Contemporary Issues

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.

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

 Compiled by Dan Chard with Jessica Johnson, Mark Roblee, Sigrid Schmalzer, and Miriam Wells.

Historians spend a great deal of time writing and teaching about history, and occasionally we like to participate in it as well.

Faculty and graduate students from the UMass Amherst History Department were among the 400,000 people who descended upon Manhattan on Sunday, September 21, for the People’s Climate March, an event organizers dubbed “the largest climate march in history.” The March brought together a diverse coalition of indigenous peoples, students, religious groups, community organizations, unions, environmentalists, and others from throughout New York, North America, and the world. More than 500 buses transported participants there, including 22 from Western Massachusetts, 6 of them from UMass. Solidarity actions took place in over 150 countries.

The March was timed to roughly coincide with Tuesday’s UN Climate Summit. Though ignored or downplayed by much of the media (whose parent corporations stand to lose from climate action), the March sent a clear signal that people across the planet demand serious political action to stop the advancement of climate change.

Here are some reflections and photographs from the People’s Climate March submitted by History Department faculty and graduate students.

I traveled with my friend Michael on a bus that featured a group from Mothers Out Front (an organization dedicated to combatting climate change) and assorted other folks.  The bus drivers from Amherst did some fancy driving in the Bronx, making U-turns on a stopped I-95 and hard left turns into busy street traffic in order to get us there on time.

At 11:30, the March’s lineup was filling but not yet moving, and we slowly made our way from 83rd street to 75th in order to join the renewable energy crowd.  Along the way we saw all kinds of participants.  I remember community groups from Maine, Illinois, Arkansas, Missouri, Florida, Colorado, Vermont, Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts.  The demographics were encouragingly more diverse than they were at last year’s climate rally in Washington, D.C.  

The great variety of participants in the March shows just how many issues need to be addressed, and how different parts of the country face different challenges.  For example, we spoke with a couple of women from St. Louis, Missouri, about their concerns over a hastily passed piece of legislation misleadingly called “Right to Farm,” which benefitted agribusiness and encouraged inhumane farming practices.

I also think the composition of the March demonstrated that there is a place for nearly everyone in this movement, regardless of race, age, or political ideology.

– Miriam Wells, PhD Candidate


Photo courtesy of Miriam Wells

My partner Winston and I packed our six-year-old Ferdinand and our sixteen-month-old Anarres into the car at 6:00 a.m. and drove to the Metro North station in New Haven. It was fun to see more activists boarding at every stop; the train was standing-room-only by the time we reached Grand Central just before 10:00. But I won’t lie: getting there with the kids was hard, especially since Winston had injured his back the day before. It was a long walk for Ferdinand just to get to 70th street, where we joined the line-up, and I had to carry Anarres the whole time.

History was very much on our minds. Winston kept telling Ferdinand, “Now you’re a part of history,” and we told him stories of earlier marches we had attended: “DC in ’93” for gay rights, the anti-war protests at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, and others. But with the baby on my back and Winston periodically carrying Ferdinand even with his back injury, I also found myself thinking about the Chinese Long March and refugees in historic evacuations — the incredible courage and solidarity it requires for large numbers of people to move from a place of danger to one of relative safety.

The most exciting moment came at 1:00 when, amazingly, everyone around us paused for a minute of silence to recognize those who have already died from climate change – truly, I can’t think when I’ve ever heard the city get that quiet – and then we heard from far behind a roar of voices that grew louder and louder until it swelled around us like an enormous wave… and then moved on to lift the people farther along.

Sigrid Schmalzer, faculty


Ferdinand takes a break from marching.

The People’s Climate March? I liked it better than Cats. It turned about to be a family reunion as well. My partner and I met our son who just started college and my mother-in-law who has been part of the recent action to stop the privatization of public library properties in NYC. We also ran into some friends from the Valley who we don’t often see. Maybe we’re starting to come out of the woodwork around climate change? I was left with the impression that hitting the streets is a necessary ingredient in “re-publicizing” public property, public values, and the public good, that the planet *is* public. No plan(et) B! It was a demonstration of democracy that hopefully sent shivers through our elected leaders and their short-sighted corporate patrons. Our bus captain, David Glassberg, proved that trying to stop (or adapt) to climate change could have a fun side too. We were all left ready for more action.

