Goodbye Seattle, Hello Honolulu

Although our deep dives into the histories of New Orleans and Mexico City revealed how race, gender, and class affected the lived experience of urban residents, our coverage of Seattle was especially focused on the “alternative”–Seattle residents living in opposition to socially agreed upon norms or fighting for the expansion of these norms to include them. Maki Smith kicked off the month with a look at how “a cadre of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino Americans joined with radical activists from the city’s Black and Latino communities … to articulate an inclusive, anti-racist politics in a city that had long heralded its exceptional commitment to racial harmony.” In describing the history of LGBTQI organizing in the city, Gary Atkins pointed to Seattle’s “being a rather tolerant, get-along kind of place with lots of niche groupings” to explain how such a diverse activist community emerged. After leaders realized that they “ultimately were going nowhere in public influence unless they learned to form coalitions,” they began consulting “multiple voices … resulting in a low-key Seattle style of LGBTQ organizing and expression that continues to this day.” And finally, our three-part review of the city’s depiction in pop culture reflected on “alternative” music, portrayals of the 1999 anti-capitalist WTO protest in fiction and film, and satire of the hegemonic tech culture of present-day Seattle.

Next month, we’ll move on to an equally laid-back city but leave the rain behind in the Pacific Northwest. Leaping halfway across the Pacific, we will explore the history of Honolulu, share travelogues, and mine more pop culture for insight into the city.

Featured photo:Aerial view of Seattle, with the Space Needle on right, Mt. Rainer in background“, 1962, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

JUH Round Up: Seattle

One final note regarding the outgoing Metropolis of the Month. Regrettably, as noted in our bibliography of the city, Seattle remains an understudied metropolitan region.   Accordingly, the Journal of Urban History’s publication record reflects this reality. Over the past 11 years, the JUH has only published two articles about Seattle. That being said, one could argue the two it has published complement one another and do much to explore relevant issues regarding urban space, property rights, economic development, conservation and environmentalism in American cities. Below are two far too brief summaries of each article.

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“The leveling of the hills to make Seattle [Denny Hill]”, photograph by Asahel Curtis, 1910, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Matthew Klingle, “Changing Spaces: Nature, Property, and Power in Seattle, 1880-1945”, Journal of Urban History 32.2 (January 2006): 197-230.

“[T]he story of how environmental injustice manifested itself in the urban landscape begins with property relations,” Matthew Klingle writes. Seattle’s history is an urban environmental history tangled up at once with engineering, politics, and property rights. “Seattle’s engineers and reformers, in thought and practice, fused nature, property and social welfare together; and regrading was the result of their synthesis … Reformers wanted to regrade property to enforce propriety, land speculators and businesses wanted to generate profits, and city engineers wanted to plan an ordered metropolis.”[1] Klingle’s 2006 article for the JUH delves into the intersection of urban politics, economic and land development, and environmentalism employing Seattle as its focus. Reminiscent of William Cronon’s classic work about Chicago, Nature’s Metropolis, Klingle reorients his study to better address “politics and power brokering so central to urban history,” which Cronon relegates to the periphery.

All cities have origin stories, and Seattle’s rests on pioneering engineer R.H. Thomson. “Thomson saw engineering problems as environmental and social problems,” writes Klingle. “[H]e understood Seattle as a system where interconnected arrangements of energy, commerce, and culture intertwined. It was an engineer’s way of seeing.”[2] With this kind of perspective, city leaders embarked on a regrading campaign. For example, the Denny Hill regrade, where today the iconic Space Needle stands, lasted from 1903 to 1911 and resulted in 5.5 million cubic yards of soil and rock being “shoveled or sluiced into Elliott Bay.”

Dirt and rock recovered from regrading was deployed to reclaim land as well. “As engineers leveled mountains, they brought forth land from the sea,” notes Klingle. [3] Needless to say, the city’s aggressive regrading resulted in a number of legal suits involving assessments, “local improvement districts,” “injury to lives and property,” and “breached contracts,” among other issues. Class and race also factored into developments such that rather than bringing equity and landscapes into alignment, these efforts brought inequality into stark relief: “changing Seattle’s terrain reinforced [inequality], concentrated it, and made it more visible …. Class distinctions that boosters and engineers had hoped to erase from the city’s topography were now inscribed in it.”[4]

In the end, Klingle concludes that property cannot be reduced to “money or location it is also another avenue through which the contingent forces of nature can minimize or magnify discrimination.”[5]

 

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“Seattle Cloud Cover” from Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, photograph by Ryan Reft, 2008

Amanda Ashley Johnson, “Examining an Alternative Take on Urban Development: The Alignment of Public Art and Conservation to Build Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park”, Journal of Urban History 43.3: 493-516.

As demonstrated by Klingle, Seattle leaders long held tightly to a belief that engineering proved the solution to the city’s ills. “Seattle used to believe that there was an engineering solution to every problem,” one former public official told Amanda Johnson Ashley in 2014. In many ways, Johnson Ashley’s 2017 article for the JUH builds on Klingle’s work from decade earlier. If Klingle examined late nineteenth and early twentieth century urban engineering and legal battles over the physical landscape, economic development, and individual property rights, Ashley Johnson explores the role of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), and possible alternatives to them, in twenty first century efforts to transform the “contested and privatized waterfront into public open space” today known as the Olympic Sculpture Park (OSP).

PPPs, as many urban historians already know, have become the coin of the realm in urban planning and economic development. Ashley Johnson uses Seattle’s experience, including failed efforts like Seattle Commons, to test the PPP waters: “This study acts as a starting point for a conversation about how to create urban assets beyond those strategies and mechanisms outlined and promoted by conventional wisdom.”[6] The creation of the OSP depended not on a PPP but rather a Dual Non Profit Partnership between the Seattle Art Museum and the Trust for Public Land.

Yet as Ashley Johnson points out, it is not just about the here and recently passed now, but also the parallels between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century City Beautiful movements and today; the former being an era that “prioritized arts and open space to reshape and reimagine the ills of urban life” through civic and business cooperation in the organization and design of urban environs while also advocating for municipal funding and citizen approval. “These histories provide insight into whether these two early pillars – arts and open space – are still relevant for contemporary urban revitalization,” she notes. Indeed, Ashley Johnson highlights the use of both the arts and urban conservation efforts as a means to create public space and drive economic development. “Whispering firs, running waters, running paths, multifamily housing along the fringes,” one Seattle Times journalist muses. “A brand new salmon run, maybe all the way to a fake pond in the back of City Hall. How absurd. How delightful. How about it?”[7]

The OSP opened a decade ago this past January and encapsulates the benefits and drawbacks of DNPs. Since it’s Friday let’s highlight the positive. “The success of the DNP project was far less about creating a public art sculpture park and far more about creating a civic waterfront space after centuries of privatized waterfront in a city with a history that demonstrated that ‘land was a marketable commodity and civic rights had no place or presence,’” asserts Ashley Johnson.[8] Should DNPs replace PPPs? Not necessarily, she notes, but they should be considered since they offer a “different option in communities where PPPs are politically tenuous, where private actors are not interested in the complexities of PPPs, or where the public is not willing to continue to pay out of pocket for urban improvements.”[9]

[1] Matthew Klingle, “Changing Spaces: Nature, Property, and Power in Seattle, 1880-1945”, Journal of Urban History 32.2 (January 2006): 199.

[2] Klingle, “Changing Spaces”, 207.

[3] Klingle, “Changing Spaces”, 210.

[4] Klingle, “Changing Spaces”, 216, 219.

[5] Klingle, “Changing Spaces”, 224.

[6] Amanda Ashley Johnson, “Examining an Alternative Take on Urban Development: The Alignment of Public Art and Conservation to Build Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park”, Journal of Urban History 43.3: 497.

[7] Ashley Johnson, “Examining an Alternative Take on Urban Development”, 501.

[8] Ashley Johnson, “Examining an Alternative Take on Urban Development”, 507.

[9] Ashley Johnson, “Examining an Alternative Take on Urban Development”, 512.

Hysterically Hating on Seattle: Seattle in Pop Culture Part III

“[T]here really never will be another Silicon Valley,” Margaret O’Mara wrote in 2008, “the Valley remains a truly unique ecosystem for technological innovation, with specialized niches and decades‐old interpersonal networks. However, it’s no longer the only game in town. The people and firms of the Valley are part of a global supply chain in which many places – including Seattle – play an important role.”[1] O’Mara, author of Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley, would know. The University of Washington historian cut her teeth documenting the burgeoning knowledge economy of the mid-to-late twentieth century—a history that came sharply into focus during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

As O’Mara explained, this was not to say Seattle hadn’t demonstrated an attention to technological advancement. “Like the Bay Area and other gold‐ and silver‐rush cities of the American West, it has a long tradition of supporting innovators and iconoclasts,” she reminded readers. Still, obstacles persisted. Though its venture capital pool was maturing, it had not reached the dizzying heights of the Valley. University of Washington was a formidable research institution, but not quite a Stanford of the 1950s; the Emerald City undoubtedly attracted talent, but it did not always produce it, as did its Northern California counterpart. In the end, the reality persisted that Silicon Valley occurred at a specific moment in time, in a particular place, in an economic climate spurred by endless postwar military investment.

