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Crowd-Sourcing the Story of a People

Tiya Miles believes a better understanding of the past is as likely to be found in a formal archive, a National Park, or a conversation with an elderly relative as it is in the classroom. Miles, who received a bachelor’s degree in Afro-American Studies from the College in 1992, joined the faculty in 2018 as professor of history and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She is also the new director of the Warren Center for Studies in American History. Her prize-winning research focuses on African American, Native American, and women’s history in the 19th century, with special attention toward issues of slavery, interracial family and community relations, environmental justice, and links between Black and Native experiences. Next spring, she will teach “Abolitionist Women and Their Worlds,” a public history course supported by the Schlesinger Library Long 19th Amendment Project and the Mindich Program in Engaged Scholarship. She spoke to the Gazette about the vital role of public history in shaping American cultural understanding.

GAZETTE: What first drew you to public history?

MILES: When I began my journey in the landscape of public history, I didn’t even know I had taken the first steps. As a middle schooler, I had two favorite pastimes. Unbeknownst to my parents, I would let myself into the abandoned 19th-century houses in my downtown neighborhood in Cincinnati, examine the rubble around me, and imagine who had lived in these structures. I also grew up listening to my grandmother’s stories on her front porch as I helped her snap the green beans or clean the collards that she grew in her side yard. When I heard her describe the family farm back in Mississippi that was lost when a group of white men tricked my great-grandfather — who could not read — into placing his X-mark on a document, and her move north with several children in tow in the 1940s, and the challenges of urban life, I felt the urge to write it all down. I still have the scribbled notes. I was conducting a rudimentary form of oral history, a key method of public history, back then.

Public history has multiple definitions in part because it is a boisterous, crowd-sourced endeavor. The key trait of the field is an engagement with history beyond the walls of the campus or classroom. Because public history meets people where they are and affects how they make sense of their lives, it is a field complicated by public memory, emotional investments, and competing group aims. All of this makes the work thrilling and satisfying, but also vexing, time-intensive, and difficult.

GAZETTE: What might be surprising to people about public history and how we engage with it?

MILES: Museums, historic sites, archives and libraries, government offices, community organizations, local exhibits, and performances are all common sites of public history. If you frequent these places and find yourself reading plaques, listening to tour guide narratives, or examining images of historical figures, you are engaging with the work product of this field. Most people, though, engage with the past in intimate ways: when they listen to multigenerational family stories around the holiday dinner table, flip through a family photo album, view a historical mural on the wall of a church, or curl up with a work of well-researched historical fiction. These are encounters with the past that can enrich people’s everyday lives, contribute to the shape of personal and community meaning-making, and inspire commitment to civic engagement.

Sometimes critics expect public history to be less thoughtful than historical investigations carried out by academics at universities. This misguided view marginalizes, and indeed disrespects, a wide range of nonacademic knowledge producers and the communities they represent. Intellectuals and researchers outside of universities, including local knowledge holders, oral historians, family historians, historic-site tour guides, and National Park Service interpreters who may not have pursued advanced academic training, create and share knowledge that is essential to the building of multifaceted understandings of the past and to the dissemination of those understandings.

Read entire article at Harvard Gazette