“I’ve learned that if I’m not writing, then something is missing from my life,” says Roger Atwood, an independent writer and journalist, who graduated magna cum laude with a BA in History from UMass Amherst in 1984. “I started working in journalism in Argentina about a year after I graduated, liked it, and made a career out of it,” he tells Past@Present.

Atwood’s articles have appeared in magazines, literary presses, newspapers, and academic journals, including The Guardian, National Geographic, The Washington Post, ARTnews, Mother Jones, Scientific American, and Archaeology, where Atwood is a contributing editor. He is the author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World, a study of the global illicit antiquities trade, published by St Martin’s Press in 2004. He also co-edited an anthology of non-fiction writing about growing up in the American working class, Coming of Age in a Hardscrabble World: A Memoir Anthology, which was published by University of Georgia Press in 2019.

After you graduated in 1984 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, you worked as a journalist and correspondent in the U.S. and Latin America, where you reported from Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Chile. What made you interested in journalism, especially reporting on Latin American countries?

My original plan when I graduated was to go into an academic career. But I had done an internship at a newspaper in Mexico and written a lot for The Collegian, so when I went to Argentina a few months after graduation, I was drawn to journalism as a way to make a living, and somehow it became a career. I was influenced also by reporters who showed me how journalism could be a way to find an immediate, very fleeting kind of truth about what was happening in politics and society. I saw journalism as a way to grasp and write about what was happening around me, which, in Argentina in the mid-1980s, was the return to democracy and a gradual liberalization of society.  

I worked at a radio station in Buenos Aires, then an English-language newspaper, then found a job as a reporter at the news agency Reuters in 1986, in Buenos Aires. I stayed with Reuters until 2002, but I worked at so many different offices of Reuters that it never felt routine or stale. I was a correspondent in Rio de Janeiro, Lima, and New York, and then bureau chief in Santiago, Chile. Finally I was a senior editor at Reuters in Washington, where I was working on the day of the 9/11 attacks. Much as I loved it, I left Reuters in 2002 because I wanted to grow as a writer, and, after 16 years, it was time for a change. Since then, I’ve written a book called Stealing History, a study of the global illicit antiquities trade; co-edited an anthology of memoirs which was published in 2019 by the University of Georgia Press; and written hundreds of articles in magazines, literary presses, newspapers, and academic journals. My main job these days is at Archaeology magazine, for which I write about archaeological digs around the world. For an independent writer, it’s a nice gig. I like to work hard, and I’ve learned that if I’m not writing, then something is missing from my life. So I keep writing. 

You did your undergraduate degree in History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. How did your history degree influence your journalism work?

For me, and I’m sure for others, history was a superb preparation for journalism. You learn the historical background of the places or issues you’re reporting on, but even more importantly you learn how to take huge amounts of information and distill it down to a coherent argument or narrative. Historical scholarship teaches you to grapple with information from many different kinds of sources – archives, interviews, published texts – and write about them with accuracy, originality, empathy, and flair, all qualities that go into good journalism. Writing history teaches you to follow the facts where they lead you, to question your own assumptions, and to keep an open mind – again, all qualities that journalists should aspire to. 

Everything I do, every article or book I write, is informed in some way by my UMass education, which taught me the value of scholarly inquiry while exposing me to people and ideas from outside the insular, American middle-class world in which I had been raised. I loved the diversity and progressive spirit of UMass, and in the years since I’ve come to realize what a big impact UMass had on my outlook on the world, how it opened my perspectives and gave me an education in the fullest sense. I had fantastic professors who transmitted their enthusiasm for Latin America to me and many other students, in History and other departments in the humanities and social sciences. My chief mentor was Robert Potash, who taught me to research and write to high standards and helped me win a summer scholarship in Argentina in 1983 that proved really pivotal for me.

How can journalists benefit from history, especially when it comes to analyzing the U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. role in Latin America?

A historical perspective helps to understand the U.S. role in Latin America and how Latin Americans feel about people from the United States. It is a rather complicated relationship, with some inherited resentment at our role in supporting dictatorships during the Cold War and imperial adventures before that. This is more important in some countries than in others. When I was a student at UMass, U.S. policy in Latin America was dominated by the Reagan Administration’s misguided efforts to maintain the traditional, conservative order in Central America and prevent the left from coming to power. UMass was a place of intense activism against U.S. policy and in favor of human rights and a more progressive future for Central America. I have nice memories of traveling with other students to Washington, DC, in 1982 or 1983 to protest against U.S. military aid to El Salvador.

Although feelings about U.S. influence ran pretty strong, Professor Potash and others at UMass – Jane Rausch in History, Harvey Kline in Political Science, Lawrence Pinkham in Journalism, among others – encouraged us through their example to think about Latin America as not just a place where U.S. influences played out, but rather on its own terms, as a place with cultures and histories of its own. That was an incredibly important perspective. It helped me grasp the complexity and beauty and texture of Latin America in a way that perhaps not many other journalists did.

You frequently speak on radio and television and write for various print media. One of your recent articles was published in The Guardian. It is impressive how you can communicate about your research with various audiences in and outside the United States. What can historians learn from journalists about getting their research findings out to a wider audience?

That article in The Guardian was about organic farming in Cuba, and how Cuba had moved from a cash-crop, sugar monoculture to a food-based model in an attempt to gain some independence over its food supply. I must have interviewed 30 academics in the United States and Cuba for that story, and it was sometimes a challenge to put their very technical language into words that the general public could relate to. For anybody writing for the general public, as opposed to an academic audience, it’s important to use vivid language – active verbs, a sense of the visual, no clichés. There needs to be a compelling point, an argument, if you will. You can assume that readers have more knowledge than maybe we give them credit for, but the narrative has to move quickly and it needs to be focused on people, because that’s what journalists write about, people. It needs good description. Sometimes you have to stop to think: what does this look like? What does it feel like to be here? How would I describe this event or place or person? Put that in your story. Don’t go overboard.

This past October you spoke at Ursinus College outside Philadelphia on your book Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World (Macmillan/St. Martin’s Press, 2004). Your book sheds light on commercial looting and grave-robbing of archaeological sites in countries like Iraq, Peru, and Hong Kong, to show how the worldwide antiquities trade is destroying what’s left of the ancient sites before archaeologists can reach them. After your talk at Ursinus College, you wrote on your website that you were struck by how the book’s basic message still resonates: “that the illicit antiquities trade is compromising our ability to learn more about the story of humanity.” Do you think that your work and reports about the global traffic in stolen archaeological objects has changed the approach of governments and collecting museums to acquiring antiquities?

Museums used to buy antiquities that had been looted from archaeological sites quite brazenly – this is why so many museums found themselves in legal trouble – but I sense they’ve become more circumspect about it. Some of them are still acquiring legally dodgy pieces but are more discreet about it; others, I think, really have tightened up their policies out of an awareness that their acquisition polices in the past were encouraging looting and destruction of archaeological sites by commercial grave-robbers. Did my own reporting contribute to that change? Well, I’d like to think so, but there were many journalists doing excellent reporting that demonstrated the complicity of big art museums in the illicit antiquities trade. Lawsuits brought in U.S. court against museums by countries demanding restitution of looted goods also had a big effect; museums saw themselves as custodians of the treasures of the past, and they did not like getting sued. And pressure from those governments – particularly Italy, as well as Peru and a few others – on the U.S. government to do something about the problem had a decisive effect. All this has changed the climate in which unprovenanced antiquities are bought and sold in the United States. But has it led to a reduction in looting? I think that’s harder to say. In some areas, yes. On the northern coast of Peru, where I reported most of Stealing History, certainly.  

