Trying to define public history can often be a challenging task. In its simplest form, it is the application of history outside of academia…but what does that mean? I usually touch on the obvious professional examples, such as historic preservationists and history museum staff, and yet many people still seem perplexed by what it is I study. Who would have thought that explaining it to an auditorium full of fifth graders would be so much easier? On Friday, November 21st, myself and seven other volunteers from the oral history course met in the Chao Auditorium to interact with a few fifth grade classes from Breckinridge/Franklin Elementary School to discuss a shared topic. Both classes, although separated by over a decade in age, have spent this semester studying civil rights activism throughout Louisville. Our shared curiosities and their interest in oral histories made this stop on their field trip a necessity.
I think that I can speak for the entirety of the oral history students when I say that we had absolutely no idea what to expect when working with these kids. One second we were joking amongst ourselves and then suddenly about fifty little people marched into the auditorium with their chaperones. Dr. Kelland welcomed them, and then a few of us spoke about public history and oral history. Then a few students and their instructor Michele Hemenway, or Mrs. Michele as she is known to them, gave us some insight into what they have been learning about civic engagement and Louisville history. Mrs. Michele, as I would learn later, only works with these students one day a week, which I see as a main reason that they were so engaged and perceptive; the subject was new and interesting to them and it connected them on a local level that exists outside of their regular curriculum. The kids told us about the significant role that Anne and Carl Braden played in this city and about the incidents surrounding the Wade house purchase. Needless to say, we were impressed.
Next, we broke into smaller groups where we could interact with the fifth graders on a small group level. We were not entirely prepared for this segment and generally were unsure what to expect from the conversation. We started out chatting with the kids about our Parkland project and moved to whatever else they seemed interested in talking about. And they were very interested. My group discussed the meaning of primary sources and the importance of learning histories from various perspectives. Other kids asked about the causes of the white flight in the West End and how conducting oral histories worked. Some were interested in the histories of the various neighborhoods in Louisville and others wanted to know more about the reasons behind the racial conflicts. But all of the kids wanted to know more about one specific subject — college. They wanted to know how we got here, why we chose Louisville, what our favorite aspect of college was and what set this institution apart from all of the others. These kids were extremely bright and engaged. They were eager to learn and more attentive than many of the undergraduates I have seen. If we were not already impressed by their presentation at the beginning, their above-average behavior, and their engaged participation, then we definitely were by the end of the event.
Overall, the hour-long event was a huge success. We believe that the kids left with a better idea of how to study the past and with a reawakened eagerness to learn and work towards a better tomorrow for everyone, and we left there with a renewed optimism in future generations. For me, the event came full circle when I realized that while I had been describing public history to budding young intellectuals, I had also actually been practicing public history. I had been cultivating engagement with the past outside of a classroom and using unconventional methods to get the information to them. Perhaps the best measure of the day’s success came from a hopeful and encouraging remark that we heard from a few of the young students upon exiting the auditorium, “See you in ten years!”
-Wes Cunningham, M.A. Candidate in History