The volunteer program at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center allows people the opportunity to contribute to the mission while following their interests. We want our volunteers to be inspired through their passions and our exhibits. Their inspiration will reflect on our guests, giving everyone a better experience. We also want our guests to be inspired by our volunteers. Guests will take this inspiration back to their communities, making them a better place for all who live there.
Volunteers are the backbone of our organization. Their role is critical to our guests, and to the advancement of the organization. They do and accomplish things that no other employee can do. Without them, many of our guests would not receive the amazing experiences they do. Our mission is to challenge and inspire every guest to take courageous steps for freedom today, and that’s exactly what our volunteers do here at the Freedom Center. We cannot accomplish our mission without volunteers.
Have you considered becoming a volunteer of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center?
Check out our interview detailing the volunteer program here.
Interpretative Services Manager
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Modern-day slavery does not care who you are, what you look like, or where you come from. It can happen to anyone—any of us—at any given time.
It is estimated that 20-45.8 million people are enslaved in the world today, in every country in the world today, including the United States. Although exact numbers are difficult to pin point, in the U.S. we know that in the past eight years more than 31,600 total cases of human trafficking have been reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
But what is human trafficking? Is it the same as modern day slavery? In short, yes. The United Nations defines human trafficking as, “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose including forced labor or sexual exploitation.”  Both the definition of “modern day slavery” and “human trafficking” deal with the enslavement of human beings.
As previously stated—slavery can happen to anyone. Not all enslaved people look one specific way, nor do all traffickers look one specific way. However, there are red flag indicators in human trafficking cases that help people correctly identify victims. And knowing these indicators do help. In 2016, the National Human Trafficking Hotline found that community members called the hotline more than any other demographic. Out of 26,727 calls made last year, 7,545 of them were placed by members in the community who knew the signs.
So, why am I telling you all of this? On June 10th, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center held See & Say: How to Spot the Signs of Human Trafficking, a training workshop aimed at helping people understand the red flag indicators of human trafficking. We wanted to provide the general public with an introductory training of these warning sings, with the ultimate goal if you see something, you will say something. The idea for the program came after a discussion with the Freedom Center’s curator, Dr. Ashley Jordan, about how a person could receive training on the warning signs of human trafficking. This conversation stemmed from the news report on Shelia Fedrick, the Alaskan Airlines flight attendant who was successfully able to identify a victim of human trafficking on her flight last February. Because of Shelia Fedrick’s knowledge of these critical signs, she was able to help a young girl escape enslavement.
Understanding the signs of human trafficking is one of the easiest ways a person can help fight against slavery—it literally just requires you to be more vigilant and aware in your normal, everyday situations. At the Freedom Center, part of our mission is to “challenge and inspire everyone to take courageous steps of freedom today,” and that is what our See & Say program was all about. Our goal was to educate attendees on the warning signs of human trafficking and encourage “if you see something, say something.”
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
On July 18, 2017 at 2:11 pm, twenty-seven FORGIVE/FIGHT statements will be read aloud by the eternal flame on our third floor balcony. These statements have been collected over the course of the run of Mandela: The Journey to Ubuntu. This is NURFC’s world premiere temporary exhibition showcasing the life of former South African President Nelson Mandela from his early childhood through his fight against apartheid, onto his presidency and beyond.
These statements have been collected from visitors as they exit the exhibit. Each of our visitors have been encouraged after viewing the exhibition to reflect on what they are willing to forgive in their life and what they are willing to fight for. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center has had an overwhelming rate of participation in this exercise and we wanted a way to showcase the impact that Nelson Mandela’s life and actions have had on the Cincinnati community. The idea of reading these important and poignant statements from the hearts of our visitors came from a program at another museum, the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago. The Hull-House Museum performed a mock election last fall for members of their community that were unable to vote in the national election due to legal status, age, past criminal history, etc. The museum gave voice to their community on important issues that affected them where they otherwise would have had none. Visitors were encouraged to take a statement left on these “ballots” and read them aloud on a bullhorn from a second story window out into the street.
The NURFC recognized very quickly after the opening of Mandela: The Journey to Ubuntu that our own community had very powerful things to say about a range of issues affecting them and our world. We invite you to join us on July 18th , what would have been President Mandela’s ninety-ninth birthday as we borrow the Hull-House Museum’s concept and we read aloud these statements of forgiveness and resistance. In the spirit of Mandela’s legacy we will read one statement for each of the twenty-seven years Mandela was held in bondage by the fascist government policies of Apartheid.
