Webinar: History Check-In: Civil Rights and Place

Civil Rights and Place: The Importance of Region to Interpreting the Black Freedom Movement of the 1950s-60s

The civil rights movement of the mid-to-late twentieth century remains a focus of popular fascination, yet few audiences are aware of the wide-ranging goals, participations, and gThis presentation argues that the "classic," post-World War II civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s encompassed local communities outside the regional South -- contrary to standard depictions of mid-century black social movements. Further, this presentation discusses how the forms of both white racism and black resistance differed based on the regional battlegrounds of the Midwest, Northeast, West Coast, and Border South. This webinar is part of the History Check-In webinar series, a partnership between the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH). Each webinar in this series is designed to provide history professionals from throughout the field with an update on the current state of historiography for a particular subject.


DATE: October 10, 2019

TIME: 3:00 - 4:15 pm EASTERN (Remember to adjust for your time zone)

COST: $20 Members of AASLH and OAH (OAH members should contact OAH for a discount code) / $30 Non-members



Clarence Lang is Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, and Professor of African American Studies, at the Pennsylvania State University. A scholar in African American urban and social movement history, he is the author of two books: Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75; and Black America in the Shadow of the Sixties: Notes on the Civil Rights Movement, Neoliberalism, and Politics. In addition, he is the co-editor of two volumes: Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement: “Another Side of the Story” (with Robbie Lieberman); and Reframing Randolph: Labor, Black Freedom, and the Legacies of A. Philip Randolph (with Andrew Kersten). An Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer, he has published articles and essays in Journal of African American History, Journal of Urban History, Journal of Social History, Journal of Civil and Human Rights, The Black Scholar, American Studies Journal, Critical Sociology, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Dean Lang received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Playing With History: The New Civil Rights Era American Girl Doll

© American Girl/Mattel
© American Girl/Mattel

Last week, American Girl (AASLH members since 1996) announced their latest character and story collection that will debut this summer. In honor of Black History Month and the company's 30th anniversary, the newest doll is Melody Ellison, a nine-year-old African-American girl living in Detroit during the 1960s. Her stories, written by Denise Lewis Patrick, will focus largely on the Civil Rights Movement and how Melody experiences this tumultuous time through the eyes of a young girl.

Melody's story and development, like all American Girl dolls, involved thorough historical research and consultation with an advisory board; in Melody's case, the board included the late Civil Rights activist Julian Bond. She is the company's third African-American historical doll, and, in my opinion, represents an exciting new chapter in American Girl's mission of presenting thoughtful and accessible history to children. Check out this video about Melody's development:



As a lifelong fan of American Girl and historical fiction, I was thrilled to hear this announcement. And as a public historian who loves to see history in the hands of children, I was even more excited. The American Girl stories and dolls, along with other series and toys, formed a large part of my early interest in history. This franchise was everywhere beginning in the early 1990s, and brought history to life for kids through dolls with an impressive array of accessories (reproduction artifacts in their own right, ranging from clothes to furniture to models of period-accurate food), as well as through the stories, a magazine, and eventually made- for-television movies. American Girl was extremely popular with millenial girls across the country, and I was no exception. I loved reading about the different historical characters and imagining the worlds they lived in, and the books combined great stories with history lessons that kids could understand and relate to.

It's not too much of a stretch to say that my early experiences learning about history with American Girl ultimately helped lead me to history as a profession. And I'm not alone: in an article from earlier this year, Whitney Thornberry, a Sites Interpreter for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, describes our cohort of historians who were inspired as children to love history through books and toys,  as "the Felicity Generation."

Felicity was one of the first dolls produced by American Girl in the early '90s, and her story depicted a colonial shopkeeper's daughter caught up the Revolutionary War as it played out in Williamsburg, Virginia. The Felicity stories were so popular among children that Colonial Williamsburg had special programming based on the books for young visitors to enjoy, and girls would often dress up like Felicity and bring their dolls with them into the town. In the article, Thornberry connects her childhood love of American Girl with her lifelong passion for history and ultimately her decision to live her dream as an interpreter (and resident) of the historic city that Felicity called home. And she's in good company -- check out this photo of Colonial Williamsburg staff members and their dolls.

© Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
© Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

I'm excited to see where the Melody story goes, and how this character can help bring historical awareness and empathy to a new generation that faces a diminishing appreciation of history as well as a serious lack of diversity in toys and media representations. I hope Melody inspires her readers and playmates to consider complex recent history in a way they can identify with, and most of all, I hope she inspires future generations of historians to pursue their childhood dreams.

Aja Bain is Program Coordinator at AASLH. She can be reached at [email protected] or (615) 320-3203.

AASLH Hosts Luncheon at AAM 2015

On April 27,  AASLH hosted a luncheon at the American Alliance of Museums annual meeting in Atlanta. Members and friends took time out of their busy conference schedules to enjoy thought-provoking discussion and entertainment.

