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by Camesha Scruggs

I must admit, my spark for public history was not ignited by childhood vacations to historic places. My initial thought on the phrase “public history” was that it focused on the houses and spaces of famous old white people in the West and in the North. Why would that interest me, a young Black woman in the South? Little did I know then that I would eventually discover that spark.

My introduction to the field was an internship at the Abraham Lincoln Home in Springfield, Illinois, during my undergraduate years at a Historically Black College and University, based on a program designed to enhance diversity. After that experience and speaking with former NPS Director Robert Stanton, I changed my perception and decided to pursue further education in the field. Once I arrived at UMass Amherst, I began considering my options for the program’s internship requirement. I learned about the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and decided that was going to be a potential internship project. 

The first time I visited the site, it was the last weekend of tours for Felicia Jamison, a fellow doctoral student and docent at the time and now Assistant Professor of History at Drake University. Later, her knowledge and professionalism served as my example and unofficial training. 

Camesha Scruggs speaks with the public at the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite in Great Barrington, MA.

Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1979, the site is significant because Du Bois is considered “one of the most incisive thinkers and profound scholars of all time… [who] influenced much of the twentieth century black protest.”[1] I agree with the nominators and that spirit remains on the site through interpretation. UMass Amherst owns and manages the site, named its library after him and holds the largest collection of his papers. The university and its stewardship ensures that some of the legacy of Du Bois remains in the state.

Walking onto the land, it felt as if I was entering a special space. It is a feeling that visitors often remark upon once they step onto the site. The entrance, a nature path lined by overarching trees, creates a cathedral-like feel, setting the scene for visitors to immerse themselves in the experience of guided tours. The site continues as a half-mile wooded trail with interpretive signage, telling the story of Du Bois. Although the site lacks a physical structure and tangible artifacts, the design allows visitors to linger and learn about Du Bois and his ancestors, who walked this space more than one century ago. During my tours, we examine blueprints, discuss Du Bois’ writings about the space and approach a platform where the home once stood. I encourage visitors to imagine their home and hometown. This prompts visitors to connect to the ideas of nature and home at the site, including the feelings it evokes and intangible values it instilled. 

Since the summer of 2016, I have served as the tour guide at the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite Although the tour season lasts only ten weeks, hundreds of individuals interact and engage with his legacy. As the tour guide, I take visitors through various parts of his life, from his genesis in Great Barrington to his death and burial in Ghana. On these tours, visitors learn that some of his ideas and views were founded in the interactions with the local community. He took these hometown ideas and interactions to places all over the world. 

As a historian, I am accustomed to asking questions. However, I became accustomed to answering a variety of questions via calls, emails and on the tours. Questions range from demographics to the location of his descendants to his affiliation with Communism. Some are answered immediately, and others with a little research and a delayed reply. We discuss gender, race, family, community and conflict in this short half-mile, half-hour tour. Yet, one of the most intriguing questions was from a young visitor about whether Du Bois had a dog as a kid. Genuine inquiries like these shaped the tours, giving them uniqueness and unpredictability.

The reasons and ways that visitors engage with Du Bois always interest me. Some visit because they’ve read works of Du Bois, some come as part of their summer experience in the Berkshires. Others simply stop by accidentally due to the sign and small parking lot.  Each audience had a different experience and I was privileged to facilitate them. 

As a member of the NAACP, my perspective could have some bias. Yet, when I met one of the former editors of NAACP’s The Crisis magazine, which Du Bois was the first editor, it simply reminded me that I was being prepared for these types of moments of engaging with one of the influential figures in US and African American history. Of course, my presence at this site was significant and important. As a Black woman from the South, my perspective allowed opportunities for dialogue. Representation in public history spaces matters.

During my tenure at the Homesite, I’ve discussed Du Bois in a variety of ways. I’ve scheduled tours, provided public programming, given podcast interviews, shared informal chats and created social media videos. Each of these engagements allow me to do this thing called public history. I have the opportunity to present history to the public in palatable formats. The joy comes when someone comes away with new knowledge about Du Bois. Although he was an extraordinary man, there were moments that made him human. I try to convey these images and ideas at various presentations. 

