In a 2013 Perspectives column, executive director James Grossman argued forcefully that disagreement and debate stand at the cornerstone of the study and practice of history, going so far as to announce it as the theme of the 2014 annual meeting. The spirit of constructive debate continues to animate the field 10 years later.
The 2,610 attendees of the 2023 meeting in Philadelphia once again came together to discuss and disagree. From racial integration in sports to the place of history in social justice work, from divisive concepts to the integration of new historical theories and methods into the classroom, historians from across the discipline presented their best arguments and thoughtfully engaged with the criticism of their peers. For those who did not attend and those who wish to remember, Perspectives offers a snapshot of some of the discussions from this year’s meeting.
—Laura Ansley, Whitney Barringer, Lauren Brand, L. Renato Grigoli, and Sarah Weicksel
Fans of America’s pastime found a particular treat in Philadelphia. At the presidential session “Baseball and Social Change in America,” four sports historians gathered alongside Allan “Bud” Selig, commissioner emeritus of Major League Baseball, to discuss the progress made over the 75 years since Jackie Robinson became the first Black player on a major-league team.
Selig co-teaches a course on baseball at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, with historian David MacLaren McDonald. The former commissioner admitted that he had aspired to be a history professor when earning his BA and that baseball history has now been his focus for many years. According to Selig, “What Branch Rickey did in 1945—bringing Jackie Robinson first to the Montreal club and then to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947—is the most important moment in baseball history.” Robinson and other Black players were followed by Latino players by the 1960s. Though Rachel Robinson, Jackie's wife, has said that he would give the league a C grade, Selig says, “We still have come a long way.”
The historians on the panel pushed the audience to think beyond the big names and the MLB. Adrian Burgos Jr. (Univ. of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign) pointed out that racial integration was not a moment but a process, which was “intensely local, but with far-reaching implications.” Integration has also been flattened in our memory. The Pittsburgh Pirates started an all-Black lineup on September 1, 1971, the first such game in MLB history, which has been recognized in retrospectives as a major milestone. Yet four of these players were Afro-Latino, a detail often elided. Players from the Spanish-speaking Americas played in the MLB before and after Robinson broke the color line.
At the Smithsonian Institution, curator Margaret Salazar-Porzio (National Museum of American History) has been working to recover these stories. In developing ¡Pleibol! In the Barrios and the Big Leagues, Salazar-Porzio and her colleagues visited 17 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico to talk about Latinos and baseball in local communities and families. They collected over 150 oral histories and created a bilingual exhibit that emphasizes how the story of baseball is about more than the MLB—as she said, “This history is defined by communities.” ¡Pleibol! also incorporates women into the story, as baseball players themselves or in support roles as wives and mothers, selling concessions, making uniforms, and even in the front office, with Linda Alvarado, co-owner of the Colorado Rockies.
The ballparks themselves have had a major impact on surrounding communities.
Black and Latinx experiences off the field matter too. As Frank Guridy (Columbia Univ.) elucidated, the ballparks themselves—since the 1980s, often built in public–private partnerships that have been mostly funded by the public—have had a major impact on surrounding communities. In the Bronx, for example, Yankee Stadium’s location has shaped traffic and subway stops that bring in “an army of fans” from the suburbs, who spend their money in the stadium rather than in the local businesses that surround it. Black and Brown service workers interact with these fans as security and concessions workers, in stadiums that have more pricey amenities than ever and with ticket prices that are increasingly inaccessible to working- or middle-class families.
Baseball isn’t solely a US story. Sayuri Guthrie Shimizu (Rice Univ.) underscored how the sport has been exported and become a vehicle for social change globally. In Japan, now 150 years into its own baseball history, the sport was a modernizing influence with a large impact on school athletics and issues of gender and social class. Japan brought baseball to its colonial projects in Korea and Taiwan, and it became a site of resistance in those colonies. Baseball became diplomacy, a “reflective lens” of America’s “soft power,” as Shimizu argued. In the 1930s, as tensions rose between the two nations, baseball became a symbol of US–Japan cooperation and a propaganda tool portraying the two nations as “brothers bonded by a shared love” of the game. And as Shimizu pointed out, the game was important for Japanese American communities too. The sport was popular in Japanese internment camps during World War II, and a number of those players went to Japan after the war to play professionally. The massive casualties the Japanese experienced included many ballplayers, and Japanese Americans became a core part of Japanese baseball.
Social change isn’t over when it comes to the sport. As audience members raised in the Q&A period, the integration of women, LGBTQ+ people, and others into baseball spaces has not yet been achieved, and African American participation is on the decline from kids’ athletics up to the majors. Yet the stories discussed at this session show that America’s pastime never stops evolving, and we can expect that to continue for players, coaches, umpires, and fans alike.
