When I was thinking of a subject for a possible blog post on my Fulbright experience, I had no shortage of options. I could have easily talked about teaching American history to American students at Elon University, which has been a richly rewarding experience giving me a wonderful insight into how young people in the US view and value diverse aspects of their history. I also took advantage of the Outreach Lecturing Fund to spend a very enjoyable day at Tennessee State University, a Historically Black University (HBCU) in Nashville, where I spoke to students about researching the blues and transatlantic history, and gave a talk on my new book, Blues, How Do You Do?. There have also been encounters with fascinating people, theatrical performances, live music, sports, and visits to numerous interesting locations from Washington D.C., Charlottesville in Virginia (home to Thomas Jefferson’s residence, Monticello), Asheville and the Outer Banks in North Carolina. In addition to all these wonderful experiences, I have learned a great deal about contemporary Native American life and culture.
A highlight of my time at Elon was the guest lecture given by Dennis and Ralph Zotigh from the Kiowa Nation of Oklahoma, which my wife and I attended. Dennis Zotigh (Kiowa, Santee Dakota and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo) is a Cultural Specialist with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. and a widely respected lecturer and performer.
His father, Ralph Zotigh (Kiowa) is an esteemed elder in the Kiowa community, lead singer for the award-winning Zotigh Singers powwow drum, and a former faculty member at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They visited and took the class of Elon’s Native American specialist Professor Clyde Ellis, and discussed the role of song and music in the preservation of various Native cultures across North America. This included the performance of many traditional songs that spoke of ceremonies, stories and origins myths of different Native tribes across North America.
Hearing these songs in persons was incredible to say the least, and highlighted how song is still used as a means of passing on tribal heritage. Dennis Zotigh also gave insights into his role at the Smithsonian and discussed the challenges of often being asked to speak on behalf of all Native peoples in the U.S., which means frequently challenging many of the simplistic assumptions held by visitors to the museum about Native Americans. One of the projects he has been working on is ‘Meet Native America,’ an interview series with tribal leaders and other significant Native peoples exploring contemporary Native life and culture. These interviews really offer an insight into the diversity of Native cultures, as well as the current efforts to preserve traditions and promote education in Native American history.
Being in North Carolina, I was also able to visit the town of Cherokee, home to the Eastern Band Cherokees, located east of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The settlement was founded by around 800 Cherokees who refused to bow to the Federal Government’s enforcement of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This event, more commonly known as the ‘Trail of Tears,’ saw around 15,000 Cherokees forcibly relocated to the Oklahoma territories, a perilous journey through a harsh winter in which 4,000 lost their lives. Oklahoma has since been the home of the two other Cherokee Reservations, the United Keetowah Band of Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee Nation. Cherokee in North Caroline is located along the Qualla Boundary, a territory originally occupied by the Cherokees before removal, and purchased by tribal members from the Federal government. While there, I visited the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, which provided a sensitive and informative account of the Native and Cherokee past from pre-history to the 20th century. It did an excellent job of combining the tribe’s material culture and oral traditions within the rapidly changing context of colonial and early American history. It also charts how the tribe actively resisted American encroachment and attempted to hold the Federal government to its numerous treaty obligations throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Also included was ‘Emissaries of Peace: 1762 Cherokee & British Delegations,’ a rich and illustrative exhibition based on Henry Timberlake’s Memoirs (1765). This display charts Timberlake’s experiences with the Cherokees, as well as their journeys to London to meet King George III. The materials from this exhibit are a testament to the long periods of co-existence between Europeans and Native peoples, before the traumatic events that followed the American Revolution in the 19th century. The Cherokees traded with the British for over 50 years in the 18th century, but the Museum is sensitive to the nuances of these relationships, highlighting how trade and new items (such as weapons and everyday items such as scissors) had a dramatic impact on traditional life and practices of the Cherokees. Unfortunately, due to the timing of my visit, I was unable to experience the Oconaluftee Indian Village, a reproduction of a typical 18th century Cherokee settlement.
While at the Reservation, I also was able to see how tourism has become essential to the local economy, especially in the case of the Harrah casino. Much of the profits from this are invested into local infrastructure, education, housing, and policing. However, the contrasts between the Qualla Arts Centre (which includes authentic hand-made artefacts from tribal members) and the tourist gift shops on opposite side of the road, are evidence of the tension between accommodating and meeting the demands of tourism – a necessary source of income for the Reservation – and the preservation of traditional Cherokee culture. Nonetheless, given the standard of the Museum, as well as the illuminating talk by Dennis and Ralph Zotigh, I have become much more aware about how Native Americans are actively preserving their diverse cultures and histories, in many cases beyond tunnel vision of (sometimes naïve) tourists. It also acted as a reminder of how fundamental these histories are to understanding American history.
