In the Classroom

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.

Samantha Lombard, American Studies major, University of Massachusetts Amherst

The American Disabilities Act, signed in the White House on July 26, 1990, was groundbreaking for people with disabilities. But it was also groundbreaking for all American people, as it attempted to prevent the discrimination against people with disabilities that prevented them from having the full rights of citizenship. It gave people with disabilities rights for which many thousands had been fighting for decades. The disability-rights movement was a grassroots movement, and in many ways it culminated with the signing of this Act. It is the first comprehensive list of laws specifically addressing the rights of people with disabilities. It radically challenged old, discriminatory laws, and touched almost every area of society, as transportation and employment policies were updated. For the first time in history, the United States government officially defined the rights of people with disabilities. It ultimately changed the way America viewed people with disabilities as a whole.

Blue and white symbol, person in wheelchair

This sign was created to indicate handicap accessible places, such as bathrooms. Wikimedia Commons.

Before the American Disabilities Act was signed:

  1. People using wheelchairs who wanted to ride a bus or train would need to abandon their wheelchairs.
  2. A restaurant could refuse to serve a person with disabilities.
  3. A grocery store could prevent a disabled person from buying the goods there.
  4. If a person in a wheelchair could actually physically enter a library, he or she might not be able to check out library books, because of the wheelchair.
“I can’t even get to the back of the bus”; ADAPT activists protesting for accessible transportation, Philadelphia, 1990

People with disabilities fighting for their rights. Courtesy of Tom Olin, photographer

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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.

Charles Weisenberger, Ph.D. Student, UMass History Department


3D model of Mt. Vernon with red roof, white walls, green grass. Many columns and windows.

Tactile model of George Washington’s Mount Vernon from the late 1930s. This object is in the museum’s Division of Medicine and Science.

Don’t touch the objects! Many people who have visited a museum have encountered this awful phrase. Charged with preserving the condition of museum collections, curators and museum staff strive at all costs to ensure the safety of the objects in their exhibitions. This usually means concealing priceless artifacts behind glass cases, far from the hands of the public. But what if the public cannot access the information without their sense of touch? Thousands of visually impaired visitors need alternative methods for accessing the objects and information featured in museum exhibitions.

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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.

Andrew Grim, Ph.D. student, UMass History Department

For 25 days in April 1977, a group of roughly 150 disability rights activists took over the fourth floor of a federal building in San Francisco. They would not leave, they said, until President Jimmy Carter’s administration agreed to implement a four-year-old law protecting the rights of people with disabilities.

The activists and their supporters outside the Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) building wore pins and T-shirts, and waved banners declaring their support for Section 504 and for the rights it guaranteed to people with disabilities. The material culture from the sit-in continues to communicate to the world who these activists were, why they were there, and what they were fighting for. The objects left behind, like the memories of those who were there, are traces of a moment when people organized to secure their rights, to reject charity and pity and instead demand equality.

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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.

Gabbie Chapman, M.A. student, UMass History Department


Large tube-shaped machine with six legs on rolling wheels. Blue in color with small windows.

An early version of the iron lung built in 1931. This device was first used in the Providence City Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, and is in the museum’s collection.

In September 1955 at the age of six, Mark O’Brien was roused from his sleep by a sharp pain in the pit of his stomach. His parents immediately phoned a doctor and rushed him to Boston Children’s Hospital. His memory of that night remained fuzzy throughout his life, but in his memoir O’Brien recalls the distinct hospital smell and fluorescent lights as his family “wandered from room to room, nurse to nurse, and doctor to doctor” trying to get answers. He was unable to understand why there was so much fuss over a stomachache; a nurse eventually ushered him into a room full of beds where he laid down and slipped into a thirty-day coma. “When I finally woke up in the big, dimly lit room, I first saw my stuffed bear” then realized “I was lying in a strange machine, paralyzed from the neck down.”