These experiences are supported by various groups and individuals vested in the desire of Du Bois to keep this place that he cherished. Local organizations such as the Upper Housatonic Valley Heritage Area provide logistical daily operations support. Local residents like Wray Gunn and the late Reverend Esther Dozier gave the foundation and continual support of this work. The Friends of Du Bois Group expands the reach of the site to broader and larger audiences. The University of Massachusetts Amherst history, Public History and Anthropology Departments, Du Bois Library Special Collections and University Archives, and the W.E.B. Du Bois Center ensures that I am capable of providing accurate information for visitors. However, when I accidentally met Dr. Edmond Gordon, one of the originators of this site, our conversation reminded me that people and organizations can come together in acts of preservation, whether large or small. Dr. Edmond Gordon, a friend of Du Bois and Walter Wilson, a realtor, raised funds, resulting in the purchase of the land, creating the site in October 1969.

Walking the woods while discussing Du Bois is an indelible experience. It continually shapes my work in the field of public history.

Camesha Scruggs is a doctoral candidate in history at UMass Amherst in addition to pursuing a public history certificate in the program. As a native Texan, she recalls oral histories from community elders and wanted to tell their stories as she got older. Her public history work reflects that ambition, through projects with the Abraham Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Humanities Action Lab, W E B Du Bois Boyhood Homesite and The Center for Design and Engagement. In her work and scholarship, she desires to present unknown stories to larger audiences while making public history palatable to all that partake.

[1] Department of the Interior, National Park Service Du Bois Boyhood Homesite National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form  https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/440b0922-0e6d-4011-95ea-404ec06ef81b Accessed August 2, 2019.

Yuri Gama, recently accepted Ph.D. Student, UMass History

Different from the rest of the city, Parramore was always a mixed-use neighborhood. Now, it’s like pulling teeth, it’s like a skeleton. It’s like the community is being squeezed out. —Vencinia Cannady, senior resident at the African-American community of Parramore, Orlando, Florida.

As I browsed through unconnected pieces of files inside libraries and talked with local residents unveiling the story of Parramore, I slowly gathered information about the historical convergence of urban planning, racial segregation and social inequality in Central Florida. Researching African American history for my Master’s thesis in such an understudied place, brought me straight to a public history alley. The more I would find in my research, the more I would feel the need to reveal it publicly. Now, as a Ph.D. student, I intend to delve into Brazil’s modern urban history with the help of my advisor Dr. Joel Wolfe and the digital and public historians at UMass.

During my Masters studies, I studied the process of urban sprawl in the American South and the history of the Jim Crow Era in the United States. My work combined studies of race and public policy to demonstrate how racial oppression and urban transformations pushed an African-American community into an economic, social and cultural decline in Orlando, Florida. During my research, beyond working with libraries, history centers, and museums, I established a connection with the community that I studied by interviewing residents, and publicly presenting my final work there. The several informal conversations with inhabitants of the city helped me grasp the “common sense” narratives running nowadays in order to understand preliminary issues that I could research in the past. Listening and interpreting the interviews and cross-referencing them with historical data allowed me to build a cohesive narrative out of an understudied city such as Orlando. Although oral history appeared just as a short part of my thesis, it was relevant to sew the broad story of Parramore. In this sense, the community indirectly helped me crafting the narrative.

I-4 Construction in Downtown Orlando, 1957

I-4 Construction in Downtown Orlando, 1957

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Rob Wilson, Consultant, Springfield Armory NHS

As the U.S. military was winning key battles during World War II, women and people of color working in American defense industries achieved different kinds of victories. Records from the Springfield Armory, in Springfield, Mass., attest to their workplace breakthroughs. Founded in 1794, the federally-run Armory made military weaponry and was the area’s largest WWII defense manufacturer. Before the war, one in ten of its workers were women (mostly secretarial) and three percent were black (practically all assigned menial jobs). By 1943, almost half of the facility’s 13,500 employees were women and 7.9 percent were African American. In wartime Springfield, as across America, significantly more women and blacks were in skilled defense jobs than ever.