When Amazon moved its headquarters to a “multi-block development” in the city’s South Lake Union neighborhood circa 2008, O’Mara noted that this reflected a trend away from the suburbanization of the tech industry; some observers referred to such suburban environs as “technoburbs” and “nerdistans”; advocates preferred Silicon Valley, Silicon Prairie, or even Silicon Forest “but never Silicon City.” To be fair, O’Mara acknowledged that New York City did dub its tech sector, “scattered across Manhattan,” Silicon Alley. Likewise, L.A. alluded to its own west side agglomeration of tech by nicknaming it “Silicon Beach.” Still, O’Mara’s larger point remained essentially correct: “The gradual emergence of an alternative, more urban model for the high‐tech district is a result of the growth and diversification of the technology industry and its workforce.”[2]

Amazon’s recent purchase of Whole Foods suggests that the company’s massive growth will continue. It has been hiring lawyers and other professionals left and right from the East Coast. This influx of young professionals promises to continue reshaping city culture; inevitably some newcomers will chafe at the Pacific Northwest metropolis’s notoriously earnest persona.

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Enter Bernadette Fox, the protagonist at the heart of Maria Semple’s second novel, Where’d You Go Bernadette? Fox and her husband Elgin Branch, an IT savant employed at Microsoft (MS), decamped from Los Angeles years ago, gave birth to a child, Bee, and settled into life in the city, living in an the increasingly dilapidated, “Straight Gate,” a former Catholic School for “wayward girls”.

Seattle did not bring out the best in Fox. A former McArthur Grant recipient and gifted architect, she fell off the map upon arrival—creating a sort of ghoulish aura around her. In an email, former mentor and fellow architect Paul Jellinek, warns Fox that a failure to attend to her creative side would result in disaster: “People like you must create. If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.”[3]

Jellinek’s prediction, though not wholly accurate, was not far off. Fox navigates the city sparingly, leaving the home only when ferrying Bee to her school or dinner with Bee’s friend Kennedy. She shops over the internet via a South Asian online assistant, Manjula Kapoor. She rages silently at motorists: “The drivers here are horrible. And by horrible, I mean they don’t realize I have someplace to be.”

Despite her own travails, she is not a source of empathy for the downtrodden. “Seattle. I’ve never seen a city so overrun with runaways, drug addicts, and bums. Pike Place Market: they’re everywhere. Pioneer Square: teeming with them. The flagship Nordstrom: have to step over them on your way in,” she confides to Jellinek. “Seattle is the only city where you step in shit and you pray, ‘Please god, let this be dog shit.’”[4] Fox remains unimpressed by local fashion. Seattle women choose from two hairstyles: “short gray hair and long gray hair. You go into a salon asking for hair color, and they flap their elbows and cluck, ‘Oh Goody, we never get to do color!’”[5] She takes issue with men’s aesthetic choices as well: “fathers only come in one style here, and that’s outdoorsy.”[6]

Her daughter’s school, the Galer Street School, located next to a fish factory, often smells of salmon and the parents reek of the kind of kumbaya sincerity that has earned the city its humorless reputation. After a school fundraising event goes horribly, but hysterically, wrong one parent—a psychiatrist who once worked with residents in post disaster New Orleans and Haiti and now works as a Swedish Medical Center counselor—evaluates students for PTSD. “During the walk to the bus, I was able to listen, express curiosity, and simply ‘be’ with the child,” she relates to parents in an email. “We are still weighing whether or not to have an all-school assembly, a kindergarten only gathering, or a parent forum to collectively process this traumatic event.”[7]

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Even the coffee shops have that vaguely craftsman feel, “Mugsy Expresso, Seattle Way”, John Margolies, John Margolies Roadside America photo archive, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Seattle’s vernacular architecture receives the Fox treatment as well. When shopping for houses, Fox compares house hunting to shopping at IKEA, where “you can’t believe how cheap everything is, and even though you may not need a hundred tea lights, my God they’re only ninety nine cents for the whole bag?” More specifically, Seattle’s famed collection of Craftsman homes gets no love from Fox:

“Everything else is a Craftsman. Turn-of-the-century Craftsman, beautifully restored Craftsman, reinterpretation of Craftsman, needs-some-love Craftsman, modern take on Craftsman. It’s like a hypnotist put everyone from Seattle in a collective trance. You are getting sleepy, when you wake up you will want to live only in a Craftsman house, the year won’t matter to you, all that will matter is that the walls will be thick, the windows tiny, the rooms dark, the ceilings low, and it will be poorly situated on the lot.” [8]

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Perhaps traffic would be better with more “Giant Cones”, this one  part of the art walk along Seattle’s waterfront, Ryan Reft photographer, 2008

City planners do not fare much better. Asleep at the wheel for decades, the zoning commissioner must have handed the reins over to the “Soviets,” she argues. Five lane intersections bedevil her waking hours: “whoever laid out this city never met a four way intersection they didn’t turn into a five way intersection.” Elaborating, she says of the non-craftsman apartment buildings: “They never met a beautiful view they didn’t block with a twenty story old folks home with zero architectural integrity. Wait, I think that’s the first time the words “architectural” and “integrity” have ever been used together in a discussion of Seattle.”[9]

Seattle, Washington fire Station
“Fire Station, Seattle Washington”, Carol M. Highsmith, September 22, 2009, Carol M. HIghsmith’s America, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Semple, a former television writer for Arrested Development, imbues the story with a healthy sense of humor and based the story on her own struggle with acclimating to Seattle after moving from Los Angeles. “I was in a miserable mind frame, and I found that I was driving around and all I was thinking about were funny things about how awful Seattle was,” she told the New York Times in 2012. “I would do these riffs in my head and I would polish them in my head. It was poisonous and self-pitying.”[10] Clearly, Fox serves as Semple’s exaggerated literary avatar and she tells the story not through a clean straight narrative but rather through what one might describe as a series of primary sources, many from a variety of perspectives: F.B.I. files, diary entries, police and psychiatric reports, letters, emails, report cards, blog posts, newsletters and magazine articles.

Other aspects of life in twenty-first century Seattle emerge in the novel. For decades, Pacific Northwest natives have looked askance at transplants from California. I personally can remember taking the city’s underground tour in the 1990s and baked into the presentation were jokes about Californians driving up real estate prices.

Shane Updike, a school administrator, went to college at Seattle University during the mid-1990s and moved back to the city in 2007 after nearly ten years teaching public high school in New York City. “House prices in Seattle have risen pretty dramatically over the past 4 or 5 years,” he told The Metropole recently. The tech boom, foreign investment by homeowners overseas, and a tight housing stock have all contributed to the sharp increase in housing prices. “Another huge factor is that people are moving to the city from the San Francisco area for tech jobs, and to these people, homes are relatively inexpensive compared to the bay area.  These people have money and help to drive up the cost of housing.”[11]

Though from the Southern limits of the Golden State, Fox and Elgin represent this exact demographic. As one character tells Fox during a heated argument: “Nobody realized you were the people from L.A. who came to Seattle and bought a twelve thousand square foot building in the middle of a charming neighborhood and called it your home.”[12] In the wake of Microsoft, Amazon, and an expanding tech sector, this feeling has only grown. “Seattle, with the tech industry generally and Amazon specifically, is booming economically and people are moving here,” confirms Updike.

The novel also skewers Seattle’s self-image as a “compassionate,” tolerant city. Fox mocks the city for its attempts to address pressing social issues like low riding trousers. “And the mayor said he wanted to get to the root of why kids sag their pants. The fucking mayor. Don’t get me started on Canadians. It’s a whole thing.”[13]

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Yet one more shot of Seattle’s iconic Public Market, photograph Ryan Reft, 2008

Neither is Fox convinced by claims of metropolitan diversity. Overhearing a conversation in the grocery store about the city’s cosmopolitanism, Fox can’t resist: “Encouraged I asked, ‘Really?’ She said, Sure, Seattle is full of people from all over. ‘Like where?’ Her answer, ‘Alaska. I have a ton of friends from Alaska.’ Whoomp there it is.”[14]

Semple also gets at the vast change in American culture that has unfolded with the spread of technology. People continually comment on Elgin Branch, Fox’s husband and Microsoft “celebrity”, and his famed TED talk regarding one the company’s new cutting-edge products, the Samantha 2; when the F.B.I. gets involved due to Fox’s dangerous internet habits, even the investigating agent, Marcus Strang, references the presentation. “P.S. We all loved your TEDtalk,” he writes. “I’d love to see the latest on Samantha 2 if time permits.”[15] Unsurprisingly, Fox thinks little of Microsoft’s larger ambitions: “Well, on Microsoft’s walls are maps of the world, and in case you’re still unclear about their dominion, under these maps are the words: THE WORLD.”

