Queen Elizabeth dominated the news for several days if not longer. For a brief moment, the world saw Great Britain at its best. We saw its palaces, churches, and chapels. We watched its processions. We witnessed its people stand patiently in astonishingly long lines for hours on end for their turn to glimpse and pay their respects to their Queen. Truly it was an inspiring series of days that highlighted the good with which people are capable. Perhaps once could say it was Great Britain’s finest hour since its last finest hour in far more troubling times.
Simultaneously, I was attending two history conferences in New York State with sessions devoted to the American Revolution 250th. The first was in Buffalo where the annual national conference of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) was held partially in person with a separate on-line conference to follow. The second was the annual state conference of the Association of the Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS) held this year in Kingston.
During the American Revolution, Kingston was a settlement burned by the British as part of the ill-fated campaign of John Burgoyne to sever the states. At that time, Buffalo was located beyond the range of American colonial settlement. The Seneca who lived there were allies of the British even to the point of fighting their fellow Haudenosaunee Oneida who were America’s first ally. As part of the conference, I signed up for an optional tour of the OnÖhsagwË De’ Cultural Center better known in English after the English name of the famed Roman orator.
The unexpected juxtaposition of these events provided an opportunity to think historically and politically about them.
AMERICAN REVOLUTION 250TH
Obviously during the American Revolution, the British were our enemy. Even as we honored the life of the British Queen at her death, we remember that here in New York, an iconic symbol of the American Revolution is the toppling of the recently-installed statue of King George III at the Battery in lower Manhattan.
We also recall the prison ships offshore in the Hudson River where arguably more Americans died at the hands of the British than did on the field of battle.
We remember the city where we were meeting as a city the British had burned. The burning of this one-time capital of New York State was a preview to the burning of the national capital in the next round of conflict between the two countries.
We remember that for seven years, the British occupied the city of New York. They continued to do so throughout the war even past the fighting at Yorktown. The reason George Washington spent more time during the American Revolution in New York than in any other state was precisely because of his fear that the still-present British might try something. We should remember Benedict Arnold in that context.
And finally we remember when at last after seven years, the British evacuated the city on November 25, 1783. Loyalists including Africans who had fought on behalf of the British left for Canada. The day would be become a holiday enthusiastically celebrated in New York City into the 20th century.
Eventually, of course, the United States and the United Kingdom became friends and allies. Their culture became intertwined with our culture. From Sherlock Holmes to 007 to the Beatles to Middle Earth to Harry Potter, it often became difficult to determine where one culture began and the other ended. (Americans would not wait patiently for hours on end without a squabble for anything yet alone a funeral procession.)
One driving force in this new-found friendship was the sharing of a common enemy – Germany in World War I, Nazi Germany in World War II, and the Soviet Union in World War III, the Cold War. In this face of common enemies that threatened us, the bloody differences of the American Revolution and the War of 1812 become secondary, part of the past we could move beyond. Now the same issue faces the members of the British Empire now Commonwealth.
THE QUEEN IS DEAD: WHY SHOULD I MOURN?
In the United States, Frederick Douglass famously asked what the Declaration of Independence should mean to him. Yet despite the horrors of slavery in the United States, he never abandoned his American identity. A similar situation arises now for individuals and countries which once were part of the British Empire but are no more or which have the British monarchy as the nominal head of state but contemplate leaving.
Prince Charles recently experienced some of this feelings in his own visits to the lands/islands of the British Empire. Undoubtedly, once the hoopla of the Queen Elisabeth funeral fades, as King Charles III, he will have to face the new world order within the lands once ruled by Great Britain. He will have to deal with the human cost of imperial rule. The numbers vary tremendously from the 18th-century conflict with the United States and the 19th and 20th century conflicts with the global colonies. The differences in firepower from the former to the latter and between the British and their foes led to the deaths of far more people than in our American Revolution.
Similarly, there was a vast difference in the economic relationships. Back in the 18th century, the United States had little to plunder in comparison with other parts of the Empire especially the sugar from the Caribbean. The opportunity for exploitation was limited.
So today when individuals and countries challenge the British legacy, they have ample grounds to do so. We are at the beginning of a process that may or may not end in healing. As king, there are limits to what Charles III can do. Even beyond his institutional power, he lacks the international appeal of his children and their spouses. Nonetheless, collectively they have an opportunity to re-cast the relationship between the countries of the former British Empire. Whether they will try and whether they will succeed if they do try remains to be seen.
As the United States entered the global arena, it found it had shared interests with the Mother Country. Those interests continued to develop and strengthen over the course of the 20th century. It reached the point that one took for granted that the American President would attend the funeral for the Queen whose country fought us twice.
A new enemy may bring together the countries of the British Empire in ways no one anticipated. Pakistan was part of the Crown Jewel of the Empire, the Indian subcontinent that caused the Suez Canal to be built. Unfortunately, Pakistan has been in the news for all the wrongs reasons in recent weeks as well. The unimaginable damage and destruction from flooding makes sheer survival the number one challenge for country. Other parts of the former British Empire especially islands similarly are facing catastrophes on an unprecedented scale.
Truly it may be said in a time of climate change, we are all in this together. While not everyone has heard and absorbed the message, the high temperatures, droughts, and floods make it increasingly necessary for people both to live in the real world and to work together. Just as We the People learned to live with and become partners with our former adversary, so too it will become necessary for the countries of the former British Empire to learn to work together. I predict that when we celebrate the declaration of our independence from Great Britain, the latter will participate in the ceremony just as the President of the United States did in the funeral of Queen Elizabeth. One hopes that in the face of this new global threat, the same will be true for the lands Britain ruled and the country that ruled them.
This review of the state of the American Revolution 250th continues with a free conference held by the David Center for the American Revolution at the American Philosophical Society.
The conference aims to be unlike a traditional scholarly conference. Instead of scholars presenting scholarly papers to a scholarly audience, we hope to bring together public intellectuals, scholars, leaders of cultural organizations and government agencies, and other thought leaders who have an interest in the Revolution and its commemoration in 2026. We plan to draw a large in-person and online audience that represents this cross-section of individuals along with members of the public and educators. Our hope is that by bringing this diverse group of people together, attendees may be able to network with others and perhaps lay the foundation for collaborations that will bear fruit in 2026.
In the session entitled “Slavery, Race & Revolution” the following paper was presented with printed copies available to the registrants.
“’Cruel war against human nature itself’: Understanding the American Revolution’s Impact on Slavery within the Context of Imperial Governance” by Holly Brewer (University of Maryland)
The importance of this paper is the effort to place the American Revolution within the context of the British imperial system. Britain had 40 colonies and slavery was legal in all of them [Note – other presenters used other numbers.] The slave population reached 80% in some cases. Yet as we know, only 13 colonies rebelled.
Brewer examined the legal policies regarding slavery throughout the empire. She referenced a project which now can be accessed at Slavery, Law & Power.
