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The New “New York State History Advisory Group”

AP  Ben Gorenstein credit  posted by News Channel 13

On June 2, 2016, I wrote “The New York State Historian Position: Creating the New York State History Advisory Coalition.” In my post, I noted the vacancy in the position for the Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Cultural Education. The Office of Cultural Education includes the New York State Archives, the New York State Library, and the New York State Museum which includes the New York State Historian. The position is still vacant. Normally, I do not send my posts to the New York State Regents, the entity overseeing the New York State Education Department which includes all these facilities. I did that time and received a reply from Roger Tilles of Long Island, the chair of the Regent subcommittee for the Office of Cultural Education. I will send the Regents this post as well.

In that post, I also referred to a letter written to Governor Cuomo by Ken Jackson, the founder and president of the New York Academy of History (NYAH). At the previous annual meeting of the Greater Hudson Heritage Network (GHHN) in October, 2015, Ken, Lisa Keller, a colleague at NYAH, and I had lunch and discussed the Path through History project. Ken had been on the now-disbanded history advisory of that project. Its disappearance was the subject of the post  “RIP The Path Through History Taskforce” a few weeks earlier on September 29, 2015.

Also as reported, during the summer of angst, another set of letter had been written by Judy Wellman and Carol Kammen, well-known scholars and advocates for state and local history, the Underground Railroad, and Women’s History Trail. Their open letters to the powers that be sought to raise issues of pressing concern for the history community. Their efforts may be considered advocacy on behalf of that normally voiceless community.

One suggestion made was the creation of New York State History Advisory Board. For example, there is a Tourism Advisory Council created by the Governor with state and non-state members. As far as I can tell, I am the only member of the public, meaning someone not on the agenda or in the tourist business, who has attended any of those meetings. The point here is there is no inherent reason why the Regents couldn’t create an official history advisory group it wanted to.

As to the members of such an advisory group, the NYAH has its own advisory board consisting of:

*Kenneth T. Jackson (Committee Chair), Barzun Professor of History, Columbia University
Carol Berkin, Distinguished Professor of History Emerita, Baruch College
Laurence Hauptman, SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History
*Lisa Keller, Professor of History, Purchase College SUNY
Susan Lewis, Associate Professor, Deputy Chair and Graduate Advisor, Department of History, SUNY New Paltz
Dr. Dennis J. Maika, New Netherland Institute.

Expanding on that list of concerned historians, the open letter of Carol and Judy was also sent to state officials:

*Rose Harvey, Commissioner, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation
*Thomas J. Ruller, Archivist, New York State Archives
*Gavin Landry, Director, I Love New York

and to non-state government people:

*Amie Alden, Executive Chair, Government Appointed Historians of Western New York [and Livingston County Historian]
*Paul D’Ambrosio, President and CEO, New York State Historical Association
*Jay DeLorenzo, Executive Director, Preservation League of New York State
Carol Faulkner, President, Upstate New York Women’s History Group
Peter Feinman, Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education (blogger)
Lynn (Spike) Herzing, Director, New York Cultural and Heritage Tourism Network [and member Tourism Advisory Council]
*Carol Kammen, Historian, Tompkins County [and Fellow, New York Academy of History]
*Lisa Keller, New York Academy of History
Devin Lander, Executive Director, Museum Association of New York [now Erika Sanger]
*Sara Ogger, New York Humanities Council (subsequently renamed Humanities New York)
*Gerry Smith, President, Association of Public Historians, New York State
John Warren, New York History Blog
*Judith Wellman Director, Historical New York Research Associates [and Fellow, New York Academy of History]

I suggested in my post some additional individuals in the private sector with a statewide perspective to be considered for an advisory board:

Robert E. Bullock, The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government
*Bruce Dearstyne, former archivist and author/blogger/columnist
John McEneny, former municipal historian and state legislator
Bob Weible, former state historian

and representatives from the New York State Archaeological Association/New York Archaeological Council and New York State Council of Social Studies among others.

The names with the * mean those people or a deputy are now on the new New York State History Advisory Group.