Attendees gathered on Thursday evening for a plenary on “The Past, the Present, and the Work of Historians.” Session chair Earl Lewis (Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor) was joined by panelists Herman Bennett (Graduate Center, CUNY), Rashauna Johnson (Univ. of Chicago), Jane Kamensky (Harvard Univ.), and Carol Symes (Univ. of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign).
Lewis opened the conversation by explaining that the session’s intent was to generate discussion about questions raised by James H. Sweet’s September presidential column in Perspectives and an opportunity, as Lewis put it, “to ponder what it means to connect the past and present as historians.” Lewis began by asking, “In your view, what is the historian’s responsibility to the work of social justice, if any?” He encouraged panelists to “feel free to challenge the definition of social justice,” asking, “Is this a concept with a universal definition?” In the wide-ranging conversation that followed, the panelists explored the challenges and opportunities posed by historians’ methodologies, reflected on 19th-century legacies of the professionalization of history, and historicized the concept of social justice.
The term “social,” Bennett observed, “does an enormous amount of work for people to dog whistle about certain kinds of changes they aren’t comfortable with.” He wanted to “trouble the question about social justice.” All historians’ work, he continued, engages the past and present in certain kinds of ways. “The real issue is: Why social justice now? Why can we say that this country is moving into different terrains it hasn’t experienced?”
Symes asserted that “doing the work as citizens of our society and as historians doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive.” Pointing to current abuses of the medieval and premodern past, she argued that the work of historians, “since the professionalization of our discipline in the 19th century,” has often engaged in “the work of injustice,” including empire, colonization, subjugation, and “the apologetics for those movements.” We all share a common territory, she noted: “We are working on territory that is colonized by modernity.”
The injustices Symes referenced contributed to the formulation of dominant narratives grounded in racism to which the field of Black history was founded in response. As Johnson explained, “Black history has a history, and it emerged in response to a certain history.” In order “to tell different stories that aren’t rooted in histories of anti-Blackness,” she argued, scholars of Black history “have had to by default take up the cause of justice. And think of the cause of justice as deeply tied to the work of history.” How, Johnson asked, “do we think about the generative possibilities of this moment?”
"Black history has a history, and it emerged in response to a certain history."
Kamensky suggested flipping the question about social justice and challenged the audience to consider, “What does it mean to deal ethically with people in different times and places that are different from our own?” People in the past, she pointed out, “made different choices and will think differently than we do.” Historians, then, Kamensky said, must spend time “thinking about what we ethically and morally owe to the past” while recognizing “that we do this work in a vexed present.” “One of the things historians can do in the world,” Kamensky argued, “is to have hard conversations, seeking truth with evidence.”
Continuing with Bennett's question of “Why now?” Lewis asked the panelists, “What in this moment has led us from social integration to equality to social justice?”
Activists, Johnson noted, have captured national and global attention. As historians, we “are now grappling with the ways questions from activists can help the questions we pose.” But, she emphasized, “not necessarily the answers we generate.” Historians “are members of the society as well,” she noted, and as a result, “the questions we ask of the past are themselves historically contingent.”
Bennett observed that many historians might be “seen as social justice warriors because we are trying to make those people’s audibility legible to us” in the present. Activists in the 19th century constructed the disciplines we continue to engage, he argued. But “we don’t see them as activists. We don’t see the urgency they had. And part of that urgency was white supremacy.” Sometimes, Bennett observed, we are “just trying to make people’s histories audible.” And if we “don’t have those histories, we don’t have the knowledge of how to move out of the malaise we are in at the contemporary moment.”
This moment requires many of the historians’ skills, which, Kamensky argued, “are absolutely crucial to rebuilding our democracy.” She drew contrasts between the urgency of the present and the long methodological processes by which historians research and interpret the past. “We are people that do slow and deliberate work, living in times that demand a greater sense of urgency,” she argued. How do historians, Kamensky asked, “leverage the fierce urgency of now, without being captured by it?”
“Is there a danger,” Lewis asked, “if historians turn their back on the present?” Bennett responded with an emphatic yes. Other people, he argued, “will and are filling that space at a rapid rate. We’re spending decades, and they’re producing 140 characters.” Many histories have been lost, and there is more source material to uncover, Bennett added, but we do not have the number of people needed to do the research “and produce other kinds of histories.” Nor do we have the money, Kamensky added. Symes agreed, emphasizing that historians need to ensure that collaborative work is properly funded as well as rewarded.
