Patrick and Sarah Henry: Mental illness in 18th century America


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This post originally appeared on the National Museum of American History’s blog O Say Can You See

Smithsonian Curator Dr. Katherine Ott invited students in Dr. Samuel J. Redman’s Museum/Historic Site Interpretation Seminar to explore the museum’s disability history collections and write blog posts sharing their research. The blogs are part of the celebrations commemorating the 25th anniversary of the passage of the American Disabilities Act.

Rose Gallenberger, M.A. student, UMass Department of History

“Give me liberty, or give me death!” School children learn these words that Patrick Henry exclaimed on the eve of the American Revolution. However, that is nearly all most Americans know about this Founding Father from Virginia. This year’s anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act is a good time to recover the history of how people in the past, including statesmen such as Patrick Henry, understood disability. Henry’s wife, Sarah Shelton Henry, dealt with depression and violent outbursts. Despite recommendations, together they refused to place her in a hospital, instead providing care for her at home until her death.

Violet postage stamp featuring portrait of Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry postage stamp, issued October 1958. Collections of the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.

Patrick and Sarah knew each other from childhood and fell in love. They married in 1754 at a very young age, even by 18th century American standards. He was 18 and she 16, and together they had six children. After the sixth child, Sarah became increasingly unwell.

There is little information on the specific nature of Sarah’s illness, nor is there a record of Sarah’s participation in decisions about her treatment. But there is no doubt that she experienced mental instability. She was ill in 1774 with signs dating back to 1767. She was emotionally unsettled and became violent at times, to the point that she had to be restrained by a strait-dress (an early form of a strait-jacket) to prevent her from harming herself and others. Patrick knew he had to do something to help his wife and care for his family.

Mental illness was understood very differently in the 18th century compared to now. The populace generally viewed it as sinful and criminal, a sign of the devil. A new hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia, the Eastern State Hospital, opened in 1773 specifically for the mentally ill. It served as an alternative to prison or other punishments. The treatments were harsh but also common—patients were bled, blistered, subjected to pain, shock, and terror. They were dunked in water and restrained, resulting in injury or death. The fact that there was an institution separate from almshouses and hospitals for treating the mentally ill is noteworthy. Eastern State Hospital represented progress in care for the mentally ill.

Color photo of large brick building with turret in center, white windows, on grassy lawn

The Hospital’s rebuilt original 1773 building as it stands today in Williamsburg, Virginia Reconstruction. Photograph by Ryan Lintelman via Wikimedia Commons. February 28, 2006.

Patrick Henry, who had spent much time in Williamsburg, knew about the hospital and refused to send Sarah there. The Henrys were a family of some wealth, and this probably helped in the decision for Sarah to remain at their home, Scotchtown Plantation. They created a small apartment for her in a sunny section of the mansion’s basement. Patrick assigned a slave to serve as a nurse to her, and he also aided directly in her care. He and the children visited her often, and their eldest daughter and her husband moved home to help care for her mother. Sarah died in 1775, possibly of suicide, but historians do not know the exact cause of her death.

White building with steps at entrance and grassy lawn, color photo.

Scotchtown, residence of Patrick and Sarah Shelton Henry. Courtesy of Preservation Virginia.

Patrick had the option to send Sarah away to an institution, and although ground-breaking at the time, hospitalization would have resulted in a much lower quality of life for his wife. Whether his decision was a result of love for his wife or concern for his reputation and political ambition, his approach to mental illness was remarkably innovative for the 18th century. The example of Sarah Shelton Henry and the Eastern State Hospital mark the beginning of a wave of reform in the approach to mental illness and disability.

Something to Talk about Besides the Food


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Emily Oswald, Aulmna, UMass History

17. mai i Slottsparken (May 17th in Castle Park), c. 1975. From the Oslo Museum collections available on

17. mai i Slottsparken (May 17th in Castle Park), c. 1975. From the Oslo Museum collections available on

“Oh look,” one of the elderly women said, pointing towards the image projected on the screen. “He decided to lie down because, you know, you get so tired standing all day to watch the parade.” It was a recent Tuesday in May, and my presentation of historical photographs of May 17th, Norway’s national day, was winding down. The other women around the table nodded. “That’s right, you do get tired,” another said. We paused for a moment, and I could almost see the memory of aching feet and tired legs travel around the table.

Since January 2015, I’ve been coming to a senior center on the east side of Oslo every other Tuesday evening. I bring a USB drive with a PowerPoint slideshow and my best Norwegian grammar to sit down with men and women in the 70s and 80s. We spend about an hour together, looking at historic photographs from the digital archive,, projected onto the wall of the senior center’s cafe. We’ve seen pictures of Oslo winter from the 1890s and more recently Oslo in spring from the 1970s. We’ve flipped through images that document the working lives of Oslo residents, and photographs of the city’s schools and breweries and newspaper kiosks.