The lunch hour began with a performance from members of the world-famous Morehouse College Glee Club. Morehouse College, with roots stretching back to 1867 in Atlanta, is a prestigious all-male historically black liberal arts college. Notable alumni include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Spike Lee, former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson, former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, technologist Paul Q. Judge, and many others. The Glee Club was founded in 1911 and has performed around the world at events including Carter's presidential inauguration, Dr. King's funeral, Super Bowl XXVIII, and the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Four members of the Glee Club, directed by Dr. David Morrow, performed a selection of a cappella songs including some historical pieces such as "Would You Rather Be a Colonel with an Eagle on Your Shoulder, or a Private with a Chicken on Your Knee?"  We greatly enjoyed the Morehouse performance, and the singers received a standing ovation from the audience.

Cliff Kuhn, history professor at Georgia State University and executive director of the Oral History Association, gave a talk focusing on the "long Civil Rights Movement" in Atlanta. Cliff is the author of Living Atlanta: An Oral History of the City 1914-1948 and other works focusing on Southern and oral history.The struggle for civil rights and figures like Dr. King did not emerge from a vacuum, Kuhn stated. Atlanta has a long history of black activism dating back to Reconstruction, which belies the idea that the Civil Rights Movement only gained traction in the postwar period. Aid societies, churches, businesses, and prominent people such as Atlanta Life Insurance Company founder Alonzo Herndon (born a slave, he became the city's first black millionaire) had been working to gain rights for black citizens since the late 1800s. Cliff's talk gave us a better understanding of Atlanta's history and its place as an essential city in a movement that spans more than a century.

The AASLH luncheon at AAM was a great opportunity to catch up with our members and learn more about our host city. We hope you enjoyed the conference as much as we did, and we'll see you in Washington, D.C. for AAM 2016!


Aja Bain is Program Coordinator at AASLH. She can be reached at 615-320-3203 and [email protected]


History Organizations Positioned to be Powerful Participants in Dialogue on Ferguson and Related Events

Statement from the American Association for State and Local History

Nashville, TN—Recent events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a momentum of civic debate that has gained international attention.  Movements toward greater cultural understanding and broadening avenues of communication need to be supported by our country’s cultural and educational institutions. As integral members of American society, history organizations have a responsibility to collect, interpret, and engage in our country’s history, including both the harmonious and the controversial histories.

Difficult histories include the recollections of controversy. By commemorating and teaching difficult histories, organizations and museums can make a powerful statement to the collective narrative effectively demonstrating that difficult histories matter in the present. Museums and history organizations must take risks to represent difficult histories, even when they are uncomfortable and even painful to recall. Historical representations of difficult histories have the power to awaken a passion in citizens by asking them to look at history from multiple viewpoints, viewpoints that can reveal the struggles for a more just and compassionate moral order.

AASLH continues to lead and advocate for inclusive interpretation that reflects all voices with mutual respect. As our nation grapples with the events surrounding Ferguson, Cleveland and New York, AASLH encourages all its members to look to their history collections and their position within their communities, and to participate in community healing by providing access to history exhibits, programs, and educational materials. AASLH offers these resources to learn more about interpreting controversial history and the role history organizations can play in their community

“AASLH is committed to the cause of interpreting difficult history and using that power to make a difference in the present and the future,” said Bob Beatty, AASLH Interim President and CEO. “We encourage our members and stakeholders to read the statements and blog posts from the field.”

Statement from the Association of African American Museums
Statement from the New England Museum Association

Participating Bloggers and Colleagues
Gretchen Jennings, Museum Commons
Aletheia Wittman and Rose Paquet Kinsley, The Incluseum
Aleia Brown, AleiaBrown.org
Steven Lubar, On Public Humanities
Mike Murawski, Art Museum Teaching
Linda Norris, The Uncataloged Museum
Paul Orselli,  ExhibiTricks: A Museum/Exhibit/Design Blog
Ed Rodley, Thinking About Museums
Adrianne Russell, Cabinet of Curiosities
Nina Simon, Museum 2.0
Rainey Tisdale, CityStories
Jeanne Vergeront, A Museum Notes

About AASLH: Since 1940, AASLH provides leadership and support for its members who preserve and interpret state and local history in order to make the past more meaningful to all Americans. Our membership includes over 6,000 individuals and institutions from rural communities, urban sites, small historical societies, and large history centers across the United States. For this diverse membership, AASLH offers programs and services designed to advance the goals and standards of the field of state and local history. For more information, visit www.aaslh.org.


Texas Tales, Cont'd. - A Tale from The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

Dallas County Sheriff Department Collection/The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

Tell me: what is going on in this picture?

