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The NPS Imperiled Promise: Recommendations to Eliminate the Peril – Is Anybody Listening? (Part III)

After all the surveying and analysis as described in two previous posts, the authors of the study Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service turned to the recommendations to alleviate the situation. As one might expect they called for the NPS to recommit to history as one of its core purposes and to adhere to the “best available sound history scholarship as a standard of quality for the NPS history.

They proposed 12 approaches to historical research to be discussed nationwide throughout the NPS.

  1. Expand interpretive frames beyond existing physical resources

Any physical site including its physical resources is only a remnant of a disappeared past. Furthermore historical research may uncover stories not directly represented among the physical objects which by chance happened to have survive. Tell the big story.

  1. Emphasize connections of parks with the larger histories beyond their boundaries

No site is an isolated island whose stories are limited to the physical space set aside by law. Learn the connections and include them in the story of your site. I will add that tourists may already make such connections in their itineraries whereby they visit multiple locations during their vacation.

  1. Highlight the effects of human activity on “natural” areas

Integrate nature and culture. Natural areas or landscapes may have been shaped by human activity. I will add that representations of natural areas also may obscure the human activity which shaped. Human activity shaping the landscape did not begin with European settlers. Leave the two-dimensional clichés to Disney. Tell the stories of real people.

  1. Acknowledge that history is dynamic and always unfinished

For example the male white (English) Harvard New England historians of the 19th century tended to privilege the role in the American Revolution of male white New Englanders in their writings and scholarship. Both New York and the South were shortchanged as well as other ethnicities, races, and genders. In another example, ten years ago how many high school students had even heard of Hamilton? The more people want to be part of the story of the American Revolution, the stronger the United States becomes. I don’t know if every immigrant to England, France, and Germany connects with William the Conqueror (or King Arthur), Charlemagne (or Napoleon), Frederick the Great (or Bismarck), but every American can connect with some figure in the American Revolution. History grows when it is alive and part of our journey as a country.

  1. Recognize the NPS’s role in shaping every park’s history

Those who tell the story become part of the story because of what they choose to tell. I will add, should every guide at a single site tell the same story? Given that not everything can be communicated in a single tour, why should every tour be the same? The visitors too have different interests. For example as part of two conferences, I recently visited the Oriskany Battlefield twice. We had the same NPS Ranger guide. For the American Revolution in the Mohawk Valley conference, he spoke about the battle; for the Erie Canal Bicentennial conference, he spoke about the stones from the nearby canal being used to construction the monuments at the battle site. Let’s recognize the different aspects of the story at a site and allow visitors to have some control over what they will experience.

  1. Attend to the role of memory and memorialization at historical sites.

“Rather than freezing an event depicted at a park or site as something that happened in the past, history interpreters should acknowledge and investigate the diverse and changing ways (and reasons) that people have remembered and assigned significance to that event or place (up to and since the when the park itself was designated “historic”). I will add, fossils (of dinosaurs) do have an appeal, but an immersion into history provides a more vibrant memory for the visitor.

  1. Highlight the open-endedness of the past

“Rather than cloaking historical outcomes with a gloss of inevitability, history interpreters might pry open past events to reveal the many viable alternatives a multitude of past actors faced as they struggled to solve actions, take actions, and frame horizons.” I will add, suppose William Johnson had lived throughout the American Revolution instead of dying in 1774? Suppose slavery had been the deal-breaker that prevented the United States from constituting itself as a country in 1787, then what?

  1. Forthrightly address conflict and controversy both in, and about, the past

Scholars disagree. Do visitors know that? For the NPS with its many Civil War sites, this admonition can be a real challenge especially with all the talk today about memorials, statues, and street names.

  1. Welcome contested and evolving understandings of American civic heritage

This recommendation seems like a variation of the previous one. The civic aspect is crucial.

  1. Envision “doing history” as means of skills development for civic participation

Tours tend to teach details not skills. Tours tend to provide small-bore facts that are quickly forgotten. Quick, which painting is of the second son of the patriarch and what is name of the woman he married on the painting next to him? As I worked my way through this list of recommendations, I realized, as you readers may have, that many of these recommendations are more suitable for a classroom, i.e., an air-conditioned setting where people are sitting down for up to 30-45 minutes as in a public lecture, than to an outdoor or non-airconditioned indoor setting where people are standing and on the move. Perhaps it should be no surprise that the consultants, professors obtained through the auspices of the Organization of American History, would tend to recommend replicating the ideal classroom setting without taking into account the practicalities of the visitor logistics and expectations.

  1. Share authority with and take knowledge from the public

Again this recommendation seems like a variation on a theme and one more appropriate to the classroom than the guided tour. If these conversations are to occur in an academic setting such as a ranger attending a history conference, then such exchanges are worthwhile and one of the purposes of a history conference. If these conversations are to occur during a guided tour then it seems more reminiscent of having a discussion with a loudmouth know-it-all who could dominate the tour if left unchecked.  Exactly what are the venues where these conversations with the public are supposed to occur? Typically guided tours are not conducive to such exchanges with the general public but can work with a controlled group such as teachers.

  1. Better connect with the rest of the history profession and embrace interdisciplinary collaboration

By this the authors specifically mean NPS historians should have ongoing relationships with public history sites, academia, and k-12 education. I interpret this to mean in part attending the national and state history conferences of various organizations, attending the history conferences about related subjects, attending social studies conferences.

 

Collectively, these recommendations certainly present a positive vision of history at history sites. My questions and concerns are where the rubber hits the road. Exactly how are these recommendations to be implemented? What do they really mean on the frontlines where the worlds of the tourist visitor and the Park Ranger intersect? Since historic sites are not cookie cutter facilities, what do they mean in the different settings? How are Park Rangers to be trained to do what the recommendations suggest?

Ironically, the tourist visitor already has implemented some of these recommendations. When tourists plan a vacation trip, they select the places they intend to visit. In other words, they are positioning an historic site within a host of places in their one-week vacation. In so doing, they are making connections to other venues, not all necessarily historic, as they schedule their trip.

Sometimes the geographic range of the associated sites to a NPS historic site may be quite extensive. Think of the Civil War battlefields as the most obvious. Sites also may be connected to state, county, local, and private sites as well in the event covered or the person/people who lived at the NPS site. This means cooperating and collaborating both within the NPS especially across thematic lines and with external organizations. Is there a mechanism to do that?

There are a wide range of facilitates within the NPS umbrella. Some would find it easier to comply with these suggestions than others. For example in New York, there is a giant FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt complex in Hyde Park including grounds, multiple structures, a presidential library, and a visitor center thanks in part to Friends with Benefits. I have conducted week-long Teacherhostel/Historyhostel at the site combing NPS and non-NPS presenters, tours, and walks. People can spend a day there on their own and the site has its own cafeteria. This site has the size to implement the recommendations if it hasn’t done so.

On the other hand, there is nearby St. Paul’s Church, scrunched into a now-commercial area in Mount Vernon. The site is owned by the NPS but operated by a private group. Its friends group doesn’t begin to compare to that of the Roosevelts. It lacks the space of the larger Roosevelt site. Its lectures are in the unairconditioned church itself where we sit in the colonial church pews. Quite a different experience. Although I park often by Grant’s Tomb by the Hudson River near Riverside Church in Manhattan, its setting in a plaza makes it a stop on the gazillions of bus tours “doing Manhattan.” It really is a tomb. People take their pictures and then it is on to the next non-NPS site which has nothing to do with Grant. How should these sites implement the recommendations?

Before continuing to exam Imperiled Promise, I suggest certain actions to be taken which would benefit not only the NPS but the history community in general.

1. Workshops on recommendations of Imperiled Promise to be held in the primary NPS areas in New York such as New York City, Hyde Park, Saratoga, and Rome.

2. The workshops to be open to non-NPS sites including the NYSOPRHP sites. As an example, the NPS has a site at Fort Stanwix in Rome, it operates the aforementioned Battle of Oriskany site for the NYSOPRHP which owns it. NYSOPRHP also owns and operates nearby the home of the commander of the American force, Palatine General Herkimer (but without a site manager). Then there are related non-government sites like Herkimer’s Church and the Shako:Wi Cultural Center of the Oneida who supported the American side in this America Revolution battle. The division of the Haudenosaunee into competing sides for one tribe fought another had lasting effects to this very day. Look how much is missed if only one site is visited or if the separate sites do not function together.

Imperiled Promise isn’t only a wakeup call to the NPS to get its history act together, it’s a call to the entire history community. Is anybody listening?

Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service Part II

This post is the second in a series investigating Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, an NPS-commissioned study with implications for the NPS historic sites in New York, the state counterpart with the NYSOPRHP historic sites, as well as for historic sites in general. For Part I, click here.

Imperiled Promise, proposes “a new vision of history” designed to “lift history out if its often marginal state” by stressing its place as a core activity.

So positioned, history can help the NPS better guard the precious resources in its care, and propel the agency toward greater relevance to American civic life….to fulfill its promise of creating an inspired, informed, and thinking citizenry.

The deliberate use of the word “civic” signifies the commitment to the vision of local/state/national history as in integral part of the social fabric of the community, a fabric that is being unraveled even more so today than in 2011 when the report was written. The ongoing controversies about Confederate memorials testifies to the power of historical memory to the present and of the need to bring it out into the open and see the light of day. Since many NPS sites are military battlefields, it should not be surprising that the NPS also is on the frontlines of the cultural battlefields as well. Similarly many other sites, especially colonial, have had the experience of re-evaluating the lives and events of the people associated with the site. Engaging the public in a discourse is fraught with danger and not something all historic sites are equipped to do. But ignoring the past is no solution either.