Overselling this program is easy: imagine a grant application that declares ‘Historic photographs inspire reminiscing and conversation, and build community among nursing home residents! Use digital resources to draw out analog memories!’ In reality, I’m not sure how to measure the success or the impact of the program. The number of participants varies according to so-far indiscernible rhythms of life in an assisted living facility: as many as 15 and as few as three participants have showed up. It’s often not clear who came knowing there would be pictures, and who happened to wander in for some company or a snack before bed. Sometimes, the people who do come think the pictures are boring (one woman said as much on the evening we looked at pictures of Oslo cinemas). Sometimes, everyone is in a bad mood because the weather is rotten or there was a funeral earlier in the day.

But what I do find exciting and satisfying about the project is the way it solves a real problem. The project meets the only explicitly articulated goal that I and the senior center’s activity director laid out when we first talked about collaborating. “We’re really happy for just about any kind of evening programming,” I remember her saying. “It can be easy for conversation to get stuck on what they didn’t like about the lunch menu.” I want to recognize what’s been accomplished with modest resources at a small scale. For five months, elderly people at the senior center have continued to show up, smile as I turn on the projector, and say thank you at the end of the presentation. I know a bit more about their lives and the city I now live in, and they seem to appreciate that I keep coming back, even if the pictures I bring are sometimes boring.

It can be easy for community-oriented public history projects to get wrapped up outsized objectives (reach all the kindergarten-aged children in the city) or abstract measures of success (participants will experience a new connection to the history of their neighborhood). Such objectives and measures of success have their place, but volunteering at the senior center in Oslo has been a good reminder of another way we can approach public history programming. A public historian’s skills, like curating images and facilitating conversations, and resources, like online historical photo databases, can meet concrete, everyday challenges, and solve small-scale, intimate problems. We can give people something to talk about besides the food.

Emily Oswald is a 2013 graduate of the Public History program. She has lived in Oslo, Norway, since August 2014.

Reflections on NCPH


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Amanda Tewes, Ph.D. candidate, UMass History

For the robust group of public historians in the UMass History Department, the annual meeting of the National Council of Public History (NCPH) ( serves as holiday of sorts—a great way to meet new people, see new places, and hear about the state of the field. Conference goers also have the opportunity to attend speed-networking sessions, mingle at the Graduate Student and New Professional Mixer, and take in local history.

UMass students Erica Fagan, Katie Garland, Amanda Tewes, and Emily Pipes

This year in Nashville many of our students and faculty also represented UMass Public History well by shaping conference content and participating in working groups, presenting on panels, and moderating discussions. Emily Pipes even won an NCPH travel grant to attend the conference and participate in the working group “Who Speaks for Us?: Government Historians and NCPH.”

Emily Pipes receives her Travel grant from NCPH Executive Director John Dichtl

One of the most popular panels at the conference—at 8:30 a.m. no less!—was “Selfies, Tweets, and Likes: Social Media and its Role in Historical Memory,” featuring UMass’s own Erica Fagen as a presenter and Jon Olsen as commentator. What this panel got right was not just its exciting content, but also the way it inspired other public historians in the audience to think about using digital sources in their own work, pushing the boundaries of what is “history.” As panelist Jennifer Evans (Carleton University) explained, looking to forums like Instagram and Flickr as sources for historical research brings “new actors into the conversation” about “who is making that history and who is analyzing that history.” Not surprisingly, such an engaging topic had audience members jumping out of their seats to ask questions.

Erica Fagen’s session, “Selfies, Tweets, and Likes: Social Media and its Role in Historical Memory,”

NCPH is also a great place to connect (or reconnect) with UMass alumni across the United States and abroad. The Department sponsors a dinner with current and former public history students to reminisce and discuss careers in the field while experiencing the local nightlife.

Professor Miller reconnects with alumna Jill Ogline Titus

Most importantly, NCPH is a great opportunity for graduate students, new and seasoned professionals, as well as faculty to meet and discuss the future of public history. Participating in these discussions not only reinvigorates conference goers, but also helps shape the field.

I hope you can join us next year!

“The true condition of our race”: Centering personal narratives in writing history


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By Peter Blackmer, Ph.D. student, W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass Amherst

My grandmother has a family-famous saying that she utilizes anytime someone is looking for something that is clearly within plain sight. The saying goes, “If it had teeth, it would bite you.” As I sat at my desk a couple of years back digging through massive texts on Reconstruction-era politics in an attempt to develop an analysis of the nature of political violence during this period, I stumbled upon a passage that called my grandmother’s saying to the front of my mind. After having spent countless hours reading through accounts of politically-motivated violence to find patterns in its application, I found a narrative given by Henry Adams, a freedman and astute reporter of Black experiences during Reconstruction, that would have bitten me, if it had teeth.

The original premise of this research endeavor was to determine the validity of a claim made by George Henry White, the last Black Congressman of the post-Reconstruction era, in an address to Congress in 1900 in support of his anti-lynching bill. In this address, White claimed that “since the end of the Civil War, fully fifty thousand of my race have been ignominiously murdered by mobs.” To determine the merits of this claim, I began to tear through book after book on Reconstruction to compile not only numbers, but names and narratives as well. As I read through countless harrowing accounts of individual experiences with racial terror in the post-Civil War South, my objective quickly evolved from merely validating White’s body count to promoting the historical agency of these marginalized histories and utilizing these accounts to develop an analysis of the larger role of racial violence in the political arena.

