Tag Archives: Jeremy Manczuk

Reflections: Labor History and Public History

8 May

by Jeremy Manczuk-

My primary interest–in the broadest sense possible–in historical studies is labor history. Prior to taking this class I would have said–but only if asked–that I had a reasonably solid grasp of the issues and debate surrounding the field. Unlike the majority of my classmates, I am not a museum studies major and I have never had a class in the program. Before this semester, in fact, I had not stepped foot in a history museum for many years. This course in public history has not only introduced me to unfamiliar ways to view the motives behind museums, the intricate tightrope-walk nature of the relationship between academic historians and public activists as they attempt to create a historical narrative both can live with, and the precarious profession of the historical preservationist but it has also taught me of the many ways–both sophisticated and simplified, short and near-sighted – that labor issues can be presented to the interested public.

Perhaps the most intriguing of these possibilities is the notion first proposed to our class by Cathy Stanton in The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City and reinforced by Michael Wallace in Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memory of the trap public historians can fall into by creating the impression of a simple, easy-to-follow linear narrative of rising industrialism, a peak of labor production, and the eventual demise–a retreat into the realm of heritage–of the work a community once invested itself so heavily into. For Stanton and Wallace, and me for that matter, this approach does not satisfy the need for a more developed approach to introducing the cyclical nature of the rise and fall of labor opportunities within a given community based on the larger story of capitalist endeavors and abandonments. The demonstration of this type of continuity, without question, is a difficult task to aspire to. It is certainly much easier and takes less imagination to craft a display of worker’s tools or to hang a photograph of a group of miners but it leaves matters of great importance–matters that should be considered and discussed–unacknowledged.

In my opinion the notion of continuity–and how best to engage it in the multi-faceted province of public history–has been one of the most essential themes of the semester. As we have talked about several times–and as I have repeatedly considered as I prepare to write a blog posting or think about our cooperative efforts with the Lincoln Place Heritage Association–we cannot effectively interpret the past unless we are also willing to contemplate the present.  If we separate the two the result is stale and uninteresting. The same is true, I think, for the analysis and presentation of labor issues. If we disassociate then from now, if we isolate here and there, the effort we put forth and the description we employ are ultimately inept and unhelpful.

Shared History of the Imagination: The Cathartic Process of Evading the Historical Expert

5 May

by Jeremy Manczuk-

Sylvan Springs Park (located in South St. Louis County) sits in stark historical contrast to its neighbor, Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.  Situated on 331 acres alongside the Mississippi River, Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery is home to nearly 200,000 soldier’s graves and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.  The seemingly endless rows of unadorned, white tombstones are a vivid reminder of the attraction military service holds in the mind of the American public and, in some cases, of the price that attraction can carry.  Jefferson Barracks County Park (the other neighbor of Sylvan Springs and the National Cemetery) was home to the Jefferson Barracks Military Post which was decommissioned in 1946 after 120 years of military presence.  This park is now the residence of several museums – in fact, the Missouri Civil War Museum is scheduled to open there this summer.  Historical recollection, celebration, and interpretation abound!

Sylvan Springs

Poor Sylvan Springs, unfortunately, cannot compete.  Historically speaking, all Sylvan Springs can claim – in the manner of tangible historical artifact – is an old, but well-kept picnic area built around a spring and a sign posted to inform passers-by of its origins.  There are no historical intermediaries to assist the public with conclusions; there are no sweeping generalizations; there is no thesis.  Built by the Missouri 6th Infantry in 1939, in conjunction with the Civilian Conservation Corps, the beverage garden offered only relief from a world destined – as all worlds, I imagine, are so fated –  to change forever.  It is this relief that I daydream about whenever I happen to be in this spot. Though the world was just beginning to become visibly entangled in a horrific war that would alter the lives of so many these young soldiers, they and their guests sought brief solace by this spring in the form of barbeques and nighttime dances.

Sylvan Spring Signs

All of this conjecture is, of course, solely a product of my imagination. I do not know what became of the 6th Infantry as a whole or of the individuals who comprised it.  If I were a better, more diligent historian I imagine I could find out. In the interest of avoiding boredom, I think I will not. For the purpose of this blog posting, however, it does not really matter. Dreams and imagination are constant presences in the construction of human history. When we allow own dreams and imaginations to interact with those of the past…well, I believe that is the point at which limitations evaporate and history becomes incredibly interesting. My point is–and though I feel I am in danger of being labeled an addle-brained, new- age, phony-baloney I will persist–that we interact with history much more than we think we do.  Historians (public or otherwise) generally offer the public a beneficial source of historical information and interpretation. That same public, however, may be best served, at times, left to their own devices.

