Confronting the Past: Difficult Questions and Public History Today

February 4, 2020

By Christopher McKnight Nichols

This Oregon Journal photograph, taken between 1933 and 1941, depicts a horse-drawn covered wagon during a pioneer-themed or Western-themed parade. Parades such as this one are a displays of collective memory — a set of narratives shared by a particular group or society — that tend to be black-and-white, often triumphalist, and can simplify or distort historical narratives. Confronting these narrow perspectives and better “seeing” a shared past is a topic the Oregon Historical Society Board of Trustees discussed during its July 2019 annual retreat. OHS Research Library, Oregon Journal Photographic Negative Collection, Org. Lot 1368, box 372, 372A1302

As a member of the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) Board of Trustees, I have the privilege of being involved in conversations that help guide the organization in fulfilling its mission to “preserve our state’s history and make it accessible to everyone in ways that advance knowledge and inspire curiosity about all the people, places, and events that have shaped Oregon.” In July 2019, I led a discussion at the OHS board annual retreat on naming and historical memory, an important dialogue public historians are having today. From my perspective as a professional historian committed to public work, I think the urgent question guiding those conversations is: how should we be confronting our shared past?

Board members prepared for the meeting by reviewing videos and articles that explored topics such as: What is historical memory? How do governments and citizens shape historical memory? What is the difference between history and collective memory? We began the session by considering all the new books, op-eds, and projects bringing great historical knowledge to bear to help explain contemporary issues. An example is the Washington Post’s new “Made by History” section (on which I have the pleasure of serving as an editorial board member), which is a project that aims to make connections between the past and our fast-paced news cycle. In short, it is an exciting and difficult time to be doing public history.

Public historians are challenging the profession’s past mission of promoting consensus history – a form of history often derided as one “told by the victors” that favors social cohesion over conflict and complexity — by confronting questions about collective memory and by debating what are useful goals in the field. With that in mind, I asked the OHS board to consider the difference between collective memory and history.

Dr. Christopher McKnight Nichols leads a discussion at the July 2019 OHS Board of Trustees annual meeting in Astoria, Oregon.
I have the privilege of being involved in conversations that help guide the organization in fulfilling its mission….I think the urgent question guiding those conversations is: “how should we be confronting our shared past?”
Oregon Pioneer Association (OPA) annual meeting in 1894. OHS Research Library, OrHi 35244, photo file 868.
Members of the Oregon Pioneer Association (OPA) pose for a photograph at their annual meeting in 1894. By the 1890s, most migrants who originally traveled over the Oregon Trail had died, and organizations such as OPA nostalgically celebrated those pioneers — creating and reinforcing a collective historical narrative. OHS Research Library, OrHi 35244, photo file 868.

Collective memory is a set of narratives shared by a particular group or society and can include a blend of family stories, religious stories, and “official” national stories. We often see displays of collective memory in parades, textbooks, and other forms of public commemoration; they tend to be black-and-white, often triumphalist, and thus avoid the “gray” areas of historical complexity or ambiguity that are vital to professional public history. Such collective memorializations are problematic for many reasons, most importantly because their often-narrow perspective can simplify or distort historical narratives (such as omitting or minimizing oppression and injustice). At the retreat, we discussed how these difficult “gray” areas of history are essential to seeing the past more clearly — they have the unique capacity to add clarity, to astonish, and to provoke.

How do we begin to confront and better “see” our shared past? By deploying lenses of analysis — gender, race, sexuality, class, power, and much more — public historians and public-history institutions can seek to illuminate the past in more complete ways. OHS is doing that work through exhibitions such as its new permanent Experience Oregon exhibit and scholarship produced in the Oregon Historical Quarterly. It is work that is ongoing and should be handled carefully by presenting facts as best we can and being open to revision in the face of what we cannot fully know.

Experience Oregon exhibit display. Photo courtesy of Andie Petkus Photography
Illuminating the past more completely is ongoing work that the Oregon Historical Society is doing through exhibitions such as its new permanent installation, “Experience Oregon.” The exhibit exposes visitors to the inherent complexities of history — addressing difficult events and perspectives that are essential to seeing the past more clearly. Photo courtesy of Andie Petkus Photography

One essential fact is that all history is revisionist — that is the point. Professional historians are always reevaluating the past. And public history, because it is aimed at broad swaths of audiences, is an inherently precarious balancing of fine calibration to shed new light, generate interest, and to edify in the present. It is also an effort that needs to be open to serious revision. As James Baldwin said in 1965: “We carry history within us ... [we are] unconsciously controlled by it in many ways. It is literally present in all that we do.” History, in this era at least, can never be “erased.”

Matthew P. Deady, 1878. OHS Research Library, OrHi 47403, photo file 320
Matthew P. Deady, pictured here in 1878, was a prominent lawyer, judge, and politician who held pro-slavery views and staunchly supported black exclusion from Oregon. The University of Oregon named an academic building after him in 1893 and made the controversial decision in 2017 to not rename the building following student protests. OHS Research Library, OrHi 47403, photo file 320

With this in mind, we discussed an article written by Matthew Dennis and Samuel Reis-Dennis titled “‘What’s in a Name?:’ The University of Oregon, De-Naming Controversies, and the Ethics of Public Memory,” published in the Summer 2019 issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly. In it the authors explore the University of Oregon’s controversial 2017 decision to not rename a campus building named after Matthew Deady, a prominent lawyer and judge in nineteenth-century Oregon who staunchly advocated for black exclusion in the state. Changing the name of a building, or bringing down or erecting a monument, is a symbolic act. Questions about honorific naming opportunities, Dennis and Reis-Dennis explain “are not just academic — they are edifying. They can be monumental, like the edifices they metaphorically raise or raze.”