Within this context, it became my goal to employ the narratives of personal experiences in the Reconstruction-era South to transform numbers and statistics into names and stories in an effort to make this material more accessible and relatable to students and readers. The course that I was developing this project for, Professor Miller’s Writing History (HIS691W), had significant impacts on the ways that I approached and sought to present this material to my intended audiences. With a specific focus on developing historical prose for readers outside of academia, I was drawn to works we read in class, such as Robin D.G. Kelley‘s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, that utilized character-driven narratives to confront more complex historical topics in a manner accessible to popular audiences (Professor Kelley was actually a Writer-in-Residence during this semester and was an incomparable resource to have in class). Having been exposed to how effectively Professor Kelley and others crafted their character-centered approaches to writing history for readers outside of the academy, I felt that this would be an ideal approach to making the complexities of my research more accessible and translating the numbers and statistics I had been compiling into narratives that my audience could identify with. Given that I had come to this decision to center the personal narratives of those most deeply affected by the violence I sought to analyze within my research, it seemed prudent to allow those same narratives to define the terms of my larger analysis of the role of political violence in overthrowing Reconstruction in the South.

In one brief account given before a Senate Committee in 1870, Henry Adams, whom the Senate report referred to as “a man of very unusual natural abilities, and… entirely reliable and truthful,” provided the adept analysis of the formulaic nature of political violence that I had spent the better part of a semester seeking to develop. While I was busy trying to write the story of the systematic violent suppression of would-be Black voters in the post-Civil War South from my desk in Amherst, Massachusetts in 2012, Henry Adams had largely done this aspect of my work nearly 150 years earlier through his work in collecting reports of “the true condition of [his] race” across the South. Through my research of personal narratives from 1865-1876, I had discovered a pattern in the use of violence by white Democrats to first disrupt Black Republican rallies in Southern communities and then continue this style of intimidation throughout the night in the form of roving white hunting parties that would terrorize Black communities, Republican or not. While my research may have led me to the discovery of this pattern, it was the voice of Henry Adams that truly brought it to life. Responding to a question from a member of the Senate Commission on how “white people could bulldoze the Negro and prevent him from voting,” Adams described that:

“They come to a place where there is a kind of little gathering. One will take a drink…then comes out and commences to meddle with one of the colored men. Maybe the colored man will say something sort of rash like. If he does, [the white] will haul out a revolver and strike him and maybe, perhaps, shoot him. Then a passel of them will commence firing on them colored men… Now, if one of them colored men will show fight, if he hurts one of them, his life ain’t no more than a chicken’s. He may go home but he wont stay for a passel will come after him that night.”

What is remarkable about Adams’ narrative for the purposes of writing history is that through his unique experiences travelling throughout the South witnessing and reporting on the conditions experienced by Black individuals during Reconstruction, he was able to distill the narratives that he bore witness to into a contemporary analysis of the use of political violence to subvert Black political agency. Despite the historical significance of Adams’ testimony in challenging the popularly accepted dominant narratives of the failures (or overthrow) of Reconstruction, both contemporarily and historically, his narratives are largely absent from many of the major texts on Reconstruction-era politics.

Beyond merely enhancing my work for this particular writing project, the discovery of Henry Adams’ influential reporting has led me to develop a heightened appreciation of the possibilities that personal narratives can hold for not only writing history, but also for engaging in critical pedagogy and challenging dominant historical narratives in public school settings. Having briefly taught in the New York City public school system, I witnessed the marginalization of historically significant narratives such as Adams’ in the context of Reconstruction’s demise, in favor of dominant narratives centered around the imposition of supposedly “radical” Northern political ideals upon the South in the wake of the Civil War and the folly of exploitative “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags.” Not only was the textbook presentation of this material stale to my students, it was serving to promote and maintain dominant historical narratives that continue to skew the experiences of people of color in the Reconstruction-era South. My long-term hope for the application of this particular narrative-driven research is to develop a framework for cooperative learning projects, through which students will engage in the research process of locating and connecting with individual, micro-histories, and working collaboratively to weave these into a more nuanced analysis to complicate historical meta-narratives.

By utilizing works in our teaching that center the personal narratives of individuals who experienced and were directly impacted by historical events, such as Dorothy Sterling’s The Trouble They Seen, we are able to not only challenge the dominant narratives that continue to be presented in many history texts, but to also promote a more authentic education for our students by utilizing materials that provide personal voices to bring history to life. These “counter-stories,” as defined by scholar-educators Daniel Solorzano and Tara J. Yosso, represent “a tool for exposing, analyzing, and challenging the majoritarian stories of racial privilege. Counter-stories can shatter complacency, challenge the dominant discourse on race, and further the struggle for racial reform.” As broad populations in America seek to understand and analyze contentious current events that have the potential to usher in major political, social, and economic change in the nation, it is essential that we not only listen to the voices of those most directly impacted by the topics we are seeking to understand, but that we demand media outlets to center these voices. For, if these voices continue to be made invisible in favor of artificially-imposed narratives, we will continue to search for the answers to our questions, but will not find them to be without “teeth.”