We sincerely hope you will join us on the afternoon of July 18 as we honor the legacy of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. His courageous actions changed the world. Listen with us as we hear the impact of his work on our visitors and learn what Cincinnatians want to forgive and what we as a community are ready to fight for.
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
As we approach mid-summer with the holiday upon us, you may be looking for ways to entertain family and guests coming to town. We’d like to suggest that you make a trip to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center as we’ll be open Tuesday, July 4 from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
“The journey to freedom has no days off and neither should this great institution as we are thrilled to be open on the Fourth of July,” says Interim Executive Director Dan Hurley. “We are committed to ensuring we are available to as many people as possible so that they have the opportunity to learn about freedom’s heroes – past and present, anytime of the year.”
The Fourth of July holiday hours will provide the public with opportunities to tour permanent exhibitions and experience special exhibitions, including Mandela: The Journey to Ubuntu. This powerful exhibition, open now through August 20, commemorates the life and legacy of former South African President Nelson Mandela through photographs by Matthew Willman as he revisited many of the locations that had played an important role in South Africa’s route to racial equality and Mandela’s personal fight for freedom. The Mandela: The Journey to Ubuntu presenting sponsors are John and Francie Pepper, Macy’s, and The John A. Schroth Family Charitable Trust, PNC Bank, Trustee. Supporting sponsors include ArtsWave and Cincinnati Bell. Community partners include Northern Kentucky University’s Public History Department and Gleason Builders.
Guests can also visit recent museum additions including –The Rosa Parks Experience and the “Open Your Mind” Understanding Implicit Bias Learning Lab. The Rosa Parks Experience sponsored by Procter & Gamble is an immersive virtual reality experience that commemorates Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks’ historic demonstration in 1955 – only days before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Open Your Mind: Understanding Implicit Bias Learning Lab is designed to help the public understand and recognize bias and other forms of discrimination. The learning lab is sponsored by The Coca-Cola Foundation and Procter & Gamble.
Hours on July 4 at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center are from 11:00 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information about exhibits and programs at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, visit freedomcenter.org.
Public Relations & Social Media Coordinator
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
In the summer of 2007 an article in The New York Times informed me that the only home of a White abolitionist in Manhattan in New York City that survived the 1863 Draft Riots was in the process of being altered beyond recognition. The home, a townhouse located at 339 W. 29th St., is now owned by Tony Mamounas whose company was adding a fifth-floor penthouse to the four-story Hopper Gibbons house. The Hopper Gibbons house is a 19th century rowhouse, a part of contiguous brick buildings that witnessed the Draft Riots, and was a victim of Irish arsonists who broke down the door at 339 W. 29th St., setting the house on fire gutting the interior.
The Hopper Gibbons house is an important physical element of the American Civil War that survived the July 1863 New York City Draft Riots, and is the only remaining building that was attacked because the then-owners were sheltering Blacks fleeing enslavement and was the site of meetings between Black and White abolition leaders.
The 1863 Draft Riots in New York City began as a violent protest by members of the Irish community against the implementation of the draft during the Civil war incited by Democrats who felt they were being drafted into a war that would free enslaved Black people who would then compete with them for jobs. The Irish were also angry because middle and upper-class White New Yorkers were able to pay substitutes to take their places in the Union Army. The anger vetted against the Black community in New York City was a violent replay of that of 1712 when enslaved Black New Yorkers were executed to suppress a slave revolt. Starting July 13, 1863, the homes of Blacks were firebombed and the Negro orphanage that housed more than 200 children was burned. Before the battle ended more than 200 people thought to be abolitionists were targeted, and many of their homes were burned. The home of the Hopper Gibbons family who were abolitionists was singled out by the arsonists and on the second night of the riot (July 14, 1863) the Hopper Gibbons home was torched. The occupants would not go through the front door to the outside in fear of being assaulted, or worse, killed.
