Changing public history in Atlanta and beyond
03 November 2022 – Adina Langer
As a member of the Atlanta Local Arrangements Committee for the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History (NCPH), I have an unusual opportunity. By revisiting the work we did to prepare for a meeting that didn’t happen in 2020, I am able to chart how the ensuing two years have changed public history in Atlanta and beyond. I offer the following reflections as we prepare for 2023 and a future that is still “to be determined.”
In the months leading up to the 2020 NCPH Annual Meeting, members of the NCPH Atlanta Local Arrangements Committee eagerly anticipated the opportunity to showcase the meaningful public history work happening in their town. [email protected] helped introduce potential conference attendees to the palimpsest of the city and the ways public historians sought to both reveal cracks in the historical narrative as well as fill them with opportunities for reflection and intergenerational engagement.
Jennifer Dickey, of Kennesaw State University, published a piece about the Coalition to Remember and Atlanta’s 1906 Race Massacre. Adina Langer, also of Kennesaw State University, published a piece on efforts to create the Atlanta Beltline from the remains of the city’s historic inner railway corridor. And Kate Wilson, of Georgia State University, published a piece on the area’s immigrant history.
They were building on years of [email protected] posts focused on Atlanta and its vicinity. These included David Rotenstein’s many case studies of gentrification and lack of preservation of the Black past in Atlanta and its near suburbs, especially Decatur. Area public historians also highlighted the creative work of people in adjacent fields including art, tourism, and educational storytelling to bring historical awareness to the public. These case studies contrasted with and expanded on museum and archival partnerships and grassroots efforts.
To prepare for the conference, NCPH members also considered the location of the annual meeting through the lens of climate change and reproductive rights. They wrote about efforts to make the conference greener and more sustainable and provided a rationale for patronizing the city of Atlanta despite the Georgia state legislature’s recent passage of a restrictive abortion law. Then, as we all remember, the in-person meeting was canceled as COVID-19 swept across the nation and the world.
In a time before Zoom was ubiquitous and virtual conferencing a common occurrence, key components of the conference were pre-recorded or moved onto Twitter. The agendas of working groups advertising on [email protected] had to shift rapidly, and some topics intended for the 2020 Annual Meeting became all the more relevant as people wrestled with the reverberations of the pandemic and the racial justice uprisings of 2020. Reading these case statements in 2022, I bear witness to the ways that public history paradigms have shifted in the areas of immigration, gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and acknowledgment of white privilege. This sense of major changes underway is reflected as well in the words of 2020 award winners including GVGK Tang and Jan Levinson-Hebbard. Both called attention to power relationships in public history and raised ethical considerations for how public history topics are selected, how projects are funded, who is involved in the work, and how that work is credited and supported.
Now, as we approach the reimagined Atlanta Annual Meeting of 2023, it is time to consider how public history has changed in our region and across the field. Most of the original Local Arrangements Committee has returned for a second time at bat. We are eager to once again welcome visitors to our city, although we recognize the ongoing economic, social, and political fallout of the pandemic. Public history is alive and well in Georgia, even as we wrestle with a legal landscape that includes bans on abortion and the teaching of “divisive concepts” in schools, and permits for discrimination against transgender kids in school sports. We look to continue illuminating the threads that connect the past and the present whether in institutional settings like museums, universities, and archives, or within the work of grassroots organizations.
To that end, we would like to highlight the importance of the NCPH Grassroots Public History Award which was inaugurated last year in Montreal and continues this year in Atlanta. Nominations are due by December 1, 2022, and are open to any project completed within the state of Georgia. The criteria outlined on the award site include:
Projects initiated and developed by individuals, groups, or community organizations (including tribal groups) for the communities in which they live or work may be nominated. Projects must have been initiated in the last five years, but need not be completed. The group or organization’s mission and/or regular programming need not have a public history focus, but the nominated project should be geared toward public history.
We hope that you will give some thought to the meaning of public history in 2023 and join us in Atlanta, ready to contribute your imagination to the future of the field and its work in partnership with anyone seeking to “put history to work in the world.”
~Adina Langer is a member of the Atlanta Local Arrangements Committee and is entering her fourteenth year as a member of NCPH. She has been a part of the editorial team at [email protected] since 2010. You can learn more about her by visiting www.artiflection.com and follow her on Twitter @Artiflection.