Over the last few weeks, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what it would actually look like to practice a form of scholarship and teaching that could bring together the strands that I’ve been reading about: social justice & activism, digital history, public history, and history attuned to individual narratives and local communities. This week, I wanted to explore who’s already doing this kind of work, and what, if any, models are out there for bringing this kind of thinking into undergraduate history classrooms. It didn’t take long for my search to bring me to the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project — and once I’d found it, I didn’t leave.
The Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project is the brainchild of University of Washington history professor Jim Gregory and then PhD candidate Trevor Griffey. Created in 2004, the project brings together faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, student groups, and a number of community partnerships. The result (nearly 5 years in the making) is a website that houses an astounding array of digital resources, all free and available to the public, about Seattle’s Civil Rights history, from roughly 1910 to 1970. While the full range of resources available on the website is overwhelming, a few of the highlights include:
- an extensive oral history archive, including video interviews with over 80 local activists.
- comprehensive sections devoted to archiving the activities of particular movements and organizations, including the Seattle Black Panther Party, the KKK, and the Chicano/a Movement.
- resources for teachers, particularly targeted at Seattle-area middle and high schools.
How did all this come about? The starting point for the project seems to have been Professor Gregory’s senior research seminar for undergraduate history majors. Over the course of five years, Gregory sent hundreds of undergraduate students out into the community, participating in oral history interviews and researching in local archives as part of the project. Gregory and Griffey have written extensively about this work, but the specifics of the class requirements remain a bit hazy. It seems to me that the research seminar is a requirement for University of Washington history majors, and that all students in the class write 15-20 page research papers based on their original research (Gregory & Griffey, 2007). While all students have the potential to see their work on the website, Gregory and Griffey seem to publish only those essays that meet high standards. By the authors’ account, students are responsible for most of the site’s content, and Gregory and Griffey report, “[The students’] excitement has transformed our teaching and made us appreciate the great potential for public humanities projects to transform undergraduate learning.” The project “enabled students to become producers of knowledge instead of just consumers,” they write (Gregory & Griffey, 2007).
But students aren’t the only piece of the puzzle here. Griffey also played an instrumental role in forming partnerships with a number of community organizations and activists. These partnerships facilitated the oral interview process and ensured that the site’s content was produced in collaboration with the community: Griffey stressed the importance of sharing editorial authority with community partners, a step he describes as “best practice for all collaborations, but…indispensable for white academics working with non-white communities” (Griffey, 2012). “The combination of Professor Gregory’s student-driven approach to learning and my desire to share editorial authority with community partners,” Griffey writes, “meant that we did not so much create the Project’s content ourselves as much as we facilitated its creation by others” (Griffey, 2012).
And as the project picked up steam, others joined in, too – most notably the local branch of MEChA, a Chicano/a student activist group. In 2005, MEChA undergraduates approached Gregory and Griffey about working on an expansion of the project that would address the Latino community. This self-directed group of students worked furiously, setting their own parameters for the project, and in the span of two academic quarters produced the detailed content available on the site’s Chicano/a Movement of Washington State section — which is now the Project’s most frequently visited page (Griffey, 2012).
The project has been, to say the least, a resounding success, and just a glance at the sort of press the website has received is enough to indicate the potential reach and impact of a true public history project. The Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project has received attention from academic and lay publications alike. It’s been featured on radio shows, in the school newspaper, The Seattle Times, and The New York Times. Perhaps most notably, the Project’s attention to racist property covenants prompted the state legislature to pass a law making it easier to remove these covenants from homeowner deeds (Griffey, 2012). And Griffey, Gregory, and their collaborators all report excitement about the number of K-12 teachers all over the country who have used the site as a resource for their classrooms.
Now, Gregory and Griffey have turned their attention to using their Project as a model for public history projects elsewhere. As they put it, “Every city has an important civil rights history worth recovering from historical amnesia. It is a history worth rescuing because it can help highlight the capacity of everyday people to change communities and make history” (Gregory and Griffey, 2007). Beyond the specific content of their project, however, Gregory and Griffey argue that the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project “offers a model for linking academic and public history, for giving history undergraduates research experience and publishing opportunities, for exploiting the digital revolution and bringing historical research to broad publics and K-12 classrooms, and, most of all, for connecting universities to the communities they serve” (Gregory and Griffey, 2007).
Ok, woah, right? That’s a lot. It’s also almost an exact articulation of all the strands I’ve been interested in all semester. But before I just consider my work done here and publish a link to this website as my final project, I have to acknowledge that there are some aspects of this project that might be difficult to transfer to, say, a freshman history survey course rather than a senior research seminar. There are lots of questions of time and scale to consider. But there are nevertheless a number of important lessons that I believe are transferable to just about any successful public history project. They might include:
- Find a story worth telling. Griffey stresses that Seattle’s image “has been literally and metaphorically peripheral to the places whose stories tend to anchor our understanding of African American history and the civil rights movement” (2012). Because Seattle, the authors argue, considers itself a liberal place, removed from the regions of the country most caught up in segregation and Civil Rights, revelations of the city’s racist past and vibrant activist community generated significant attention.
- Create opportunities for meaningful student research. Part of this might be the content of the research itself – MEChA student leader Oscar Rosales Castañeda wrote that the group was drawn to the Project in part because of the isolation many Chicano/a students felt on campus, and their corresponding need to feel connected to a community and to uncover a past that had been forgotten. The research of MEChA students connected them with the forefathers of their own organization and built the sense of community history they had been lacking. For other students, meaningful research might have more to do with a wide audience and the potential for publication.
- Create research in collaboration with communities and share your findings with those communities. In other words, break down the walls of a “class project,” and allow students to experience history that has relevance in the wider world.
- Create complex history. As Griffey writes, the result of the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project is “an open-ended digital history project that tells multiple — sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory — stories” (2012). It seems to me that there are numerous opportunities here to investigate the messiness of primary documents and to destabilize historical narratives.
- Let students be makers, not just consumers, of history.
I know that there are some histories out there about Austin’s role in the Civil Rights movement, and I know the city has a number of oral history projects, although I don’t know much about them. Next week, I’d like to see what’s already out there in terms of projects like this in Austin – maybe an undergraduate survey course could get as much out of utilizing and building on what’s already there as they could out of building something from scratch.
- Castañeda, Oscar Rosales. “Writing Chicana/o History with the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.” Writing History in the Digital Age. Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, eds. University of Michigan Press, 2012.
- Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project
- Gregory, James N. and Trevor Griffey. “Teaching a City about Its Civil Rights History: A Public History Success Story.” American Historical Association Perspectives on History. April 2007.
- Griffey, Trevor. “Rethinking Race and Place: The Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.” OAH Magazine of History 26.1 (2012).