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Suffrage Centennial: Historians, NYS Tourism Officials Clash

In early October, the New York Cultural Heritage Tourism Network under the leadership of Spike Herzig, a member of the Tourism Advisory Council, hosted a meeting in Seneca Falls for the Women’s Suffrage Centennial.

There were about 85 attendees, mainly from the central New York region. The purpose was to meet, learn, and plan for the upcoming centennials of women gaining the right to vote in New York State (2017) and the United States (2020). The event’s agenda was abandoned as members of the history community began to air their frustrations over Empire State Development’s role in heritage tourism.

It started during the lunch break when Professor Emerita Judy Wellman, SUNY Oswego, informed me that she would be mentioning me in her presentation. One of her slides referred the audience to my posts here at The New York History Blog on the Path through History and the Consolidated Funding Application (CFA) for grants through the Regional Economic Development Councils (REDC).

On her slide, Judy referred to the Path project as “virtually defunct” although that’s not the wording she used when speaking. Certainly the History Task Force is defunct. It should be reconstituted, as it would give the history community a voice that is lacking at present at I Love NY and on the Tourism Advisory Council.

The Path through History project does exist as signs, a website, a logo, and a renamed Museum Weekend. When Judy referred to the sad state of the Path project, I glanced to the back of the room where Gavin Landry, Executive Director of Tourism, for Empire State Development, and the organization’s Vice-President for Marketing Initiatives Ross Levi were leaning against the wall. I observed Landry stiffen. Clearly he was not happy – and they were scheduled to speak next.

Landry and Levi’s presentation was similar to the one they had delivered at the most recent Museum Association of New York (MANY) conference. Together they extolled what I Love NY has done and is doing on behalf of tourism in New York State. There was an effort to localize the presentation by referring to a “Familiarization Tour” that brought journalists upstate and included women’s history sites in the Finger Lakes region.

Here was the first problem. Here are the key REDC grants (excluding the OPRHP grants to individual historic sites) for the Finger Lakes region for 2014:

$100,000    Finger Lakes Vacation Region Market Analysis
$375,000    Finger Lakes Tourism Regional Marketing Plan
$ 95,000     Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association
$210,000    Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association
$250,000    Watkins Glen International Modernization Project plus $2 million

At The New York Times Travel Show in January 23, Landry reported that the state produced 180 million bottles of wine last year, second highest in the country. Clearly this is big business. The Finger Lakes wine region was named “Wine Region of the Year” by Wine Enthusiast last October and named one of the top-ten destinations for 2015. So it is easy to understand the emphasis on supporting winery tourism.

The concerns of many members of the Finger Lakes history community who were present however, were that the promotion of history tourism suffers in comparison. While all the REDC award winners are perfectly valid, there was mention of the history sites in any of them.  It might have been helpful if Landry and Levi had investigated what the region was awarded, what has transpired since the grants were awarded, and where the Women’s Suffrage Centennial fit into them, rather than talking about how wonderful I Love NY is.

Let’s consider the items Landry and Levi did mention.

1. I Love NY promotes one-day bus trips from New York City – exactly what is the relevance of this for central NY?

2. I Love NY lists events on the Path through History Weekend – what happens if an historic birthday, death, or anniversary of an event does not occur on that weekend? What happens if a history conference which people might travel to attend, does not occur on that weekend? At present there is no provision in Path through History as it operates to promote events other than on a single weekend. It should also be noted that I Love NY has picked Father’s Day as the weekend for the renamed Museum Weekend. Think of the irony of the situation. Two men from NYS telling people at the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Conference that if they choose to have an event on Father’s Day weekend, I Love NY will list it! Isn’t that helpful! I am not making this stuff up.

As Landry and Levi spoke about all the wonderful things I Love NY has done, there was a breaking point. Landry spoke about his extended efforts to promote tourism in China. Can you imagine China promoting Civil Rights sites in America?

Finally, Tracy Penn Sweet, Program Director of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Project in New York City, raised her hand asked: “Can I interrupt your canned presentation? What are you doing for suffrage?”

Let historians record that this was the moment when I Love NY came face to face with the grassroots history community. A hush enveloped the audience. The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

After only a moment that seemed an eternity, Landry replied, “I am going to continue with my presentation”, and he did. But the disconnect between I Love NY’s canned presentation and the needs of the grassroots history community had been exposed. The conflict carried into the question and answer session that followed.

Martha Robertson from the Friends of Women’s Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls (and also a Tompkins County legislator) said there was a need to be proactive.  Susan Fuller pointed out that many history organizations are too small for the state’s grant funding process.  Another person also made the point of the plight of small organizations, of the need to make heritage tourism a priority, and the need to meet with the local tourism professionals.

Janet Clerkin, Oswego County Tourism, said that I Love NY advertising had increased tourism to Oswego. She was referring to the Governor Cuomo’s award of $1 million in 2012 at the birth of the Path through History project. Oswego used its share for tourism marketing.

Susan Zimet of 2020: Project Women passionately exclaimed that with a centennial, now is the time to act otherwise we have to wait a century!

Quite true. While Lauren Kushnick of the New York Council for the Humanities gave a presentation on the programs that organization had to offer, I Love NY gave a mismatched presentation that was of little use to this or any history community.

When Gavin Landry left at the end of the presentation, I thought I detected steam coming from his ears. Ross Levi fielded some questions in private in the hallway outside.

So where to we go from here?

1. The Path through History Task Force needs to be re-instituted so the history community has a voice.

2. I Love NY needs to better prepare itself for meetings with the grassroots history community.

3. The Women’s Suffrage Centennial Conference needs to develop an agenda of action items and necessary funding, and then lobby legislators in March or April.

