Dynamic Digital Methods for Integrating Local History into Public History Institutions and the K-16 Classroom

by Joel Zapata

A Western History Association Sponsored Workshop

The 2018 Western History Association Annual Conference featured over a dozen digital, public, and teaching sessions or workshops. These sessions and workshops considered how history practitioners—K-12 educators, students at all levels, university professors, museum professionals, and public historians—study, record, and communicate the past. As in most contemporary history meetings, the question of what it means to be a twenty-first-century historian arose. While neatly answering this may be high-reaching, conference participants did consider more attainable questions: how do we democratize history, how can we make invisible history visible, how can historians present their work clearly and to the widest audience possible, how can public historians co-create historical projects with communities, what digital or traditional tools should we utilize, and how can history practitioners better collaborate with each other and others?

Public historians, digital historians, design technologists, professors, K-12 educators, librarians, archivists, as well as students considered and answered most of the above questions at the Dynamic Digital Methods for Integrating Local History into Public History Institutions and the K-16 Classroom Workshop (see page 52 of the Conference Program), which the WHA Committee on Teaching and Public Education sponsored. Linsey Passenger Wieck, Director of the Master of Arts in Public History Program at St. Mary’s University, hosted the workshop at her home campus one day after the annual conference. The workshop featured four speakers: Rebecca Wingo, Shannon Murray, Jason Heppler, and myself.

Rebecca Wingo, Director of Public History at the University of Cincinnati, opened the workshop. Wingo’s presentation centered around the History Harvest, a community-based and student-driven digital archival project in which community participants bring items of historical significance and give oral histories about their items while students digitize the objects. Participants then take their family and community heirlooms back home where they belong. While teaching at Macalester College (St. Paul, Minnesota), Wingo and her students partnered with Rondo Avenue, Inc., the governing body of St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood. As countless African American communities across the nation, the Rondo neighborhood was deliberately bifurcated by the construction of I-94 during the 1960s. Keenly aware of this history and the positionally of Macalester College as a privileged and majority white institution, Wingo discussed the importance of community leadership in the project. Honoring this, Rondo Avenue, Inc. and community members took leadership status in the partnership. Thus, Wingo and her students entered the community as welcomed partners. The resulting digitized items and oral histories provided valuable additions to Rondo Avenue, Inc.’s online history collection of photographs, historic maps, other archival materials, and oral histories housed at Remembering Rondo. Through the History Harvest process, historians, students, and community members democratize history while helping make a too often invisible local history visible.

Shannon Murray, Indigenous Programming Manager for the Calgary Stampede (a rodeo, exhibition, and festival held every July in Calgary, Alberta), presented on the work of her organization’s education team. Seeking to connect K-12 students to local history, particularly the history of First Nations, Murray’s team focused on building collaborative relations with the First Nations whose history was being told. Through such collaboration, the education wing of Calgary Stampede founded an Indigenous Youth Program to teach life skills while emphasizing the importance of culture and tradition. This collaborative focused work has also produced exhibition signage in Blackfoot for the Calgary Stampede. Perhaps most impressively, the collaboration aided Siksika Nation’s Old Sun Community College and Board of Education in creating the Blackfoot language application. In a similar vein, Jason Heppler, Digital Engagement Librarian at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, presented on making local history accessible to the public through digital archives. Heppler showcased his project Silicon Valley Historical, “a mobile app and website that lets you explore the history of Silicon Valley through location-based essays, oral history, archival images, and documentary film.”[1]. Heppler then lead the workshop in brainstorming how digital tools can be used to improve the teaching and exhibition of history along with what tools could work for chosen projects. I presented on my digital history project, Chicana/o Activism in the Southern Plains Through Time and Space, which I envision as an accessible, digital museum for both scholars and the wider public. You can read about the project in my previous post, “Digitally Mapping and Exhibiting the Plains’ Chicana/o Movement.”

