence. Repairs can be difficult to date. Antique dealers or other collectors in possession of objects before they arrive in museums may try to repair broken objects before their purchase and acquisition, and while some collections with regular access to conservators receive professional repair, objects that have received conservation work before entering a collection might make it difficult for museums to determine when a repair was made. Repairs can also escape notice in object records within collection databases, whether due to the assumption that information about an object’s repair is less important than an object’s creation or use or because textile mending is still, many years later, performing its original function and staying hidden. But early American repaired textiles do exist in collections despite this host of reasons, and closer analysis can access diverse histories of labor, sentimentality, and economic necessity. The first step, however, is finding them.

Repairing our fashion industry, our rates of consumption, and our relationships with the objects that surround us requires both modern-day commitment and historical context. My dissertation research is interested in the latter, and I am seeking early American repaired textiles (broadly defined and geographically conceived) as well as other objects in collections that tell the history of mending through material evidence and additional documentation. Darned socks are just the beginning. 

Do you know of any repaired early American textiles in a museum or private collection? Let the author know!

Email: ewhitted@umass.edu

Twitter: @knitwhitted

Instagram: @knitwhitted

  1. Kurutz, Steven. “Now Is When We All Learn to Darn Our Socks Again.” The New York Times. March 12, 2020. https://tinyurl.com/ydx4k63z

By Michelle Barrasso

I began my internship at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) in January 2021. My work at the Commission consists of a number of roles, responsibilities, and tasks; I am an Intake Specialist in the Employment Division. The tasks I am undertaking cover a number of different areas. First, I conduct intakeinterviews over the phone with people who wish to file a discrimination claim. This entails asking the right questions while remaining neutral and drafting the complaint. After several additional steps (i.e. sending the complaint to the Attorney Advisor, requesting signatures, etc.), I enter the complaint into the Case Management System. Second, I read case documents (i.e. a Complaint, Position Statement, Rebuttal, and Evidence) and outline the case in order to investigate and analyze it — to determine whether or not a PFC or “prima facie case” has been established and if there is probable cause for discrimination. I also help the assigned investigator determine what else is needed to move forward, which is known as an RFI or “request for information.” Lastly, I read mail-in complaints which include the same documents aforementioned. I outline each one with a checklist of pertinent information and enter the complaint into the Case Management System.

The intake interviews I conduct over the phone are informed by my training in Public History for a number of reasons. I am working with the public and engaging with the individual stories of people across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, essentially recording a piece of their history and preserving it. This aspect of my internship work lends itself to an oral history framework due to the interview process of the intake as well as the documentation. Although I am not recording the Complainant’s story with a device, I am writing it down and filing it. The complaint of discrimination serves as the individual’s oral history.

I acquired these oral history skills in Introduction to Public History, a course I took during the Fall 2018 semester with Dr. David Glassberg. We covered a wide range of Public History topics, theories, and practices, dedicating a week to the subject of oral history. One of the requirements for the course was to lead two discussions, and I signed up to lead the week covering oral history because it has always been a topic that interests me. In order to prepare for the discussion, I read the section of Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World that examines the practice of oral history, and we discussed the reading as a class. We engaged in a dialogue about the uses of oral history as well as its implications, methods, and procedures. These readings and conversations provided the necessary foundation for my field service project. 

I selected an oral history based topic for my field service project, which served as the main component for Introduction to Public History. This project, titled “UMass Black Pioneers”, focuses on the stories of African American students who attended UMass Amherst during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. My two colleagues and I were each assigned one Black Pioneer to interview, and I was tasked with recording the story of Dr. Leslie McLemore. With the help of Dr. Glassberg, my colleagues and I created a list of interview questions and sent each interviewee an oral history release form, which provided their consent to be interviewed as well as archive their story. I interviewed Dr. McLemore at the UMass Digital Media Lab to ensure I had the proper technology to conduct and record the interview. At the end of the 60-minute interview, I downloaded both the audio and visual recording. The final step was the transcription process, which took me approximately 12 hours to complete. I utilize all of these skills to conduct the intake interviews for my internship with the Commission.