Johnson noted that one of the things she likes about history “is how it helps us figure out how we got where we are” and “how human actions could lead us to a different place.” As historians look for new ways and avenues to advance this conversation, Bennett emphasized the need for “public education. Period. Support for teachers. Historical training from beginning to the end. It helps young people transform and have a stake in the society in which they live.”
This year’s meeting featured an abundance of resources for teachers at both the secondary and collegiate levels. Whether you were looking to incorporate digital resources and methodologies into an existing lesson plan or craft a syllabus from current historiographic trends, there was a session for you.
Digital methods for the classroom were at the heart of “What’s Special about Maps?,” in which discussants explained their use of digital mapping technology to facilitate student learning. Sharika D. Crawford (US Naval Academy), for example, has students each pick a single slave trader and map their voyages in the Atlantic. This exercise leverages the skill sets and interests of her students—most of whom are STEM majors and all of whom are required to know how to use a map—to help them think about the broader historical assumptions on which such maps rested. Specifically, she asks them to probe whether there really was an Atlantic world and what borders and boundaries mean in an oceanic world. Alex Hidalgo (Texas Christian Univ.) uses maps as a means to move away from assigning a traditional research paper. Instead, he tasks students in his course on the conquest of Mexico with annotating the Uppsala Map of Tenochtitlan, a project that not only encourages them to think thematically about a visual medium but also teaches them how to work together in a group with primary sources. Yet despite the engaging projects presented by all the panelists, the fundamental question of the session still lingered: Are maps truly a unique pedagogical source and approach, or are they simply an underutilized choice among a variety of options?
What do borders and boundaries mean in an oceanic world?
Those interested in developing similar projects from digital resources found an abundance of riches at the “Digital Project Showcase,” which has become a staple of the annual meeting. In lightning-round presentations, participants shared projects ranging from databases of enslaved individuals in the United States to keyword analysis of newspaper articles, georeferenced historical tours, and archival tools for images.
The “Teaching Things Workshop” introduced participants to strategies and resources for incorporating artifacts into high school and college classrooms.
“State of the Field for Busy Teachers” is also becoming a regular feature of the annual meeting. This year’s iteration focused on world history and featured high school teachers and community college professors, with talks designed to help all teachers keep up to date with the latest historiographic and methodological approaches. Those looking for new resources for their classrooms or new ways of thinking about lesson design should make sure to attend the 2024 annual meeting in San Francisco, where pedagogy will again be front and center.
What’s in a Name?
From our streets to public schools, communities across the United States have been grappling in recent years over the significance of names in our public spaces. What, after all, does it mean to have everything from elementary schools to public thoroughfares named for Confederate generals?
From the perspective of Ty Seidule (US Military Academy, ret., and Hamilton Coll.), we are honoring those who committed treason against the United States. And perhaps more egregiously, we’ve been honoring these traitors on US military installations. A self-described “soldier, scholar, and white southerner,” Seidule attended Robert E. Lee Elementary School and Washington and Lee College, where at graduation he took his oath to join the US Army in the Lee Chapel. As a professor at West Point, he lived on Lee Road, near Lee Gate, in the Lee housing complex. After retiring as a brigadier general, Seidule made it his mission to convince the military and the American public that change was needed. In his book Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause, many op-eds, and hundreds of talks, Seidule has led the charge to remove Confederate commemoration from the US military. In the summer of 2020, these efforts bore fruit with the naming commission, a bipartisan panel charged with identifying all such military assets and creating a plan to remove or modify them.
Attendees at “Making Treason Odious Again: Perspectives from the Naming Commission and the Army’s War on the Lost Cause” heard from three naming commission participants about how this process unfolded. Seidule appeared alongside Charles Bowery Jr. (US Army Center of Military History), who serves as chief historian of the US Army, and Connor Williams (Yale Univ.), the commission's lead historian. The session was chaired by Jacqueline Whitt (Army War Coll.), with comment by James Grossman (AHA).
For Bowery, his role as executive director of the Center of Military History is “telling the army’s story to the nation, the public, and its own soldiers,” so this reevaluation has allowed him and his staff to “help to create a sense of corporate belonging to an organization older than the nation itself, and reflect the nation” in its diversity, as well as the diversity of soldiers who serve. This is “public history on an industrial scale,” and both the nation and its soldiers “deserve an honest, inclusive version of the past.”
But that has meant grappling with the public’s understanding of the war, the Confederacy, and the Lost Cause mythology. The commissioners made a concerted effort, as public servants, to listen to anyone who wanted to speak to them during this process. Though they didn’t always agree with what they were told, Williams said, they heard from Americans around the South and around the country. The Confederate mythology clearly still has a strong hold on the public imagination, especially for those white Americans who have family stories passed down from their great-great-great-grandfathers who fought for the CSA. But as Grossman pointed out, quoting Steven Conn, “Heritage makes you feel comfortable, makes you feel good about yourself. History in fact makes you uncomfortable. The historical method—historical thinking—suggests that you ask questions. That by nature is going to make you uncomfortable.”