Together, the workshop’s presenters and participants posited and answered many questions concerning the future of the history profession. As the number of history majors shrink alongside the job openings for historians in academia, what struck me the most profoundly from the workshop was the innovative pedagogical, civic, and research approaches that the presenters followed. One can hope such innovations will counter or solve some of the profession’s most pressing issues. Overall, I left the workshop thinking that perhaps answering what it means to be a twenty-first century historian can be done by collaboratively answering more attainable questions regarding the future and betterment of the history profession.



[1]“About,” Silicon Valley Historical, accessed October 26, 2018, http://svhistorical.org/about/.

The Dangerous Game Donald Trump is Playing with MS-13

PhD Student Roberto Andrade Franco has a piece in the March 7, 2018 Washington Post.

Here’s a taste:

Of course, this is not the first time politicians have used a Latino group as a boogeyman for political gain. Seventy-five years ago, it was the fear over pachucos — a group of Mexican and Mexican American youths who lived along the United States’s southwest border — that rose to a hysteria, culminating in a riot that remains a historical scar. The riot alienated many Mexican Americans, which in turn helped shift their politics away from what some would consider assimilation.

Many believed that the pachucos originated in the El Paso-Juárez borderland in the early 20th century, where El Paso still bears the moniker El Chuco. From this nickname came the term “pachuco,” a name that, in many ways, symbolized the mixing of two cultures in an area that may have been defined politically as part of Mexico or the United States but still was contested in terms of cultural identities. In this space, pachucos created a bicultural identity — one that was not quite Mexican but also not accepted as American.

Read the whole piece here.

From the Outside In: How the World Should View Meghan Markle 

By Camille Davis


At the end of 2017, a sense of elation was shared by many women in the African American community. There were hashtags such as #blackprincess, #blackroyalty and #princessmeghan floating all over social media to celebrate the royal engagement of England’s Prince Harry to American actress, Meghan Markle.

Although there may have been previous members of the royal family with African ancestry[1] and although Markle’s official title may be “Duchess” instead of “Princess”—as in the case with her future sister-in-law, Duchess Catherine Middleton—many in the  African American  community will continue to see Markle as the  “first black princess.”

Meghan Markle’s bi-racial identity is often referred to when discussing she and Harry’s courtship and subsequent engagement. In fact, when the couple’s relationship first became public in November 2016, the British Daily Mail infamously published a headline stating, “Harry’s Girl is (almost) Straight Outta Compton.”[2]  This and other derogatory remarks from the English press prompted Prince Harry to make a speech in defense of Markle and to publicly affirm his commitment to her.[3]

Ongoing Discussions of Markle’s Racial Identity

Criticism of Meghan Markle’s ethnicity came from across the Atlantic Ocean, as well. Ironically, the source of the criticism was from a black woman. Elaine Musiwa, “a Zimbabwean writer based out of New York City”[4] complained shortly after the royal engagement about African American women referring  to Markle as “black” since she is biracial. Musiwa began her article by recounting how hard it was for her to celebrate Meghan Markle as a “black” woman because of her biracial identity. The following are her words posted to Vogue magazine’s November 28th  online  edition:

“Meghan Markle  is half black. She is biracial, Her father is white, and her mother is black. I wrote it out and then hit send. This was my response to nearly all of the texts from friends about Prince Harry’s new black finance. With some  black  friends who I knew needed  this celebration  of  a black woman’s beauty being internationally recognized, I feigned joy: So cool! A dead giveaway of a lie—I  rarely ever use the word cool to  describe a cultural event other than modern art shows, and those will only be reduced to cool if they are hard to recognize as art…”[5]

Musiwa spent most of her article arguing that the challenges of being biracial are different than those of being “black.” She argues that “Meghan Markle is the type of  black that the majority of right-leaning white America wished we all could be, if there were to be blackness at all.”[6] In other words, Musiwa believes that main stream America’s history of preferring the appearance of some biracial blacks to the aesthetic of  blacks with more Sub-Saharan African features (dark skin, broad nose, coarse hair) makes biracial blacks not black.

