Archive | August, 2012

Anniversary of the Battle of Fort Mims

30 Aug

One hundred ninety-nine years ago today occurred one of the most consequential but little-known events in American history. Fort Mims, a settler stockade in south Alabama housing a few hundred frontier settlers and militiamen, was attacked by surprise by an army of Red Stick Creek warriors. The contest was a massacre. Accounts of the brutal affair brought the tensions in the Old Southwest to the attention of the nation.

Fort Mims was not the first battle of the Creek War, but it more than any other single factor put in motion the chain of events that would lead to the destruction of Creek territorial sovereignty, the American settlement of significant portions of the Deep South, the advent of slave-based cotton agriculture in the region, and the rise to prominence of Andrew Jackson.

Let us pause and remember those who fought and died that summer day long ago. Fort Mims remains a turning point in American history.


Marketing History

22 Aug

I recently got a chance to attend a marketing seminar for tourism professionals. The experience has helped me better understand how to communicate with potential visitors to the region I work in and perhaps how to tell the story of its unique heritage in a more effective way. The one thing that was pounded into me by the seminar, though, was that what tourism boils down to is on some level essentially the selling of “fun.” People want to travel to places where they think they will enjoy themselves, the professionals say, whether that be through experiencing nature, dining, rides at amusement parks, relaxing at spas, fishing, golfing, attending performances or other events, gambling, etc… This line of thinking is no doubt true but brought some obvious concerns to my mind as a public historian who is well aware that “history” and “fun” are by no means synonymous to much of today’s public. So what to do?

Let me begin to try to answer that conundrum with a story. I’ll never forget the time when, as a junior in high school, one of my dad’s friends asked me what I wanted to study when I went to college. I told him “history.” He paused for a moment, looked down at the ground in deep thought, then looked me in the eye and asked inquiringly: “what’s history got to do with work?” He seemed to be halfway satisfied with my answer that I could teach or do other practical things like work in museums or at historic sites, but I don’t think he was really convinced. I know he would not be convinced that history has anything to do with fun, either, yet that is precisely the message that we as public historians would like to get across to people as effectively as Disney has persuaded us all that price-gauging, long lines, and blazing Florida heat are essential parts of a family vacation.

History to historians is both serious work and serious fun. We do it because we think our work is edifying and we enjoy the topics we research and find the stories we can tell to be entertaining. But we are fooling ourselves if we don’t come to terms with the fact that there are a lot more people like my dad’s friend than ourselves out there. A large portion of the populace doesn’t know, doesn’t care, and perhaps doesn’t even want to know why we believe history can be both educational and entertaining. This should not discourage us from reaching those that “get it.” There are enough people that can and want to be reached, and we can all do a better job of attending to them in both our publicity and programming.

Rather than spinning our wheels trying to make our historic sites compete with other attractions, we need to better grasp who is actually interested in walking through our doors and why. I’ll be honest; I don’t know the answer to that question but I should. I can assure you Disney knows their “target audience,” but I’ve seen very few historic sites that do. Public history complements and strengthens the tourism offerings of any location, but we should not be disappointed when the amusement park outdraws the local historical park in terms of attendance. What we should be concerned about is first and foremost the opinion and the quality of dialog with the portion of the population that is already tuned in to the type of things we offer. If we attempt to describe ourselves as or become something we are not in an attempt to compete with attractions that we cannot, we are sure to alienate our core audience and serve nobody. Let’s just do what we do well, and figure out who already likes us and why.


Civil War and Reconstruction Full Circle

17 Aug

I have recently been doing some reading on the Reconstruction period in Mississippi after the Civil War which has led to an epiphany of sorts for me about one of the most formative chapters in the state’s—and by extension our nation’s—history. Perhaps I am a bit slow, but I now see that the North came full circle regarding the difficult issue of race in the South.

At the beginning of the Civil War, the majority opinion from the National government and from the northern populace in regards to the reason for waging the war was to reunite the states into the Union and not for the emancipation of slavery. As the war dragged on, this sentiment changed and the idea behind the war took on a more moral calling to end slavery and begin working toward the fulfillment of the principles behind the Declaration of Independence.  The Union would be saved, but it would be a new Union, free of the horrible stain of slavery.

With the war’s end and the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments, the former slaves gained political rights that let them participate in government.  Unfortunately, many white Mississippians refused to accept this change and by using methods of violence and economic intimidation, prevented many of these former freedmen from voting, allowing Mississippi’s antebellum controllers, the Democratic Party, to “redeem” the state. This adamant white resistance required the National government to send troops to enforce the peace and maintain legitimate elections.

However, the National government and the northern populace basically grew tired of the whole Southern race issue. They had fought a bloody war over uniting the union and did not want to engage in another one, especially when it only served to benefit the former slaves. Therefore, as time went on, the National government failed to provide the necessary troops, basically leaving Mississippi to handle its own affairs.  Thus, events had come full circle. The National government and the northern populace were content in having reunited the Union but failed to follow through to insure those high costs paid during the war were not in vain and that the former slaves would be given a chance to enjoy the benefits of citizenship.

The failure of Reconstruction ultimately led directly to the necessity of the struggles of the modern civil rights movement. Allowing the South to “win the peace” after the war by returning power into the hands of those most likely to crush attempts by blacks to secure their rights set Mississippi on a backwards path and placed it at odds with the rest of the nation. Had these difficulties been tackled with more conviction in the 1870s, one can imagine how much improved this nation would be in regards to the issues that are still relevant today: race relations, education, the economy, etc. While much emphasis is understandably placed on the modern civil rights movement by educators, they would perhaps be better served to communicate more effectively the issues over which the movement coalesced by more thoroughly analyzing this Reconstruction time period which left crucial questions unanswered and set the stage for the turbulent times of the 1950s and 60s.