SLP (Slavery, Law, and Power) is a project dedicated to bringing the many disparate sources that help to explain the long history of slavery and its connection to struggles over power in early America, particularly in the colonies that would become the United States. Going back to the early English Empire, this project traces the rise of the slave trade along with the parallel struggles between monarchical power and early democratic institutions and ideals. We are creating a curated set of documents that help researchers and students to understand the background to the fierce struggles over both slavery and power during the American Revolution, when questions of monarchical power, consent to government, and hereditary slavery were all fiercely debated. After America separated from Britain, the United States was still deeply influenced by this long history, especially up to the Civil War. The colonial legacies of these debates continued to affect the course of politics, law, and justice in American society as a whole.
The following day the session on “Contesting Power & Authority in the Age of Revolutions” again with printed copies available to the registrants included:
“Sigenauk’s War of Independence: New Indian Leadership and the Struggle for Autonomy in the Revolutionary Borderlands” by John Nelson (Texas Tech University)
Sigenauk is probably not a name familiar to most students of the American Revolution. One reason is because of the variations in his name in the French, Spanish, British, and American sources. His very inclusion in multiple archives attests the multiple peoples both Indian and European with whom he came in contact both peacefully and violently. He challenged British authority in the Great Lakes region and dealt with factions among his own people. He reminds us of the geographical range of the American Revolution beyond the eastern coastal area, a theme to which other presenters would return. Whereas the previous paper sought to place the American Revolution within the context of the global British Empire, this one situates it among the range of peoples present in the interior of the continent and of the need to know their names, that is, not make blanket stereotypical assumptions about the positions of two-dimensional beings but to recognize that individuals and peoples need to understood in their own right.
The final paper I saw that day was
“the disagreeable situation in between the Civil in the Military’: Prisoners of War and Local Governance in the American Revolution” by Susan Brynne Long (University of Delaware).
This paper focused on one of the more disagreeable aspects of war, in this case, the prisoners of war. The traditional focus on battles often obscures what happens afterwards. Both sides took captives. This paper was not about the infamous prison ships in New York harbor that caused more deaths than the battles but on the reverse, the prisoners held by the Americans. The people captured by the Americans tended to be scattered among small isolated communities which acted on their own or under conflicting authorities.
One particular area of interest to me not in this presentation is for the prisoners who chose to remain here after the war. I am referring to the Hessians held in ethnically-German areas in Pennsylvania. They intermarried, became patriotic Americans, and created descendants with conflicting stories to tell about their ancestors being on the wrong side on the birth story of the country they now call home.
Opening Keynote: Meanings of Independence
This one hour and 12 minute session can be viewed by clicking here. The participants included:
Scott Stephenson (President and CEO, Museum of the American Revolution)
Anthea Hartig (Elizabeth MacMillan Director, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)
Christy Coleman (Executive Director, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation)
Moderator: Patrick Spero (Librarian and Director, Library & Museum of the American Philosophical Society)
The questions posed by the moderators to the panelists included:
When you think of the Declaration of Independence what one word comes to mind?
One answer by Anthea Hartig that stood out for me was considering the meaning to people outside the United States. I would add that when we think of the image of the country as a city on a hill that eyes of the world are on, the words Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1776 never occurred to John Winthrop in 1630 when he wrote them. Like thinking of the many colonies of Britain which did not revolt, we would be remiss in our attempt to understand the Declaration if we ignore its impact on the rest of the world as well as to generations to come in the United States.
She also noted the concerns raised by teachers vising the National Museum of American History over what they are allowed to teach now given state regulations.
What does success for 2026 look like?
Hartig drawing on her inner Benjamin Franklin replied a democracy if you can keep it. In this regard the 250th faces a challenge the Centennial and Bicentennial did not. This anniversary is occurring as our latest civil war threatens to tear the country apart.
As Christy Coleman said in response to a question from the audience, the framers did not expect their creation to last for 250 years. In response to the moderator question, she mentioned Spanish and Sephardic Jews as people who have been let out of the narrative. She added that there is nothing wrong with talking pride in what the founders accomplished while simultaneously recognizing not to stop there. In her answer to the previous question she noted the wonderful concepts at our founding and referred to the American experience as a journey meaning not a fixed point in time.
The next day began with a panel on Experiences of Revolution with:
Adrienne Whaley (Director of Education and Community Engagement, Museum of the American Revolution)
Lauren Duval (The University of Oklahoma)
Michael Galban (Curator for the Seneca Art & Culture Center at Ganondagan State Historic Site) [unable to attend]
Moderator: Robert Parkinson (SUNY Binghamton)
Again, I am not recapping the entire session but highlighting some ideas that stood out to me.
Richter observed that there were multiple wars of independence. By this he meant that besides our American Revolution there were multiple Indian nations also seeking independence from European rule. Other presenters expressed the same idea.
Whaley brought up the importance of telling stories through individuals. She returned to that theme in the Q&A by commenting that teachers on the ground are hungry for these stories as are their students. She said our stories are civics meaning they touch on ideals as well as personal lives. Since we are a storytelling species, it seems logical to me that one of the most effective ways to reach the public will be through stories about individuals. People relate to stories.
The Q&A raised some pertinent questions:
1. Where is military history? – this theme has been raised before in my blogs and will be again so I am just noting that it was asked for now.
2. What resources will be available in 2026? – this topic was the subject of a previous blog on the state of the National Commission. It will be addressed in a forthcoming blog on a report just issued by the AASLH on the state of the 250th.
Whaley responded with the critical point of the challenge to smaller organizations that do not have the resources to get their message out. I have mentioned this concern several times as well. I will return to it in a blog on a national history organization census just completed by AASLH. It highlights the number of small volunteer history organizations throughout the country.
3. A community college teacher commented that she was shocked at what must be happening at the k-12 level given the knowledge of her students.
The next session was War and the Revolution. The panelists were:
David Waldstreicher (The Graduate Center, CUNY)
Rebecca Brannon (James Madison University)
Kieran O’Keefe (George Washington University)
Moderator: Brendan McConville (Boston University)
The one hour and thirteen minute session can be viewed here.
There are multiple points of interest to recount from this session.
1. the participants in the American Revolution referred to it as a civil war.
2. the local fighting was often out of control of the national armies.
3. the question of the impact of photographs [the internet, disinformation] was asked if that technology had existed [as it did during the Civil War].
4. the shock of the French fleet appearing in New England as our allies to people who remembered the French and Indian War.
5. the issue of how do we (northerners) include the South in the story?
This last item is one of particular interest to me. Typically people refer to marginalized peoples in the national narrative as told by white men. What this simplified vision ignores was that in the 19th century these white men tended to be from Massachusetts — does the word “Harvard” ring a bell — so there were plenty of white men left out of or minimized in the “Harvard” version of the American Revolution.
The next session was The Revolution Beyond its Borders with panelists:
Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy (Saunders Director, Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello)
Kathleen DuVal (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)
Ashli White (University of Miami)
Moderator: Eliga Gould (University of New Hampshire.
