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The State of NY History: The Westchester Experience

January is the traditional time for looking forward and backwards according to the two-faced Roman god Janus. In that spirit, I wish to start 2013 with a look back on some developments in local and state history by focusing on Westchester County both because I live there and because I happen to go through an old folder of Westchester material as I was cleaning up.

1999 seems to have been a good year for local history in the county. An article dated January 31 was entitled “Historical Societies See Role as Keepers of Culture for Future.” Certainly sounds promising. Elizabeth Fuller, librarian at the Westchester County Historical Society is quoted as saying, “In the past, historical societies were run by old ladies who used to just sit in their lovely little [historic] houses and just wait for somebody to knock on the door.” Sound familiar? Was that ever true in your community? Is it now?

The article went on to highlight the disparate fates of local historical societies. Wealthy communities like Rye and Scarsdale raised large sums of monies privately through local fund drives and about 4,500-5,000 school kids visited their historic sites annually. By contrast Eastchester struggled and Mount Vernon had no historical society (although the National Park Service site St. Paul’s Church is located there and is quite active). Given a probable change in school visits, the situation in Scarsdale may be less promising now than it was in 1999. The general point is quite clear. Historical societies are very much a reflection of their community’s interest in their own history (and their wealth). Speaking from personal experience, one can’t help but be impressed with the active community involvement in such Hudson River communities of Hastings-on Hudson, Irvington, and Dobbs Ferry,  where being involved is a civic virtue as joining the Elks or the Masons once was.

Moving forward, on April 9 a conference entitled “Crabgrass 2000: Exploring Westchester’s Archives and History” was held to launch the Institute for Westchester and Local History at Purchase College. I attended that conference which turns out to have been somewhat like the county history conferences which I have been touting (to no avail). The county executive welcomed the attendees. The plenary address was given by renowned local history advocate Ken Jackson (who is now on the executive board of the Path through History project). The host from Purchase College was Lisa Keller, a former student of Jackson’s, who is also on that state committee. One of the academic speakers was Edythe Ann Quinn, Hartwick College, who spoke recently at the Lower Hudson Council for the Social Studies annual conference at my request about Westchester African-Americans who had participated in the Civil War.

There was a teacher component as well. Gail Guttman, an elementary school teacher in New Rochelle, pursuing her doctorate in history at Columbia, focused on desegregation in New York City.  Now that New Rochelle is celebrating its 325th anniversary, it will be interesting to see what if any of her work is part of the celebration and what the New Rochelle history community does. Larry Spruill, Mount Vernon CSD, with whom I worked on a State Archives and Records Administration grant, spoke on the need for staff development programs and the use of local primary source documents in the classroom as part of the assessments. These themes came up in other presentations and cover some of the very same issues which are being debated today.

The big article in the local newspaper the next day mentioned some important points that my limited note-taking had missed. Consider this quotation from the article and think about the ongoing debate now over the revised NYS social studies curriculum including the place of local history: “Speakers said there were exciting stories that teachers and local historians could use in their own communities as a bridge to the larger issues in American history.”

Exactly right. The Civil War didn’t only take place in Gettysburg and at Tara, it took place in New York, too. In fact every time period, topic, and issue addressed under the NYSED standards can be found in our backyards if only we looked, and the curriculum (read testing) encouraged it. Roger Panetta, then of Marymount, now Fordham, commented that the notion of place and local history were often slighted in the academic world. Has that changed?

According to the article approximately 150 people were in attendance at this kickoff event for the Institute for Westchester and Local History, at Purchase College. That is a large turnout and bode well for the its future. Purchase still does offer college credit for internships in local history organizations and it would be interesting to know how many colleges in the state do that and offer programs in local and state history. There are some courses in local history still being offered at Purchase according to its website:

History and Its Publics
HIS 3023 / 4 credits / Special topic (offered irregularly)
What is the role of history in a community, and how does the public understand it? This course examines how collective memory is created, interpreted, and presented in different media, venues, and other forms of public communication. In addition to reading theoretical work and exhibit pamphlets, students participate in group and individual projects, critique Web sites, and design hypothetical exhibits.