Since its creation, the ISIS has been profiteering from plundering and selling antiquities in Syria and Iraq. In 2015, UNESCO warned that the looting in Iraq and Syria was taking place on an “industrial” scale. According to various reports, the U.S. and western European countries are the main destination for looted goods and the sales of these goods are said to be funding ISIS activities. What is your take on the role of major U.S. and European museums in enabling the billion-dollar illicit trade in antiquities to continue and thrive? What should museums do to address the illicit antiquities trade which you criticize in your book?

With regard to antiquities pillaged at sites in Syria and Iraq, I think the demand at the moment is more from private collectors than from the big museums. Yet some of those private collectors may later try to sell or donate looted antiquities to museums; this is what happened to the Bible Museum here in Washington, which acquired unprovenanced cuneiform tablets from Iraq and was forced to return them and pay a settlement. Some collectors of Near Eastern antiquities have a great appetite for looted antiquities. They like the feeling of owning things taken freshly from the ground. Maybe they find the legal perils exciting. But the demand for those objects is what fuels the destruction of ancient sites, and, when you buy looted goods, you’re also at risk of buying worthless fakes. My position is that no one should buy antiquities, period. No matter what the dealer says about how the piece has spent decades in someone’s collection, or derived from legitimate sources, the risk that you’re buying a plundered work of art is just too great. If you’re buying an antiquity, most likely it’s looted or fake.   

What dynamics within museums are behind their drive to acquire antiquities from illegal sellers?

Acquiring is in the nature of great museums. That’s what they do, and to ask museums to get out of a whole area of collecting – unprovenanced antiquities – is a pretty big ask. But they have been forced to do so and to revise their whole acquisitions philosophies, because they faced legally enforceable demands from source countries for the return of looted antiquities. For the great collecting museums – the Met, the Getty, the Boston MFA – it has been a sea change. They have learned some hard lessons.

— Interview by Mohammad Ataie

This post is the first installment of a new series of Past@Present interviews exploring the diverse #CareersinHistory that UMass History Department alumni have pursued. In these posts, alumni reflect on current issues in their respective fields, as well as the ways in which their training as historians have prepared them for their work in the world.

Ross Caputi, a PhD student in Modern U.S. and Italian history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is the co-author of The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History (UMass Press 2019) and the director of the People’s History of Fallujah Digital Archive. His research on U.S. military operations in Iraq originates from his military experience in Iraq: Caputi is a veteran of the Marine Corps. “Regrettably, I participated in the second siege of Fallujah in November, 2004 as a U.S. Marine,” says Caputi in an interview with Past@Present. “I didn’t understand that we were hurting innocent people at the time. But ever since I did come to understand that, I’ve felt a sense of responsibility to speak out against what we did there and to pay reparations, in whatever limited capacity I’m capable of, to the people of Fallujah. That sense of responsibility has only deepened the more I’ve come to understand the historical significance of the sieges of Fallujah. The attacks came at a pivotal moment in the occupation, and I think the sieges of Fallujah occupy an important place in our collective memory of the occupation. So, rather than opposing the war in a more general way, I’ve decided to focus on Fallujah.”

After leaving the Marine Corps, Caputi became active in the antiwar movement and formed a group called the Justice for Fallujah Project, which hosted public speaking events to raise awareness about the human costs of the operations in Fallujah, among other important initiatives. Later he joined a nonprofit organization called the Islah Reparations Project and organized a series of grassroots reparations projects with the Fallujah General Hospital.

Portrait of Ross, taken in Fitchburg, MA in 2018

Caputi is now pursuing a PhD in History, and a Graduate Certificate in Public History at UMass Amherst, concentrating on oral and digital history. He hopes that by using different media, he can bring historical perspective to new audiences. Besides coauthoring a book on Fallujah, he has written op-eds and made a documentary film, Fear Not the Path of Truth. He is currently working on a digital archive project, the “People’s History of Fallujah.” Caputi hopes that the digital archive can become a source for educators to teach students about the U.S. wars. “Through all of this work, my greatest frustration has been trying to reach new audiences,” says Caputi. “It’s been easy enough to speak with people who are predisposed to my antiwar message, but, of course, people who already agree with me are not my target audience. And it’s been a struggle to find ways to speak with people who are either supportive of or ambivalent towards the Global War on Terror.”

You’ve conducted interviews with Iraqis for your book and the digital archive project. They include five oral history interviews with refugees from Fallujah. Why did you decide to interview people from Fallujah for your project about the siege of this Iraqi city?

One thing that became clear to me the more I researched the sieges of Fallujah was that U.S. information operations were an integral part of the violence. U.S. forces went to great lengths to control the production of information about their operations in Fallujah, particularly during the second siege. This made it very challenging to write a history of these operations, because the vast majority of primary source materials were produced by this propaganda apparatus. And Iraqi voices were intentionally omitted. So, as a methodological choice, we thought that writing a people’s history and trying to recover as many Iraqi voices as possible was the most ethical way to go about telling this story.

My coauthors and I did a number of journalistic interviews with Fallujans while we were working on the book. It didn’t occur to me to try to do a more systematic oral history project until after we had already submitted our manuscript to UMass Press. And then the opportunity presented itself to begin working on this project in the winter of 2018, when the war against the Islamic State was pushing a new wave of Iraqi refugees into Europe. I met up with five men from Fallujah, who were gracious enough to tell me their stories, while they were living in Helsinki. 

How did you address the emotional challenges of interviewing individuals who experienced traumatic war events and witnessed extreme violence during the siege? What were the challenges of conducting these interviews in Arabic?

I didn’t think there was a lot I could do as an interviewer to make the sharing of traumas easier for my narrators. I expected all along that doing so would be uncomfortable for them, and sharing their stories with the public would make them vulnerable. So for me the question wasn’t “How can I make this easier for them?,” but why should they want to do this in the first place?. In other words, what stake do my narrators have in my project? And this question was led to a number of other considerations about how to relate storytelling to reparations.

Telling war stories in an ethical way is very difficult. I’m very aware that Americans are very interested in war stories and will readily consume the most sensational of war stories, if they are made available to them. In my own experience, I find that many people are more interested in hearing about my own personal experience with violence and reintegration into society than they are in hearing about my research, and I can only speculate as to why that is. At the same time, I think there is something exploitive in the way many journalists collect war stories and sell them to their publishers; and the same thing could be said about many scholars who earn their paychecks by gathering other people’s stories and recounting them. So, I began this project trying to be mindful of this double-edged sword: the fact that the stories I collect will be funneled into news feeds that invite passive consumption, and that in this transaction of stories, I’m just a middle-man. I wanted to collect stories from Fallujans, who were often being spoken for by commentators and self-proclaimed Middle East experts in the American news media. But I didn’t want to put their traumas on display, to be mindlessly consumed on social media and yield nothing more than a few likes while I earn a paycheck.

Ross in Fallujah, 2004

I have to thank Kali Rubaii, who cofounded the Islah Reparations Project with me, for helping me think through the ethics of telling war stories in this way. Kali not only came up with our model of grassroots reparations, but she applied that model to her ethnographic work as an anthropologist, calling it “reparative ethnography.” I tried to conceive of my oral history project in a similar fashion, making storytelling a means to an end (reparations), rather than having storytelling be an end in itself.

At the time, I thought that it was necessary to acknowledge that my society was still responsible for the ongoing violence in Iraq, and my primary responsibility to those men was to try to end that violence. Many of my narrators had bad experiences with journalists in the past, who took their stories to make a profit, never to be heard from again. So I began the pre-interview process by acknowledging this and explaining that I intended for these interviews to be part of a broader reparations project. Then we had a conversation about the potential risks of sharing their stories, and many of the men faced serious risks, for their families and for themselves, if they were ever forced to go back to Iraq.