At the conclusion of my post last June, I identified seven agenda items for discussion by the history advisory committee. I then asked: “Who is willing to host the first meeting? Who would attend?”

I did receive a reply from an upstate college willing to host such a meeting in August. Between 15-20 people agreed to attend including some on the list above. Others wanted to but were unavailable that day. We were very eager to have Devin participate as the new state historian. One advantage this proposed group had was since it was not part of the state government it could directly contact any government official. Once Devin declared his intention to form an advisory group through his position as State Historian, the meeting fell through and was not held.

Now we have an advisory group. As reported in New York History Blog:

The New York State Museum has announced the creation of the New York State History Advisory Group. The group is expected to meet, according to an announcement sent to the press, “periodically to advise the New York State Historian on issues related to the history field in New York State, including suggestions pertaining to local and municipal historians, academic history, historic preservation, and heritage tourism.” The Advisory Group’s suggestions and recommendations are “purely advisory in nature and are nonbinding” the announcement said.

The members of the advisory group are listed below by sector.


*Bruce Dearstyne, PhD Author and Historian Adjunct Professor, University of Maryland *Kenneth T. Jackson: PhD Jacques Barzun Professor of History & Social Science, Columbia University; Fellow, New York Academy of History
*Lisa Keller, PhD Professor of History, SUNY Purchase; Fellow, New York Academy of History
Monica Mercado, PhD Assistant Professor, Colgate University
Ivan D. Steen, PhD Director, Center for Applied Historical Research; SUNY Albany
*Judith Wellman, PhD Professor Emerita, SUNY Oswego; Director, Historical New York Research Associates; Fellow, New York Academy of History
Craig Steven Wilder, PhD Professor of American History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Fellow, New York Academy of History

For the non * people, I do not know Monica Mercado. Ivan Steen has been actively involved in the teaching of public history and attends various state conferences which I also attend. Former Jefferson County Historian Laura Lynne Scharer wrote a 275-page municipal historian handbook entitled “What Am I Supposed to Do?” (published in 1997) drawing on her work as one of his graduate students. Certainly it is time for an update.

I briefly met Wilder at the annual conference of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) last summer in New Haven. He spoke in a session on “Universities and the Legacy of Slavery.”  Although he teaches at MIT and therefore might not seem appropriate for a New York State History Advisory Group he is from Brooklyn and attended Columbia where his teacher was Ken Jackson. He is a member of Ken’s NYAH as are several of the advisory group members.


*Amie Alden, Executive Chair, Government Appointed Historians of Western New York [and Livingston County Historian] was the subject of a post on July 18, 2012
* Carol Kammen Tompkins County Historian; Fellow, New York Academy of History
*Gerry Smith, now the former President, Association of Public Historians, New York State [and still Broome County Historian and Binghamton City Historian]

Museums and Historical Societies

Melissa Brown Executive Director, The Buffalo History Museum
Marci Reaven, PhD Vice-President for History Exhibitions, New-York Historical Society; Fellow, New York Academy of History

I don’t know either of them although I do know people at the N-YHS. The Buffalo to New York combination is geographically inclusive. What’s missing is the voice for the smaller historical societies and museums such as from the Executive Director of MANY, Devin’s former job.


John Haworth Senior Executive, National Museum of the American Indian-New York City
Bob Radliff, Executive Director, Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor
Amy Bracewell, Superintendent, Saratoga National Historical Park

The national representatives are a diverse group. John is part of the Smithsonian, in New York, and once participated in a social studies conference at my request. I was just at his site a few days ago for a program. My Saratoga Teacherhostels/Historyhostels were before Amy was there and she does get my posts. Bob is a dedicated reader of my posts and with the bicentennial of the Erie Canal coming up, this is the ideal time for him to be on the committee. I have been in contact with some canal people about a Wedding of the Waters re-enactment which I intend to write about in the future when/if the details are fleshed out.

I maintain an NPS email distribution list of 120 people with a response rate averaging 43%


*Jay Di Lorenzo, President, Preservation League of New York State
Alexandra Parsons Wolfe, Executive Director, Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities

I do not know these people and neither one reads my posts. I maintain a preservation email distribution list of 99 people throughout the state with a response rate averaging 22%.