Peter Blackmer is originally from Syracuse, New York and earned both his B.A. in History and M.S. in Education from Wagner College. His primary research interests center on local studies of the Civil Rights Movement in New York City, with a specific focus on community-based organizing and activism in Harlem preceding the 1964 rebellions.

Regional Libraries and the Rural/Urban Knowledge Schism


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Gregg Mitchell, M.A. Student, History Department


South Hadley Public Library

This post originally appeared as part of the Living New Deal project

Since the earliest years of the American Republic, but especially since the mid-nineteenth century, there has been a divide between rural and urban communities. This conflict persists today in several forms, one being the disparity of available knowledge between these spaces. Different states have their own unique divides, and for various reasons—and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is no exception to this rule. Eastern Massachusetts, built around Boston, is more densely populated and more developed as compared to the western half. In fact, even though Western Massachusetts is home to one-third of the state’s total area, its population amounts to only one-ninth of the state total. Consequently, Western Massachusetts has had to be a constant advocate, pressing for access to knowledge in the forms of various institutions. In the 1930s, an innovative program spawned out of the New Deal worked to address this deficit of available knowledge in rural America.

Recently, I became involved with a project exploring the history of the Massachusetts Library System (MLS). This organization operates as a collaborative. Its goal is to ensure that all public libraries within the state of Massachusetts can work together and freely share their resources. The MLS also decides how state funds are allocated to each library, depending on the wants and needs of each institution. For a state that is over 200 years old and known for the value it places upon education, it is surprising that the MLS did not expand to all libraries within Massachusetts until 2010. Until the MLS brought all of these libraries into their organization, many isolated regional library systems existed within the state. The last holdout to this consolidation of regional libraries was the Western Massachusetts Regional Library System (WMRLS). This organization was created in 1940 through New Deal funding via the Works Progress Administration (WPA). It was seen as a way to share resources and materials across various institutions within the four most western counties of the state. This group-sharing system worked quite well for the libraries and academic institutions that participated. These other academic institutions could include any organization that owned a library, archive, or records and wished to join into this group sharing network. During the first two years of WPA funding, this library collaborative effort grew to 92 member institutions, including local universities, community colleges, public libraries, schools, hospitals, and even courts. Over the years, this regional entity would grow to total 312 members before ultimately being absorbed into the MLS in 2010.

While the WMRLS no longer exists, its mission lives on through a sister organization called the Western Massachusetts Library Advocates (WMLA), founded in 1898. This organization overtook the role the WMRLS played in advocating for rural libraries following their consolidation into the MLS. Many members of the former WMRLS have become members and even officers with the WMLA organization. They continue to advocate for rural libraries and work to improve access to knowledge in a variety of ways. Many rural communities in the United States suffer from this lack of attention by the more urban and populous sectors of society. This may start with access to educational options, but in time leads to limited access to higher paying jobs, less market activity, and ultimately spirals back to the area’s social services including local libraries, which are forced to pool their resources and band together in order to take care of their sparsely populated regions. What solutions are available to address these problems? Do the answers already exist in lessons from our past? Many rural libraries and library systems, including the WMRLS, were created through New Deal funding under the Roosevelt administration. Would it be possible to emulate these programs such as the WPA, which have proved successful in the past? During its time, programs such as the WPA and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) reinvested billions of dollars into local municipalities in order to both alleviate unemployment and provide an updated infrastructure for community services. Examples of this new infrastructure included libraries, museums, post offices, bridges, and many more. These institutions and structures are still a part of the fabric of the many towns and cities they were created in. Could pumping either state or federal funds into rural communities reverse this intellectual schism that still persists today? While I cannot say for certain this is the answer, there is enough historical precedent to at least give it a try.

Living In Another Language



Hunter Oberg, History Major, UMass Amherst

Hikone, Japan

Hikone, Japan

During the summer of 2014, from June through the beginning of August, I undertook what was the most challenging, yet rewarding academic experiences of my undergraduate career: studying Japanese in Japan. Having been fascinated by Japan and its language, culture, and history for a number of years, I had finally gotten the opportunity not only to spend time there, but to study the language and culture up close. The program I studied at, Japan Center for Michigan Universities, requires that only Japanese be used during classroom hours. The instructors communicate with students using only Japanese and the students, in turn, respond in Japanese, unless asking permission first to use English, which may be, and usually was, denied. Initially this was one of the most overwhelming experiences of my life. One of the biggest challenges of living in another country, especially when the language used is not your own, is communication. English isn’t uncommon in Japan. There will be signs in English, stores or restaurants that use English names, like say a Starbucks, and the names of Japanese places might be translated into Romaji, which is the translation of Japanese into the Latin alphabet, but the English Language itself will be rarely used outside of big cities.

