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.
Gerber House is one of three National Historic Landmark nomination projects McClellan has undertaken with her students. Between 2012 and 2013, a team of students working with McClellan won a U-M Arts of Citizenship grant to partner with the National Park Service to revise a nomination filed in the 1960s. The nomination was for Cliveden, an estate in Philadelphia famous for its Georgian architecture and early-American furnishings and for being the site of the Battle of Germantown in 1777. The revised nomination acknowledged the estate had also been owned and run by one of the biggest slave-holding families in Pennsylvania.
“Without negating the battle story, the National Trust staff at Cliveden worked very hard to craft real stories based on the people who actually lived there,” McClellan says. “Five thousand people come every year to watch the Battle of Germantown reenactment, and now they also visit the updated exhibits about the family’s slaves and learn that juxtaposition. Right here, on this day in 1777, there was this battle, but earlier that day and the day before and the day after, there were also slaves who had to do the family’s bidding.
“You don’t have to throw out one history to include the other, because they are the same story. The key is to appreciate how they unfolded together.”
McClellan’s students and the staff at Cliveden helped to enlarge its history by looking at the ways the people who lived there used the house’s physical space in its daily operations. The house’s hidden staircase, for example, signifies the invisibility of the laborers who ran the household without being seen in its public spaces. Examining the house’s style and construction this way showed how slavery, social history, and the house’s architecture were inseparable. The physical spaces of place-based history have been powerful pieces of McClellan’s public history work, as well as in her own experience of them.
Where to Begin
The first National Historic Landmark site McClellan nominated with her students was Bob and Anne Smith’s house in Akron, Ohio, where Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) began. McClellan has done a lot of work with site-based public history, and her current research is on the social and scientific history of addiction—particularly in women. McClellan knew the Smiths brought alcoholic men into their home, and even that they’d moved their own children into the attic in order to run a kind of halfway house. “I’d thought about the Smiths’ compassion, and how it influenced AA’s development,” she explains. “I thought I appreciated it, but when I stood on their second floor and saw its intimate spaces, I understood how you would brush against someone in the hall, that it would happen right here. I could start to sense what that must have felt like. Being there enriched the historical interpretation I could offer.”
This embodied appreciation of the past undergirds much of McClellan’s research. It moors unacknowledged people to our past where we can see them, and it gives McClellan an infrastructure to connect her work to the subtle nuances of history. It’s also helped her with her latest project. In collaboration with Jill Becker, the Patricia Y. Gurin Collegiate Professor of Psychology, and Associate Professor of Women’s Studies Beth Glover Reed, McClellan is going through decades of data to identify environmental and social forces that might influence resilience and vulnerability to substance abuse in order to understand how history and biology work together.
It’s still early days for this project, but McClellan already sees some through lines becoming clear. “The interaction between biology and culture,” she says, “is much more complex than we have the tools to understand.” Or, perhaps, we don’t have the tools to understand yet.
McClellan believes historians belong at the table when public-policy decisions are made. “Recent research has given scientists an incredibly nuanced understanding of the ways our brains are changing every minute,” she says. “But most people still think addiction is somehow hardwired in the brain because that’s the cultural rut our understanding of addiction has already made. There are historical and cultural reasons why this message that biology is hardwired has so much staying power.”
It’s hard for anyone to step back far enough to get a better look at the way such invisible legacies shape our present-day understanding, but McClellan believes historians can help scientists by articulating the relationship between the present and the past. “Even science is not this neutral objective thing out there, completely outside of culture,” she says. McClellan hopes that public history’s enlarged look at the past can also help us understand how what we assume also affects the future.