This experience really captured my imagination, and got me thinking about my own teaching of Native American history, which is predominantly focused on the South-eastern tribes and their struggles against removal in the 1830s. As an American historian in the UK, I believe that Native American history does not get the attention as it deserves, and all too often the narrative is dominated by stories of loss, encroachment and reservations. However, there are also stories of resistance, survival and joy. The Native American past is as fundamental to understanding the history of America as the actions of the Founding Fathers, the history of slavery, or the Civil Rights Movement. Importantly, during my time in North Carolina, I have also been reminded that there is much to learn about how Native peoples in the 21st century, and their experiences today can tell us a lot about the contemporary state of American democracy, freedom, and the American dream.
I spent the final weekend of the Easter vacation at the BASEES annual conference in Cambridge. As the current BASEES Membership Secretary and a founder member of the new BASEES Women’s Forum, this turned out to be a busy conference for me. I attended several meetings, enjoyed several cultural events that formed part of the conference programme and did all of the usual conference networking.
My paper this year ‘Looking for Love in Soviet Society’ was part of a panel on ‘Women and Men: Love, Equality and Marriage in Post-War Soviet Society’. The paper highlighted the attitudes of mainly Russian women growing up in the Soviet Union in terms of their sex education, moral attitudes, expectations and conduct in intimate relationships. My colleague from the University of Vilnius, Lithuania, Prof Dalia Leinarte, offered comparative findings to my study by highlighting the similarities and differences in the reported and recorded experiences of women in the Baltic States during the Soviet period. Dr Claire McCallum unfortunately was not able to travel to Cambridge but she presented her paper on the visual representations of fatherhood under Khrushchev via Skype.
On Saturday, I attended the Women’s Forum meeting, where the panel presentations this year focused on the pleasures and perils of conducting field work (interviews, archival research, ethnography) in our region, and particularly some of the problematic issues that women sometimes encounter in trying to undertake research in specific cultural contexts. At the end of this event, I was awarded a prize for my chapter on ‘Soviet Beauty Contests’, published in Competition in Socialist Society (Routledge, 2014).
Sunday was a very busy day. In addition to all of the usual conference activities, I attended the performance of Molodyi Teatr’s enjoyable play ‘Bloody East Europeans’, which examines the experiences and reception of East European migrant workers.
After the conference dinner, I went to the late night showing of the award winning film ‘In Search of a Lost Paradise’ (dir. Evgenyi Tsymbal). Writer and producer Alexander Smoljanski is a regular conference attendee. The film tells the story of two of the artists exiled from the Soviet Union after the bulldozing by the Soviet authorities of a non-conformist art exhibition in 1974. Trailers and reviews are available online.
I also took time during the conference to look at the poster exhibition on Serbian Writing and Language throughout History.
This post comes from Tom Carter, PhD student in History at the University of Gloucestershire.
Having completed a degree in Heritage Management here at the University of Gloucestershire, and being persuaded into pursuing a PhD by my then tutor Dr Iain Robertson, inspiration for my thesis came from a visit to the newly refurbished National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. As I wandered around the galleries absorbed by the fascinating collection, the thought occurred to me that no such institution, dedicated to interpreting a single national history, existed in England. Some initial research revealed three attempts to create and English national museum within the twentieth century, and raised some interesting questions about what their failure tells us about the problematic nature of English national identity, its relationship within the wider context of Britain and Britishness, and how we define ‘national culture’ in this country. What my research uncovered was a narrative of how the relationship between Englishness and Britishness, and also how attitudes towards ‘culture’ and the role of museums have changed over the course of the twentieth century.
