On Confederate Memorial Day: Regional Memory & Knowledge Production

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Monday was a state holiday in Alabama and several other southern states: Confederate Memorial Day. State employees had a paid day off, and in a city where there are many state employees, the downtown district was eerily quiet. Confederate Memorial Day has a murky beginning. Following the American Civil War, towns throughout the North and South began to honor the memory of the war on Decoration Day. They would hold ceremonies, honor surviving veterans, and decorate the graves of those who died during the war. By some accounts, it was a healing day, a chance for Americans from all sides to pause and reflect on the terrible rift that had been the Civil War. Eventually, Decoration Day became Memorial Day, a federal holiday to honor the dead from all of America’s wars. Confederate Memorial Day continued in the South, along with other holidays like Lee-Jackson Day and Jefferson Davis’ birthday.

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As I have recently joined the ranks of state employees, I had Monday off. It was strange to be out and about on a Monday that the rest of the world — and yes, most of the state — thought was just a regular Monday. I was much more cognizant of the day’s meaning than I am on other holiday Mondays. But, I do not relate to the history of the Confederacy. I spent the day pondering the Civil War, the very existence of anything called Confederate Memorial Day, the production of historical knowledge, and, well… a lot of stuff, some of which is here.

When I tell people about Confederate Memorial Day, the reaction is usually one of shock and disgust. I’d like to step back from the content of the day and think more broadly around the regional production of knowledge in the United States and the way the North and South think about the Civil War. I think that the way we frame Civil War and slavery history in the US is hampering our ability to discuss modern-day inequality in this country.

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I am currently learning Alabama history so I can interpret it for the visitors to the museum where I work. It’s been interesting, because I am Northern-bred, Northern-born, and Northern-grown. I am from Connecticut, and have only otherwise lived in Massachusetts and New York prior to Alabama. I am also a white woman, most of whose family immigrated to the US in the years after slavery was abolished here. (Though, that does not mean my family was not complicit in the evils of our country’s complicated racial history.) In school, we spent a disproportionate amount of time learning about Colonial America and the Revolutionary War, because that is the history that feels most important to the soil on which Northerners stand.

Visitors to Boston often walk the Freedom Trail, a literal red line painted on the sidewalk connecting sites of colonial-era importance in the city. But Boston’s didn’t freeze in time once the Revolutionary War was won. It has a rich history full of fascinating events spanning across the decades. The Molasses Flood. The Great Fire. Southie’s Busing Riots. Just a few things off the top of my head. And yet, tourists in Boston today flock to its colonial-era sites, walking a path that was established in the 1950s, one of America’s great eras of reframing history.

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Montgomery, Alabama, has a complicated history, and it is one that is worn on its sleeve. Historical markers are all over town, noting the locations of things as mundane as a house Helen Keller visited often (her sister lived there) to sites with such gravitas as the location of some of the city’s several slave markets. The minor league baseball stadium downtown is on the site of barracks that held prisoners of war during the Civil War. The state capitol building was used as the capitol building of the Confederate States of America following their incorporation right here in this city, and Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as President of the CSA on the front steps. A hundred years later, following decades of codified injustice (all following more than a century of slavery), African-Americans and their allies marched these streets, boycotted the city bus system, and rallied on the steps of the very same capitol during the civil rights era.

My US history classes spent a lot — a LOT — of time on North America’s 17th- and 18th-century history. We learned and relearned the events leading up to and following our declaration of independence from King George III. And then, with the few months left in the school year, we hurtled through 19th- and 20th-century history at warp speed, lucky to even get to World War II before finals were upon us. I am confident that this was not the curriculum intended for us impressionable youngsters, but I left school with little knowledge of American events after we became the good ol’ US of A, and that includes the Civil War. But why?

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History is written by the victors. By those in power. The critique of history as the epic tale of the struggle of rich old white men is so well-known as to feel trite. But I would argue that this power dynamic is also inherent in the preference of certain histories in certain regions. We in the North have this idea that we were the good guys in the Civil War. This is, at its core, an oversimplified idea that does not take into account the North’s then-recent direct participation in slavery, and that ignores the fact that industry in the North relied on the free labor of slaves in the South. Those now-dead mill towns I knew growing up in New England grew in the 19th century on the backs of slaves who were growing cotton down here in the South. Shipping and ship-building, other major New England trades, supported the Triangular Trade. And, don’t forget, there were slaves in the North, though not on the scale of the great plantations of the South. There were also Southerners who fought for the Union, or opposed the secession and eventual war altogether. It is far easier to not deal with these complexities and instead perpetuate — either by actually saying so or through omission — the idea of a black-and-white, good-vs.-evil Civil War.