View of Lake Union
“View of Lake Union, Seattle, Washington”, Carol M. Highsmith, September 22, 2009, Carol M. HIghsmith’s America, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

How did Seattle react to the book? Local alternative websites like The Stranger endorsed it, describing Where’d You Go Bernadette? as “the funniest novel ever written about Seattle,” and nominated it for its 2015 Genius Award in Literature. Some residents, however, remained “miffed” about Semple’s take on the city—particularly about women’s hair, if one bookstore customer is to be believed. In the end, though, all great cities must learn to laugh at themselves, especially at the things that make them notable. “It’s just not a funny place,” Semple told the Times, but apparently it can be.

 

[1] Margaret O’Mara, “We are not ‘the next Silicon Valley’”, crosscut.com, February 18, 2008.

[2] Margaret O’Mara, “Amazon joins a parade of high tech to the urban core”, crosscut.com, December 20, 2007.

[3] Maria Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette, (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2012), 136.

[4] Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette, 127-128.

[5] Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette, 128.

[6] Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette, 125.

[7] Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette, 78-79.

[8] Maria Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette, 25

[9] Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette?, 126- 127.

[10] Julie Bosman, “A novel asks Seattle to laugh at itself”, New York Times, August 15, 2012.

[11] Shane Updike, interview with author, June 25, 2017.

[12] Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette?, 86.

[13] Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette?, 128.

[14] Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette?, 132.

[15] Semple, Where’d You Go Bernadette?, 170.

Member of the Week: Rebecca Scofield

faculty picture scofieldRebecca Scofield

Assistant Professor of American History

University of Idaho

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I am currently completing my book project, tentatively titled Outriders: Rodeo at the Fringe of the American West, which investigates various marginalized rodeo communities over the course of the twentieth century. My project asks how people who have been largely imagined outside the mythological West, including female immigrants, incarcerated men, African Americans, and gay people, have used rodeo to contest their historical erasure. Particularly, I argue that these communities often deploy complex and problematic notions of authenticity, tradition, and heritage as a way to assert national belonging.  For me, rodeo is interesting because it is a space where all our collective ideas about what it means to be masculine, western, or American are performed in violent, painful theater. It also contests simple delineations between the East and the West, the real and the imagined, and the urban and the rural.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

Along with my more general American history courses, next semester I will be teaching a course on Gender and Race in the American West. This course focuses on both the regional West and the mythological West. Through memoirs, diaries, and novels, my students learn not only how diverse peoples shaped the region’s history, but also how that history became re-imagined as a rural, white, masculine space over the twentieth century. By looking at urban history in particular, my students can move beyond a definition of “the West” as having only existed in the nineteenth century or only located on the cattle range. My research on gay rodeo, for instance, contributes to how I teach this course as many of members of the International Gay Rodeo Association live in LA, Houston, or Denver. Teaching students from Idaho about the American West is fantastic. Most have grown up in the rural West and have been immersed in the mythology from childhood, it is wonderful to watch their ideas about their home change.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I will be starting a new project in the coming years on the imagined relationship between women and beasts in American culture. With this new focus, I am excited to read works on bestiality, like Doron Ben-Atar and Richard Brown’s Taming Lust: Crimes Against Nature in the Early Republic, and human/animal folklore like Maria Tartar’s new collection Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales About Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World. As a cultural historian, I am particularly interested in the anxieties that accompany women’s too-close relationship with animals. I am eager to read more about characters like King Kong in Leo Braudy’s new Haunted: On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, and Zombies and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Worlds, as I shift away from our cultural dreams and towards our collective nightmares. After working on various forms of rodeo for so many years, I look forward to reading in new fields.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Don’t be afraid to pursue what interests you. As an MA student, I studied the racial dynamics of the Tokyo acrylic nail industry. As a PhD student, I completely shifted focus to western wear, rodeo, and the imagined American West. Don’t be afraid to change with your interests.   

What book, movie, tv show, or other media would you recommend as a primer or introduction to rodeo?

Vera McGinnis’s 1974 memoir Rodeo Road is an amazing account of her time on the professional rodeo circuit as a bronc-rider and trick-rider in the 1920s. McGinnis captured the time before rodeo associations had forced women out of rough stock riding, describing the excruciating injuries, the broken marriages, and the grinding financial uncertainty that came with being a rodeo performer. She also illustrates the violence of the lifestyle—from her fear of sexual assault to punching an opponent in the face for implying she slept with the judges. Not only is this book an entertaining read, it demonstrates the expansiveness of women’s lives and the complex racial, sexual, and gendered meanings behind their performances.

Documenting Lynching and its Influence: The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Clinic at Northeastern University is Doing Just That

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Jay W. Driskell, Ph.D.

In his 2003 work, The Contradiction of American Capital Punishment, University of California law professor Franklin E. Zimring suggested that a correlation existed between lynchings and capital punishment; states with more of the former participated at higher rates in the latter. Zimring’s statistics, Elaine Cassel argued, “should give pause to anyone who believes that the death penalty is somehow the product of reasoned deliberation, rather than simple mob vengeance.”

The connection between vigilantism, specifically lynching, and state sanctioned executions points to the possibility that America’s judicial and law enforcement infrastructure has internalized a disturbing set of values that have historically been shaped discriminatorily by race and class. Despite this possibility, no real database accounting for the nation’s history of lynching exists. A new a joint project between Northeastern University and its Civil Rights and Restorative Justice clinic is attempting to create a public digital accounting of this history.

Though the project is ongoing, historian and lead researcher Jay W. Driskell believes not only have historians not fully identified the number of lychings that occurred throughout U.S. history but that the practice might have been subsumed and obscured by the nation’s law enforcement structures. The Metropole sat down with Driskell to discuss the role of lynching in our national history, the methods used in documenting this violent past, and what the results of his study might mean in regard to the American legal system.

Can you tell us a little about yourself, how you ended up doing this kind of research? How has it informed your own views on history?

I am a historical consultant and researcher based in Washington D.C. I got involved in this project because my first book was a history of the Atlanta NAACP in its early years, so I was familiar with the organization and its records. This project is being jointly conducted between the Northeastern University School of Law and its Civil Rights and Restorative Justice (CRRJ) clinic. It is the result of a 2007 conference organized by NEU Law Professor Margaret Burnham on cold cases of the 1960s. After that conference, Prof. Burnham and MIT political science professor Melissa Nobles decided to look backwards to the Jim Crow era. The scope of the research covers 13 southern states chronologically from 1930 to 1954 picking up from where Stewart Tolnay and E. M. Beck left off in their widely-used inventory of lynchings. This database is part of each scholar’s respective research on racial violence in the Jim Crow period.

NAACP Box

My part in this project is to uncover every lynching I could discover between 1930 and 1954. We are initially focusing on three main repositories: the NAACP Papers in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress; Department of Justice (DOJ) records located at the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA); and eventually records of the FBI. So far I am deep into the first two; the F.B.I., however, is of course it’s own beast.

What have I learned about history from all this? As somebody who has studied both labor and African American history, I always knew history was really violent. It wasn’t until I looked at the history of lynching in a very concentrated way that I came to reckon with the brutal nature of our nation’s history. Through this research, more than ever I understand what this violence looks like on an individual basis, case after case after case—and I’ve looked at hundreds of cases. When I uncover a new case, I sometimes think about my father and how old he was at the time of this killing. For example, in 1948, a political activist named Robert Mallard was murdered by a mob in Toombs County, GA for driving black voters to the polls in the recent gubernatorial election. In 1948, my dad was 14 years old. This was not that long ago. There have been mobs of thousands of angry white people, attacking a jail and killing an African American man and this happened in our parents’ lifetimes. Some of the perpetrators and participants in these lynch mobs are still alive – and unpunished. The kind of violence that the Ku Klux Klan and others unleashed was really just yesterday, and I am nowhere near certain that it won’t come back. This sort of history makes the world seem very fragile to me.

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Silent protest parade in New York [City] against the East St. Louis riots, 1917, Underwood and Underwood, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
What have you learned about navigating these collections and these archives? Do you have any tips for other historians in regard to archival research?

Let me start with the NAACP. The thing I’ve learned about the NAACP is that when you get to the 1930s and early 1940s, every week they are about to close their doors because it’s run on a shoestring. Yet, there’s this moment where they realize in many parts of the country, they are the only organization doing civil rights work. Sure there’s the International Labor Defense (ILD), the Communist Party, and other groups, but the NAACP is often the only game in town. And this means that everyone is writing the NAACP asking them to take their case. Their resources are stretched so incredibly thin that they can’t do it all. For example, in 1934 NAACP president Walter White read an account of an oil field worker named Ed Lovelace, who was beaten and then burned alive in the town of Wink, TX. White wired the president of the San Antonio branch to investigate. Given that Wink is nearly 400 miles from San Antonio, and it was the site of a violent mob murder of a black man, it would take a tremendous amount of courage for another black man to take this risky journey. Instead, the San Antonio branch looked in the local newspapers for any coverage. Finding none, the case was closed as far as the NAACP was concerned. But, I can’t help but wonder had the local branch made the journey or if the national office had the resources to send an investigator, the murder of Ed Lovelace might well have been counted as one of the fourteen lynchings that the NAACP recorded in 1934.