Through these conversations, it never occurred to any of us that something could be done make the exchange of these stories easier, emotionally. The question on my mind was how to make it worth it to them, and the question on their mind was whether or not they could trust me. One man wanted legal assistance with his status as an asylum seeker. Another wanted help finding lost relatives in Iraq. The others just appreciated my acknowledgement that Americans owed reparations and chose to participate for that reason alone.

As far as the translation goes, it required a lot of patience from everyone involved for each sentence to be translated into both English and Arabic. It stretched what should have been a one-hour interview into three hours. But also, it became clear to me that there were a lot of differences in our uses of vocabulary to describe the war that weren’t an issue of translation. For example, the Western news media often described the period from 2005 – 2006 as Iraq’s “civil war,” but Iraqis didn’t experience it as a civil war at all. They called it the “militia war” because the violence was driven by U.S.-backed death squads. It was a striking moment to realize that, as critical as I was of the war, my understanding of it was still very much shaped by outsiders’ perspectives.

Many works have been published in English on the coalition forces attacks on Fallujah. In what ways is your book’s narrative different from other works about the siege of Fallujah and its humanitarian consequences?

The vast majority of the works published on Fallujah are military histories, written by American veterans of these operations or professional military writers. As such, the actions of American soldiers are usually the focus of these books, and the experiences of Iraqis are completely omitted or relegated to the background. What our book offers is a narrative that foregrounds the Iraqi experience. But I think we also have some original things to say about the role of information warfare and the emergence of ISIS in Fallujah.

There are a lot of clichés that get thrown around about the weaponization of information in war. But I don’t think many people appreciate how different the use of propaganda was in Fallujah. We go so far as to argue that in Fallujah propaganda truly was a constitutive element of the violence. And it created an enduring mythology, most notably in case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It’s likely that anything you think you know about Zarqawi can be credited to the propaganda campaigns leading up to the second siege of Fallujah.

And much of the media discourse about the Islamic State focused on their fanatical religious ideology as a motivator for everything they did. But we tell a different story grounded in the history of social movements in Iraq that explains how ISIS went from being a very unpopular organization in places like Fallujah to a state-like entity encompassing large parts of Iraq and Syria. We argue that it had little to do with religion and everything to do with the Iraqi government’s oppression (with American assistance) of Sunnis.

You mentioned that some of the interviews you have conducted for your book are journalistic in nature. Tell us about these interviews. How does your journalism background influence and help your research as a historian?

I call these interviews journalistic because they were more topically focused. We sought out certain individuals to gather their insights about specific topics, instead of trying to see their experiences from a historical perspective, as I would in an oral history interview. We interviewed Dr. Muhammad al-Darraji, a former member of the Fallujah City Council and an author of many human rights reports; Dr. Samira Alani, the Head Pediatrician at Fallujah Hospital’s Women and Children’s Ward; and Naji Haraj, a former Iraqi diplomat and the Executive Director of the Geneva International Centre for Justice.

I never truly worked as a journalist in Iraq. But following the work of independent journalists in Iraq is what made me appreciate the scope of U.S. information operations in Iraq, and how those operations extended the violence beyond the traditional battlefield. In many instances, U.S. forces regarded independent journalists as enemies. For these reasons, I think historians, to understand the journalism written about the occupation, need to take it in the context of an information war.

Ross interviewing Naji Haraj in his office in Geneva in 2018. Naji, who is from Fallujah, is the Executive Director of the Geneva International Centre for Justice.

Since 2003, the United States has maintained its military presence in Iraq. President Trump says that he wants to bring back the U.S. troops from Iraq and other countries in the Muslim world, like Afghanistan. This position has met with strong opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. As a public historian and journalist who has written about the U.S. military and the American role in the Middle East, how do you see this bipartisan insistence to keep the U.S. forces in Iraq? 

It’s implicit in these debates that there is an inter-imperial competition between the U.S. and Iran for influence in Iraq. There is a bipartisan consensus that withdrawing from Iraq will strengthen Iran’s position there, which is absolutely true. But I think we need to understand that, first of all, this is only possible because our experiment with regime change in Iraq created a weak, corrupt, and unstable country, and continued interference in Iraq’s political and economic life most likely will not help it become capable of managing its relationships with its neighbors.

Second, our misadventure in Iraq was not a mistake, as it is often remembered; it was a war crime. The insistence of Democrats and Republicans that we need to maintain a troop presence in Iraq is an echo of the imperial hubris of the Bush administration. A continued troop presence in Iraq would do nothing to bolster our national security, since neither Iraq nor Iran are a threat to us. But it would strengthen our position as an imperial force in the region, and that’s what this is about.

I think we need to recognize that it was this kind of thinking that led us to invade and destroy Iraq, and we need to break from this delusion of American Exceptionalism. The only thing that the U.S. owes to Iraq is reparations. Apart from that, we need to get out. 

What can your research on the U.S. military operations in Iraq teach policymakers in Washington about the U.S. policy in the Middle East and its involvement in the wars in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria?

I hope the book instills a healthy amount of self-doubt in every policy maker and military leader. It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around how it’s possible that I didn’t know I was participating in a war crime while it was happening. And through the sieges of Fallujah, all three of them, we see that kind of self-delusion again and again. It’s shocking how wrong we were about who we thought we were fighting against in Fallujah and why. And I’m willing to bet Fallujah is not an isolated incident. I hope it makes others wonder if we’ve made similar mistakes in other countries where we thought we knew what we were doing and decided to wage war.

The Public History in Historical Perspective Series, published by the University of Massachusetts Press, has enjoyed many successes and steady growth since its inception in 2009. The significant achievements of the series have not only made it a cornerstone of the UMass publishing program, but have also inspired and shaped new generations of public historians. “I can’t actually believe it’s only ten years old–the series has accomplished so much in that time,” says Seth Bruggeman, the editor of Born in the U.S.A: Birth, Commemoration, and American Public Memory, and an associate professor of History at Temple University. “It has, most significantly, established itself as THE series for serious print scholarship in public history.” 

Books in the series provide critical perspectives to scholars who seek to understand the role of history and memory in public life. There are currently 23 titles in the series, including the just  published title The Genealogical Sublime by Julia Creet. As Edward T. Linenthal, a member of the series editorial advisory board explains, the titles explore topics such as “the history of history-making in the U.S., layers of remembrance of place and event, the power of material culture, and titles of great interest to me, that focus on remembrance of violence. To mention only a few: Erin Krutko Devlin’s Remember Little Rock, Memoria Abierta’s Memories of Buenos Aires: Signs of State Terrorism in Argentina,  Michael Scott Van Wagenen’s Remembering the Forgotten War: the Enduring Legacies of the U.S.-Mexican War, and James E. Young’s The Stages of Memory: Reflections on Memorial Art, Loss, and the Spaces Between.

Not only have titles in the series won numerous prizes, including the National Council on Public History’s “best book” prize four times, but they have become standard texts in Public History courses across the country. Some of the award winners were Susan Reynolds Williams’s Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America, James E. Young‘s The Stages of Memory, Andrea A. Burns’s  From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, and Michael Scott Van Wagenen’s Remembering the Forgotten War. As Mary Dougherty, the director of University of Massachusetts Press says, “The titles in this series do great work in advancing the scholarly conversation, and they are helping to shape the public historians of tomorrow.”

The idea of launching the Public History in Historical Perspective Series emerged in 2009, after author and cultural historian Briann Greenfield approached the UMass Press to publish her book, Out of the Attic: Inventing Antiques in Twentieth-Century New England. At that time, Clark Dougan was the senior editor on the Amherst campus, and he raised the idea of creating the series with Marla Miller. “[T]he vision for the series came out of Marla and Clark’s work on my book as both saw the potential for something more,” recounts Greenfield, whose book became the first work in the series. “I’ve been especially lucky to be associated with the series.  The books that followed have furthered our understanding of public history—what it has been and what it can become.” 

