Tag Archives: public history

Review: Over-the-Rhine Tour Guide

OTR Tour Guide

OTR Tour Guide

Dr. Don Heinrich Tolzmann, long associated with the University of Cincinnati and German-American studies, is someone who I am aware of but have never met. When I saw his book, Over-the-Rhine tour guide : Cincinnati’s historic German district, Over-the-Rhine, and environs, I had to buy it. I am more than aware of Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. My paternal grandparents lived there for over 50 years. I lived there for a year in addition to all the time I spent at my grandparents. When I was completing my BA in history I wrote my capstone paper on the history of the neighborhoods economy. I have always been big fan of the neighborhood and would argue with anyone, everyone that has referred to it as “blighted”. It was just having some hard times.

That is not the case today. The city is investing in a new streetcar line, the neighborhood is gentrifying, business are opening, and homes are being remodeled and, thanks to the entire neighborhood being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, 943 buildings in all, it is like stepping into an old European town. It is again becoming what Jane Jacobs called a “livable city” and it is filled with history. Not all the history is good but it is all worth remembering. That is why I had high hopes for this guide.

Over the Rhine is defined by the route of the old Miami-Erie Canal, now Central Parkway, so I was a little concerned when he started the guide outside the neighborhood. Dayton Street, old mansions that belonged to the families that owned the breweries and old brewery buildings along Central Avenue (originality in naming streets is not a quality Cincinnati is known for) seemed to be a reasonable inclusion but i grew concerned when the tour entered the neighborhood on Elm Street and failed to even note the YMCA building on the north west corner of Elm and Central Parkway. It is an impressive example of early 20th century architecture and as the early home of both the Salmon P. Chase Law School and a program to train auto mechanics it has history that should be mentioned.

I did learn a lot from the book. Tolzmann was very good at giving the history of the impressive 19th century churches that I admired since my childhood but, until now, knew very little about. He describes several important residences in the neighborhood, stories I had never heard, from serial killers to Civil War generals and politicians.

Unfortunately the tour spends more time outside the neighborhood, I think the surrounding areas were given as much attention as the neighborhood itself was. Some of the points of interest were relevant to OTR, Mecklenburg Gardens, the resort at the top of the Elm Street Incline for one, but most were less interesting than overlooked locations inside the neighborhood. Some connections were overlooked, the Main Street incline was built to take people from OTR to the Zoo, why not mention it with the zoo or use it to introduce the zoo? The Freie Presse building, a German language newspaper that served the overwhelmingly German population of OTR and Cincinnati in general from 1874 until 1964 still stands just south of OTR at 905 Vine Street. Several other locations in the vicinity are covered that have less relevance to OTR. Why not the Freie Press?

The most disappointing feature of the book was the route of the tour itself. Often the path Tolzmann follows doubles back on itself making for needless confusion. The neighborhood vast majority of the buildings are on the seven north south running streets or the three major east west connectors, How difficult would it have been to simply work in a grid, up one street and down the next?

I have to confess that part of my disappointment with the book could be that it scooped me. Researching my capstone paper the thought of an online tour kept popping into my mind but, I studied history not programing. For the few people that will be interested in the topic this book is a good resource. I just wish it was a better one.

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Review: One Man’s Castle

book cover One Man's Castle

One Man’s Castle

Phyllis Vine’s book “One Man’s Castle: Clarence Darrow in defense of the American Dream is the second book I have read in less than a year about one of Clarence Darrow’s cases. Soon I am going to have to read a biography of him but for now I have to say that I think the real title of this book should have been “One Man’s Castle: Dr. Ossian Sweet’s fight for the American Dream”. The story is simple and dramatic, Dr. Sweet and his wife, brothers and several friends were moving into his new home and when a rock throwing mob attacks the house and the men take up arms to protect their castle. It could be a John Wayne movie. Except that the Sweets are black, the mob was inspired by the KKK, and it was 1920s Detroit.

The one fault I had with the book was the extensive background that Vine gave on the history of violence against African Americans and the reasons for the “Great Migration”. That is not a problem with the book, it was familiar ground and I got bored. Dr. Sweet’s early life and education were, for me, also familiar ground. I was even familiar with the Flexner Report, anyone interested in education and the corrupting practices of for profit schools should be, but I was surprised to learn that a historically Black medical school was rated one of the best schools in the nation by Abraham Flexner. I was impressed, and surprised, to learn that Dr. Sweet studied in Europe, Vienna and Paris, in some of the best medical institutions of the time. Those were not the last surprises Vine’s book held for me.