Local History Workshop
HIS 3721 / 4 credits / Special topic (offered irregularly)
Combines classroom learning with practical experience. Lectures, discussions, and reading in urban, regional, and local history alternate with library and on-site archival education. Students spend half the semester on campus and half the semester at the Westchester County Archives.

The “offered irregularly” suggests that these courses are not part of a thriving ongoing program, despite these being courses which could be offered to high school seniors throughout the county. Personally, I strongly recommend the resurrection of this Institute, of similar ones being established statewide, and of reaching out to high schools. This format provides an excellent venue for bringing together students, professors, history organizations, municipal historians, and k-12 schools.

But wait, 1999 wasn’t yet over in Westchester local history. On November 6, the Hudson River Museum in partnership with the Westchester County Historical Society held a one-day symposium. This event with its $50 registration fee was more like a NYSHA conference with a local focus and did not address education. The conference was entitled “Pathways to Preservation: Six Case Studies in Westchester County.” Does anything in that title ring a bell? Pathways perhaps? Probably every county in the state could have an annual conference on this topic alone.

The year still wasn’t over. On December 3 at Mercy College, the conference “Landmark Celebrations: Linking Neighborhoods and Their History,” was held by the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s Documentary Heritage Program in conjunction with the Westchester County Historical Society and the Westchester Library System. Bronxville, Katonah, and New Rochelle presented case studies on what the local historical societies and municipal historian were doing.

For local history in the county this conference marked the end of the year, the decade, the century, and the millennium. Since then its as if local history went over the cliff into the abyss. My county history conference file is blank. A decade of silence followed. A county-wide void ensued. (Not including the Lower Hudson Conference/Greater Hudson Heritage Network events which have been held in Westchester).

I’ll close with an event not from 1999, but from the new millennium – September 22, 2002. The event was the grand opening of the Bear Mountain Bridge Historic Tollhouse and Visitor Center. According to the later newspaper report there were about 150 people in attendance. That may have been partly due to then Governor George Pataki being the main speaker. He was from the area, grew up in Peekskill, and then lived in Garrison. According to my notes he said “We let the past disappear,” which he opposed. He called for teaching our children about the magnificence of the history of the Hudson Valley. Laura Lee Keating, Cortlandt Town historian who has spent numerous hours staffing the tollhouse since it reopened, said preservation of old buildings was one of the best ways to connect people with the past.

So what have we learned from this trip down memory lane, besides the more things change the more they stay the same?

1. Communities need to realize the importance of local history in defining the identity of the community in which they live.

2. The academic community and the NYSED need to realize that local history provides a bridge or link to national and global history.

3. The NYSED and school districts need to realize the importance of a sense of place, to start at the very beginning, it is a very good place to start, and that for students the best place to start is with one’s own community.

4. Colleges should offer programs to high school seniors, undergraduates, and graduates on local history which includes working with the local history organizations.

5. Local history organizations and municipal historians need to be more than the proverbial little old lady standing guard lest any outsider violate her documents and possessions.

6. The Path through History project provides another opportunity to make local and state history a viable and integral part of the communities of the state as long as it doesn’t get bogged down in signs and websites as if they are ends in and of themselves.

7. There is no substitute for good leadership.

8. We remember together or we die alone.

Its hard to promote our communities as a destination point if we don’t even know our own community’s history and can’t collaborate with our neighbors to create something larger than ourselves.

The Hudson Valley region of the Path through History project will be meeting January 25 in Hyde Park. It will be interesting to see how Westchester and the other counties in the region are represented and what is accomplished.

Peter Feinman founder and president of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education, a non-profit organization which provides enrichment programs for schools, professional development program for teachers, public programs including leading Historyhostels and Teacherhostels to the historic sites in the state, promotes county history conferences, the development of Paths through History, and a Common Core Curriculum that includes local and state history.