A victory in North Dakota; Tubman & Douglass in a place of honor in Maryland; Historic plantation tours & slavery; Fake news & the value of history education; When the KKK’s hate was mainstream


Hurrah for some good news! As I am sure you are aware by now, this weekend saw a victory for the “Water Protectors” of Standing Rock. The Army Corps of Engineers did the right thing, though it is a shame that this had to be an issue at all. Had the reservation been given an honest voice in the decision-making concerning the pipeline in the first place, perhaps the demonstrations and resistance would have never have had to happen. On the other hand, perhaps it is best for us as a nation that this happened at this moment. It shows that organization and resistance can be effective. Most of our nation’s important progressive achievements have been the result of protests, both peaceful and violent. (Let’s not forget that our nation was in fact born from a protest movement.) Hundreds were arrested, and many were injured in water canon and dog attacks. Sound familiar? That our indigenous peoples won a victory like this makes the lesson all the more profound, and especially because many credit a 13 year old girl name Tokato Iron Eyes with starting the movement. As I have been reminding my classes since the election, youthful activism can be a powerful force when it is organized, determined, and stands on the right side of justice.

Another element of this story is one that I have not seen many comment on: I hope it signals that the Army Corps of Engineers will soon make the right decision in regards to saving the scenic/historic viewshed (and the environment!) at Jamestown, Virginia. I’m guessing that if not, Dominion Power is going to face a similar protest movement that will do everything in its power to prevent the construction project. If it comes to that, you can count me in.

More good news: There is a proposal in Maryland that would result in the placement of statues of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass in the state capitol building. Anyone that has ever visited there can attest to the fact that Maryland’s state house (the oldest still being used by a state legislature) is a real national treasure. I was there a few years ago when they were in the middle of restoring the original senate chamber, the spot where George Washington resigned as general of the Continental Army. It was an impressive tour even while the restoration was underway, so I would really like to get back there soon. Thankfully, the statues of Tubman and Douglass seem to face little opposition. Having these two icons (who were born into slavery on Maryland’s eastern shore) honored in this way is more than appropriate, and would provide a nice juxtaposition to the Judge Roger Taney (of Dred Scott fame) memorial that still stands outside the building’s front door.

And yet despite these signs of progress, we got another reminder today that many public history sites still willfully ignore the role of slavery and African Americans in the Antebellum South. Anyone that has ever taken a standard plantation house tour knows that most of them continue to glamorize the Old South and willfully gloss over slavery, or ignore it completely. Over on the Journal of the Civil War’s blog today, professor Niels Eichorn details a trip he recently took with students to many of these plantation homes. (We’ll have to excuse him and the editors for misusing the word “literally” in the opening paragraph). We’ve probably all encountered some of the nonsense his group did on these tours, but I am especially aghast that a guide refused to answer questions about slavery until a black family had left the site. Wow.

Over the weekend, an opinion piece made the social media rounds that argued that in the age of fake news, history classes are “our best hope” at teaching people to analytically question everything, ask tough questions, and take nothing at face value. Sadly, however, as the author notes, the number of students taking college history courses is in rapid decline, as is the number of history majors. (There are a number of reasons for this, but AP classes is a big one). Recounting her survey-level US history course, the author recalled going “beyond the usual primary versus secondary sources, we looked critically at how historical narratives are constructed, probing them for weaknesses and false assumptions. We learned to ask whose interest a given narrative served, and what tools different historians had used to come  to their conclusions. It was entirely different than the write-down-and-memorize-the-dates learning we’d done in high-school history class. It soon dawned on me that the “good old days” that older people were always talking about had never really existed.” BINGO. In an age of so much fake news on the internet, she concludes, “expanding the study of history could be an essential bulwark against the rising tide of misinformation, manipulation, and lies.” Right on. After turning in a research paper involving the questioning of a primary source, I had a student recently remark, “I think all our leaders should be historians.” I’m not so sure about that, but I do think we would be a lot better off if we all approached the pursuit of “truth” in the same fashion as do historians.

Joshua Rothman has a timely article over on We’re History, recounting the rise of the KKK in the 1920s. Yes, he has a statement buried in there about current events and the rise in the recent reports of open and shameless intimidation and attacks directed at minorities, but it is nicely and subtlety done. Draw your own conclusions.


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