The one hour and five minute session can be viewed here.
Duval noted that boundaries were not clear then. 13 was not yet a magic number and there was no sea-to-shining-sea country. The frequently-overlooked Spain had increased its colonial holdings and defeated the British in battles such as at Mobile and Pensacola. She, too, observed that multiple wars of independence were occurring including among competing Indian nations. The maps that show only a sliver of the continent in 1783 are deceptive.
Duval presented other information that is directly relevant. Spain and the Indians now had a joint enemy – the need to stop the “plague of locusts.” She said the Cherokee national leaders also wanted to be recognized as a nation. They were aware of the actions taken by the United States. She quoted Onondaga Clear Sky in 1794:
… we are of the same opinion with the people of the Unite States. You call yourselves free and independent. We as the ancient inhabitants of this country and the sovereigns of tis soil say we are equally as free as you or any nation of nations under the sun.
One could add that recent Supreme Court decisions attest the continued issue of authority and the tribal nations. As a reminder the centennial of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 provides a needed opportunity to revisit the questions of sovereignty (What Are You Doing for the Indian Citizenship Act (1924) Centennial? August 6, 2021). Personally, I would welcome a conference on this topic.
O’Shaughnessy commented on the academic blind spot to doing military history. In so doing, we ignore the significance of a counter-insurgency. One implication of his observation is that if we recognized our own origins in a successful counter-insurgency we would be more likely to recognize its effective potential elsewhere today. Along those lines he compared the failure of the people who told LBJ and King George III that their respective wars were being lost: these leaders only heard what they wanted to hear.
Both O’Shaughnessy and White commented on role of the Caribbean. Why didn’t they rebel too? What about the future revolutions in France and Haiti? One might add the revolt in Jamaica. Another consideration is not just the Loyalists who evacuated New York on November 25, 1783, for Canada, but the southern evacuations to the Caribbean. While we focus on the settlers from England in the 1600s we tend to overlook the settlers from Barbados to the Carolinas and that the Caribbean was their homeland.
At this point, I raised a question in the Chat function about the presenters’ use of the term “America” to mean the United States. Don’t scholars from Central America and South America also use the same word without limiting the meaning to the United States? That led to additional comments in the Chat about when “America” was first used to refer solely to the United States. One registrant referred to a speech in the Nova Scotia Gazette published on May 2, 1775 on this usage. Another chimed in that is interesting that Canadians used the term this early. Another traced the reproduction of the speech back to a London newspaper.
The next-to-last session of the conference was education oriented: Commemorations and Classrooms. The panelists were:
Cindy MacLeod (Superintendent, Independence National Historical Park)
Shaquita Smith (Social Studies Curriculum Specialist, School District of Philadelphia)
Ismael Jimenez (Social Studies Curriculum Specialist, School District of Philadelphia)
Robert Allison (Revolution 250/Suffolk University)
Moderator: Kyle Roberts (Associate Director of Library & Museum Programming, American Philosophical Society)
The one hour and seven minute session can be viewed here.
MacLeod observed that people think history is names, dates, and places. I note this observation is frequently made. On the one hand, it contributes to the high trust people have in museums and organizations presumed to present names, dates, and places. On the other hand, it can be boring too. MacLeod alluded to this perception with her call to make history come alive. As just noted we are a story-telling species hungry for stories about individuals. Does the name Hamilton ring a bell?
Smith put a physical dimension to history. Don’t just put textbooks in front of students. Visit museums. See artifacts. I would add visit the actual sites which was the basic theme of IHARE’s Teacherhostels/Historyhostels.
Smith deplored the current battle with the internet. Students go online first. They do not know how to fact check. They do not know how to analyze multiple sources. We are not winning the battle.
Jimenez reiterated the point: to students history is facts and dates. He added the many Americans could not pass the citizenship test which is an indictment of our education system. His students are shocked that the BOSTON MASSACRE was five deaths – more than that can occur at a high school [or July 4 parade] today! His Philadelphia students do not know why the local professional basketball team is named the 76ers. He sees America as unraveling and the need for a new narrative. He states we are not winning the conversation with older adults on history research. Given the emphasis by the national commissions on celebrating the 250th in Philadelphia mentioned in previous blogs, these comments by a Philadelphia teacher on the disconnect between his students and the American Revolution are disturbing.
Allison was just as disturbing. History is an inquiry into the past but we are not doing a good job of informing the public. He pointed out that 8th grade may be the last time students learn about American history in a school environment. He does not say so, but what exactly are the thinking skills in an 8th grader anyway? The maturation process continues to age 25 on average but the cutoff for history classes requiring thinking is at age 13!
In the Q&A, some of the comments were:
1. what do we do when we are not a wealthy history museum?
2. scholarship is not trickling down
3. getting a state commission passed for the 250th is difficult and there are grudges in the state history community (Jonathan Lane, Massachusetts)
4. historians do not necessarily know how to talk to people (meaning non-academics).
Closing Keynote: Reflections on the Past; Ideas for the Future
Alan Taylor (University of Virginia)
Mary Beth Norton (Cornell University)
Moderator: Serena Zabin (Carleton College)
The one hour fifteen minutes session can be viewed here. Each panelist spoke separately followed by a Q&A.
Norton recalled that on her first visit to the Yorktown battlefield it was a Civil War site. Now it has become an American Revolution one. She also recalled her own pioneering work on women in the American Revolution and noted that the segregated study of women exists. As for her own students at Cornell, they would have been Loyalists!
Taylor joined the chorus of scholars realizing that we are not connecting that well with the general public. He said this was a fraught moment for the Republic. Historians need to contribute positively to overcoming the danger. He said the assumption that the next generation of Americans could be shaped through government mandates has created a burden for teachers. He, too, noted that the national myth is unraveling and he didn’t know what to do. Most distressing, don’t you think to hear this from a leading American historian?
In response to the question of the moderator, Taylor elaborated on his presentation above. He said scholars need to listen and not just tell people which is a turnoff. The other side doesn’t expect us to listen to them since to them we are elitists. Compromise was not possible. Purism has become the goal … and it can get worse.
One question from the audience was a statement: if you wanted to have the South in the Union then the United States had to have slavery, an issue noted in a previous session (above).
That statement about slavery is historically accurate but unacceptable to many people today. As we get closer and closer to 2026, more and more people will say the Great Compromise that made the Constitution possible should have been rejected – the compromise with slavery should not have been accepted. We should have been “pure.” It would have been better if the country had failed and divided into its constituent parts. Then there would have been no Civil War since the Union and the Confederacy already would have existed. Then the third civil war would not be fought today since the red and blue states already would have been divided into the Blue and Grey countries.
So far at least, all the planning for the 250th, however meager it may be, is still based on our being a single country in 2026.
On July 1, the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) issued guidelines for the Semiquincentennial. These guidelines are not an official document as AASLH is not a government entity. However it does work closely with the Federal Commission. Also it is a national organization so it has its finger on the pulse of what is going on with state and local museums throughout the country.
