This month we feature a slightly edited version of the Fredric M. Miller Memorial Lecture delivered by MARCH founding director Howard Gillette on May 5, 2011, on the occasion of his retirement from Rutgers-Camden, where he has served as Professor of History since 1999. The annual Miller Lecture recognizes the late Fred Miller’s pioneering work as an archivist and public historian to preserve and promote the history of Philadelphia, where he directed the Urban Archives at Temple University; and of Washington, D.C., where he worked at the National Archives and Records Administration.
Between Justice and History: This Year’s Fredric M. Miller Memorial Lecture
MARCH director Charlene Mires had the good sense to ask me to do this lecture on a day that stands out in our region, December 15, 2010. A number of people in the room will remember well sitting in the bitter cold that day as, after many years of contentious debate, the President’s House memorial was dedicated at Sixth and Market streets in Philadelphia. Headlines the next day in New York as well as Philadelphia confirmed the importance of the moment: Philadelphia was standing tall, at once contemplating a difficult past and anticipating a bright future. Yes, Philadelphia at that moment could well have fulfilled the city’s late visionary planner Edmund Bacon’s representation of the city as the giant of Megalopolis, the extraordinary urban corridor running from Washington, D.C., to Boston, where so much of American history has been forged. Although Charlene was scarcely aware of it at the time, December 15 was also the day that pitcher Cliff Lee re-signed with the Phillies. Fred Miller would very much have appreciated the convergence of events that day.
When I asked Charlene what she thought of the final product at the President’s House, an open air installation marking the site where both presidents George Washington and John Adams lived when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital, she replied, “At least it’s a victory for social justice.” As a member of the oversight committee to the memorial, Charlene knew all too well the difficulties in attempting to commemorate both the crystallization of executive power and the presence of slaves in Washington’s household and his efforts to thwart their freedom. Over time, as project personnel changed, details debated, and concepts tried and then discarded, much of the clarity that had initially made this such a compelling public investment dimmed. The product unveiled December 15 was not perfect history. It didn’t do full justice to the full importance of what took place there, but it did, against considerable odds and with the incredible support of citizen organizations such as Avenging the Ancestors Coalition as well as historians and government officials, assure a complex and more just picture of our origins as a nation.
Slavery could be recognized publicly and inescapably now, not just as incidental to our founding, but as integral to the forging of American identity. Freedom and unfreedom were, as the Miller Lecture’s first speaker historian Gary Nash put it, “braided together.”
In retrospect, I have to say that discussions about the President’s House were some of the most elevating and informative exchanges of my professional career. That fact notwithstanding, it is impossible to ignore the considerable challenges the project posed to professional historians, public officials, and citizens of all backgrounds and beliefs. The expectation that the best historical insights into a subject as difficult as slavery could translate into a public memorial that would have lasting social as well as educational value did not necessarily mean they would adequately serve those noble purposes.
Like any historical product, the President’s House has already begun to draw its share of criticism, none more stinging than architectural historian Michael Lewis’s review in a recent issue of Commentary. Lewis makes some telling points about the awkward siting of the structure relative to the original and the imbalance of the interpretation — giving more attention to how Washington treated his slaves than a full treatment of the nation-building that took place there under the direction of two presidents. Echoing an earlier charge by New York Times museum critic Edward Rothstein that the memorial had made history subservient to identity politics, Lewis goes a step further to claim that the whole effort served as Gary Nash’s revenge for the harsh political reaction he received in the mid-1990s as head of the effort to devise national standards for teaching American history. “Honorable in its intention but misguided in execution,” Lewis asserts, the memorial should be dismantled and the site rebuilt.
Lewis goes too far in his comments. As anyone in the field understands, history, like the law, is subject to revision and reinterpretation. When those of us who had joined together as an ad hoc group of historians to promote this effort received the “final” text for the memorial, we were surprised at the number of omissions and errors that threatened to make their way into the exhibit. While a number of issues were dealt with at the time, the larger point is that even then we spoke about devising new interpretive panels and developing educational programs that would flesh out the story at the site, a process that is bound to take place over time. To give the memorial its due, however, one only need compare it to previous memorials to slavery and its abolition.