When we run out of time to cover the Civil War properly in school in favor of glorifying another period of history of which we are more proud, we deprive students of the chance to think critically about a hugely important moment in our nation’s history. I think the lack of serious thought about the Civil War, its causes, and its outcomes in the North leads to a misguided belief that the North is morally superior to the South, even today. It leads to a belief that racial and other bigotry is only a problem faced by Southerners, that we in the North are in a post-racism era, that racism encountered in the North today is an incidental accident rather than the product of systemic discrimination. It perpetuates an ahistorical approach to solving systemic problems. And, it creates a whole lot of bad blood in the South, some of which gets repurposed as pride.

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I come from a dead New England industrial town, one known for its poverty, its recent immigrants, its crime, its nothingness. I am lucky to have been born white and middle class, to have become educated, to have left. Even still, I, like most of my hometown friends, have a fierce pride for the scrappy, terrible town where I was raised. The alternative would be to be ashamed of it, which is what outsiders have been telling me I should be for as long as I can remember. I am not saying the former Confederate states shouldn’t reflect on their history and try to right the wrongs of the past. I am saying we all should. I am saying that simplifying history to fit into a primitive good-guys/bad-guys narrative is harmful to our ability to discuss race, economics, inequality, and justice in any way productive way. It damages our ability to administer any sort of reparations. It reduces Southerners to a monolithic population that feels they need to take a defensive stance when it comes to their history, and, therefore, when it comes to the present.

It is very important to be consciously critical of all historic information, because the past is contested territory that is always being co-opted for the present. That is true of Civil War history, too. So, in place of Confederate Memorial Day, I would suggest something different. A Civil War Remembrance Day, perhaps, to be celebrated across our nation, so that we can mourn those who died as a result of the horrific institution of slavery, heal the persistent wounds of the institution and the war, remember those who died in the war even as we think carefully about their reasons for fighting, and try to begin a better, more complete dialogue about our past, present, and future.


 

Photos: 1) E and me with a giant Abraham Lincoln head in the visible storage at the New York Historical Society. 2) Alabama’s state capitol building. 3) A “Rosa Parks” civil rights era city bus. 4) the plaque embedded at the spot where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office when he became President of the CSA. 5) the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was pastor and where the Montgomery Bus Boycott was organized. 6) The one-room schoolhouse used by African-American schoolchildren at Old Cahawba, Alabama’s first capital city. 

Open House NY: The TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport

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Last October, I got to explore the TWA Flight Center as part of the 10th annual Open House NY Weekend, a glorious weekend in the city where architects, private residents, and organizations open their doors and let the public in, in order to raise awareness and appreciation for the city’s architectural landmarks and design treasures. They released the guide to this year’s weekend, and I was delighted to see the TWA Flight Center on the program again.

Closed since 2001, the TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport is currently empty and now ringed in by JetBlue’s shiny, new Terminal 5.  There have been many attempts to restore and repurpose the iconic space since then, but nothing has quite made it through (most recently, I’ve heard it’s going to be turned into a branch of the Standard Hotel).

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The flight center was dedicated in 1962, and is now recognized as a glorious icon of forward-thinking design. The architect, Eero Saarinen, designed the space for efficiency, realizing that the age of mass air travel was upon us. It was one of the first terminals to feature enclosed jetways (the glorious tubes shown in Catch Me if You Can), baggage carousels, a PA system, and closed circuit television. Unfortunately, as time went on, planes got bigger, passenger expectations changed, and the terminal just couldn’t handle the demands of modern airline traffic. When American Airlines bought TWA in 2001, following the airline’s extended financial troubles, the terminal was closed. In 1994, it was declared a historic landmark, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

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I visited the Flight Center on a rainy morning last October, and fell in love immediately. I admit that I didn’t know much about it before trekking down to JFK, but it was absolutely worth the trip. The building’s streamlined, uplifted design makes you want to get in an airplane immediately, and the whiteness of the interior makes you feel like you’re already among the clouds. Huge windows in the seating area allow you to daydream about the destinations of planes you’re watching take off, and the many intimate corners of the terminal recall the romance of mid-century commercial air travel. And those tunnels! I can only imagine how it must have felt to pass through the long, sloping tunnels on your way to an airplane to adventures and exotic locales.

