Guest Post: Steven Elliott on Public History at the Morristown National Park

Today’s guest post comes from Steven Elliott, a PhD candidate in American Military History at Temple University. Elliott (@EastJerseySteve) is writing a dissertation about the American War of Independence, tentatively titled “The Highlands War: Soldiers, Civilians, and Landscapes in Revolutionary New Jersey.” He has worked for seven years as a historical interpreter at Morristown National Historical Park in Morristown, New Jersey, which is the subject of this guest post.

“The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation,” Freeman Tilden, NPS

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A depiction of the 1780 winter encampment at Morristown, courtesy of Morristown National Historical Park Collection.

Despite Tilden’s call to action, provocative interpretation at many National Parks remains a challenge, especially for Revolution-era sites. As many Americans learn (or re-learn) their history at public history venues, rather than through books or schooling, the Park Service can play an important role in bringing challenging interpretations to popular audiences. Yet, this can be difficult for Revolutionary-era sites, many of which were created to focus on “heroic narratives” emphasizing military campaigns and political leaders. In this post, I reflect on my personal experiences in attempting to challenge visitors’ assumptions about the Revolution, as a seasonal park guide at Morristown National Historical Park in Morristown, NJ.   Continue reading

Historians Attend Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical

This post was written by Christopher Minty and Nora Slonimsky, who, many moons ago, woke up early on a Sunday morning to purchase tickets to the opening-night preview performance of Hamilton: An American Musical, which took place on July 13, 2015, at the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York CityThis post was originally posted on July 192015It was removed as a courtesy to the show’s creative and promotional teamsIt has been reposted with significant alterations and additions.

hamilton_FBHip-hop is on Broadway, not just in a popular YouTube video. On Monday, July 13, 2015, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit off-Broadway musical, HAMILTON, made its debut on the big stage. On August 6, 2015, rebranded as Hamilton: An American Musical, a much-applauded, diverse cast returned to perform in the official opening of a much larger, hopefully long-running production at the Richard Rodgers Theater.

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After the Trail

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Oglala Sioux Shield, ca. 1846

Consider the sixth-grader of 1907. Gertrude F. Greene’s syllabus passed over Plato, sidelined Scottish ballads, and resisted the Alaskan derring-do of The Fur-Seal’s Tooth. At the top of her reading list—first to devour on a snowy winter break from the old Belcher School—she ranked Francis Parkman’s Oregon Trail (1849). In under a century, Parkman had gone from cliffhanger to canon. Why? What might students learn from a 23-year-old romantic historian’s rambles in the Indian country of 1846? Glints of Parkman’s early artistry shone through, but only when you shook up the story a bit. His sketch of life with the Oglala Sioux melded ethnography and emotion, sense and sensation. His Oregon Trail had been greatly curated, edited, and revised in the retelling. And yet Ms. Greene’s sixth-graders missed out on the juicier bits. What Parkman saw (“a strange variety of characters”), what Parkman heard (“harsh and guttaral” dialects), and what Parkman ate (buffalo, fish, dog) on the road filled his private journals, first made available to readers in the 1940s. There, stashed away in the “no-filter” notebooks that Parkman used to piece together his first blockbuster, lay the real adventure. Continue reading

The Charleston Shooting and the Potent Symbol of the Black Church in America

Emanuel landscapeLast night, Dylann Storm Roof entered the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, sat through an hour-long meeting, and then opened fire on those in attendance. Reverend Clementa Pinckney, a state senator, was among nine individuals who were killed. Many are shocked at not only the grisly nature of the shooting, but also its location. “There is no greater coward,” Cornell William Brooks, president of the N.A.A.C.P, declared in a statement, “than a criminal who enters a house of God and slaughters innocent people engaged in the study of scripture.” Yet this experience is unfortunately, and infuriatingly, far from new: while black churches have long been seen as a powerful symbol of African American community, they have also served as a flashpoint for hatred from those who fear black solidarity, and as a result these edifices have been the location for many of our nation’s most egregious racial terrorist acts. Continue reading

The Many & the One

Lexington DoolittleLike many, Amos Doolittle struggled to turn in a decent first draft of American history. The 21 year-old engraver, later known as the “Paul Revere of Connecticut,” arrived in Lexington and Concord shortly after April 1775. Anxious to capture the battles’ action and aftermath, he chatted with local residents. He sketched terrain. For Doolittle, a trained silversmith, it was a chance to experiment with a craft he had yet to master. Part of what he produced, a set of four views storyboarding the “shot heard round the world,” hangs in the Boston Public Library’s new exhibit, “We Are One: Mapping America’s Road from Revolution to Independence.” By Doolittle’s lights, Massachusetts makes for a furious and frenzied tableau: gusts of redcoats’ gunpowder hazing the sky, and colonial ranks splintering on the advance. On the American side, it is hardly a picture of union. Patriots scatter, racing blindly to frame’s edge. In his rough draft of Revolution, Amos Doolittle demands that we unlock all hopes of what might come next. Continue reading

On Remembrance and Resurrection: Commemorating Portsmouth’s (NH) African Burying Ground

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A horse-drawn wagon, bearing coffins holding the remains of the Portsmouth Africans.

“I am the resurrection and the life.” From John 11:25 comes this Bible passage describing Lazarus’s miraculous rise from the death, as he addressed Martha, the sister of Lazarus. For Christians, this lesson is supposed to demonstrate that death is no obstacle to Jesus. This passage figured prominently into Igbo healer Chief Oscar Mokeme’s commemoration of the life of Portsmouth’s Africans, which featured a syncretic blend of Igbo and Christian funeral customs. Continue reading

Set in Stone

Stone LibraryEvery president has a past, and to his regret, John Adams did not save all of it for history’s sake. “Whatever you write preserve,” he directed his grandsons in 1815. “I have burned, Bushells of my Silly notes, in fitts of Impatience and humiliation, which I would now give anything to recover.” Continue reading