A poster recruiting women to take wartime work at a federal Armory or defense plant and become a Woman Ordnance Worker (WOW). Posters with the iconic image of “Rosie the Riveter” also were employed to attract women into defense industries. This woman’s bandana is emblazoned with the WOW logo: a cannon ball with wings.

A poster recruiting women to take wartime work at a federal Armory or defense plant
and become a Woman Ordnance Worker (WOW). Posters with the iconic image
of “Rosie the Riveter” also were employed to attract women into defense industries.
This woman’s bandana is emblazoned with the WOW logo: a cannon ball with wings.

The Armory closed in 1968, but its labor and manufacturing legacies live on at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site (SPAR), a National Park Service facility in Springfield’s center. At SPAR— a frequent program collaborator with the UMass History Department— one finds archived documents that tell fascinating stories of the changing workforce and the experiences of these newcomers to the defense industry.  Detailed historical narrative about the Armory and its workers, digitized versions of documents, reports and photos from the Armory, recordings of 25 former Armory employees and more are available at SPAR’s Forge of Innovation website (www.forgeofinnovation.org).

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Mike Jirik, PhD Candidate, UMass History

Last week, the Graduate History Program hosted Edward Baptist (Cornell University), a distinguished historian of American slavery. During his visit, Professor Baptist had lunch with graduate students from the History and African American Studies departments before giving a public lecture. Both of the events centered on his newest book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The book has garnered considerable attention among historians and general readers, partly because of a controversial review in the Economist.[1] Needless to say, this was a much anticipated event for an aspiring historian of slavery and abolition. The conversation during the luncheon was simultaneously enlightening and invigorating, and the public lecture was a major success. After reflecting on those events, I felt compelled to share some thoughts on the lecture, the conversation at the luncheon, and the general importance of Professor Baptist’s work.

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By Peter Blackmer, Ph.D. student, W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass Amherst

My grandmother has a family-famous saying that she utilizes anytime someone is looking for something that is clearly within plain sight. The saying goes, “If it had teeth, it would bite you.” As I sat at my desk a couple of years back digging through massive texts on Reconstruction-era politics in an attempt to develop an analysis of the nature of political violence during this period, I stumbled upon a passage that called my grandmother’s saying to the front of my mind. After having spent countless hours reading through accounts of politically-motivated violence to find patterns in its application, I found a narrative given by Henry Adams, a freedman and astute reporter of Black experiences during Reconstruction, that would have bitten me, if it had teeth.

The original premise of this research endeavor was to determine the validity of a claim made by George Henry White, the last Black Congressman of the post-Reconstruction era, in an address to Congress in 1900 in support of his anti-lynching bill. In this address, White claimed that “since the end of the Civil War, fully fifty thousand of my race have been ignominiously murdered by mobs.” To determine the merits of this claim, I began to tear through book after book on Reconstruction to compile not only numbers, but names and narratives as well. As I read through countless harrowing accounts of individual experiences with racial terror in the post-Civil War South, my objective quickly evolved from merely validating White’s body count to promoting the historical agency of these marginalized histories and utilizing these accounts to develop an analysis of the larger role of racial violence in the political arena.

Within this context, it became my goal to employ the narratives of personal experiences in the Reconstruction-era South to transform numbers and statistics into names and stories in an effort to make this material more accessible and relatable to students and readers. The course that I was developing this project for, Professor Miller’s Writing History (HIS691W), had significant impacts on the ways that I approached and sought to present this material to my intended audiences. With a specific focus on developing historical prose for readers outside of academia, I was drawn to works we read in class, such as Robin D.G. Kelley‘s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, that utilized character-driven narratives to confront more complex historical topics in a manner accessible to popular audiences (Professor Kelley was actually a Writer-in-Residence during this semester and was an incomparable resource to have in class). Having been exposed to how effectively Professor Kelley and others crafted their character-centered approaches to writing history for readers outside of the academy, I felt that this would be an ideal approach to making the complexities of my research more accessible and translating the numbers and statistics I had been compiling into narratives that my audience could identify with. Given that I had come to this decision to center the personal narratives of those most deeply affected by the violence I sought to analyze within my research, it seemed prudent to allow those same narratives to define the terms of my larger analysis of the role of political violence in overthrowing Reconstruction in the South.