Defining Englishness has proved to be problematic for many people. This is partly because many of the mechanisms that help foster a unified national identity, from the standardisation of language to the creation of flags and symbols have been utilised to foster the United Kingdom and the British Empire, not England itself. Much of traditional, vernacular English culture was in many ways subsumed by British culture in much the same way that Gaelic, Welsh or Cornish culture was. What differentiates Englishness from these other cultures however, is the fact that Britishness was built on the foundations of English institutions, centralised in London. Consequently English and British was, and in many ways still is, used as an interchangeable term. This has proven particularly problematic in more recent decades, as the Empire ended and nationalistic, devolutionary movements have emerged in the rest of the UK. Whilst Scotland and Wales have a unique, pre-Union culture to fall back on, for the English the connotations of Britain and its Empire have proven more difficult to disentangle. Should Britain cease to exist as a political Union, where does this leave England as a separate culture? This is an ongoing question, to which I don’t have the answer, but it reveals one of the central arguments against an English national museum. How do you create a solid, material manifestation of a nation, when that nation and its identity remain so difficult to define? Ultimately there are also many political and theological arguments against the creation of a national museum. After two world wars which were ultimately caused because of extreme nationalism in Europe, England as a nation has been increasingly reticent about identifying with nationalistic symbols. Images of far-right bigotry and football hooliganism seem to prevail against any desire for the promotion of English national symbols. New Labour were particularly keen to distance the nation from the ‘little Englander’ attitudes of the Tory Shires and promote a global, multicultural and forward looking culture.
These shifting attitudes to Englishness and Britishness have arguably been reflected in the way that museums have developed. In the nineteenth century many of the countries public museums such as the British Museum, the Natural History Museum and the V&A manifested Britain’s place as a global power and its ideals of culture and civilization. Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts demonstrated Britain’s place as the heir to the great Empires of the past. Aristocrats brought back Renaissance art from the Grand Tour to demonstrate their wealth, education and taste. The extensive collection and cataloguing of exotic flora and fauna demonstrated Britain’s ability to define the natural world, whilst ethnographic collections of ‘primitive’ tribal artefacts helped to demonstrate its dominion over the globe. Where British artefacts were included, they tended to be contemporary examples of the nation’s industrial and manufacturing prowess. In such museums there was little space for vernacular English artefacts.
Over the course of the twentieth century however, museums and heritage sites have increasingly recognised the value of English history and culture. In the early years of the century this was particularly driven by folklorists and ethnographers who campaigned for the promotion and preservation of what they saw as a more pure form of Englishness which was under threat from the modern processes of industrialisation and urbanism. A vision of Englishness emerged which was focused upon the rural, agricultural past. Interestingly however, the regionalised nature of this form of Englishness also made it inappropriate for a national museum. Attempts to create an English national folk museum in the 1930’s and 1950’s both met with resistance from those who argued that agricultural practices, vernacular architecture, and non-material traditions such as songs, dances and rituals would be better represented on a local, rather than national level. Britain did indeed see a proliferation of local museums and heritage sites in the post-war era, aided by both increasing legal protection for historic buildings and increasing interest in social history. Ultimately this is the direction that the heritage sector has moved in. In 2009 when the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council ran a consultation process about a proposed Museum of British History, curators and historians reacted negatively to the idea of representing national history under a single roof. They argued that the nation’s history is not a single, London-centric narrative, but an assemblage of stories, cultures and identities, all of which are better served by maintaining a network of museums and heritage sites rooted in their local communities and the places where history really happened. This is where the debate currently stands, with little political or professional will to create an English national museum. However, if my research has taught me nothing else, it is that ideas of culture and identity are not fixed, but constantly shifting. The potential exit from the EU, or a resurgence in Scottish Independence could give English national identity a new impetus. Under such circumstances a national museum might prove desirable, after all, nations often look to their past to help shape their future.
Quick History of Al-Andalus
Recently students from all of the Humanities courses went on a trip to Cordoba to learn about the rich heritage of the three main Monotheistic religions in the Iberian peninsula. The trip was mainly focused on the Muslim Umayyad Dynasty that ruled most of the Iberian Peninsula between 756 and 1031. What is so interesting about Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) is the fact that the Muslim leaders usually allowed both Christians and Jews a degree of tolerance when it came to practicing their religion and actually allowed scholars from both great religions to contribute to their culture. The capital of the Umayyad Dynasty was Cordoba. It became the envy of the world due to its rich culture, its almost unmatched wealth and by the 10th century, it had a population of over half a million inhabitants.