James Sloan Gibbons and his daughter, Lucy Gibbons Morse, were in the house when the inferno began. Abigail Hopper Gibbons was in the South with a Union Army regiment serving as a volunteer nurse. Mr. Gibbons had developed an alternate plan of escape with the help of neighbors whose homes were attached to 3339 W. 29th St., and while the arsonists, the bad guys and the bullies stood on the street waiting to pounce on the abolitionists, James Gibbons, his daughter Lucy and others trapped in the melee, climbed up ladders through scuttles which opened on the roof, scampered across rooftop to another scuttle, climbed down another ladder into a hallway, and by exiting through the rear of the building Mr. Gibbons and his daughter escaped harm.
Fern Luskin, a professor of Art and Architecture, and Julie Finch, an actress, jointly worked to oppose the addition to the Hopper Gibbons house, and during their 10-year effort, they would attract a coalition that was multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, including people of a wide spread of incomes. I called Fern Luskin, and began a 10-year process of exchanging emails, phone calls, site visits to 29th Street and consultation. We were able to suggest that the neighborhood based organization that Fern Luskin and Julie Finch led develop working relationships with the African American community, and they secured the support of Jacob Morris of the Harlem Society. In a July 2, 2012 Wall Street Journal article Mr. Morris identified 20 major Black historic sites that included the slave market at Wall Street, the site of the Colored Orphanage that burned in the Draft Riots, and the location of the home of David Ruggles, the Black abolitionist who sheltered Fredrick Douglas after he escaped enslavement in Baltimore.
We were able to connect Ms. Luskin with what would become on the community’s most important allies, the Bronx Lab School’s Underground Railroad Bicycle Club, a group of students who visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in 2008. At our suggestion, and with the cooperation of the administration of the Bronx Lab School who allowed Rachel Appel to accompany the students to a hearing of the Board of Standards and Appeals in Lower Manhattan. At 10:00 a.m. November 20, 2012, it had been raining since the night before. It was “wet dog weather” when a multi-racial parade of soaked students from the Bronx Lab School dismounted outside the building where the Board of Standards and Appeals would meet. At 10:00 a.m., the wet sock caps, bandanas, scarves and poplin jackets had been removed. Sport jackets, blazers and notebooks were extracted from backpacks, and the scholar members of the Bronx Lab School, under the watchful supportive gaze of their teacher, Rachel Apple, went to work. The youthful students reminded the Board members and taught many in the audience of the ugly history of the Draft Riots, and the noble humanitarianism of the Hopper Gibbons family. They noted that the family not only sheltered Black people in flight from slavery, they hosted Black abolition leaders in their home, meeting with them as peers. From 339 W. 29th Street, a life mission dedicated to human rights would continue, directed toward serving women prisoners. The young people reminded those at the hearing that the Hopper gibbons house was a node of humanitarian behavior and actions on the part of a small group of New Yorkers at a time when New York was considering leaving the Union and joining the Confederacy.
Mr. Mamounas, the owner/developer of 339 W. 29th St., would use every method available to him to use continuances and appealing to every possible venue, while at the same time proceeding with construction work on the building. Weeks, months, years would pass. New hearings would be scheduled. Fern Luskin, Julie Finch and the neighborhood would scrape together funds to hire Jack Lester, an attorney who specializes in Community Law. Mr. Lester successfully represented residents of Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village against Black Rock Realty for illegally raising rents.
May 18, 2017 the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Department of Buildings of New York City ruled in favor of the neighbors of the Hopper Gibbons house who want it returned to its historic height. The voices, the petitions of ordinary people and their children were heard. There will be no celebration however, until the fifth floor of 339 W. 29th Street is removed, and the spirits of the Hopper Gibbons home are free to run unimpeded.
Carl B. Westmoreland
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
This spring, I was approached by my friend and colleague Nancy Yerian and asked if I would be interested in participating in a StoryCorps interview at their mobile recording booth. She was able to make the appointment through Vibrant Kin, one of many community partners who help make sure the StoryCorps mobile tour reaches a diverse audience. I was excited to be asked and immediately decided that I would like for her to be my partner in the conversation. We are both members of the LGBTQ+ community and I thought it would be a great opportunity for each of us to tell our own stories and contribute to LGBTQ+ oral histories, which are unfortunately few and far between in the collections of museums and libraries. While I cannot speak for Nancy directly, I feel we both felt a sense of responsibility heading into the interview on behalf of our community.