Part of the Peace Park in Hiroshima

Part of the Peace Park in Hiroshima

I got my first taste of this after leaving the airport in Nagoya when I was attempting to make my way to the program. Having next to no usable Japanese, I was lulled into a false sense of security at the airport, the flight attendants spoke English, announcements were made in English, so I was little prepared for trying to buy a subway ticket, a train ticket, and further, trying to read and make sense of what was on the ticket, which happened to be mostly in Japanese. This isn’t to say getting around or experiencing Japan is impossible if you don’t speak Japanese, but it will be tremendously helpful if you do. One of the most rewarding experiences in all of this, of course was when I was able to understand or communicate in Japanese. But, even when I couldn’t understand, even during the moments when I had no hope of figuring out what was being said, I was still able to appreciate and enjoy the fact that I was surrounded by a language and culture that wasn’t my own.

The dome at Hiroshima

The dome at Hiroshima

The best example of this was when I, along with four other students from my program, hiked ancient pilgrimage route into the small mountain town of Koya to stay at a Buddhist temple. Koya, generally referred to as Koyasan, is home to a large number of Buddhist temples, which offer lodging called Shukubo, where you’re given a room, meals, and the chance to watch the monks perform their morning prayers. Despite having spent almost all of my waking hours studying Japanese, I could barely understand the chanting of the monks. This didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the experience at all, in fact in some ways it might have enhanced it. I stopped any attempt at trying to translate what I was hearing and instead only enjoyed the moment, which was unlike anything I’ve experienced to this point in my life.

Garden at the temple in Koyasan.

Garden at the temple in Koyasan.

Studying Japanese in Japan provided a unique experience, one that isn’t readily available in the United States. I was forced to use the language inside the classroom by my professors and of course, had to use the language outside of it to survive. Whether I was in a grocery store attempting to figure out the price or location of an item or in the train station trying to ask for directions, I had the chance to use what I learned in a meaningful way. I also had experiences in Japan where I couldn’t understand what was going on, but was able to appreciate that moment for what it was. Initially it can be terrifying experience when people are speaking and announcements are being made and you can understand almost none it, but it can also be exhilarating.

Itsukushima Shrine. A famous Shinto Shrine located on the island of Itsukushima, popularly referred to as Myajima.

Itsukushima Shrine. A famous Shinto Shrine located on the island of Itsukushima, popularly referred to as Myajima.

All of this would not have been possible without the help the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. The scholarship, provided by the State Department and only available to those receiving a Pell Grant, seeks to help individuals study abroad that ordinarily might not be able to. You can find out more about the Gilman Scholarship and studying abroad by going to the Education Abroad Office located on  455 Hills South, 111 Thatcher Road on the UMass campus.

Floating Torii

Floating Torii

A Transplanted Historian: Cape Town to Amherst


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Neroli Price, M.A. student, University of Capetown

History is not something which is floating ‘out there’ waiting to be found. It is constantly being negotiated and renegotiated across time and space, influenced by changing paradigms of meaning-making. Historians, or self-appointed ‘guardians of the past’, are deeply embroiled in this perpetual conversation. Being self-reflective about my own role in this ever evolving process is what inspired me to transplant myself from the University of Cape Town (UCT) at the southern tip of Africa to the University of Massachusetts (UMass) in Amherst in the north eastern United States.

Neroli Price at the Brooklyn Bridge

Neroli Price at the Brooklyn Bridge

I initially chose to spend a semester abroad at UMass because of the prestigious Public History program it offers. The core principles of Public History, to expand knowledge and its creation beyond the academy and to engage with communities around history, identity and heritage in an empowering manner, was to me an exciting prospect and one that, in my eyes, had many progressive and democratising ideals at its centre. I was fortunate enough to land amongst a dynamic, warm and engaging group of graduate students and staff in the History department at UMass that allowed me to challenge myself and grow through the process. Evidently, interacting with individuals who inhabit vastly different realities to your own is an incredibly powerful way to challenge your own assumptions. Thus, not only did I learn about a new place and people, but I also learnt about where I come from through the eyes of others.

At home, in South Africa, where the official end of apartheid occurred during my lifetime in 1994, the project of rewriting history has been personally both immediate and visceral on an everyday level. From the changing street names, to the vastly different school curricula my parents and I learnt, to the building of new monuments and museums… History is everywhere in post-apartheid South Africa. Although, on one level, these were arguably cosmetic changes that to some extent obscure the lasting socio-economic inequalities of colonialism and apartheid, their symbolic value is immense. This very obvious refashioning of the historical narrative lies at the heart of my own interest in the past, or rather the stories we tell about it, their impact and their changing meanings.

