In the Classroom

Objects are crucial to understanding the past. They can speak to us and pull at us, unlocking histories eclipsed by written sources, at times with unique depth and resonance. In this series of micro essays, four members of the UMass Amherst history department share sources of significance to their teaching and research.

The Story of Two Shells

From Left to Right: Nautilus cup, c. 1630–1660, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Nautilus Pompilius Shell from the Wreck of the Dutch East India Ship Witte Leeuw, 1613, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

These two nautilus shells are quite different, but they are part of the same story. They both originated in the Dutch colonies in southeast Asia, now the independent nation of Indonesia. The cup was produced by an anonymous artisan in the Netherlands some time in the middle of the seventeenth century. The gleaming, nacreous shell was mounted in a gilded silver stand featuring mythical sea gods, snails, crabs, dolphins, and other marine motifs. It combined a wonder of nature with a wonder of art. It also reminded its owner of the wealth and power of the Dutch seaborne commercial and colonial empire.

The unadorned shell is another reminder of that empire. It was recovered in 1977 from the wreck of the Witte Leeuw (White Lion), an Indiaman (large cargo ship) that belonged to the Dutch East India Company. En route from what is now Indonesia to the Netherlands, the ship’s convoy was attacked and sunk by Portuguese forces near St. Helena, in the South Atlantic, in 1613. For over three and a half centuries it lay on the ocean floor. Had it completed its voyage, it too would have been transformed into an art object. Instead, it reminds us of the costs of empire to both the colonized people who originally caught it and the common sailors who sank with it to their doom. 

Brian W. Ogilvie, Professor and Chair, UMass Amherst History Department

A Chest to Rest One’s Head

Seventeenth-century pine chest, collection of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Foundation. Photo taken by author.

The material culture of the past contains countless objects with unintended uses; what an object was explicitly created to be or do is not always what it will be actually used for over the course of its lifetime. A plain six-board pine chest residing in the collection of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum in Hadley, Massachusetts is one such object. 

As part of a NEH grant this semester, I am working to study and reinterpret collection objects at this museum to center histories of labor, both free and unfree, in future site interpretation. Originally a late seventeenth-century construction, this chest’s eighteenth-century uses shifted from a vessel for household goods like textiles to a vessel for human beings. In 1775, a ten-year-old enslaved girl and resident of the home named Phillis fell ill with tuberculosis. Elizabeth Phelps, the house’s mistress and Phillis’ enslaver, recorded in her diary that after several unproductive consultations with doctors, she placed this chest by the kitchen hearth and made it into a bed for Phillis. Cramped inside the thick wooden walls of the chest, Phillis passed away. The next explicit mention of the chest’s use as a bed was later in 1809 (and for all we know, other times in between, as portable beds were not unusual in early America) when a recent widow named Mary Andries who had been on the Phelps’ property needed nursing. 

The story of the chest’s transition to something akin to an adult cradle is also legible in the material itself; the 5 foot chest originally had an outside lock that was removed and patched, and the interior lidded tills that were used to store more valuables were also likely removed to make room and comfort possible for Phillis and Mary.* 

Archival documentation like Elizabeth Phelps’ diary offers filtered historical information about women like Phillis and Mary Andries—that is, it is documentation created about them rather than by them—but when combined with the surviving chest, their experiences are brought to life for visitors at the museum site. 

– Emily Whitted, PhD Student, UMass Amherst History Department

* Portable beds allowed infirm members of a household to be close at hand–more convenient for caregivers than a bedroom in a remote chamber, and more pleasant for their occupants, who could recline near the warmth of a fire, and near the hustle and bustle of the household. Our understanding of this object is indebted to the scholarship of Nicole Belolan, Public Historian in Residence, Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH), Rutgers University-Camden.

Famine’s Pages

Kaifeng Municipal Science and Technology Committee, ed., Compilation of Resources on Native Fertilizers and Insecticides, August, 1960.

