Archive | May, 2014

Save North Eufaula Avenue!

28 May

As I have stated before, I like to pick my fights when it comes to preservation. I simply don’t believe everything can or should be saved, and we waste our influence as historians if we try to attach significance to every structure that stands in jeopardy of demolition. Lately I’ve become heavily involved in a preservation effort that is near and dear to me, though, and one I believe shines a spotlight on how ineffectual and senseless the paving away history can sometimes be when clear and better alternatives are available.

My office sits along a stretch of one of the most beautiful urban parkways in the South. Locally known as North Eufaula Avenue, it is a portion of U.S. Highway 431, and runs through one of the largest and most scenic historic districts in the state of Alabama. If you have ever seen the movie “Sweet Home Alabama,” which stars Reese Witherspoon, you’ve seen its splendor. It is the centerpiece of a promotional campaign by the Alabama Tourism Department, and will be featured on posters distributed statewide and beyond. Yet this iconic and quintessentially Southern streetscape is under attack by those with anything but the best interest of the city at heart.


North Eufaula Avenue 2

The picturesque North Eufaula Avenue parkway, which is threatened with destruction by an ill-conceived road construction plan



South Eufaula Avenue

South Eufaula Avenue, the future of Eufaula’s historic district?

In the misguided name of progress, the Alabama Department of Transportation has pronounced dead a long-awaited, much studied, and clearly needed bypass of downtown Eufaula, Alabama. To cut costs, it has decided that destroying the historic district is much cheaper. The problems are many, not the least of which are that such a measure will not, by anyone’s calculation, solve traffic problems long term. Conversely, the move will actually crush the local tourism economy, forever destroy a priceless treasure, cause home values to plummet, kill ancient and beautiful trees, and irreparably harm local cultural institutions which rely on this walkable historic district (Eufaula is home to one of the oldest and most successful tours of historic homes—the annual Eufaula Pilgrimage—and that event is headquartered on North Eufaula Avenue) in addition to making driving in the area a nightmare for locals. Most frustrating for locals is the fact that the ADOT has, obviously anticipating being stopped should they follow normal protocols, maneuvered the budgeting for their work on Hwy. 431 (a Federal Highway mind you) in such a way that they claim they do not have to undergo ANY review of potential adverse impact on cultural resources as called for in National Historic Preservation Act. It is deceitful at best, unethical and illegal at worst, and a threat to preservation everywhere if successful.

What would such mindless destruction actually accomplish? It would allow the thousands of folks from outside the area heading to the beach a few weekends a year to zip through Eufaula about 20 seconds quicker and allow ADOT to kick the expensive but necessary bypass can down the road one more generation. They will ultimately build one, though, but perhaps long after the town has lost its most treasured asset and calling card. If this is anybody’s name of progress, I guess I don’t understand the meaning of the word. Perhaps I’m a “preservationist” after all.

If you are interested in learning more about this fight, please visit Save North Eufaula Avenue on facebook or



Review of Jacksonian Democracy in Mississippi, by Edwin Miles

23 May

Every historian has surely had the delightful experience of coming across a hidden gem; a book, article, or other item that contains either a wealth of information or an exciting narrative. Perhaps the source was written decades in the past or simply is not very popular or well-known. I had a recent experience after reading Edwin Miles’s Jacksonian Democracy in Mississippi. Published in 1960 as part of The James Sprunt Studies in History and Political Science, this small book provides a superb narrative of Mississippi’s political history during the era known as the Age of Jackson.


In only 171 pages of text, Miles covers the major events of the time period and their relationship to the political scene. Miles discusses in detail Mississippi’s 1832 constitution, the nullification crisis,  land issues and rampant speculation along with banking issues and the flush times and economic panics that occurred. He also brings to light many important figures from the state’s past, most of which are unknown to the general public, but played an integral role in Mississippi’s development. The list includes George Poindexter, Robert J. Walker, Franklin Plummer, Samuel Gwin; men who held important state positions and guided Mississippi during these years.

At the same time, he discusses these issues and their relationship to elections, both national and statewide.  An overriding theme of this work is the powerful influence of Andrew Jackson. No matter what the issues were, if a candidate could identify himself to Jackson or better yet, get Old Hickory’s support, winning the election would be a foregone conclusion. At a speech during one particular campaign, a heckler shouted “Hurrah for Jackson” in which the addressed politician then replied “In short, fellow citizens, you have now before you the sum and substance of all the arguments of the party —Hurrah for Jackson!”  Mississippians loved Jackson due to his military exploits and his efforts in removing Native Americans from the state’s borders. Although Whigs began challenging the dominant Democratic Party, nothing or no one could overcome Jackson’s shadow.

Anyone interested in Mississippi history must read this book. In a state where Civil War and Civil Rights history dominates popular culture, an understanding of Mississippi’s formative years is essential to understanding the later time periods. Topics such as the constitution of 1832 and the complicated banking issues of the 1830s were all crucial in shaping Mississippi down the path to war and eventual equal rights for all of its citizens.


National History Day

20 May

Recently my friend Stan Deaton, Senior Historian with the Georgia Historical Society, posted some rather positive thoughts about students interested in history on his blog, “Off the Deaton Path.” In summary, after speaking to young people at several schools, he came away pleasantly surprised with the depth of interest in history and sophistication of understanding of the past he encountered. Stan’s post got me thinking about some similar positive experiences I’ve had as a volunteer with the National History Day in Georgia.

