Responding to Baltimore: A role for public historians? (Part 1)

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Protest at the Baltimore Police Department Western District building at N. Mount St. and Riggs Ave. Photo credit: Veggies, Wikimedia Commons.

Freddie Gray protest at the Baltimore Police Department Western District building at N. Mount St. and Riggs Ave. Photo credit: Veggies, Wikimedia Commons

Events in Baltimore during the last couple of weeks following the death of Freddie Gray apparently after a questionable arrest have precipitated a great deal of commentary, ranging from the thoughtful to the bloviating. Likewise, interest in a more activist, civically engaged public history has been generating considerable discussion, both descriptive and hortatory. In an effort to add something useful to the discussion, I offer a short list of what I believe history, public and otherwise, as well as allied disciplines, can do in the face of events like those that have engulfed Baltimore.

First, history can provide accurate information, perspective, and depth amidst all the commentary. For anyone who cares to look, there is a sizable body of work that details the long trajectory of segregation, discrimination, and racialized poverty in Baltimore underlying current events.[1] Two online compilations of resources are rapidly developing: #BaltimoreUprising: Resources for Historians, Writers, Teachers, Journalists and More, developed by Eli Pousson, director of preservation and outreach at Baltimore Heritage; and Your Baltimore Syllabus, initiated by @iteach4change.

Within the realm of a specifically public history, the standout resource is Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth, an archival collection of documents, oral histories, photographs, and other materials gathered as part of a collaborative, interdisciplinary, and multi-faceted public history project undertaken by the University of Baltimore to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the civil disturbances that broke out in Baltimore following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968. The project was discussed extensively in the Fall 2009 issue of The Public Historian and received the National Council on Public History’s Outstanding Public History Project Award that year. It also resulted in the publication of Baltimore’68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City, a collection of essays edited by Jessica Elfenbein, Thomas Hollowak, and Elizabeth Nix that puts current events in context. The Baltimore ’68 project provides a model and a platform for historians to consider both the precipitating events and deeper issues related to Freddie Gray’s death.

Several current projects, all developed well before recent events, should also be noted and applauded:

  • the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s current exhibit, The Amazing Race: The Atlantic Slave Trade through the Pages of Book Art
  • a walking tour of Fells Point focusing on the African American presence in this old waterfront area where Frederick Douglass once lived and worked, sponsored by two local heritage organizations
  • a forthcoming bus tour of sites related to the life of nineteenth-century Baltimore-based adventurer and entrepreneur Mendes Cohen, sponsored by the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Traveling through some of the areas hard hit by recent disturbances, the tour, in the words of the museum, “has taken on new meaning. It is a reminder that the Jewish experience is deeply entwined with many neighborhoods in the city we have long-forgotten or neglected.”

Second, historians–especially public historians–can document current events as they happen, including from perspectives not fully addressed by the mainstream media. I am aware of two such initiatives, again facilitated by digital media:

Time will tell if these initiatives gain traction–a lot depends on how widely and to whom they are promoted.

There have also been some suggestions for developing an oral history project, an idea that has generated increased interest in response to public crises around the world and one recognized and supported by the Oral History Association in its Emerging Crisis Oral History Research Fund. Reflecting this trend, the recently published Listening on the Edge: Oral History in the Aftermath of Crisis, edited by Mark Cave and Stephen Sloan, helpfully discusses the dynamics, ethics, and outcomes of various projects in this vein.

Three caveats stand out: first is avoidance of an “ambulance chasing” approach to interviewing. While some may promote a “person in the street” type of interview, practitioners urge a more considered methodology, one that places crisis events in the context of a person’s life and allows for reflection on the hows and whys of these events.

Second is to recognize that people respond differently to crises. Some may want to talk extensively, others may not. It is also important to note that while an interview may have a salutary effect on the narrator, oral history is not therapy, and invocations of “healing” are naïve at best.

The third caveat, especially relevant if a more community-based project is undertaken, is to avoid the, “Hi, we’re from city university, and we’re here to help you out” approach. Where does the project stand vis-à-vis the community’s own interests and needs? What value does an interviewing project have for that community? How can it further the community’s long-term goals? And what community partnerships or institutions are in place or can be developed that can help shape and direct an interviewing project? What’s the basis of trust?

Part 2 follows

~ Linda Shopes lived in Baltimore full-time from 1967 to 1990 and part-time during the past two years. She teaches oral history in Goucher College’s MA in Cultural Sustainability program and is coeditor of The Baltimore Book: New Views of Local History (1991).

[1] Among the best resources on this topic are journalist Antero Pietila’s Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City, documenting the people and policies that have shaped residential segregation in the city; and Marisela Gomez’s Race, Class, Power and Organizing in East Baltimore: Rebuilding Abandoned Communities in America, describing the controversial efforts by Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore’s largest employer, to rebuild (read gentrify) the largely black and poor neighborhood in which its medical complex is located.

5 comments
  1. Linda Shopes says:

    A helpful update on local museums’ response to recent events in Baltimore:

    https://informedhumane.wordpress.com/2015/04/30/baltimore-museums-respond/

  2. Conny Graft says:

    Thank you for posting this! Great advice here and suggestions. For another resource that may help readers articulate the value of history please go to http://www.historyrelevance.com and look at the Value of History statement and consider endorsing it at your museum/history organization.

  3. Thank you so much for writing these posts, Linda. I wanted to let everyone know that the Maryland Historical Society and I (along with other project partners) are now collaborating on the effort to preserve the Baltimore Uprising. The photographs sent to the MdHS in response to their call are absolutely stunning, and a UMBC graduate student (Michael Stone) is now interning at the MdHS, organizing and uploading images to the site. You can follow the twitter stream @baltimoreup to see new stuff as it is added.

  4. Mahmoud says:

    Thank you for the tips, really very helpful for history and museums lovers.

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