The first such monument, sometimes referred to as the Lincoln Memorial before the more famous memorial was built on the Mall in Washington, D.C., is sited in Lincoln Park in Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Completed in 1876, just as Reconstruction was coming to an end, the monument depicted an ex-slave crouching shirtless and shackled at the feet of the “Great Emancipator.” Grounded in the immediate post-war Republican embrace of emancipation, the statue conveys a contradictory message, at once celebrating freedom for African Americans but casting the freedman in a servile position, denying him his own agency.
At least he was part of the picture. A generation later he had virtually disappeared in the more famous and centrally sited Lincoln Memorial. Whatever enlightened efforts we now associate with the memorial following Marian Anderson’s famous 1939 concert there after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to host her performance at Constitution Hall and Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech during the historic March on Washington, it cannot be denied that this new memorial, constructed in 1922, replaced the freedman with the Union as Lincoln’s primary beneficiary. It did so by depicting each state grandly in columns equally responsible for upholding the edifice of the nation. For those familiar with David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, the cultural roots of the Lincoln Memorial are obvious: a national memory that reconceived the Civil War as mutually heroic on both sides while obliterating any implication that slavery proved the anvil on which war was forged and emancipation and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution that followed the affirmations of a just cause brought to conclusion.
The great accomplishment of the President’s House is that it faces directly the contradiction at the heart of the grand American narrative. While that might be expected at a time when we commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, evidence abounds of the still distorted lens through which such a traumatic, yet formative experience is treated: a gala secession ball in Charleston, South Carolina, marking the anniversary of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, the current governor of Mississippi speaking about the benign intentions of the White Citizens Councils when he was growing up in the 1960s, even Robert Redford’s film The Conspirator papering over the role of slavery in sectional division.
While future generations are bound to look back critically on the President’s House as the product of a particular time and place, that fact shouldn’t diminish its contribution. As Steven Conn puts it so nicely in his review in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography: “With the President’s House . . . we were all reminded that there is a much larger public that cares deeply about the past, feels connected to it, and in this case made its voice felt.” Such rewards as might be garnered from the engagement of difficult issues in an inclusive manner provide the subject of the remainder of tonight’s presentation.
There’s no better place to suggest the challenges historians face in fully discerning the nature of past injustices than the work I did with Fred Miller on the 1995 book Washington Seen. I was well along in my own book on the history of Washington, Between Justice and Beauty, from which I have drawn my title tonight, when Fred approached me about collaborating with him. His idea was to follow the format of the two ground-breaking photographic histories he had done on Philadelphia with Allen Davis and Morris Vogel. He had already started the photo research. Presumably I would bear much of the burden of writing the accompanying text. What could be easier? I discovered quickly, however, that photographs could be troublesome, telling stories that challenged my best understanding of the city and its history.
It was well understood by historians of Washington at the time that Radical Republicans had used federal control of the city to test its approach to Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War. Thanks to their efforts, public transportation was desegregated. Their accomplishment survived into the twentieth century, even as laws assuring access to other public accommodations were uniformly and persistently ignored. So we believed, but that judgment was tested by a photograph dredged up from the Federal Signal Corps, in Fred’s typical fashion of leaving absolutely no stone unturned. The image, which he determined had been taken at the time of the Bonus Army protest on the Mall in 1932, showed a federal officer looking for protesters who might be riding on a D.C. transit bus. Here we were: confronted with the fact that every black person was sitting “at the back of the bus.” How could this have been so when we had other evidence beyond received wisdom that blacks and whites were mixing as they used public transportation on a daily basis?
Through his research Fred tracked the streetcar route, helping craft the final caption, which read: “This streetcar had come from the far southeast, passing through the white Congress Heights area and then the black Barry Farms and old Anacostia areas on the way to Eleventh and Monroe Streets, NW. It is likely that the whites boarded first and naturally took the front seats, while black passengers then took the seats in the rear rather than sitting in vacant places next to whites.” That was what appeared in print, but the photographic evidence bothered me, and a subsequent interview suggested why.