My current book project is titled “Heritage and Survival: The Power of Agricultural Knowledge in the People’s Republic of China.” One chapter focuses on a campaign launched during the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960) to produce “native insecticides” (土农药) using traditional medical knowledge about the properties of wild plants—one of many initiatives to overcome scarcity and boost production by mobilizing local resources.

One of the sources I’ve collected for this chapter tugs at me, and I find myself returning to it repeatedly—before the pandemic, I even brought it to class to share with students. In August 1960, in the midst of the worst famine in world history, the Municipal Science and Technology Committee of Kaifeng, Henan published this handbook, Compilation of Resources on Native Fertilizers and Insecticides. The book was hand-written and mimeographed on low-grade recycled paper that is soft, fibrous, and speckled with darker bits of pulp and the occasional scrap of bark or twig.

The book’s pages—not just the text, but the stuff on which it was inked—speak to resourcefulness and bring home the true significance of the campaign slogan “make do with available materials” (就地取材). And they speak, painfully, to the deprivation that made frugality ever-more necessary. As land that once supplied paper mills was converted to food production, the mills turned to inferior sources for their raw materials. In especially hard-hit places like Henan, rural people resorted to eating bark, twigs, and some of those same wild plants described in the Kaifeng handbook, sometimes poisoning themselves in the process. Touching the pages of this relic from a time of desperation and determination, my students and I feel the history more deeply than words alone could convey.

Sigrid Schmalzer, Professor, UMass Amherst History Department

A Camera and Cloak

Leica Camera, courtesy of the Freedman family.

“When I was a kid, I always wished I had one of those rings or cloaks that made you invisible. Then I realized years later, I am invisible behind a camera. I am a camera.” —Jill Freedman (1939–2019).

Last winter break, I took an exhibit design course with Professors Marla Miller and Traci Parker. My classmates and I explored the personal and digital archives of New York City-based street photographer Jill Freedman, a prolific and hard-scrabble documentarian who sought out the gritty aspects of everyday life. She lived in Resurrection City, a Washington, DC protest encampment by the Poor Peoples’ Campaign in 1968, embedded for a year with firefighters in Harlem, and spent time in a traveling circus to capture the experiences of carnival workers, just to name a few examples of her commitment to her craft.

Our class had the privilege of meeting her family and friends over Zoom, and they generously shared memories, stories, and images from her personal archives, including photos of her cameras, including this Leica camera, dating to the 1970s. Her many cameras were well-worn and heavily used, and their variety proved that she was not married to a particular brand or model. Rather, Freedman’s family said that she always adopted the latest technology, shifting from film to digital to even using an iPhone in her later years. This practical and receptive attitude towards technology reflects the approach she brought to her photography as well—of rolling with the punches and becoming “invisible” behind her camera—but always maintaining a distinct point of view.

Helen Kyriakoudes ‘21MA

After the winter 2021 class ended, one student in the class — W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies and Public History student Yelana Sims — assumed the role of lead curator, developing the exhibit over the course of the ensuing year, with support from a Charles K Hyde Internship Fellowship. The resulting exhibit, Theater of the Streets was on display at the UMass Amherst Augusta Savage Gallery through March 11, 2022. It is currently available online. Yelana Sims reflects further on the exhibit in her curatorial note, Theater of Perspectives.

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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Richard T. Chu, Five College associate professor in the history department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is teaching and conducting oral history projects in Springfield and Amherst, MA through his course “Asian-Pacific American History, 1850-present” (History 253). When asked about his motivation to document the lives of Asian Americans in Western Massachusetts, Professor Chu tells Past@Present, “Teaching about the history of racism and marginalization of Asian Americans over the course of my career at UMass has helped me realize that the field of Asian American Studies, which was born out of the activism in the 1960s against the Vietnam War and the fight for civil rights and against racial prejudice, should remain true to its activist roots, in that teaching ‘about’ Asian Americans means also ‘working in solidarity’ with them outside the classroom.”