Engaging with Public History at UMass was a very different experience. There has not been a significant rupture in the national narrative like in South Africa, but rather an ever swelling critique about the silences that the ‘American dream’ necessarily engenders. Why is Native American History popularly referred to as ‘pre-history’? Why does American history seemingly only start with European settlers arriving in the North east? These fundamental assumptions are not unique to the US, they exist in national histories the world over and they are necessarily violent, erasing entire populations by shining spotlights on others. In South Africa, the new national narrative is deeply wedded to the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC); and, as mandated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), has been hemmed into a short thirty year period, starting with the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 and ending with the first democratic elections of 1994. What about the thousands of years before Europeans settled in southern Africa? Does that not count as history? Is that relegated to the realm of archaeology – to the mystical and the ancient worlds that we often view with rose-tinted glasses? Where do we draw lines and distinguish one period, genre, or discipline from another? These are all deeply political and dangerous decisions that require a lot of self-awareness on the part of the historian.

Two weeks ago, a group of students at my home university, UCT, staged a protest, dumping human faeces on a campus statue of the infamous colonist, Cecil John Rhodes. They were literally utilising the sewage that most black South Africans encounter on an everyday basis as a result of poor service delivery in the townships – a legacy of apartheid era urban planning and ideals of separate development – to draw attention to the continued presence and glorification of colonialism in post-apartheid South Africa and more specifically in spaces of higher education that profess to now serve all South Africans. The daily offence caused by the presence of this statue can only be imagined by those of us whose histories, whether we like it or not, are aptly represented by such physical reminders of conquest and subjugation. As Pumla Gqola, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, has argued in response to these recent events, public statues “are powerful concrete reminders and celebrations of the figures they represent. They tell us about who and what matters, who is disposable, who should be invisibilised.” This debate, for me, illustrates the vitally important role of history in the struggle for social justice in the present and future.

students protesting statue of Cecil Rhodes (courtesy Michael Hammond University of Capetown Daily News)

students protesting statue of Cecil Rhodes (courtesy Michael Hammond University of Capetown Daily News)

Although these debates are certainly thriving in the US, most recently in the wake of protests against police brutality in Ferguson and many other parts of the country, some of the historical sites that we visited as part of the field trips organised by the Public History program lacked obvious engagement with the problematic nature of preserving and glorifying settler colonialism. In particular, during a cruise down the Connecticut River, we came across Turner’s Falls, named after a British general who massacred Native American women, children and the elderly while the men were away hunting. Another site that we visited, Historic Deerfield, also seemed to romanticise settler colonialism in North America, by preserving and re-enacting a period of American history that was incredibly violent and destructive from the perspective of the eventual victors. Obviously, I am not advocating throwing excrement at Turner’s Falls or Historic Deerfield – we cannot simply cut and paste these responses. Although the comparison between public history in South Africa and the US is useful in highlighting certain similarities and speaking to my own personal reference points, there are evidently contextual differences and thus no single solution. My aim is to allow the comparison to foster new questions, new ways of thinking and, importantly, to highlight, that these challenges are ones with historians are facing all over the world.

Public History trip to Turner's Falls along the Connecticut River

Public History trip to Turner’s Falls along the Connecticut River

Of course, I do not approach this topic one-dimensionally. I understand the complexities and contradictions present in the contemporary power structures that manifest in the impossibility of trying to please everyone, of the all too real budgetary constraints in the heritage sector, of access to sources of reliable information, of funding lobbies etc. However, as uncomfortable and painful as it might be, we have a responsibility as historians, not to dictate the meanings of the past, but rather encourage popular audiences to engage with the changing meanings of history. It is towards this end that I transplanted myself to learn from a different place, people and history-making and ended up making some life-long friends along the way.

Neroli Price with fellow UMass students Natalie Sherif and Julie Peterson

Neroli Price with fellow UMass students

Reflections on the 2015 GHA Conference


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Chelsea Miller, M.A. student, History Department


One broad theme I noticed during this weekend’s conference was the translation of ideas from abstract forms to material consequences. From aesthetics and political imagination to social justice in the classroom, my attention was drawn to the question of how our ideas and imagination manifest as art, interpersonal interactions, and teaching materials. These can either uphold or resist power dynamics and oppression.

Chelsea Miller asking a question during the opening panel

Chelsea Miller asking a question during the opening panel

Bryn Schockmel, of Boston University, presented a paper exploring how fourteenth-century Italian iconography traveled to the Netherlands to be woven into a sixteenth-century silk tapestry. The movement of ideas, iconography, and design can be attributed to the tastes of elite ruling classes – specifically, in this case, the Medici family. King Henry VIII eventually became the owner of the tapestries central to Schockmel’s thesis, among many more carpets, and several paintings survive of Henry posed with his material conquests. In contrast, Joan Blanchfield, of SUNY Albany, highlighted the interconnected world of avant-garde art following World War II and focused on Richard Stankiewicz’s explicit criticisms of global post-war politics and the artistic tastes of elites in the United States and Europe. Andrew Stahlhut, visiting from Lehigh University, has taken a transnational approach to the interactions between the British Empire, Dutch traders, and the Iroquois Nations in upstate New York in focusing on borderlands history and how the British Empire depended on the precarious cooperation of Dutch and Iroquois actors. Additionally, as Stahlhut posited, the transnational approach that borderlands history provides is a recognition that history still happens “when rich white guys aren’t around.”