In one brief account given before a Senate Committee in 1870, Henry Adams, whom the Senate report referred to as “a man of very unusual natural abilities, and… entirely reliable and truthful,” provided the adept analysis of the formulaic nature of political violence that I had spent the better part of a semester seeking to develop. While I was busy trying to write the story of the systematic violent suppression of would-be Black voters in the post-Civil War South from my desk in Amherst, Massachusetts in 2012, Henry Adams had largely done this aspect of my work nearly 150 years earlier through his work in collecting reports of “the true condition of [his] race” across the South. Through my research of personal narratives from 1865-1876, I had discovered a pattern in the use of violence by white Democrats to first disrupt Black Republican rallies in Southern communities and then continue this style of intimidation throughout the night in the form of roving white hunting parties that would terrorize Black communities, Republican or not. While my research may have led me to the discovery of this pattern, it was the voice of Henry Adams that truly brought it to life. Responding to a question from a member of the Senate Commission on how “white people could bulldoze the Negro and prevent him from voting,” Adams described that:

“They come to a place where there is a kind of little gathering. One will take a drink…then comes out and commences to meddle with one of the colored men. Maybe the colored man will say something sort of rash like. If he does, [the white] will haul out a revolver and strike him and maybe, perhaps, shoot him. Then a passel of them will commence firing on them colored men… Now, if one of them colored men will show fight, if he hurts one of them, his life ain’t no more than a chicken’s. He may go home but he wont stay for a passel will come after him that night.”

What is remarkable about Adams’ narrative for the purposes of writing history is that through his unique experiences travelling throughout the South witnessing and reporting on the conditions experienced by Black individuals during Reconstruction, he was able to distill the narratives that he bore witness to into a contemporary analysis of the use of political violence to subvert Black political agency. Despite the historical significance of Adams’ testimony in challenging the popularly accepted dominant narratives of the failures (or overthrow) of Reconstruction, both contemporarily and historically, his narratives are largely absent from many of the major texts on Reconstruction-era politics.

Beyond merely enhancing my work for this particular writing project, the discovery of Henry Adams’ influential reporting has led me to develop a heightened appreciation of the possibilities that personal narratives can hold for not only writing history, but also for engaging in critical pedagogy and challenging dominant historical narratives in public school settings. Having briefly taught in the New York City public school system, I witnessed the marginalization of historically significant narratives such as Adams’ in the context of Reconstruction’s demise, in favor of dominant narratives centered around the imposition of supposedly “radical” Northern political ideals upon the South in the wake of the Civil War and the folly of exploitative “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags.” Not only was the textbook presentation of this material stale to my students, it was serving to promote and maintain dominant historical narratives that continue to skew the experiences of people of color in the Reconstruction-era South. My long-term hope for the application of this particular narrative-driven research is to develop a framework for cooperative learning projects, through which students will engage in the research process of locating and connecting with individual, micro-histories, and working collaboratively to weave these into a more nuanced analysis to complicate historical meta-narratives.

By utilizing works in our teaching that center the personal narratives of individuals who experienced and were directly impacted by historical events, such as Dorothy Sterling’s The Trouble They Seen, we are able to not only challenge the dominant narratives that continue to be presented in many history texts, but to also promote a more authentic education for our students by utilizing materials that provide personal voices to bring history to life. These “counter-stories,” as defined by scholar-educators Daniel Solorzano and Tara J. Yosso, represent “a tool for exposing, analyzing, and challenging the majoritarian stories of racial privilege. Counter-stories can shatter complacency, challenge the dominant discourse on race, and further the struggle for racial reform.” As broad populations in America seek to understand and analyze contentious current events that have the potential to usher in major political, social, and economic change in the nation, it is essential that we not only listen to the voices of those most directly impacted by the topics we are seeking to understand, but that we demand media outlets to center these voices. For, if these voices continue to be made invisible in favor of artificially-imposed narratives, we will continue to search for the answers to our questions, but will not find them to be without “teeth.”

Peter Blackmer is originally from Syracuse, New York and earned both his B.A. in History and M.S. in Education from Wagner College. His primary research interests center on local studies of the Civil Rights Movement in New York City, with a specific focus on community-based organizing and activism in Harlem preceding the 1964 rebellions.