The Trip itself
I was one of the three History students who attended the trip and I originally had relatively low expectations for the trip. I was tentative about hanging around with 40 students I didn’t know very well. However, the 5 days I spent in the south of sunny Spain turned out to be more enjoyable than I could have possibly imagined. The trip started on Sunday at 3 am, when everyone met at Francis Close Hall, just outside the refectory. Snowy (the Campus Cat) came to say goodbye to everyone which proved to be a good omen for the trip. The next 10 hours or so were spent travelling either in a coach or plane. Our Supreme Leader, David Webster, unfortunately couldn’t be on the plane with us as one of our students fractured her foot (but fortunately both joined us a day later). We finally arrived in Cordoba at about 4pm and I was just ready to have a chilled night in preparation for the proper start of the trip on Monday. We stayed at a lovely little hotel called Los Patios, conveniently located across the street to the gorgeous Mosque-Cathedral (and right next door to Burger King).
Monday for me was when the trip really began to come into full flow. We began the morning by having a tour around the Jewish Quarter of Cordoba and learning about the great scholars that flourished in Al Andalus, such as Maimonides. The highlight of Monday though was definitely visiting the Mosque-Cathedral right opposite the hotel. The building was originally designed as a mezquita (Mosque) and had the most awe inspiring and seemingly never ending arches inside. What makes the Mosque so unique is that after the Christian recapture of the area in 1236, the Christians simply just built a Cathedral in the middle of it. Another fascinating part of the day was the visit to the Jewish Museum where we learnt about how the Jewish population after the expulsion in 1492 and the subsequent inquisition often tried to practice their faith privately by becoming what is known as a ‘crytpo-jew’. We were then serenaded by a supremely talented man called Alex.
On Monday night the vast majority of us met up at a lovely rooftop bar. It was a fantastic evening and one where I began to get to know all the other great Humanities students outside of the History course. My memory of Monday night though admittedly is slightly hazy as I drank a lot of Cerveza (Beer) and Jager. On Tuesday morning, I personally wanted to stay in bed due to a pounding headache but ended up forcing myself to join everyone in a trip to the Córdoba Alcazar (Palace and Gardens). This turned out to be an excellent idea. The Gardens in Cordoba were absolutely phenomenal. At the time I thought it was the most picturesque place on earth; it was only topped later in the week by the Alcazar in Seville. After staying in the Alcazar for an hour or two we went to an interesting museum and were then left to our own devices for the rest of the night. Many of us met up and found a lovely little international food market in the newer part of Cordoba.
The most enjoyable day of the trip for me was in Seville on Wednesday. We left for Seville at 7:55 and by 10:30am (after I enjoyed an authentic Spanish breakfast at McDonald’s) we as a group found ourselves visiting the Seville Alcazar. It was the most beautiful and vast location I have ever visited, and will probably ever visit. It’s hard fully to appreciate how nice it is without actually visiting it. A scene from Game of Thrones was actually filmed there. After spending hours in a small group at the Alcazar, everyone was left to their own devices to explore Seville in their own way. I personally thought the best way truly to get to know the city was by visiting every bar and ordering a variety of Spanish drinks, becoming slightly drunk in the process (really – only slightly?) At 8pm everyone met up and I stumbled my way onto the train back to Cordoba. When I arrived back in Cordoba, I went to the rooftop club again with a few other brave souls and dazzled everyone with my drunken daddy dancing.
Thursday morning for me and few others was rather difficult to start with but still turned out to be a really enjoyable day. We visited the Medina Azahara which is the ruins of a former fortified Muslim palace-city built during the reign of Al-Abd Raham III. The ruins were absolutely fascinating; the only shame was that we only had half an hour to walk around the ruins meaning that we could not see it all. David Webster, of course, used the time wisely by taking a selfie from the top of the ruins. After the day out at the Medina Azahara we took a 10 bus minute ride home and were told to meet at the courtyard at the hotel in the evening for a sit down meal and an awards ceremony.
The sit down meal with everyone was a really nice and chilled way to end a fantastic week. There were a variety of awards given out by the lecturers for the well behaved students and the more troublesome ones. For example, joint RPE and History student Alex Griffiths deservedly won an award for being friendly for the entire week. I personally won the ‘friend in need’ award for my drunken antics whilst my History comrade, Rhys Gregory, won the ‘friend indeed’ award for putting up with me. After the meal most of us went back to our rooms in preparation for the long journey home the next day.
Overall, the trip was legitimately one of the best weeks of my life. I met loads of new fantastic people and got to visit some of the most fascinating and picturesque places in the whole of Western Europe. I even learnt a thing or two about the history of the place.
There has been considerable coverage in the media recently about the possibility of offering women in employment paid leave from work during their menstrual period. This has generated a broad range of responses relating to long-standing discussions about ‘equality’ and ‘difference’: is women’s equality best achieved by treating them the same as men or by making provisions that recognise their differences in terms of physiological constitution and biological functions?