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Personally, I was struck by how different modern airport terminals feel compared to the atmosphere in the TWA Flight Center. Granted, a crowd of design dorks are different from a bunch of harried travelers, but still. On a recent trip, I had a layover in Atlanta where I wandered the airport for a few hours, thinking about how all airports feel basically the same, and how the cobbled-together terminals representing different eras somehow all feel like a mall, and a weird, liminal space all at once. When I travel by plane today, I feel transparent, and I can only ever grit my teeth and wait for it to be over. I can’t imagine that waiting for your flight on the luscious red upholstered benches in the TWA Flight Center could have felt that way; a visit to the terminal today is a glimpse into the days when plane travel felt glamorous.

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I hope that the Powers That Be settle on a fate for the TWA Flight Center soon. It’s a fascinating building that deserves more than occasional public use. The same way that Philip Johnson commented that enclosing the building by the JetBlue terminal was like tying a bird’s wings, leaving a building created for public use empty and stagnant is like slowly suffocating that bird. Public space should be active in order to remain relevant. And next weekend, you have a chance to activate the TWA Flight Center during the 2013 Open House NY Weekend. I won’t be able to make it this year, but I’ll be thinking of the flight center fondly on Sunday.

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P.S. If you like this, check out a few of the other old airline-specific terminals at JFK. Some super cool history and architecture there!

Jobs and Freedom: The Fiftieth Anniversary of the March on Washington

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Image by Warren K. Leffler, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the March of Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A quarter of a million (250,000!!) people showed up in the time before cell phones, before email, before GPS directions, and they made their voices heard.

The march was a call for civil and economic rights for African Americans, and is credited with helping to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Recent news proves that these issues are still hugely important today. Since this isn’t my story to tell, some links:

  • John Lewis is the sole surviving speaker from the August 1963 march. He was 23 at the time. Read about his work here, and his reflections on the day here: “I’m not tired. I’m not weary. I’m not prepared to sit down and give up. I am ready to fight and continue to fight, and you must fight.”
  • NPR is doing a wonderful job live-tweeting as if it were 1963 at the @todayin1963 twitter feed@todayin1963March manual says folks should bring two lunches, avoid spoiled food; first-aid units, toilets, cots and blankets will be provided.
  • I first read this article featuring oral histories from marchers and organizers in Smithsonian Magazine about a month ago. It definitely made me misty on the subway.

“We thought we might get 75,000 people showing up on August 28. When we saw this unbelievable crowd coming out of Union Station, we knew it was going to be more than 75,000. . . . What we did, the ten of us, was grab each other’s arms, made a line across the sea of marchers. People literally pushed us, carried us all the way, until we reached the Washington Monument and then we walked on to the Lincoln Memorial.” -John Lewis

  • The Library of Congress has photographs from the day available for viewing in its online catalog.
  • This essay by Tim Carmody about the day and our collective memory of it is excellent. “We’ve lost so much. We’ve forgotten so much. We’ve asked so few to stand in for so many. We’re doing it still.”
  • This article from the Washington Post examines the King estate’s careful guarding of the “I Have a Dream” speech.
  • And with the NYTimes Time Machine, you can read the Times from the morning after: August 29, 1963.

There are many, many other things happening around the web and, of course, in Washinton, D.C. Today’s a day for remembering all that’s been done and organizing for all that’s left to do. Because, as Martin Luther King, Jr., said in his famous speech, “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

Ghosts of the IRT Subway System

In case you’re feeling as braindead as I am this morning, a quick hit: footage of the NYC subway from 1905. The IRT subway (Short for Interborough Rapid Transit) opened in 1904 and ran from City Hall to 145th Street. This clip shows the train moving through several stations, with riders running to catch the train.

In 1940, the city took over operations of the IRT system, and it now operates as the A division of the NYC subway (lines 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and the Times Square/Grand Central Shuttle). In 1945, the IRT’s crown jewel, the City Hall station, was shut down. I checked it out with with the New York Transit Museum in 2011, and now you can stay on the downtown 6 train from the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall stop as it makes its loop back around through the ghost station.

Happy birthday, New York World’s Fair!

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Today marks the 49th anniversary of the opening of the inaugural season of New York’s most recent World’s Fair, which ran for two seasons in 1964 and 1965. The fairgrounds also hosted the 1939-40 World’s Fair, and were earlier an ash dumping ground mentioned in The Great Gatsby.

The former fairgrounds (and the remnants they contain) remain one of my favorite places in the city, and the fair continues to fascinate me and capture my imagination. Soon I hope to get out to the ‘grounds and do a Now and Then comparison post, but for now, I’d like to recommend this promotional piece from Disney about their involvement in the fair (“It’s a Small World” was originally created for the Pepsi/UNICEF pavilion at the fair… and now you’ve probably got the song in your head. Sorry about that.), and this disappointingly watermarked footage from the fair.