The day finally came for us to meet in the recording booth. I found myself strangely nervous. I didn’t know what to expect and the thought of our conversation being recorded with a member of the StoryCorps team in the room became a somewhat daunting prospect. I was prepared to speak honestly and openly with Nancy about whatever she wanted to ask. Knowing that we would both be sharing our coming out stories and deeply personal details about our lives in front of another person became intimidating. I felt like I was about to come out of the closet again. I was, and this time I was, we were, coming out to the entire nation.
Morgan was our StoryCorps team member and he helped us settle in. As we talked with him and did our sound tests I started to feel more at ease and I think Nancy did as well. I became excited now that we were getting this opportunity to tell America our stories; stories that need to be heard by many in our country. I hope that in doing so, we were able to make a positive difference in the life of someone who isn’t yet out to family, friends or their community. Our stories, full of joy and pain and all that comes with declaring to the world that you are proudly and unapologetically who you are, may provide some kid in rural Indiana or elsewhere, hope that it gets better. I reached out to Nancy about this post and she provided this comment about the experience: “I am used to being the listener, not the storyteller, so this experience felt incredibly personal as well as empowering. The connection we were able to make in just forty minutes (which flew by) reminded me of how powerful our stories really are.”
Participating in StoryCorps was a deeply humbling and incredibly emotional experience. I will be processing our conversation for days going forward. Nancy and I have both resolved to continue our conversation in the coming weeks, both of us feeling we have only just begun to tell our stories. This is the power of the StoryCorps project. It connects all of us as humans and as Americans. I am so honored to have had the opportunity to participate and I encourage anyone to do so if they get the chance. We all have a story to share and we all have an obligation to listen. It’s how we learn to become a better people. We have more in common than we think, and there is less that divides us. We need to come together and listen. That is what StoryCorps is all about.
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Waking up early is not exactly my thing, let alone running. But this particular morning I woke up to start my day at 5:00 a.m. to run a 5k. Knowing it was helping to bring a woman named Asha to freedom was that motivation to get out of the bed.
Last month the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center had the opportunity to work with the Aruna Project for the third year to host the 9th annual Aruna Run in Cincinnati. The Aruna Project brings and sustains freedom through employment marked by holistic care to sexually exploited women. In short they free, empower and employ these women to assist them in leading a normal life. They do this by inviting thousands of people across the US to participate in Aruna Runs to raise awareness and money to aid in the freedom process. Asha unfortunately was a part of the monstrosity of sex trafficking. Although I was literally half way across the world from her, my efforts here were going to help get out of her situation.
The Cincinnati Aruna Run, held on May 20, 2017 at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center was one of the most inspiring races I’ve been a part of. Close to 600 runners and walkers showed up. The weather forecast was one of rain and possible storms, but that did not deter anyone. There were participants of all races and ages, with one common thread – a desire to support freedom for others. One of the most important elements of the Aruna Run is to select a specific woman to run for. These are women known by the Aruna Project that are still trapped in the commercial sex industry and that they are working to bring to freedom. Participants chose who they wanted to represent in the fight for freedom. I ran for Asha. Some ran for Sarika while others ran for Kali. While there are so many entrapped in this form of modern-day slavery, it’s important to remember that each one is an individual. These women are someone’s daughter, or someone’s sister. Each one has a name.
The Aruna Project successfully raised tens of thousands of dollars with the Cincinnati Aruna Run, not to mention the awareness raised about the realities of modern-day slavery. Additionally, this race quite literally embodied the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s mission to encouraging people to take steps for freedom for all. In this instance, approximately 4,265 steps.
Initiative Manager, Modern-Day Slavery
On May 23 the authorities in New Orleans removed the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from its pedestal. It was the last of four Civil War monuments that the city decided to remove. In the midst of this controversial campaign, Mitch Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans spoke eloquently about the reasons for taking this action. His presentation (see link below) is a remarkable reflection on the nature of history.
Unlike what exists in the popular wisdom, history is not fixed in the past. Doing history is not about developing timelines. That is chronicling, not history.
History, at root, is a dynamic conversation about the significance of what it means to be human between those of us alive at any one moment and people who have lived at another time and/or in another culture. Fundamental to this conversation, is the act of remembering. Remembering, and its companion act of forgetting, are selective processes not driven by evidence but by the filters of a particular moment. As Mayor Landrieu explains, a generation after the surrender at Appomattox, at a moment when the South fully embraced segregation, Southerners chose to selectively remember the role of Civil War political and military leaders while forgetting the stories of people of African and Native American descent.