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By Past@Present

P@P: First, it’s so exciting to see your photo on the cover of the new issue of The Public Historian—Congratulations!  Can you tell us how that came about?

RR: Thank you! I knew The Public Historian was publishing a special issue about childhood, gender, and play, but it was a surprise when the editor contacted me about using one of my photos for the cover. It’s such an honor to have my work recognized by colleagues in the field.

P@P: More than 3000 people follow your Instagram feed, @iamexcessivelydollverted.  When and why did you launch that project?  And how do you use this platform as a public historian?

RR: I began @iamexcessivelydollverted three years ago as a way to discuss and expand upon aspects of history related to American Girl’s historical characters. Over time, the project has transformed into a discussion of the history that is overlooked by American Girl. In recent years, American Girl has introduced more characters from marginalized backgrounds, but the vast majority of the dolls they sell are white and all but two of their historical characters are Christian. I am really interested in the idea of historical fiction as public history and how we can use fiction as an entry into understanding history, so I began creating my own historical characters from time periods and marginalized communities overlooked by American Girl. I use these original historical characters to discuss histories of non-white and non-Christian communities in the United States and elsewhere. I also use this project to connect history to contemporary events. All of American Girl’s canonical historical characters fight for justice and equality in their books, so it makes sense to me to use these historical characters to discuss contemporary issues of justice and equality and to trace how contemporary racism, sexism, and inequality is rooted in history.

As a public historian, this project is an extension of my other work. I typically write history articles for online and print outlets, on topics ranging from suffrage history to environmental history. On @iamexcessivelydollverted, I often discuss topics that I’ve written about for websites and magazines, but I’m able to interact with a different readership—over half of my followers are 18-34 years old and the majority are women. Too often, history writing aimed at a popular audience is synonymous with weighty tomes about men written by men. By using American Girl dolls to discuss history for a popular audience, I’m fighting against that stereotype; writing popular history is and should be a feminist act.

American Girl dolls dressed as early 20th-century suffragists used for the cover of The Public Historian’s February 2021 Issue.

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By Allison Smith

Over the summer of 2020 I participated in the Women and COVID-19 Oral History and Memory Project, hosted by Smith College, where I completed my undergraduate degree. I interviewed women in my family about their experiences making and wearing face masks, and along the way, I learned how women understood their roles in the pandemic and how they adapted to the public health crisis.

Two professors from Smith College, Darcy Buerkle and Kelly Anderson, spearheaded the Women and COVID-19 Oral History and Memory Project as a way for Smith students to learn how to create historical sources. For me, this project served as a productive bridge between my undergraduate work and studying Public History at the graduate level at UMass Amherst. As a participant in the project, I could choose any topic to explore. Interested in material culture and fascinated by the changing mask fashions even in the short time from the beginning of the pandemic to the summer months, I decided to give women a space to talk about their experiences with face masks. I conducted six oral history interviews over Zoom and collected numerous survey responses from women who generously shared their experiences with mask making and wearing, pandemic life, and the political climate.

To learn more about mask making on a global scale, I also attended the Homemade Mask (Virtual) Summit in June 2020, an event hosted by Tulane University.1 During this virtual summit I realized how far-reaching this network of women was and I became even more encouraged to continue collecting oral histories. The Smith College project—which to date has preserved over 100 oral testimonies, and counting—is only one project of many, as the IFPH (International Federation for Public History) is collecting public history projects about COVID-19 in a Made By Us map.2 The COVID-19 Pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to capture history in ways that ensure diverse stories are told and women’s voices are heard. 

Patricia Stowell showing off face mask, June 23, 2020.