* NYSOPRHP  John Bonafide, Historic Preservation Office, NYS Office of Parks, Recreation,
and Historic Preservation
* I Love NY   Ross Levi, Vice President of Marketing Initiatives, Empire State Development/NYS Division of Tourism
* NYS Archives James Folts, PhD Head of Researcher Services, New York State Archives; Fellow, New York Academy of History
Stefan Belinksi Community Historian The People of the Colonial Albany Live Here Website; Fellow, New York Academy of History [formerly New York State Museum]

Three of these people are members of representatives of their departments. One notes the absence of the NYS Library.

I maintain a tourism distribution list of 277 people including I LoveNY, the county TPAs, and various regional and private tour groups and operators with a response rate averaging 26%.

I maintain an NYSOPRHP and NYSED email list of 246 people with a response rate averaging 26%.

Interestingly, the heads of these departments do read my posts.


Eva M. Doyle Retired Teacher, Historian and Columnist

* Sara Ogger, PhD Executive Director, Humanities New York

I have attended various meetings of HumanitiesNY including in their Manhattan office, received funding from them, and have a good relationship with them.

Overall, the advisory group represents a diverse range of sectors within the history community including geographically. Some of the responses to New York History Blog expressed concern about the lack of representation from the North Country and the Mohawk Valley (save for the Erie Canal). One could also add the Hudson Valley. There are limits as to how many people an advisory group can have before it becomes unwieldly. It was a challenge to get people together to host the first meeting. Since it will be meeting only “periodically,” suggesting less frequently than monthly or quarterly and more often than annually, one can see the challenges ahead for this group even if it was an official one with actual responsibilities, duties, and funding.

I hope that there will be public dissemination of the results of the meetings. I hope that there will be statewide grassroots meetings so the history community has an opportunity to express concerns that will be communicated to Devin. Naturally I hope that the advisory group will be officially recognized by the Regents/Education Department. I pledge to do my share in spreading the word to the sectors identified above as well as to the thousands of people in the history community on my distribution list.

Note: Since this post was written Marck Schaming, Director of the New York State Museum, has been named the Deputy Commissioner of the Office of Cultural Education.

The Haunted History Trail versus the Underground Railroad in New York State

         Casper the Friendly Ghost 

After my post on the abysmal state of the state Underground Railroad effort, I received comments from around the state about the situation. Below are the highlights of some of what is going on at the grassroots level.

Buffalo (Erie County) – The Director of Library and Archives reported that she had created a UGRR page for Buffalo. After I forward the information to Judy Wellman, she put them in touch with the Niagara Falls UGRR group in the hopes of them forming a western New York contingent. On a personal note, during the NYSHA conference in Niagara Falls when Wallenda walked across the Falls, as Judy and I were walking to the park from the parking lot, she pointed out various buildings that had been locations for the Underground Railroad.

Cayuga, Wayne, Seneca, Onondaga counties all studied and published underground railroad discoveries from their area with the assistance of Judy Wellman. In a subsequent email from Judy, she added Oneida County to this list submitted by Cayuga County and the North Country.

Haverstraw (Rockland County) – will be celebrating its first Juneteenth this year. The village is investigating its own slavery history in the 18th century and working with neighboring Nyack on the Underground Railroad in the area.

Manhattan – private group attempting to develop an equivalent to Boston’s Freedom Trail focusing on the underground railroad especially in lower Manhattan.

Montgomery County – a private citizen posted a comment on New York History Blog about wanting to become involved in telling the story of slavery in the county.

Queens – The President of the Friends of the Douglaston/Little Neck Community Library posted a comment to New York History Blog about wanting to become involved in the telling the story of slavery in the borough.

SUNY Oneonta – Students in the Cooperstown Graduate Program last semester with recommendations for the Harriet Myers residence in Albany did a comprehensive study on the travelling exhibition that was part of the original Freedom Commission under Governor Pataki.  The college is interested in making the work of its students and the exhibition better known throughout the state.