As part of the release of the guidelines, John Dichtl, president and CEO, AASLH, conducted a virtual program with three contributors to the work of the organization:
Terry Brown, America 250 Foundation / National Park Service
Aimee Newell, Museum of the American Revolution / AASLH Small Museums Committee
Sara Cureton, Executive Director, New Jersey Historic Commission.
The session was more of a conversation than a workshop and should be considered a first step in a multi-year journey. I participated in the program and have download and read the guidelines. This blog combines information from both.
A Vision for the Semiquincentennial by John Dichtl
“(W)e have often struggled to live up to the lofty ideals expressed in our founding documents.”
For me, these words from the opening sentence of the guidelines are critical to the vision of the 250th. The Founding Fathers considered their creation to be an experiment. They knew the documents they wrote were not the final word. The Fifth Article (not to be confused with the Fifth Amendment) defined the Constitution as an open ended document. The Founders then immediately exercised their rights under that Article to pass ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights. They saw the creation of the country as the start of a journey and not something constituted in stone. We will be better served as country during the Semiquincentennial if we keep reminding ourselves that we are part of an ongoing journey and experiment rather than to limit ourselves to simpleminded judgmental pronouncements about people from 250 years ago. Our challenge is to continue the journey started on July 4, 1776.
Unfortunately Dichtl then limits the 250th in a way that will prove a challenge to history museums and organizations. He sets a target date of 2026, five years from now. The speakers did the same in the online session. The guideline points to July 4, 2026, in Philadelphia as the culmination of the project. Officially, it is the peak.
Speaking as New Yorker, July 4, 1776, is just the beginning of when things get interesting. From the famous toppling of the statue of King George III, to the Battle of New York/Brooklyn/Long Island, to the Battle of Saratoga, to the Clinton-Sullivan Campaign, to Benedict Arnold, to Rochambeau, to the Newburgh Conspiracy, and finally Evacuation Day on November 25, 1783, the action in this state really heats up after the culmination date of the Federal project. The proposed legislation passed by the State (not yet signed into law) has 2033 as the end date for our commission. Needless-to-say, other states similarly will want to remember events after July 4, 2026.
The date disparity could become a funding issue. At this point we do not know if the Federal Government will pull the plug on spending for the 250th on July 4, 2026 or not. I did raise this issue in the chat during the online session. The AASLH is aware of the concern. At some point, the issue of funding after July 4, 2026 may become an advocacy issue.
Fortunately Dichtl’s other vision is right on the mark. He calls this a “once in a generation opportunity to renew public engagement with history.” As part of the oral history, we should be interviewing people who participated in the Bicentennial and displaying objects from that celebration. Dichtl expresses the hope that “Through the stories we share, this anniversary can encourage patriotism and pride in American resilience while also fostering critical awareness of our faults, past and present.” Amen to that. Let the journey continue. He sees it as a transformational opportunity for the history community. Amen to that as well.
250 Years and Counting by Sara Cureton
Speaking of the Bicentennial, Cureton begins her contribution with an anecdote about a meeting for the Semiquincentennial where she was the only one who remembered the Bicentennial. She reflected on the lessons from that anniversary as thinking of history as endlessly interesting and impactful. Good lessons to have learned for a state leader of an historical commission!
As a state commissioner, Cureton takes a local approach as well. She mentions the listening sessions held around the state with many different communities. She observes that our fellow citizens often are much more interested in the historic sites in their hometowns. That makes sense. We are physical beings so what we can see, walk by, and touch in our own lives and communities will be meaningful.
However, there is a problem here. During the Q&A, the question came up about communities that did not exist during the American Revolution. In New Jersey that might not be much of a problem but in New York too, before the Erie Canal was built (Bicentennial 2025), many communities today did not exist then. They may have descendants from the American Revolution living there now. They may have records of the first July 4 the community celebrated regardless of when and can track what the day meant to their community over time. As states, they have dates when the joined the country as a state and July 4 became their birthday too. Immigrants have dates of naturalization when July 4 became the birthday of their country. June 2, 2024, is the centennial of the Indian Citizenship Act when Indians gained the right to vote. There are different ways to connect to July 4, 1776, besides the physical and the biological.
USING THE MAKING HISTORY at 250 FIELD GUIDE
With this section, the guide introduces five themes for the anniversary. It refers to the National Endowment for the Humanities, a funder, launching “’A More Perfect Union’: America at 250.” It “recognizes that very generation of Americans is tasked with improving this nation.” The guidebook calls on every history organization in the United States to participate. Even though the commemoration will be decentralized, the guidebook will enable you to be connected with thousands of other museums, historical societies, history departments, and classrooms across the country. OK, a little Chamber-of-Commerce boosterism is acceptable.
Theme: Unfinished Revolutions – There is still work to be done.
Theme: Power of Place – I always write that Nature sets the stage and humans write the play and then alter the stage. This theme relates to those ideas.
Theme: We the People – For me the key element in this theme is the right to vote. One might also add the equal opportunity to be able to vote in a reasonable way. For example, the aforementioned instance of Indians gaining the right to vote in 1924 is a marker of their citizenship as Americans and inclusion in We the People. The scant opportunity to actually cast their votes on huge reservations with few polling places and limited car ownership undermines that right.
Theme: American Experiment: This theme has a civics component in examining how local, state, and federal governments are constituted and by whom.
Theme: Doing History – How do we do history? The New York Times 1619 Project, the Donald Trump 1776 Commission, Critical Race Theory? Certainly how we do history is in the news.
I have a problem with these themes. Each one comes with five bullet points that the guidelines state the audience should consider in the programming by the local history organizations. The problem is these themes and bullet points sound like adult education classes or discussion groups at the local history organization, library, or classroom. There is nothing wrong with that but there is a very academic tone to the guidelines. It’s too dry to be inspiring. There is nothing about celebration. There should be more than a course in American History 250 at the local high school or community college. I miss the excitement.
Here is what is missing from the guidelines. I realize that they are a first step and could not cover everything.
The AASLH certainly is aware of the state commissions. It tracks the creation of them. There is still a long way to go. What exactly is a state commission supposed to do once it is created? One should keep in mind the wide variety in the range of resources available at the state level. For example, in New York, the Office of the State Historian consists of one person. If a voluntary commission is created, all the work is going to be dumped on that one individual. Fortunately the state legislators know that is problem so perhaps something will be done. I imagine each state will have its own story to tell about the practicalities of fulfilling the guidelines
Recommendation – A second guide should be created outlining on a more practical basis what a state commission should do and the resources required to it. I have my own ideas which I will not present here.
Recommendation – Communication mechanisms should be established (by the AASLH? By the Federal Commission?) so the state commissions can share experiences on a regular and routine basis.
State to State Collaboration and Cooperation
While the motto of the official commission seems to be “decentralization,” neither states nor local history organizations can go it alone. Think of the aforementioned Rochambeau as an event involving multiple states. Concomitant with Rochambeau is the journey of Cornwallis through states in the South leading to the showdown at high noon in Virginia.