After several calls to long-time black residents, I was fortunate to uncover a story that suggested an alternative explanation. My informant told the story of a dapper black man well known to have ridden District buses in his Sunday best even in the middle of the week. One day he chose to sit next to a white woman at the front of the bus. When the lady got up right away to take another seat, this gentleman took a florid handkerchief from his breast pocket, waved it grandly so no one on the bus could possibly miss the gesture, and proceeded to wipe the vacated seat next to him. Here was clear evidence that while the law did not prescribe separate seating, social custom did. How pervasive that practice was over what period of time remained elusive, of course, but the larger lesson was brought home, that a fair reading of the past demands interrogation beyond traditional sources and on both sides of the race divide.
But mining all sources for as accurate an understanding of the past as possible is not the only challenge to public work when addressing America’s complicated racial history. Consider the case of my former colleague at George Washington, John Vlach. Boosted by the success of his book on the material culture of slavery, Back of the Big House, the Library of Congress invited John to curate a traveling exhibit by the same name. After drawing appreciative audiences at several stops in the South, the exhibit returned to Washington, where it was mounted at the Library of Congress itself in December 1995. Its exhibition there was very short. Following the complaints of a number of black employees, the library summarily removed the exhibit. John was crushed, and sensing a story I called a friend at the Washington Post. The story appeared the next day on page 1, and John’s phone began ringing off the hook as wire services and even PBS picked it up. With the press investigating, it became apparent what had happened. Black employees, locked in a grievance procedure with the library over back pay and commonly using the term “big house” to refer to the library administration, were not about to accept an exhibit that reminded them of what they perceived to be an enduring legacy of racism in their own work lives.
The positive result of the mass of publicity that followed the exhibit’s closure was that the city’s central public library, named for Martin Luther King, volunteered to host the show at its facility. Two weeks later the exhibit reopened with a program drawing a large and racially mixed audience. When I spoke with him recently, Vlach revealed how nervous he had been as his introduction on the program neared. Despite a distinguished career that involved deep and mutually respectful relations with the African American subjects of his research, he was not confident that this was the moment when Washington’s notorious racial divide would be bridged. Following John’s remarks a distinguished black man sitting in the first row rose to make the first comment. He turned out to be a federal judge, and thanking John and the library heartily for bringing the exhibit to the city, he immediately broke the ice. A robust discussion followed, involving not just the depiction of slavery but its long reach over time. Conversations continued as the crowd of some three hundred people broke to see the exhibit for themselves. This was a fitting prelude to the marvelously rich set of public conversations about slavery that took place at the archaeological site of the President’s House several summers ago. And yet, such experiences must be recognized for what they are: the exceptions in a pattern of racial discourse that lacks common points of reference and understanding.
It was my appreciation for both the difficulties in addressing unresolved issues of social justice and the challenge of making any such efforts broadly inclusive that most informed my view of how to meet the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) challenge grant to form a regional humanities center shortly after my arrival at Rutgers in 1999. Of course, these were not our only or even most overt goals as we moved successfully through two rounds of competition for funding and, in 2000, became the NEH”s Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH). By the time the President’s House controversy emerged, however, MARCH could easily envision it as an exemplary teachable moment for the city, the region, and the country. Our 2003 public conference, Beyond the Liberty Bell, sought to institutionalize the high level of engagement and accountability that was characterizing reassessment of the presentation of slavery at Independence National Historical Park. Our intent was to forge in subsequent meetings and Web-based exchanges a collaborative process with area cultural institutions aimed at developing, through discovery, collaboration, and exchange, a deeper, richer, more inclusive view of our region’s heritage, and in the process, to make Philadelphia’s story more than the sum of its parts. As so often happens, a potential funder didn’t see it our way, explaining that its board did not believe that such work could be executed successfully from a university setting. That left us more to prove, of course. Despite that setback, the President’s House memorial materialized. In the process other related benefits accrued from MARCH’s efforts to stimulate public discussions about the region’s history, including the introduction of the story of slavery at Cliveden, the Germantown, Pennsylvania, home of the prominent Chew family; a much invigorated History Day program in Philadelphia; and the African American Museum in Philadelphia’s new permanent exhibit, “Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia, 1776-1876.”