I waited until writing this review to check the authors credentials, I expected she was a journalist, someone experienced in writing popular articles for the masses, that is how the book reads. It is put together like a novel, the writing flows along as smoothly as a deep wide river. The index and bibliography should have tipped me off that Vine is in fact a scholarly historian who taught at both Sarah Lawrence and the University of Michigan. Her writing could make other historians jealous. Vine also managed to add two titles to my “to be read” pile, Walter White’s “Rope and Faggot: The Biography of Judge Lynch” and Arthur Garfield Hays’ “Let Freedom Ring”. Not many books these days can manage that.

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2014 Reading List

Father Time

Father Time marches on.

I only managed to read 22 books this year. Even considering that several of them were well over 400 pages long I am a little disappointed. I did manage to review all but the last on, which I am working on right now and should be ready to post next week.

The worst was Peter Bronson’s “Behind the Lines” where he tries to explain away the 2001 manslaughter of Timothy Thomas by an inexperienced police officer unfamiliar with the area who, against instructions, chased Thomas down a dark, narrow walkway and shot him dead as he reached for his phone. It turned out to be a story that kept repeating through the year. Just like today the reaction against the unjust killing was blamed on the victims of police violence.

On a personal level Christine Sismondo’s “America Walks into a Bar” might be the most important. That is the book that made me want to try a Lime Rickey and got me started on the path to a home bar. In the larger world Martin J. Blaser’s book “Missing Microbes” could turn out to be the book of the year. His argument that we and our bacteria evolved together, that we could have a myriad of symbiotic relationships with the bacteria that lives in and on us and that indiscriminately eliminating them can be, has been, detrimental to our health opens up vast field of investigation for medical researchers.

Here is the complete list.

1. Edsel, Robert M., and Bret Witter. The monuments men : allied heroes, Nazi thieves and the greatest treasure hunt in history. New York: Center Street / Hachette Book Group, 2010

2. Deetz, James. In small things forgotten : an archaeology of early American life. New York: Anchor Books, 1996.

3. Sismondo, Christine. America walks into a bar : a spirited history of taverns and saloons, speakeasies, and grog shops. New York, N.Y: Oxford University Press, 2011.

4. Stiglitz, Joseph E. The price of inequality. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.

5. Larson, Edward J. Summer for the gods : the Scopes trial and America’s continuing debate over science and religion. New York: BasicBooks, 2006.

6. Blaser, Martin J. Missing microbes : how the overuse of antibiotics is fueling our modern plagues. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014.

7. Purdum, Todd S. An idea whose time has come : two presidents, two parties, and the battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. New York: Henry Holt and Co, 2014.

8. Murtagh, William J. Keeping time : the history and theory of preservation in America. Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley, 2006.

9. Bronson, Peter. Behind the lines : behind the lines of action, between the lines of truth, the untold stories of the Cincinnati riots. Milford. OH: Chilidog Press, 2006.

10. Shriver, Maria, and Olivia Morgan. The Shriver report : a woman’s nation pushes back from the brink : a study. New York, N.Y: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

11. Connell, Robert L. Fierce patriot : the tangled lives of William Tecumseh Sherman. New York: Random House, 2014.

12. Cronkite, Walter, Maurice Isserman, and Walter Cronkite. Cronkite’s war : his World War II letters home. Washington, D.C: National Geographic Society, 2013.

13. Johnson, Jacqueline. Western College for Women. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2014.

14. Purdum, Todd S. An idea whose time has come : two presidents, two parties, and the battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. New York, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014.

15. King, Quentin S. Henry Clay and the War of 1812. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014.

16. Bradley, David. The historic murder trial of George Crawford : Charles H. Houston, the NAACP and the case that put all-white southern juries on trial. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014.

17. Potter, Maximillian, and Donald Corren. Shadows in the vineyard : the true story of a plot to poison the world’s greatest wine. Solon, Ohio: Findaway World, LLC, 2014.

18. Bailey, Mark, and Edward Hemingway. Of all the gin joints : stumbling through Hollywood history. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014.

19. Krist, Gary. Empire of sin : a story of sex, jazz, murder, and the battle for modern New Orleans. New York: Crown, 2014.

20. Trudeau, Noah A. Southern storm : Sherman’s march to the sea. New York: Harper, 2008.

21. Henry, David, and Joe Henry. Furious cool : Richard Pryor and the world that made him. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013.