Recommendation – Potential multi-state events should be identified and task forces created for them with the states who will be involved. Again communication mechanisms should be established.
Trips and Tourism
I did not notice anything about tourism and trips in the guidelines and discussion. Everything seemed to be geared to the individual history organization acting alone. Tourism will be an important part of the 250th. For example to stick with Rochambeau, there will be people who will travel the route from Rhode Island to Virginia. That means more than having a website or app. It means good old-fashioned mapping of routes including noting when the route actually is not a road today and may even be on private property. There is (or was) a NPS group based in Philadelphia that has been involved precisely in mapping the route. Now we are arriving at the next stage of transforming that information into a tourist experience.
Recommendation – A guidelines book should be created for the tourist departments of the states both for the intra-state responsibilities and inter-state ones. As someone who has created American Revolution programs visiting multiple sites in the Hudson Valley, Mohawk Valley, and Champlain Valley, I am very interested in this topic. People are going to want to travel to the sites where the events of the American Revolution took place.
Related to tourism is teacher education. Again I speak from experience as the trips noted above were for teachers. Unfortunately, the Teaching American History Grants have bit the dust. Perhaps they can be resurrected as Teaching American Revolution History Grants.
Recommendation – Revive the Teaching American History grants for the American Revolution. Work with the State Education Departments to create teacher training programs in each state based on the American Revolution and which will be available to teachers nationwide. Reaching out to national academic organizations needs to be part of the planning.
Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service
This NPS-commissioned study was commissioned years ago, I wrote several blogs about it in 2016-2018. The recommendations from the study never were implemented. Indeed over the past few years, the NPS focused more on survival than forging ahead.
Recommendation – Use the Semiquincentennial as an opportunity to implement the recommendations of the Imperiled Promise study so the NPS will be better prepared to fulfill its responsibilities during the project.
A final note must be made about the culture wars now more accurately described as America’s Third Civil War. Part of the story of the American Revolution is that it was our first Civil War. Now we live in a time when masks have weaponized, vaccines have been weaponized, and the American flag is a symbol of disunity. History organizations have no particular skill or expertise in navigating through this contentious time where more and more Americans regard July 4 as a day of infamy for which white people should repent. We can anticipate as one more presidential election will occur before July 4, 2026, that the situation will only get worse.
During the Q&A on July 1, one person asked about disinformation, fake news and fake history and the pitfalls and landmines in divisive political times. Cureton’s response was that the political may be the biggest challenge in divisive times. Exactly right. The Centennial occurred after the Civil War. The Bicentennial occurred after Watergate and Vietnam. The Semiquincentennial is occurring while America’s Third Civil War rages not yet like a California wildfire but potentially becoming one. The very event itself will be weaponized and exacerbate the situation. There is no guidebook for that.
The countdown for the 250th anniversary of the birth of the country continues. The work may have been suspended this past year but the clock did not stop ticking. As we transition from online to in-person meetings, the effort will shift as well. Online meetings probably will continue. They provide a logistically routine and cheap way to reach out on a statewide, regional, and even national level to large numbers of people involved in the 250th. Still there is a place for the in-person meeting especially for local events. And let’s not forget the social aspect of birthday parties either.
As we come out of hibernation, it is time for me at least to return to writing about what is going on in American history aided by the fact that I just turned in my manuscript May 31 for The Exodus: An Egyptian Story (Oxbow). So here are some thoughts about the American Revolution.
State Historical Administrators Meeting (SHAM) The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH)
A major topic at the SHAM meeting was the preparations for the 250th anniversary in 2026. According to AASLH, one-third of the participants reported that their states have formed a 250th anniversary commission or officially designated another such entity to lead planning. That brings to a total of fourteen states have commissions. Action is being taken in Nebraska, North Dakota, and Texas. It would be interesting to correlate the states involved in the 250th and gaining the right to vote with the states which have changed their voting laws restricting those same rights. The AASLH reports that in Pennsylvania, the America250PA Commission is working with the national commission’s staff to develop a template that all states can use for strategic planning toward 2026 that will be synchronized with America250.
AASLH is developing another example of national guidance for what will be a decentralized, state-focused Semiquincentennial on the subject of historical themes. These themes will provide guidance to state and local history organizations. AASLH staff presented an overview of the themes at SHAM. It seeks feedback from many of the attendees on the draft which it produced with the help of teams of scholars, public historians, and other history practitioners. AASLH will publish the themes as part of a larger 250th planning guide on July 1, 2021, only a few weeks away. The National Endowment for the Humanities assisted in this effort by providing funding.
One final note concerns plans for regional collaborations among the states. Many events are not necessarily confined to current political boundaries. This kind of partnership will continue to be an important agenda item for SHAM for the rest of the year.
DEBATING MARY BETH NORTON, Former President AHA
On February 4, 2021, Fraunces Tavern honored Mary Beth Norton, former president of the American Historical Association, for her book 1774: The Long Year of Revolution. The book covered the sixteen months from the Boston Tea Party to the Battles of Lexington and Concord that changed the course of American history. In her talk, Mary Beth explored the “long year” of the American Revolution, a time when once-loyal colonists began their discordant “discussions,” leading to the acceptance of the inevitability of a war against the British Empire.
During her online talk, I noticed that she used one word repeatedly that I was not expecting. The word was “debate” which I subsequently did mention to her. She constantly referred to the ongoing debates that the Americans were having about the issues of the day. American families, communities, and colonies were divided on what action to take. As we know, there were Loyalists and there were Patriots.
Listening to her talk about these debates gave me an idea for a 250th involving topics. What specifically were these debates about in 1771, 1772, 1773, 1774, and 1775 leading up to the Declaration of Independence in 1776? What were the positions as the colonists approached separation? If you live in a community from colonial times you may be able to determine from church sermons, letters, and broadsides what the people in your community were arguing about.
Perhaps some of the national history organizations could assist in developing guidelines and sources for each year to debate these topics. Now as we are living through our third Civil War, it might be useful to learn what are communities said and why during our first Civil War. It certainly would be a way to connect the American Revolution with the present and to involve high school students as they debate the very issues that consumed their communities 250 years ago.
SIGNS, STATUES, AND MEMORIALS
What are the signs, statues, cemeteries, and memorials related to the American Revolution in your community? Is there a database listing of them? Do they appear on your website and on the tourist websites? People will stop and take selfies at all of the above, but they need guidance to know that they are there.
It would be beneficial if the state maintained/coordinated the creation of such a database if one does not already exist.
As people scour their own communities in the search for such remembrances, it is an excellent opportunity to determine:
1. If any need repair or restoration work
2. If any need to be updated particularly signs as new information may be available and vocabulary has changed
3. If any new ones are needed to include people, places, or events which may have been overlooked in the past.
Potentially such an endeavor could be a big, so communities might want to collaborate in seeking funding to accomplish it in a standardized manner.