The President’s House controversy might not have been so difficult had we not entered a complex post-civil rights era, where social justice no longer meant overcoming overt forms of segregation. For my part, I perceived racial division as very much alive in Camden, New Jersey, as the city struggled to overcome not only the deprivations of disinvestment but the stigma attached to the visible effects of high poverty and racial isolation. To counter that isolation, I was determined from the start to conduct my research and writing on the city’s history in a public manner. The formation of a regional humanities center helped support that goal. Under the terms of the NEH challenge grant, we were required in the final round of competition to launch three conferences. I choose to feature in one of them the effect of economic decline on Camden’s civic assets. During the first part of the conference, long-time residents fondly remembered Old Camden, telling multiple stories of how working people living in ethnically distinct neighborhoods utilized high levels of social capital to sustain their families and advance the prospects for mobility for the next generation. The panel addressing Camden after its “fall” pointed to a host of organizations and activities that filled the gap when the old ethnic neighborhoods dispersed along with viable employment options. It was a stimulating and informative discussion, which we were able to extend by contracting with the newly formed youth development organization, Hope Works ‘N Camden, to create a Web site taking up the subject of community building over time.
A major feature of that site was the opportunity for visitors to record memories of their own neighborhood experiences. Submissions, as might be expected, contained a good deal of nostalgia for the days before the city’s decline, but there were also some surprising testimonials from those who had weathered some of the city’s worst storms during the post-industrial era. I remember particularly a call I got from Seattle from a man in his forties who had seen the site and urged me to let him know if I could find a way to get him positively involved in the city. I was surprised later on to read his own message on the site about growing up with drugs in the city. Clearly he had left Camden to preserve his future, and yet, remarkably, exposure to this dialogue about the city’s past was enough to prompt him to consider returning home. I experienced frequently that interest in the city’s well-being among ex-residents, and I could see it materializing in a variety of forms: through their support for faith-based community development corporations, through volunteer activity, and through the creation of new partner organizations. Many of these organizations not only appeared in my book but were featured at the conference we hosted in 2005 to note its publication. That same day we launched the Invincible Cities Web site ( http://invinciblecities.com) featuring the photographs Camilo Jose Vergara has taken in Camden over the past quarter century. The site has since expanded to include Richmond, California, and New York’s Harlem and has been featured on the programs of major national conferences and at Vergara’s speaking engagements, including at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, and the University of California, Berkeley. In this way, we’ve both fostered dialogue within the city and extended Camden’s story nationally and internationally.
It would be naive to claim that historically grounded dialogue alone can establish common ground among contending parties and break the many impasses that prevent full utilization of the cultural resources in their communities. I would argue, however, that such dialogue pursued publicly and with every effort at inclusion is a necessary starting point. Even disappointing results have their value. The effort to preserve and interpret the Bethlehem Steel site in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is a case in point. MARCH entered the discussion of how best to reuse the massive site after the company shut down in 1998. Save Our Steel organizers Amy Senape and Mike Kramer had already taken the lead with some passionate partners to make sure there was a site still to be saved. As he received encouragement from other mayors as well as the national, state, and local communities, Bethlehem mayor John Callahan shifted his intent from complete demolition on the 1200-acre site towards a plan for reuse. However, it took Shan Holt’s leadership as MARCH’s director of programs to see the importance of bringing different stakeholders together to forge a common vision for the site. In March 2004 we did that through a full day’s workshop, which included members of the mayor’s staff, focusing on what the historic core of the site could be. Within a year, participants had formed the Lehigh Valley Industrial Heritage Coalition. A planning grant from the NEH allowed MARCH to support two days of public meetings resulting in a working concept for making the core historic area the hub not just for interpreting steelmaking but for directing visitors to a range of historic sites in the region.