The series has developed and grown in relationship to the field of Public History.  “The series is truly remarkable insomuch as it has almost singlehandedly redefined public history historiography during the last decade,” says Bruggeman, a member of the series editorial advisory board. “I cannot imagine a meaningful conversation about public history today that doesn’t somehow reference Denise Meringolo, Amy Tyson, Andrea Burns, Tammy Gordon, and Lara Kelland.”

As Matt Becker, the editor in chief at UMass Press, notes, the books in the series “collectively map out key historiographical and theoretical foundations for the field of public history: Denise D. Meringolo’s, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, for instance, delineates the profession of public history, tracing its roots back to the nineteenth century, while Andrea A. Burns’, From Storefront to Monument offers an overarching history of the black museum as a political movement that began in the 1960s and 1970s. It is thus the most significant book series in public history because of this role of, essentially, defining the field.”

Many authors choose to publish their work in the series because of the exemplary support and insight they receive from the editors. The acquisitions editors who work on the Series provide detailed comments on manuscripts during the review process, and as some authors point out, help to develop scholars’ arguments.

Of course, the editorial feedback supplied by Marla Miller, Series Editor and Director of the Public History Program at UMass, has been crucial for the series’ success and shaping the scholarly discourse within the field. “I’ve benefited time and time again from my encounters with the series,” says Seth Bruggeman. “As an author, I’ve benefited tremendously from Miller’s editorial insight and her willingness to connect me with colleagues who, in the case of Born in the U.S.A. (2012), became key contributors. As a member of the advisory board, I’ve been so impressed by how quickly and how seriously great manuscripts get reviewed. And, as a teacher, I’ve filled my syllabi with series titles.”

Briann Greenfield tells Past@Present that what made publishing with UMass Press unique was the experience of working with the editorial team who “pushed my interpretive focus, asking careful questions and pointing out strengths and weaknesses in the argument.” “My book was a much better book for their insight and support. Marla, especially,” adds Greenfield.

In the same vein, Denise Meringolo, who published her first book in 2012 with the University of Massachusetts Press, describes her experience during the manuscript revision process as “incredibly positive.” She recalls that “David Glassberg encouraged me to submit my proposal to the press, and I was incredibly gratified to receive enthusiastic support from both the then Executive Editor Clark Dougan and from the series editor, Marla Miller. I found the revision process to be daunting, and I honestly might not have succeeded without Marla’s patient support. Not only did she provide detailed written feedback on early drafts, she also met with me on at least two occasions to offer guidance and words of encouragement. Since the publication of my book, I have had experience with a variety of platforms and presses, and I now know how unusual this level of author support is.”

“We are extremely proud to publish the series, Public History in Historical Perspective,” says Mary Dougherty, the director of University of Massachusetts Press. According to Dougherty, over 15,700 copies of series titles have been sold, including library copies available to borrow in electronic or paper formats. A number of the books in the series are routinely assigned in courses.  And the press and the series are now poised to drive innovation in the realm of digital scholarship, an area of keen interest among public historians.  A significant collaboration with Greenhouse Studios (at the University of Connecticut, led by series board member Tom Scheinfeldt), funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will research and model new approaches to peer review processes and  workflows for digital humanities, work that will support authors whose vision for their scholarship includes a digital component.

“With exciting manuscripts in various stages of completion, readers can look forward to a series of continued excellence,” says Edward Linenthal. “Such case studies transport us into the intimate and at the same time very public ‘predicament of aftermath.’ More generally, they offer stark evidence that the past remains forever dynamic.”

-By Mohammad Ataie

In November 2018, the Washington Post published a story with the headline, “Historians: What Kids Should Be Learning in School Right Now.” In asking this important question, the reporter chose to only ask historians, all of whom were university professors, authors, or filmmakers. The ideas presented were thoughtful. However, none of the people asked were K-12 history teachers.  

The next day, I noticed on social media that some history teachers and teacher educators (which is my line of work; I prepare future history teachers at UMass Boston) were upset with the Washington Post’s snub. One colleague Alex Cuenca posted on Twitter, “Feel free to ask K-12 teachers. … We have a clear stance on what kids should be learning.” Others had similar comments. While the views of historians on the subject are certainly important, it would have been nice to include a very important groups of history educators: K-12 classroom teachers. 

It was in this moment that I realized that we need to do much more to connect historians and history teachers. So, I started a hashtag and a social media campaign…

Realizing that many teachers (#SSChat) and historians (#twitterstorians) are now using Twitter and other social media sites to learn and share, I decided to try and connect the two using the hashtag #BridgingHistoriansAndTeachers. I asked the teachers who I followed on Twitter to tell me what historians they followed. I then chose a new historian each day, Tweeted at them that I was following them as part of this campaign, and I challenged them to follow back any K-12 teacher who followed them. Of the 42 historians from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico that I followed, 33 followed me back and promised to follow K-12 teachers. I then made a Twitter list for historians to join and teachers to subscribe to; we currently have 136 teachers (teachers: consider subscribing) and 49 historians (historians: you can e-mail me to join) included. I received many messages from K-12 history teachers and historians that they were thankful for this campaign and that we needed more ways like this to work together.

In January 2020, I had an opportunity to speak on a panel at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting about my social media campaign and possible ways to build bridges between historians and history teachers. I argued that this must be a two-way bridge. Historians and history teachers need to start collaborating around historical research, pedagogy, and public history. They should be learning from each other. More teachers should be invited to work on historical research projects. More professors should visit K-12 classrooms and observe some of the creative teaching techniques that are being used. Both groups should work together by designing history curriculum and materials from kindergarten to graduate school.

At the AHA Annual Meeting, I argued that K-12 schools are where people first learn history in a serious way, including where they begin to develop their historical thinking skills and interpretations of the past. Sadly, many Americans never study history beyond high school (at least in an academic way, many adults report routinely visiting historical sites and museums, discussing history with their families, or watching history media). 

At the same time, history education is facing some serious challenges. We have all heard the troubling statistics about the decline in history majors and the number of college students taking history courses (which may also be related to a decline in future teachers-who make up a large percentage of history majors and students taking history courses).

Historians and history teachers are in this boat together, yet we rarely work (or even talk) to each other. We need to be allies in the important mission of educating the public about the past. While there are about 3,300 Americans who identify as historians, there are 232,000 middle and high school history teachers and 1.1 million generalist elementary teachers. As an undergraduate student in history and education at UMass Amherst years ago and now a professor at UMass Boston, the history professors whom I have worked take seriously their role in educating future and current teachers. However, at many colleges and universities, history faculty do not see themselves as teacher educators and rarely collaborate with education faculty). 

If we regard historians to be historical experts, then it makes sense that they would want to work regularly with teachers (who are providing most of the academic history instruction to the public). The work of the historian is one of investigation, questioning narratives, and seeking new understandings of the past. History teachers often have a thirst to learn new information about or interpretations of past events. Most history teachers’ summer reading lists are full of the latest history books (it is also important to note that there are many K-12 history teachers and teacher educators who are also historians; they may be well positioned to help connect the two groups). 

If we regard teachers to be pedagogical experts, then it equally makes sense that historians might want to learn new methods of teaching from them. In my research, which focuses on elementary- and secondary-level history teaching, I have found that classroom teachers (especially here in Massachusetts) are making progress in more regularly using inquiry-based methods and teaching traditionally underrepresented groups’ histories (i.e. people of color, women, the poor and working classes, LGBTQ people). They certainly could serve as models for many university history professors and historians, where lecture is still the most common form of instruction and many voices are still left out of their courses.

My hope is that this small social media campaign might lead more collaboration between historians and K-12 history teachers, with the ultimate goal of improve history education for everyone. It may take a major culture change in the academy to happen, but I certainly believe it is possible (and know others agree).