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Left to right: Marwa Amer, Dr. Jeanne Theoharis, Erica Fagen, Jacob Orcutt, Katherine Garland, and Karen Sause

By Katherine Garland, M.A. Student, Department of History

Lately I have been thinking a lot about bookends. No, I do not mean the kind that keep my copies of Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom from falling off of my bookshelf. I mean bookends on the ends of historical stories. When my advisor and I meet to discuss books about early American religious history, we often end up talking about beginnings and ends. When comparing books on similar subjects, we note how historians play with the time period, starting and ending their stories in different decades in order to emphasize different ideas. Those bookend dates are not arbitrary; they deeply influence the text’s meaning.

When I tell the story of the UMass Graduate History Association’s 10th Annual conference, “History in the Making: Pivotal Moments in Public Understanding,” I will need to think hard about where to place my bookends. For me, the conference did not start and end on March 29, 2014 — the actual date of the event — it started months before that, perhaps last April when I accepted the position of GHA secretary, or perhaps in the fall when planning began in earnest. My story contains months of fundraising, organizing panels, communicating with conference participants, and planning meals. And that was all before the actual conference. On the conference day, we set up food, attended informative and thought-provoking panels, and enjoyed Dr. Jeanne Theoharis’ keynote speech, “Hidden in Plain Sight?: Rosa Parks and the Black Power Movement.” Read More

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

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

Relevant Links:

12 Years a Slave

David Ruggles Center

The Counterrevolution of Slavery, by Manisha Sinha

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

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

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

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

This is the fifth in a series of entries from the UMass community celebrating Black History Month. Here Morgan reflects on African American women’s bodies in art, and their opportunities in the art world through a biography of renowned artist Elizabeth Catlett.

By Kelli Morgan, Ph.D. Student, W.E.B Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, Public History Program

Sharecropper
Sharecropper, Elizabeth Catlett

In January 2011 the Bronx Museum presented Stargazers: Elizabeth Catlett in Conversation with 21 Contemporary Artists to explore what art historian Isolde Brielmaier describes as the “beauty, aesthetic excellence, conceptual strength, and inventive stance of Catlett’s work throughout time.” This exhibition was one of the more recent celebrations of Catlett’s fascinating oeuvre and long-standing career. For 70 years Elizabeth Catlett’s elegant sculpture and energetic print work penetrated and transformed the American art world, illustrating art’s crucial function as a catalyst for social and political change.

Born in Washington, D.C., on April 15, 1915, Alice Elizabeth Catlett’s talents were cultivated in an environment that valued education. Her parents, John Catlett and Mary Carson Catlett, were teachers employed in the D.C. public school system. John Catlett was a former professor at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and Mary Catlett worked as a truant officer. It is from her mother’s teachings and social work in urban D.C. that Elizabeth Catlett began to form the lens through which she identified herself as a woman, an activist, and an artist. Read More

This is the fourth in a series of entries from the UMass community celebrating Black History Month. In this installment, Linker, a native North Carolinian, explores the importance of Moral Monday marches in her home state, connecting the protests to a long history of civil rights activism.

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Photograph courtesy of Jessica Injejikian

By Destiney Linker, Ph.D. Student, Department of History

“There is an organizing fervor like we have not seen since the 1960s that is beginning right here in North Carolina. This is our Selma.” – Rev. William Barber

Many North Carolinians express pride at being residents of the historically progressive Southern state. Given North Carolina’s history of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and forced sterilization, among other nefarious institutions, the word “progressive” should not be used lightly when referring to the state’s past. Still, North Carolina was the last state to secede from the Union (May 21, 1861), and, until the election of the current government in 2010 (legislature) and 2012 (governor’s mansion), Republicans had not seized control in the state in over 100 years. These are points that many liberal and progressive North Carolina residents will cite when lamenting the state’s withdrawal from moderate politics.

Since the election of former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory to the governor’s mansion in 2012, North Carolinians have watched with the rest of the nation as the Republican legislature and government passed law after law that disproportionately affected students, teachers, women, African Americans, and the poor. So far, the Republican government has passed the following measures: Read More