SPEAKERS BUREAU AND CALENDAR
One final thought is the benefit of creating a speakers bureau. Again this would work best on a state level. The purpose here would be to be identify potential speakers in a searchable database based on the people, places, events, and topics related to the American Revolution. Why should individual historical societies have to reinvent the wheel? Perhaps at some point there could even be funding so such speakers could speak locally at historical societies/libraries/museums.
There is an advantage to have some speakers present online. Over the past year many of us have probably heard lectures online hosted by an organization far from us geographically. Once we return to in-person meetings, there still will be speakers and topics who can draw from a larger audience than a single historical society can draw. It may be worthwhile to have periodic talks done online then.
Isn’t there a way to have a speaker in-person as well as online? I am not exactly sure what the technology would be? Perhaps just having a laptop set a few feet in front of the standing speaker for online viewing. With slides it would be a little more complicated. Oh well, I am sure smarter minds than mine can figure something out.
I just wanted to shoot you a quick message to thank you for including mention of our NCPH session on national visitation trends. I’m disappointed we weren’t able to present, because I’m certain it would have been an enlightening conversation. In case you missed it, our free report summary and the full 60+ page report are available at: http://learn.aaslh.org/national-visitation-report. There are also links there to many of the blog posts we’ve written about our findings in recent years. If you’re interested, I also put together a thread on Twitter with links to all of the blog posts and articles we’ve written at AASLH and elsewhere over the past six months or so: https://twitter.com/johngmarks/status/1239582326163681280.
Finally, our 2020 visitation survey is still collecting responses. With the onset of widespread closures to due Coronavirus, gathering reliable 2019 data has become even more important. The survey is available at: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/visitation2020.
Please feel free to share any and all of the above with your networks! Thanks again for mentioning the session in your newsletter.
I did download the nine-page National Visitation Report from the AASLH website. Rather than my summarizing it, I have extracted Marks’ own comments on it from his blog Historic Site Visitation and Public Engagement with History he wrote for the American Historical Association (AHA), March 11, 2020.
[H]istorical institutions throughout the country are working with their communities to make the past more relevant and engaging. New research suggests these efforts have had a positive effect, as visitation to history organizations has increased considerably over the past several years. The National Visitation Report (NVR) published in November 2019 by the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) is the first nationwide survey of visitation trends at historical organizations. It found that visits to history museums, historic sites, and other historical organizations increased nearly 6 percent between 2013 and 2018. This growth was evident for institutions of nearly every type, of different budget sizes, and in every region of the country.
The NVR reveals that some of the strongest visitation growth occurred at the small historical societies and museums that are ubiquitous in towns and counties across the US. Institutions with annual operating budgets of less than $50,000, for example, saw their visitation grow 18 percent, the largest increase of any budget level. Those with budgets between $50,000 and $250,000 saw visitation increase nearly 13 percent. Institutions of this size, many of which are operated solely by volunteers, form the majority of the nation’s more than 20,000 historical organizations.
A growing number of institutions [are] creating programs and exhibitions built on the concepts of shared authority and community-engaged practice. Public history institutions are working more directly with their audiences, taking seriously their understandings of the past and their concerns in the present, integrating community knowledge and priorities into the work of the institution.
Marks draws attention to changes at the college and graduate school level involving humanities and public history. He considers it important to connect knowledge of the past with contemporary issues.
With this introduction in mind, let me shift to a session I did attend at the AHA conference on January 2, 2015, in New York. (I have special memories of the conference since the escalator to the conference and the registration area outside the meeting rooms appeared in the George Clooney movie Michael Clayton.) The AHA session was less dramatic.
What Should History Teachers Learn at Historic Sites? A Research Agenda
Chair: Christine Baron, Teachers College, Columbia University
Linda A. Sargent Wood, Northern Arizona University
Kelly Schrum, George Mason University
Brenda Trofanenko, Acadia University
Christine Woyshner, Temple University
Denice Blair, Michigan State University
Since the 1990s, professional development for teachers has been a large-scale function of museums’ and historic sites’ education departments. Historic sites are increasingly called upon to help remedy the persistent reproach that many teachers lack both content knowledge in history and enthusiasm for the subject. Yet, despite two decades of intensive work with teachers, including the decade-long Teaching American History Grants (TAH) experience, little research exists on the effectiveness of historic sites’ role in teacher education.
The expectation that historic sites will support formal teacher preparation and professional development continues to grow. Several states, with Pennsylvania at the fore, are considering requiring pre-service teachers to do part of their fieldwork in museums and historic sites. Every state curriculum framework includes the recommendation that teachers should partner with historic sites and museums to help students learn about history [bold added]. Yet, even as TAH funding has been eliminated, the need for quality history teacher education has not. Historic sites are continuing to be asked to provide teacher education. It is imperative that we understand the methods and mechanisms that help teachers effectively develop historical analytical skills and the ability to transfer that learning to the classroom. Accordingly, we need historic site-specific tools and research protocols for discerning and documenting teacher learning, clarity about best practices, and useable tools for assessment.
To address this gap, Christine Baron and Brenda Trofanenko organized a research conference sponsored by the largest education research organization in North America, to assemble experts in the Learning Sciences, History and Museum Education at Boston University in early 2014 to investigate the effective use of historic sites as centers for history teacher education and professional development.
Researchers gathered for a three-day conference at Boston University to (a) develop a status report on the state of empirical research in this field, (b) identify effective protocols for discerning and documenting teacher learning at historic sites, (c) identify specific pedagogies, methodologies, assessment and evaluation tools that demonstrably promote analysis of historical materials on-site and classroom integration (d) develop a research agenda to further the field and (e) stimulate partnerships in which to execute the necessary research.
This panel, comprised of several of the conference scholars, will lay out the conference findings, the critical areas identified for further research, and some of the projects generated through the conference discussions. Considerable time will be devoted to discussing the findings in conversation with session attendees, both in terms of the research opportunities and project development.
The audience for this session, much like the participants at the conference on which it reports, includes the historians, both academic and public, history teacher educators, museum and historic site educators, and digital humanities scholars that work at the intersection of history and teaching.
I think sessions on this topic should be a regular part of history museum conferences as well as social studies conferences. Furthermore, as I mentioned in the NCPH blogs, since not everyone can attend such conferences and even people who do cannot attend all sessions, there needs to be a better way to disseminate the information presented here. One of the byproducts of the current coronavirus may be the development of a more extensive use of the internet to make conference presentations available online. At present, not all conferences even list the abstract of the presentations online. I expect there will be changes in this regard. Also more cross referencing so people who are members or who are affiliated with one organization can learn about relevant sessions at other conferences. Whether such cooperation is possible or not, is another matter. Let me correct that, it is possible, but whether or not it happens is the issue.
In the next blog, I will continue with this topic and write about a book, an article, and a teacher from Massachusetts.