According to Dennis and Reis-Dennis, making the decision to name or de-name requires “consideration of both the past and the present — through a careful, historically informed presentism.” We need to remember that a “history requires translation and application in the present that produces it,” and when naming or de-naming a building — or erecting or taking down a statue — thoughtful historical assessments should take into account the richer tapestry in which the relationship between past and present is woven. In short, historians agree, this cannot only include the standards of an individual, or group, in their own time.

As we discussed with the board, there will always be Robert E. Lee in the history of nineteenth century America and the Civil War. With or without monuments, we cannot erase the history of Lee’s generalship, secessionism, and slave owning. But in 2020, we might not want to honor him or those deeds; in Oregon, and across the nation, we certainly are far distant in mood and values from those of the aging confederates and neo-confederates who commissioned monuments during Jim Crow segregation in the late nineteenth century or the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s. Monuments to Lee were largely products of a later era’s racism and should be understood as such.

In my view, we can expect to see more calls for de-naming and more charged battles over monuments. To grapple with these difficult topics and complex multiple overlapping historical contexts (say, Civil War, Jim Crow, 1920s, 1960s, and today), we rightly turn to experts and to professional historical associations, societies, and institutions. Opinions vary among historians about “the line” that needs to be crossed to justify de-naming. Historian David Blight has suggested one starting place: the line should be those who took up arms (or held office in organizations) against the United States. But what most professional historians agree on is the need for research, education, and solid principles to guide the process because the act of naming is a continued honorific, which centers on historical memory in the present.

While these sorts of conversations about racism and naming or building monuments can be challenging, they force us to see the world around us anew — to uncover more knowledge, to deeply consider historical context, and to explore the meaning of the past for the present day. To me, no matter how bad it gets (and it can get bad), this is an essential part of understanding the past. If we value history, and truth, then we can only understand the past through honesty and humility, no matter if it provokes arguments and controversies.

Some cases are fairly clear. Take, for example, the Calhoun College renaming at Yale University. John C. Calhoun’s principal legacy was not in keeping with the values of the institution; he was an arch-defender of slavery and an architect of secession and civil war. Calhoun also had only received an undergraduate degree from Yale, and thus had less overall direct connection than a lifelong professor, university leader, or founder. This was laid out in Yale’s guiding historical principles to de-naming, developed by a superb group of scholars and administrators, premised in part on bedrock concepts of historical research confronting difficult pasts as well as on the complexities as well as the practical realities of other naming controversies.

Other cases are murkier. Consider Princeton University’s decision not to rename its Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs even although Wilson was racist and a segregationist. Wilson’s record also included serving as a U.S. president and Governor of New Jersey, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and leading the transformation of the university. So no answer is obvious. Reasonable people, including historians who focus on Wilson, can and do disagree about this (de)naming question.

So, what is the “proper” role of a historian or public historical society today? In partial answer, I’d point us to the vital purpose outlined by historian Daina Berry: “To provide the context in which people can understand the very complex issues of the past and the present.”

While these sorts of conversations about racism and naming or building monuments can be challenging, they force us to see the world around us anew — to uncover more knowledge, to deeply consider historical context, and to explore the meaning of the past for the present day. To me, no matter how bad it gets (and it can get bad), this is an essential part of understanding the past. If we value history, and truth, then we can only understand the past through honesty and humility, no matter if it provokes arguments and controversies.

So, what is the “proper” role of a historian or public historical society today? In partial answer, I’d point us to the vital purpose outlined by historian Daina Berry: “To provide the context in which people can understand the very complex issues of the past and the present.”

Photograph of Judge Xiomara Torres’s passport on display in “DREAMs Deferred” at the Oregon Historical Society. 
Uncovering knowledge and valuing history requires that we provide a context for understanding the past that’s meaningful today. That includes making space for stories that mirror the lives of Oregonians — their lives, triumphs, and tribulations. “DREAMs Deferred,” an exhibition developed by The Immigrant Story on display in the Oregon Historical Society’s Community Mezzanine Gallery from January 10 to April 12, 2020, documents some of these stories. This panel from the exhibit uses an object to tell the story of Multnomah County Circuit Judge Xiomara Torres’s journey to the U.S. that began as an undocumented child from El Salvador.

How can we, should we, and do we honestly and accurately represent the past? In this effort, is historical memory a help or hindrance (and what is it anyway)? These deceptively simple questions helped to begin and end our vibrant OHS Board of Trustees discussion and presentation in 2019. At stake in these questions is defending our core mission at the Oregon Historical Society and public historical institutions like it. Confronting difficult history in the service of the widest possible audience, mirroring their lives, triumphs, and tribulations, and surfacing the good as well as the bad, is as essential today in what some lament as a “post truth” world as it has ever been.

I invite you to consider the importance of context as you assess these and related questions and interrogate your own assumptions about history, collective memory, and the purposes of public history in challenging easy narratives that all too often emphasize progress and peace. One place to start is reading the Winter 2019 issue of OHQ, which pushes us in exciting new directions in this conversation. Oregon may be particularly in need of this sort of open public history dialogue because of the state’s apparent racial homogeneity, and this special issue does just that by adding essential context in addressing a crucial aspect of our shared difficult past: structural white supremacy and resistance in the state.

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