What a week! Trump/Putin; Rubio vs Tillerson; Williamsburg drops the axe; Big week for the National Park Service & Public history; Obama’s last act is the history lesson we need


Wow, what a week. Like almost everyone, my head has been spinning by all these events and news stories. From Meryl Streep’s acceptance speech, to an incredible national championship game (congrats to Dabo), to the Russian/Trump bombshell, to Obama’s moving farewell address, to Trump’s attack on the press, to the dramatic confirmation hearings, to the news about all these new National Parks, its been mind boggling. 2017 is getting off to a heck of a start.  Couple the processing of all of that with the beginning of a new semester, and it has been difficult to get on here to post anything.

If we can divorce ourselves from the fact that it is all so scary, we have to acknowledge that from an historian’s point of view, watching all of this play out in real time is fascinating as heck. I still think that the Trump/Russian connection story is going to get bigger and has a chance of leading to impeachment. Now that we have the allegation out there that Trump was colluding with the Russians, and has been involved in covering it up, we are getting more Watergate-like. My sense is that just like then, more and more is going to slowly trickle out after inauguration until it becomes a flood. I really think the story has legs (case in point: this breaking story).  Of course this could change at any moment (which is the problem of trying to interpret current events in real time). But here is where we stand now.

As for the Trump press conference . . . much has been made about his attack on CNN and Buzzfeed, and justifiably so (although it allows the focus to drift away from the Russian story, which is probably what he was trying to accomplish all along). It is definitely a sign that as president he is going  try to control and suppress the press, which is scary.  We have also heard much about how his plan to divorce himself from his business interest is not at all satisfactory or even ethical. But one thing that I have not heard given enough attention was his statement that it would be a positive thing if he has a good relationship with Putin, because they could help us destroy ISIS, etc. Let’s get one thing straight—Putin is a “BAD HOMBRE” and a war criminal who has the blood of thousands of civilians and his political enemies (including journalists) on his hands. No Donald, it would not be a good thing if the American president got along with this thug. (And Sean Hannity, don’t talk to me about FDR and Stalin. The fact that you tried to make such a connection shows how little you know about WWII and the Cold War, and what a total moron you are).

Which is why I loved Marco Rubio’s drilling of Tillerson the other day during the confirmation hearings (if you didn’t see it, don’t miss watching it here. It was a thing of beauty). “Little Marco” was an attack dog bent on discussing Putin’s crimes against humanity, and was not letting Tillerson dodge the issue. Too bad that Rubio didn’t pursue this line of questioning against Trump during the campaign, or that the press didn’t do so when the president-elect went off on his little rant about how it would be a good thing if he got along with Putin. The ironic good news: Trump’s choice for Secretary of Defense understands that we should not be cozy with a war criminal, and, unlike the president-elect, understands the importance of NATO. Can we keep this guy and dump Trump? (Hmm, maybe).

But let’s move away from all that stuff for now and talk about the incredible public history news that came out this week.

First was some bad news. Colonial Williamsburg dropped a major bombshell early in the week when they laid off (without warning) somewhere between 45 and 75 members of the staff. Budget issues are the culprit, but strangely, the people impacted the most were in middle management, were some of their most senior staff, and were some of their most knowledgeable/professional historians. Obviously there is some restructuring going on, but one has to wonder why the axe fell hardest on this group. We all know that the CWF has made some questionable decisions lately, from an ice rink at Christmas to zombies and sea witches at Halloween, so I have to wonder if these historians were some of the most outspoken and pained by the direction that things have been going in there. I don’t know, I am just purely speculating. As for me, I was there over Christmas and had a great time as usual, and found the ice rink to be rather charming and not really an historical issue given that it it set up in a part of Duke of Gloucester Street that is not in the heart of the colonial area. Yet, in all my years of coming to Williamsburg, I did have my first encounter with an interpreter that was clearly very poorly trained and was not qualified to answer some pretty basic historical questions. That was disheartening. I really pray that this restructuring doesn’t mean we will increasingly see more of this.

But now the good news in public history!