Although Landrieu does not explore this, the same could be said of the ways that Northerners used the Civil War to absolve themselves of the complexity of America’s most contentious era. School text books are filled with maps of the United States in 1860 that are color coded to read “Slave” and “Free,” intended to reinforce the view that the victors were morally superior. But Northerners, for the most part, chose to forget that it was Ohio and other northern states that pioneered the Black Codes, which got imported and elaborated to the South in the 1890s as Jim Crow segregation. And although the Northern states gradually eliminated slavery between 1783 and 1865, racist assumptions and attitudes were almost universal. Even many Abolitionists, who boldly opposed the institution of slavery often rejected the idea that people of African descent were equal to those of European heritage.
Doing good history, telling an inclusive story in which multiple voices are incorporated is hard. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center exists to hold up a more complete, more challenging and ultimately more interesting history of America. We tell stories that reflect more than a generation of scholarship that emphasizes that African Americans were the primary actors in the Underground Railroad, beginning with enslaved individuals who risked everything to claim freedom, but also as the organizers and everyday workers who helped freedom seekers find safety and a new life. We make it clear that African Americans, whether they were enslaved, born free, purchased their freedom or claimed it by running away, were active participants in the dismantling of slavery.
By broadening the range of human stories told about the United States, we make history a force for the future.
Read and enjoy:
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Ever since Donald Trump became President I have believed his greatest threat to our society and to our democracy is not necessarily his authoritarianism, but his essential ignorance - of history, of policy, of political process, of the Constitution. Saying that if Andrew Jackson had been around we might not have had the Civil War is like saying that one strong, aggressive leader can shape, prevent, or move history however he wishes well into the future. Leadership does matter in crises. It truly mattered that Abraham Lincoln was President in 1861 and not Stephen Douglas or John C. Breckinridge. It truly mattered that Franklin Roosevelt won the election of 1932 and at least had a new plan to help the country fight its way out of the Great Depression. It truly mattered that John Kennedy and a small group around him were determined to act short of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Those three Presidents and the advisors around them were students of history in their own ways. Presidents adrift without historical knowledge are dangerous.
Trump’s claims that Andrew Jackson somehow through his anger and toughness would have made a deal to prevent secession and war in 1860-61 is simply 5th grade understanding of history or worse. And this comes from the President of the United States! Under normal circumstances if a real estate tycoon weighed in on the nature of American history from such ignorance we would simply ignore or laugh at him. But since this man lives in the White House and wields the constitutional powers of the presidency and the commander in chief we have to pay attention. It is possible to reflect on what might or might not have been done at some juncture in America’s road to disunion and war from the mid-1840s to the 1860s (during all of which time Jackson was dead), but Trump has no knowledge or perspective from which to do so it would appear. As for historical analogies and understanding, our President seems incapable of even getting something wrong in reasonable or interesting ways.
Trump's "learning" of American history must have stopped a long time ago. I wish I could say this is funny and not deeply disturbing. Perhaps his grasp of American history rather reflects his essential personality, which seems to be some combination of utter self-absorption, a lack of empathy, and a need to believe in or rely upon hyper individualism. President Trump does seem to possess an instinct for the feelings, fears, resentments, and base level aspirations of many Americans who are displeased at best with the country and the kind of society that has developed over the past decades, especially since the civil rights and women’s rights revolutions. He further has an instinct for how and why so many white Americans were uncomfortable or downright furious that a black man could be elected President. The “birther” effort that he led stoked a kind of 21st century racism that appeals to a vast audience of suburban and rural America that takes its information and its values from Fox News and its many media allies. And we must give him credit for capturing the political sentiments of the displaced and the neglected in our globalized economy and in our identity-obsessed culture. They do need a voice. To pull that off as a celebrity billionaire may say more about the culture and social values we have all participated in forging more than it says about him.