Christopher C. Martell is an assistant professor of social studies education at UMass Boston and an alumni of the UMass Amherst History Department (’02). 

by Danielle Raad

In November 2019, I spent ten days in the Alps. I landed in Munich and took a train south into the mountains. Mountains were a constant presence, in the abstract and the physical, the focus and the backdrop, on the trip.

I headed to Innsbruck, Austria, to attend the Annual Conference of the Austrian Association for American Studies hosted by the University of Innsbruck. The theme of this year’s conference was Mediating Mountains. The conference organizers, in their call for papers, wrote: “Mountains are not only objects of reflection that mirror, archive, and project human and cultural investments, but they can also be conceived of as ‘hyperobjects’ that affect the ways we come to think about existence, earth, and society”.  

Raad, Figure 1

My route through the Alps. A = Munich, Germany; B = Innsbruck, Austria; C = Verona, Italy; D = Milan, Italy; E = Morbegno, Italy; F = Sondrio, Italy. 

My weekend in Innsbruck was invigorating. I met people from different fields in the humanities and social sciences who study mountains in some guise or other. And while we scholars conferred, the snow-capped Alps loomed in the not-so-distance, visible from the room in which I gave my talk on the role of visual media and collective vision on the creation of mountains in 19th-century America. I also chaired a session called “Commodifying Verticality,” which included talks by three historians. Dr. Carolin Roeder, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, spoke on climbing grades, Dr. Rachel Gross, an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado Denver, presented on commercial sponsorship on Everest, and Jesse Ritner, a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin talked about making artificial snow. At the conference and in the weeks since, I have been thinking a lot about orogenesis, or the creation of mountains, quite a bit. Both the geologic movement of tectonic plates, which I know well from my days as a science teacher, but also in terms of the processes by which societies construct their mountains.

After the conference ended, I took a funicular and two cable cars up Hafelekar Peak, part of the Nordkette, or North Chain. I trudged through the snow to summit the 7,657-foot tall mountain. A Gipfelkreuz, or summit cross, greeted me at the top and signaled the primary religion of the community thousands of feet below. I could see before me all of the Inn Valley, the River Inn, and the city of Innsbruck. I also saw the elevated train tracks heading south through a mountain pass to Italy, which I would be on the next day. 

Raad, Figure 2

The view of Innsbruck from Hafelekar Peak.  

There is a tension between the Romantic gaze of mountains as unreachable, unknowable symbols of nature’s power, and the modern gaze of mountains as controlled and managed landscapes [4]. I was standing on Hafelekar Peak in a conference outfit and was carried most of the way there by machines. I also arrived and departed Innsbruck via machine. The construction of the railroads and trains which have transported myself and many others in and out of the Alps opened up the area to tourism and outdoor recreation.

But looking down from the cable car at the Nordkette below, I saw evidence of a massive avalanche in the form of hundreds of flattened trees, and was reminded of the awesome power of the mountains. They also dictate human movement through the Alps, forcing us to jump from valley to valley. The train that I took from Innsbruck south, headed for Verona, went through the Brenner Pass. Despite technological advancements, and indeed many tunnels have been carved straight through the rock, for the most part humans must react to the physical mass and resulting weather systems of the mountains.

On the way to Verona, I passed by the Italian town of Bolzano and stared wistfully out the window towards where Ötzi the Iceman, a mummified 5,000 year old proto-mountaineer, lay in a closed-on-Mondays museum. I emerged from the Alps momentarily and spent a day in Verona before taking another train west to Milan and yet another north, back into the mountains. I reconvened with my family and spent several days in Morbegno, the Italian village in the Valtellina valley where my father-in-law is from. 

One day we drove to Sondrio, the capital of the region, to visit Il Castello Delle Storie Di Montagna in Sondrio (CAST). This is a museum that tells the story of the changing perception of mountains. It is a sort of museum within a museum; it is housed in the Castello Masegra, a Renaissance villa. Interpretive signage provides information on the historic building as well as the mountain-related theme on each floor.

The first floor focused on the climbing (bouldering, sport climbing, and ice climbing). Against a backdrop of faded Renaissance frescoes, exhibits mirrored the tactile nature of the sport. Interactive touch screen maps displayed videos about climbing sites around the world. The theme of the second floor was mountaineering expeditions, global in scope yet emphasizing the Alps. In the banquet hall room, under an ancient wooden vaulted ceiling, were interactive timelines of the history of mountaineering and a virtual reality telescope. Visitors could take books on various topics off shelves and insert them into slots to activate videos on a screen, or place film negatives on a lightbox to trigger content on the role of cinema in mountaineering. The final floor dealt with the topic of environmental protection and the origin of parks, focusing on the protected areas of Valtellina and featuring interactive components as well.

Raad, Figure 3

View of the Tartano Valley from the Ponte nel Cielo. 

At sunset, we took a sickening car ride up the face of a mountain on what felt like a pilgrimage to the Ponte nel Cielo, or bridge in the sky. We took numerous switchbacks, which triggered my motion sickness and my thoughts about the futile nature of human insistence on dominating these mountains. The Ponte nel Cielo is the highest and longest suspension footbridge in Europe and connects two sides of the Tartano Valley. We paid to walk across it and to look out at the expansive view of the valley with Lake Como in the distance, then to walk right back. The bridge seems to exist for the sake of being a bridge, as an expression of the ability of humans to manage the mountain landscape. My nausea on the way down served as a reminder of the ways that the mountains, however, manage our bodies and our movements. 

Danielle Raad is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology and a Public History Graduate Certificate Candidate at UMass Amherst.

Sources:

Anderson, B. M. (2012). “The Construction of an Alpine Landscape: Building, Representing and Affecting the Eastern Alps, c. 1885–1914.” Journal of Cultural Geography, 29(2), 155–183.

Austrian Association for American Studies. (2019). AAAS Conference 2019. Mediating Mountains. Universität Innsbruck. Retrieved from https://www.uibk.ac.at/projects/mountainfilmstudies/2019-aaas-conference-mediating-mountains/index.html.en

Debarbieux, B., & Rudaz, G. (2015). The Mountain: A Political History from the Enlightenment to the Present (J. M. Todd, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Morton, T. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Taylor, J. E. T. (2011). Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

by Kevin Young

Republished with permission from the Hispanic American Historical Review

A coup overthrew the Bolivian government. The coup was spearheaded by the country’s racist oligarchy and backed by the United States, but it was also supported by portions of the Left, the labor movement, and the middle class. The latter groups had some legitimate grievances: for instance, the regime had sometimes treated dissent with a heavy hand and had made only limited progress toward transforming the country’s economic structure. Yet it had also facilitated major gains for workers, peasants, and indigenous people. It was those gains that drew the rage of the oligarchy and its allies in Washington. And it was the oligarchy that came out on top after the coup. Once in power it unleashed massive violence against those who resisted.

The year was 1946. Although the hyperlinks above are from 2019, the description applies equally well to the July 1946 overthrow of Colonel Gualberto Villarroel. The deposed government had sponsored a historic Indigenous Congress, decreed an end to forced labor in the countryside, promoted the formation of a mineworkers’ federation, and asserted greater state control over the mining industry. It also displayed some conservative tendencies, for instance in its hostility to leftists in the labor movement and its tight fiscal policy in the midst of declining real wages. The result was an unlikely coalition of opponents: capitalists, the middle class, and the US government, but also Stalinists and anarchists. On July 21 a mob killed Villarroel and hung his body from a lamppost in La Paz’s central plaza.