NAACP 1919 announcement
“N.A.A.C.P. Began Anti-Lynching Fight Says Chas Macfarland”, 1919. NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

After World War II, the organization has almost the opposite problem. The relative prosperity of the war years and the impact of the Great Migration caused the NAACP’s membership to surge. They grow so quickly that the bureaucracy sustaining the organization becomes so complex that things get misfiled, overlooked and lost in the records. So even though the papers look like they are in order – and in many ways they are—there is a lot of chaos in them. If you are patient and willing to do the work, there is a lot of new material to be harvested.

Also, many researchers focus too much on the microfilmed portion of the NAACP papers. What’s available on microfilm is really a small slice of the larger collection.

With that in mind, everything I said about the NAACP goes double for the DOJ at NARA. The DOJ is a vast, vast, agency and NARA is a massive archive. What gets recorded often depended upon how much the secretary or clerk working that day felt like filing. The main thing about working at NARA is that you have to work with the archivists. There is no way to productively navigate NARA’s holdings without the help of these archivists and their highly specialized knowledge of their subject areas. No historian, no matter how smart, will have mastered these records as they have. The NARA archvist I’ve been working with most, Haley Maynard, has been indispensable to the success of this project so far.

NAACP Nov 14 1919 pg 1 lynching report
Report of the Secretary to the Anti-Lynching Committee, November 14, 1919, page 1. NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Why is MIT creating this lynching database?

The CRRJ intends it to become a public history resource.

How does a historian go about gathering and organizing all this data? What has been your method? Did it change as you visited different archives?

When I started this project, I thought the NAACP had done a very good job of reporting on lynchings. In many ways they had. For its time, the organization was very thorough. The problem, however, was that the character of lynching changes over the course of the 1920 and 1930s. In the words of Howard Kester who worked with the NAACP as a white southerner and thus could do undercover investigations of lynchings, it went “underground.” It became less spectacular and ritualistic and, as a result, harder to find because these killings are no longer showing up in press accounts.

So to address this part of my methodology involves recreating the event itself in my head. When you do this it really reveals how lynchings, despite their horrific nature, could be obscured. For example, who are the people who knew the most about this event? First, obviously, the victim, but unless they survived, that voice is forever silenced. The second tier is the perpetrators. When lynching was brazen and public, you can find the perpetrators in the press bragging about it. Sometimes, knowing when they are going to get off, they even sell it to the media as in 1955 when J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant killed Emmett Till and sold their story to Look Magazine. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s as the NAACP ratchets up public pressure for anti-lynching legislation, lynchers fall silent and stop bragging.

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Report of the Secretary to the Anti-Lynching Committee, November 14, 1919, page 2. NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

This brings us to the third tier of people who are paying relatively close attention to who is being killed and by whom. This comprises the universe of law enforcement officials, at both the local and the federal level. There are two big reasons that law enforcement is paying attention. First, are those cases where law enforcement is either sanctioning or participating in the lynching. Second, they opposed lynching because it interrupted their monopoly on violence. While lynchers were technically breaking the law by committing murder, this act of killing was also a direct challenge to police prerogatives as the only legitimate purveyors of such violence. That’s the police. Notice, we haven’t even gotten to the NAACP yet.

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A tragic and ironic depiction, particularly in light of Dr. Driskell’s early findings,  of the “lynching problem” from 1899; “The Lynching Problem”, Louis Dalrymple, Puck Magazine, 1899. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The fourth tier is the press, often newspaper reporters. Small town reporters were often members of the community committing the lynching and were often members of these lynch mobs – either as participants or observers – so they give very detailed accounts. This is where modern newspaper databases have really helped my research. Chronicling America, ProQuest historical newspapers, and other newspaper digitization projects have really changed the game. For example, the NAACP had to depend on local townspeople sending them clippings; otherwise the organization had no real way to know about lynchings that occurred. So today we have access to identified lynchings that appeared in the local press at the time but the NAACP did not know about because maybe they didn’t have a branch in that town or no one in the town was brave enough to go the post office to mail a clipping to a New York address. You get the idea. This includes the black press too; shockingly the NAACP did not have full access to the black press. In fact the black press was harder to get at since they were often under-capitalized and over-extended, perhaps only issuing one publication a week. Also, even if there were lynchings, the local black press might not have covered it because these presses operated under local conditions and were sometimes unable to report freely.

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Group of African-Americans, marching near the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., to protest the lynching of four African-Americans in Georgia“, 1942,  NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Then finally, at last you get to the outer tier comprising groups like the Tuskegee Institute and the NAACP, but as you can see they are all very removed from the center of the event. It’s almost like they are the external valence shells on this historical atom. So my goal as a researcher became not to bounce around the outer most orbit of that atom, but rather to determine how to get to the center. The key has turned out to be tier three, the police and law enforcement, because they are the ones, for reasons explained already, paying attention and–crucially–keeping records. If those records wind up in the FBI or DOJ, they are at NARA. That’s the road that will take you to the center of that atom.

In turn, that changed the way I structured the research project. To begin, I went through all the names of lynchings we had already collected. I then made a name database of lynching victims, but as I discovered in the newspapers, they also often listed the names of the perpetrators, more frequently than one would think. In addition, the DOJ often lists cases under the name of the killer, so in some places you only have th name of the killer. You can then use the DOJ litigation index at NARA to find the case number that is linked to that particular killer’s name, which hopefully reveals something about the event that was otherwise lost to time. So far, it has proven pretty fruitful; I’ve even discovered a number of cases the NAACP did not know about.

For example, I found a file in the DOJ records with a 1933 letter from Corinne Banks to FDR. Banks, who lived in Chicago, was the sister of Hirsch Lee, who had been lynched earlier that year. Lee was a 14 year old boy who lived with (and possibly worked for) a white family and had a friendship with a white girl in that family. A rumor spread that it was more than friendship and the family (along with other white men in the area) took Lee to the woods and killed him. They dismembered his body and left it in the woods. The DOJ wrote back to Banks to say they had no jurisdiction in this murder case. There is no indication that the NAACP or any other civil rights group ever found out. What struck me the most was the similarities to the 1955 Emmett Till case. How many Emmett Tills were there?

So in regard to what historians have argued, many historians suggest that lynchings peaked after WWI with another spike during the Great Depression, but then it goes into a long term decline. However, and please keep in mind this is still preliminary and based on this early research, while I think lynching did decline, it did not decline as much as we like to think it did.

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James Weldon Johnson to Walter White regarding a proposed anti-lynching bill, January 24, 1938, NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Now I’m going to expand on this but keep in mind this is mostly just my opinion and not that of the CRRJ. That being said, I am willing to theorize that based on this research there is a baseline level of anti-black violence in US history that has proven very difficult to reduce. Some historians have discussed this, like Michael Pfeifer in his 2006 book, Rough Justice. He theorizes lynching declines because the death penalty takes its place. However, what I am discovering is that maybe the form of this baseline anti-black violence changes from lynchings to police killings. Lynch mobs became less necessary for the maintenance of white supremacy because officers of the law are serving the same function in killing mostly black or Latino men. When confronting black or Latino suspects they use excessive force that leads to death far more often than they do with whites. This was something very clear to those counting lynchings in the 1930s through the 1950s. A 1934 letter from a local NAACP investigator in Alabama to the NAACP describes this relationship:

“If we listed all of the cases where officers go with the intention of killing the man, we would have many more lynchings than any other organization lists. I was told by a teacher in Selma, Ala. that ‘the reason we have no lynchings around here is this: when a Negro gets out of line the officers go and bring him in dead – that is the general rule here’.”

So I am also looking at police brutality files in the NAACP and DOJ records. When the US goes from being predominantly rural to predominantly urban in the 1920s, it changes a great deal about American life particularly in how populations are surveilled and policed. You have the Great Migration bringing African Americans into cities in record numbers but also rural whites moving to urban America (to say nothing of European immigrants who came in the preceding decades). What used to get solved by lynching in the countryside starts getting addressed by professional or semi-professional police forces. Just to complicate this further, I think an older definition of lynching as popular justice, as spectacular, as carnivalesque, and this idea that historians have bracketed its era as ending in 1930, has prevented people from seeing the possible connection between the decline in lynchings and the increase in police killings and brutality. To test that out you would need a reliable adequate number of how many people killed by police over the past century and that work has not been done.

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Even LBJ voted against anti-lynching laws (he did so consistently throughout his congressional career), in the third paragraph Marshall offers commentary on the congressman from Texas; Thurgood Marshall to Walter White, May 1, 1941, NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Is it safe to assume that the shift from lynchings to police brutality was due to political changes that resulted in anti-lynching campaigns (particularly by the NAACP) and the growing civil rights movement? Would you explain this shift another way or add to it?