The time has come to create the New York Association for State and Local History (NYASLH). There is a void, an absence of leadership in the state history community. There is no one to speak on behalf of the community at the statewide level. Many people work quite hard and often for no money on behalf of a beloved local historical organization, to remember a person, to commemorate an event. These people are the unsung heroes of the state history community but their dedication, their devotion, and their commitment are not enough. There is a need for leadership at the state level and none exists.
The name for the proposed organization is a direct borrowing from an existing national organization. This borrowing should not be construed as suggesting that American Association for State and Local History is officially connected to this effort or is working to build support for creating an NYASLH.
The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) is a national association that provides leadership and support for its members who preserve and interpret state and local history in order to make the past more meaningful to all people.
In 1904, the American Historical Association, itself a fledgling professional body, established the semi-autonomous Conference of State and Local Historical Societies to serve the leaders of those agencies. In 1939, a group of Conference members discussed and then proposed the creation of an independent entity. Its job would be to better coordinate the activities of historical societies and stimulate the writing and teaching of state and local history in North America.
On December 27, 1940, the Conference of State and Local History met and disbanded itself. Then the American Association for State and Local History was born. Its first charter stated that AASLH’s purpose was, simply, “the promotion of effort and activity in the fields of state, provincial, and local history in the United States and Canada.”
Now, the AASLH is providing services and assistance to over 5,500 institutional and individual members, as well as leadership for history and history organizations nationally. It is the only comprehensive national organization dedicated to state and local history.
The functions of the organization are fourfold.
1. Advocacy – AASLH knows it is important for all public officials (local, state, and national) to know about the vital work historical organizations do to educate the general public—the constituents of public officials—about your work and its role in a democratic and civil society, making citizens more thoughtful about the decisions they make and the consequences of those decisions. Advocacy and lobbying are also important leadership services provided by AASLH. AASLH sponsors, advocates, and lobbies on behalf of state and local history at the national level through strategic partnerships with several organizations.
2. Leadership: We create and run high quality continuing education programs for individuals and organizations, including the first-ever national standards program for small and medium history organizations (StEPs).
3. Community: We facilitate networking and discussion both in person at our Annual Meeting and on-site workshops as well as online through our website, Online Conference, and Affinity Groups.
The organization does not have local or state chapters so there is an opportunity for New York to be the first. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We need to make the existing one work for us. NYSHA could have done this job but it didn’t.
In a previous blog, I posted an email I had received from Terry Abrams, the Administrative Coordinator for the Western New York Association of Historical Agencies (WNYAHA), on the subject of the Yorkers and his own experiences with it.
In a second email, Terry described his experiences as an adult and his observations about what New York is not doing compared to other states.
As a member of the Field Services Alliance (FSA), an affinity group of AASLH, I have had the opportunity to work with others doing the same type of work I do. One of the significant differences between NY and other states, is the absence of a local history program in a state historical society.
There is a simple explanation for the absence of a local history program in a state historical society – THERE IS NO STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY. There is the Connecticut Historical Society. There is the Massachusetts Historical Society. And yes there is The Rhode Island Historical Society. There is a New York State government museum in Albany. There is the New-York Historical Society in New York City. And there was a New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown with two museums. But the sad reality is that there is no history organization in New York State functioning in a leadership role.
Terry then noted his experiences with state organizations elsewhere.
Just one example, the Indiana Historical Society’s Local History Services department has four full-time people for a state that is just over 36,000 square miles, (ranked 38th), and has a population of a little over 6 million (ranked 17th). Compare that with NY, with just over 54,000 square miles (ranked 27th) and a population just under 20 million (ranked 4th). [information gathered from Wikipedia, for what it’s worth.]
Indiana Historical Society’s Local History Services department is larger than MANY, WNYAHA and GHHN combined. Keep in mind, also that MANY’s mission is to serve all museums, not just historical agencies.
I had the opportunity to host the spring training meeting of the FSA this year  at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Historic Site. 17 members from across the country came and shared information about what we are doing, and discussed important developments in our field. Erika Sanger came and spoke about the Museum Education Act, and the work MANY has been doing providing information about Common Core to museum educators, and others. We also had a presentation from Dr. Patrick Ravines, director of the Buffalo State Art Conservation Program.
To get a better sense of what Field Service professionals do, click on “core documents.” You can go through and find almost all you need to know about field services. (The information on the listing of field service providers is slightly out of date). I believe this is what is primarily lacking in the history community of NY.
In this example, Terry points out the obvious fact that New York is one of fifty states. Therefore it becomes possible to benchmark the performance here against other states. It would be good to attend a best practices session or some other session at a national conference devoted to what the states are doing. While New York loves to brag about being the only state to require municipal historians, an unenforced and unfunded law, it is forced to hang its head in shame for the void in leadership of the state history community, especially compared to what used to exist.
Lake George residents have a special interest in the former Association, in part because it was founded on Lake George in 1899, met annually at the Fort William Henry Hotel and counted residents like John Boulton Simpson among its first trustees. It also had its first permanent headquarters in Ticonderoga’s Hancock House, built specifically for that purpose by Horace A. Moses in 1926.
Of greater importance, without the New York State Historical Association, there would be little of Fort George or the Lake George Battlefield left today. New York State had begun to acquire the parcels that comprise the parks in the 1890s, but had little idea of what could or should be done with them.
The Historical Association stepped in and assumed responsibility for maintaining the sites.
Under the association’s auspices, the stone bastion was rebuilt and the bronze statues honoring Sir William Johnson and King Hendrick, Isaac Jogues and the Native Americans were installed.
The association assumed responsibility not only for protecting the sites but promoting them, as a 1930 editorial in the Lake George Mirror acknowledged. “An officer of the New York State Historical Association told the Mirror editor a few days ago that something could be done at Fort George Park if the people of this section would only ask for it,” editor Art Knight wrote.
By “something,” the officer and Knight meant a reconstructed fort and a museum to house artifacts similar to that of Fort Ticonderoga’s, which was already attracting 80,000 visitors a year.
The plight of New York state history has been a constant source of anguish. Bruce Dearstyne, formerly of the Office of State Historian, in a post for New York History Blog, wrote about the history of NYSHA and identified its five goals:
1. To promote and encourage original historical research.
2. To disseminate a greater knowledge of the early history of the State by means of lectures, and the publication and distribution of literature on historical subjects.
3. To gather books, manuscripts, pictures and relics relating to the early history of the State, and to establish a museum at Caldwell, Lake George, for their preservation.
4. To suitably mark places of historical interest.
5. To acquire by purchase, gift, device, or otherwise, the title to, or custody and control of, historic spots and places.
He also mentioned one key ingredient to making the organization work – money.
Benefactors are highly desirable and important. Horace Moses, a wealthy owner of paper mills, provided NYSHA’s first headquarters in Ticonderoga. The Clark family, beginning with Steven Clark and continuing to his granddaughter Jane Forbes Clark, provided substantial resources for NYSHA. But this also means that the organization needs to be attuned to their interests and priorities.