Born and raised in the Philippines, Chu moved to the U.S. in 1992, and joined the UMass History department in 2004.  His research and publications focus on Asian American history, the history of the Chinese and Chinese mestizos in the Philippines and of the different Chinese diasporic communities in the world, centering on issues of race, ethnicity, gender, empire, and nationalism. He started teaching Hist 253 as a general education course, focusing primarily on the history of Asian Americans in the whole nation. In Spring 2017, he started to add the civic engagement component to his course, and in Fall 2018, began teaching it as an honors course.

Roeun Chea’s interview, being shown at the culminating event December 8, 2018 at UMass Center in Springfield. Born in Cambodia, Chea was forced into a concentration camp under the reign of the Khmer Rouge, where he remained for three years. Now 50 years old, he came to the U.S. thirty years ago after spending three years in a Thai refugee camp. Access interview here.

When asked why he chose to focus his oral history projects on Springfield and Amherst, Chu says, “Springfield and Amherst chose me. These two cities have significant populations of Asian Americans, so it was but natural that the bulk of my work is focused on working with their communities.” Chu believes that it is important to come up with projects that would benefit both these communities and UMass students. That is why he is now engaged with the Bhutanese Society of Western Massachusetts; Bayanihan Association of America, Inc.  (a Filipino-American association); the Regional Tibetan Association of Massachusetts; the Chinese Association of Western Massachusetts; the Vietnamese Catholic Community of St. Paul’s Church in Springfield; and  the Cambodian American community of Amherst. “Through the years, I hope to expand the outreach to other communities such as the Korean and Indian American communities, which have a significant presence in the Pioneer Valley,” adds Chu.

This semester you are leading a group of students in Springfield to document local history. They conduct oral history interviews to document Asian American community history in Springfield. Why did you decide to take this approach with your students?

This is the third semester that I have been conducting this oral history project with the Asian American communities in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley. The reason for this approach is two-fold. First, this is a project that the communities identified as benefitting them. For many of these communities—unheard of and unknown by the majority—documenting the lives of their members is one way of getting their voices heard. Community leaders also see the widening gap between the first generation (many of whom went through war, genocide, and other traumatic events back in their home countries) and the next generation, and are concerned that, without preserving the voices of the older generation (many of whom do not speak English), succeeding generations will forget their own past which could result in the loss of their own sense of identity as “Asians” (or as “Bhutanese,” “Vietnamese,” etc.). Second, this project is something that my students can do in a semester.

What is the importance of teaching this course for the local history? In what ways does this course contribute to the people of Springfield?

In the Pioneer Valley, there are a growing number of Asian Americans in the last two decades. U.S. census records from 2010 have shown the Asian American community as having registered the highest percentage of population increase in the state of Massachusetts (47% from 2000-2010). Amherst and Springfield rank among the top 20 cities and towns in Massachusetts with the largest Asian American population. For instance, Springfield has 2,000 Vietnamese living in the city, although this figure is quite conservative. The actual number may be more like 4,000. Go to Springfield and you see neighborhoods with Vietnamese nail salons, restaurants, and grocery stores. There is a Vietnamese Buddhist temple, a Catholic parish, and a community center. Leaders of the  Bhutanese (refugee) community estimate that there are currently 3,000 Bhutanese living in the cities of Springfield, West Springfield, and Westfield. In addition to these communities, there are Chinese, Cambodians, Hmong, Laos, Filipinos, Indians, Koreans, Japanese, and other ethnic Asians living in the Springfield and Pioneer Valley area. Thus, in order to enrich and complete our local histories, we need to document and recognize the lives and contributions, as well as the hardships and struggles, of these Asian Americans.

This sounds fascinating.  How can other researchers, or people just generally interested in this history in the Valley, learn more about the history you are preserving?

At the end of the project, the videos are uploaded on to the website of the Special Collections and Archives Division of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library and hence made available to the public for research and other purposes, but most importantly, for us to learn about the life stories of Asian Americans living in our midst.  