If the UK introduces such an initiative, it would not be the first country in the contemporary world to do so. Many countries in Asia already make the provision and Russia debated introducing a law in 2013. The policy also has a significant historical precedent. A whole chapter of my book Women Workers in the Soviet Interwar Economy: From ‘Protection’ to ‘Equality’ (Macmillan, 1999), based on extensive research conducted for my PhD, is devoted to ‘Provision for “Menstrual Leave”’.
In the 1920s, scientific researchers and labour hygiene specialists in the Soviet Union conducted extensive investigations into the impact of menstruation on women’s capacity to work in manual and industrial jobs requiring a significant degree of physical labour. Their recommendations led to two decrees being issued that targeted specific categories of women workers:
Decree ‘On the release from work during menstruation of machinists and iron press workers working on cutting machines without mechanised gears in the garment industry’, 11 January 1922
Decree ‘On the working conditions of women tractor and lorry drivers’, 9 May 1931
These decrees arose from research that suggested, amongst other things, that inadequate seating at machines and on tractors resulted in congestion and tension in the abdomen that was exacerbated during menstruation. In practice, the decrees did not provide for regular absence from work. Women seeking to benefit from the provision had to provide a doctor’s note, similar to the usual requirements for sick leave.
The official research into the impact of menstruation on women’s capacity to work and the application of the decrees in practice raised a number of issues on both sides of the argument. I offer only a summary of the contemporary research findings and observer commentary here:
For the provision:
• employers have a responsibility to protect the health of their workers and unhealthy, poor and inadequate working environments can have a detrimental impact on women’s reproductive health
• women’s labour productivity and output would rise as a result
• it is essential to protect the professionalism of certain categories of workers: the debates here centred on performance artists and female theatrical employees engaged in highly physical and intensely emotional work
• heavy physical labour and strenuous exercise can lead to disruptions of the menstrual cycle
• women’s physical and intellectual capacities are reduced during menstruation; women lose muscular strength and powers of concentration
• women’s biological constitution and reproductive functions require specific recognition in law
Against the provision:
• employers are less likely to appoint women if they are guaranteed paid time off work during menstruation
• (often from male workers, who viewed the employment of women as competition) women should not be employed in jobs for which they lack the physical strength and mental capacity
• if necessary, women could be transferred to different tasks involving easier work during menstruation
• the provision would be open to uneven application and abuse
• women cannot expect to be considered equal with men if they are given special treatment in the law
It is worth noting also that the various research projects often revealed that the vast majority of women reported no regular problems or abnormalities with menstruation, and that men commonly reported higher levels of sickness than their female colleagues. Many of the problems experienced by women in the workplace could be mitigated by the introduction of improvements to their physical working conditions (not sitting down or standing up in the same position for long periods of time) or by the simple introduction of very short breaks that would allow women to walk around and get some exercise.
Debates in the UK, on the TV and in the press, are unlikely to reach a consensus on this issue. What do you think?
This year’s History group projects in HM5000 are being conducted in conjunction with The Wilson, Cheltenham’s art gallery and museum. On 5 March, The Wilson will open two exhibitions: Hidden Agenda: Socially Conscious Craft and Crafting Change: Community, Protest and Utopia. The HM5000(HS) students have been tasked with developing materials to support, and even possibly add to, the exhibits by exploring ‘The Arts of Social Protest’ and ‘Minority Cheltenham’. Here are their preliminary reports on progress:
Social Protest in and around Cheltenham
Our HM5000(HS) group work project examines rioting, unrest and social protest. The main geographic focal point is Gloucestershire, but we also look outwards to the whole of Great Britain. Our research is broken down by centuries (18th, 19th, 20th and 21st) and has been divided between sub-groups focusing on specific time periods. The final artefact is planned as a timeline with an interactive element. The timeline will illustrate overlying themes across the centuries and will include an explanatory key.
At our scheduled group meetings, we have planned how to tackle the project and how to present our research findings. We are now moving towards drafting our timeline. We already have information on various local riots and protests for our individual centuries and have started to identify overarching themes across the overall timeframe, such as unrest and enfranchisement in Gloucestershire as seen in the swing riots and women’s suffrage campaigns.