Of course, it is a long way from conception to execution. Not unlike the President’s House controversy, stakeholders embraced different visions for the site. Here the primary tension stemmed from long-held differences between capital and labor. Despite MARCH’s intervention, the nonprofit organizations and their university allies found it difficult to forge agreement with the primary owner of the historic core, the Sands Casino, and its preferred cultural partner, the National Industrial Museum, which the steel company formed to advance its own understanding of the site and its significance within the larger history of technological development. Despite considerable time and money invested in its support, the industrial heritage coalition failed to take hold fully of the project. The effort to promote history that acknowledges the full range of activity on the site — one that tells the story of workers and their families as well as the technology of steel making — continues, with able hands seeking resources to assure that an inclusive vision governs reuse of the site. But the early successes have gone to the profit makers and power brokers, not the nonprofits. At best, the vision for sustained and honest interpretation at the steel site remains a work in progress. The record of our efforts has nonetheless become the staple of the Rutgers-Camden public history classes, and I hope other public history programs will pick up this important case study as details of the effort become better known.
Three years ago, we launched yet another major effort informed by principles honed in MARCH’s earlier projects: an encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia (http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org ). The particular cast of this effort owes much to the President’s House campaign, suggesting yet another secondary benefit from that effort. Beyond the important purpose of compiling information, this project embraces an approach and set of goals that set it apart from earlier city encyclopedias, including the admirable volumes generated for New York and Chicago. It has been a collaborative effort, gathering knowledge not just from scholars based in universities but from a host of institutions that have been collecting and generating historical information about the city. Just as we had for the President’s House and the Bethlehem projects, MARCH crafted workshops to envision how information might be generated and how its compilation would aid participating organizations, which ranged from historical societies and museums to policy organizations such as the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia and the Fels Institute for Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. The plan for the encyclopedia has evolved toward the concept of an online information gateway for the region that includes a number of forms from online entries to the curation of monographs, lesson plans, and tour guides. A print version also remains under discussion.
Most central in my view is that the encyclopedia would help users of the information place themselves in both time and space within this vibrant yet widely fragmented region. Here Neil Peirce’s contention is convincing, that regions are the keystones to the world economy and thrive only as much as each of their constituent elements does well. The presence of poor or socially isolated neighborhoods and cities at the heart of a region adversely affects the whole. The encyclopedia can be seen as a catalyst for advancing mutual understanding of the region’s constituent parts through the exploration of the web of beliefs and relationships that have helped keep us divided by race and place over time. To the degree that this process of shared community knowledge is robust and inclusive, it can build public interest and support for policy actions to advance greater measures of equity, such as affordable housing in asset-rich jurisdictions for those otherwise confined to asset-poor inner city and older suburban areas. The encyclopedia is thus understood as a civic investment as well as a source of continuing education. I am pleased that Charlene Mires, who first conceived the project and has brought it to Rutgers, continues to make the encyclopedia a primary demonstration project.
Rutgers-Camden has proved a wonderful place to pursue these projects. I am especially proud of MARCH’s four Clemente program classes that brought Camden area adults without the benefit of higher education together in twenty-six weeks of American history instruction. These classes, intended to prepare students for college entry, addressed with powerful effect just those difficult issues of American freedom and unfreedom we have discussed tonight. Plans for future Clemente courses are on hold, but in the meantime we have introduced a course to the college curriculum on Camden history, politics, and development, which brings leading regional figures into the classroom and encourages and prepares students to take an active role in their host city. I am delighted that the college’s director for civic engagement, Andrew Seligsohn, has taken over the course from my inaugural effort a year ago. His work and that of other colleagues to advance the university’s engagement with the city and region is very much in line with my hopes for MARCH and the college when I first arrived twelve years ago.
It has been my great privilege to have been a student of this city during this past decade and a partner in this wonderful institution; and to have had my chance to explore further the issues that had animated my career before I arrived here. The challenges at Rutgers-Camden are significant, but there is considerable determination to capture the great assets of the institution and turn them to just purposes, not only for Camden but, as befits a great university, for broader use and dissemination. When they were created early in this century, the regional humanities centers were granted considerable leeway to chart their own direction. I am pleased that MARCH could successfully combine commitments to social justice and public history. In examining difficult issues from the past, we have forged new partnerships as part of a vision for attaining a more perfect future. I am confident that effort continues in able hands and that the effort will build in the years ahead.