If you like looking at old photos from theme parks and fairs, I’d also recommend Gorillas Don’t Blog, my go-to spot for a daily fix of such things.

An Evolution of Form: Origins of Disney Theme Parks

Jumping back into the world of my thesis, I wanted to explore some of the sites that eventually inspired elements of Disney theme parks. People have been going to specialized locations to spend their leisure time since the concept of work and leisure time as discrete, specialized things was created. In that regard, visitors to Disney theme parks are participants in a long tradition of having fun in designed space.

Pleasure Gardens

The great gardens designed and built in Europe were attempts to create a specialized recreational space, “a hubristic attempt to build paradise on earth, a Garden of Eden.” Featuring exuberant fountains, perfectly manicured gardens, and landscapes that were torn up and replanted based on trends and whims, the gardens were attempts to demonstrate human control over nature and provide a retreat from both the chaos of city life and the disarray of nature.

Tivoli Gardens, in Copenhagen, was one of the world’s early amusement parks.  While it featured rides and restaurants, the main attraction is the extensive landscaping throughout the park. Disney visited the gardens in 1958, and incorporated some of what he saw there into his future plans for Disneyland.

Carnivals and Boardwalks

A disappointing visit to Coney Island was supposedly one of Walt Disney’s inspirations for his eventual family vacation kingdom.  At the time he visited, likely in the late 1930s or early 1940s, Coney Island was still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression.  Subway expansion in 1920 brought large numbers of people with little spending money to the amusement area, driving prices lower and changing the atmosphere at Coney Island.  Around the turn of the century, developers had supplanted the brothels, saloons, and gambling dens that had been the economic mainstay of the Coney Island area with attractions inspired by the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase were all amusement parks that premiered in this period, and which featured themed villages, grand ballrooms and elaborate architecture in addition to carnival rides. The parks, particularly Luna Park, attempted to maintain a level of decency and decorum within their gates, and Luna Park owner Frederick A. Thompson required that employees be courteous to visitors at all times – a policy Walt Disney would later implement in his own parks. From the area’s revitalization at the end of the nineteenth century, the amusement area appealed to New York’s middle classes as well as its less well-off populations.  By the 1930s and 1940s, though, changed economic conditions, several devastating fires, and changes in public perception and use had brought the return of the brothels, saloons and freak shows that had been held at bay through the first decades of the twentieth century.  Still, the success and format of the parks at Coney Island led to the creation of amusement parks featuring midway attractions – in contrast to the trolley parks and pleasure gardens that had previously been in vogue – across the country.

Living History Museums

The first house museums in the United States were created to preserve the past for the edification of the public, especially those immigrant groups who had yet to be Americanized. In 1926, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and his partners began buying land and restoring structures in Williamsburg, Virginia, with the intention of preserving the roots of American democracy.  The result, Colonial Williamsburg, is a living history museum that encompasses an entire historic district, features costumed interpreters living life as though it were the late eighteenth century, and interacting with a paying public to this day.  Interestingly, Colonial Williamsburg’s mission is to educate visitors about the creation of the “idea of America,” and not the reality of America.  They traffic in ideology and heritage, rather than historical facts.

Colonial Williamsburg is only one of many living history museums to appear on the scene in the 1900s.  In this period, members of the upper class began to appropriate history and use it in attempts to Americanize new immigrants and others who did not fit their prescribed qualifications.  These early history museums’ other goal was:

… rescuing isolated bits of the old order from the juggernaut of progress.  The museums became preserves where the past, an endangered species, might be kept alive for visitors to see. . . . The museums did nothing to help visitors understand that a critical awareness of history, although not a sufficient guide to effective action in the present, was an indispensable precondition for it, and a potentially powerful tool for liberation” [of the proletariat].

While many history museums today have adopted a more critical stance towards history and historical knowledge production, the museum as an institution has generally maintained its authority over history.  In contrast, however, historical presentations at Disney theme parks do not invite visitors to engage in any critical historical thinking, and they also fail to acknowledge history’s relationship to the present.  The parks present themselves first and foremost as an amusement, and therefore absolve themselves of any responsibility to the professional discipline of history.

