A View of Public History: Taking It to the Streets

When I was a little girl, my father used to take me on uncharted neighborhood adventures. “Come on, Baby Girl,” he would say, “Let’s hit the streets.” This meant that we would be heading out of the house and meandering through our neighborhood and beyond. On our way to wherever we would end up, we always stopped at the corner store down the block, where Daddy would buy a Sugar Daddy candy bar for himself and a packet of Sugar Babies – my favorites – for me. On our long walks through the Cincinnati city streets and parks, cutting through back alleys and wooded byways, my father would teach me lessons. He taught me the Greek alphabet on these adventures, for example, challenging me to recite the letters as we tramped along. “Alpha, beta, gamma, delta epsilon, zeta, eta, theta, iota, kappa, lambda . . .” I can remember chanting these letters in a child’s sing-song voice to the beat my dad had taught me, my mouth full of chocolate-caramel Sugar Babies. (My father’s affection for his Black College years and Kappa fraternity brothers proved to be the unexpected foundation of my study of the ancient Greek language later on in high school.)

Those long rambling walks brought me close to the city under my father’s guidance. Those walks brought place alive, and unbeknownst to me at the time, prepared me to mentally record the change over time – the history – that would unfold in our mostly African American neighborhood. The corner store is gone, along with that whole short block of black businesses. Many of the homes that I knew so well back then have been demolished too. The remaining houses perch on an island strip of just a few streets and are squeezed between the ever expanding Cincinnati Zoo and nearby hospital parking lots. This is the shared story of African American neighborhoods in urban areas, the story of communities bisected and disrupted by interstate highways and other construction projects that are said to be in the public interest.

Now when I think about what public history means, I think of those walks with my father. In my mind, public history is history in the streets, or history on the ground, seen and told from multiple perspectives. It is an approach to historical study, preservation, and education that values the application of historical knowledge (or knowledge of the past) to our personal and community lives. Practicing public history means connecting and linking historical research and translation (writing, exhibits, films) to the places of cultural production, reception, and reproduction that people actually frequent (such as historic sites, national parks, archives, and museums). Public history compels a collaborative approach and the conveyance of complex ideas in creative ways that the public and representatives of the public can access and appreciate.

When I first visited the Vann House Historic Site in Georgia, I didn’t know that I wanted to practice public history. I just knew that I wanted to add my voice, and the voices of African Americans formerly enslaved on the Vann plantation, into the mix of public interaction with that historical place. I wanted to join the conversation about the Cherokee Vann family with a respectful yet critical stance, and see if I could help to enrich, and indeed, shift, public interpretation. I was fortunate in finding partners and supporters in this venture — the staff members and volunteers at the Vann House as well as Cherokee genealogists. Over time, I would work with dedicated colleagues at the Vann House to try to raise funds for the purchase of land for the expansion of the site and to develop material for a permanent exhibition on African American history. It was not until later that I realized that what I was doing had a name – Public History – and that many practitioners and scholars had been working beneath this banner for decades. I am grateful, now, to be part of the larger collaborative project of creating history that does “work in the world” (Carl Becker, “Everyman His Own Historian”).

For more on the field of Public History, visit the website of the National Council on Public History and see the page: “What Is Public History.”

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