By Faith Zamble Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Sarah Doherty, one of North Park's assistant professors of history; in the span of 45 minutes, we covered everything from "dead white guys" to the way people look at history. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.
On public history:
Faith Zamblé: So you're a public historian. What does that mean in terms of the world outside of college?
Sarah Doherty: Public historians work in archives, museums, historical societies, libraries, even government positions. One of the friends I met in my Master's program for public history now is an archivist for the Department of Defense. So, she's a historian for the government.
FZ What made you realize public history was something you wanted to study?
SD I'd always loved museums when I was little. I was actually studying International Affairs, Third World international affairs, undergrad, and I minored in History. In talking to one of my history professors, she mentioned, "Have you ever heard of this thing called public history?" Of course, I had not: I had no idea what she was talking about. Within Public History, I focused in Museum Studies, got my Master's and trained to be a curator. I was then able to spend a couple of years working hands-on at the Milwaukee Public Museum.
On segregation in Chicago and the complexity of history:
FZ With American History, is there a focus on that? Because I know you talked about neighborhoods [in Chicago].
SD I'm an urban historian, and I focus on women, gender and cultural history.
FZ How does urban history fit with North Park's values? It definitely sounds like it would!
SD Oh, definitely! With urban history, we look at the development of the city, and then we look at all the people who live in the city. When I taught Urban History here last semester, we studied about neighborhood levels, how cities work, what the growing pains of a city like Chicago might be, as well as the ways different people have theorized about cities. Sociologists have a lot to say about them. Anthropologists have another view. We can even look at the built environment: what stories would the buildings tell us about a city?
FZ: Since you did talk about segregation in cemeteries, how do you think segregation plays out today?
SD People don't like to say it out loud, but Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the United States. It's very interesting because if you look at the patterns from, maybe, 100 years ago, there's a lot of overlap. That's one of the issues that came up in my research. It wasn't an issue of African Americans moving into the near west suburbs––they were already there. It was Catholics moving in and that was an issue for the exclusive Protestant enclaves. They were really upset about Catholics moving in. There are lots of ways to look at segregation too: it can be racial, it can be ethnic, it can be religious. Those are all things we talk about in my class. This fall, I'll be teaching American pluralism so we'll look at the history of multicultural America from a non-master narrative perspective, meaning we're not going to study the history of dead white guys.
FZ Thank goodness!
SD We're going to look at all the other voices. In all of my classes, that's what I focus on. We look at the marginalized voices who have things to contribute. Oftentimes, some of the older professors will say, "Well, you have to study Ben Franklin and George Washington." They think women didn't exist in those eras either and there's plenty of writings--
FZ --That suggest the contrary!
SD Yes. There are plenty of alternative voices to look at, in order to support the story and to make it more complex. That is what I try to do.
FZ As a professor, how do you go about pushing back against the "master narrative" as you called it?
SD I make it very clear on day one that you will be disappointed if you thought you were going to learn about the history of dead white guys. We are expanding the story of American history to make it much more complex and talk about other voices, you know, traditionally marginalized voices, that will incredibly add to the fabric and complexity of what is American history if we broaden our scope. Yes, we have some familiar themes along the way, but I always try to bring in as many perspectives as possible in an event. For instance, when we look at early encounters, we don't just focus on what the French or the Spanish or the English were thinking about. We spend a lot of time looking at the Native American voices too, and how they viewed the invasion. I ask my students when we talk about Christopher Columbus, what do we generally say about Christopher Columbus?
FZ He was not a nice man.
SD We say that he discovered America. Whereas, if you asked the Taino people, in the Caribbean, they would probably say he invaded Turtle Island. So depending on the perspective, you get a much different story of what happened.
FZ: My mom grew up in Brooklyn and it's so weird to go there now because when my mom lived there it was pretty rough. And, it's strange seeing all these couples with their expensive strollers and you're just like, "Where did they come from?"
SD: I went to college at Xavier University in Cincinnati, located in what was considered inner Cincinnati when I was in college, I went back last year, and my aunt and uncle gave me a tour and again, couples with baby strollers, bars on the corner, and coffee shops.
FZ: Where did they come from?!
SD: It was one of those neighborhoods where you might go down to the music hall to hear the symphony and you'd immediately get in your car and leave. You wouldn't loiter, but it's completely being gentrified, so I'm a little concerned about the original population. Back in the 19th century, it was originally a German community, then eventually, when they moved up and out, it became African-American. It was predominantly African-American while I was in college.
FZ Something I've always wondered: what is the link between gentrification and neighborhoods becoming safer? Because it also seems as though gentrification leads to less crime, but is that because the people who have less money ( and are therefore more likely to engage in crime) have moved out?
SD: I think that's a really good question for a sociologist.