Perhaps instead of in Cooperstown, the proposed NYASLH should be headquartered where the action is. The New-York Historical Society is over two centuries old and began as museum of the world (including possessing Egyptian artifacts and I don’t mean from Cairo, New York). The New-York Historical Society also houses the collection of the Gilder Lehrman Institute. And even though Lewis Lehrman was a candidate for governor of New York, the Gilder Lehrman Institute has no particular interest New York State history. Its purview is American history. Manhattan is the center of the universe so its taking a leadership role in the state is not going to happen.
Our capital, of course, is not in New York City. There are many groups located in Albany or nearby advocating on behalf of a state wide constituency. I expect to attend two such advocacy days in March. There is none for history. Perhaps the Albany Institute of History and Art founded in 1791 could fill this void or agree to house a new non-profit organization dedicated to advocating for New York State history. Maybe somewhere else could. Does anyone have any ideas? Does anyone have any money?
In a recent post about the absence of any institutional or organizational leadership in the New York State history community, I used the image of the Yorkers without any explanation of what a Yorker was. Two readers submitted comments about the Yorkers to an even earlier post on the subject of the NYSHA even before I had distributed the post with the Yorker image. Their comments and suggestions form the basis of this post.
THE YORKERS: A DETROIT PERSPECTIVE
In the first instance, the comment from Chris Philippo provided a link to a blog by Tobi Voigt, Detroit Historical Society, writing in 2014 for the 75th anniversary of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). Her interest was getting young people involved in local history. In the course of writing the post she thought of New York’s experience with the Yorker program.
[S]tarted in the 1940s, this junior membership program worked through membership chapters across the state. [I wonder how many chapters there were.] According to a mid-1950s brochure [image above]:
“A Yorker chapter may be formed by organizing five or more students with an adult sponsor. Each chapter member receives a subscription to THE YORKER, bi-monthly magazine of the junior historians [This magazine must on file in some libraries and/or archives], a membership card, a gay felt emblem [I presume he meant “gray” but given how words change meaning I wouldn’t swear to it.] reminding him [or her] he is one of an army of 7,000 students of the story of the Empire State. He may write for THE YORKER, may enter any of the Historical Association’s three museums free at any time, whether coming with a student group or individually.”
Yorker chapters (which included boys and girls) were encouraged to:
“go on pilgrimages; present assembly programs, plays, radio scripts; assemble collections of historic books and objects; participate in essay and other contests; make historical murals and sculpture; assist local historians and in historical celebrations.”
The chapters had regional and state officers and gathered each spring for a convention.
After this historical description of the Yorker program, Tobi turned to her personal reflections on the organization and its meaning for the present.
Yes, these junior membership programs were clearly a lot of work. And I know they folded for some very valid reasons, but I absolutely love the concept. For years I have been pondering how the junior membership program can be reinstated/reinvented.
Firstly, we are always quoting that statistic that says “If a person doesn’t visit a museum before age 12, they aren’t likely to become adult museum visitors.” Could a junior membership program encourage students to get involved and then become life-long patrons?
Secondly, we talk about the decline of social studies and history in public school curriculums. These junior programs had an extracurricular academic component. And better yet, they had the students out DOING history. For the Detroit Historical Society, at least, they saw historical study as a way to develop informed citizens and future leaders. Can a new junior membership program help us make history relevant in the lives of kids today?
I love that programs like National History Day [which NYSHA still supports] have stepped in to fill the void, and my organization supports that year-long, school based program as a contest coordinator. But I still find myself wondering if individual museums and historical societies can create their own special program. If we created a new junior program, I’d be sure participation in National History Day would be included as an activity.
What are your thoughts? Does anyone have a junior membership program? Please consider writing a blog about it!
Did you have one that didn’t work well? Please share your lessons learned.
Is anyone else out there as intrigued about this concept as me, or am I quickly becoming as antiquated as junior memberships themselves?
THE YORKERS: A WESTERN NEW YORK PERSPECTIVE
As to the situation here in New York, I received an email from Terry Abrams, the Administrative Coordinator for the Western New York Association of Historical Agencies (WNYAHA), on the subject of the Yorkers. He wrote:
I have been reading with avid interest your blog posts about the state of New York State history. I have thought a lot about the many valid points you have raised, and I want to respond to some of them. Most of what I want to say has already been said by others, and I am in agreement with much of what you have discussed. Nevertheless, I think it is useful to add another voice to the chorus.
I think the decline of NYSHA can be traced back to the elimination of the Yorker program. When I was in Jr. High School, we had two Yorker clubs, one for the seventh graders, and one for the eighth graders. Living in western New York, a big part of the attraction for joining was going on the overnight field trips to Cooperstown, and Albany, respectively. As I recall, in order to join the Yorker clubs we had to write an essay on some aspect of local or NY history. While the advisors for the two clubs were pretty lenient as far as letting students join, this did at least indicate an interest in history. I also recall going on field trips to local area museums during the year. The big event in 7th grade, was toward the end of the school year, when we traveled to Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Farmer’s Museum, and the Fenimore Museum. In 8th grade, we went to Albany to see the Capitol, and the State Museum, which at that time was still located at the top of the Education Department building.
I can’t say for certain how much influence this experience has had on my becoming part of the history community. I do know, however, that at least two of my classmates are active members of their local historical societies. Incidentally, the two clubs were named after local historical landmarks. He 7th grade club was called The Grant Club Yorkers, named after the pole raised locally for President Grant’s re-election campaign.
The 8th grade club was called the Octagon Yorker club, after the Rich-Twinn Octagon house, part of the Newstead Historical Society in the village of Akron in the Town of Newstead in Erie County.
At that time the other Yorker clubs had disappeared, but I know that there were ones at the high school level at one time. While the schools now have History Day, I wonder how much the loss of Yorker clubs has affected student’s interest in history. While searching online about when they disappeared (sometime in the mid 80’s apparently) I came across this: (go to the history link at the top of the page and click on “Yorker Museum” It will download a pdf about the history of the Yorkers in Sherman.)
I know that it varies from place to place, but it seems that fewer and fewer historical societies have a relationship with the schools. Do any of them coordinate with History Day?
Terry raises an interesting question. According to the National History Day website quite a few museums and libraries in New York are listed as contacts for students. One also should add municipal historians to the mix of resources and contacts. Of course, one major difference is that the Yorkers focused exclusively on New York State history, National History has an annual national theme which can be applied locally by participants but does not have to be.
So what can we learn from this trip down memory lane? The Yorker program working in conjunction with National History Day is a great way to reach out into the student community and connect it with local history. Logically it should be operated by NYSHA which still maintains its connections to National History Day. Obviously that is not going to happen.
Here is a program where it would be beneficial for the New York State history community to meet with the New York State Council for the Social Studies. It is a volunteer organization. The annual conference this year will be in Albany in March. There are eight regional councils covering most of the state. Perhaps the New York State Historian could take responsibility for the revival of the Yorkers with the support of the Regents. Let’s add Yorkers to the list of what needs to be done.