Another complexity to think about is when lynchings do begin to decline, the NAACP and others link this decline to their repeated attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation. Though the NAACP never managed to pass an anti-lynching law, there is at least some evidence that keeping the issue of lynching before the public reduced the number of lynchings. In 1938, as Congress is debating an anti-lynching bill, at least four lynchings are averted by sheriffs explaining to the mob that a lynching would only empower the NAACP and other supposed enemies of the South.

But, there’s not enough solid evidence that it was the NAACP’s efforts to pass anti-lynching laws that led to lynching’s decline. It’s very possible that the NAACP increasingly needed to justify why it was prosecuting a fight, which they never win, at least in terms of legislative victories. Since the failure of the Dyer Bill in 1921, all attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation foundered in the face of a southern, white supremacist filibuster. But an anti-lynching law is NAACP President Walter White’s baby. The NAACP has a finite amount of resources and White must show his board of directors and others that there is a reason to pursue this anti-lynching campaign. White’s argument, at the risk of being too simplistic, is that the campaign, even if a failure legislatively, did marginalize lynching as an act such that it declined. White and the NAACP need to generate a narrative of success along the lines of “this hasn’t been a fruitless battle”; using these resources for anti-lynching makes sense particularly when for most of its history, the NAACP is a resource-strapped, zero sum institution. Because the NAACP starts to believe this narrative, I think they wind up undercounting the actual number of lynchings–particularly into the 1930s and 40s.

One last thing to add: I’d caution people who are doing this sort of research that it is emotionally impossible to distance yourself from the topic. You might see hundreds of dead bodies each week on television but it’s not the same. It’s case after case—and some cases go into great, disturbing detail. For instance, in NAACP investigative reports I came across the phrase “beaten to a pulp or jelly” again and again. I realized that this is not just a metaphor, but a literal physical state. I’ve asked some doctors I know if this was possible, and it is. If beaten hard enough, for a long enough time, flesh and blood and bone coagulates into a something like a jelly. That can make it hard to sleep at night. It’s something you can’t just harden yourself to; it takes a heavy emotional and physical toll. So, give yourself time to breathe, and carry on the work.

Jay Driskell is a historian whose work explores the relationship between race, gender and the forging of effective political solidarities in struggles for power within the urbanizing, segregating South. His first book, Schooling Jim Crow: the Fight for Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and the Roots of Black Protest Politics (University Press of Virginia, 2014), traces the changes in black political consciousness that transformed a reactionary politics of respectability into a militant force for change during the fight for black public schools in Atlanta, Georgia.

Driskell also runs a historical consulting business for institutions and individuals who require access to the wealth of historical resources in the DC-area. Major clients have included the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the National Labor College

Battling Globalization in Seattle: Seattle In Pop Culture Part II

Seattle has long been connected to cutting edge technology: Boeing’s aerospace dominance, Seattle’s 1962 World Fair, and more recently the rise of Microsoft and Amazon. The ascent of “digital Seattle” was arguably best captured in two books; Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews on Microsoft in Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry and Made Himself the Richest Man in the World (1994) and Brad Stone with The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (2014).

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PIONEER SQUARE, LOOKING EAST. – Alaskan Way Viaduct and Battery Street Tunnel, Seattle, King County, WA, Jet Lowe, 2008, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

That said, Microsoft lacked the sheen of Apple; its steady profits and success felt purely Seattle, steady and unexciting. Films like the Pirates of Silicon Valley portrayed Gates as a savvy businessman, less the innovative, technological guru than his counterpart Steve Jobs. Granted, IT professionals anticipated new Windows offerings, but more often to highlight security flaws in the software than to hail its innovation. Contrast that with the giddy atmosphere of Jobs-era Apple, which Danny Boyle depicted in all Jobs’ maniacal glory in the 2015 film, Steve Jobs. Nonetheless, Microsoft played a critical role in creating the technology and infrastructure that made internet commerce possible and drove the nation toward its online and globalized economic present and future.

As historians have discussed, globalization is hardly new; its political valances might simply have coalesced in more visible ways at the end of the 20th century. In 1999, Seattle briefly occupied the national consciousness when the World Trade Organization Protests drew the media’s attention. For globalization advocates like Thomas Friedman, protesters represented a “Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions, and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix.” Understandably, demonstrators like Janet Thomas, author of The Battle in Seattle: The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations (2000) disagreed with Friedman’s assertion. Thomas branded the New York Times columnist a cog in the mainstream media machine, accusing both he and the paper of serving as little more than “a voice for corporate interests.”

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The film Battle in Seattle awkwardly attempts to depict the event the outcome of 40,000-60,000 protesters descending on the city. Starring an ensemble cast that includes Woody Harrelson, André Benjamin, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez, and Ray Liotta, it’s a clunky film that strives to present the opposition’s protest in the best light. As critic Stephen Holden correctly asserts, however, characters are often reduced to “rhetorical plot device[s].”[1]

Other works have tried to evaluate the 1999 protests. In addition to Thomas’s book, Alexander Cockburn, Jeffrey St. Clair, and Allen Sekula produced Five Days that Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond in 2000 and Rebecca Solnit published The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle in 2009.

Last year, Sunil Yapa sought to capture the demonstration and its globalized tendrils in his debut novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Fist. AS Bishop, the Seattle Chief of Police searches for his estranged son, Victor, while attempting to clear the streets of protesters, he considers the city’s physical landscape and its more iconic elements:

“There was the space needle standing alone. A structure Bishop had always loved despite himself. Erected for the ’62 World’s Fair, some architect’s vision of the future, it looked like a plate balanced on two chopsticks, wavering improbably six hundred feet in the air, something beautiful but faintly ominous about the whole thing.”[2]

Bishop’s is one of several interlocking stories Yapa introduces in an attempt to place Seattle and the WTO meetings at the nexus of globalization.

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The novel takes its name from a famous woodcut created during the protests by artist Dalia Sapon-Shevin. Yapa himself resided in Seattle for a short period and provides views of the event and the politics behind the demonstration through several characters: Bishop’s lost son Victor; Kingfisher , an eco-warrior/eco-; Seattle police officer Timothy Park; and his colleague and fellow cop Julia (“originally Guatemalan … via Los Angeles”) referred to as Ju by her colleagues. Like their activist counterparts, the two officers, Park and Ju are no strangers to urban debacles. Park played hero at the Oklahoma City bombings and Ju, worked the 1992 L.A. riots before absconding to the Pacific Northwest. To the book’s credit, characters hail from diverse backgrounds ethnically, racially, geographically, and even ideologically.

Yapa also adds a Sri Lankan delegate to the WTO conference, Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe, as a means to balance the novel’s political message, which leans heavily toward the activist side. The protest impedes Wickramsinghe’s attempts to reach the meeting and secure a trade agreement for his nation, the war-torn and chronically poor South Asian island nation. Initially, the Sri Lankan delegate views the protesters with a studied wariness.

The contrast between his memories of civil war in Sri Lanka and the ethnic violence often attached to the conflict contrasts negatively with protesters.

“What if they knew what a real revolutionary was? How bloody is a real revolution. He looked around suddenly feeling the need to sit, and saw nothing but their faces, their round wet faces staring back at him. What a violence of the spirit to not know the world.”[3]

Later, larger systems at work blunt his attempts at securing a trade agreement and he comes to better understand and respect the motives and animating spirit of demonstrators.

How much does Yapa capture Seattle? It depends on how one thinks about that question. By the late 1990s, the rise of the “Asian Tiger” economies and Seattle’s position on the Pacific Rim helped secure a key place in the increasingly globalized economy. As a site for a WTO meeting it fit the bill the figuratively and metaphorically.

Throughout the novel, characters recount their global journey to Seattle. Seattle native Victor runs away from his step-father, Police Chief Bishop, following the death of his mother, to better experience the world. He returns on the eve of the protest in order to sell a bunch of weed and thereby secure a plane ticket to his next destination. Kingfisher, on the lam since burning down a Vail ski resort, snuck back into the U.S. from Mexico to reengage the movement, but not before playing a role in a separate tragedy. John Henry, “Holy man of the Rust Belt”, comes to the Emerald City with quotes from Mahatma Gandhi tattooed across his chest and an undying belief in non-violent protest.