My grandmother, Patricia Stowell, is one of those women who rose to the challenge of mask making. She and other women from her retirement community in Punta Gorda, Florida, shared face mask patterns and debated the various advantages and disadvantages of each. Looking on YouTube for tutorials, my grandmother endeavored to find a pattern that was “loose enough to breathe, but tight enough so that I feel it’s working.”3 She also followed CDC guidelines, using two 10×6 rectangles of tightly woven cotton.4 After drafting a prototype, she located scraps of cotton she had laying around from previous quilting projects and began machine-sewing masks. Stowell not only sewed masks for herself and her husband but her children and grandchildren. After sending masks across the country to her relatives, she joined forces with her friends to make over 100 masks to donate to the local children’s hospital. The generosity and dedication of these women represent only a snapshot of the communities of crafting women across the world protecting those around them. 

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By Jessica Scott

This article was written as a result of a semester long practicum with Associate Professor Sam Redman focusing on research into the original production of Artifacts at the End of a Decade. Professor Redman also serves as a member of the steering committee for the UMCA exhibit opening February 16th.

It was early Fall 2019 by the time co-curator Jill Hughes and I decided to show the artists book Artifacts at the End of a Decade in its entirety for our 2020 UMCA Curatorial Fellow Exhibition. We’d only seen  its “pages” through the thumbnail images on the website for the 5 Colleges Museum’s Digital Database but we were already piqued by how it stood out from the rest of the collection’s 3000 works on paper. Published in 1981 by Steven Watson and Carol Venezia-Huebner, Artifacts at the End of a Decade is an unbound artists’ book consisting of of 44 unique pieces of photography, ceramics, fiber, print, clothing, painting, and drawing, contributed by artists including Martha Rosler, Fab 5 Freddy, Laurie Anderson, Sol LeWitt, Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs, and Robert Kushner, among many others. As a multidisciplinary American survey of the 1970’s in the form of an artists’ archive, it’s a work that was both a response to its time and far ahead of it.

An image of an opened archival box containing the artists Watson and Venezia-Huebner's portfolio "Artifacts at the end of a Decade."
An image of an to closed archival box containing the artists Watson and Venezia-Huebner's portfolio with the title "Artifacts at the end of a Decade" on the cover of the box.

Artifacts in its portfolio, photography by Stephen Petergorsky.

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An Interview with Brad Paul

Brad Paul is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Community Action Program Association (WISCAP). He has twenty years of local, national, and international experience developing partnerships and managing policy, education and research agendas related to issues of land, labor, housing and poverty reduction. Brad earned his PhD in History from UMass Amherst in 1999. His dissertation focused on 19th and 20th century U.S. labor, and comparative labor and industrialization in South Africa and the American South. Brad has long been active in national anti-poverty and homelessness policy and advocacy work, serving as both the Housing Policy Director and Director of Public Policy at the National Coalition for the Homeless and then as co-founder and Executive Director of the National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness (NPACH). His writings on housing, homelessness, human rights, and labor have appeared in Clearinghouse Review, Ms. Magazine, Shelter Force, International Union Rights, and the Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working Class History. He is also the primary author of the 2003 Bringing America Home Act, comprehensive federal anti-poverty legislation introduced in the 108th Congress. Prior to joining WISCAP, Brad worked in the field of international development for a number of organizations, including Technoserve Mozambique and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). He has previously served as Visiting Scholar in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Brad lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Brad Paul

As the executive director of the Wisconsin Community Action Program Association, you are involved in anti-poverty and homelessness policy and advocacy work. Can you share a bit about the challenges and the rewarding aspects of your work?