Philadelphia’s soon-to-open Museum of the American Revolution is almost ready to open now that the building work is complete and all that remains is the setting up of the displays. This will be done by their opening in April, but in the meantime, we get a sneak peek inside the building, and it looks like it going to be a beautiful facility!

The site of the Civil War Battle of Ball’s Bluff has officially been given a massive expansion, from 76 acres to more than 3,300 acres on both sides of the Potomac River. This is a little known engagement that occurred early in the war, was a humiliating defeat for General George McClellan, and was one of the main catalysts for the creation of congress’ infamous Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. I have always been curious about this site, so I can’t wait to visit.

The National Park Service also announced the creation of the Harriet Tubman National Historic site in New York state, which includes her home in Fleming. The is the result of legislation worked through Congress by Senator Chuck Schumer. “(Tubman) is a true American hero,” he said at the announcement ceremony this week. “Because she didn’t just secure the blessings of liberty for herself, she risked her life to secure it for others and fought passionately to change her country to secure it for everyone. She gave of herself for others. That’s what it means to be an American hero.” Amen. With WGN’s Underground set to feature Tubman as a main character in the show’s second season (which premiers on March 8), this brave woman is only going to continue to grow in fame. Visitation will likely be brisk!

As I am sure you are aware, as one of his last acts as president, Obama created the first National Park Service site dedicated to Reconstruction. The new park will be around Beaufort, South Carolina, in an area that was at the center of the first efforts at Reconstruction, actually commencing there very early in the war. This is good news, and has justifiably been praised in the historical community, especially because it happened relatively quickly and was the result of the efforts of historians like Kate Masur and Greg Downs. Still, I have mixed feelings about it. Don’t get me wrong, I strongly support the efforts of the Park Service to tell the story of Reconstruction to the larger public, given that it is largely misunderstood, filled with inaccurate legends, and immensely important for understanding the legal, political, and cultural race problems in our country to this very day. It is just that I am a big believer that NPS funds should be spent helping preexisting sites within the park service start to more effectively interpret Reconstruction. Almost every Antebellum/plantation site and/or Civil War site that we have should already be telling this story. Beaufort is a great idea, but hopefully we won’t stop there.

And lastly, and dearest to my heart: Obama also designated sites in Alabama as National Monuments, which will allow the Civil Rights sights in Anniston and especially in my hometown of Birmingham, to get the National Park Service treatment. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute has long had an impressive museum, and it sits across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church (where the 1963 marches were organized and which was infamously bombed, killing four children) and Kelly Ingram Park (where the brave young marches were most visibly hammered by fire hoses). Around the corner is the AG Gaston Motel, where the movement’s organizers worked out details,  and which was built as a luxury hotel for African American visitors to Birmingham during the segregation era (Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, Harry Belafonte and Count Basie were all guests at different times). Further, there are already walking trails and interpretive signs in the city that detail the 1963 marches and police clashes that were an immediate impetus for JFK’s proposal of the monumentally important Civil Rights Act. Now, all these sites will become part of the National Park System, ensuring top notch interpretation and preservation, and will help to draw “heritage tourism” to the city. I am super excited about this.

With all these new sites, it should be yet another reminder to history departments across the country (which continue to see a sharp drop in history majors) that we need to start focusing on preparing students for careers in public history, and not just academic careers in which there is an ever-dwindling amount of jobs available.

But back to those new Civil Rights sites: In an age in which our next president is more than likely about to spawn many large protest demonstrations and rallies (starting right on inauguration day), it is all the more important for us to recall the role that such incidences of civil unrest, resistance, and protests have played in forcing our nation to live up to and expand its ideals of equality. Condemned by a large number of Americans at the time as whiners,  thugs, communists and criminals, the efforts and battlefields of the brave civil rights protestors are now being enshrined and preserved by the National Park Service as monuments of America’s democracy.  In his farewell address, Obama once again affirmed his belief that our arc of history still bends toward justice, despite our regressive moments. As his last acts in office, his creation of these sites is perhaps the perfect ending to his presidency, because they provide exactly the history lesson we need as we head into the Trump years.


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