This is “public history on an industrial scale.”
So what was the biggest challenge for the commission? Bowery pointed out that the scope of the task is monumental. In the end, 1,111 pieces of Confederate commemoration are being removed or changed. By the end of 2023, the process should be complete, yet it requires buy-in from across the army ranks. When an installation name changes, it isn’t just the sign at the entrance: it’s dozens of facilities on base, including their signage, letterhead, and other administrative trails that will require a major investment of both money and time.
One might assume that pushback would have been immense in these politically divided times. Yet Seidule said that among the members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, they had unanimous support. Privately, he was told that Republicans didn’t want to make it an issue to give a political “truncheon” to their Democratic opponents, and even right-wing pundits have so far been quiet on the commission.
Though this is unexpected—and may not hold, as word gets out and the renaming starts—what’s truly remarkable about the commission’s work, Grossman commented, is the way that their report and recommendations “rethink how we define what a hero is.” In the work they did, “it’s not just taking off Confederate names and adding names of Black people. It’s taking off names of generals, commanders, powerful people, and putting on names of ordinary people.” One of the new honorees helped soldiers receive their mail; another was a helicopter pilot who evacuated 5,000 individuals to safety. For Grossman, “I wonder if the teachable moment is not just about the Civil War and treason, but what constitutes heroism.”
From the audience, David Blight (Yale Univ.) asked if, considering how little negative public response there has been, the panelists thought “the Lost Cause ideology is on the run forever, or is it finding different channels, paths, and forums?” Seidule sees a major difference between when the army investigated whether his work was political speech when he stated publicly less than a decade ago that the Civil War was fought over slavery, and now, when the army has supported the commission. Yet Bowery has been surprised at how the trope of reconciliation is often foremost in army leaders’ minds—they haven’t made connections among slavery, the war, reconciliation, and the Lost Cause. To him, the mythology is insidious, simply morphing rather than going away. The challenge is to continue beating the drum for honest history—a mission that draws together the ranks of historians.
Contextualizing Divisive Concepts
Throughout the weekend, historians and teachers discussed the increasing pressures on historical scholarship and teaching, particularly since the rise of “divisive concepts” bills began in January 2021. How can historians navigate these challenges while under such governmental and institutional pressures? The overwhelming recommendation from these sessions’ participants was to do what historians do best: seek context.
A Friday-morning session titled “A Conversation on Navigating the Landscape of Teaching ‘Divisive Concepts’” featured representatives from the AHA and the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), who provided a broad contextual overview of the current situation. Julia Brookins, AHA special projects coordinator, explained what state social studies standards are, how the cycles of revision for these standards typically occur, and why these processes have become controversial. Larry Paska, NCSS executive director, described recent months as a “whiplash moment,” noting that in the past, most NCSS advocacy highlighted the lack of resources provided to social studies compared to other subjects. Today, the NCSS must also fight against the notion that history teachers are indoctrinating children.
A roundtable session organized by the Radical History Review, “Fighting the Culture War Attack on History: Strategies and Experiences,” provided additional context about the crises created by anti-CRT activists, which panelist Sarah Louise Sklaw (New York Univ.) described as “undermining the civic mission of schools.” Adam Sanchez (Central High School, Philadelphia) noted that while the response to anti-CRT accusations is usually “We don’t teach CRT,” we should also respond with a question: “What accounts for the persistence of racial inequality?” Mary Nolan (New York Univ.) described the organizations and individuals financing anti-CRT legislation and activism and argued that historians must get as many people as possible together to “strategize and coordinate” a response.
Another Radical History Review session, “The ‘Ed Scare’—The Current Conservative Panic over the Academy and Its Antecedents,” explored reactionary movements during the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s and how their effects on the academy can be instructive today. Ellen Schrecker (Yeshiva Univ.) said that while McCarthy-era attempts to muzzle professors and scholarship were successful, they occurred at a point in time when the American public had a great deal of respect for higher education. Today, in contrast, the academy and the history profession are undergoing several concurrent crises that undermine their ability to fend off attacks, not least of which is the shift from tenured to contingent faculty. Eddie R. Cole (Univ. of California, Los Angeles) argued that the activities of HBCUs during the civil rights era model alternative paths for campus leaders to strategically advocate and act within a larger reactionary society.