Reassessing Reenactments

2 May

by Jeremy Manczuk-

Civil War Reenactors

As we are all likely aware (due to the recent commemoration of the event on SIUE’s campus) 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War.  The St. Louis area was, to some extent, a small-scale version of the nation’s larger narrative. Though the state of Missouri never joined the seceding Confederate states, many Missouri citizens sympathized with the South. Indeed, Missouri was an intense battleground that reflected the nation as a whole.  Part of the state adhered to the slave-holding tenets of the South while other Missourians believed slavery was morally, or at least economically, wrong; Much of the state was rural with an agrarian-based economy while other areas (specifically the St. Louis metropolitan area) was part of a burgeoning industrial nation. In order to celebrate and observe this anniversary, the Freedom’s Gateway group “was formed in 2008 to facilitate awareness, interest, learning, and participation” in a number of events held throughout the area over the upcoming year.  The group’s first event Camp Jackson: The Tipping Point was held last weekend (April 29 – May 1, 2011) at Jefferson Barracks County Park.  Since the event included two reenactments (and since I have been critical of these events without ever actually attending one) I attended.

Civil war reenactors

Saturday was the Camp Jackson Affair–an “incident of civil unrest” culminating in the killing of several dozen citizens by Northern troops.  This reenactment–especially since it had to be held in a wide area to accommodate a large crowd–was hard to follow. With little prior knowledge of the event, I was relatively clueless as to the proceedings.  From my viewpoint, soldiers paraded about in formation, 19th century ethnic slurs were exchanged, and, eventually, the whole affair devolved into a frantic mess of faux mob violence. Sunday’s “action” was a more conventional reenactment of the Battle of Blackwell–a skirmish that originally took place some 40 miles south of St. Louis.  This event was much less confusing and even, to my surprise, somewhat entertaining. I still stand by my original claims – that reenactors are, for the most part, minutiae-driven bores with little to contribute to a historical dialogue – but I have to admit, it was kind of fun.  Rather than merely snicker at their ceaseless maneuverings and over-dramatic death plunges, I found myself slightly (sorry, but this confession will only go so far) intrigued.  While I am unwilling to concede the importance of their genuine musket powder pouches or fancy mustaches I will go so far as to say it was not a complete waste of an afternoon – I may even go to another reenactment.  Someday.

Labor in the City: A Short Review of The St. Louis Labor History Tour

28 Apr

by Jeremy Manczuk-

The St. Louis Labor History Tour is a walking tour highlighting the major labor disputes in St. Louis from the American Civil War and the Railroad Strikes of 1877 through the struggles of Harold J. Gibbons and the Teamsters Local 688 to provide health care for underprivileged workers from the early 1940s until the mid-1970s.  The nearly-thirty page tour booklet was edited by Rosemary Feurer with sections written by David Roediger, Marilyn Slaughter, Lon Smith, and Dina Young.  The tour booklet, which can be found at the website of Northern Illinois University, covers two geographical areas – downtown St. Louis and several locations in North St. Louis along Highway 70.

Despite the abundance of authors The St. Louis Labor History Tour is remarkably consistent.  Regardless of site or event each contributor attempts to explain and examine the most serious questions surrounding the field of labor history.  Each section investigates the working class of St. Louis and their attempts to improve “their workplace and society.”  In response, as the booklet’s authors demonstrate, the elite and capitalist classes struggled to maintain their control over the issues of work and the direction of St. Louis society.  The failures of the working class – most prominent is the lack of inclusivity – are also well-documented.  Overall, the textual portion of the tour is informative, persuasive, and, most importantly, it holds its subjects – all of them – accountable for the city they helped to create.

Although many of the locations on the walking tour no longer exist – and those that do are almost all used in a different capacity than they were when the events depicted in the tour occurred – it is, I believe, worthwhile to actually walk the route of the tour rather than simply read the text.  As we have learned throughout the length of this course in Public History – in both the readings and our discussions – it is important to not think of history as something that exists merely in the past with no repercussions for or connections to the present.  This sense of historical continuity is addressed in the conclusion of the booklet as well.  Although we are in the “midst of the development of a new ‘global’ economy,” Feurer claims, “solidarity is developed in face to face contact at the local level before it can be imagined at a broader level.”  It works, I think, the other way as well.  In order to make sense of – or benefit from – the decisions and consequences of the past, it can only help to imagine the present as tied intricately to the historical events being analyzed.

The Forest for the Trees: Historical Reenactment and the Exaltation of Detail

14 Apr

by Jeremy Manczuk-

More often than not the transition from thought to word is, for me, a difficult one. What starts in my mind as a reasonable, semi-coherent thought frequently turns into an incomprehensible clamoring in which I struggle to explain myself satisfactorily. This was the case during our classroom discussion regarding historical reenactors. Most reenactors, I imagine, are genuine contributors to their historical field of interest.  Spending time with like-minded individuals, dressing in historical costume, and interacting with history and the curious public are certainly not reasons to provoke my condemnation. In my contribution to our discussion, however, I failed to convey this sentiment. Instead my remarks deteriorated into rant and I, in inelegant fashion, suggested all historical reenactors suffer from a horribly debilitating gastrointestinal disorder. The purpose of this blog posting–besides getting right with the majority of reenactors–is to clarify my thoughts on the subject.

