AHA Annual Meeting

Why Denver?—A Habitat for Historians

Patty Limerick, September 2016

In 1860, a young woman named Mollie Sanford, traveling overland from the Missouri River to Colorado, arrived at a historic apex in quotable remarks about this city.

“The Promised Land is gained,” she wrote, “and we are in Denver tonight.”

Even if you end up opting for more worldly phrasing, you may well find common ground with Sanford. Denver is a destination that validates your calling (a word, I will just note, that carries a vestige of its not-so-secular origins) as a historian. Everywhere you look during your visit here, you will find the sort of thought-provoking challenges and conundrums that put a spotlight on the crucial service that historians provide to humanity.

an 1898 panoramic photograph of downtown Denver.Shown here in an 1898 panoramic photograph, Denver will host the AHA's 2017 annual meeting in January. William Henry Jackson/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Denver, in other words, presents itself as a spectacular testing ground for a promising hypothesis: the more American society holds a peculiar stance toward history, alternating between amnesia and episodes of agitated contestation over particular features of the past, the greater the opportunities for historians to expand their influence and impact.

In recent years, the City of Denver and the State of Colorado have been hyperactive centers of production for events that demand the application of historical perspective:

  • On August 5, 2015, a surge of acidic and mineral-laden water, pent up in the Gold King Mine, reached the Animas River in western Colorado. Multiple mining booms over the last century and a half have left thousands of abandoned mines in the Rocky Mountain region. While there were irresistible political satisfactions in blaming the Environmental Protection Agency (founded more than a century after the first mineral rush to Colorado) for the Gold King calamity, a more productive approach requires the examination of mining over a longer reach of time.
  • In November 2014, the state observed the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre, one of the most brutal and disturbing events in the history of westward expansion. For the sesquicentennial, the governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, made a formal apology to the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, lending his support to a movement (which AHA members should feel free to support) to place a Sand Creek memorial on the state capitol grounds.
  • In the fall of 2014, the national controversy over the College Board’s revisions of the Advanced Placement US history program and exam came to center on the Denver metropolitan region. In a widely noted conflict, a conservative majority on the Jefferson County School Board condemned the revisions, triggering protests from students, teachers, and parents. In a less nationally noted event, the three conservative school board members lost their positions in a recall election in the fall of 2015. As AHA executive director James Grossman wrote to the school board, “Teaching history is about teaching historical thinking, and that means confronting historical complexity,” a proposition that the majority of participants in the recall election evidently supported.
  • In the last few years, Denver-area suburbs have been at center stage in controversies over the environmental and public health consequences of oil and gas production conducted with a combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Besides connecting to old regional patterns in the boom/bust cycles of extractive industries, the growth of these suburbs could happen only with the intense use of fossil fuels for transportation. Just as noteworthy, white flight, in response to the Supreme Court’s under-­recognized Keyes decision in 1973 on de facto school segregation (imposed on both African American and Hispanic populations), drove the rapid growth of these suburbs in the first place.

All these examples—and the hundred more that won’t fit in this essay—come equipped with equal measures of local, regional, national, and even planetary significance. None of these matters stands much chance of receiving civil, productive, public consideration—unless historians respond to this compelling need and step forward to guide and moderate the discussion.

None of these matters stands much chance of receiving civil, productive, public consideration—unless historians step forward to guide and moderate the discussion.

In innumerable settings, historians in Colorado are stepping up to this challenge. In the process, they are devising practices that transcend the conventional turf fights between “academic history” and “public history,” uniting in the strenuous and satisfying work of “applied history.”

What is taking place in the world of Colorado historians is, blessedly, part of a spirit-lifting nationwide trend. To celebrate that trend at the AHA annual meeting in January 2017, the University of Colorado’s Center of the American West will host, in the Exhibit Hall, an ongoing “swap meet” for AHA members vigorously pursuing public engagement. You will find, at our booth, historians from around the state of Colorado who can bring historical perspective to bear on contemporary dilemmas, often with wondrous results.

In 1984, when I moved to Colorado, I never imagined that I was headed into a territory where public audiences would receive historians with such enthusiasm and receptivity. On the contrary, in a mood swing that was distinctly ironic in a western American historian, I resorted to surprisingly Wallersteinian conceptualizations to characterize my re­location to Colorado. Leaving the Northeast, I seemed to think that I had been removed from the metropolis and exiled to the hinterland, departing from the core to disappear into the periphery.

Here are two parables that, had I known them in 1984, would have spared me this silly sense of exile:

  • In the 1860s, three African American barbers in Denver found, in Colo­rado’s ambitions for statehood, an opportunity to launch a campaign to place black suffrage in the draft of the Colorado constitution. These men thus initiated a chain of action that led to Congress’s passage of the Territorial Suffrage Act in 1867, securing the vote for black males in Colorado and other territories, three years before the 15th Amendment.
  • In 1893, Denver’s women’s clubs, both white and African American, played the key role in a successful campaign for women’s suffrage, making Colorado the first state to recognize women’s right to vote through the choices made by male voters in a referendum. The successful campaign of 1893 set a precedent for a distinctive cross-class set of alliances and collaborations, reframing the strategy for securing women’s suffrage nationwide.

Residents of Colorado, in other words, played leading roles in the great cause of the last two centuries: giving expanded reach and practical meaning to the nation’s founding ideals.

If you are inclined to dedicate a little of your time in Denver to seeking out similar parables (with a premium on examples from Colorado history that you can pair, in dynamic and ­illuminating comparisons, with examples from your own field), and if you report these discoveries to me (address below), you will receive a very nice certificate, suitable for display, characterizing you as a Valued Ally and Comrade of the Official Colorado State Historian, and a Key Figure in the Gathering Momentum of Applied History.

See you soon in this provocative—if not exactly promised—land.

Patty Limerick is the official Colorado state historian and faculty director of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She can be reached at Patricia.limerick@centerwest.org.


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