The leftists initially celebrated. In a series of manifestos in the weeks that followed, the La Paz anarchist federation wrote that the Villarroel regime had “reduced the people to a state of slavery.” It decried all previous politicians, who, “without distinction, have brought ruin to this country.” Anarchist-feminists in La Paz wrote that the “Popular Revolution” of July 21 had toppled “an absolutist tyranny” and had “definitively crushed the insolence, terror, and criminality” of the “Nazi-fascists obsessed with State power.” The anarchists predicted a brighter future of “accelerated revolutionary progress,” wherein any new would-be tyrant would “be swept away by the action of the pueblo.”

They were too optimistic. The regimes that held power for the next six years were brutally repressive, and the Left was the main target. When the anarchists forged a powerful interethnic coalition to confront the landed elite, the state responded by killing scores of them and decimating their organizations. The Stalinists, too, found that Washington and the Bolivian Right soon turned on them.

There are of course many differences between 1946 and 2019. Unlike Villarroel, Evo Morales was democratically elected. Evo had a much longer presidency. Villarroel did not have to contend with thousands of phony Twitter accounts spreading fake news. And Evo has so far escaped the lynch mobs.

But the parallels are striking. In each case the forces of domestic reaction and empire were abetted by a similar cocktail of circumstances. Each coup won support from many leftists and liberals, who wagered they could get their complaints addressed by a new government while preventing the Right from capitalizing on the situation. Some went so far as to equate an imperfect reformist government with the Far Right. They dismissed other leftist voices who critiqued the limitations of the existing government but stressed that a right-wing government would be far more harmful.

The overthrown governments were also weakened in part by their own errors. Both could have done more to foster participatory governance and grassroots leadership. Both failed to address the contradictions around them in a revolutionary way. This is not to say, as some are now saying about Evo, that they “brought it on themselves.” But some of the governments’ decisions did make them more vulnerable.

I think the lessons of 1946 have been widely ignored. This isn’t the first time they were ignored: similar dynamics contributed to the coup of 1964, which ushered in 18 years of military regimes. Both leftist activists and reformist governments should consider what these disastrous outcomes can teach us about how best to pursue progressive change amid conditions not of our choosing. There is no easy answer to the question of “what is to be done,” but 1946 and 1964 offer clues about what we should avoid doing if we don’t want to empower the Right.

The most urgent task right now, however, is not to dissect the causes of November 10 but to stop the repression being carried out by the de facto regime of Jeanine Áñez. International solidarity can play a major role here. In Bolivia, courageous resistance in the face of state terror has forced the Áñez regime to backtrack on some of its most authoritarian plans, while it persists with others. The resistance has forced significant concessions, though many grassroots leftists are wary of regime promises.

The Áñez regime will end. But dozens of Bolivians have already paid with their lives. And whether there will be fair conditions for new elections is very much in doubt: the MAS party is in disarray, and the coup regime has harassed human rights monitorsthreatened journalists, and removed critical coverage from state-owned media (most of the private media is of course hostile to the Left). What sort of regime will come next, and how much freedom of maneuver it will have, is unclear.


Kevin A. Young is assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His article “From Open Door to Nationalization: Oil and Development Visions in Bolivia, 1952–1969” appeared in HAHR 97.1.

Image: Mercha a favor de Evo Morales – Buenos Aires. November 18, 2019. Photograph by Santiago Sito, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (Find the original here.)


This article originally appeared in the Hispanic American Historical Review on December 18, 2019 and was part of a forum in which historians responded to the question, “What would you say is the key piece of historical context for understanding the contemporary political developments in Bolivia?” This article is republished here with permission.

HAHR Tags: BoliviaEvo MoralesHAHRhistoryJeanine ÁñezMASMNRprotest | Permalink

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.

Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road

Past@Present: In September, in connection with an upcoming exhibition at the National Building Museum, Professor Marla Miller undertook a trip to the borderlands separating the U.S. and Mexico. Upon her return, she gave a presentation to the department about this work, and now two of our graduate students are completing internships with the NBM to contribute to this research.  Watch for more on this project from UMass Public History in 2020.

Marla Miller, on Kate Harris, Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road (Dey Street Books, 2018)

In September, I had the privilege of accompanying National Building Museum curator Sarah Leavitt to El Paso, Texas, to contribute to the planning of their 2020 exhibition “The Wall/El Muro: What is a Border Wall?”  Together we visited the National Border Patrol Museum, Chamizal National Memorial, and (easier said than done, but that’s a story for another time) International Boundary Marker #1, placed in 1855, in the aftermath of the US/Mexican War. We explored the Texas and New Mexico borderlands, crossing into Juarez and passing through several check-points across the region.  We accompanied hardworking attorneys from Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center to the El Paso Processing Center, and observed asylum interviews at the Centro de Atención Integral a Migrantes in Juarez. 

It is difficult to describe the emotional terrain these physical travels covered.  The border is visible everywhere, a scar of steel and concrete across the Rio Grande Valley. A constant tension, even fearfulness, permeated our movements: particularly memorable was a moment when, lost and high over Juarez on an I-10 off-ramp, we were afraid that we were somehow accidentally crossing the border, even though that wasn’t really possible, and we as white history professionals with solid citizenship were never in any real danger.  And yet our hearts raced, our relief palpable as we returned to surface streets.  We felt keenly the weight of our privilege as we moved freely across these lands in ways that so many of the people around us could not.

As we traveled, I thought about books I have read or want to read to better understand this fraught subject. On the flight to Texas, I listened to the riveting podcast Border Trilogy, which explores the fascinating and difficult work Jason De Leon describes in The Land of Open Graves (University of California Press, 2015).  I recalled the powerful study we brought out in our UMass Press Series “Public History in Historical Perspective,” Remembering the Forgotten War: The Enduring Legacies of the U.S.-Mexican War, by Michael Scott Van Wagenen (UMass Press, 2012), which contemplates how that conflict appears in expressions of collective memory on both sides of the border. I planned to read other books Sarah recommended, including Carrie Gibson’s El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America (Grove Atlantic, 2019), and Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border, by Porter Fox (Norton, 2018).

But my border reading began sooner than expected.  As Sarah and I parted ways, I wanted to pick something up for the flight home.  And Serendipity was kind, because there it was, in the airport bookshop: Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road by Kate Harris (for a traditional review of the book, click here)Just then anything with “borders” in the title would have appealed, but Harris also promised insight into the Silk Road—a longstanding interest for this historian of material culture.  This stunning memoir of Harris’ travels, on bicycle, with a childhood best friend, across Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Tibet, Nepal, and India, and the extended contemplation about crossing borders of all kinds, was exactly what I wanted.

Harris’s lifelong fascination with exploration is rooted in her Ontario childhood, as she explored the land in, around, and beyond her family’s home.  She eventually pursued graduate work in science, intending—as part of her lifetime affinity for difficult, unfamiliar horizons—to be part of the team that one day heads to Mars.  But Mars, she realized, would only ever be encountered via the mediated environments necessary to sustain human life, and she wanted to be in and of the landscapes she traversed.  Eventually, this meant travel — inspired by Marco Polo’s “The Description of the World” – along the Silk Road. By bike.

Harris takes readers along several journeys all at once, from her evolution from aspiring lab scientist, to historian, to traveler and writer. She narrates other trips made, by bicycle, across the US and abroad, as she traces this journey along the Silk Road and shares what she learned about herself, and what happens when the abstracts of international power relations play out on natural and cultural landscapes.  Harris’ prose is downright lyrical, with long, thoughtful passages that range widely and comfortably across science, history, and philosophy.  Lands of Lost Borders is many things: a travelogue, an adventure tale, a scholar’s contemplation of histories of exploration, and a meditation on science, global environments, and the impacts of political contestation on lands and communities.