The authors of the study sent out over 1500 survey forms to NPS staff with history as part of their job description. The positions included rangers, historians, and curators and some archivists and archaeologists based on the government employment codes. Retired people were contacted, parks were visited, and group sessions were held at the annual meetings of the Organization of American History (OAH) and National Council on Public History (NCPH). It should be noted that former New State Historian Bob Weible had been head of the NCPH and that City of Rochester Historian and APNHYS board member Christine Ridarsky has become more involved with NCPH in the last few years. Marla Miller one of the authors who presented at the workshop in 2014 prior to the NYS History Conference is now the Vice President and she informed me at the Massachusetts History Alliance meeting in June at Holy Cross, that the annual NCPH conference would be in our area in 2019.

The Introduction to Part I of the report paints a dire picture. The actual word used by the authors is “distressing.” There appears to have been “a decades-long decline in the relative investment made in ensuring that history scholarship and interpretation remain sound and robust.” One source described the study as “a renewed reminder of the historical staffing crisis that has been growing like a noxious weed in the National Park System over the past decade.” The place of history within the organization is not good:

Even when the consequent attitude toward history is not outright disdain, there is a dreadful tendency to view historic sites as somehow emasculated by the absence of geysers, waterfalls, granite grandeur, and genuine law enforcement challenges.

This blunt and bleak assessment highlights the enormous obstacles confronting any serious attempt to elevate the status of history within the organization.

To gain a better understanding of what is really happening on the ground, the authors examined the history staff of the NPS. They found that these individuals “are dispersed and often only loosely connected.” Even the 182 individual “historians” by job title out of 22,000 total staff including seasonal and temporary don’t necessarily do “history” as someone outside the bureaucracy would understand it. One respondent wrote that history in the NPS is “sporadic, interrupted, superbly excellent in some instances and vacant in others.” A critical shortcoming identified is one which will resonate with the New York history community: “neither the chief historian’s office, nor any other single entity within the service, clearly speaks on history’s behalf or has responsibility for overseeing all history work throughout the NPS.” Gosh, I wonder how that situation could exist or be a problem. I am shocked. Shocked to find out that no one is in charge here.

The authors, who themselves are historians by training and profession, recognized that there is a problem across all history organizations including museums, colleges, universities, schools, and public programs. The challenge they identify is to make history, historical thinking, and historical training relevant and intelligible. As an example of critical thinking, suppose a President of the United States claimed that a certain Secretary of State was the worst one in American history and that America has been a loser in all the treaties it has signed (so we are going to return Alaska to the Russians, thank you very much Secretary of State William Seward of Florida and Auburn, New York for that folly!). On what basis was that historical conclusion reached? On what basis can it be challenged?

The authors bemoan the popular perception of history as “either a boring recital or memorized facts or a series of arcane and tedious debates about esoteric subjects.” To those one might add that contrary to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, people are entitled to their own facts. In this environment when people have the right to alternative facts it is difficult to make the case the NPS should encourage and foster critical thinking skills as part of a park visit. Of course, the report was written when there was a former professor in the White House. Times have changed. What do you as a ranger when confronted with someone who prefers an alternate universe? Rangers don’t have the option to change the channel.

The author’s discovered some ingrained institutional issues that compromised the position of history within the NPS. An internal divide is expressed through the shorthand of “nature” and “culture.” Within the culture realm there is another division, this time between:

Cultural resources management or the preservationists who protect the physical remains of the past, and interpretation or education-oriented processes aimed at fostering public appreciation for the resources and introducing larger narratives of the American story.

According to the consultants, the past 40 years of the NPS has been a confining of history, historical research, and history programs to preservation. The story began in 1935 with the passage of the Historic Sites Act. Suddenly a nature and scenery organization had thrust upon it responsibility for historic sites (just as happened to the Office of Parks in New York). There already was an NPS Chief Historian beginning in 1931 tasked with an education mission for the nature sites. As it turned out, the Chief Historian had an academic history background and he envisioned the history sites as classrooms for the teaching of history. Therefore he needed a history staff. Since all this was happening during the Depression, he was able to hire Ph.D.’s in history and soon had a staff of 60. But the marriage of history preservation behind the scenes and history presentation to the public was a tense one.

By the 1960s, the preservationists had won the battle. Broad historical themes were out and targeted messages conveying specific information about the specific site one was in. With the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the new National Register of Historic Places operated under the umbrella of the National Park Service. The result of various shifts in department organization and practices was according to one survey respondent that NPS historians are “buried under compliance and a variety of bureaucratic mandates.” Instead of practicing the craft of history, the NPS historian survey respondent wrote: “Much of our professional talent in the cultural resources disciplines spends the bulk of its time on resource management” and not applied research. Furthermore, there is a gap between history or what passes for it in the NPS and the best professional, scholarly practices in history. That discrepancy is part of the reason for this study through the Organization of American Historians. That discrepancy is part of the reason why professional historians were asked to conduct the study. That discrepancy is part of the reason why professional historians with an emphasis on public history were asked to conduct this study.

With this background in mind, we can now turn to:

1. What was recommended?
2. How does it applies on the state level to government owned and operated historic sites.
3. What are the lessons for non-federal and non-state history museums and societies?

To be continued.

Are You Authorized to Teach Teachers?: The CTLE and You

In a previous post, I reported that the New York State Education Department (SED) had established new procedures to regulate the teaching of teachers for professional development credit. The change was due to the abuses of the old system by teachers and school districts. The new system called Continuing Teacher and Leader Education (CTLE) was featured at a workshop at the Museum Association of New York (MANY) conference. I attended the workshop and consider it to have been the most important session of the conference.

The presentation was by Kathryn Weller and James Jenkins of the New York State Museum (NYSM) with the assistance of Ann Jasinski (SED). The State Museum had to apply for CTLE authorization itself so the staff could speak from direct personal experience. The PowerPoint presentation is available free. For it or any questions contact:

Kathryn Weller: Kathryn.Weller@nysed.gov
James R. Jenkins: James.Jenkins@nysed.gov

Copies were sent to attendees and I am writing this post based on my notes from the session and the PowerPoint.

By statute, CTLE is defined as follows:

Activities designed to improve the teacher or leader’s pedagogical and/or leadership skills, targeted at improving student performance, including but not limited to formal continuing teacher and leader education activities.

It applies to:

Teachers with a Professional Certificate in the Classroom Teaching Service
 School leaders with a Professional Certificate in the Educational Leadership Service
 Teaching Assistants with a Teaching Assistant Level III certificate.

 CTLE does not apply to new teachers. Once teachers have received their professional certificate the requirements are:

each 5 year registration period, an applicant shall successfully complete a minimum of 100 hours of continuing teacher and leader education, as defined by the Commissioner.

 The issuer of CTLE credits must be authorized to do so by the SED. Some entities automatically qualify as a CTLE provider: schools, teacher centers, and BOCES. Then there is another category called “Other prospective sponsors.” This category includes museums and/or historical societies. There is a $600 application fee for 5 years coverage. Technically the $600 is for the evaluation of your application so if your application is declined you are out the money, there is no refund. There is no indication if a rejected application can be resubmitted without an additional $600 fee based on feedback from SED or even if SED will provide feedback. My impression is this one of the areas that requires finetuning.

To download the application as a PDF go to www.highered.nysed.gov/tcert/pdf/CTLE%20Sponsor%20Application-Full.pdf

Some of the items for the application are similar to what you may already do for grants. The key items in the application process are:

1. Copy of Charter or Certificate of Incorporation
2. Copy of mission statement or purpose of the organization
3. Sample CTLE Activity and all relevant documents – this is the only time a proposed CTLE activity needs to be submitted. You are not required to submit each time you present a program. Most likely history organization programs will be content oriented. You will be presenting information via a lecture, exhibit tour, grounds tour, etc.

One type of presentation not directly addressed is an activity many organizations do: a public lecture by an author/professor. We want teachers to attend such programs and have the opportunity to hear content information from scholars but the program is not a teacher program and would be offered even if no teacher attends. My impression is this is not the type of program SED had in mind when designing the form. However lectures are a common activity by historical organizations. Furthermore, after the lecture, there is not going to be a separate meeting with teacher(s) who attended the often evening lecture. Here is an example when some finetuning in the program may be needed.

CTLE may also be pedagogical. Typically the pedagogy follows the presentation of the content. Here is the information, now how will you use it in the classroom?

The application form provides guidelines on what is to be submitted as a sample CTLE activity.

1. title, description and outline of the program
2. subject/topic of the CTLE activity, learning objectives and its target audience (classroom teachers, school leaders, teaching assistants or any combination of these)
3. names, curriculum vitae and qualifications of the presenter(s) for each lecture or subject/topic
4. a course syllabus and copies of any handouts or materials
5. costs, refund policies, cancellation policies and proposed location(s)
6. a description of the teaching methods to be used
7. advertising materials, brochures and/or information about how the CTLE activity will be marketed and
8. the length of the CTLE activity in contact hours.

Again, please keep in mind that you only have to submit this information once and with one example. It does however indicate the information you will need to keep on file for each program that you offer. See Section 2 CTLE Activities below for more detail.

1. Description of the organization’s procedures to identify, design and evaluate CTLE activities
2. Organization’s procedures and criteria for selecting instructors
3. Description of the organization’s procedures to evaluate effectiveness
4. Plan to maintain records – good old-fashioned folders for each class were recommended although it can be done as computer files too.
5. Financial resources documents
– Attach a brief description of the financial base upon which the organization’s CTLE activities are funded.
– Attach a description of all physical resources (e.g., offices, buildings, etc.), administrative organization, employees, student services, and any other resources available to facilitate CTLE objectives.

One should note that fees can be charged to participating teachers seeking CTLE credit. Still there are some issues. Not all organizations have physical resources. Not all organizations have employees. Not all organizations have a financial base, meaning some programs have to pay for themselves through the registration fees to at least cover the out-of-pocket costs of the program. For the smaller organizations, CTLE may be more of a burden than a help.