My response was:

As you might expect, I favor Teacherhostels/Historyhostels [and attached an example of an underground railroad program for teachers in New Bedford, MA]. One recommendation is to create two-day (weekend) programs throughout the state featuring the NYSOPRHP traveling exhibition which your students have updated. Day one of the program would focus on content including the exhibit while day two would be based on field trips to the appropriate locations in your area. While the exhibit would make the circuit the speakers wouldn’t necessarily have to and could be drawn from local resources whenever possible. 

I have cced people from the North Country, Capital Region, Hudson Valley, New York, the Finger Lakes and western NY in addition to you in the Mohawk Valley who all might serve as regional hosts. I think there is more to be gained by announcing a statewide program than in doing things individually or waiting for the State to get its act together. I don’t know if it is too late for this summer or not but they also could be done during the school year. It might even bring in tourists if marketed properly.

A second suggestion is to present at various conferences such as the social studies councils and MANY.

Underground Railroad Consortium – private organization of 21 sites which incorporated in the fall of 2015. It recently met in conjunction with the Underground Railroad Project Conference at Russell Sage College. The consortium was organized in part to compensate for the lack of state leadership.

This list excludes the comments about New York State including those that are fit to print.

What are the lessons to be learned from these responses and my posts:

  1. There is no mechanism at present for people to share information about they are doing. Neither New York History Blog nor private emails to me can compensate for the lack of an effective statewide communication system. In theory the New York State Freedom Commission and/or Underground Railroad Heritage Trail at OPRHP could but as we all know there is no chance of that happening.
  2. There are incomplete and multiple different sources of information. With the NPS, NYSOPRHP, and private efforts, there is no one reliable comprehensive source for the locations of actual Underground Railroad sites and for debunking the false sites as well (a feature on the Buffalo site).
  3. The Underground Railroad Consortium represents a major step in the right direction. My impression is that the group was created by dedicated private individuals who are already involved in maintaining their own local sites and do not have the staff or funding to take on administering a statewide program.
  4. Judy Wellman is the key person in New York State at this time.

One should add that the same issues could be mentioned for other areas of New York State history such as the Women’s Suffrage centennial or the American Revolution. There is no racism here by New York State, when it comes to State history, the government is dysfunctional on an equal opportunity basis.

My recommendation is that as soon as the new state historian is hired in May, the Underground Railroad Consortium hold a meeting in Albany to discuss an Underground Railroad agenda. The Consortium should invite all the players from the defunct Freedom Commission including from

the state sphere: the NYS Archives, NYS Education Department, NYS Historian, NYS Library, NYS Museum, NYSOPRHP, SUNY

the non-state public sphere: APHNYS, NYLA, NYSCSS

the private sphere: MANY, NYCH

as well as the grassroots members of the Consortium. And of course, the press like me, Bruce Dearstyne, and John Warren. The purpose of the meeting would be to determine

  1. an agenda of what needs to be done
  2. who is going to do it
  3. what resources are needed.

Waiting for hell to freeze over is not a viable option.

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from the Haunted History Trail, the subject of my post to New York History Blog on April 21, 2014, Can New York History Sites Compete with the Supernatural Sites?”

In my post, I reported speaking with Kelly Rapone of the Genesee County Chamber of Commerce which serves as the County Tourist Department. She informed me of the collaborative effort among various county tourist departments to get this trail up and running. I was reminded of this project by a newspaper article dated May 1, 2016, just over two years later. The number of participating counties has increased from 12 to 31 with each contributing $1500 annually (Do they do that for paths through history?). So far this year, website visitors have requested over 22,000 guidebooks, almost ten times the number from 2013. Rapone uses Facebook and social media to promote the trail. There is a “come for the ghosts, stay for the history” attitude expressed by Paul Lear, Fort Ontario State Historic Site in Oswego who reports an increase in attendance following the Fort’s appearance on the TV show Ghost Hunters. Spooky, isn’t it? Maybe I Love NY should hire Kelly to create paths through history for the Underground Railroad and other areas as well.


Harriet Tubman (courtesy of NPS)