The Case for Local History

Academic historians need to reclaim “Local History,” and negate the unspoken understanding that we must never, ever identify our work as such. We somehow believe that doing so compromises our professional status and undermines our marketability with publishers. That’s not to say academic historians don’t do local history – they simply rebrand it as case studies of broader trends or by favoring the term “microhistory” (which is not confined to geographic locality). Yet by refusing to acknowledge the centrality of place in our work, historians miss important opportunities to contribute to ongoing conversations.

The problem with local history is that it is often conflated with local heritage. There is a difference. In The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, David Lowenthal argues that whereas history is characterized by an evolving, “testable truth,” heritage “exaggerates and omits, candidly invents and frankly forgets, and thrives on ignorance and error” (120-212). Practitioners of heritage choose to tell “legends of origin and endurance, of victory and calamity” (xv) in order to promote a sense of community and wellbeing in the present. In other words, the idea of pioneers entering a howling wilderness and persisting on a new frontier makes white Midwesterners feel pretty good about their ancestors – so this is the story we prefer to tell.

Many an academic historian unleash epic eye rolls when confronted with heritage, but Lowenthal urges us to embrace a more nuanced understanding. Heritage motivates us to ask questions about our ancestors and our communities, he writes, and it is “essential to knowing and acting” (xv).

This is key because Americans love learning about history, and they know and act based on what sources tell them. Comprehensive historical studies of small towns and mid-size cities are far and few between. Most communities rely on celebratory artifacts of heritage composed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (eg. commercially produced county histories lauding local elites, records of the pioneer societies, etc.), or booklets prepared for the 1976 bicentennial of the United States. These materials do little to extrapolate on the truth. They exclude impoverished and working class citizens, while reinforcing persistent sexist and racist ideologies.

Why is this important? Last year, historian Seth Denobo reflected on his experience at a community forum in Rockville, Maryland, where citizens expressed their thoughts on whether a Confederate monument ought to be removed. He wrote:

“While the headlines report a national debate, change happens in the context of small communities across the country. This larger historic moment we’re living through, one in which we’re asking questions about the commemorative decisions of an earlier period of American history, is happening in specific ways in different places across the country, and a sense of individual identity and belonging to a community is at its core.”

Many historian colleagues in the academy tend to take a polarized view of the history/heritage debate, scoffing with disdain at practitioners of heritage. Yet doing so only deepens the divide and stalls important conversations. When historians get involved in local matters, change can happen. This is evidenced by the growing number of universities coming to terms with their past abuses of African Americans and the use of slave labor.

In my work with very talented and knowledgeable local historians, I’ve found that the good people of Jacksonville know this place has some interesting stories to tell and they genuinely want to get it right – even if that means letting go of their heritage. More often than not, people are genuinely curious about the past. The problem is untangling the vast historical/heritage web that has persisted for nearly two centuries, not only here in central Illinois, but also nationwide in textbooks, monuments, and museums. The problem is confronting power structures that even now shape our city’s politics and power structures. We accept some fabrications because when you live in a place you want to believe it is significant and that you are part of a larger story, but we must be mindful to continually reexamine those beliefs. It is messy. It is uncomfortable. It takes time. But it is oh so interesting and incredibly rewarding.

As Blind Pilot frontman Israel Nebeker said in a recent interview, “It amazes me how places reveal themselves as significant to us by the stories we live in them.”

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