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From the Affiliated Societies column of the April 2006 Perspectives

Society for History in the Federal Government Meets in Washington, D.C.

Debbie Ann Doyle, April 2006

On Thursday, March 2, 2006, over 100 members of the Society for History in the Federal Government gathered at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C., for their annual meeting. The society serves the interests of historians employed in the federal government and promotes the study of the history of the United States government. The conference provided an overview of the range of work conducted by federal historians, from documenting and researching the history of the federal government to running museums and rescuing historic objects threatened by flooding.

The meeting opened with a plenary discussion of new and reestablished federal history programs. Fred W. Beuttler of the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives; Priscilla Jones of the Department of Homeland Security History Office; and John W. Franklin of the National Museum of African American History and Culture provided updates on the status and goals of the their respective programs. The Office of the Historian was reestablished in 2005 after Congress commissioned historian Robert Remini to write a narrative history of "the people's branch." Remini's book, The House: The History of the House of Representatives, will be released in the next few months. The office also collects oral histories of House members and selected staff; responds to inquiries from members, constituents, and the media; and is responsible for public outreach, consulting on plans for the new Capitol Visitors' Center and helping develop historical content for Capitol tours. The History Office of the Department of Homeland Security was established shortly after the founding of the agency, giving Jones the opportunity to "observe and document the history of a new department." She is presently collecting oral histories of senior leaders and ensuring that paper and electronic records are preserved. Her office also prepares classified monographs to support the department's policy decisions, such as a briefing on federal responses to natural disasters used to prepare Secretary Michael Chertoff's testimony to Congress on Hurricane Katrina.

Franklin noted that while it may be 8 to 15 years before the National Museum of African American History and Culture opens on its recently selected building site on the National Mall, the museum is already building a national presence. Staff are organizing traveling exhibits and symposiums; building partnerships with museums in the United States, Africa, and Europe; establishing a presence at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival; and identifying aspects of the African American story that must be recorded through oral histories and museum collections. Pointing out that every federal agency had a role in African American history, Mr. Franklin asked audience members to consider what records their offices might hold that would be of interest to the museum.

A sobering afternoon plenary focused on the impact of recent hurricanes on museums, archival facilities, and historic sites. Howard Lowell of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) pointed out that the region affected by Hurricane Katrina is roughly the size of England. An unprecedented number of archival records were affected by the storm. Vital state and local records, including birth, death, and real estate records were severely damaged. In some cases, state and local officials did not have adequate disaster plans in place for protecting documents.

Existing plans, such as securing records in a bank vault, proved inadequate given the size of the storm. NARA is working to improve disaster planning at the federal, state, and local level. A key priority will be revising the National Response Plan, which outlines procedures for protecting key national resources during domestic emergencies, to identify historic documents and vital records as a "Recognized National Asset." Pam West of the National Park Service's Museum Emergency Response Team described the daunting challenges of recovering park collections after hurricanes Isabel (2003), Ivan (2004), and Katrina (2005). Her team cleaned, dried, and moved more than one million objects from Jamestown, Virginia, after Hurricane Isabel; she estimates that 95 percent will be saved. After Katrina, the team rescued objects from the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve and the Chalmette National Battlefield and National Cemetery, sometimes putting their security detail to work cleaning and packing objects. John H. Sprinkle Jr. of the National Park Service discussed the depressing task of historic preservation after a disaster. Noting that preservationists usually rely on historic context to decide which buildings to preserve, he described the wrenching decision whether to try to preserve historic buildings when their structural integrity has been compromised. Tearing down those too damaged to be salvaged, even after extensive documentation, can result in painful controversies as communities already ravaged by storms lose cherished landmarks.

Other sessions focused on outreach to educators through exhibits and learning centers, the history of the intelligence community, strategies for preserving and archiving electronic records, and the efforts of the State Department's History Office to provide services to teachers and the academic community.

The following awards were presented at the annual awards luncheon:

  • The Henry Adams Prize for an outstanding book on the federal government's history was awarded to Alice Kaplan for her book, The Interpreter (New York: Free Press, 2005).

  • The George Pendleton Prize for an outstanding book on the federal government's history produced by or for a federal history program was given to Robert J. Schneller Jr. for Breaking the Color Barrier: The U.S. Naval Academy's First Black Midshipmen and the Struggle for Racial Equality (New York: New York University Press, 2005).

  • The James Madison Prize for excellence in an article or essay that deals with any aspect of the federal government's history was awarded to Christopher P. Loss for his essay, "'The Most Wonderful Thing Has Happened to Me in the Army': Psychology, Citizenship, and American Higher Education in World War II," which appeared in the Journal of American History, 92:3 (December 2005).

  • Timothy K. Nenninger received the Charles Thomson Prize (for excellence in an article or essay that deals with any aspect of the federal government's history written in or for a federal history program), for the essay, "John J. Pershing and Relief for Cause in the American Expeditionary Forces, 1917–1918," which appeared in Army History 61 (spring 2005).

  • The HARTRAMPF Team and the National Park Service, Southeast Region, received the John Wesley Powell Prize for historic preservation (given for achievement in preservation of records, artifacts, buildings, historical sites, or other historical materials), for the preservation and rehabilitation of Moton Field and the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, Tuskegee, Alabama.

—Debbie Ann Doyle is the AHA's public history coordinator.