SECTION 2 – CTLE ACTIVITIES

What are the CTLE activities that SED wants history organizations to fulfill? Here is some sample jargon. The CTLE activity:

1. will expand educators’ content knowledge and the knowledge and skills necessary to provide appropriate instructional strategies and assesses student progress;
2. is research-based and provides educators with opportunities to analyze, apply, and engage in research.

In some cases, it may be useful to complete the application with the aid of a teacher or someone familiar with the k-12 social studies guidelines.

Sample lesson plan templates used by the NYSM are included in the PowerPoint presentation.

SECTION 3 – INSTRUCTORS

Sponsors are required to use instructors who are qualified to teach the CTLE activities. For museums and history organizations the requirement more likely refers to content specialists than education specialists.  Curators and historians are two prime examples. Educational specialists refers to people who know how to use different types of resources as evidence or can create experiences that embrace the Enquiry Arc of the Social Studies Framework.

The applying organization must certify that standards for the selection of instructors will be maintained. One needs to maintain job descriptions that demonstrate that the individual instructor is qualified by training and/or experience to teach the CTLE activity assigned to them. Typically this would be the CV of an invited speaker. In addition, the organization must maintain and use written procedures to evaluate instructors’ performance. Once again, these requirements do not mean that each and every time you offer at CTLE program you have to submit to the SED the job descriptions and evaluations of each instructor, but that you are required to maintain the supporting documentation m for the program for up to eight years. These records are subject to audit when the participating teacher’s record is up for review.  There are sample forms available and the suggestion was to keep them in hard copy filed by class or program.

SECTION 4 – ASSESSMENT OF LEARNING

Similarly with the assessment of learning, there must be a documented method and record to measure the extent to which the CTLE objectives and educational methods were met in the program. These assessment methods could include:

post-tests
questionnaires
participant evaluations
activity monitors (a component of a larger assessment)

The NYSM created a participant questionnaire you can copy. It evaluated:

Instructor
Workshop
Materials
Relevancy
What the participant learned
How they will apply the information learned

The PowerPoint presentation includes a sample of the form used by the NYSM. Some short responses questions are:

Additional comments about the presenter(s)?
How did you learn about this workshop?
What did you learn today and how will you use that information?
What was the most useful part of this workshop? Why?
What was the least useful part of this workshop?  Why & how could we change it?
What future workshop topics would you be interested in?

Again the question here is what about teachers attending a public content program, meaning a lecture? There really isn’t time after the lecture to meet with the attending teachers. Often there isn’t beforehand either. How exactly to handle this will require some trial and error to see what actually works.

SECTION 5 – RECORDS

As mentioned, records are to be maintained for eight years. The required information to maintain includes:

the date and location of the CTLE activity;
the name and curriculum vitae of the instructor/presenter;
the objectives and learning methods of the CTLE activity;
the outline of the CTLE activity, the assessment methods used, and the number of contact hours of the CTLE activity;
a summary of any evaluation of the CTLE activity;
copies of all promotional materials used in a CTLE activity;
any evaluation of the need for the CTLE activity; and
the list of certified professionals in attendance, including each attendee’s first name, last name, last four digits of their Social Security Number and their date of birth.

Upon completion of the program, the CTLE provider then can issue a certificate to the participating teacher. The certificate is to include:

1. the CTLE institutions name;
2. the name of the participant as it appears on the TEACH website;
3. the last four digits of the participant’s Social Security Number;
4. the participant’s date of birth;
5. the date and location of the CTLE activity;
6. the CTLE activity title;
7. the educational area (e.g., pedagogy, content, English language learning);
8. the number of CTLE hours;
9. the Approved Sponsor Identification number;
10. the sponsor’s contact email address and phone number;
11. the name and signature of the Authorized Certifying Officer and a statement indicating that the organization is recognized by the New York State Education Department’s Office of Teaching Initiatives as an approved sponsor of CTLE for Professional Classroom Teachers, School Leaders and Level III Teaching Assistants.

Obviously there are confidentiality issues in the required information particularly with the date of birth, Last 4 of SSN, and Email/contact.

THE CTLE AND YOU

What does all this mean for an individual history society and museum? If you are a local organization only providing programs to teachers in the school district where you are located, probably not much. The local school district, teacher center, or BOCES will issue the CTLE credit. Your only responsibility will be to certify to them that you are in compliance. That may mean submitting CVs of the instructors in the program. Most likely the school will provide the forms it wants you to use for evaluations, lesson plan, certificates which you will complete and return to the school.

If you are involved with multiple school districts and promote your programs to a larger audience, then you need to become an authorized CTLE provider. At the workshop the NYSM and the Albany Institute of History & Art both in attendance are authorized. Since the workshop, I have noticed that the New-York Historical Society and Teaching Hudson Valley (NPS) have become authorized providers as well. Obviously these organizations offer programs covering wide geographical areas, they want to be in control of their own programs which they initiate, and they have the staff to complete the application.

One possibility raised at the workshop, in response to my own comment, was whether one organization could function as the recordkeeping organization for another. The answer was yes. This means, for example, that the Albany Institute of History & Art could be the one official CTLE authorizer in Albany (city and/or county) and would maintain the required records for eight years. So rather than smaller organizations going through the formal application process, it could simply contact the Albany Institute of History & Art and send its program forms there. This would enable a smaller organization in Albany to offer a program to multiple school districts without being a CTLE provider itself.

Although the program originated in 2016, it is still brand new to the history community. At the time of the workshop there may only have been the one non-government CTLE provider, the Albany Institute of History & Art with additional applications in the pipeline. There are some improvements which would be helpful:

1. Clarifying how the “parent” relationship would work so smaller societies can offer CTLE activities without having to pay the $600 evaluation fee or spending the time to prepare the application.

2. Clarifying how teacher participation in public programs with content value would qualify such as a lecture series during the school year, conferences such as the recent American Revolution in the Mohawk Valley, and the routine types of walks, tours, talks, historical organizations present during the normal course of operation or for designated days like the Ramble in the Hudson Valley or the Path through History.

3. Recognizing that not all history providers have physical offices, resources, or staff, especially municipal historians and volunteer organizations.

4. Providing a list of the most common guidelines and standards in the curriculum relevant to history organizations especially for content.

The CTLE represents an important step in potentially reducing the abuses of the previous situation. Still there should be no underestimating the determination and ability of school districts to game the system. It is important for the history community to learn the language of the CTLE process so it can be proactive by saying to the schools : “We know what you have to do to comply with the CTLE requirements, here is how we can help.”

What Are History Societies Doing and What Can the Regents and Governor Do to Help Them?

George Bailey Contemplating an Alternative Reality

Courtesy of Wikipedia

If a tree falls in the woods and no one sees it, has anything happened? If an historical society does something and no other history society knows about it, has anything happened? I am not referring to the lectures, tours, and exhibits which history museums and societies routinely do. Instead I am referring to something a little out of the ordinary, the kind of item one might present at an APHNYS or MANY conference.

The dissemination of ideas is difficult. There is no easy way to accomplish the task. Certainly notices can be published and distributed. The reality is many municipal historians are not members of APHNYS and APHNYS does not have a way of advising its members of best practices or innovative ideas. The same is true for history organizations and MANY. Even if one does present at the annual conference, only some of the members attend and even fewer attend an individual session because there are concurrent sessions. So there is no easy way to share original ideas or actions that go above and beyond the call.

Since I read New York History Blog, I read about many events in the state including ones I cannot possibly attend. For me to go to upstate for a single lecture, tour, or exhibit is a misuse of my time. However, I do attend various conferences and will be reporting on some of them.  Since I distribute my own blog, I also am the recipient of newsletters from history organizations. Sometimes they arrive as enewsletters, sometimes as emails, sometimes as Word or PDF attachments, and sometimes by mail. By no means do these notices cover the state, but they do provide a window into what’s going on out there.  In this post, I would like to share some items that I consider to be a bit unusual and worthy of attention. This is not a scientific survey nor is it comprehensive. It’s just some excerpts from the random notices I have come across.

Greece Historical Society

The annual report for 2016 of the society states:

The all volunteer Society’s purpose is to collect, preserve, research and share local history with the community. We strive to provide the community with an awareness of the past, an appreciation of the present, and a vision for the future, giving a sense of “roots” and a greater feeling of belonging.

Clearly this society operates under the Tonko vision of local history and not the Cuomo one. I suspect pretty much every local society has in its mission statement and/or annual report something similar to what the Greece Historical Society has.  If that’s the mission, then shouldn’t tax dollars be aimed at helping it fulfill that mission rather than to call for the Greece Historical Society to become a tourist destination site for busloads of Chinese?

The Society reports that it held eight monthly Tuesday evening lectures featuring local historians, authors, and humanities scholars in 2016 averaging 85 guests per evening. While no individual lecture deserves mention in this post the cumulative effect of lecture programs does. These numbers mean a total of 680 people participated in the lecture programs of this one society. What would the state-wide total be? Does anyone have any idea how many residents and visitors from nearby communities both individually and through repeat attendance are connecting to local history through lecture programs?  I recall one dark and cold February night attending a lecture at the Mabee Farm location of the Schenectady Historical Society where I could just barely find a parking space since well over 100 people were there (I was on my to a conference starting the next day so I was able to attend. I did not drive from Westchester just for it!). Did I mention it was a dark cold night in February? With snow on the ground? At a site not on a main well-lit road but on a narrow dark one? It’s not quite, if you offer it they will come, but overall I would say there is little appreciation or even awareness for the numbers of people who collectively attend lectures through their local history societies. Remember the Lyceums? There still are buildings with that name in many communities. Remember Chautauqua and the circuit Chautauquas that barnstormed the country like baseball teams and circuses use to do. Not everyone is trapped by their electronic devices. Sometimes people like to be with other people in a social and intellectually stimulating setting that reaffirms community identity.