22. Levin, Phyllis L. The remarkable education of John Quincy Adams. London New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

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Book Review: The Cholera Years: the United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866

Book Cover

The Cholera Years

“The Cholera Years: the United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866” is only tangentially a medical history. Charles Rosenberg used the opening year of the three worst epidemics of cholera in the United States as lenses through which he could take snapshots of American society. In each year examined the disease spread westward across Europe to inevitably reach the shores North America. By looking at how the medical and religious communities, public officials, and the people, those represented by newspaper editorials, reacted to the stress of the impending epidemics Rosenberg was able to clearly show how society changed over the decades.

“The nest of college-birds are three
Law, Physic, and Divinity
And while these three remain combined
They keep the world oppressed and blind.
On Lab’rers money lawyers feast
Also the Doctor and the Priest.”

This poem, from 1832, shows that popular American distrust for academics is long held. However by 1848 even the upper-class was turning its back on physicians. Today we see governors who ignore the best scientific opinions and follow their own ignorance on Ebola. It does seem that the more things change the more they stay the same. Rosenberg attributes this to the medical communities inability to cope with epidemics, the 1832 outbreak of cholera in particular. The fact is that Galenic physician’s had never been effective. What was it that changed between 1832 and 1848 that made their ineffectiveness unacceptable? Rosenberg does not really look at what caused the change, he just shows that the general attitude did change.

Originally published in 1962 Rosenberg’s book is still readable. The writing is better, in my opinion, than most of the histories published today. I recommend it to anyone interested in 19th century American history, it provides insight to the social values of the times. I do wish that someone would take a look at what caused attitudes about physicians to change. Was it competition? Thomsonians, herbalists, and Homeopathic medicine was giving the traditional physicians competition. They were saving more people by avoiding, at least in large doses, the mercury, arsenic, and other poisons that were some of traditional physicians favorite medicines. I have read how physicians reacted to the competition. One way strategy was forming a trade union, the American Medical Association, and blackballing Homeopaths. I would like to see a scholarly paper on how people reacted to the competition.

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Review: Slavery and Public History: the Tough Stuff of American Memory

Book Cover

Slavery and Public History

Public history, history presented in museums, parks and at historical sites, is the sharp end of scholarship. We Americans know our history. We remember what our parents, grandparents, and teachers told us about the way things were. We have seen John Wayne die defending the Alamo, and die again building airstrips in the South Pacific. However, our historical memory is often at odds with historical fact. James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton’s 2009 book “Slavery and Public History: the Tough Stuff of American Memory” is a collection of essays examining the causes and outcomes of some controversies that have resulted when memory and fact collide.

All the essays the Hortons chose for the book are readable and easy to follow. Given that a public historian’s job is to present complicated issues and events in a manner acceptable to experts and understandable to school children what else would you expect? In fact, he difference between “historical memory” and “historical fact” a distinction I have stumbled over in the past, is better explained here than in any historiography I have read. In addition to the opening theoretical articles there are several interesting case studies presented, the controversy on the new building for the Liberty Bell and its location on the site of the Presidents House, introducing the stories of bonded servants to tours at historical sites like Monticello and “My Old Kentucky Home” Park, and reinterpreting Richmond Virginia’s public space to encourage historical tourism in the new, New South, are interesting and, for me, somewhat surprising. Edward Linenthal wraps the book up by showing that our disconnect between our “historical memory” and our factual, documented history is not restricted to slavery or even to the United States by pointing out similar disconnects around the world.

If you have ever disagreed with something you read in a museum or on a monument you should enjoy this book.

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Review: Western College for Women

book cover

Western College for Women

Jacqueline Johnson’s book Western College for Women was a quick read. Before I start singing its praises, which I will get to, I want to disclose the facts that could bias my opinion. First, I live in Oxford Ohio the home of Western College and have a history degree from Miami University where Ms Johnson worked as the Rare Books Librarian. She is now the Western College archivist which I am sure helped her with this book. Second, she has worked with my wife on projects for the university. Now those are not my reasons for reading the book. I love local history, the past is most alive when you stand where it happened. I am interested in the history of education. In fact I have Narka Nelson’s 1954 book “The Western College for Women, 1853-1953”, which Johnson mentions, on my bookshelf but for some reason I have not yet read it. One reason could be that it stops short of what I considered the most interesting aspect of Western College’s story. Training the volunteers for Freedom Summer, another of my interests.

Western College for Women first held classes in 1853. It is hard to see even western Ohio as “the West” today but remember that ten years later the Civil War “Army of the West” consisted of soldiers from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Today Oxford is in the country, then it was in the wilderness, a college town carved out of beech groves in 1809. Johnson shows us the college as it develops and expands over the decades. I mean she literally shows us. The book has well over two hundred photographs coupled with informative captions all collected and written by Johnson. At first it surprised me that there was not more text. Johnson shows us the primary document, the photograph of the person, place, event, as it happened. This is good history.

