Public archaeology, public history, and race

A lot has changed in public history and archaeology since 1992. And, a lot hasn’t. In 1992, there were very few African American archaeologists. Within that class, even fewer of them were historical archaeologists specializing in African American material culture.

Former slave cabins, Rappahannock County, Va.

Former slave cabins, Rappahannock County, Va.

The early 1990s were a critical time in cultural resource management/public history/historic preservation. Congress had just passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the world watched as archaeologists excavated the graves where more than 400 Africans were buried in downtown Manhattan. The archaeology was being done in advance of federal building construction and the site is now the African Burial Ground National Monument. At the time, debate swirled about what would become of the site and the people buried there.

Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, not only are there more African American historical archaeologists but there are more Native Americans, Latinos, and Asians specializing in the the field and turning their professional expertise inwards on their own pasts.

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Making history relevant

I have worked in and around historic preservation for more than 30 years and I don’t how many times I have tried to explain why historic preservation is relevant to life today. The examples I cited in the past always came from work done by others. And then I encountered Decatur, Ga.

As Decatur systematically erases its black history from the urban landscape and the city continues to hemorrhage African American residents, the linkages between how the city’s white privilege renders past and present residents invisible become more evident. One former black resident agrees that Decatur’s treatment of African Americans and their history is tantamount to ethnic cleansing.

Read “A lesson in racial profiling and historical relevance” on the National Council on Public History’s History@Work site. The day the article appeared, the Decatur-Avondale Estates Patch site asked to reprint it. As a historian who practices public history, this underscores how the NCPH defines the field: “public history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world.”

An isolated historical marker outside the former African American school describes Decatur's Beacon Community. Photo by author, February 2012.

An isolated historical marker outside the former African American school describes Decatur’s Beacon Community. Photo by author, February 2012.

Former equalization schools after about 90% demolition. March, 2014.

Former equalization schools after about 90% demolition. March, 2014.

Beacon Demolition, April 2014.

Beacon demolition, April 2014. The orange construction barrels are parallel to the point where the historical marker shown in the first photo was located.


© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein

Decatur, Ga., public meeting on racial profiling

Last month I reported on one aspect of the racial bias that permeates Decatur, Ga.: racial profiling. A group of Decatur citizens that includes religious leaders, people who have been unconstitutionally detained by Decatur’s police department, and concerned citizens kick off a campaign to raise community awareness about the issue and inform citizens of their rights. The first public meeting will be held Sunday March 30 at 4:30 p.m. at Oakhurst Presbyterian Church.


Separate and unequal: Preserving Jim Crow

Equalization schools were the South’s futile attempt to cling to Jim Crow segregation. They were built throughout Georgia, South Carolina, and other Deep South states as a last ditch effort to forestall court-ordered public school integration. According to Georgia architectural historian Steven Moffson, his state had the greatest number of schools built to preserve the separate but equal doctrine that ultimately was dismantled under the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

Decatur’s Beacon Elementary and Trinity High schools were among the hundreds of equalization schools built in Georgia after World War II. They were constructed in 1955 and 1956 on the site where the city had maintained its African American school, the Herring Street School, since the early twentieth century. In early 2013, three years after receiving a $10,000 historic preservation grant that should have led to the property’s protection, the City of Decatur began demolishing parts of the two schools to build a new police headquarters and civic plaza. Continue reading