By Kate Drabinski
Public historians who work in and around Baltimore have long understood it as a place both at the center of national development and on the border—between urban and rural, North and South, slave and free. The city boasts it is the home of the first postal system, the first public water system, and the first bottle cap, but it is also home of the first racially restrictive zoning ordinance in the United States, which prohibited members of one racial group from buying a house in a block dominated by another race. Baltimore’s racial history is a long and complicated one that historians wrestle with as they try to tell the stories of this place. It is essential work, necessary to make sense of the past, present, and future and to both understand and negotiate the racial divides that still mark every street corner and corner store in the city.
The necessity of that work became clear in April 2015 when the city erupted following the homicide of Freddie Gray. Gray was in his predominantly African American and poor neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester on Baltimore’s west side when police officers on bicycles chased him down and violently arrested him. He was dead a week later, the result of massive injuries sustained between his arrest and his arrival a few hours later at the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Shock Trauma Center. How this happened is a story of that particular April 19, 2015, morning but it is also embedded in the long context of Baltimore’s racist histories. How did Sandtown-Winchester become “Sandtown-Winchester”? What is the historical context for the overpolicing of that neighborhood more so than others? How does that neighborhood connect with the rest of the city, and how might understanding the historical connections between what has become known as “the two Baltimores” help us understand how to change the conditions that lead to premature death for so many of Baltimore’s poor and African American residents?
These questions were not necessarily on the mind of the National Council on Public History (NCPH) when it chose Baltimore as the host city for this year’s conference, cosoponsored with its sister organization, the Society for History in the Federal Government (SHFG) this March 16 -19. NCPH chose Baltimore as its site several years ago because of its active public history and preservation communities, but the Baltimore Uprising last April has made it a particularly propitious choice. Stephanie Rowe, interim executive director of NCPH, notes that while Baltimore has traditional public history sites such as Fort McHenry and Hampton National Historic Site, it is the work of grassroots groups and community historians and activists that “can inspire the rest of us to stretch the boundaries of our own work.” Whether and how public history can shape cities and help communities respond to crises are open questions, and the slate of activities on tap in March will give attendees ample opportunities to hash out some answers.
The job of connecting those big questions to the local Baltimore context has been the work of the Local Arrangements Committee. Chair Denise Meringolo, associate professor of history at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), aimed to connect visitors to the city through place-based panels, working groups, and roundtables as well as bus and walking tours with a specific focus on undertold histories, feeding the conference theme of “Challenging the Exclusive Past.” “We specifically solicited tours from people who are not professional historians,” she said, aiming to challenge the boundaries of the field. Their efforts have resulted in not only diverse presentations and events, but a diverse set of presenters and storytellers. The trick, though, will be to connect those events to the wider community. Those connections are essential both for the richness of conversations we can have and for thinking broadly about how we might connect historical practice to contemporary issues.
For example, Louis Diggs, a retired military officer and educator, is not a trained historian, but he has been researching and writing about African American history in Baltimore County for decades. Diggs has written over a dozen meticulously researched books and is a respected voice on the history of African Americans in the region. He will lead a bus tour through Baltimore County, ending at the Diggs-Johnson Mini Museum at the historic Cherry Hill African Union First Colored Methodist Protestant (AUMP) Church in the town of Granite. Susan Philpott, a history graduate student at UMBC and member of the Local Arrangements Committee, highlights this tour because it goes beyond the history to explain how, exactly, to develop a local history and then connect it to the community. “He will be talking not just about history itself but the process he went through to obtain funds and do the work to get this museum open,” she says. “He took a crumbling, forgotten building and is bringing it to life.”
This tour, along with almost a dozen more, will help conference attendees learn the hidden histories of Baltimore as well as expose them to the many ways local practitioners attempt to use those histories to advance social change. The question remains, though, how the communities profiled in these tours and in the many sessions arranged for the conference will actually benefit from this attention to their histories. Translating these histories into meaningful change for communities continues to be a challenge for practitioners at every level.