National History Day

National History Day gives students an outlet for their interest in history, and encourages them to go far beyond classroom instruction in thinking critically about the past. Through exhibits, essays, performances, documentaries, and websites, elementary and secondary students are offered a chance to engage audiences with thorough public history projects that are judged by professionals. Regardless of project format, all must produce a “process paper” documenting all primary and secondary sources consulted. It’s real-world historical investigation. It’s competitive. It’s inspiring.

Over my ten years as a judge at Georgia’s state-level contest, I’ve seen a lot of great projects from these kids. Certainly some projects have been better than others, but as a rule they are well thought out, and demonstrate a genuine intrigue with the past that should make all of us feel better. History Day projects are truly above and beyond what is required of students, after all. Participation is voluntary. Even if the place of the study of the past is under assault in many school districts and our society generally seems uninterested in learning about its own heritage, there are glimmers of hope. National History Day puts a spotlight on some of the brightest ones.


Secret Knowledge

14 May

For me as a public historian, the value of the study of the past cannot be separated from the dissemination of information. I just can’t comprehend the rationale of doing the hard work of researching history without some plan for sharing what is learned in some format. It goes without saying that not everybody thinks that way.

top secret file

There are perhaps more people than I used to think that see the study of the past as being akin to being a member of some sort of secret club, and hoard knowledge of the past either by accident or on purpose. At best, this use of research unintentionally keeps amazing stories from being widely known. At worst, the selfishness of truly talented historians inhibits the understanding of the past. I have known several collectors (a broad term I’ll use here to refer to people who have incredibly in-depth knowledge of a given topic or era in history) who fall into this latter group, who guarded their information and sources as if to reveal what they knew would somehow make them less esteemed. I think they enjoyed being thought of as experts perhaps more than the topics they studied, and history just happened to be the medium through which they found a way to think of themselves as superior to others. Those cases are rare, though. Most often, people who know a lot about a particular subject in the past delight in sharing their knowledge. They just don’t always spend much time thinking of a possible public outlet because they are so absorbed in learning for their own purposes.

I believe an essential component of the work of public historians is to help find those outlets. While we are scholars and are willing and able to do intensive research into the topics we investigate, the true value of our work is not so much in what we find as in what we effectively communicate. If it takes locating and encouraging those with greater knowledge than us in particular subjects and finding ways to share their information, so be it. We facilitate learning through the research we do and the research of others. If we do not do this, we risk becoming mere hoarders of knowledge ourselves.


Review of Wabash 1791 and Fallen Timbers 1794

5 May

Having a desire to know more about the Indian wars of the northwest, I purchased John F. Winkler’s books on the two largest battles in the Northwest Indian War. As a part of Osprey Publishing’s Campaign Series, these two books provided a concise overview of these important, yet hardly known or understood events that dramatically altered the American landscape.

Wabash 1791

Fallen Timbers 1794

Conflict was inevitable as the nation grew westward with American Indian nations clearly situated in the path of land hungry American settlers. This was no more evident than in the Northwest Territory, the large area consisting of land northwest of the Ohio River and stretching toward the Great Lakes. Organized officially in 1787 by the Northwest Ordinance, this land would be the scene of constant warfare as the area’s native tribes fought to keep their land in the face of American encroachment.

Winkler describes early efforts by American forces to subdue the American Indians in Wabash 1791. Led by Arthur St. Clair, American forces marched northward from present-day Cincinnati in attempt to establish supply bases and grapple with Indian forces in attempt to win peace along this violence-stricken frontier. On November 4, 1791, St. Clair’s force was attacked along the banks of the Wabash River and nearly annihilated by a conglomerate force of Wyandot, Mingo, Ojibwe, Ottawa, Potawatami, Shawnee, Delaware, and Miami.  Struggling with poor supplies and trying to fight in a traditional manner, the combined Indian force eventually surrounded St. Clair’s camp and crushed his force, resulting in one of the nation’s worst military defeats. Typifying a subtle form of racism, it is interesting to know the battle is more known by the name of St. Clair’s defeat than the Battle of the Wabash.

Winkler picks up the story again in Fallen Timbers 1794 when Anthony Wayne is given control of the region’s military forces and perseveres through similar problems of supply, treasonous acts by subordinates, and a cunning enemy. Wayne’s forces eventually routed the combined Indian force at Fallen Timbers on August 20, 1794. This victory forced many Indian leaders to sign the Treaty of Greenville which ended the long-running conflict.

These books provide a clear synopsis of these difficult years in an easy-to-read format. With strong sections discussing the strategic situation, the opposing commanders and armies, and the campaigns themselves, readers get a clear view of these transformative events. Eye catching maps and color plates from original paintings not only makes understanding the narrative easier, but also brings the story to life. I recommend these books for anyone looking for a quick overview of the Northwest Indian War in Ohio.


David McCullough on How to Get Students Interested in History

2 May

We have posted words of wisdom from acclaimed historian David McCullough previously in this blog. Today, we would like to post an interesting clip from an interview by him recently brought to our attention by Max van Balgooy in his superb WordPress blog, Engaging Places.

In it, McCullough outlines five important ways to engage young people with history. We especially like number five: the need to visit historic sites. Click on the image below to access the five-minute video.