“John Henry heard their voices and knew this was no ordinary protest, this congregation in the streets. No, this was the new American religion. This desire which leapt continents. The longing of the heart to embrace a stranger and be unashamed.”[4]

Several of the book’s characters do live in the city and provide brief commentary on its economy and landmarks. Police Chief Bishop provides a loose schematic of the city’s more famous locations when peering upon the thousands of protesters gathering below the police vantage point above downtown. “He looked down through the bubble and saw the crowds massing. In the red square at the University of Washington; at Pine and Fourth, and the Seattle Community College on the northeastern corner; Pike Place Market to the west; a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands – all on the move.”[5]

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Pike Place Market, coffee cup detail on sign. Seattle, Washington, Carol M. Highsmith photographer, between 1980-1986, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Despite its recent publication, Your Heart feels almost as much a time capsule as the 1992 film Singles. Whatever impact the WTO protests have had or might have had was obscured or subsumed by 9/11. In the context of shootings in Orlando, San Bernadino, and even more recent attacks in Paris, London, and Alexandria, Virginia, the WTO protests remain troubling but not threatening. Then again, protesters sought to disrupt globalization by bringing the conference to a standstill. Even Dr. Wickramsinghe comes to appreciate the demonstrators. While detained by local police aboard a bus with protesters, he engages in conversation with them, discussing corn subsidies, the fate of Mexican farmers, and other ills of globalization. “They were the faces of that part of American character that believed not in American destiny, but in the promise of America itself, that same promise with which they had once welcomed dusty hardworking immigrants to their shores,” he thinks to himself.

Brexit and President Trump’s campaign rhetoric (if not necessarily his policies, whatever they might be) seem to indicate that the radicalism of WTO demonstrators, if not the ideology, has ensconced itself in electoral politics. “That part of the American character” that Wickramsinghe identifies, right now feels drowned out by nativism.

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VIEW NORTH NORTHWEST FROM ABANDONED APPROACHES TOWARD ROYAL BROUGHAM. INCLUDES ORIGINAL GUARDRAILS. – Alaskan Way Viaduct and Battery Street Tunnel, Seattle, King County, WA, Jet Lowe, 2008, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Than again, anti-globalization sentiment – admittedly for different reasons – has captured the attention of Americans of all political leanings and demographics, from the college campuses of Berkeley to the steel towns of the rust belt to the agricultural communities of the South. Yapa channels some of this effectively in his novel, but too often falls into atavistic clichés regarding the left even as he clearly tries to avoid doing so. Seattle is really more the backdrop than the subject of Your Heart is the Muscle the Size of a Fist—much as the WTO demonstrations feel more like a disconcerting example of millennium unrest rather than the thumping existential threat of terrorism.

 

[1] Stephen Holden, “When Worlds Collided by Puget Sound”, New York Times, September 18, 2008.

[2] Sunil Yapa, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2016), 106.

[3] Yapa, Your Heart is a Muscle, 144.

[4] Yapa, Your Heart is a Muscle, 14.

[5] Yapa, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, 107.

The South Isn’t Exceptional, the People Are: New Orleans and Prisoner Rights Activism

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Slave prison (Calabozo), New Orleans, Arnold Genthe photographer, between 1920 – 1926, Arnold Genthe Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

New Orleans, and the state of Louisiana more generally, are often held up as the worst examples of policing and criminal justice. It’s where the Angola 3 were incarcerated, alongside Zulu Whitmore, as political prisoners. It’s where Amnesty International has focused much of its anti-carceral state activism. Angola often gets held up as “a modern day slave plantation” and Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) is constantly in the news, most recently for healthcare-related violations. I’m not arguing that these offenses aren’t bad and that they should go unrecognized. But in many ways, all these statistics and examples from Louisiana perpetuate ideas about the backward South, the eternal other of the great United States. For this reason (and many others) many historians of the carceral state have shifted their focus to incarceration and policing in the North and West (Captive Nation by Dan Berger , Heather Thompson’s Blood in the Water, Kali Gross’s two books on Philadelphia). This is laudable and these stories need to be told. But for those of us who want to write the stories of the South, how do we do this without reinforcing false notions of southern exceptionalism and northern innocence? (This is not to say that people are not successfully doing this: David Oshinsky’s Worse than Slavery and Robert Parkinson’s Texas Tough). In “Blinded by the Barbaric South: Prison Horrors, Inmate Abuse, and the Ironic History of American Penal Reform” from the edited edition The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism, Historian Heather Ann Thompson writes “First and foremost, interpretations that emphasize the “exceptional” nature of the southern justice system obscure the extent to which historical penal practices in northern and western states also have been inhumane and deeply racialized. Seeing criminal justice practices in the South as divergent from national standards fundamentally distorts understandings of how race and power played out across the United States after the Civil War.”

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African American prisoners at compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana ( Leadbelly in foreground); Prisoner with guitar, at compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana, Alan Lomax photographer, between 1934 and 1940,  Lomax Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Instead of focusing on the many instances of inhumane treatment and abuse in the Louisiana prison system, especially against people of color, I am focusing on prisoner rights activists inside and outside of prison and their creative and intellectual production, their prisoner-rights organizing, and their spaces of activism. I aim to write about anti-carceral activism in New Orleans without furthering mythical notions about the South as “other.” I hope to avoid making New Orleans out to be the bad guy, when in fact the entirety of the United States is the “bad guy” when it comes to incarceration. From Lead Belly’s performances to lawsuits brought by the ACLU to Robert Hillary King’s memoir From the Bottom of the Heap, New Orleanians have fought incarceration in Louisiana. Though I’m writing a story of activism and agency now, I came to this project because I thought Angola was the “worst prison” and, in the way of an immature, budding historian, I thought something was only worth writing about if it was the worst. Tasked with choosing a research paper topic in my first semester of graduate school, I did exactly what I was told not to: I googled it. I landed on the Wikipedia page for the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which included a short paragraph on the Angola 3. While oft written about in popular culture, there didn’t seem to be much academically written about these men, locked in solitary confinement in the “worst” prison. I expected to write a tale of gross human rights violations and the aberration of the South. Instead I found a story of strength, activism, art, and love in the face of brutality. A story of friendship and organizing and people fighting for the lives and rights of these men at great personal risk. I wrote my thesis on the Angola 3, but as I traversed archives across Louisiana and conducted oral histories with activists across the country, I decided that I would focus on the uncommon strength and organizing of these men and women instead of dismissing an entire region as backwards.

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Angola Landing, State Penitentiary farm, Mississippi River, La., Detroit Publishing Co., Between 1900-1910, Detroit Publishing Co. Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Like many urban historians, sociologists, and other scholars, my focus is on the carceral state. I’m writing about activists, both historical and modern, who have fought for the rights of incarcerated people in New Orleans. In many cases, these activists had little in common beyond the commitment to the rights of the incarcerated. When prisons were being created across the country in the late 19th century, some of these activists fought for the creation of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Others belonged to the NAACP and focused on the racial injustice embedded within Louisiana’s jails and prisons. Still more were involved with Black Power, education reform, and anarchist organizing. My project will follow prisoner rights activism in New Orleans from the late 19th century through to modern day organizing.

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Prison compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana. Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) in the foreground, Alan Lomax photographer, Lomax Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

How did people of color and other prisoner rights activists use writing, art, and music to express the injustice of the carceral state? How did they carve out spaces, often informal, to fight these injustices politically? These people are exceptional: not because they are Southerners, but because they are fighting, every day, to end incarceration and injustice in Louisiana. By focusing on these activists and their stories, I hope to add nuance to the stories of incarceration in the South. Louisiana has Angola and the OPP, but it also has the longest continuously active chapter of the NAACP, Women with a Vision, NOLA to Angola, and Books to Bars. These organizations, and the activists who make them work remake the story of incarceration in New Orleans every day. It’s a story of injustice, civil rights violations, and abuse, but is also one of art, strength, and organizing.

Holly Genovese is a PhD student and public historian at Temple University interested in Southern history, Intellectual history, Gender, and the Carceral State. She is also a blogger for the Society of U.S. Intellectual History and a contributing editor at Auntie Bellum magazine. You can read her work at https://www.hollygenovese.com/ and follow her on Twitter @HollyEvanMarie. 

Member of the Week: Peter Siskind

Siskind headshot 6 17Peter Siskind, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor & Chair, Department of Historical & Political Studies, Arcadia University

Executive Director, Urban History Association

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I’ve been exploring the politics of development in the cities, suburbs, and recreational vacationlands of the post-World War II northeast corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C. for quite a while now. I have lived most of my life on the northeast corridor, and I’ve long been fascinated by how multiple, often competing popular calls for land-use reform interact with fractured structures of metropolitan governments to produce such ambiguous, often dissatisfying policy results.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I teach a variety of courses on modern American politics and policy and the United States’ relationship with the world. A favorite theme that emerges from my work both in the archives and the classroom (with each influencing the other) is how implementation of policy frequently veers so far from executive and/or legislative intentions.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I’ve been spending a lot of time with TP. Ho Chi Minh: Mega City (2016 – 3rd edition) following a trip I took to Vietnam with students in March. The book is mostly comprised of photography as well as short chapter introductions that collectively focus on recent, rapid growth and the ways the growth processes are affecting people, architecture and housing, urban transport, and the very soul of the city. The trip and the book have stimulated my curiosity about the extraordinary rate (and dizzying effects) of recent Asian urban growth (not something I’ve studied extensively before) and re-framed my thinking about American metropolitan growth and its discontents.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

I encourage scholars young and old to develop and sustain a strong scholarly network in the best sense of the word. When one has a network of people one likes and with whom one regularly engages academic interests then a whole range of personal satisfactions and professional accomplishments follow a lot more easily.