We will soon start the production of our artefact. Now that we have completed the preliminary research for the project, we will move on to consider contemporary and subsequent artistic and creative responses to social protest. Our aim is to link the forms of the protests and the various ways they are responded to as time progresses. The research findings and visual images will provide the basis for creating our timeline. We hope to be able to add an interactive element to our artefact and to find ways to make it as engaging to the exhibition visitors as we can.
Our HM5000(HS) group work focuses on Cheltenham Minorities. We are exploring the Chinese community, the youth community, LGBT and religious minorities in Cheltenham. The main focus of our project is to report and present how well these communities feel represented in the Cheltenham area and how well they have been treated in recent local history. Our final goal is to produce an artefact in the form of a blog, with the information we have accumulated from oral interviews and taking part in specific communities’ celebrations and ceremonies.
For the religious minorities, we realised we could not appropriately represent them all in our artefact. To solve this, our group looked at the most recent Cheltenham census data and chose religious minorities we felt we could represent to the best of our abilities. For the Hindu and Buddhist communities we decided to focus on the main centres of their religious practice in Cheltenham. We organised oral interviews with them and visits to events and ceremonies, for example meditation, to glean an insight into their world and better understand their expressions and experiences. This has helped to give our section of the blog and interviews a more in-depth feel.
February 2016 was Cheltenham’s first ever LGBT month, with some events hosted at the University. Alongside this community-wide event, the University also has its own LGBT society. We have been in contact with the society and set up meetings to help us understand what the society stands for and what sorts of campaigns they get involved in. By using interviews, we hope to gain knowledge of whether they feel like they have a substantial enough support network, and how well this represents their rights.
The Chinese New Year was also a deciding factor when it came to choosing a minority group. The New Year was on Monday 8th February, and we attended the local community’s celebration. This helped us get to know the members and enabled us to chat with them in order to find out what they felt about their role in the local community. This section of the blog also focuses on the history of the local Chinese community, and when they started to integrate into Cheltenham’s wider society.
Last Saturday, while on my four month stay in the USA, I took the opportunity to visit the nearby International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. This museum is in the Woolworth building, which holds a special place in the history of the Civil Rights movement. Located in downtown Greensboro, it is the place where four young African American students of the local North Carolina A&T college revived a struggling movement. On February 1st, 1960, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeill, David Richmond and Ezell Blair attempted to get served in the all-white restaurant at Woolworth’s. The shop was open to all customers regardless of colour, but the lunch counter was for whites only. In what seems like a fairly mundane form of action, the students were very nervous about the possible reactions of whites, and were firmly aware that they were probably risking their lives. Asking for food and coffee, they were refused service, but they bravely remained at the counter until the store closed.
This direct action sparked off the so-called student sit-ins. From the very next day and over the course of the following months, thousands of students across the country took part in similar protests, often enduring the terrorizing effect of white intimidation and violence. By April of 1960, over 2000 protestors had been arrested, and over 70,000 had taken part. The action of the four young students on the 1st February also led to the eventual creation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and holds a particular significance in the Civil Rights movement as it demonstrated the widespread dissatisfaction of African Americans with the slow pace of change. It also demonstrated the importance of grassroots movements that could organize themselves without the leadership of major figures such as Martin Luther King Jr.
The museum has organized the site of these first sit-ins by placing them within the context of a long Civil Rights movement. The tour, hosted by very knowledgeable and likeable guides, begins with the immediate aftermath of slavery and the institutionalization of ‘Jim Crow’ segregation in the South, and goes on to relate the events of 1960 to other significant moments in the movement. Also present are various artefacts from the segregation era, such as an authentic KKK cloak and hood, and signage indicating the segregated public facilities. I even found out that African Americans paid 10 cents for warm Coca-Cola from an automatic dispenser, while whites paid 5 cents for iced Cola, despite using the same machine which was placed across two walls.
The lunch counter itself has been preserved fairly faithfully as it was in 1960. Despite its fairly mundane and unexceptional appearance, seeing the counter (and it was in a much larger space than I imagined) was a fairly moving experience. It really brought home the courage those young students demonstrated in simply taking a seat and asking to be served. It also reminded me how important it is as a historian to actually see and experience these kinds of things in person. Another question I began to ponder as I left the museum, was the potentially paradoxical function and effects of museums such as this. Do they act as just reminders of struggles past, and warn us of the potentially damaging consequences of giving in to divisive political rhetoric? Or, by labelling such sites as ‘heritage’, do they relegate things like the Civil Rights movement to history, and blind us to the existing struggles of the present day?