Lock 52 Historical Society of Port Byron

In response to the post New Approaches for Historical Societies and History Museums by Bruce Dearstyne on March 21, 2017 for New York History Blog, Mike Riley, the president of the Lock 52 Historical Society of Port Byron, expressed the concerns of history societies throughout the state.  He specifically referred to suggestions made in the post about what history societies can do.

(T)here is the realization that with 8 volunteers who average in age of 75 to 90, it is unlikely that any (of the suggestions in the post) will be adopted. We are in a slow death spiral to the day when we close the doors for good. We can look back and say that all these good folks started helping the society when they were in their 30’s to 50’s, and they remain as the foundation for anything we do. There are no new 30, 40 or 50 year old’s taking their place. And as the folks age and pass, the open hours get cut, or the displays don’t get changed. It becomes a fight for life, attracting visitors almost becomes secondary, which of course harms us greatly, I really don’t know if there is an answer. As a society we just don’t value these civic engagement activities as we use to. I know I am not alone. I am in a race to digitize photos and get them out there on the web so at least if the Society closes, some of the history will be saved and available to people. 

Clearly Riley belongs to the Tonko side of the vision of local history as an essential component of the social fabric on the community. Clearly also that fabric is fraying. There is a need to rethink the standard history society model especially as it relates to the large number of small municipalities throughout the state. It is time for some new thinking about the position of the municipal historian, the municipal history society, the local library, and teacher training and the school curriculum and their intertwining. Here is where the history community really needs leadership from the Regents and the Commissioner of Education. 

Putnam County Historian (technically not a history society)

The historian’s office held a free digital scanning initiative to secure military memories of the past for future generations. Local families with military memorabilia are invited to make appointments through the County Historian’s Office to have old letters, documents, photographs and assorted military memorabilia scanned and recorded on a memory device such as a USB or burned to a disk, free of charge. Being the repository for the memory of a community, doesn’t simply mean waiting around for people to dump things in your lap. It is legal to be proactive. In fact, if the regulations for municipal historians are ever rewritten, I would include a requirement to be proactive. How many people would want the job then?

Warwick Historical Society

Once upon a time back in 2013, a group of 4th graders were digging behind one of the historical houses of the Warwick Historical Society. This time besides the usual bits and pieces of commonplace objects, they struck paydirt, a decorated brick. As the work continued in 2014 with two ‘archaeologists,’ average age 76, unearthed the wall of home of “Rocking Chair Benny Sayre.” Sayre (1865 to 1940), the keeper of Baird’s Tavern across the street. George Knight, one of the excavators also was busy cleaning up his own grounds. One type of item frequently found was small bottles.  “Warwick back in the day was higher than a kite,” said Knight. So it seems. These little bottles were considered medicine that, not unlike today’s Oxycontin, turned out to have a serious drawback. “We had a substance abuse problem here over 100 years ago,” said Warwick town historian Richard Hull. “In the 1890s up until World War I, there’d be itinerant merchants who’d come into town to sell elixirs to relieve pain, headaches, relieve depression and so forth. They spiked these concoctions, so that when they sold them people became quite addicted in some cases,” he said. The Women’s Temperance League may have been a response not only to alcohol abuse, but also to these un-talked-of habits. Everyone likes to ogle the opium bottles. They’re scintillating in a way that stone walls just aren’t. That bugs Knight, although he’s good natured about it.

The historic society wasn’t always this go-go-go. “As you can imagine, it was very dry,” said President Mark Kurtz, who stopped by the dig. “There’s become excitement, with the kids that visit.” Every fourth grader in the Warwick school district takes a tour every year, and the middle school just launched a Sustainable Architecture class that will be taking a field trip to the historic society’s properties.  “We’re starting a bunch of brand new reach outs to the school district,” he said. “The point is to make this history become important to people, and that’s the time to reach them.” Lisa-Ann Weisbrod, the society’s new director, said, “It’s amazing how much is going on. It’s a historical society. How busy can it be? It’s crazy.”

This report from the society’s website entitled What’s under Warwick highlights several important developments

  1. the creation of a monthly enewsletter by the Orange County historian Johanna Yuan reporting on the activities in the county, something all county historians should have to do as part of the job.
  2. the outreach to the schools in a literally hands-on experience – which will not stop at 4th grade as the junior archaeologists track the project through the duration of their k-12 education (and then become members of the historical society as adults)
  3. the funding issues the Society experienced for support of the dig versus stabilizing a building
  4. the unusual nature of the Society which owns multiple buildings and is creating the equivalent of an historic district for the residents of the community to experience.

Chalk up another one for the Tonko vision over the Cuomo vision.

White Plains Historical Society

The society compiled a list of 20 streets named after American Revolution figures. I write about the importance of a sense of place as an essential component to the health of the community. One way to foster a connection between residents and their own municipality is to know not simply the name of the streets of the community but the reason for the name of the streets. While the naming of streets after military (and political) heroes might seem obvious, it also is true the residents of communities today don’t know the why streets and buildings have the names they have or why statues were erected (unless Confederate). History societies have the opportunity to engage the public in “Why that name?” Even numerically named streets or tree-named streets are cultural clues to the thinking of the people who named them. The grid in Manhattan is the most famous example but smaller versions exist in many communities. It is not just coincidence that there are a lot Maple, Elm, and Walnut streets either. We can learn about our past by understanding the names that were bequeathed to the organization of space.

 

As I mentioned at the onset, these examples aren’t meant to be comprehensive or inclusive. Nonetheless they represent a good cross section of the trials and tribulations on the history community at the grass roots level and the exemplary efforts by volunteers. A little help would be nice.

Vision of New York State History: Lessons from Harlem

Harlem Preservation Conference

The different approaches to local and state history championed by Representative Tonko versus Governor Cuomo manifested itself in some recent blogs on New York History Blog and the Adirondack Alamanack. These pieces were not written in conjunction with my post on the subject but help to flesh out on the local level what is actually at stake if the social fabric model is jettisoned on behalf of the economic/transactional model. In this blog, I focus on one event that could be replicated in communities throughout the state, specifically:

Harlem Preservation Conference April 29th

On Saturday, April 29, twelve community-based organizations held a day-long forum titled “Harlem and the Future: Preserving Culture and Sustaining History in a Changing Environment” (“Harlem and the Future”) at CUNY to discuss the changes, the best practices, and the imminent challenges that are affecting Harlem’s social fabric, built environment, and cultural heritage. Harlem’s first historic preservation conference comes at a time of change to this iconic neighborhood. The welcoming remarks were by Manhattan Borough President Gale A Brewer.

HOW MANY OTHER COMMUNITIES HAVE HAD OR SHOULD HAVE A SIMILAR CONFERENCE?

Sessions were held throughout the day to address the issues raised in the conference notice. They may be summarized as follows:

Cultural Heritage

Harlem is not just a geographic locale in Upper Manhattan, but a diverse African-American community with a rich history represented by a remarkable architectural heritage. While the success of the play “Hamilton” has led to an explosive growth in visitors headed uptown to see the Hamilton Grange historic site, the physical embodiments of Harlem’s cultural heritage have long been simultaneously celebrated and threatened. Who decides what stories are preserved and retold?  What is the cultural brand of Harlem and does it represents the community as a whole.

The musical “Hamilton” ends with “who will the story?”, the exact question challenging every community.

In response to my blog on the vanishing of local history, I received a reply from Camille Linen, creator of Flashbacks, a musical covering the 350 year history of the Town of Rye where we both live. She wrote:

Flashbacks has just become a part of the Port Chester fourth grade curriculum so Port Chester is now a grassroots exception to the Vanishing Breed title.

Maybe Flashbacks can serve as a model for others in the area, to start,

Last year we had Rye, Rye Brook and Port Chester fourth graders at the Capitol Theatre performance. The teachers were all given copies of the teacher/artist/historian written curriculum and were very pleased with the program.

This year I was unable to obtain enough funding for the theater performance, but worked to get it established on solid ground in the Port Chester district curriculum.

Using the arts to deliver local history was the deciding factor.

Let’s meet sometime over the summer to brainstorm.

Flashbacks was the subject of my post What Works: Flashback to Your Community’s Heritage. In that post, I touted the benefits of history storytelling as performance at the local level. My suggestions then and still roughly applicable today were:

  1. We need to do a better job reaching out to all the schools in the local school districts.
  2. We need to do a better job of reaching into the community through its civic, social, and religious organizations.
  3. We need to do a better job of reaching into the business community for financial support.  The musical mentions four current businesses. Talk about product placement!
  4. We need to reach out to the high school drama/theater clubs to participate.
  5. We need to provide better photo opportunities, both for the Town Supervisor giving the certificates to each class and for the students with the cast. The students really loved seeing the people on stage up close and personal in costume, even though they already knew some of them.
  6. We need to build on this event with additional civic activities including mock sessions in the town and village halls, visits to the county and state chambers, walking tours of the town, and the use of apps with maps, photos, and stories.

Whether it is preserving the heritage of the village of Port Chester which will reach its sesquicentennial next year or of Harlem which once was a Dutch village before it became part of a larger political entity or to your own community, we need to link our youth to their local heritage through the arts.

Built Environment

Harlem’s built environment, from its ornate brownstones to its human-scale character, tells the story of the neighborhood’s development and evolution. Unfortunately, much of Harlem’s physical fabric has been lost to demolition, both by neglect and redevelopment, over time.

Landmark designation has proven itself to be an important tool in the fight to preserve character and manage change but it may not always be the most effective nor desirable way to protect a neighborhood. How can Harlem residents reinforce their community’s identity while also adapting to growth and development?

The reference to “physical fabric” raises an important and often overlooked component of history heritage. We exist physically and our sense of touch shouldn’t be limited to a mouse or touchscreen. People need to see, touch, and physically experience their community. This means walking, this means observing, this means touching. The brain needs the physical sensations to aid in creating the memories that will endure even when physical contact is lost. When I took teachers behind the scenes in some museums where they then could touch physical artifacts from thousands of years ago, the experience resonated and was remembered even if the artifact was simply the piece of a broken pot. Touching is part of the human experience and by separating that sensation from local history, we separate people from the past.