“Meet-and-Greet” event at UMass Center in Springfield with Asian American community leaders, November 2, 2019. Hist253H students have a preliminary activity before conducting their oral histories which brings them to listen to Asian American community leaders give the history and the challenges of their communities. Speaking before the class this Fall semester was Linda Hill, an officer of the Chinese Association of Western Massachusetts and who holds a doctoral degree in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry from UMass. 

Your students conduct oral histories with residents of Springfield. Who are the interviewees? What are the challenges of documenting local history in Springfield?

The interviewees are members of the different Asian American communities in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley. The leaders of these communities identify a member willing to share his/her life-story for the project. The interviewees so far are those who can speak English, as my students are not equipped to act as translators or interpreters for this type of project. This limits in a way whom community leaders can tap for the project.

One of the challenges therefore is the language barrier between my students and some members of these communities. In coming up with the idea of an oral history project, the community leaders also had in mind preserving the voices of the immigrant/first generation, such as members of the Bhutanese community whose families lived for generations in Bhutan before being driven out by an ethnic cleansing policy of the fourth King of Bhutan, then lived for 20 years in refugee camps in Nepal before coming as refugees to the U.S. starting in 2008. Many of these refugees (from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, to name a few) do not speak English, or very minimum English; and they are slowly dying out. But it is also their lives that community members want to preserve. So another challenge is finding appropriate translators/interpreters for such interviewees.

My Hampshire College colleague Professor Kimberly Chang and I, in collaboration with the Bhutanese Society of Massachusetts, have applied to the Mass Humanities Foundation for a grant to fund a Digital History Project that would train bi-lingual local Bhutanese youth on how to conduct oral histories with older members of their community. Through this project, we hope to not only empower members of the Bhutanese community with certain skills (video-recording, interviewing, etc.) but also help preserve the voices of their non-English speaking members.

Another challenge is getting the students from UMass to Springfield, due in terms of the distance between the two places and the lack of affordable transportation facilities to bring them there.

Lastly, some people who are immigrants or refugees are reticent to talk about their experiences, either out of fear of the authorities or trauma, or both. Hence, conducting these oral history projects can be a very sensitive issue, both for the students and the interviewees, but specially the latter. And I have to make sure that the students are equipped to handle uncomfortable or sensitive moments during the interviews because some questions may bring up traumatic or unpleasant memories.

What have been some of the powerful “moments” for you in this project?

There are many powerful moments, but here are three:

  • Toward the end of the semester the students present an edited 20-minute version of their interviews at the UMass Center in Springfield. This event brings together all the interviewees and their families, along with their respective community members and leaders; the students in the class; local officials such as Springfield City Councilor Jesse Lederman; and the Board members of the Asian American Commission of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Members of the communities always express their gratitude and joy in being able to see one of them telling their life-story, and that these stories will be preserved for others to learn from. Witnessing the culmination of the collaborative efforts between the community members and my students in producing these videos always brings to me a sense of fulfillment in my vocation as a teacher.
  • When students tell me either during or after the semester how much they have learned from the course, or how they were transformed or inspired by it, that is a powerful moment for me.
  • Being nominated and then selected for the 2018 Community Hero Award conferred by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Asian American Commission was another powerful moment. It reaffirmed the significance and importance of my work.\

How has this kind of public history work changed your approach to other research and courses that you are teaching?

It has certainly expanded my area of research. My main research areas as a historian are U.S. empire, colonialism in the Philippines, and the Chinese diaspora. But one of my sub-fields is Asian American Studies. I have done some research on Asian American communities in the U.S. For instance, I have published with the Institute on Asian American Studies of UMass-Boston a demographic study on Filipinos in Boston/Massachusetts.

