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Our Fragile Past


The fight to protect our past, in terms of having archives and preserving places, is a tenuous and hard one. It doesn’t get better when the Trump administration decides to close the National Archives office in Seattle and sell the property so that Mick Mulvaney and Grover Norquist can get a high.

We had another very bad scare this week, when the Museum of Chinese in America burned and it looked the like its massive and irreplaceable holdings were gone too. But thank the heavens that the fire did not seriously damage most of those holdings. Clearly the museum needs better storage facilities, but that costs a lot of money and who has it?

I thought this was an excellent New Yorker piece on the fight to save sites of African-American history. Focusing on Shockoe Bottom in Richmond, here’s the end of the piece:

Not all sites move from the margins to the mainstream so smoothly. At Shockoe Bottom, the Defenders are still fighting to commemorate the legacy of Gabriel’s rebellion and the memory of all the other African-Americans who were sold and buried there. Economic development and historic preservation seem at odds, and even many community stakeholders who agree about the importance of the site disagree about how best to memorialize it. After the Trust included Shockoe Bottom on its most-endangered-places list, the city proposed preserving a single small area, the so-called Devil’s Half Acre, on which the slave trader Robert Lumpkin ran a jail. The Defenders are advocating for a nine-acre memorial park centered on the burial ground. They point to an economic study commissioned by the Trust, which found that an $8.7-million investment in that park would generate $11.5 million in jobs.

Ana Edwards, an artist and a historian, moved to Richmond in the late eighties and learned that two of her ancestors had been sold out of the city. She has co-chaired the Sacred Ground Project with her husband for the last fifteen years, some of those while working on a master’s degree in history. Her research focusses on the life of a free black man accused but ultimately exonerated of participating in Gabriel’s rebellion. Edwards believes that Shockoe Bottom should be a site of reflection and remembrance but also of resistance, offering visitors an alternative to the history that Richmond has long revered. Four of this country’s more than seventeen hundred public memorials to the Confederacy stand not far from Shockoe Bottom, on Monument Avenue—statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson, and J. E. B. Stuart. As in Charlottesville, white supremacists have rallied to protect those Confederate monuments, a reminder of how necessary African-American historic preservation is. “I don’t know if this space can do all the work our society needs it to,” Edwards told me one night, while walking through Shockoe Bottom, shouting to be heard over the sound of eighteen-wheelers passing on the interstate overhead. “But we need this place.”

Mayor Levar Stoney, who was elected in 2016, agrees that Shockoe Bottom is an important site for the city and for the country. “Our history in Richmond is good, bad, and ugly,” he told me. “And I think we owe it to our ancestors and the descendants of these slaves to tell the complete story, no matter how bad or ugly it might have been.” More than a year ago, his administration established a working group called the Shockoe Alliance, which includes people from the Sacred Ground Project, the Slave Trail Commission, and Preservation Virginia, and also from the Shockoe Neighborhood Association and the Shockoe Business Association. To date, they have reached no agreement on Shockoe Bottom’s future. But Leggs, who has the patience of someone who spends his time thinking in centuries, is optimistic that, through the Shockoe Alliance, the city will agree on an appropriate plan for the site. He knows that the arc of history is long and unpredictable, and he is used to doing his work one donation and one student at a time. He has seen that patience rewarded with more recognized sites and with the involvement of more people who have the knowledge and commitment to save them. He has also seen how slowly a project can unfold. His career began nearly two decades ago with the Rosenwald schools, and now he is involved in an effort to create a discontinuous national park that could include Rosenwald’s childhood home, in Springfield; the corporate headquarters of Sears, Roebuck and Company, in Chicago; and a number of the schools throughout the South.

Yet Leggs also knows that some stories are more widely cherished than others. The interracial and interfaith friendship between Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington; the entrepreneurism of Madam C. J. Walker and A. G. Gaston; the audacity and courage of the self-emancipated Frederick Douglass—it is comparatively easy to rally public support for preserving these inspiring legacies. It is a very different matter to persuade a municipality to memorialize its deep economic dependence on slavery. Shockoe Bottom is not just a more expensive place to preserve financially; it’s more expensive emotionally and morally as well. “It should be a site of conscience,” Leggs said. “A place where the truth is told, and visitors reflect, and where reconciliation can happen.” Even if Leggs and the National Trust succeed in helping the Defenders for Freedom realize their vision in Richmond, as they have with so many other grassroots organizations in so many other cities and towns around the country, all they can do is preserve the past. The future is up to the rest of us

In truth, the U.S. does a better job than probably any other country in the world in terms of saving, preserving, and interpreting sites of social history, as opposed to just politics or, in Europe, royalty and empire. And yet, there is so, so much work to do on that.

You know who is not helping with the task of preserving history? Barack Obama. This story is nearly a year old now, but I’ve been angry about it ever since and I now I have a good reason to link to it. In short, his presidential archives aren’t actually going to have a research room where the papers are stored. Instead, they are just going to do a data dump online. Once again, it feels like Obama’s beloved techbros have won out. He was always susceptible to these people and this is really very disappointing. The National Archives is not being allowed in to run the collection.

But as awareness of the plan has spread, some historians see a threat to future scholarship on the Obama administration — and to the presidential library system itself.

Without a dedicated repository, they argue, the rich constellations of related material found at the other libraries — papers donated by family members, cabinet members and aides, as well as pre-presidential and personal papers — could end up scattered, or even uncollected. And without help from specialized archivists, the promised digital democratization could just as easily turn into a hard-to-navigate data dump.

More broadly, there’s concern that the creation of a privately run presidential museum undermines the ideal of nonpartisan public history.

Timothy Naftali, the former director of the Richard Nixon library, where he is credited with overhauling museum exhibits to give a more honest accounting of Watergate, called the decision “a huge mistake.”

“It was astounding to me that a good presidency would do this,” Mr. Naftali said.

“It opens the door,” he added, “to a truly terrible Trump library.”

The decision to break with the National Archives model “was not disclosed” at the unveiling, according to The Chicago Tribune. It was not noted in the foundation’s main news release describing the center, but was instead outlined in a separate, terse release.

Some observers are dismayed at what they see as the lack of transparency, and the slow trickle of information from both the foundation and the National Archives.

“They are creating a fog and confusing the public and the broader historical community about what this thing actually is,” Bob Clark, a former director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, said in an interview.

“Everybody is still calling it a presidential library, but it’s not,” said Mr. Clark, who published a highly critical article about the Obama decision in the journal The Public Historian. “It’s a museum and a headquarters for a foundation that is funding the National Archives’ goal of digitizing all its documents.”

This makes me extremely angry at Obama. There are legions of problems with this. It materially contributes to the disinvestment in the nation that the neoliberal project has pushed forward and which extremist Republicans have taken into hyperdrive. There is no good reason for it all. The truth is that the act of writing history is going to get much, much harder in the near future and Barack Obama is going to be part of the reason. To quote this great Priests song, Barack Obama killed something in me. I don’t know if I’m going to get him for it though.

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