Sometimes the picture is more persuasive than mere words. On page 34 we have a photo from 1891 of the Volunteer Band of the International Movement for Foreign Missionaries and the caption mentions “Lucy Dunlap from Thailand”. Without the photo we could assume that Lucy Dunlap was an expatriate’s daughter sent home to study. Thanks to the photo we see that regardless of the Western name we have real intercultural exchange happening here. I was in high school when Title 9 went into effect and I suffered under the impression that women’s athletics dated from then. This book showed me just how wrong I was. Another unexpected bit of history involves the stonework that is perhaps the most distinctive part of the Western campus, the stone work. Eleven bridges, an outdoor theater and the fireplace in the Western Lodge were all done by the same man’s company, African American stonemason Cephas A. Burns. As impressive as Burns stonework is even 100 years later I did not expect that a woman’s college in south west Ohio would hire an African-American contractor. Good history points out the unexpected. I found many unexpected facts in this short book.

Johnson organized the book by the terms of college presidents. The pictures show us the people and major events, as well as the changing reality of college life. Students rode around campus in horse drawn carriages, they rode bicycles to the next town six miles away, they protested for visiting privileges for their male friends. Johnson has put together an excellent selection of photographs and did the research to necessary to write informative captions. The fact that Lucy Dunlap founded the Satriwithaya School in Bangkok or that when the board of trustees approved Freedom Summer organizers use of the campus they specified it was for one time only were not found written on the back of the photograph or on the negatives envelope. Johnson had to research these facts and find a way to included them. A lot of thought and research in this book that is so well done that it looks simple. If you look closely you will even find a photo of 1962 Western graduate Donna Shalala, President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. If I were to look harder I might find Ameerah Haq, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Field Support and a Western graduate. Maybe not. Western had to many important alumni to show them all in such a short book.

After reading Johnson’s book I am motivated to read Narka Nelson’s more detailed book but now I know that there is an updated edition that covers ten more years of Western College’s history. Now I think I need to hunt it down. This book should interest anyone who wants an introduction to the history of higher education in the United States, in particular women’s education. I am confidant that anyone who reads it will have at least one “I didn’t know that” moment. I did not learn if participating in Freedom Summer was what brought about the schools closing ten years later. That is something that won’t appear in a photograph. Only close examination of the financial records would show the truth about that.

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History Wars

History Wars coverHistory Wars: the Enola Gay and other battles for the American Past is a collection of eight essays that look at the controversy around the proposed 1995 National Air and Space Museum marking the 50th anniversary of the end of World War Two. Before I can start to write a review I am going to confess my bias. I was a charter subscriber to the National Air and Space Museum’s magazine “Air and Space”, I have been called a bleeding heart liberal, I enlisted in the US military in the fall of 1975, I spent over a decade in the late 1970s and 80s reading World War Two history, and during retirement I hope to work in public history, museums. During the controversy I was squarely behind the Smithsonian and was appalled at what I saw as extreme right wing politicians attempts to destroy the institution.

Why should I say that up front? Because when studying history we learn that everyone is biased. We can work to be ‘fair and balanced’ but, in the end everyone has opinions and agendas that creeps into their work. Unless we recognize our own bias we will miss other peoples bias, and those that agree with ours are the easiest to miss. While reading “History Wars” I tried to keep in mind both my and the author’s bias.

The introduction and several of the essays examine the proposed exhibits history from conception to cancellation. One very telling quote kept being mentioned, Tom Crouch, the exhibits project manager, wrote to Martin Harwit, the National Air and Space Museum’s director. asking “… Do you want to do an exhibition intended to make veterans feel good, or do you want an exhibition that will lead our visitors to think about the consequences of the atomic bombing of Japan? Frankly, I don’t think we can do both.” Harwit, an academic astrophysicist not a public historian, insisted they could. Early in the book I began to see that the Smithsonian and Martin Harwit had screwed the pooch. In the language of business they turned a deaf ear to important stakeholders. Those stakeholder were American veterans, the aerospace branch of Eisenhower’s military industrial complex, and, later, conservative politicians.

John Dower’s essay looks at how Japan, the aggressor in the Pacific war had refused to examine their own record of disregard for civilian life. Only when China insisted on acknowledgement of those atrocities did Japan reluctantly begin to examine the dark side of their history. Americans have never been able to freely and openly examine slavery. Astrophysicists might not have known this but historians do, public historians intimately understand this. Unfortunately instead of chastising the Smithsonian for failing to see this historical evidence of how difficult it would be for US citizens to look at the immorality if incinerating the civilian population on entire cities full of he seems upset that Americans are no more able than the Japanese to examine the dark side of their history.