– Mark Roblee, PhD Candidate


UMass History Professors Laura Lovett and David Glassberg (courtesy of Lovett and Glassberg)

I attended the People’s Climate March with my partner, Julie, and our four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Louisa. We travelled on a bus from Northampton, and made new friends along the way. The bus dropped us off at 86th Street, at the back of the March, and the crowd was so enormous that we quickly realized we would have to let go of our plans to meet friends at 67th. We stayed flexible, met other friends, sang and danced along with drummers and marching bands, and took inspiration from the art, banners, discussion, laughter, and community that surrounded us.

            One thing we know from history is that most changes for the betterment of humanity have come at the behest of grassroots social movements. Will Louisa’s generation, and those that follow, confront climate-induced famine, mass migration, war, and social meltdown on a scale unprecedented in human history? Or will new relationships forged through the Peoples Climate March culminate in a powerful, revitalized global climate justice movement, one with the power to block the apocalyptic tide of corporate-driven ecological destruction? The answer depends on all of us. In the words of the March’s organizers: “To Change Everything, We Need Everyone.”

– Dan Chard, PhD Candidate


Julie, Dan, and Louisa


History was on my mind as I made my way to New York City for the People’s Climate March. As I sat on the slowly moving commuter rail into the city, I found myself reflecting on the way that the March was promoted as an event that would — perhaps in and of itself — “bend the course of history,” to quote the official language around the event. I am certain that the March will change history, though perhaps not in ways that we can easily predict and certainly not overnight. This discourse around the March reminded me of how US social movement history is too often narrated, with a focus on singular, triumphant events. As historians, we know that one-time events rarely change the course of history on their own. Rather, change comes through the hard, unglamorous, and often invisible work of sustained struggle.

            History also teaches us that part of this hard work of making change is the work of connecting, creating community, building alliances and celebrating. While the full historical impact of the People’s Climate March is yet to be seen – or perhaps more accurately, yet to be made – on an affective level, Sunday’s march already felt like such a joyous success. To meet, gather and connect with so many activists from such diverse perspectives and subject positions was such a pleasure and a source of energy.

– Jessica Johnson, Outreach Director


Photo courtesy of Miriam Wells

This is the fifth post in a series of entries from the UMass community celebrating Women’s History Month.

By Emily Pipes, M.A. Student, Department of History

We Can Do It
“We Can Do It!” Courtesy of:!.jpg

Women’s History Month provides historians with the opportunity to evaluate female roles within the capacity of their specific historical fields of study. As a gender and modern U.S. historian, this means analyzing the role of women in American society today and historicizing how women have come to occupy certain positions within American culture while being less present in others. It is imperative to acknowledge the strides women have made over the course of history and the vital role of women in shaping our nation; however, we must also recognize the glaring inequalities, double standards, and stereotypes that women face, and we must understand how they stand in the way of gender equity in this country.

The women’s rights activism of the 1960s and 1970s, inspired largely by second-wave feminism, gave way to a great deal of progress toward advancing female presence in the workforce and narrowing the gender wage gap. My current research endeavors surround the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which passed Congress in 1972. This amendment sought to guarantee equal rights to all citizens regardless of sex. The ERA failed to receive the necessary number of state ratifications in 1982 and was ultimately not passed into law. It was around this time, the 1980s and 1990s, that progress for women in the workforce seemed to decelerate, and, from 2000 up to the present, progress seems to have plateaued. Read More

This is the third post in a series of entries from the UMass community celebrating Women’s History Month.

By Amy Breimaier, Ph.D. Student, Department of History

The young woman, Sarah Ward Noyes (1792-1818), who is the subject of this post, is not the typical focus of most Women’s History Month celebrations. The reason for this is simple — she was neither famous, nor did she challenge the status quo — the two frequent prerequisites to receiving recognition during these honorary history months. Yet, I would like to suggest that while many of the women traditionally recognized by Women’s History Month celebrations are inspirational, an exclusive focus upon them obscures our understanding of how most people navigated societal expectations — not by challenging them, but by learning to conform to them.