World’s Fairs

The International Expositions and World’s Fairs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were vehicles for disseminating information, popularizing technological, mechanical, and scientific advancements, and providing entertainment for the throngs of people who visited them. Progress was a major theme of public display throughout the twentieth century. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century World’s Fairs focused on advancements in science and technology and ideas of a tech-centric future, to spur individualism and consumer culture while also supporting nationalist ideals. The International Exposition in 1933-34 in Chicago, for example, marked the city’s centennial, and was known as the Century of Progress Exposition. American fairs also celebrated nationalism, and many celebrated historical landmarks such as the anniversary of Columbus’ landing in North America (Chicago, 1893) or the Louisiana Purchase (St. Louis, 1904).  These ideas are also at work in Disney theme parks.

In addition to their contributions to popular paradigms of the time, the fairs often also featured midway areas with games, amusements, adult entertainment and carnival-style rides. Often staying open until late at night, these entertainment zones were sources for financial gain, but often attracted crime and other unsavory endeavors.  Their popularity, though, ensured their continued use at most fairs throughout the century.  Many of the amusements popularized on the midways of World’s Fairs would eventually be used at permanent parks around the world.

Twentieth century New York World’s Fairs.

Two World’s Fairs, both in New York, were bookends to the opening of Disneyland.

The 1939-40 and 1964-65 fairs heavily featured the concept of progress. The rhetoric of the fairs asserted that, as time passed, humans were developing greater and greater technologies that would continue to simplify life.  Humans would mine resources more effectively,cure diseases, travel with great efficiency, colonize outer space, and understand the world around them intimately.  Futurama, General Motors’ attraction at the 1939-40 World’s Fair, took riders through complex, incredibly detailed models of the future, in which automated highways snaked through rural areas and into carefully planned urban centers.  At a time when most fairgoers did not own cars and had not heard of superhighways, this attraction revolutionized the way people imagined the future.  Many of the predictions made and gadgets demonstrated within Futurama, such as cars controlled by radio signals to keep a proper distance between vehicles, have yet to be realized.  However, at the 1964-65 World’s Fair, General Motors again sponsored a pavilion, and the ride within it was called Futurama II.  It also featured a look ahead, this time to the mid-21st century, and visitors to the Fair again flocked to see it.  People were still consuming optimism for the future.  The 1964-65 World’s Fair also featured several attractions developed by WED Enterprises, now known as Walt Disney Imagineering, Disney’s theme park design firm. The main idea of these and other attractions was, as the theme song for the Disney-developed Carousel of Progress attraction for the General Electric Pavilion at the 64-65 World’s Fair asserted, “there’s a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day.” These narratives of progress were also a part of Disney’s attractions in its theme parks.

Disney Parks

Walt Disney’s experiences with his own daughters, his desire to popularize the history he was passionate about and the opportunity he saw to capitalize on the new technology of television to market his characters and films, led to the creation of Disneyland in 1955.  After the success of Disney’s “it’s a small world,” The Magic Skyway, and The Carousel of Progress at the 1964-65 World’s Fair, the company felt confident that East Coast audiences would patronize a Disney theme park in the vicinity.  Locations were scouted in St. Louis, upstate New York, and other areas, but central Florida was ultimately chosen due to its year-round warm climate and the ability to purchase large tracts of undeveloped land.  In total, the Disney Company purchased 27,258 acres of land in secret, at a total cost of just over five million dollars, or about 185 dollars per acre.  The swampland required heavy development in order to be suitable for construction.

Today, the resort consists of four theme parks, two water parks, 23 themed hotels, and one shopping and entertainment complex. Disney-run buses, trams, monorails and boats shuttle guests through the vast network of roads, tracks and waterways that connect sites. In partnership with the Florida government, Disney has also created the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which provides emergency services, water control, public utilities, land use, and building codes, and fulfills other responsibilities for the whole of Disney’s Florida property.

What Disney built in Florida, and previously in California, revolutionized the themed entertainment industry, but it was not without precedent. The sites mentioned here are only a few of the entertainment forms that preceded the Disney theme parks, and the company owes much to them. Disney is not the end-all, be-all of leisure, either. Though it is an entertainment megalith, there are countless other ways for people to spend their vacations. Some of the places mentioned here continue on, too — I had my engagement photos taken at Coney Island last year — in forms that have evolved in differing degrees since their inception.


In 2011, I wrote a masters thesis in museum anthropology on the presentation of history in Disney’s Magic Kingdom-style theme parks around the world, focusing on its Florida incarnation. After a year of my thesis sitting on a shelf gathering dust, I decided to post parts of it here. You can find these posts under the My Thesis category. A list of the resources used to write my thesis can be found on here.