One in ten Wisconsinites live below the poverty line, and close to 40% of all households struggle to meet their basic needs. Last year, local school districts identified over 18,000 homeless kids in the state. Taken together, it shows just how fragile economic life can be for low-income families. Our challenge is to impress upon lawmakers, the private sector, and the public where they fit in and how they can make a difference. As an agency, we often struggle to secure the necessary support that allows us to pursue policy and programs that can make a real difference for people. The donor community understands how their dollars contribute to direct service, but less so of the equally critical need for public education and policy change. On the other hand, the rewards seem obvious. Last year, close to 250,000 low-income Wisconsinites received some form of assistance from our member agencies. Knowing that we have an important role to play in helping meet the emergency and longer-term economic needs of individuals and families with children is both daunting and immensely satisfying.

You earned a PhD in History from UMass Amherst. What drew you to labor history? How does your background as a historian inform what you do?

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by Audrey L. Altstadt

Most Americans would probably be surprised to learn that an international observer team monitored and assessed the US election of November 3. The team’s preliminary report, issued midday on November 4 noted that elections were “competitive and well-managed” and the media, despite polarization, “made efforts to provide accurate information.” The report did sound the alarm that “evidence-deficient claims about election fraud created confusion and concern” and that “Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president… harm public trust in democratic institutions.”

“What international observers?” say many Americans, voicing some mixture of doubt and shock. “How can it be? What do they know?”

Among the many international organizations of which the United States is either a member or participant is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE considers democracy and human rights to be pillars of the rule-of-law state and, therefore, matters of security. Based on that idea, OSCE offers to consult member states on their domestic processes related to democracy and human rights including the conduct of elections. Member states can invite OSCE to their elections, as the US State Department has done since 2002. OSCE teams follow a carefully crafted procedure to examine a country’s election laws and practice, to observe polling and vote counting, and publish reports explaining the election in a dispassionate way.

We who study the USSR and post-communist states are familiar with the OSCE and its election monitoring in Russia and other states formerly ruled by communist-party governments since the dissolution of the USSR in late 1991. In my studies of (and experiences living in) post-Soviet Azerbaijan, I have watched or read reports by OSCE teams as they do their complex jobs in election after election. The OSCE office that is charged with election monitoring is the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR – pronounced like “oh, dear”).

Once the host country invites OSCE to monitor its election, ODIHR assembles a Needs Assessment Team to determine specialists and numbers of observers. About two months before the election, a Core Team arrives to set up operations followed by a Long-Term Monitoring team of about 30 that studies conditions, and finally a large Short-term monitoring team is added to expand the number of observers who deploy on the days of balloting and counting. In our recent election, ODIHR deployed 102 observers to various locations as permitted by local laws in most states, though 18 specifically ban international observers including Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Texas.  (Note 101, p. 19) Among the team members are specialists in law, media, political affairs, and other areas. I have known observers who are permanent OSCE staffers or former diplomats. The team is recruited from member states of the OSCE except for citizens of the host country. The core and long-term teams examine election law and oversight structures, processes for candidate and voter registration, media coverage and campaign atmosphere, and a host of details such as themes of the campaign, and whether an incumbent uses state resources for political purposes.

Since I am most familiar with OSCE-ODIHR monitoring and reports for Azerbaijan, I will explain a few significant features of the process for that post-Soviet country. Since the1990s, ODIHR has reported that structural and practical electoral features favor the ruling party and incumbents to the extent that challenges are extremely difficult and even dangerous. Despite some reform, the Azerbaijani government does not change the features that sustain the lopsided power of the regime. Among the most egregious violations of national law and/or OSCE standards that members agree to follow are the structure of the Central Election Commission which administers elections and is packed with members of the ruling party. The ruling regime consistently uses official resources for political purposes, orchestrates biased media coverage, and threatens critics of the regime. Manipulation goes down to local levels where supervisors in jobs and schools pressure employees and even adult students to vote for incumbents.

Election day shenanigans may be the things we most often associate with stealing elections. Azerbaijan and other post-Soviet states including Russia have engaged in overt ballot stuffing, “carousel” voting when a group of voters is bussed from one polling station to another to vote repeatedly, and the failure of poll watchers to check on these fake voters thereby enabling their actions. In virtually every reporting year between 1995 and 2013, ODIHR rated about a quarter to a third of Azerbaijan’s polling stations as bad or very bad.