Paul Boyer came close to discussing one problem the Enola Gay controversy highlighted. The general public misunderstands just what it is that historians do. Revisionist is not a pejorative, it is the job description. But they are not “Winston Smith” revisionists, working to make the past conform to what we want it to be today. Instead they look at the past as it was, reading documents from the time in question or written by the people involved in the events being examined, reading records made at the time of the event, and examining artifacts from the event. Then they revise the story to correct errors that were created when the days events turn into yesterday’s news.

One of the more promising essays was by Mike Wallace. He looked at the economic and political interests behind the opposition to the Enola Gay display. Unfortunately he wandered off into speculation about a slippery slope of government sanctioned history, as in “1984”, and attempts to offer prescriptions to avoid the problem even though he acknowledges that the controversy was the product of a unique event intersecting with several unique factors, the anniversary of the end of WWII interacting with economic and political interests threatened by the end of the Cold War.

Tom Engelhardt’s essay, “The Victors and the Vanquished” is a very interesting look at how we Americans have remembered the mission credited with ending the war in the Pacific. In fact we have tried to forget it. Only two movies were made about the mission and the crews, both were government sponsored. For the Japanese the mission marks a beginning and an end. It is a principal moment in the lives of every Japanese citizen who lived through it, regardless how far they were from Ground Zero. Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing. Americans remember hearing about the Kennedy assassination or the Challenger disaster, or 9/11 but none of those events changed our lives as the bombs of August 1945 changed the lives of the Japanese.

Engelhardt raises the possibility that the bombs of August changes us as much as they did the Japanese. Before Hiroshima America’s story was told as one inevitable victory after another but Americans soon came to see the nuclear fires that engulfed Hiroshima and Nagasaki as capable of consuming the United States.

I believe he got that right, the bombs of August 1945 were a victory we chose not to speak of. In 1946 author Pat Frank published “Mr. Adam” a farce about a nuclear disaster that sterilized all the men on the planet except for one. That same year John Hersey published “Hiroshima”, a look under the mushroom cloud. Soon Americans were seeing themselves under the mushroom cloud, Pat Frank took another look at atomic disaster in 1959 with his book “Alas, Babylon” in it the Soviet Union slices the United States into digestible bits with tactical nuclear weapons. Three years later Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler published “Fail-Safe” which has the President of the United States dropping a nuclear bomb on New York City after one of our strategic bombers slips from control and targets Moscow. Fear of the cloud was international, Australian Nevil Shute wrote “On the Beach” in 1957, showing Earths last people waiting in Southern beeches for the the radiation from a northern hemisphere war of annihilation to drift south and kill them. France’s Robert Merle published “Malevil” in 1972, nuclear weaponry had advanced to where a character could say it was a simple math problem to calculate how many megatons at what altitude was necessary to erase France.

It is a tribute to the fairness that historians work to achieve, that, as biased as I was for the curators and the Smithsonian before reading this book my opinion quickly changed. I looked at other reviews before reading “History Wars” and some of them had valid points, but the fact that all the essays were pro-Smithsonian is not one of them. As previously stated, everyone has a bias. Articles on the subject collected from “The Air Force Magazine” or from the upper levels of the GOP would also have a predictable slant. One review fairly criticised the book for a claim that the political conservatives were adverse to the exhibit because of homophobic concerns excited by the name “Enola Gay”hope that such a ludicrous idea would not get past a serious review. If you are going to make unsupported claims why not just go all the way and claim that the idea of presenting the bare fuselage of the Enola Gay was overly phallic for conservative, anti-sex, America?

I have very mixed feelings about this book. Several of the essays presented critical examinations of the proposed exhibits and the events that led to its cancellation. Others lost course or contained nonsense, one confused patriotism with nationalism, and of course there was the “Enola Gay” comment. Overall I came away from the book disappointed with the Smithsonian. Our national museums deserve to be run by professional public historians. A trained public historian would not have blundered into the political and emotional minefield that Harwit did. None of the essays came out and said that putting someone not trained as a public historian in charge of the nations most important public history venue was a blunder. That was disappointing. If anyone ever suggested two exhibits, one leading to the Enola Gay’s flight that assured there would be no invasion of Japan and a later one that looked under the fiery mushroom cloud and what it means to live under the threat of a global Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, it was never mentioned. If the suggestion was never made that is very disappointing. The veterans deserved to be remembered as do those of us who grew up looking out from under our school desks at our own nuclear incineration.

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