The “strange machine” O’Brien found himself in was a tank respirator, commonly referred to as an iron lung. Invented in 1927 by Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw Jr., the iron lung became a staple within medical facilities after John Haven Emerson designed a more cost-effective device four years later. Iron lungs were used during the early stages of polio when the virus attacked the central nervous system, which in extreme cases led to the inability to control the muscles responsible for swallowing and breathing. After a few weeks, most patients recovered and were able to breathe independently, but some, like O’Brien, required the use of assistive respirators for the rest of their lives.

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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.

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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.

By Deborah Kallman, MA Candidate, Department of History

Public History students in Professor Jon Olsen’s Introduction to Public History course recently curated an exhibit, Der Neunte Elfte, in conjunction with campus events commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall represented a celebratory moment in German history and heralded the end of the Cold War; but this date is shared with darker moments in German history. The students’ exhibit addresses the complex history behind this date, which has prevented its consideration as a day of national celebration. Instead, October 3, the date of German reunification became the national holiday after 1990.

Der Neunte Elfte

Der Neunte Elfte

Students Rose Gallenberger, Emily Jarmolowicz, Deborah Kallman, and Santo Mammone installed Der Neunte Elfte in conjunction with the November 12 screening of My ’89, six short films by students of director Helke Misselwitz. This screening is just one event in a semester-long series dedicated to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (the series is entitled “Wall Stories 25 Years and After”) and is part of a grant UMass received from the German Embassy in Washington DC. “Wall Stories” is a collaborative effort between German and Scandinavian Studies, the Department of History, and the DEFA Film Library. Members of the community are encouraged to read more about “Wall Stories” and attend upcoming events.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is understandably a moment of light in German history, but what other events also share the date of November 9? In 1918 Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate his throne. Wilhelm II had been Germany’s emperor since 1888 and, facing growing unrest and revolution, (the Imperial Navy had mutinied) he renounced his throne and went into exile in the Netherlands. In the wake of his abdication, two republics were declared: the Socialist Republic and the Democratic Republic. The Democratic Republic¾later known as the Weimar Republic¾survived but was weak and plagued by numerous revolts and hyperinflation. The Republic collapsed in 1933 with Adolf Hitler’s rise to power as Chancellor.

Film Director Helke Misselwitz

Film Director Helke Misselwitz

In 1923, Adolf Hitler mounted his first attempt to take over the Republican government in a failed coup known as the Hitlerputsch or, as it is known in America, the Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler, General Erich Ludendorff, and 2,000 ill-armed putschists seized the military headquarters in Munich and took members of the city council as hostages. They marched to the Felderrnhalle, a monument to Bavarian army leaders, where they clashed with police. Sixteen putschists and four police officers died in the skirmish. Hitler was tried and convicted of high treason but given a lenient sentence. He served a mere eight months in prison during which time he wrote Mein Kampf, outlining his ideology and world view. Hitler learned from the failed putsch and he carefully reorganized and built the Nazi Party. His election in 1933 as Chancellor enabled him to fulfill the nationalist, anti-capitalist and anti-Semitic aims outlined in Mein Kampf.

1938 marked the darkest event that shares the date of November 9–Kristallnacht–or “Night of Broken Glass.” On this night, Germany’s streets erupted in violence as Nazi rioters destroyed Jewish homes, businesses, synagogues, and cemeteries. Dozens of Jews were killed and hundreds wounded. Tens of thousands of male Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. This violence marked a turning point in the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies and began a staggering escalation of radically anti-Semitic measures that ultimately culminated in the Nazis’ “Final Solution” and the Holocaust.

The culmination of a series of mass demonstrations throughout Germany during the previous year, the actual fall of the Wall on the evening of November 9, 1989 was somewhat serendipitous.   A member of the government mistakenly announced that East Germans could travel to the West on the night of November 9, 1989.  The announcement was meant to convey that the number of travel permits would be increased. In the immediate aftermath of Gunter Schabowski’s announcement, thousands of East Germans gathered at the seven major checkpoints. Unable to hold back the crowds, border patrol guards disobeyed standing orders and permitted East Berliners to cross into the West. Germany was reunited on October 3, 1990. Although the newly reunited government would face many cultural and economic challenges, the fall of the Wall heralded the end of Communist Eastern Germany and the Cold War.