And what are the buildings in the community? What are their stories? For example, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum has made the stories of the people in the apartments the basis of the tourist experience. What are the stories in the buildings of your community? Here is where there are opportunities for high school senior service projects to connect students to their own community. Let them work with the local historians and preservationists to document using the technologies which are second nature to them, to tell the stories and place them on the web. When a building is demolished it is part of their heritage which is being destroyed as well. Before the refrain of “Another one bites the dust,” wipes out the past, let’s encourage the next generation to help their community to tell its story by becoming familiar with what that story is.

Social Fabric: What’s the New Religion? Churches at Risk

The beautiful stone churches of Harlem stand out as landmarks in the neighborhood. While these buildings have lasted decades, the congregants that utilized them reflect the evolving character of the community. Throughout their history, Harlem’s churches have served as a home and well-spring in shaping the neighborhood’s social dynamics. In particular, the role of the church in Harlem’s African American community is evidenced in everything from music to the civil rights movement. Today, technological and demographic shifts, both globally and locally, have reshaped the way Harlemites interact with one another and created new “congregations” outside of religious institutions. These changes leave congregants, preservationists, and residents asking what’s to become of the buildings imbued with historical, architectural, and social value.

Consider the example of a community where the old architecture is being demolished to be replaced by roads and cookie-cutter high-rise apartment complexes. The people have rallied together to save their common memory. They have created a blog with stories about 60 sites in their community. They have created an online discussion group for their community with about 100 members including local artists, architects, and scholars to discuss and plan how to preserve their community’s heritage. Many of its churches and synagogues have been destroyed. Finally it dawned on them that the surviving architectural treasures might have tourist appeal but it might be too late.

They complained that the character of their district had been destroyed. As one sociology professor put it, “Cultural preservation means nothing to real estate developers and the government. Nothing is being considered but economic interests.”  They complained that the city lacked good channels for local scholars and preservationists to communicate with the government. The city is Harbin in the former Manchuria now part of China with a Russian heritage of both Russian Orthodox and Russian Jews (“A Chinese City with a Russian Past Struggles to Preserve Its Legacy,” NYT 6/5/17).

St. Sophia Cathedral in Harbin China.
Gilles Sabrie for the NYT

Today in New York and America, students can study the role of religion in the social fabric of every community but their own. Today adults travel the globe visiting the physical expressions of religion without knowing what it is in their own community. The pyramids may have lasted for millennia but they are dead structures of a dead society. But the questions people asked and wondered about have remained and our common to all cultures. Especially in New York, one doesn’t have to travel far for a close encounter of a different kind. The social fabric of a community is intangible but it can be glimpsed in the tangible expressions of it. When we only know our own kind and at this moment, the social fabric unravels. We always are part of something larger than ourselves whether we realize it or not. Understanding the social fabric of our home community begins a journey that helps us to understand the community of the starship earth.

Considering Harlem’s cultural heritage panel, experts will evaluate the cultural brand of Harlem, which has attracted global attention, and reflect on whether it now represents the community as a whole. On the topic of the built environment, panelists will discuss retaining identity and a sense of place, as defined by the physical environment, cultural legacy, and inhabitants, the effectiveness of working with landmarks designation, building community activism and forging private-public partnerships while also adapting to growth and development. And lastly for the community’s social fabric, using the church as a microcosm of a community in transition, leaders from Harlem’s churches will consider how contemporary needs and uses may revitalize and breathe new life into Harlem’s historic church buildings.

The Harlem Preservation Conference is a worthy undertaking. It should be replicated in communities which are not political entities in their own right and those that are. I do not know what the results were of the conference and what the next steps (if any) the participants have chosen to take. I do know a journey begins with a single step and community preservation conferences are an excellent first step to reknitting the social fabric at the local, state, and national level.

The Battle for New York State History: Representative Paul Tonko versus Governor Andy Cuomo

The State of New York State History

On April 12, 2015, Representative Paul Tonko received the Legislative Leadership Award from the Museum Association of New York (MANY). He was a co-winner with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of the inaugural award by MANY.  The award recognizes exemplary leadership in support of museums and cultural institutions in the state. These two elected officials were cited for their work in Congress in support of funding the Office of Museum Services within the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

Representative Tonko appeared in person in Corning to receive the award at the annual MANY conference. During the reception in the glass-blowing exhibit area, he spoke to the attendees. Unfortunately, I took no notes and did not record what he said. In general terms, I was impressed with what he had to say, with his vocabulary and choice of words on behalf of local and state history. As I recall, he never once mentioned them in conjunction with economic development or job creation. It was all about the civic and social importance of local history in the community.

On April 2, 2017, Representative Tonko was present in Saratoga Springs at the MANY conference when Regent Roger Tilles was the award winner. As a member of the Culture sub-committee, Tilles deals directly with the state Archives, Library, and Museum. He received the award due to work in support of the Museum Education Act. During the reception, Tonko addressed the audience. This time I paid more attention to his words. At times he seemed to be channeling my blog. I do not know him and I doubt he has read them, nonetheless one couldn’t help but wish when it comes to local and state history that he was governor. He is well aware of the of the importance of a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of community and the importance of local history to the social fabric and civic health of a municipality. Once again, there was no mention of economic development or job creation as primary responsibilities of local and state history organizations.

It is hard to imagine Governor Cuomo ever winning the MANY Legislative Leadership award unless it was a crass political move as a quid pro quo in his quest to be President. Let’s look at some of the key actions which have occurred during his tenure.

1. Member items have been eliminated. Given the chronic corruption in the state government, one might easily applaud this attempt to rein in the endemic misuse and abuse of taxpayer money. Unfortunately, the action threw out the baby with the bathwater. Many small non-profits seeking comparatively small sums of funding turned to their local legislator and/or senator (as I did) for support. Larger scale funding often was a bureaucratic challenge. Starlyn D’Angelo, executive director Albany Shaker Heritage Society and current MANY Board of Director, raised this very point at the History Roundtable chaired by State Legislator Steve Englebright on May 29, 2014 with Regent Tilles in attendance (see Report from the NYS History Commission Roundtable). It was Devin Lander’s last day as a legislative aide before becoming executive director of MANY, his position before becoming State Historian.  While there is some funding in Republican Senate districts as Fort Niagara availed itself of, there is no state-wide mechanism to address the small-scale needs of the history community (see January History News).

2. REDC funding has now begun a new cycle of funding application for the 2017 awards. To some extent, the funding simply includes the types of funding that history organizations directly applied to NYSOPRHP and NYSAC for in the past. In general terms the local history organization has no place in this process. The Regional Economic Development Councils (REDC) are interested in economic development and job development. Imagine if the local library had to request funding based on those standards…or the police department!

The game is rigged against the history community. At the recent MANY conference, Ross Levi, Marketing Initiatives for Empire State Development for I Love New York and the public face of the Path through History, spoke in the “Partnerships for Progress: Museums and Tourism” session.  The theme of the session was the ways in which museums and cultural institutions can partner with I Love New York to promote their organizations. I will more to say about this in future posts taking into account the Tourism Advocacy Council, the plenary address at MANY, and related materials.

In the meantime, I wish to report on a question asked from the audience to Ross about the local tourism representation. At the second Women’s Suffrage conference last October 7, (see Women’s Suffrage Centennial), Rick Newman, Seneca County TPA, distributed a list of the Tourism Promotion Agency (TPA) from every county. By law, I Love New York works through these agencies and not directly with local history organizations. Ross suggested that the local history organizations contact the TPA in their county. These TPAs could be an advocate for the history community in the REDC funding process.

I take Ross at his word. While I do not know him well, I think he genuinely believed what he was saying was sound advice with real world application. Here we have a classic example of the disconnect between the Albany-Manhattan bubble and that real world. While I can only comment anecdotally, I have heard multiple incidents from people in the history community about TPAs who don’t give them the time of day. TPAs are interested in wineries, recreational tourism, and sites that bring head to beds. TPAs often are non-government organizations, that is, chambers of commerce, working to do what is best for its members. The members rarely are small non-profit history organizations and are even if they were or became members, they are not likely to carry much weight. There is nothing wrong with Chambers of Commerce actively promoting economic development, but once again it means the history community is left high and dry with nowhere to turn in the funding process.

3. Speaking of nowhere to turn, let’s turn to the great failure itself, the Path through History. It will celebrate its fifth anniversary on August 28, 2017. What does it have to show for itself? I attended the kickoff meeting for the HV region on January 25, 2013 (see A Fork in the Road on the Path through History).  Of the ten regions originally created and recipients of $100,000 grants from the State, how many of those regions are still functioning? If they are functioning, what do they do? If they aren’t functioning, what replaced them? Was there ever any additional funding?

Historic sites are ranked by revenue/budget for tourist purposes. Within the Hudson Valley region where I live, there are five over the $1,000,000 threshold I Love New York uses to calculate the crown jewels for tourism. I don’t know what they are in this region but some possibilities include Historic Hudson Valley (multiple sites including Kykuit), Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt library and homes run by the National Park Service and National Archives, and the Culinary Institute. Approximately 70% of the organizations in the region are under $50,000 in revenue meaning they are below the radar where anyone in the state gives a dam about them.

In my blog after the initial meeting, I recommended that the $100,000 be used to hire people who would create paths. Years later, I recommended that there be funding through the REDC process to hire PATHFINDERS who would create the paths that the TPAs and I Love New York would promote (see Create Pathfinders in Your Region). One region tried and it was rejected – there is no place for cooperation and collaboration no matter what jargon terms are used at conferences and meetings. Once again the history community is left high and dry.