Andrew Stahlhut, PhD Lehigh University, discussing early American borderlands

The panel on teaching for social justice outlined how several of our own history professors incorporate learning about social change and oppression into their lesson plans. In Professor Julio Capó’s classes, Professor Capó encourages students to write down their preferred pronouns on an index card at the beginning of the semester. For a number of students, this might be a way to comfortably express their identity. For students who had never before encountered the complexities of gender identity and expression, this might create feelings of discomfort. In either case, this activity offers a subtle, yet powerful, means to engage with the topic of gender identity.

Social Justice Panel left to right: Libby Sharrow, Julio Capó, Richard Chu, Barbara Krauthamer

Social Justice Panel left to right: Libby Sharrow, Julio Capó, Richard Chu, Barbara Krauthamer

Professor Richard Chu highlighted the importance of incorporating activism and service into the classroom experience. Professor Chu’s courses often deal with inequalities experienced by a range of people as a result of imperialism, colonialism, and systems of dependence. In order to bridge the gap between academic learning and activism, community service can be integrated into history courses. I would argue in support of this suggestion: partnerships with local communities can provide valuable experiences for all parties involved and highlight to students that social justice and history are intertwined.

Professor Libby Sharrow also expanded on these issues in emphasizing that educators must always be involved in the processes of learning, and that there are inherent power dynamics in the student-teacher relationship. Thus, a discussion about social change must also be a discussion about power. In promoting classroom diversity, teachers can use their agenda-setting power to make important decisions about constructing the syllabus and gathering resources for students to use.

I think there is one statement that addresses a major focus of this weekend’s conference and how many of us in the department do history. Before Andrew Stahlhut presented his paper on borderlands history and empire, he made this statement: “Academic history is not about finding the right answers. That’s boring. It’s a way of thinking.” The panels emphasized different ways of thinking that have real consequences. By embracing social justice in the classroom and within the field of history, we can more successfully open up conversations about the past and what this means for the future.

GHA Officers left to right: Janelle Bourgeois, Marwa Amer, Emily Pipes, Felicia Jameson

GHA Officers left to right: Janelle Bourgeois, Marwa Amer, Emily Pipes, Felicia Jameson

Reflections on Writing the History of the Holyoke Civic Symphony Orchestra


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By Dr. Jane Rausch, Professor Emerita, Department of History


In 2017 the Holyoke Civic Symphony will celebrate its 50th anniversary. As a non-profit organization composed of 60 mostly non professional musicians who come together once a week to rehearse, it has survived, thanks to generous support from Holyoke Community College (HCC) and local businesses. The organization has also thrived because of the efforts of highly motivated instrumentalists and Boards of Directors. These individuals were determined to provide opportunities for people in Holyoke and the surrounding communities both to play and to hear high quality performances of symphonic works of music.

Last October, having completed my latest book on Colombia and looking around for a new project, I rashly offered to write a history of the orchestra (of which I have been a member since 2006) as part of the anniversary activities. Soon I was happily engaged sorting through the three “bank boxes” of documents dealing with the period between 1967 and 1998 that our current business manger was threatening to discard because they were taking up too much space in her tiny office at HCC (!). Working steadily, I now have a 170- page manuscript that is organized as follows: After a brief description of the city of Holyoke and HCC in the 1960s, I discuss the founding of the orchestra and it first years from 1967-1973; its struggle to find an identity, 1973-75; its survival under six different music directors 1975-1985; Its incorporation and continuing search for stability, 1985-1997; and its renewal and new direction under its current music director, David Kidwell, 1998-2017.

This first experience at writing local history has brought me many joys and poses a variety of problems. Among the joys have been learning about the unique history of the city of Holyoke (about which I knew nothing previously); the founding and development of HCC; the inner workings of an orchestra; especially the role played by the Board of Directors, and finally, the qualities a music director must possess if he or she is to mold a group of amateur musicians of widely varying abilities into an ensemble that can perform symphonic music at a near professional level.

Alas, there are also problems. The biggest difficulty has been that the paper documents disappear after 1998. Fortunately, one of the original members of the orchestra loaned me his collection of all the printed concert programs between 1967 and 2010 (the year he retired from the orchestra) which has been a major source of information, but the other primary source– the minutes of the Board of Directors– are harder to come by. Once computers became the main method of communicating and recording information, successive secretaries and business managers seemed to have made no effort to collect or organize digital files. Some past secretaries have sent me their files, but others have erased the information so that there are many gaps in my account. Other problems lying ahead include: how to incorporate the memories, thoughts, and observations of the six or seven individuals who have played with the orchestra for more than forty years; how to include photographs that appeared on occasion in newspaper reviews; and finally, how to get financial support for the manuscript’s publication.

Well, I have two years to sort these matters out. As Albert Schweitzer allegedly said: “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats,” and I have access to both. Marco, my compañero, is pictured below.