My prediction has been that the Women’s Suffrage Centennial would not suffer the same fate as the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War, the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and the 100th anniversary of World War I.

It’s one thing for the Governor and State Legislators to ignore mostly upstate military history, but it’s quite another to more widely antagonize women both upstate and downstate by ignoring such important history.

This means those interested in the Women’s Suffrage Centennial have an opportunity to take a leadership role on behalf of the entire history community. That’s assuming they lobby on the larger community’s behalf, rather than just the immediate needs of the Centennial.

Now that those interested in the Women’s Suffrage Centennial have seen first hand the inadequacies of the Path through History, and realizes that I Love NY has only limited value in promoting its programs, perhaps they will take up the mantle on behalf of the entire history community and get Governor Cuomo’s attention.


10 thoughts on “Suffrage Centennial: Historians, NYS Tourism Officials Clash

  1. Well said Peter! It is up to us, the history community, the people interested in the Suffrage Centennial, to make our voices heard. We must make the commemoration successful! We must continue to join forces. All of the small museums, historic sites, & municipal historians need to work together locally. They need to contact the New York Cultural Heritage Tourism Network. We need more folks to join our Suffrage Centennial group so that we can accomplish all we have earmarked to do.

  2. Peter your well written summary would do well sent state-wide to all newspapers, starting with the NY Times and all the way to the weekly Columbia Paper in Columbia County. Once alerted, citizens can contact elected representatives to get support rolling for the Women’s Suffrage Centennial. School districts need to step up here too. The closest my students and I got to the Lincoln Funeral Train events last year was to be asked by an administrator if I was interested in participating in some way. There was no follow up to my Yes. My 7th grade students were disappointed to say the least. We can do better for the Women’s Centennial!

  3. I too was interested in the Lincoln Funeral Train. All I got from the web site was a request for donations. I too was disappointed. My maternal grandmother, Harriet Connor Brown lived the later years of her life in western New York and had been active in the Suffrage movement. I have visited Seneca Fall several times. It would be a crime not to mark this major milestone in our history. Let’s get something done while there is still time.

  4. I too think that NYS is way behind in promoting history. What can possibly get done when there is continual in-fighting. AND If the Queen bees don’t have any worker bees, there really won’t be any progress.
    I wonder when we will get a State Historian again, I believe I missed the big headlines about filling the slot. There’s no big money or political votes in the field of history.
    I have become very disenchanted with NYS Council of Humanities since they canned the most wonderful Speakers program. So I’m not banking on them for their suffrage ideas. They are geared towards NYC, not little rural towns.
    I just started to gather Suffrage information for Schoharie County and sadly there is very little out there. The front page of a local paper on November 1917 headlined that the county voted “Dry” and underneath was that women got the vote. So, if there wasn’t much in the papers 100 years ago in rural areas, it’s not going to be available to find now.
    My point here is that all the in-house jockying for position and promoting events to-be is useless if there is no boots-on-the-ground that know what information is really available

    1. Hi Karen,

      Thanks so much for your feedback about the Council and the well loved “Speakers in the Humanities” program. Not sure if you know, but the “Public Scholars” program is an updated version of Speakers. The key difference are the topics and scholars will change every 2 years to keep the program current and responsive to the issues affecting NYers today. If you know of any groups that might want to host this program, feel free to put them in touch with me.

      To your other point, we’re always looking to make new inroads in rural communities. Last month, we went to Lake Placid, Ogdensburg and Plattsburgh to meet personally with Representative Addie Russell and program partners to strengthen our connections in the North Country. Each year we award more than half of our grants and programs to organizations in Upstate New York, but we’d love to build upon that. If you know of groups in rural areas of the state, please introduce us- we’d love to get to know the meaningful work they’re doing.

      Thanks for being such a passionate advocate and please free to email me at or call me at 212-233-1131 anytime.
      -Lauren Kushnick, Director of Grants & Partnerships, New York Council for the Humanities

  5. Great Post Peter and Keep fioghting to have the State government promote the State’s very rich history.

    One very important anniversary which is coming up in 2017 is the commencement of the construction of the Erie Canal, which began at Rome New York on July 4, 1817. With all due respect to the suffrage centennial, the constuction of the Erie Canal was one of the most important events in
    New York State’s hsitory. Where is the commoison to celebrate its Bicentennial?

    James S. Kaplan
    Presidenti, Lower Manhattan Historical Society

    1. Jim,

      Thanks but the Canal celebration planning is underway. The difference is the canal still functions and there are a variety of federal, state, and private organizations involved in its operation and heritage. There are regular canal conferences and there will be a world canal conference in New York in 2017 in honor of the bicentennial of the start of the construction. In fact, I have been contacted by the Oneida County Historical Society to assist in planning for the anniversary since it also is the 240th of the Battle of Oriskany, a battle dear to your own heart. Of course, the odds are most of the attention will be devoted to upstate celebration even though it impacted New York City as well.

  6. Here at the New York Council for the Humanities we have been following this conversation with interest, and have been working with the NYS Legislature to enact a bill to set up a Commission for the celebration of the centennial women’s suffrage in our state. We’re opening up a communications campaign to the Governor, whose turn it is to sign the bill. If you’d like, please sign the petition on or see our website for the different ways you can contact his office:

    –Sara Ogger, Executive Director, New York Council for the Humanities

  7. I’m glad to know Tompkins County legislator Martha Robertson who spoke up was there. I hope you are right about women making enough trouble that the shell of I Love NY can be cracked open. I’m sure Judy Wellman will be an important person in that process.

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