I have yet to write for publication about my work with the Asian American communities here in Western Massachusetts. I already have an outline of what to write and the editor of an Asian American journal has encouraged me to submit an article on the topic. But until I finish my next major monograph, which is on the Chinese in the Philippines during the first decade of American colonization (1898-1908), this project has been placed in the backburner, even as my collaborative work with these Asian American communities continues during the fall semesters when I teach this course. As a Five-College faculty sharing 50 percent of my time with the four colleges, I only get to teach this course at UMass once a year. I hope that I could teach this course every semester at UMass so as to continue my work with the communities, and to help build the department’s public history and oral history programs of the Department. In Spring semester 2020, I will be teaching  this course at Smith College for the first time. In doing so, I hope to sustain the collaborations and continue the relationships that I have built with the different Asian American communities.

Are there other important or interesting aspects of this project that you could share with us?

As a public research and land-grant university, our university has a commitment and responsibility to use our resources and skills to reach out to people living around us, especially from the marginalized sectors, and for us to learn from and be enriched by them. My dream is to be able to institutionalize this course so that it can be taught every semester in order to not break this relationship with Asian American communities in the area, and that this becomes a core subject of our department with adequate funding for anyone to teach the course, especially if I am not around anymore to teach it. People whom I collaborate with in the various communities have told me how much they respect UMass, and that they wish that a stronger relationship could be built between UMass and local Asian American communities. I hope that this public history project is but a step toward developing that synergistic relationship that benefits these communities, our students, our University, the Pioneer Valley, and the whole state of Massachusetts.

Article Course Highlight

On December 1, 2018, students in History 253H: Asian/Pacific/American History presented their oral history projects at the UMass Center in Springfield. The activity was the culmination of a semester’s honors course on learning about the history of Asian Americans, as well as the concepts and methods of civic engagement. For the oral history project, students interviewed members of the Bhutanese, Filipino, Vietnamese, and Cambodian American communities in Western Massachusetts, to preserve and honor the lives of members of these underserved Asian American communities.

A new addition to this semester’s project was the videotaping of interviews. Interviewees, their families, and members of the communities were able to view these 20-minute videos at the event. In addition to other community members, the chair and officers of the Asian American Commission of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Councilor Jesse Lederman of the city of Springfield attended the presentation and expressed their support. This course was made possible through the generous financial support of the history department, Commonwealth Honors College, the UMass Civic Engagement and Service Learning Program, and the Asian American Commission of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The videos are uploaded to the Special Collection and Archives Division of the Du Bois Library and are available to the public.

Emily Esten, History Major; Applied Humanities Learning Lab Fellow

In its second year, the Applied Humanities Learning Lab (AppHuLL) seeks to take dynamic and motivated students and allow them to put into practice humanities skills on a real project. Many of this year’s Fellows are undergraduate students from various disciplines in the Five Colleges. The course is half-career prep and half-project management – two vastly different goals, but both addressed in the four-day intensive. Of the course of January 11-14, we fifteen Fellows went from knowing nothing about the Quabbin Reservoir and its history to standing up as scholars and humanists in our own right.

AppHuLL Networking Lunch (Photo Credit: Chelsea Miller)

AppHuLL Networking Lunch (Photo Credit: Chelsea Miller)

Our first day, we walked out of the classroom daunted by what seemed an impossible task – I almost felt like I was invading a mostly-forgotten history protected by the few surviving persons. But we were welcomed – by great mentors Cheryl Harned and Mark Roblee, and most importantly, by the community members and leaders who helm the memory of these places today. Between field trips, conversations, activities, and workshops, we accomplished so much in learning where we stood and what we needed in order to move forward.

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Chelsea Miller, Public History M.A., UMass History

This blog post originally appeared on The Harold, and is part of a series of essays, opinions, and reviews written by students, faculty, and staff of the Institute for Curatorial Practice.

As an intern for the Institute for Curatorial Practice, I am particularly struck by ICP’s ability to bring a wide range of collections into one conversation. I saw this in action during the ICP’s summer program. I received a graduate fellowship that enabled me to attend the five-week program and to lead a co-curated digital exhibition, BODY [IN/AS] LANDSCAPE. My teammates and I created an exhibition that explores how human forms and activities transform landscapes, and what new landscapes are produced by an artist’s intervention in the landscape. The exhibition draws from several collections, including the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, Hampshire College Special Collections, Smith College Museum of Art, the University Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Mead Art Museum. While these collections are part of the Five College Consortium, they remain separate. But the ICP opens up the possibility of bringing them together. After this summer, I felt inspired by the concept of digital exhibitions.

