AHA Activities , From the Executive Director

Racist Histories and the AHA

Sarah Weicksel and James Grossman | Jan 27, 2021

James Grossman

The AHA has begun an initiative to document and reckon with the Association’s role in the dissemination and legitimation of racist historical scholarship that has had a deep and lasting influence on public culture. What damage has the AHA done? What responsibilities and obligations, and to whom, need to be identified, for historians in general and the AHA in particular? What should and can the AHA and historians do going forward? Before we figure out where to go, we need to understand where we have been. The AHA needs to account for the people, practices, events, and policies that brought us to where we are, both as a professional association and as a leading force in the practice of history in the United States.

Founded in 1884 as a professional membership organization, the AHA was incorporated by Congress in 1889 for the promotion of historical studies. The discipline’s professionalization occurred during a decade that was rife with exclusionary practices preceding the enactment of Jim Crow laws and that saw further assault on Indigenous people’s rights through the passage of the Dawes Act. At the 1893 AHA annual meeting, Frederick Jackson Turner articulated his “frontier thesis,” published as one of the most influential articles in the history of the discipline—and one that virtually ignored the presence of African Americans in the nation’s supposedly formative process and cast Indigenous people largely as obstacles. The AHA’s origins are intertwined with this racist and exclusionary historical context.

In its Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, the Association states: 

Historians strive constantly to improve our collective and diverse understanding of the past through a complex process of critical dialogue—with each other, with the wider public, and with the historical record—in which we explore former lives and diverse worlds in search of answers to the most compelling questions of our own time and place. 

This “process of critical dialogue” with one’s own past, as a nation, an association, or any other entity, is essential to institutional integrity—with regard not only to racism, but to other aspects of thought, culture, and sensibility as well.

We will begin by investigating and documenting the Association’s role in generating, disseminating, legitimating, and promoting histories that have helped contribute to the evolution and institutionalization of racist ideas, racial discrimination, and racist violence in the United States. Support of racist scholarship has its complement in participation in racist practices. We frequently refer to the AHA as having three levers to initiate change: the powers to legitimate, to convene, and to inspire. This initiative will assess the Association’s engagement in racist practices in these contexts. We aspire to something better, and we must inspire our colleagues to think about what can and should be done with what we learn from this exploration.

We have identified three areas for research into the Association’s practices and its promotion of racist scholarship: the dissemination of scholarship; institutional practices and governance; and prizes.

Dissemination of Scholarship

How did the Association legitimate scholarship that justified (or silently accepted) elements of American history that are central to national development and that are at the same time both derivatives of racist public culture and policy, and building blocks of systemic racism itself? This includes, for example, the forced removal of Indigenous people, enslavement, the terrorism of Reconstruction’s overthrow, the regime of Jim Crow, and the evolution of inequalities in areas such as wealth, income, educational opportunity, health, and treatment by law enforcement. 

What roles have the Association’s annual meeting and publications, including the American Historical Review, played in legitimating racist scholarship? How has the Association’s legitimation and promotion of such scholarship influenced its dissemination through the teaching of history not only in classrooms, but also in such venues as museums, parks, and memorials?

How has exclusion of categories of scholars limited their opportunities while at the same time impoverishing the work of the discipline? For example, how did the Association contribute to the overshadowing or outright dismissal of work by Black historians like Lawrence Reddick, highlighted in David Varel’s article in this issue?

Institutional Practices and Governance

How and when has the Association been complicit in the practice of racial segregation and other forms of discrimination in its role as a convener? Has the Association engaged in, or accepted, exclusionary or discriminatory practices through its programming, collaborations, business relationships, or other activities? Have there been exclusionary structures that have prevented qualified people of color from participating in AHA leadership or committees? How have these practices changed over time? How has activism within the discipline affected the Association’s work?

Narrow, biased, and ideologically driven historical work can cast a long shadow once it is embedded in popular culture.

Prizes

How have prizes awarded by the AHA perpetuated notions of the American past that excluded marginalized populations or portrayed them in ways that distorted their lived experiences? It will not be possible to probe the actual deliberations of grant and prize committees, and we are not yet certain whether it will be possible to determine whether scholars of color were underrepresented on these committees relative to their proportion in the membership. Research into the content of prizewinning publications, however, should enable us to determine the extent to which racist scholarship was honored and hence legitimated and promoted by the AHA. 

Why should the AHA undertake this project now? As the layers of systemic racism that Black Americans and others have been aware of for generations have finally reached the broader public consciousness, institutions have become increasingly aware of the imperative of confronting their own roles in perpetuating racist policies. The AHA referenced this in its Statement on the History of Racist Violence in the United States. For example, US colleges and universities have been exploring their racist histories for two decades, often with a special focus on entanglements with slavery. To a considerable extent, a university’s work in this regard points in obvious directions: sources of endowment, construction by enslaved workers, building names and monuments, segregation, and discrimination. 

The AHA is not implicated in the same obvious ways. We have no named structures. Our origins do not coincide with the period of enslaved labor in the United States, and it is unlikely that the AHA ever used convict labor or its equivalent. Yet, for roughly eight decades between the AHA’s founding and the federal prohibition of discrimination in public accommodations, the Association hosted annual meetings and other events. It functioned as a membership organization headquartered in Washington, DC, where segregation was both illegal and common for seven decades. Through decades of meetings and publications, the Association provided a platform for deeply racist historical scholarship.

This scholarship is significant. It continues to have an impact, shaping public policy in various contexts. Many otherwise admirable efforts to address inequality, ranging from mortgage subsidies to social insurance, were influenced by racist thinking about the past or, at best, a blindness to the implications of racism on assumptions and structures. Moreover, narrow, biased, and ideologically driven historical work can cast a long shadow once it is embedded in popular culture. Even the most meticulously researched interpretations of historical evidence can struggle to displace narratives that have been discredited among scholars but persist in common discourse. The underlying racism of past historical work that the AHA legitimated has largely disappeared from the disciplinary surface with the passage of time and new historical scholarship, but lingers in popular culture and in institutional frameworks. 

By undertaking this project, the AHA seeks to understand and document the complexity of its role in the evolution and persistence of American racism in order for the organization, and for historians, to use our knowledge and professional resources to chart pathways to a more just and equitable future.


Sarah Weicksel is director of research and publications at the AHA; she tweets @SarahWeicksel. James Grossman is executive director of the AHA; he tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.


Tags: AHA Activities From the Executive Director Research African American History


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