Santo Mammone discusses the fall of the Berlin Wall as Emily Jarmolowicz looks on

Santo Mammone discusses the fall of the Berlin Wall as Emily Jarmolowicz looks on

This timely exhibit provided valuable experience for these aspiring public historians but more importantly it represented an important service for the community: a means of educating the public about these painful and sometimes overlooked dates in German history. As we celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty-five years later, we remember the other legacies and complex history associated with the date of November 9.

By Matthew Herrera, M.A. Student, Department of History

Last Tuesday — March 25th — 2014 UMass Writer-in-Residence Adam Hochschild paid a visit to Stephen Platt’s Graduate Writing History Seminar. During this session, students were able to interact with the prolific writer, asking him numerous questions ranging from his writing style, dealing with writer’s block, and advice for developing a thick skin when it comes to reviewers. Adam Hochschild is a writer of journalism and history. He is also a Lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He has contributed to numerous magazines, newspapers, and published many well-known works, such as King Leopold’s Ghost, Bury the Chains, and most recently, To End All Wars.

During our seminar we discussed many things, such as technique; his book, To End All Wars; and advice regarding the publication process. However, one of the most important lessons we learned from Hochschild’s visit was his approach of writing history for popular audiences. Hochschild informed us that his job as a writer was to captivate the reader in a subject in which he or she has no interest. To accomplish this, Hochschild presents the material through the eyes of characters and their relationships. In his article “Practicing History without a License,” Hochschild states academic historians often produce works that are obscure and “dry as dust.” One way of avoiding this, he recommends, is by writing history though the utilization of characters. Not only does this approach engage the reader, but it also allows the author to tell the story through the experiences of characters. Additionally, using characters that are connected together will only engage the reader even further. Using films, novels, and plays as examples, Hochschild pointed out most stories involve characters that are connected and encounter each other.

Also discussed was technique and writing style. Hochschild believes in order reach wider audiences, historians need to make use of the classic tools writers have been using for hundreds of years, such as narrative devices of plot and scene setting. Writing that makes use of these techniques appeals to audiences outside of academia, and using these in works that expand the field can only have a positive influence. As Hochschild states in his article, “there is no reason why most history can’t be written in a way that offers thought provoking analysis and, at the same time, reaches well beyond an audience of fellow scholars.”

While pointing out various techniques and ways in which characters can help drive a written history, Hochschild did stress diligence. He warned that one must remain disciplined to not overwhelm the reader with too many characters. Introducing too many could not only lead to a work becoming tedious, but also confuse the reader, causing him or her to lose interest. Furthermore, it could become harder for the author to keep up with everything as the characters start to blend together. After all, every one of us has encountered a book, film, or television show that had so much going on, our interest faded or we were left Lost and confused.

In a field that is looking to expand further into the public consciousness, following the advice Hochschild bestowed upon our history class can be extremely beneficial. There are definitely times that research and analysis-driven works are most appropriate, yet finding a medium that appeals to both academics and popular audiences can only be beneficial. While it seems the “gap” between the two audiences is closing, producing historical works driven by characters, plot, and scene settings can only hasten the process and benefit the field by helping it grow.

Further Reading:

Hochschild, Adam. “Practicing History Without a License.” Historically Speaking XI, no. 4 (March/April 2008): 2-21.

Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. New York: Mariner Books, 2011.

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Left to right: Public history students Mirjam Pultar, Trent Masiki, Emily Hunter, and Emily Pipes.

On Wednesday, graduate students from Jon Olsen’s Introduction to Public History course proudly presented their findings from semester-long projects to a lively crowd of faculty, students, and community partners. The student groups worked on diverse projects with three institutions in Western Massachusetts: the Amherst Historical Commission, the Hadley Museum, and the Springfield Museums. Read on to learn more about these projects and see our Public History Program at work! Read More