As it turns out there are people at the grassroots level who can and have created paths through history. Generally these are conjunction with a conference. I will be writing about these examples in a future post. Of course, these are created without state support or promotion.

The cost to New York State of the failure to respect the Tonko model is enormous if difficult to quantify. The stakes for the country are even larger. It goes to the heart of what it means to be an American and resident of one’s community. In a recent op-ed piece entitled “America’s Political Disunion” by Robert P. Jones (NYT 5/2/17), he cited British writer G. K. Chesterton’s observation after he had visited the United States that unlike European countries we did not rely on ethnic kinship or cultural character to create a shared identity. People of any race, any ethnicity, any religion can and have been American. Once upon a time in New York, German Palatines, the English, the Dutch, the French both Huguenots and Catholics, Scotch-Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics, were people of different “nations” and types. Today they are all Americans and lumped together as white. And anyone who thinks all the Haudenosaunee nations live together in a two-dimensional kumbaya relationship as one Native American people should think again or think for the first time.

We are a storytelling species. We’ve lost that story feeling. We’ve lost the narrative. Can we tell a shared story of our history at the national level, at the state level, at the community level? Can we tell a narrative that unites us around a common multigenerational project that gives an overarching sense of meaning and purpose to our history? What is our shared narrative in our community? What is our shared narrative in our state? What is our shared narrative as Americans?

For most of the past 400 years, America did have an overarching story. It was the Exodus story.

The Puritans came to this continent and felt they were escaping the bondage of Egypt and building a new Jerusalem….

During the revolution, the founding fathers had that fierce urgency too and drew just as heavily on the Exodus story….

Frederick Douglas embraced the Exodus too….

The successive immigrant groups saw themselves performing an exodus to a promised land…

In the 20th century, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders drew on the Exodus more than any other story (David Brooks, “The Unifying American Story, NYT 3/21/17).

There is a unity in the story from long ago in lands far far away to boldly going where no one has gone before.  There are stories to be told in every community throughout the land from Ice Age to Global Warming about the people who lived there and the people who do live there. There are stories to be told about how all the different peoples of the Mohawk Valley became part of We the People. There are stories to be told about how all the peoples who arrived at Castle Garden became part of We the People. There are stories to be told about how all the peoples who arrived at Ellis Island became part of We the People. There are stories to be told about how all the people who arrived at JFK Airport became part of We the People.

There are stories to be told if We the People are to survive as a nation, to long endure, to not become Syria, to not become Yugoslavia, to not become Iraq. We don’t even celebrate the birthday of our state or the anniversary of when we constituted ourselves as New Yorkers.

Brooks ends his op-ed piece with a call to leadership for We the People.

What’s needed is an act of imagination, someone who can tell us what our goal is, and offer an ideal vision of what the country and the world should be.

Neither of the candidates provided such a vision in 2016. They didn’t even try. Will anything be different in the 2020 rematch? Maybe Tonko should run for president instead of Cuomo.

 

Voices from the Grassroots: The Vanishing of Local History

East Main Street District , Westfield, NY

Personal Note: For the past two weeks I have been busy reviewing the proofs from my forthcoming book Jerusalem Throne Games: The Battle of Biblical Stories after the Death of David. Yes, New York State history is not my first love. As a result I was not able to write the posts I wanted. I will try to catch up after returning from the Erie Canal conference in Utica this weekend. In the meantime, here are some local voices.

On May 7, I went to the Ulster County History Exhibitions at the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston. The event was organized by Geoffrey Miller, the new county historian. While there we both happen to meet Diana Decker Kuster of Woodstock and Stone Arabia. As a Decker she apparently is part of a family of many generations in the state and as a parent she has seen the absence of local history in the schools. She expressed concerted displeasure with the vanishing of local history. She noted that in large school districts, local community stories are overlooked even if the big city story is taught. As children move away, such as after college, the chain of local history is broken. At times she seemed like she was channeling my posts even though she has never read them and didn’t know about them. Her emotional voice reveals that people even outside the formal history organizations can be concerned about the low priority of local history in the State.

The remainder of the post comes from Marybelle Beigh, the Town of Westfield historian in Chautauqua County. Her story sounds all too familiar.

Dr. Peter Feinman,

Finally, after several years of receiving your posts, I have taken the time to read several from the past year, working backwards to 5-19-2016 where you discussed “Lessons from the Weible Years.” Since that was about when I became a NY State local historian, I would like to share some bits of my “story” as they illustrate so much of what you often discuss in your excellent articles. The reason I initially subscribed to receiving these is after reading one several years ago that discussed the need to revise the historian law under which I was appointed. I found that discussion particularly pertinent to my own thoughts on the matter.

My name is Marybelle Beigh (pronounced “BEE”), and I was appointed Town of Westfield Historian (Chautauqua County NY) in May of 2007. This was followed a couple months later by being officially appointed Village of Westfield Historian. At the time, I was retired from teaching since 2003 (Electronics Instructor at Junior/Community College level for 30 years prior in CA and OR), and had returned to my hometown of Westfield NY, having lived in MA, CA, & OR since my first marriage in 1962; this was at the request of my aging mother and stepdad who both have since deceased (stepdad in 2005 & mother in 2014). I have a BS degree in Physics from SUNY Albany, and an MS in Education (Technology) from WOU Monmouth OR. What were my qualifications, other than higher education? A love of my hometown, a love of research and writing, a passion to save/preserve the many historic structures of my hometown such as the historic Barcelona Lighthouse, and a desire to see Main Street historic buildings revived as so many, at that time, were empty and deteriorating and, frankly, “UGLY”!

So, I was interviewed by the Town Supervisor, the County Historian, and the Head Librarian, and as there were really no other applicants, I got the position.

I was given a copy of the pretty brochure outlining the areas of responsibility (not all required) and the areas of “hands off” that included not collecting historic artifacts, not being a librarian (hmmm, how strange! It seems that at least the last 2 or 3 historians were librarians, the most recent one having been historian for 30 years, and librarian at least that long), and so on… When I asked what specifically were my duties, and where would my office be, the answer to the first was, don’t worry about that for now, just provide a monthly report of your activities to the Town Board monthly meeting; and the answer to the second was, “on the mezzanine of the library” where the previous historian had her office. The previous historian had retired at the end of 2006, and at the time of my appointment, was quite ill, and in a local nursing home. When I asked for an office in the village or town hall, there was no room in the inn so to speak.

I was told that when the previous historian recovered, they would have a special event to celebrate her years of service and to introduce me as the new historian. Well, that never happened… the previous historian passed away 2 months after I was appointed, and nobody thought that I should be introduced at that time, or ever, apparently… for years, in fact, to this day, very few people know that I am the historian (it’s been ten years now!)… and for a few years after I was appointed, the local newspaper ran reprints of her historian articles that she’d written between 1981 and 1990; although they also ran articles that I wrote as my own column called BeeLines, or Buzzings from BeeLines… (my nickname is “Bee” so someone suggested this as a cute title)…

Meanwhile, I was a member of the Chautauqua County Genealogical Society, in which there are several other local and govt. appointed historians, one of whom, after hearing of my historian appointment, asked me if I planned to attend the Spring 2008 State Historians Meeting (APHNYS)… I said, “What?” and so began my education and initiation into the mysterious workings of NY State public historian activities… that other historian and I attended the meeting together, which was about when we finally got a State Historian, Weible, and when I attended a short workshop for newly appointed historians… that was helpful and interesting, but when I told my local government what I was supposed to do, and where I was supposed to do it, they basically laughed and I started learning another lesson… the position of historian is not respected and is pretty much just something they appoint with no intention of following any of the rest of the law…

So I did what I could… responded to requests for information and research from clients who phoned, mailed, or emailed such to me… and used some of these topics and ones suggested by a few friends who love learning the history of our town & village, to research and write my BeeLines articles… at least I have some devoted readers who buy the local weekly newspaper just to read my latest “buzzings”… I love researching and solving history mysteries, probably because of my years as electronics technician problem solver (instructor as well as working in industry). I am blessed to have developed some really wonderful and long-lasting friendships with many of my historian clients.

During the past ten years as historian, I have tried many times to suggest various historical preservation projects, historical event ideas, correcting and updating the local town history book, (last edition was 1997), and so on, but have been rebuffed… and there have been quite a number of historical events and preservation or lack thereof situations about which as historian, I should probably be guiding or at least involved in the process, but which information has been pointedly NOT provided, often blocked or denied, and usually I am the LAST to know and in which have almost never been invited to be a participant. Even one event about which I was specifically contacted to be interviewed by Good Morning America (about Grace Bedell and Abraham Lincoln’s Whiskers), was interfered with by someone in the county historical society, so that he could be a “star” and in so doing caused one of the scheduled parts to be dropped, and made some local people very angry.

(I did do the interview after spending countless hours researching, locating living descendants of Bedell, and arranging the viewing of the house where she had lived in Westfield, which was the thing that was dropped). I was actually terrified to be interviewed for national TV, but the primary interviewer was wonderful at putting me at ease, and I did enjoy that part of it, although I have no interest in being a “star” thank you very much!

An interesting note is that I moved away from Westfield about 2014, to live near my son in Silverton CO, so resigned my post as historian. However, neither the village nor the town replaced me – in fact, I often received emails and phone calls in CO, for historical info, and had to try to direct the requesters to someone in Westfield, or answer what questions I was able, not having the resources of my previous files, etc. The other problem was that the high elevation was too much for my aging body – they put me on oxygen, so I moved back to Westfield and was immediately reappointed historian by both the town and village boards.