Confessions of a CGSer: The NEMA Career Growth Studio in Review



By Amanda Goodheart Parks, ABD Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History

This past November, I had the privilege of participating in the first ever NEMA Career Growth Studio. Due to work conflicts, I wasn’t able to attend this year’s conference, so as hundreds of my fellow museum folk headed home after three days of NEMA, I wandered into the Cambridge Hyatt feeling as though I had walked in late to a really great party. However, my fears of feeling left out were quickly assuaged when I was greeted by Dan Yaeger, Marieke Van Damme, and Sarah Marcoux Franke, my guides for this exciting new Career Growth Studio experiment.

We began with a cocktail hour, a welcomed opportunity for the twenty-five or so attendees to meet and mingle. Topics of conversation varied. Some dove straight into networking mode, while others debriefed about conference sessions. I chose the “get to know you” route, and quickly discovered I had much in common with my fellow CGSers. Most of us were women in our 20s and 30s with graduate degrees, and though our respective jobs, institutions, and life goals varied, a common theme began to emerge in one conversation after another— “I love working in the museum field, but…” More on that in a bit.

After we ventured upstairs to the penthouse suite overlooking the Charles River, I sat down at a table of CGSers I hadn’t met during the cocktail hour, and over a fantastic spread of seasonal delights such as butternut squash bisque (the food was spectacular!), we began chatting. Sure enough, that pesky refrain began to crop up again— “I love working in the museum field, but…” Shortly thereafter, Marieke joined our table and talked about her Joyful Museums project, an initiative dedicated to inspiring positive workplace culture in museums…and then the floodgates opened. Suddenly, our friendly dinner conversation transformed into a confessional for overworked, underpaid, emerging museum professionals. Comments ranged from, “…I’m grateful for my full time museum job, but I feel trapped and undervalued in my current position,” to “…Every job posting requires 5-7 years of full time experience. How will I ever get hired?” to “…On the outside, my organization looks like a great place to work, but our director’s management style is toxic…”

At first, we feared it was just our table. We feared we were the only ones caught up in a seemingly endless venting session — it wasn’t just us. Sure enough, all four tables of CGSers were using our first meal together as a forum to voice gripes, fears, and guilt relating to working in the museum field. Luckily, Dan, Marieke and Sarah sensed our need to voice these frustrations, so our first activity was filling an entire flip chart with our concerns in an act that seemed more like group therapy than career growth. Afterward, we took our first of many “mindfulness pauses” to reflect and jot down our homework before calling it a night. Yes, I said homework. We were assigned the task of committing the following things to paper: Our biggest professional regret, our proudest professional moment, and a goal we wanted the Career Growth Studio to help us achieve.

Career Growth Studio Blog Photo

When we reconvened the following morning over an array of breakfast delights (did I mention the food was spectacular?), the mood was one of relief and excitement. Relief because we had unburdened ourselves of our worries the night before, and excitement because we were looking forward to gaining new skills and knowledge to help quell said worries. Through a series of modules on topics ranging from Networking to Leadership, we spent the morning getting to know one another’s work situations, identifying solutions to our challenges, as well as sharing tips and best practices. Our facilitators offered points of departure for discussion, but for the most part, the best conversations stemmed from the group itself. Dan, Marieke, and Sarah jokingly referred to us as guinea pigs at the start of our time together, and to some extent, we were, but their willingness to structure the workshop around our specific needs, rather than stick to a pre-determined agenda, was what made the Career Growth Studio so beneficial. After an amazing lunch and some wrap up conversations (seriously, did I mention the food?), we ended with an agreement to create a private Facebook group to continue our conversations. We also plan to meet at next year’s NEMA conference in Portland, just as NEMA welcomes a second cohort of CGSers into the fold.

While the best part of the Career Growth Studio was working toward my individual professional goals, here are a few universal takeaways from my CGS experience:

1. Lead by example regardless of your position in your institutional hierarchy.
2. It can take up to two days for your body to recover from a stressful event, so find a stress management technique that works for you and stick with it!
3. Two words: Elevator Speech. Write it, memorize it, but most importantly, be it! You should have a different elevator speech for each of the following situations: Networking, Social Events, Representing Your Institution, and most importantly, Representing Yourself.
4. Reflective practice isn’t just a conference buzz word! Incorporate reflection and mindfulness into your daily life to inspire creative thinking and positivity.
5. And finally, never underestimate the power of a hand written thank you note.

In conclusion, as a museum professional in the early stages of my career, I found the NEMA Career Growth Studio to be equal parts catharsis and inspiration. In my opinion, the opportunity to talk to colleagues from other museums is the best part of NEMA conferences and workshops. The Career Growth Studio took this one step further. By granting my fellow attendees and I a safe, encouraging, and supportive environment to speak frankly about our professional challenges, goals, and dreams, NEMA allowed us the opportunity to not only better ourselves as museum professionals, but our New England museum community as a whole.

Amanda Goodheart Parks earned her M.A. in Public History from UMass in 2010. Currently an ABD Ph.D. candidate, Amanda works full time in the Education Department at the Springfield Museums in addition to her ongoing work on her dissertation which focuses on gender in the New England whaling industry.


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