Trump has political instinct but little in the way of political knowledge of either institutions or history. Why does this matter? Well, if a President makes history, which he can and does on any given day, he should know some history. He must be able to think in time, to think by analogy, precedent, and comparison. He needs perspective in order to find wisdom. Decisions ought never be made in a vacuum. A President certainly needs to think anew about old problems, but how can any holder of that office consider Middle East peace, or relations with a nuclear or non-nuclear Iran, or the immediate threat of the bizarre North Korean regime, or the social collapse of Venezuela, or the possible dismantling of the European Union, or the increasing rise of Vladimir Putin’s expansionist authoritarianism if he is adrift in history, believing only that great problems are solved by great strong men? President Trump’s uses of the past – nonsensical throw away lines about the revelation that Lincoln was a Republican, or that Frederick Douglass had been “doing an amazing job,” and now that no one bothers to think about “why was there the Civil War” are not merely matters of temperament. They are dangerous examples of ignorance in high places. And we must not let this kind of presidential mis-use and denial of history become normalized or merely the object of humor. Satire is our only tool sometimes, but good satire has always been a very serious weapon at the end of the day. Jackson was too important in American history to be so loosely and ignorantly invoked by the President. For students of the Civil War era, we might even conclude, contra Trump, that had Jackson lived to the time of the Civil War, not only would he have not prevented the conflict, his fellow Tennessean, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the notorious cavalry leader, might have been out of a job.
The historical profession might consider petitioning the President to take a one or two month leave of absence, VP Pence steps in for that interim, and Trump goes on a retreat in one of his resorts for an educational sabbatical. If he must be President for three and a half more years, we need him to be able to make sense when he speaks of the past. Sometimes CEOs or university presidents need a break from the daily grind. The President’s staff could choose a few historians to go to the retreat and the American Historical Association could choose a few more. A crash course in reading, or perhaps just in watching documentary films, about the history of American foreign policy as well as the history of slavery and race relations in particular could be the core of the curriculum. Some biographies, a good history of women and gender, a genuine tutorial on the Civil Rights era, and even a serious digestion of good works on the Gilded Age and the New Deal legacies might be required. And finally, a primer on Constitutional history would be essential too, and might make that second month necessary. This alone could garner the United States again some confidence and respect around the world. And, one further thing, no tweeting on educational leave. There will be a test at the end of the term.
We are all creatures of both our experience and our education broadly defined. But to resist learning and expertise, to reject or simply appropriate a past as nothing but a tool for manipulating the present is at best contempt for knowledge. Perhaps President Trump will be the gift that keeps on giving to historians, the source of open invitations to try to help the public that is listening to learn more about America as we endlessly fight over its future paths. But a President without a sense of history is a dangerous thing. We need to keep watch on the White House and its denizen lest his pronouncements make history deniers as lethal as climate change deniers.
As in personal memory, so also in the collective memory that historians assemble, resist, narrate and interpret, the past is that thing we cannot live without, but also sometimes the thing that is hard to live with. “History,” Robert Penn Warren once warned, though, in a single line of a poem, “is the thing you cannot resign from.” Like Warren, one of my other favorite writers, James Baldwin, never stopped probing the nature of the past, the irresistible if at times debilitating hold that history and memory can have on any thoughtful person’s consciousness. “History,” said Baldwin in a 1965 essay, “is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.” For Baldwin, the non-fiction voice of the civil rights movement, if Americans ever really began to learn and face their past with slavery and racism, they would be entering into “a dialogue with that terrifying deity… called history.” Most Americans will prefer never to see history as a terrifying deity, wishing instead for a past that inspires, that makes them feel part of a triumphal story, that places them in a narrative in which they can find comfort. But history can be both pleasurable and perilous, terrifying and uplifting.
Baldwin left a stunning definition of what it means to have a sense of history. In an interview with Studs Terkel in 1961, Baldwin repeatedly claimed that Americans were “badly educated” and did not know their history. Terkel stopped Baldwin and asked : “what is a sense of history?” After a pause, Baldwin delivered a poignant reply: “You read something that you thought only happened to you, and you discovered it happened a hundred years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a great liberation for the struggling, suffering person who always thinks that he is alone.” Having a sense of history is knowing that whatever happens to us or to our world, we are not alone. It has in some form happened before. The problem we may have with President Trump is that he does not know what he does not know. He seems to like to go it alone, sui generis, a tough and angry Andrew Jackson ready to slay dragons in his reality show presidency. Our problem is presidential historical ignorance, power imagined and wielded without bearings or perspective. Presidents can be and feel very alone with ultimate decisions. But they are not without historical consciousness and knowledge, unless they choose to be. For Presidents, history should be part of their daily bread, nutrition to sustain the weary, the basic equipment of their trade.
David W. Blight
This website was funded by the U.S. Department of Education Underground Railroad Educational and Cultural (URR) Program