Since my return, in spite of escalating health problems, I continue to enjoy doing historical research and writing, and I have also discovered that our Chautauqua County Historian, Michelle Henry, is probably one of the most dedicated and knowledgeable historians, and is giving me a lot of help in organizing my work as historian, and finally I have a much better idea of what records are considered “permanent” items for the historian to maintain and pass on to the next historian and/or the town/village archives… I’m also learning that being two different historians can pose problems in determining ownership of records and books and publications of the historian…

So I can see more and more how inadequate and confusing for interpretation is our current historian law…

In addition to confirming by my own experience, what you write about so eloquently, I am really interested in helping in some way to improve not only the historian law, but to improve our public education history courses that teach local history. I was fortunate to have an excellent 7th-8th grade history teacher (they were called “social studies” teachers back in the 1950s… ) so did learn a lot of local history, as did many other grateful former students from those years that she taught. I also felt that I did NOT receive a proper education at the high school level, in that a number of courses and educational activities that had been important a couple decades earlier – such as civics, geography, and debating – were not part of my own learning experience – or at least not emphasized enough in my humble opinion.

Anyway, if you have managed to wade through my jumbled bit of ranting, I would like to know if there is anything I can do to be a part of, not apart from, the process of improving both the NY State historian law, and NY State local history education?

Thanks for “listening” and please advise..

Marybelle Beigh, Westfield Town & Village Historian

Teaching Teachers Local History: NYSED Changes the Rules

Middle School Field Trip

The New York State Education Department has changed the rules for the professional development of teachers. The changes affect teaching local and state history as well as all other subjects. The new system is called Continuing Teacher and Leader Education (CTLE). It was the subject of a workshop on April 2 prior to the formal start of the annual conference of the Museum Association of New York (MANY). I attended that workshop and consider it to have been the most important session in the conference.

By coincidence, Bruce Dearstyne has just written a post in New York History Blog entitled “New York History: Reaching Out to Social Studies Teachers.” I recommend it to you. He points out the three times in the k-12 curriculum that offer the best opportunity for infusing local and state history into the classroom and adds some comments:

*The Grade 4 Framework is entitled “New York State and Local History and Government” though coverage of New York history tapers off after about the mid-19th century and local history really is not covered at all.

*The Grade 7/8 Framework is titled “History of the United States and New York State” but in fact it focuses on U.S. history, with New York receiving little attention.

*The Grade 11 Framework focuses on “United States History and Government.” New York is not represented here but, given the fact that New York is arguably the nation’s most historically significant state, with many national trends starting here or playing out here, there is potential for infusing New York examples.

The reality of the situation is that the history community has to make the extra effort if local and state history is to be included in the curriculum. There will be the exceptional teachers who have a genuine interest in the subject and will make that effort and reach out to the local historical society but by and large teachers can comply with the current curriculum guidelines without paying any attention to you. As Bruce notes:

There are opportunities, particularly at the Grade 4 and 7/8 level, for integrating local, state, and national history, but it is up to historians and teachers to determine how best to do that. In fact, the preface to the Grade 7/8 Framework includes this short, but rather open-ended, suggestion:

“Teachers are encouraged to incorporate local features of state history in the course, such as the Dutch in the Hudson Valley, the Germans in the Schoharie Valley, the French in the Champlain Valley, Fort Niagara, the Brooklyn Naval Yard, the Seneca Falls Convention, Underground Railroad locations, war memorials, and other features in their community.”

Even the Path through History website includes more topics or themes in New York State history than this abbreviated notice.

Besides the shortcomings in the curriculum, the elephant in the room that is not being addressed is how teachers are to learn the local and state history which then can be incorporated into the classroom. Apparently it is by osmosis since no clear path is provided.

Do teachers need to learn local and state history as part of their certification process? No, not as social studies teachers or as elementary school teachers.

If a prospective teacher wanted to learn about local and state history while obtaining a masters degree, are such courses offered in the graduate schools of education or by the history department of the school? Rarely. How many SUNY schools, the major statewide producer of certified teachers, have such courses even as electives? How many of the other regional colleges with education programs offer such classes? So even if someone wanted to learn about state and local history, one would be hard pressed to do so through the certification process as it exists today.

Even if one did learn state history, would happen if the newly certified teacher took a job in a different region of the state? How would one learn about the local history in the area where one now taught?

Here is where professional development offers a solution. In general terms, teachers move up the salary rung by taking classes that enhance their ability to perform as a teacher. In this area, the educational experience can be in content (the history itself) as well as in the pedagogy (teaching the history in the classroom). Historical societies and museums therefore have the opportunity to offer to teachers for credit programs on local history. Of course, teachers are not obligated to take such classes.

When IHARE began to offer Teacherhostels, programs based on visiting history museums, hearing from scholars, and taking walks and bus tours, it was to provide content information in history. It might be thematic such as on the American Revolution or Hudson River Art or it might be geographic such as the history of Beacon, Cold Spring, Hastings-on-Hudson, Poughkeepsie, etc., or regional such as Hudson Valley or Mohawk Valley history. Here was a way to bring teachers and the history community together: to combine awareness of what teachers had to teach with the resources of the history museum. With teachers obligated to take 175 hours of professional development over a five year period, I thought my day-long, weekend, and weeklong programs of up to 45 hours fit the exact need of the teachers.

Boy, was I wrong! I was so clueless. It is impossible to underestimate the Mickey Mouse programs schools were able to create to comply with the state-mandated requirement. At the MANY session, the NYS presenters mentioned that the abuses in the professional development programs directly led to the creation of the CTLE system.

I would like to take this opportunity to share with you one example of school system ingenuity that appeared in the local newspaper. It is about a student program and not a teacher program but the defense of it by the school system is suggestive of the thinking that went into authorizing professional development programs as well. I am referring to a Hudson River cruise for 8th graders. The cost of the cruise was $37,000 (see the image for the cruise ship). That is not a typo. I won’t itemize the costs. Fortunately it is mostly paid for by the parents and the PTA and not the taxpayer.

I have used cruises in my own programs. We have cruised the Hudson River, the Mohawk River/Erie Canal, and the Champlain Canal. Generally these cruises are the final activities of the weekend or weeklong program. They provide a nice chance to enjoy the scenery in a relaxing setting and talk about what has been presented and what people will do when they return to the real world. Sometimes there are re-enactors/entertainers on board who talk about their time period. And at no time did a cruise cost $37,000.

How did the school system legitimate the annual Hudson River cruise of the 8th graders costing $37.000?  As the article notes, it turns out dining and dancing on a Hudson River cruise is part of the school curriculum. Quoting documents a concerned citizen obtain through the Freedom of Information Law, the school superintendent wrote:

“The field trip fosters student development and personal worth by celebrating and rewarding students’ hard work and completion of their middle school journey. The field trip promotes communication skills and understanding of human relations to the extent it enables students to travel together and interact with each other, chaperones and boat staff during the cruise. By travelling into the community together and along the Hudson River to NYC, the field trip expands students’ knowledge of society as they prepare for the next step of their academic and adult journeys.”

As is that wasn’t enough:

“[the cruise] is an essential component of the district’s eighth-grade academic program, specifically by promoting social-emotional learning across disciplines and communication skills in the English language arts of literacy curriculum.”

Does this person know how to sling the bull or what? Notice the expert use of approved jargon terms to convey a high-level meaning to a social activity. Upon entering the education jargon into my Universal Translator, I discovered that the true meaning of the words of the Superintendent can be more succinctly stated as:

LET’S PARTY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It is this precise mindset that schools brought to the professional development requirements until at last New York State Education Department said enough is enough and instituted CTLE in 2016.

So what does this mean?

Previously each school district decided for itself what constituted professional development credit. By contrast, in Connecticut and Massachusetts, IHARE had to register with the respective state education departments and become an approved by the state. Under the new system, the same will be true in New York.  If you are not a state-approved entity you cannot offer teachers CTLE credit. The MANY workshop discussed the approval process which will be the subject of a future post where I will walk through the process.

With CTLE, the professional development contact hours for permanent certified teachers was reduced from 175 hours every five years to 100. While that seems like a cutback, there is a change in the recordkeeping process and the documenting of the individuals and institutions providing the professional development program. Think of a course curriculum or the information you obtain on a potential speaker at your site.  Just as you want to know if the speaker is legitimate to speak on a specific topic, so too, the State wants to ensure that the CTLE providers are legitimate as well: what are the credentials?

Teachers can be audited meaning the programs they submit to demonstrate compliance with the 100 hours requirement can be reviewed to ascertain if it really meets NYS Education Department standards.

School districts were automatically granted the right to issue CTLE credit. They do not need to apply to the State for approval. So if you are a small historic site that only deals with one school system than CTLE won’t affect you much except you will be asked by the school to document the credentials of your organization, the staff, and activities in the program. However, if you wish to offer a program to teachers from multiple school districts on a county, regional, or state basis then you will be better off becoming an authorized CTLE provider.

I will review the material presented at the conference workshop including contact information in a future post. I also have a copy of the PowerPoint presentation from the workshop which is available to anyone interested it.  There are still details to be worked out as became evident in the workshop since it is clear that not all historic sites and museums will apply for authorization. The New York State Museum itself which is part of the Education Department had to apply and I presume the same requirements apply to NPS sites as well private and public museums.  Also discussed as the workshop broke up, was since not everyone is even going to apply, something needs to be done to address that.

Finally, no matter what rules the State Education Department installs, one should never underestimate the ability of people to game the system.  One lesson from Bruce’s analysis confirms what was previously suspected: although there are opportunities in the k-12 curriculum for local and state history, it is easy to ignore them completely unless it also is part of national history (Battle of Saratoga, Erie Canal, 9/11).  The bigger issue for state and local history is not the CTLE but the curriculum itself and the certification requirements to be a teacher.

Comments on Bruce Dearstyne’s Blog

I am including some of the comments made in response to Bruce’s post.