A historian of science (which she studied formally at Oxford), Harris is inspired by, and critical of, other explorers and scientists (the career of Charles Darwin, in particular, gains scrutiny).  For a reader focused on borders, Harris’ musings are powerful and provocative.  She and her traveling companion were constantly traversing, navigating and evading borders and their accompanying tangible and bureaucratic infrastructures.  The effect of these unseen lines across the very material landscape that she covered pedal by pedal offered constant opportunity for reflection. “We’re so used to thinking of nations as self-evident,” she writes (33), “maps as trusted authorities, the boundaries veining them blue-blooded and sure.”  But in truth, borders are “ghost-like”—“a kind of haunting presence on horizons otherwise fenceless and patrolled only by the wind.” (33) In a passage that flows seamlessly from Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 to 1882) to Hsu Yu (or Xu You, c. 2356–2255 BC),  Harris—quoting the latter’s assertion that “Names are only the guests of reality”— proposes that “boundaries are little more than collective myths—fictions that a certain number of people, for a certain period of time, believe are fact” (115).

Harris’s ruminations resonated with our visit to Chamizal National Memorial, which honors the peaceful resolution of a border dispute.  In the years following the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, as the Rio Grande channel naturally shifted, so too did national land claims.  A century of contention ended in 1962-63 when Presidents John F. Kennedy’s and Adolfo López Mateos resolved the dispute: the U.S. returned land to Mexico, and both nations together relocated four miles of the Rio Grande to a more stable, concrete channel. Land that Mexico transferred to the U.S. was set aside as Chamizal National Memorial, to celebrate the diplomatic success. When Harris asks, on the Aksai Chin, “What if borders at their most basic are just desires written onto lands and lives, trying to foist permanence on the fact of flux?” (33) she could just as easily be commenting on this effort to pin down the Rio Grande.  

When asked, in an interview, about the overriding goal driving her work, Harris responded: “Dissolving the borders that divide people. . . waking people up to the fact that this is one small planet and nothing, truly nothing on it, exists in isolation.” “What happens in a factory in Bangladesh,” she continues, “matters in Canada, what happens to glaciers in Nepal matters in Fiji. We’re all complicit, we’re all connected. . . .   I’d use unlimited resources to educate and inspire people – through art, literature, science – to recognize the complex interdependency of life on Earth, this pale blue dot we all call home.”

Lands of Lost Borders explores the consequences of such artificial propositions.  “The problem with borders,” Harris proposes, “isn’t that they are monstrous, offensive, and unnatural constructions.”  Rather, their menace is grounded in the same “evil that Hannah Arendt identified—their banality” (245).  “We subconsciously accept them,” she continues, “as part of the landscape—at least those of us privileged by them, granted meaningful passports—because they articulate our deepest, lease exalted desired, for prestige and permanence, order and security, always at the cost of someone or something else. Borders reinforce the idea of the alien, the Other, stories separate and distinct from ourselves. But would such fictions continue to stand if most of us didn’t agree with them, or at least quietly benefit from the inequalities they bolster?”

In the end, it’s hard not to follow Harris to the end of her through-line.  “The barbed wire begins here, inside us,” she concludes, “cutting through our very core” (245).

“Reliquary of Blackness: An Exhibit of Oral Histories”, curated by UMass PhD student Erika Slocumb, opened to the public and scholars at Wistariahurst in Holyoke, from August 27, until October 23, 2019. The exhibit was based on hours of oral history interviews Slocumb and her colleagues conducted with members of Holyoke’s black community in 2018, a project funded by Mass Humanities. By focusing on the experiences of those living and working in Holyoke during the mid-20th century, the exhibit showcased the results of this year-long project to document the history of Holyoke’s Black residents.

“I think it should inspire history students and scholars to look in places where we think ‘the story has been told’,” Slocumb told Past@Present, reflecting on the significance of her exhibit for history students and their research. “It’s important to look at the histories of spaces, especially local histories, and ask ‘who propped up the prominent figures in this narrative?’ ‘Who is missing?’ and tell their story, let them tell their story.”

Erika Slocumb is a mother, an artist, and a community organizer, from Springfield, Massachusetts. She is a PhD student in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies who is beginning work toward the Graduate Certificate in Public History. She is also cofounder of the Western Mass Women’s Collective, a community organization advancing empowerment through “literacy, critical thinking, experiential knowledge, and community engagement.” 

You have conducted many oral history interviews with members of Holyoke’s black community. Several Holyoke residents also shared with you family photos and documents. Please tell us about your project and its importance for preserving local black history. 

I was born and raised in Springfield, and when I look at the documented history of Black folks in Springfield the thing that is missing are people, specifically Black women who had influenced and mentored me. When I was presented with the opportunity to uncover the history of Black people in Holyoke my initial response was “There are no Black people in Holyoke.” I think when you look at the history of Holyoke that has been publicly documented, the Black folks’ stories are missing. And the fact is, that there is so much of a rich Black history that dates back to the eighteenth century and so much that the Black community of Holyoke has contributed that it needs to be told. If not for any other reason, so that Black youth growing up in Holyoke can know their history and generations will have the opportunity to claim space in Holyoke.

How does this project challenge the dominant narratives about Holyoke history? 

I think the project adds to the narrative. It works to fill in holes that exist in the dominant narrative. You can’t tell the history of Holyoke accurately without the history of Black people in Holyoke. There have been too many contributions by Black people to the city of Holyoke going back generations. And we have just scratched the surface with the work we’ve done so far.

One of the themes that you mentioned in your work is that Holyoke is traditionally associated with other populations: the Irish, the French Canadian, and most recently the Puerto Rican community. But there have been African Americans in the area since the 17th and 18th century. What have the challenges been as you try to recover Holyoke’s black past?

The challenge in uncovering the history has been the limited sources of Black Holyoke history. I think the biggest challenge I had with the oral history project that was funded by MassHumanities is that because of resources and time there are so many folks that didn’t get interviewed. I have made connections with so many people who want to have their stories told. I think the other part that was challenging in conducting oral histories is realizing that there is so much that goes into building relationships, and in order to do that, we have to find time in our schedules to bond and to understand the community and the context in which the history is situated and that takes time.

There is no rushing oral histories. These memories, for so many in Holyoke’s Black community are sacred in a way, and I think that is why I named the exhibit “Reliquary of Blackness.” Here you have this whole community of people that have been saving up their stories, collecting their family’s histories and for many they have been waiting for a project like this, for an exhibit, or a space to exhibit, their family’s history. I think in doing something like the exhibit, the challenge for me was making sure that I presented their stories authentically, with as few of my words as possible, because the exhibit was an exhibit of oral histories.

What have some of the most exciting moments been in this process?

I think some of the most exciting moments in the process have been making connections—as well as the face someone makes when they look at a picture that we found in the archives and they recognize themselves or their mother, who they haven’t seen in years, or some obscure childhood friend, and that photo invokes memories of place, and sounds, and brings them back to a time that they had forgotten. Something else that has excited me is the validation I get from the community and the excitement. Ms. Dian McCollum said “Erika was an answer to my prayers. That someone would come to uncover the history of Black Holyoke.” That is something you can’t get from researching a thing that has already been researched, or from using solely secondary sources. There is something about the oral histories, watching the history unfold right before your eyes. There is nothing better.

– Mohammad Ataie

by Brian Whetstone

Early afternoon sunlight filtered down through the immense skylight of the former Wilmington Artisans Bank, casting shadows into the musty corners of the Art Deco lobby that now made up the reading room and library of the Delaware Historical Society (DHS). Earlier that morning I had boarded a train from another Art Deco monument—Philadelphia’s 30th Street station—as I began my search for the history of women’s fight for the right to vote in the “First State.”

