Writing Public History in Cleveland
Rebekkah Rubin, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass History
Normally, I study history beyond living memory. I feel most comfortable when I am situated firmly in the 19th century. However, this summer, as an intern at Belt Magazine, I have ventured into writing 20th-century history. Belt is an online magazine that publishes long form journalism about the Rust Belt, the region from New York State to eastern Wisconsin that has suffered from economic decline due to the loss of industry, particularly steel. During my internship, my main task is to write a series of popular history pieces about the history of Cleveland.
Although I am originally from a city about sixty miles south of Cleveland, and I did my undergraduate work forty miles west of Cleveland, I am not a Clevelander.
On the first day of my internship, I met the publisher and founder of Belt Magazine at a bar and hot dog joint on the east side of Cleveland to attend a panel discussion about the Hough Riots, an uprising in a Cleveland neighborhood in 1966. I hadn’t even heard of Hough until I learned about the panel. At the event, I quickly realized that I was surrounded by native Clevelanders who lived through the riots.
My assignment was to write a history of Hough for Belt Magazine. How was I to tell the history of something I hadn’t heard about until that week? Something that was so fresh in the minds of Clevelanders that they stood in a stuffy bar for two hours listening to other people’s memories? It was intimidating for me, as an outsider, to assume that I can tell the story of so many people who are still alive to tell it for themselves.
I had stumbled into new territory.
I arranged my internship to give me experience writing history for broad audiences in accordance with the public history certificate’s “Writing History” track. I had written history aplenty during the semester, but during my internship, I was faced with all sorts of new questions and concerns. How do you give credit to someone’s scholarship when you’re writing a piece that doesn’t allow footnotes? How do you ensure that you are including the voices of marginalized people in the narrative? How do you make readers interested in what you’re interested in?
For that last question, I was lucky. As the Republican National Convention was called to order in Cleveland, it seems all eyes looked toward the city.
In preparation for the convention, I wrote a piece about the history of the first RNC to be held in Cleveland, in 1924. I spent a full week researching and writing it. And, when it finally appeared on Belt Magazine, it was picked up by Smithsonian Magazine, and with a few edits, republished there.
As I set about writing the piece on the Hough Riots, I realized that the first day of the Hough Riots occurred on the same day at the first day of the RNC, just fifty years later. It quickly became more of a “thinkpiece” about how history is remembered.
And then, when the RNC came to town, I sat in “Belt Headquarters” (the dining room of the publisher’s home) and worked on a piece about how Pokemon Go is changing the historical landscape.
I still don’t have all of the answers, but as I dove into a world punctuated with short-term deadlines, I realized that writing popular history isn’t as far removed from the world of academia as I once thought. I do primary source research, and delve into newspaper archives and oral histories. I read the historical scholarship. And, just with scholarly work, I have to decide when to stop doing research and start writing, stringing everything together in a coherent narrative.
Too often, I think, writers of popular history underestimate their readers. But so many of the questions about history that are raised around the seminar table, in discussions among my fellow grad students in the seventh floor of Herter Hall, and at scholarly conferences are perfectly understandable to general readers. They just need someone who is willing to take the time to explain it.
After spending that evening at the bar in Cleveland, watching how many Clevelanders showed up to learn about their own history, I knew I wanted to do justice to their history and their stories. Cleveland’s history is often summed up in jokes about the burning Cuyahoga River and the abandoned post-industrial landscape. But that there is so much more to Cleveland history, and so much more to Cleveland today. Within the past few weeks, after researching, writing, and living the history of Cleveland, I’m starting to feel like a Clevelander.
This post is part of a series of blog posts written by Dr. Charles K. Hyde Public History Fellows about their internships in museums, historic sites, archives, and more. The Dr. Charles K. Hyde Public History Fellowship offers financial support for Public History students to complete their internships.Stay tuned for more posts from this year’s Hyde Fellows about their internships.