What are you looking forward to most as the new Executive Director of the Urban History Association?

I haven’t done such a great job in recent years of taking my own advice about sustaining a strong scholarly network; instead, I’ve focused a lot of energy on my home institution (Arcadia University). So I’m most looking forward to meeting many urban scholars and getting to know them and their work. And of course I’m also looking forward to helping the UHA’s Board of Directors accomplish the goals they establish for the organization.

Getting Over Grunge: Seattle in Pop Culture Part I

In a 2014 interview, indie rock malcontent Stephen Malkmus reflected on 1990s nostalgia. “It’s a time that seems romantic to people now, whereas at the time, it seemed like a cynical era,” he told the magazine. “There were all these worries about selling out and the Man and corporate rock and irony and sincerity. But in retrospect, being cynical just meant that you cared. There was something at stake.”[1]

For those of us who came of age in the 1990s, few cities embodied this awkward combination of cynicism, earnestness, and disdain for “corporatism” described by Malkmus than rain soaked Seattle. Much of this had to do with the rise of “alternative music” and under that umbrella, “grunge.”

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Unintentionally, Cameron Crowe’s 1992 film Singles emerged as representative of the city and its music. The film revolves around a loosely defined group of white hipsters played by Matt Dillon, Bridget Fonda, Kyra Sedgwick, and Campbell Scott, among others, who are going through the usual malaise and confusion of their late 20s; these stories are largely told through various vignettes threaded throughout the movie. New York Times film critic Janet Maslin described it as an “utterly charming look at a small sample of Seattle’s young, unmarried population,” cautioning that despite an “irresistible theme song” by the decidedly non-Seattle Paul Westerberg, leaned “too heavily” on its grunge heavy soundtrack.[2]

Having watched Singles again recently, I can assure you it’s not that good–though it does serve as a useful time capsule from the period. Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard all make appearances. Soundgarden and Alice in Chains also show up as bands playing in the background. Lesser-known Seattle indie rock stars like Tad Doyle and Sub Pop’s Bruce Pavitt also make cameos, raising the question of whether it’s really a cameo if no one knows who you are outside Seattle?

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More representative of Seattle than Grunge?; Painting “Three Sets of Twelve” at interior main lobby of the U.S. Courthouse, Seattle, Washington, Carol M. Highsmith, August 2008, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Did Singles capture the look and feel of Seattle environs? Somewhat, though through Crowe’s lens it’s an entirely white, heterosexual city. To be honest, looking back at his filmography, this is unsurprising, as Aloha, Say Anything, Almost Famous, and Elizabethtown are similarly hetero- and white-normative. In 1990, the city might have been 75 percent white, but it had significant black (10 percent) and Asian populations (11 percent). Maki Smith discussed the intersection of the two communities in a recent blog post for The Metropole. Native Americans, though small demographically (1.4 percent), cast an influential cultural shadow. As evidenced by our interview with historian Gary L. Atkins, the LGBT community was quite prominent as well. All that said, aesthetically one could argue that Gus Van Zandt’s Drugstore Cowboy more effectively conveys the scenery and feel of the Pacific Northwest in his film about drug addicts hashing it out in and around Portland, Oregon.

Crowe has acknowledged he wasn’t super concerned about portraying Seattle in any way, arguing Singles was “not a movie about the birth of the now-hot Seattle scene” but really the disconnected nature of life in one’s twenties. I would even suggest that there are scenes from Say Anything, Crowe’s 1989 romantic comedy(?) which is also set in Seattle, that better depict the city–namely when Lloyd Dobbler and Diane Court drive a drunken party-goer home for the night as the highway beckons, the city’s skyline hovering above them.

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Maslin’s dismissal of the film’s soundtrack, which included Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, The Screaming Trees, and other perennial bands from the era (minus the biggest one, Nirvana), highlights how the music matters much more now, 25 years later, than the actual film does in defining the city’s image despite it being known as “Crowe’s grunge movie.” A 25th anniversary re-issue of the soundtrack comes out this year.

If one really wanted to know about the city and its scene in this period, they would do better to consult the film Hype!. Despite interference by Crowe, who feared the film would damage Singles at the box office, Doug Pray’s documentary on the Seattle music scene came out four years later and became, at least according to Vice Journalist Cam Lindsey, “the definitive film on Seattle in the late ’80s and early ’90s.”

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Then there is Mark Yarm’s 2012 oral history of the Seattle scene Everybody Loves Our Town, “basically a flannel-shirted soap opera, where sex, drugs, ego and money (or the lack thereof) wreak such colourful havoc that you wonder how anyone found time to make records, let alone a handful of great ones,” as journalist Dorian Lynskey writes. Arranged in the same fashion as the oral history of punk by Legs McNeill and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me; in Everybody Loves Our Town, Yarm enables the participants to explain the history from their undoubtedly biased viewpoints. In life, there is no history but only histories.

Needless to say, more voices might deepen a history but they do not simplify things. In relation to Seattle being overly earnest, bands in grunge might have been politically sincere, but many let the personal narratives about them range freely. For example, musicians sought to portray themselves as untutored musical wild things, yet more than a few artists had gone to college, played the White House, or were even the progeny of celebrities. Others simply played havoc with the media attention. Locals fed journalists ridiculous stories such when Caroline records representative Megan Jasper famously punked the New York Times by feeding the newspaper fake slang from the scene including “swingin’ on the flippity-flop” (hanging out) and “harsh realm” (bummer) among Arm’s contrived and spurious lingo. Clearly, the media was not discerning. “When you live it and then you see how it’s covered, you’re like, Wow, that’s not accurate, or Oh, the feeling of this was different from how they portrayed it,” a former Sub Pop publicist notes. “It makes you question history.”

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In some ways, grunge captured the city. The scene’s fashion—long unkempt hair, Doc Martens with shorts, flannel shirts, stocking caps—was Seattle through and through. Though many of these bands embraced the general grooves of 1970s classic rock, they also imbued their own music with a certain punk ethos. As New York Times music critic Jon Pareles wrote in the wake of Cornell’s death, Soundgarden and others turned their collective rage and doubt inward, much as the long months of rain force residents to do for much of the year.

Earlier this year, Pearl Jam was inducted into the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame. David Letterman introduced them, the band spoke about the usual things bands talk about when discussing their origin story; Eddie Vedder said a bunch of stuff that at once sounded inspirational and vaguely idiotic. Only a few weeks later, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell committed suicide. Music critic Steven Hyden called Cornell “one of the towering rock figures of that era” and even recorded a 30-minute “emergency podcast” to address Cornell’s demise. The loss of Seattle native Cornell left Vedder as the last remaining frontman from the Grunge era’s big four: Vedder, Layne Staley, Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell.

A quarter of a century later, a city now defined by Microsoft and Amazon remains tethered to arguably one of the most analogue last gasps of traditional rock music. Cities still do serve as incubators for scenes: 1980s Chicago with Ministry and the Wax Trax label,  Washington D.C. with 1980’s predecessors Bad Brains and Minor Threat followed by Fugazi, and Nation of Ulysses on Dischord Records in the 1990s, early aughts Baltimore around Animal Collective and Beachhouse and Brooklyn with Grizzly Bear and TV on the Radio (yes, Animal Collective moved to Williamsburg later, but Charm City was its origin). However, due in part to the fragmentation of popular culture which had reduced the importance of labels, even local ones, the rising costs of gentrification in many urban locals and the increasingly digital, Spotified nature of the music industry, it sometimes feels like Seattle as music mecca might be a vestige of a different era.

Music has changed greatly in 25 years, as has Seattle, yet for better or worse Grunge remains affixed to the city’s identity. Then again, I’m 41, and maybe I’m the one who can’t let go.

 

[1] Rob Sheffield, “Stephen Malkmus on Why Everyone Wants to be a Nineties Kid”, Rolling Stone, January 3, 2014.

[2] Janet Maslin, “Youth, Love and a Place of One’s Own”, New York Times, September 18, 1992.

 

Friday’s ICYMI Roundup

This week on The Metropole, we traveled from prisons in Paris to Buenos Aires and Brazil,  then northwest to Gay Seattle and back eastwards to the Chrysler Village neighborhood of Chicago. We hope you enjoyed reading about poisoners and policing in seventeenth century France, the uniquely local form of LGBTQ activism that developed in twentieth-century Seattle, the award-winning efforts of public historians to engage local residents to explore a neighborhood’s history, and meeting our Member of the Week, Claudio Daflon. Join us next week for the beginning of a multi-part exploration of Seattle in pop-culture!

And in case you missed these urban history items around the web this week:

UHA Board Member Todd Michney in BELT Magazine on what the history of one Cleveland neighborhood can tell us about race and housing inequality.

