From the Battle of Germantown to the first gay-rights organization and the beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous, one LSA professor’s work in public history expands our notions of who and what we recognize in the past.
When you record a history, you also decide whose history deserves to be told. It used to be that “history” meant the stories of everyday life and places, including genealogy and family artifacts. But in the late 19th century, academic history became a profession and created a distinction between it and everything else.
The imperative to capture the stories of ordinary people gained momentum in academia during the social justice movements of the 1960s and '70s. “These historians were social activists doing the research because they realized they needed a backstory,” explains Michelle McClellan, an assistant professor of history and in the Residential College. “These histories gradually got written into textbooks in what I see as a very dynamic relationship between a kind of 'people's history' or public history and academic scholarship.
“Everyone has a story,” she continues, “and in the U.S. where we don’t have a shared ethnicity, our sense of commonality comes from history. Asserting that you’re part of the story is part of our history. I think the Gerber House’s nomination is a good illustration of that.”
By Gerber House, McClellan means the Chicago rooming house where Henry Gerber lived, and where, in 1924, he founded the short-lived Society for Human Rights. The society was the first chartered gay-rights organization in the United States, and Gerber listed his rooming house as its headquarters. The society’s members held meetings and lectures in its basement, and Gerber wrote and published a newsletter from his room called Friendship and Freedom—until the police swept the house, confiscated Gerber's typewriter along with all the group’s materials, and caused the group to dissolve eight months after it began. In February 2015, McClellan’s public history class went to Washington, D.C., to present their nomination to designate Gerber House a National Historic Landmark.
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