123 in 125: A Brief History of AHA Annual Meetings
David M. Darlington, March 2009
Editor’s Note: This article is part of the “Timelines” series exploring events and items from the AHA’s history in celebration of the association’s 125th anniversary in 2009.
One-hundred-twenty-three times in its 125-year history, the AHA has held an annual meeting to present research, address issues facing the history profession, organize, and socialize. From a small gathering of 41 in Saratoga, New York, in 1884, to a confab of more than 5,900 in New York City in January 2009, a lot of the particulars of the annual meeting have changed over the years, but many of the meeting’s purposes have remained the same. In this, the year of the 125th anniversary of the Association, it seems appropriate to look back at the history of the annual meeting and some noteworthy events over the years.
The first two annual meetings were held in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1884 and 1885. The Association was founded at the 1884 meeting, when historians gathered at the meeting of the American Social Science Association voted to establish their own separate organization. The third meeting was held in Washington, D.C., in 1886, then the meeting moved to Boston/Cambridge the following year, and then back to the nation’s capital for the next four years.
The December 1892 meeting (which would have been the ninth) was postponed in order for the organization to meet the following summer in Chicago in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition. AHA President James B. Angell and Secretary Herbert Baxter Adams acted as temporary president and secretary, respectively, and were made officers of the historical congress. At the exposition, the AHA was awarded a handsome medal and a plaque for its exhibit of annual reports and other publications. The plaque, which still hangs in the hallway of the AHA headquarters in Washington, D.C., is now itself an interesting artifact of late 19th-century iconography.
The first time the AHA met outside the Northeast or Upper Midwest was in 1903, for its 19th annual meeting, when it went to New Orleans in recognition of the centennial anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. A special train brought most of the members from the Northeast, and another train brought members from Chicago.
123 in 125
The title of this article, “123 in 125,” implies that the “annual” meeting has skipped some years. In fact, the annual meeting has been canceled twice due to circumstances outside the profession. In 1918, the AHA was forced to cancel its 34th annual meeting planned that December for Cleveland, Ohio, because of the worldwide influenza pandemic. The organization reconvened in Cleveland the following year, December 29–31, 1919, in a meeting designated on the program as the “Thirty-Fourth–Thirty–Fifth Annual Meeting.” Because that meeting was truly the 34th, the 1920 meeting in Washington, D.C., was also designated the 35th in the AHA’s annual reports.
The 57th annual meeting planned for December 1942 was also canceled—this time because of World War II. The AHA Council decided in summer 1942 to move the annual meeting from Baltimore to Columbus, Ohio, following a request from the government not to hold large meetings on the East Coast. Then, in November 1942, the AHA received a letter from the Office of Defense Transportation requesting organizations to cancel all large meetings over the December holidays, because of the burden it would place on the nation’s transportation infrastructure. The Columbus meeting was canceled, and in its place, Council and 50 members gathered in Washington in December for a business meeting only. The next regular annual meeting was held in New York City in December 1943.
The annual meeting has gone international twice in the past 125 years. Both times the AHA met in Toronto, Canada. The first international meeting was in 1932, and the second was in 1967, in observance of the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation. A 1984 Perspectives article on the first Toronto meeting described the festivities this way: “The University of Toronto played host in splendid fashion, with a banquet on the first evening at which ‘the roast, the pudding, and the great ram’s head snuff box were brought in to the sounds of the pipes and the drum.’”1
As Jessica Pritchard reported in the January issue of Perspectives on History, the New York 1909 annual meeting was a noteworthy occasion.2 In celebration of the Association’s 25th anniversary, the planning committee invited U.S. President William Howard Taft, New York Governor Charles Hughes, and New York City Mayor George McClellan to the proceedings, and asked Taft to commence the meeting. Unfortunately, a major snow storm blanketed the East Coast the same week, preventing Taft’s appearance (Mayor McClellan still made it, as depicted on the January cover).
The social turbulence that shook the United States in the 1960s was also felt at AHA annual meetings. The 1968 annual meeting was moved from Chicago to New York City in protest of the police riot at the Democratic Convention that summer. The 1969 annual meeting in Washington, D.C., proved tumultuous. In a business meeting spanning two days, 1,800 people packed the Sheraton-Park Hotel’s ballroom as younger, more radical historians challenged the consensus historians who led the profession. The radicals nominated one of their own—Staughton Lynd—to run against Robert R. Palmer for president of the Association. Palmer won handily, but the fights were not over. A raucous debate then took place over a resolution calling for an immediate end to the Vietnam War and the freeing of political prisoners in the United States. Attendees clashed about whether it was appropriate to, in Eugene Genovese’s words, “politicize the Association” at the risk of losing dissenting members. During the debate, previous AHA president John King Fairbank famously wrestled with Howard Zinn, sponsor of the anti-war resolution, for control of the microphone. Though the resolution was narrowly defeated, strong feelings persisted among those present. One can occasionally still hear longtime AHA members talk about “the 1969 meeting.”
By the early 1970s, the academic job crunch was becoming evident at the annual meeting. A New York Times writer covering the AHA reported candidates at the Boston meeting (1970) stealing or destroying messages from potential employers in other applicants’ folders in a desperate attempt to eliminate the competition. At the 1971 meeting in New York, 2,300 applicants rushed the Employment Register (as it was then known) to apply for 155 available jobs. Panic set in about how the profession was going to survive when three times as many new PhDs were being minted as new positions were available.3
Bright Minds, Big Cities
Members often ask what goes in to choosing an annual meeting site—why the organization “always” meets in big, Northeastern cities. The AHA in fact does try to achieve a measure of geographic diversity in choosing meeting sites, so that the burden of travel costs doesn’t always fall on the same members. Over the past 10 years, for example, annual meetings were held in the Northeast (Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York City), Southeast (Atlanta), Midwest (Chicago), and on the West Coast (San Francisco, Seattle, and, next year, San Diego).
Unfortunately, some cities that were annual meeting sites in the past are unlikely to be again. As the Association has grown, it has become harder to find housing and meeting space for thousands of historians. The list of annual meeting sites on the AHA web page preserves their contributions to the AHA’s history—Saratoga, New York (1884, 1885); New Haven, Connecticut (1898, 1922); Ann Arbor, Michigan (1900, 1925); Providence, Rhode Island (1906, 1936); Madison, Wisconsin (1907); Buffalo, New York (1911); Charleston, South Carolina (1913); Rochester, New York (1926); Durham/Chapel Hill, North Carolina (1929); Urbana, Illinois (1933); and Chattanooga, Tennessee (1935).
Despite changes in the profession over the past 125 years, the annual meeting will continue to be an important part of the AHA’s business. As is the custom, the next several years of the annual meetings have already been planned out: San Diego (2010), Boston (2011), Chicago (2012), New Orleans (2013, the first time since 1972), and Washington, D.C. (2014). Come and be a part of the history!
—David Darlington is the associate editor of Perspectives on History.
2. Jessica Pritchard, “How the Times Have Changed (Or Have They?), Perspectives on History (January 2009): 40–41. www.historians.org/Perspectives/issues/2009/0901/0901tim1.cfm.
3. J. Anthony Lucas, “Historians’ Conference: The Radical Need for Jobs,” New York Times, March 12, 1972, SM38. See also Lawrence Stone, “The AHA and the Job Market for Graduate Students,” AHA Newsletter (March 1972): 22–27.