This is the way I start a group talking about this photo, which is one of my favorite teaching tools.  This questioning approach, called Visual Thinking Strategies, is often used in art museums, but it works very well for historic photographs.  Adults and students alike have lots of thoughts about what is going on in this image, such as:

  • The guy on the left isn’t very happy about what the guy in the hat is telling him.
  • The people in the middle of the photo are “snappy dressers”.
  • The date on the poster in the window is June 5, 1964.
  • A guy in the back of the picture looks like he has Mickey Mouse ears.
  • The guy wearing the hat is carrying a sign with President Kennedy’s picture on it.
  • The words written on the sign with President Kennedy’s picture reinforces the idea that the photo was taken after the assassination.

The answers range from the very literal to the very analytical. This process is good for building critical thinking skills and creativity in students.  The VTS strategy forces the viewer to ask questions and make statements without an immediate answer or feedback.  It forces them to look at details they might not have considered if someone had told them what the picture was about at the beginning.  The comment about the “Mickey Mouse ears” happens just about every time this picture is shown, until someone looks at that section of the picture more closely and realizes that it’s a man – in their words – “with an old-timey camera”.  (I can only imagine that the student thinks it’s “old-timey” because it isn’t digital nor is it the size of your hand.)  This inevitably leads to the next line of questioning: why are the people being filmed and/or photographed at all?  That is when I get really excited, as I know they are getting close to the story being told by the photograph.

So, what is the story of the photograph?  As I’ve found with many of the photographs at The Sixth Floor Museum, there’s a story that the picture tells and then there’s a story that the object itself tells.

Before I answer that question, I’ll address something that I know some of you have already asked: why is this one of my favorite collections items, as it’s a photograph taken months after the assassination of President Kennedy?  Part of the mission of The Sixth Floor Museum is to “chronicle the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy”.  This picture tells the story of President Kennedy’s legacy, written just months after the president's death by people like the man in this photograph. 

The picture is of Clarence Broadnax (who made and is holding the sign) and the Rev. Earl Allen (to his right) protesting the segregation of the Piccadilly Cafeteria on Commerce Street in Dallas, TX  in June of 1964.  Mr. Broadnax, the first African-American hairdresser at the Neiman Marcus department store, had just gone to the draft office to register.  He was on his way back to work and went to the Piccadilly to eat lunch.  He was refused service and that began what was a 28 day peaceful demonstration, one of the few in Dallas.  The demonstration’s end was brokered by an engineer at Lockheed Martin whose son had been arrested during the demonstration.  The Piccadilly Cafeteria’s owner agreed to desegregate it only when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed on July 2, 1964.  (Check out a video of Mr. Broadnax and Rev. Allen retelling the story of this fascinating protest—“28 Days at the Piccadilly”—on our YouTube page.)

Photo courtesy, India Meissel

The above photo of me with Clarence Broadnax was taken on July 31, 2013 in the Juanita Craft Civil Rights House in Dallas, TX.  Juanita Craft (1902-1985) became a member of the NAACP in 1935 and was a real force for equality and change in Dallas and in the country.  You can read more about her here.

What's touches me most about this photograph is that Clarence Broadnax and I are standing in Mrs. Craft’s kitchen talking about the Piccadilly Cafeteria demonstration that Mrs. Craft, Clarence and others had discussed in that very room so many years ago.  Mr. Broadnax emotionally recalled “the plotting and planning that went on at that table, at those chairs, in this place.  Plotting and planning for change and for peace in Dallas.”  It was, for me, as close to time travel as I’ve ever come.  I can now add my story to the one that I tell about this photograph.

The day after visiting the house, Mr. Broadnax shared his memories with a group of teachers here for  a week-long civil rights teacher training workshop.  He was asked about the sign he made during a live oral history interview.  Why did he connect President Kennedy with the Civil Rights Movement?  His answer was simple: "Kennedy was the first president to publicly stand up for people of color."  He went on to reference this section of President Kennedy's June 11, 1963 televised civil rights address:

"If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?  Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?"

The sign was a way for him to pay tribute to the slain president and make his point hit home in Dallas.

The story of the object is equally interesting.  The Dallas Sheriff's Department found a box labeled "Jack Ruby" and decided to turn its contents over to The Sixth Floor Museum.  When the Collections department opened the box, at the back they found a stack of pictures with a rubber band around them and names written in pencil on the back of some of them.  The staff later discovered that these were surveillance photos that the Dallas Sheriff's Department took during the demonstration at the Piccadilly Cafeteria.  People love this story almost as much as the photograph itself!  When you are able to see the actual photograph in storage, you notice that it is still curled on the edges from its many years spent rubber banded in that box.  Most often, though, the picture is viewed digitally on the Museum's Online Collections Database.

This photograph and the sign Clarence Broadnax made is a powerful reminder of the power of words, spoken and written, and the way that our interpretation can change over time.

Have any of you had similar opportunities to get up close with history?  If so, please share them.

Ani Simmons is the Education Programs Coordinator at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.