The medium of a digital exhibition prompts questions about the possibilities and anxieties surrounding digital reproductions. Since the emergence of mechanical means of reproduction, specifically photography, there has been debate over whether the reproduced image can substitute for the original work of art. But what I hope to argue is that the digital reproduction is a useful tool for learning, teaching, and preserving objects.

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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.

Deborah Kallman, M.A. student, UMass History

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. 

Turquoise and purple diamond-shaped pin with text:

“The Quilt” button in the museum’s collection

Memorials are…

  • typically permanent
  • sites of mourning
  • places of remembrance

Some memorials…

  • mourn those we as a society are often reluctant to mourn

Few memorials…

  • are living memorials
  • travel
  • are quilts

The AIDS Quilt is all of these things. For me, it is also a story about a sister, a brother, a quilt panel, and a journey to acceptance 20 years after a doctor in Georgia signed the death certificate for my brother, Greg.

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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.

Rebecca Schmidt, M.A. alumna, UMass History

Curator Dr. Katherine Ott invited students in Dr. Samuel J. Redman’s Museum/Historic Site Interpretation Seminar to explore the museum’s collections and write blog posts sharing their research. 

Screenshot of the museum's Pinterest boards, including a

The museum’s Pinterest boards cover a variety of themes, from American flags to retro mathematical devices.

On the surface, disability history and social networks such as Pinterest do not appear to have anything in common. One is a story of a fight for the passage of laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability. The other is a popular social media site that allows people to exchange information and ideas on everything from recipes, to crafts, and more.

White pin. Red text in bold typeface:

“Civil Rights Sign the Bill!” Button from 1989, in the museum’s collection.

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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.

Matt Coletti, M.A. student, UMass History

Andrew Roy was 26 years old when Lieutenant Henry S. Farley lobbed the infamous first shot of the Civil War over Charleston Harbor on April 17, 1861. He answered President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers by travelling north from his native Maryland and enlisting in a Pennsylvania regiment. The young man paid dearly for his zeal when he was gravely wounded at the Battle of Gaines Mill.

A private in Company F, Tenth Pennsylvania Reserves, Andrew Roy and his unit rushed forward to bolster the Union line against tenacious Confederate assaults. During the charge, he was felled by a shot that destroyed the left side of his pelvis. Roy was then captured when the field hospital he was kept in was overrun by Rebel forces a few days later. Upon returning home from a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in Richmond, Virginia, his transition to civilian life was plagued by the wound’s perpetual pain and numbness. Back home, despite holding a managerial position at a mine, Roy took weeks off from his job because of his health, relying on a disability pension for survival. Before his death in 1914, he lamented, “my lameness grows worse and the pain is more severe each year… my [left] foot seems dead.” Doctors commented that he was, “wholly unfit to care for himself and demands constant attention.”

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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.

Julie Peterson, M.A. student, UMass History Department

n 1945, Jack Fisher of Kalamazoo, Michigan, celebrated a victory, one of the first of its kind in the United States. Jack, a disabled veteran and lawyer, was elated because his hometown had just installed the nation’s first curb cuts to facilitate travel in the downtown area for wheelchair users and others who couldn’t navigate the 6-inch curb heights on downtown sidewalks.

Black and white photo from street level looking up at two feet in wheel chair and a high curb.

Inaccessible curb, late 20th century. Division of Medicine and Science collections.

Today, this seems like an odd thing to rejoice about, since curb cuts are now so commonplace in cities throughout the U.S. However, sidewalks and public spaces in the built environment were not always so accessible to people with disabilities. The development of curb cuts and the concept of accessible public spaces has been long in the making and has only become possible through the hard work of activists like Mr. Fisher, the passage of federal legislation on accessibility requirements, and developments in design.

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