But the greater manipulation of Azerbaijan’s elections took place in counting. Observers reported the poorly concealed addition of pre-marked ballots to boost totals for an incumbent. In some years, as many as half the counting stations and procedures were rated as bad or very bad. That included two presidential elections casting doubt on the legitimacy of Azerbaijan’s current president.

What did the OSCE ODIHR team find in the US? On the day after polling, according to OSCE procedures, team leaders hold a press conference and post a Preliminary Report on the website. The team found that procedures were overwhelming orderly and lawful, but “evidence-deficient” claims of fraud risked undermining public confidence. (Schedule, team members, and reports for the US election are available on the OSCE website)

The 24-page Preliminary Report was posted midday on November 4, before several post-election disputes clearly emerged. The report recapped the complex US electoral structure – with elections run by states and varied levels of discretion over thousands of local jurisdictions – and thus provided detailed information that many Americans probably don’t know about their own country’s system. The general conduct was deemed to be orderly and lawful, despite hundreds of pre-election lawsuits. Most problems were dealt with quickly and in accord with appropriate laws. The campaign, however, was “characterized by deepening political polarization, extremely negative campaigning;” and “the incumbent president’s use of discriminatory and pejorative statements against individuals on the grounds of their gender and origin was of particular concern.” (p. 11)

Because OSCE focuses on democratic process, it included in this report many examples of statements that it considered threatening, specifically the president’s allegations “that the electoral process, and postal voting in particular, would be open to widespread fraud, while not providing any further information or evidence…” and his suggestion that he would not honor the outcome and commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Noted the report: “Statements of this nature by a presidential candidate risk eroding public confidence in democratic institutions and delegitimizing the outcome of the election.” (pp. 11-12)

Among the many areas addressed in the report, those on early and mail-in voting take on added significance in the days after balloting. The OSCE reported that “most states” decided to start processing mailed ballots before election day because of the large number of those ballots. It elaborated variations in Footnote 129 (p. 22), beginning with this important point: “Alabama, Mississippi, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania required absentee ballot processing to start only on election day.”  By week’s end, Pennsylvania’s continuing ballot count has become a major focal point of partisan tension.

The OSCE Preliminary Report closed with cautionary comment about the night of balloting:

“Despite the fact that the results of the election were still inconclusive, the incumbent president again questioned the integrity of the process and declared victory. Counting and tabulation are ongoing and should continue in accordance with the law and OSCE commitments. Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions.”

As the OSCE ODIHR team worries, the greatest present threat seems to be to the democratic process itself and public confidence in our elections despite the overwhelming evidence that legal procedures have been followed.

Audrey L. Altstadt

By Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Kathrine Esten, and Rebecca Simons

Imagine a United States embroiled in a deadly pandemic, divided over something as simple as whether or not to wear a mask. Or imagine a United States drawn into distant military conflicts despite deep societal tensions at home. Or imagine Americans going into a presidential election wishing that the previous four years had never taken place.

We’re not discussing 2020. This is 1920. Starting on October 1, the Gibson House Museum, a historic house in Boston’s Back Bay, is featuring a new outdoor exhibit titled “1920: The Gibsons’ New Normal.”

The exhibit follows the Gibson family and their staff through three waves of dramatic societal change that preceded the election of 1920: the Influenza Pandemic, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and the First World War. The impetus for the project came after the Gibson House Museum was forced to close to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Museum staff wanted to find a way to remain connected and relevant to the neighborhood community.

While these areas of study are fascinating under normal circumstances, their centennial anniversary comes at a time when the lessons of the past are more relevant than ever. Seeking to understand the Gibson family’s eagerness to embrace a “return to normalcy,” the staff and interns at the Gibson House Museum found themselves reflected in an America burdened with instability and social tension.

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