Talking Local History at NCPH

It’s officially spring, and for public historians that means it’s almost time for the National Council on Public History annual meeting. I’ll be there with bells on. Besides it being a highlight of my professional year, I’ve been in Chicago all winter and this year’s meeting is in Las Vegas. Nothing could keep me away.

Another reason to love NCPH– seeing old friends. NCPH in Indy, 2017.

I’m looking forward to this trip for several reasons (sun and warm weather are high on the list), but chief among them is the roundtable I’m facilitating called “Exploring the Ties Between Local History and Grassroots Change.” Joining me are Andrea Blackman from the Nashville Public Library, Kimber Heinz of Bull City 150, Duke University, Victoria Hensley from Middle Tennessee State University, and Timothy Kneeland from Nazareth College. We’re presenting case studies that show some of the ways people and institutions use local history as a tool to shape and influence political and social issues in their towns and neighborhoods.

For my part, I’ll be talking about the role local historical societies played in this process in the decades following World War II. People founded these societies in record numbers between 1950 and about 1980 and used local history to act on a complex set of goals tied to contemporary local and national issues, including urban and suburban development, political upheaval, and demographic and ethnic change. My research centers on the Chicago metropolitan area, where more than 160 such local historical societies have existed over the past two centuries. 

Bill Haggerty, Pawnee Historical Society, right

Local historical societies are commonplace fixtures in neighborhoods, towns, and cities across the United States. Indeed, they’re so ubiquitous that they’ve turned into a kind of weird cultural touchstone. I was reminded of this recently when re-watching season 7 of Amy Poehler’s Parks and Recreation. In the episode titled “William Henry Harrison”, which aired in early 2015, Poehler’s character Leslie Knope talks to Bill Haggerty of the local Pawnee Historical Society about William Henry Harrison’s connection to Pawnee. Knope seeks Haggerty’s assistance in collecting information about Harrison’s Pawnee history because she thinks a tie to Harrison will strengthen her bid to open a new national park. Haggerty is characterized as an out-of-touch Filofax of irrelevant information about Pawnee’s past. He dresses the part, complete with tweed jacket and vest, and is even told by another character that the historical society’s museum is “weird and sad and unnecessary.” The treatment of this subject in Parks and Recreation demonstrates that local historical societies have a reputation that’s understood by enough people to work as the punchline of a joke on a critically-acclaimed television show. And yet, this same joke reveals some of why historical societies have been so instrumental in shaping postwar metropoles. Knope called on the historical society to help her gather knowledge that would lend legitimacy to her bid for a national park. She wanted to use the historical society’s understanding of the area’s history to justify her attempts to shape the local landscape in a significant way. This fictional story has been played out time and again in real life, with local historical societies using their historical authority to sway decisions about local change in ways that are still little discussed or understood by historians. At our roundtable, I’ll talk about how this phenomenon affected Chicago’s neighborhoods and suburbs and what this means for Chicagoans today. 

In addition to thinking about how these processes have played out in the past, we’ll consider how local history can be used in change-making processes in the present. I’ll talk about initiatives undertaken by local historical societies in the interest of better serving community interests and needs; Andrea Blackman will present on the Civil Rights Room in Nashville and how this project uses local civil rights history to foster dialogue about contemporary civil rights issues; Kimber Heinz will discuss how Bull City 150 project leaders have used local history to spark conversation about the limits of current local-level policies in addressing inequality; Victoria Hensley will present about a historic preservation non-profit in Portland, Oregon working with a local community to determine how changes in land use rules will affect local control over historic districts; and Timothy Kneeland will discuss how local communities use memory and public history of disasters to reinforce the status quo and reject sustainable practices in rebuilding following disaster.

Now as much as ever, it’s important for historians to consider how we can use our disciplinary knowledge to push and shape positive change in our communities. The local is where we’re most at home and where many of the decisions that most affect our day-to-day lived experiences are made. I’m looking forward to hearing your perspectives on this in Las Vegas. If you’re interested in attending our session, it’s on Friday, 4/20 at 10:30 AM in room Copa A. You can read the official session description on the conference program here. I hope to see you there!  

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