NCPH will attempt to bridge the yawning gap between public historians and the rest of us with the plenary session, “The Uprising in Focus: The Image, Experience, and History of Inequality in Baltimore.” Sponsored by the Maryland Humanities Council, it will focus on the Baltimore Uprising and questions of representation. Panelists include photographer Devin Allen whose images of the uprising went viral, propelling him into a role as a image maker for the city; Paulo Gregory Harris, director of the Ingoma Foundation and designer of programs addressing economic inequality; and Robert Birt and Devon Wilford-Said, both Baltimore activists who took part in the University of Baltimore’s Baltimore ’68 Oral History Project, which recorded people’s memories of the civil disturbances that broke out in the city after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Elizabeth Nix, University of Baltimore assistant professor of history and an organizer of the Baltimore ‘68 project, will moderate the panel.
Listen to Floyd McKissick, then national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, speak “on power” at a press conference in Baltimore in June 1968, weeks after the civil disturbances following Martin Luther King’s assassination. Courtesy Special Collections, Langsdale Library, University of Baltimore.
Nix is particularly excited to bring the voices of Birt, now a philosophy professor, and Wilford-Said, a minister and poet, to reflections about the more recent uprising. Both were teenagers in 1968 with strong memories of that earlier uprising. Just as those who took part in what are now called the ’68 riots were written off at the time, so too are young people who took to the streets last April. According to Nix, people like Birt and Wilford-Said can help us think about the role of young people in today’s movements. “Don’t label a whole group as irredeemable,” she insists. “It is only years later that we can look back and say these are the people who were out there, this is what they were thinking, this is their potential.” A historical perspective can complicate as well as illuminate today’s crises, lending much needed perspective in the face of media so quick to define what it all means.
The plenary, to take place on Friday, March 18, from 6 to 7:30 pm at the Ebenezer AME Church, 20 W. Montgomery Street, Baltimore, is free and open to the public. Conference organizers hope it will connect with people who ordinarily would not find their way to an academic conference. Meringolo calls the event a “chance for the community to come voice their needs and for public historians to take a posture of service.” Organizers have promoted the event at churches and public libraries to reach audiences likely unfamiliar with NCPH. For conference attendees, Nix hopes the plenary can help “public historians to learn how to use public conversations to build on what works and find new solutions.”
The plenary will necessarily be focused on Baltimore, but as Nix points out, “the issues facing Baltimore are shared with many other cities. People may not know Baltimore, but they’ll know the issues. They will see we talk about race and race relations more than people in other cities do. For conference goers not used to that kind of reflection and self-evaluation and to the idea that it will lead to improvement to the whole community, they’ll see that’s what Baltimore’s about, and that’s what this plenary is about.”
Or that’s the hope, anyway. Bridging the gaps between public historians and the communities they are a part of—and not a part of—and hoping to serve is an ongoing struggle. How can public history illuminate and offer solutions to contemporary problems? What is the role of the public historian in making those connections? It is a struggle worth fighting, though. Philpott stresses that extending the network of people who do and care about public history is absolutely vital. “Part of the point of public history is that history belongs to everybody,” she says. “ It is not just the domain of people with certain credentials. Of course academics bring skill and knowledge to the conversation, but they shouldn’t be the only ones there. We have to bring local knowledge to the stories we’re telling.” How, exactly, to do this is a question that will get much attention this March, and all are invited to be part of the conversation.
The plenary session, “The Uprising in Focus: The Image, Experience, and History of Inequality in Baltimore,” will take place on Friday, March 18, from 6 to 7:30 pm at the Ebenezer AME Church, 20 W. Montgomery Street, Baltimore. It is free and open to the public. For further information about the forthcoming NCPH/SHFG annual meeting, go to www.ncph.org/conference/2016-annual-meeting/.
Kate Drabinski teaches gender and women’s studies at UMBC and writes regularly about Baltimore history in her biweekly column for the Baltimore City Paper, Field Tripping. She also helps lead tours of LGBTQ Baltimore and is a member of the Queerstories Collective, a group of artists sharing and making queer histories with their Lesbian Popcorn Cart. When not teaching, reading, or tour guiding, Kate can be found riding her bicycle around Baltimore and asking questions about how the city came to look the way it does.