On Friday evening, October 7, 1808, sixteen-year-old Sarah Ward Noyes and her friends attended a ball at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Clark in Andover, Massachusetts. While there, one of the young gentlemen expressed attention in Sarah, leaving her with feelings of “doubt, fear, [and] distrust,” which “robbed [her] of much pleasure [she] should otherwise have taken [that] evening.” Feeling particularly “dull and low spirited” that following Monday, Sarah desired to confide in her classmates regarding her feelings about the young man and the ball, yet resisted doing so because she believed them to be “too nearly interested,” and feared their gossip and the fact that they might “know too much” already. Read More

This is the second post in a series of entries from the UMass community celebrating Women’s History Month.

Saloon Girls
Statues of popular saloon girls at Knott’s Berry Farm

By Amanda Tewes, Ph.D. Student, Department of History

One of the benefits of month-long observances like Women’s History Month is that it reminds historians to sit down and think about how gender plays into their work. I am not a gender historian by training, though I have long been interested in gendered spaces.

My current research is pulling me towards the cultural history of Old West theme parks in California, a topic rich with implications for identity, popular culture, and nostalgia in the Golden State. And while I have closely examined the identity politics involved with the creation and maintenance of these sites, I have largely—and rather unintentionally—ignored the meaning of gender in these parks. How could I have missed this? Read More

By Manisha Sinha, Professor of Afro-American Studies, Adjunct Professor of History

Recently Manisha Sinha wrote an article for the New York Daily News on the Hollywood film version of Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave. Due to the continued popularity of the film after its Oscar night success, Sinha’s argument seems all the more poignant. Read her take on the story, the film, and their lessons.

Relevant Links:

12 Years a Slave

David Ruggles Center

The Counterrevolution of Slavery, by Manisha Sinha

This is the sixth and final post in a series of entries from the UMass community celebrating Black History Month. Dusenbury takes on the debate about the necessity for Black History Month, paying particular attention to its role in educating American children.

By Jonathan Dusenbury, M.A. Student, Department of History

In my last semester as an undergraduate student at the University of South Carolina, I wrote a letter to the editor of the student newspaper arguing in favor of the continuation of the observance of African-American History Month. My letter was a response to a series of other letters to the editor that had questioned the relevance of the celebration. While there are good and necessary arguments to be made about the problematic nature of designating particular months for particular observances, I believed then, and continue to believe now, that African-American History Month plays a vital role in this country’s collective memory.

This does not mean that I am not aware of the problems associated with this celebration. Anyone who has spent one February in a public school knows that for many students, African-American History Month represents the worst sort of (what a professor once called) American “let’s hold hands and eat each other’s food”-style multiculturalism. Portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks adorn bulletin boards beside pink, Valentine’s Day hearts. Oral reports on the Civil Rights Movement and prominent African-Americans create a pageant of heroization and self-congratulation. Read More

This is the first of a two-part entry on media coverage of the conflict in the East China Sea.

By Justin Burch, Ph.D. Student, Department of History

Courtesy of Reuters.

Around Thanksgiving 2013, tensions began to rise over the disputed control of a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. The People’s Republic of China and Japan both claim the islands that the Chinese call the Diaoyu and the Japanese refer to as the Senkaku. The islands are in the middle of one of the most trafficked air and sea trade routes and boast valuable fishing grounds, as well as potential rich reserves of oil and natural gas. However, do not let the economic possibilities of the area distract you from the real reason behind this dispute: national honor.

The latest round of tensions was sparked by the purchase of the islands by the Japanese government in 2012 from private ownership. This action upset a tenuous status quo in place since the 1970s. Perturbed by the Japanese decision, on November 23, 2013, China announced the creation of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, which includes the Diaoyu/Senkaku island group. According to Beijing, all air and sea traffic moving through the area must now identify itself (and why it is there) to the Chinese. The US and Japan responded with diplomatic protests and a calculated American military foray into the area that ignored China’s demands for identification. The Diaoyu/Senkaku turmoil has brought to the forefront a number of difficult territorial disputes between China and various other countries in the region, many of which are close American allies. Read More