When I was in junior high (or, perhaps, early high school–I’m a little fuzzy on the timeline) I had a remarkably horrible history teacher. For this woman history was a collection of dates, an assortment of facts, and an accumulation of locations.  History, in her opinion, was solely comprised of what happened–there was no room for why, much less how. On test day, I regurgitated onto paper the data she inputted and promptly forgot the whole boring mess. If this was what the historical discipline entailed, I’d pass. Nearly all of us, I expect, have had a history teacher like this. Almost everyone I encounter in my non-academic life seems to think of history in this way. In their past, I envision, a terrible intermediary–a murderer of history–who confined history to detail and failed to allow appreciation for the remarkable connections human beings can make to their own history when they consider the thoughts, fears, and desires we often share with the past.

This is how I perceive the worst of the historical reenactment lot–a group of history assassins obsessed with every detail from the mundane to the profound without the ability to distinguish, much less interpret, the difference. Dyeing a uniform–even if it is made from authentic materials–with walnuts and vinegar does not tell me anything of value about a period of American history when a young nation’s ideals and values were questioned so intensely. Neither self-imposed emaciation nor the ability to resemble the dead can describe to me the experience of being a soldier during the American Civil War. Certainly some of the most enthusiastic reenactors care to engage history in a meaningful manner.  The implication of the glorification of detail–that history is constructed of inarguable fact–renders their contributions, unfortunately, detrimental to the subject they care for so deeply.

Missouri Mines State Historic Site

23 Mar

by Jeremy Manczuk-

The Missouri Mines State Historic Site in Leadington, Missouri (about 60 mile south of St. Louis in St. Francois County) does not concern itself with the people who labored in the tunnels below. The men (judging by the enlarged photographs hanging on the wall, the mines were not an arena of equal opportunity) who labored in the more than 1,000 miles of “abandoned multilevel mine tunnels” are treated as little more than a sidebar to the museum’s choices to highlight other aspects of the mining world.

For instance, the museum places a high priority on the tools the workers used. From candle lanterns to large underground railroad components, the first room of the museum is filled with the various tools used by miners in the area from the late nineteenth century until 1972 when the mines, depleted, were shut down. The other perspective the museum heavily focuses on is the minerals workers pulled from the holes in which they labored.  The exhibits in the second gallery of the museum are largely devoted to the once-private mineral collection of a former executive of the company that ran the mine.  These minerals, which were collected from mining sites around the world, are often impressive chunks of rock. They do not, however, offer any historical context to a museum sorely in need of some. There is, of course, space in museums for geology and the heavy tools of industry.  Nevertheless, when a museum that labels itself “historic” discards humanity, the narrative it strives to present ends up cold, wrongheaded, and, ultimately, uninteresting.

While it is accurate to say that the museum’s physical space is divided evenly (more or less) between the presentations of the artifacts of geology and the tools used by miners, another more disturbing theme is evident–the celebration and protection of the former St. Joe Lead Company.  This agenda, somewhat discernible in the presentation of artifacts, is most common and strongly realized in the connection between the museum and the public–the oratory of the museum’s docents. While the St. Joe Lead Company is far from infamous in matters of company-employee relations, there were confrontations between the two groups. There were strikes, the working conditions were far from ideal, and there was racial unrest amongst the workers. If this was dealt with in an honest, forthright fashion the company would not be completely to blame–it would, however, raise questions of the shared “heritage” of the workers and the company–a heritage that is strongly emphasized in the museum.

Another way in which the museum’s guides preserve the legacy of the St. Joe Lead Company is through pointed discourse regarding the company and the local environment. The Environmental Protection Agency has forced the company (now known as the Doe Run Company) to cleanse the area of the lead-infused waste piles known as chat dumps. Although the mines closed decades ago, massive amounts of lead waste (also called tailings) still remains in the soil.  The primary concern is to remove the lead from schools and other places where children are commonly present. According to the docents of the Missouri Mines State Historic Site, however, this is a “witch-hunt” perpetrated on the company by the Environmental Protection Agency. The high levels of lead have been misrepresented by the government and the citizens of the area have nothing to fear. While I readily admit that I do not have the scientific background necessary to judge the validity of these claims, I can assure the reader that the problems of lead pollution in the area are heavily documented. In any case, a state sponsored “historic site” may want to ensure that both sides of this contemporary issue are addressed.  Besides the rhetoric of the museum guides, the environmental issues resulting from the mining are not acknowledged.

Perhaps the most interesting components of the museum are the buildings located above the mines.  Unfortunately, and understandably, these buildings are not safe enough for the public.  In lieu of analysis, here are some photographs:

Mine BuildingAnother Mining BuildingMining Building