In “‘Divisive Concepts’ in High School Classrooms around the World,” white supremacy emerged as the core source of conflict in history debates around the English-speaking world. Abigail Branford (Oxford Univ.) explained that in the UK and South Africa, teaching the history of the British Empire often causes controversy. Official guidance in the UK dictates that the history of empire must be taught in a “pros and cons” style that may acknowledge the racist and genocidal parts of British imperial history while simultaneously describing the “benefits” colonized peoples received by being part of the empire. Branford also noted that in South Africa, the history of apartheid has recently been challenged as placing apartheid completely in the past, without connecting South Africa’s current social or economic problems to their roots in the old apartheid system. The UK is only beginning to confront these challenges, as demographic changes have prompted reckoning with their imperial past. Miranda Johnson (Univ. of Otago) explained the lack of any formal history education in New Zealand prior to 10th grade and that the recent effort to design and implement the first nationwide history curriculum had mostly focused on New Zealand’s Indigenous peoples. Johnson noted that New Zealand is also undergoing demographic changes and pondered how the focus on Indigenous history in the new curriculum would affect other growing demographic groups, such as Asian immigrants, who “are not well represented in this new curriculum.” Hasan Kwame Jeffries (Ohio State Univ.) noted that regional demographics in the United States often determine where battles over so-called divisive concepts have flared up.
Historians must get as many people as possible together to “strategize and coordinate” a response.
Erasure and omissions persist in standards and curriculum in US classrooms. At “Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth about Reconstruction,” chair Mimi Eisen (Zinn Education Project) and panelists Nancy Raquel Mirabal (Univ. of Maryland, College Park), Tiffany Mitchell Patterson (District of Columbia Public Schools), and Adam Sanchez (Central High School, Philadelphia) presented the Zinn Education Project’s 2022 report, Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth about Reconstruction. Among their key findings is that instruction focuses on “a top-down history of Reconstruction, focused on government . . . with little emphasis on ordinary Black people and their organizing strategies”; does not name or contend with “white supremacy or white terror”; and does not connect the legacies of Reconstruction to the present day. Additionally, the report argues that instructors do not receive adequate support to be able to teach Reconstruction. There are also concerns that teachers are particularly afraid to teach the subject, lest they face punishment mandated in divisive concepts legislation. Patterson walked through the Reconstruction sections of the proposed District of Columbia K–12 social studies standards and how they directly confront the deficiencies that the report identified.
A final Radical History Review roundtable, titled “Teaching the Truth in Secondary Schools during Contentious Times,” featured public school teachers from the New York City area. The discussion illuminated how, even in states like New York, where no divisive concepts legislation has passed, teachers still feel pressure from administrators, parents, and students. Imani Hinson (Uncommon Charter High School, Brooklyn) noted that “we are doing kids a disservice by not teaching [them] how to disagree with each other.” She also identified a conflation between difficult and controversial topics. Teaching and learning about the Holocaust and the transatlantic slave trade, for example, can cause discomfort because they are difficult topics, not because they are controversial. As panelist Chris Dier (Benjamin Franklin High School, New Orleans) said, ultimately, “teaching truthful history to kids brings joy and hope.”
On Sunday, the AHA’s Mapping the Landscape of Secondary US History Education research team presented the preliminary findings of their research. The AHA research team—Whitney E. Barringer, Lauren Brand, and Nicholas Kryczka—explained how their work attempts to capture “an accurate picture of what we teach about our history” by investigating how history curriculum is shaped from the state level to the classroom in nine different states. The team provided a history of how social studies and standards-based reform movements in the 20th and 21st centuries set the stage for current debates. Using nationwide legislative data, they demonstrated how legislation affecting social studies instruction and subject matter inclusion or prohibition comes in waves. Using Texas and Iowa as examples of how “vastly different and complex ecosystems” affect the production of curriculum, the team closed with an overview of its approach to curriculum appraisal. The AHA hopes that by the completion of the project in 2024, we will be able to share a more complete picture of what is being taught across the country—and that this research will equip historians and teachers alike to promote an accurate depiction of the past in our US history classrooms.
—WB and LB
On to Seattle
On Sunday, attendees found a new way to close out their conference experience. At “Continuing Conversations,” AHA staff provided space for one last discussion. Attendees from a variety of backgrounds swapped stories and insights based on their experiences in Philadelphia, with topics ranging from the AHA’s Lizzo stickers and the panel on monsters to the importance of creating opportunities for attendees to make new connections that can carry on beyond the end of the meeting.
The 137th annual meeting will be held January 4–7, 2024, in San Francisco, California. Proposals for sessions that advance the study, teaching, and public presentation of history are due February 15, 2023. We hope that you will submit a proposal and that you will join us next year.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.