In Next City, American University Professor Derek Hyra writes on “Black branding” Washington D.C’s Shaw/U Street neighborhood to white millennials

As a part of KCET’s Lost LA series, Laura Dominguez describes the 1967 protest at the Black Cat bar in Los Angeles, which occurred two years before Stonewall.

And let’s end with a timely history joke:

The Chrysler Village History Project: Public History and Community-Building on Chicago’s Southwest Side

This is the inaugural post in a series highlighting urban and suburban public history projects.

The Chrysler Village History Project has its origins in the spring semester of 2013, when a group of history graduate students from Loyola University Chicago nominated the Chrysler Village neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side to the National Register of Historic Places. The nomination was successful, and the Chrysler Village Historic District was officially added to the National Register in early 2014.

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The Chrysler Village Historic District is bounded by S. Long Avenue, S. Lavergne Avenue, W. 63rd Street, and W. 65th

Rachel Boyle, who was part of the group that wrote the nomination, explained the district’s historical significance. “Chrysler Village represents an important link between urban and suburban history,” Boyle said. “It was a distinctly urban housing development created by private-public partnerships during WWII, but stands out in Chicago’s physical landscape with its suburban-esque curvilinear streets. Additionally, the neighborhood’s history contributes to Chicago’s history as one of the only construction projects that took place during WWII.”

In many cases, the focus on properties or districts nominated to the National Register fades with their rejection or successful designation. But Boyle wondered if she could take a different route and find some way to put the research gathered during the nomination phase to work for the Chrysler Village community. “Recurring questions [about the designation] from the community lingered: ‘So what? How does this actually benefit us?,’” Boyle said. “The Chrysler Village History Project began as an experimentation of how to harness the neighborhood’s newly discovered history for the immediate benefit of Chrysler Village residents.”

Maggie McClain recounts Boyle’s next steps. “In the interest of capitalizing on this successful nomination, Rachel Boyle visited my first graduate public history course at Loyola [in fall 2014] seeking ideas for how the neighborhood’s history could be used to build community within Chrysler Village.” The course was History 480: Introduction to Public History Methods and Theory, a requirement for incoming MA and PhD students in Loyola University Chicago’s graduate public history program. Boyle, who was by then a PhD candidate, worked with the course instructor, Patricia Mooney-Melvin, Ph.D., to turn these questions into a half semester-long course project. Students in the course had to develop proposals explaining how they would use the history gathered from the National Register nomination to create some kind of value for the residents of Chrysler Village.

Kelly Schmidt, who was also a student in History 480 that fall, explains what happened at the end of the semester. “I joined Rachel Boyle and a group of students who continued the project outside of the classroom.” Chelsea Denault, who had been part of the group that worked on the original National Register nomination, also joined the project at this stage. “Together, we decided our purpose was to preserve and celebrate the historical significance of the community, but we wanted to do so in a way that was accessible and engaging to everyone in the community,” explains Denault. “I thought it would be worthwhile to take part in a new project that involved the residents and provided them with some service, opportunity, or benefit.”

The Loyola team knew that they needed to establish a strong working relationship with local residents before they could move forward with their ideas. “One of the challenges we faced initially was coming in to a community as outsiders,” said Schmidt. “Fortunately, we met a group of residents who were ‘movers and shakers’ in their community and were willing to commit their time and energy to the project. We wouldn’t have had as much success in building a relationship with these residents without the involvement of the director of the local historical society, who was adept at serving as a bridge, communicating our interest in the community as well as what residents desired to see for their neighborhood. Our resident partners were able to draw upon resources and people in the community we never would have known about, or who we wouldn’t have been able to get on board ourselves… Residents were able to build other stakeholders’ trust in ways we as outsiders could not.”

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The community committee and Loyola team meet in Chrysler Village to discuss project plans.

The Loyola team brought the most viable ideas from the History 480 proposals to a community meeting in Chrysler Village in spring 2015. This meeting resulted in the creation of a community committee that worked with the Loyola team to decide on the parameters of what they called the Chrysler Village History Project. Together, they decided to plan an oral history initiative and community history festival, among other things. They also built a website to house historical materials relating to Chrysler Village’s history and to act as a central hub where anyone interested in the project could learn about it and join the effort as a volunteer.

Maggie McClain coordinated much of the oral history initiative, which involved interviewing current and former residents of the Chrysler Village area, transcribing the interviews, and donating them to the nearby Clearing Branch of the Chicago Public Library. They worked with Chris Manning, Ph.D., instructor of Loyola’s graduate oral history class, to incorporate Chrysler Village interviews and transcriptions into his fall 2015 course syllabus. Students in the course recorded and transcribed interviews with current and former Chrysler Village residents for their final course project. The community history festival, which took place in August 2016, also involved the recording of interviews—one of many festival activities intended to help build connections across the Chrysler Village community.

 

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The Loyola team and volunteers from Loyola’s history graduate program at the community festival in front of a mural painted by a local youth in celebration of the area’s history. Photograph courtesy Barb Ziegler.

Ultimately, Boyle attributes the success of the project to the strength of the partnerships developed between the team and key community stakeholders. “A cohort of passionate residents were committed to making the project work for their community, and proved to be the core reason the project succeeded,” Boyle said. “The constant support of the local alderman’s office also ensured that the necessary resources were available. And when communication between public historians and the local community struggled, the local leader of the historical society quickly emerged as an incredibly valuable translator.”

The Loyola team faced challenges along the way that ultimately yielded powerful lessons about public history practice. Schmidt explains, “Sometimes in our public history training we study the ideal of public history method, but ideals don’t always prove effective in practice. We had been taking formal avenues…to obtain our goals, which was a slow and expensive project. Our community partners showed us how relying on relationship networks was a far more fruitful approach.” Boyle added, “I recall being rightly convinced by local residents that the marketing for the festival should emphasize ‘fun’ rather than ‘history’ and ‘community-building.’ These incidents drove home that public historians have valuable skills to contribute but need to be tempered by the realities of community stakeholders. In short, shared authority can produce better results.”

Denault notes another difficulty faced by the Loyola team: the decision about what to do with the project once the community history festival had taken place. “We struggled a great deal with how to responsibly extricate ourselves from the project and hand off ownership of the project’s future to the community. After meeting with our resident stakeholders and having an honest conversation about their expectations and vision for the future and how to achieve that, we ultimately felt that we had given our community partners enough tools, contacts, skills, and guidance to remove ourselves in order to let them grow and transform the project to continue to meet the community’s needs.”

 

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The Loyola team with Chrysler Village residents and volunteers at the community festival. Photograph courtesy Barb Ziegler.

With the history festival behind them, the Loyola team is hopeful that community members will continue the efforts begun as part of the Chrysler Village History Project. Boyle said that residents from Chrysler Village recently established a block club to “build off the energy from last year’s festival and continue to foster community.” McClain added, “Many of us in this group felt that we have done what we can to engage the community…it will be up to community members to keep that going.”

Hope Shannon is the UHA newsletter editor and a doctoral candidate in United States History and Public History at Loyola University Chicago. Before joining Loyola’s history program, she was the executive director at the South End Historical Society in Boston. She is the author of Legendary Locals of Boston’s South End, a book that draws on oral history testimony to tell a new story of the neighborhood’s history. Hope is a founding member of Loyola University Chicago’s Public History Lab, and she is the chair of the American Association for State and Local History’s Emerging History Professionals Committee.


This post discusses only a small portion of a very large project. Click here for more about the many facets of the Chrysler Village History Project, including a mural, pop-up museum, short articles about the area’s history, and a collection of historic images. The Chrysler Village History Project was also the recipient of the 2017 Student Project Award from the National Council on Public History and a 2017 Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History. They received Honorable Mention for the Alice Smith Prize in Public History from the Midwestern History Association.

The Loyola arm of the Chrysler Village History Project operated within Loyola’s Public History Lab, a group founded by Loyola University Chicago history graduate students in 2013 that aims to create partnerships between history graduate students and organizations and sites of history in the greater Chicago area.

Bios:

Rachel Boyle earned her Ph.D. in United States History and Public History at Loyola University Chicago. In addition to studying gender and violence at the turn of the twentieth century, Boyle brings over seven years of professional experience in every corner of the public history field, from exhibit curation and site interpretation to oral history and historic preservation.

Chelsea Denault is a Ph.D. Candidate in United States History and Public History and Graduate Assistant at the Institute of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago. Her dissertation focuses on the local politics surrounding the construction of the nation’s largest trash incinerator in Detroit, the community and international backlash against its operation, and the complex and problematic financial legacy it left to the city.

Maggie McClain is the Visitor Experience Coordinator at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison, Wisconsin, where she plans and manages family programming and assists with the volunteer program. She is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago.

Kelly Schmidt is a Ph.D. student in United States History and Public History at Loyola University Chicago, where she studies eighteenth and nineteenth century American history, particularly in the area of race, slavery, and abolition. Kelly has pursued her interests in museum work at the Heritage Village Museum, Cincinnati Museum Center, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.