It was here in the solemn atmosphere of the muted orange onetime bank lobby that I found myself poring over the papers of Delaware suffragist Emaela Warner. Mixed in amongst her clippings of “controversial” anti-suffrage tactics and letters with fellow suffragists was a lengthy report written in loopy, scrawling cursive describing the first woman’s suffrage parade held in Delaware. The report, drafted the day after the May 2, 1914 parade, was an important internal record for Delaware’s suffragists as they charted and recorded the history of their movement. As I haltingly read the author’s handwriting, I noticed amongst the list of parade attendees the Wilmington Equal Suffrage Study Club, one of Delaware’s most active black suffrage organizations. The author noted the club was “composed of colored women,” before going back and striking out the entry in a bold, thick line of ink.

In that moment I was transported back to my first semester at UMass Amherst and my initial encounter with Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s “silences in the archive,” described in his landmark Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. This particular “silence” I stumbled across seemed to reverberate around the hushed library of the DHS. More than a list of parade attendees, this report marked one of the exact moments at which Delaware’s black suffragists were deliberately erased from the history of the suffrage movement. This document was both product and producer of the gross power inequities embodied by the suffrage movement.

I grappled with Trouillot’s notion of archival silences and the thorny implications of commemoration and memorialization throughout my summer in Philadelphia. As a National Council for Preservation Education intern, I spent my summer in the Northeast Regional Office of the National Park Service (NPS) in downtown Philadelphia helping coordinate efforts to commemorate the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment. An ongoing NPS initiative, the commemoration of the centennial will conclude in August of 2020, 100 years after the amendment was ratified and added to the United States Constitution. More specifically, I was charged to undertake original research for three relatively new NPS park units: the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park (HATU) in Dorchester County, Maryland, Harriet Tubman National Historical Park (HART) in Auburn, New York, and First State National Historical Park (FRST) in Delaware. My research sought out connections that all three parks shared with one another through the lens of suffrage and voting rights, and is to be eventually incorporated into the parks’ interpretive agendas. Additionally, I produced digital articles and shared content for the parks to publish on their respective websites and conducted outreach to cultural institutions that could be potential partners with each park in commemorative efforts for the centennial.

These cultural and institutional partners presented potentially substantial opportunities for the NPS to share authority in the creation of narratives about the significance of the Nineteenth Amendment conveyed in park interpretation. All three of the park units I researched maintained some kind of partnership with organizations established long before the creation of each specific park: Both Harriet Tubman parks are run in close partnership with other organizations created earlier in the twentieth century to interpret Tubman’s legacy, and FRST’s constellation of sites scattered throughout Delaware are cooperatively managed with other organizations that have long operated them as individual historic sites. Yet it was unclear to what extent these efforts to share authority were the product of necessity, or of a sincere collaborative philosophy. The reality is probably somewhere in between. Limited resources and staff at these parks necessitate that the NPS establish connections to lean on partners as parks “get off the ground,” so to speak. But such partnerships are also the product of a genuine desire to mediate between local and national narratives about the historic sites and places encompassed by the national park system, contributing to the process identified by John Bodnar whereby local and personal pasts are incorporated into a national public memory. [1]

It was these local and personal pasts—the voices, stories, and lived experiences of suffragists—that I was asked to draw from in establishing the ways all three parks were bound together in the broader history of the suffrage movement. The basic structure of this charge from the NPS, to seek out the materials needed to justify and strengthen a particular historical narrative, should be familiar to public historians. Often we are asked in our role as public-facing scholars, preservationists, and historians to connect the dots laid out by whatever agency, organization, or institution we happen to be working for as they pursue their own interpretive agenda. The particular dots I was to connect— HATU, HART, and FRST— initially seemed disparate and dissociated from one another in their geographic locations and historical themes. Researching the vast histories associated with each park was daunting enough, let alone attempting to connect all of them.

There are obvious reasons to feel apprehensive about this approach: putting ourselves to work towards a potentially uncritical or celebratory agenda risks reinforcing the silences in the archive I first noticed in the DHS. In its concern not to alienate potential audiences and work within the stringent parameters of a federal agency, the NPS can err on the side of caution. For example, in recounting suffragists’ split over the enfranchisement of black men through the Fifteenth Amendment, one NPS article couched Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s racist jeremiads against black enfranchisement and the ensuing fallout with Frederick Douglass as a simple “disagreement with their friend.” The cautionary reticence to unpack the racist history of the suffrage movement embodied by this article is understandable. But at the same time, I worried my research could be put towards reaffirming the entrenched silences around the complex racist history of the mainstream suffrage movement, much like the line of ink that struck out the presence of black suffragists in Delaware’s suffrage movement.


Despite my initial reservations about forging links among these three parks, there were genuine connections they all shared with one another and I was given wide latitude to research whatever and whomever I wanted. Most obvious was the presence of Harriet Tubman at all three park sites; as she moved back and forth between Auburn, New York, and Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman led formerly enslaved runaways through Delaware by way of Thomas Garret’s home in Wilmington. Likewise, the national organizational infrastructure of the suffrage movement brought suffragists associated with each park into the same physical and institutional spaces as one another. The 1896 founding meeting of the National Association of Colored Women brought Delaware suffragist Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Tubman together in the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. in the same way that the Congressional Union and National Woman’s Party linked other suffragists together across space and time.

Suffragists at each park were tied together in much more complex ways as well. As they fought for their right to vote, suffragists constructed a usable past they deployed to justify their activism. But, as the document I stumbled across in the DHS archive suggests, the ways in which suffragists constructed historical narratives about themselves and their movement intersected with the virulent antiblack racism leveled by white suffragists against black enfranchisement. Black suffragists at all three parks were forced to not only weather these attacks from white suffragists, but also navigated the limits and constraints of state violence and neglect, residential segregation, and economic instability. When Harriet Tubman spoke at suffrage events, she rarely spoke about women’s right to vote. Instead Tubman used the suffrage platform to promote her Home for the Aged, an institution she established to provide for indigent and elderly black people in the absence of state provisions for their care. Black suffragists like Tubman maintained a firm belief that access to the vote would not only provide them with increased social and political capital, but more autonomy over their own bodies and wellbeing.

At the conclusion of my internship, I was faced with another scenario experienced time and again by public historians: turning over my research to my immediate supervisors. This particular part of my experience raised pertinent questions about what it means to be a public historian. While I could ultimately draw as many conclusions as I wished about the connections all three parks shared to the suffrage movement, in the end it is the NPS that shapes how my research is fused with interpretation. This realization was initially uncomfortable: as university-based scholars, we rarely have to worry (or think) about the ways our research and conclusions will be framed in the final product—we are typically the ones framing them! But as employees of a federal agency, there are more limitations on what NPS employees can or cannot say. At the end of the day, the NPS is also inherently a public agency. My research thus feeds into national initiatives to engage with public audiences, a widely shared goal amongst public historians that impacts far more people than a single journal article or scholarly monograph.

Nor does the NPS shy away from the sticky realities of commemoration; as I was coached early on before meeting with potential park partners, the NPS is commemorating the Nineteenth Amendment’s centennial in all its complexity and uncomfortable reality, not celebrating some imagined harmonious vision of a unified movement. Despite whatever reservations I had at the beginning of my internship, the NPS does maintain a sincere commitment to critically engage in serious and sometimes discomforting conversations about our nation’s past. It is not a question of if the NPS will hesitate to utilize my research, but rather how the NPS will put it towards a critical reflection of a social movement as complex as women’s suffrage.

Commemorations like the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment provide space to reflect on the complicated trajectories of social movements like the struggle for women’s suffrage. These commemorative initiatives inherently ask us to reflect on our contemporary moment—we look backward at the same time we look forward to the work that remains to achieve any kind of lasting social, political, and racial equity. In this way, public historians can provide success and cautionary tale in equal measure, helping us navigate our present political moment and, in the process, uncovering silences in the archive along the way.

[1] John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).

-Brian Whetstone, Ph.D. Student, Department of History, UMass Amherst