1. Debi Duke: Thanks, Bruce! Social studies teachers — please join Teaching the Hudson Valley for our annual summer institute, July 25-27, in Hyde Park, BUILDING COMMUNITY WITH PLACE-BASED LEARNING. Workshops and field experiences cover all grades. Topics include Strategies for Exploring Your Amazing Hometown, Service Learning at Historic Sites, Votes for Women!: Inspiring Student Community Involvement through the History of Women’s Rights, and much more. CTLE approved. http://www.teachingthehudsonvalley.org/thv2017/

Note: I have attended this conference on multiple occasions and even included participation in as part of a Hudson Valley Teacherhostel.

2. Please forward this email to all NYS educators in our public and private schools. Nice job, Bruce, and this needs to spread ‘like wildfire!’

3. Casey Jakubowski: Hi Bruce, et al. Capitol Area school development association is working closely with social studies teachers in creating local and state content. We have produced a series of webinars that you can access via your school. Casdany.org is the location for the website that will tell you how to get access.

Note: He formerly worked at the Education Department.

4. Bill Hosley: All history is local. Local is the level that matter most! I’d go further and say that one of the reasons History has lost its grip on students and the public is because academic historians have put too much emphasis on political history – “great men, great events.” Maybe that’s changing and maybe I am wrong – but I personally didn’t totally engage with history until I discovered it was all around me and in 1001 small things forgotten – touchstones to different contexts and eras – thrilling, immediate, tactile and visual. When and where will the revolution begin – because we need one. Local history is also the gateway to civic attachment – a real and substantial contemporary human need.

Note: We see other at history conferences and he has been a tireless advocate for local history in Connecticut as well as a responder to my posts.

5. Kyle Jenks: Great to see this positive feedback from so many people. You have struck a nerve that sings like a guitarist string! As they say in my favorite Bond movie, the Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale, “I am all in.”
My thrust is adding quality First Person Interpreters to the menu of educational methodology which has its academic roots in Process Drama, aka Applied Theater and Educational Theater.
All reading this may be heartened to know that I have met a woman with a noble cause. She is working on creating an online resource as a one stop shop for teachers and museum professionals to find interpreters that cut the mustard by demonstrating the highest level of commitment to scholarly research and performance acumen to cast as accurate a portrayal as possible.
Anyone interested in staying apprised of this development is welcome to contact me
at kyle@greatlittlemadison.com
Thank you for your thorough and persuasive message.

Note: Kyle will be performing as Governor Clinton in our parade as the Lower Manhattan Historical Association on July 2 at Federal Hall in Manhattan. He raises the important point about the role of individual re-enactors and performance in the teaching of history. Famed Hudson-Valley storyteller and musician Jonathan Kruk also will be performing in the parade.

The Commissioner of Education and the NYS Historian

At present the position of the New York State Historians lies deep within the bowels of the state bureaucracy, starved for resources, and scarcely able to see the light of day through all the bureaucratic levels above it.

Formerly, the State Historian reported to the Director of the New York State Museum, who reports to the Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Culture and Education, who reports to the Executive Deputy Commissioner of Education, who reports to Commissioner of Education, who answers to the Board of Regents.

But what does that mean? Continue reading “The Commissioner of Education and the NYS Historian”

The New York State Amistad Commission: Do Black Lives Matter?

“In 2005 [during Governor Pataki’s administration], New York’s Legislature created an Amistad Commission to review state curriculum regarding the slave trade. All people should know of and remember the human carnage and dehumanizing atrocities committed during the period of the African slave trade and slavery in America and consider the vestiges of slavery in this country. It is vital to educate our citizens on these events, the legacy of slavery, the sad history of racism in this country, and on the principles of human rights and dignity in a civilized society.”

This excerpt comes from the website of the Amistad Commission which is part of the Department of State in the organization chart of New York State (http://www.dos.ny.gov/amistad/index.html).

The legislation authorizing the commission is New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, Article 57B (57.51-57.54). It provides the historical background for the importance of the subject:

1. During the period beginning late in the fifteenth century through the nineteenth century, millions of persons of African origin were enslaved and brought to the Western Hemisphere, including the United States of America; anywhere from between twenty to fifty percent of enslaved Africans died during their journey to the Western Hemisphere; the enslavement of Africans and their descendants was part of a concerted effort of physical and psychological terrorism that deprived groups of people of African descent the opportunity to preserve many of their social, religious, political and other customs; the vestiges of slavery in this country continued with the legalization of second class citizenship status for African-Americans through Jim Crow laws, segregation and other similar practices; the legacy of slavery has pervaded the fabric of our society; and in spite of these events there are endless examples of the triumphs of African-Americans and their significant contributions to the development of this country.

It calls upon our civic and moral responsibility to remember what happened.

2. All people should know of and remember the human carnage and dehumanizing atrocities committed during the period of the African slave trade and slavery in America and of the vestiges of slavery in this country; and it is in fact vital to educate our citizens on these events, the legacy of slavery, the sad history of racism in this country, and on the principles of human rights and dignity in a civilized society.

It declares the policy of the State to fulfill this responsibility through the schools.

3. It is the policy of the state of New York that the history of the African slave trade, slavery in America, the depth of their impact in our society, and the triumphs of African-Americans and their significant contributions to the development of this country is the proper concern of all people, particularly students enrolled in the schools of the state of New York.

Finally, it authorizes the establishment of a commission to act to fulfill that policy.

4. It is therefore desirable to create a state-level commission, which shall research and survey the extent to which the African slave trade and slavery in America is included in the curricula of New York state schools, and make recommendations to the legislature and executive regarding the implementation of education and awareness programs in New York concerned with the African slave trade, slavery in America, the vestiges of slavery in this country, and the contributions of African-Americans in building our country. Such recommendations may include, but not be limited to, the development of workshops, institutes, seminars, and other teacher training activities designed to educate teachers on this subject matter; the coordination of events on a regular basis, throughout the state, that provide appropriate memorialization of the events concerning the enslavement of Africans and their descendants in America as well as their struggle for freedom and liberty; (emphasis added) and suggestions for revisions to the curricula and textbooks used to educate the students of New York state to reflect a more adequate inclusion of issues identified by the commission.

Section § 57.52 establishes the unfunded Amistad commission of 19 people with details about the composition, duties, and term of office. The commission includes as one would hope the Commissioner of Education and the Department of Education is called upon to provide technical assistance for the completion of the task as needed.

Section § 57.53 details the duties and responsibilities. The commission has a very broad mandate and scope truly national in perspective.

1. to survey and catalog the extent and breadth of education concerning the African slave trade, slavery in America, the vestiges of slavery in this country and the contributions of African-Americans to our society presently being incorporated into the curricula and textbooks and taught in the school systems of the state; and, to inventory those African slave trade, American slavery, or relevant African-American history memorials, exhibits and resources which should be incorporated into courses of study at educational institutions and schools throughout the state.
2. to compile a roster of individual volunteers who are willing to share their knowledge and experience in classrooms, seminars and workshops with students and teachers (emphasis added) on the subject of the African slave trade, American slavery and the impact of slavery on our society today, and the contributions of African-Americans to our country; and
3. to prepare reports for the governor and the legislature regarding its findings (emphasis added) and recommendations on facilitating the inclusion of the African slave trade, American slavery studies, African-American history and special programs in the educational system of the state.

On paper, this clearly is a major undertaking.

Turning now to the commission in charge of fulling this mission, one does indeed note the listing of the Commissioner of Education as part of the team. However, the name of the Commissioner listed is John P. King; he, of course, has not been the Commissioner for over a year. This raises the question of whether or not the Amistad Commission is a viable entity. Surely if it still functioned, the new Commissioner of Education would be listed. It is reasonable to conclude that this Commission is defunct and has been for years but lives on only on the New York State website.

The website has a tab for upcoming meetings. When I first checked it several months ago, none were scheduled. That is still true as of the writing of this post. The Commission does not appear to be functioning and hasn’t for a long time.

Need more documentary proof? Under a listing of current exhibitions at the New York State Museum, one finds:

An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War
Saturday, September 22, 2012 – Sunday, September 22, 2013
Exhibition Hall
For more information:
http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/exhibits/special/CivilWar.cfm

I Shall Think of You Often: The Civil War Story of Doctor and Mary Tarbell
Saturday, March 30, 2013 – Sunday, September 22, 2013
South Lobby
For more information:
http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/exhibits/special/tarbell.cfm

Is it necessary to point out that is hasn’t been 2013 for several years now. The Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region conference for 2014 is listed but the one from 2015 is not. This is a website that needs serious work.

However, someone is still adding items to the Amistad Commission website under Resources. There is a notice about one event for the 2016 Martin Luther King Day holiday. There is a listing for AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY OF WESTERN NEW YORK which when clicked takes you to the Department of Mathematics at the University of Buffalo. There is a link to the SCHOMBURG CENTER FOR RESEARCH IN BLACK CULTURE which does seems appropriate and does work. Then there is a link to the Governor’s announcement in November, 2015, of a new Path through History website which is of questionable relevance to the purpose of the Amistad Commission. Several additional conferences, exhibits, and events from 2015 are listed so evidently some effort was spent to stay current. One should note that these are not events created by the Amistad Commission but items listed by the Commission somewhat like the Path through History listing events without creating them either.

Finally, let’s return to the emphasized items above in the legislation.

the development of workshops, institutes, seminars, and other teacher training activities designed to educate teachers on this subject matter; the coordination of events on a regular basis, throughout the state, that provide appropriate memorialization of the events concerning the enslavement of Africans and their descendants in America as well as their struggle for freedom and liberty;

roster of individual volunteers who are willing to share their knowledge and experience in classrooms, seminars and workshops with students and teachers

prepare reports for the governor and the legislature regarding its findings

While other organizations do things in this subject area, I did not locate any information on the website listing the rooster of these individuals, any programs the Amistad Commission has developed, any evidence that it functions as a coordinator for such events, or any reports that have been submitted. Perhaps if the Governor can be persuaded to call a history meeting in Albany as recommended in my New Year Resolution post, a decision can be made to fish or cut bait with something that at present only exists on the web and not in the real world.