When Historic Sites Reveal the New American Past: Reflections on History, Memory and the Unknown

By Special Contributor posted 06-12-2014 15:22

  
By Clement Alexander Price

There is good news for those who labor in the vineyards of American history. Never before have Americans been as receptive as we are now to historical narratives that challenge long-standing, mostly unfortunate, assumptions about our past. Over the past generation, scholarship on every major chapter of American history has changed in revolutionary ways, which is having a substantial influence on the national psyche, on public history, on preservation, on Hollywood movies, on history teaching in public schools, on historic sites, museum exhibitions, public art, the Internet, and in conversations in barber shops, beauty parlors, bars, and at the dinner table.

What used to be called the New American History—a history that placed a cross-section of Americans on the stages of the past—is now middle-aged, largely accepted as conventional and at the center of the story of America. Why so? Why has a more liberal/progressive and controversial history prevailed over the old, largely mythological narrative of the making of American democratic life?

It may have something to do with the maturity of the American Republic. Consider the richly commemorative season we are living through: We are in the midst of the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, and we know so much more about this catastrophic event. It is now conventional knowledge that the war marked the ending of an old, racist society tethered to enslaved black people. And we know it marked the beginning of a new kind of nation that ended slavery, if not racism, as Americans agonizingly sought to create a more perfect Union.

This past year also brought into high relief the memory of the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which represented turning points in our collective understanding, not only of our troubled and contested past, but also how over time we Americans reconcile some if not all of our differences and move forward as a democratic society.

I entered the historic preservation movement rather late in my academic career. Like most academic historians, history had been largely revealed to me in words, words found in primary and secondary source materials. Within that realm of historical discovery, texts long obscured by shallow research and an indifference to what African Americans had written and spoken, sung and shouted, increasingly came into play. Over time, America had a coterie of relatively new heroes and heroines whose lives as slaves and freedmen and freedwomen significantly redefined, or expanded, the nation’s sense of the making of heroes. Indeed, over the past century, the narrative of African Americans’ trials, tribulations, triumphs, persistence, and course corrections has moved from the margins of American historical scholarship to the near center of a much larger story at the intersection of democracy and race.

 
Marian Anderson singing at the famous Easter Sunday concert in April 1939.| Courtesy of Time and Life Pictures, Getty Images
Not surprisingly, the ascent of African Americans, and other Americans long on the margins of the society has enlivened interest in the acknowledgement and preservation of places where all sorts of experiences were hammered out—in modest dwellings, churches, school buildings, businesses, Indian communities, places that were safe havens, places that were battlegrounds during the Modern Civil Rights Movement, and places nearly lost forever.

The future of our past has been long contested; however, it would seem that we have broken free of the old fear that our history is incoherent, without unity, without a credible narrative. Remember the so-called history wars of the 1980s and 1990s? Those wars may have taken their toll on the Smithsonian and raised the specter of a push back against historical revisionism. As the late cultural historian Lawrence Levine observed in 1989, “The great majority of those who have sought to expand our historical vision to new groups of people and new areas of expressive culture mean to do just that: to expand our knowledge, to supplement our approaches, not to erect new fences and shut still more doors.”

The widening constellation of historic sites is, I believe, an acknowledgement of a complicated, diverse, evolving, and rigorous revamping of American history and American memory. In my field of African American History, the growing number of sites, and the kind of sites, actually reflect the strong undertow of the New Black History that came into focus in the 1970s and 1980s.

For example, when the African American Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan was discovered in 1991 during the excavation for a new federal office building, elected officials, historic preservationists, and civic activists knew that the anonymity that colonial slavery had imposed had to be at once acknowledged and ended through what has become an important historic site managed by the National Park Service.

 
 Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads, Virginia | Courtesy of the Fort Monroe Authority
Equally important, new scholarship on slavery and emancipation has complicated the traditional view of both, especially how freedom came. It is now conventional knowledge that as momentous a document as was the Emancipation Proclamation, the enslaved were taking matters into their own hands and were, in fact, freeing themselves through various acts that made inevitable President Lincoln’s decision to make the end of slavery the objective of the Union’s war against the Confederacy. One of the early and important actions took place in Virginia, when in 1861, not long after the firing on Fort Sumter, three young black men, Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Sheppard Mallory sought refuge at the Union Army’s Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Their successful flight, and their new status as contrabands of war, marked the beginning of what would become between 1863 and the end of the war, the Great Emancipation. It is significant that historical scholarship has long shed light on considerable evidence that African American men, women, and children were actively engaged in taking matters into their own hands as the opportunity to become free became a reality.

The historiography on the civil rights movement has brought burnished sensibilities as to its origins. Consider this event as its likely beginning: the famous Easter Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939. The concert before an interracial audience and its setting, with the monumentalized Lincoln as the backdrop, drew national and international attention to America’s ill treatment of its African American citizens and indeed other minorities. In the years that were to follow, during and after the nation entered World War II, civil rights activism was marking what many historians have called the Second Reconstruction.

 
The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. | Courtesy of the Alabama Tourism Department
The civil rights movement’s most iconic battle ground, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, is now a historic site and a tourist attraction. Its monumentalized presence enables a cross-section of Americans to acknowledge conflict, defiance, and an expansive heroism in our nation’s recent and distant past, which is arguably the synthesis of contemporary scholarship on the civil rights movement.

In Newark, New Jersey, a commemorative ethos has helped the city remember the civil unrest that occurred during July 1967. The infamous “riots” of that year were undeniably tragic and accelerated a decline that was sweeping much of the city in the years following World War II. And yet Newark, now a recovering city with a constellation of urban assets, may just become the first American city to preserve a site that once symbolized the beginning of a riot. The Old Fourth Precinct now symbolizes the tenacity of Newark to survive as a post-industrial city with a complicated memory of itself and a dedication to justice, civility, and interracial harmony. Efforts are underway to preserve the Fourth Precinct as a historic site and to use its power of place to interpret the nation’s long history of urban unrest.

And so, American historic sites are increasingly important manifestations to what is now known and should be remembered about our contested, at times messy and often obscured history. It seems to me that historic sites are under two kinds of pressures/challenges: (1) to freeze frame the past so that people in the present have some notion of what the past was composed of, and (2) to respond to what the present does to the past. More than any generation of history stewards, we are equipped to serve both objectives very well indeed. It should be our great delight that the American public is prepared for a history still unknown.

Clement Alexander Price is the vice chairman for the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation and a trustee for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He is a professor of history at Rutgers University. This is an excerpted version of his speech given at the 2013 National Preservation Conference.

Editors Note: This story is a web companion to the Spring 2014 issue of Forum Journal: Imagining a More Inclusive Preservation Program. Read more stories on diversity here.

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