Since the other Vogue  writers who have written about the royal engagement have been extraordinarily positive, it is clear that Musiwa’s views don’t reflect the general opinion of Vogue magazine. However, one ponders why Musiwa was allowed to post such an historically incorrect and professionally distasteful essay about Markle. Most people with a very rudimentary understanding of American history know that very few “black Americans” have only black/African ethnicity in their racial makeup. Additionally, Musiwa is ignoring the historical fact that since the time of slavery, blacks who have had any known percentage of black ethnicity within them were—and are—considered black. Even with the well-documented jealousies among African Americans regarding skin tone, there has been a coalescence within the  African  American community of shared identity and shared suffering– no matter the darkness or fairness of skin tone or the percentage of African or “other” blood. One wonders if Musiwa had similar troubles celebrating Barak Obama as the first black president, since he has a white mother and black father.

The Transition from the Outside to the Inside: Markle’s Character

Markle’s Second Royal Engagement with Prince Harry on January 9th

The reason women in the African American community are celebrating  Markle is because her inclusion in the royal family represents a historical turning point in Western history. Very rarely is a woman of African descent considered the ideal representation of beauty, nobility, or virtue in Western standards of positive aestheticism. Most depictions of femininity in its most ideal form are still very Euro-centric in the Western World. Women in the Western world who aren’t of pure  European descent are often seen as beautiful  and alluring in a type of sexualized or eroticized way.  They are exotic creatures to be gazed at, studied, and even conquered for sexual experimentation or exploitation. But very rarely is a black woman viewed as a woman with the whole package: beauty, brains, character, and ability. By choosing Markle,  Prince Harry is showing the whole world that an abundance of good qualities can come in unconventional packages.

The Rare Quality of Servanthood

Vanity Fair magazine placed  Meghan Markle  on the cover of its October 2017 issue. Instead of focusing on Markle’s race, they discussed her character. In the feature article of that month, journalist Sam Kashner, mentioned that “one of the strongest bonds Prince Harry and Markle share is their philanthropy.”[7] As a  strong advocate for veterans’ rights, Prince Harry began  his  Invictus games  in 2014 for “wounded, injured, and sick soldiers,”[8]  and he has recently become an advocate for mental health. Markle has been an advocate for the U.N.[9] and has brought awareness about issues such as poor water quality[10] and the  need for increased education  of women’s health  in developing countries. Arguably, this shared commitment to concern of  others’ welfare is what has  solidified their compatibility, and this will be what  makes both of them a credit to their country and to the rest of the world.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on World Aids Day, 2018.

The ability to look beyond one’s  own circumstances—whether those circumstances be pleasant or painful—is a rare quality for  any person of any race. This quality is so rare that history commemorates the few who have it.  A Mother Theresa, a Princess Diana, a Martin Luther King, Jr. come once in a lifetime, and their service and sacrifice to mankind is not ultimately remembered because of their ethnicity or nationality. They are remembered because they elevate humanity and pierce the darkness of this world  with light. Those who have a problem with Markel’s racial identity—with either the black or the white  part of it— do well to remember this.

As a woman who devoted her life  to service  before  she had  ever met Prince Harry, Meghan Markle challenged  herself to look beyond the comforts and the success of her acting career to become someone that very few people really want to be: a servant. In choosing  servanthood, she met someone who was like-minded.  This person was a prince who elevated her personal and professional status to that of royalty.

To be sure, Meghan Markle’s ethnicity should be celebrated. She will always be an example to the world of the excellence that often emanates from women of color. Most importantly, she exemplifies that entrée onto the great stages of life does not always come  from  narcissism,  calculation and/or self-promotion. (Remember: this is the area of “the selfie.”) Sometimes, the entrance onto the great stages of life comes the old-fashioned way. Martin Luther King, Jr. once explained the old-fashioned way when he quoted this principle  from  an ancient text “ He who would be great, must first be a servant.”[11]

A Servant. This is what the world should see when evaluating “Princess” Meghan Markle.


[1] Tatiana Walk-Morris, “Five Things to Know about Queen  Charlotte,” November 30, 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smartnews-arts-culture/5-things-you-didnt-know-about-queen-charlotte-180967373/.

[2] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3896180/Prince-Harry-s-girlfriend-actress-Meghan-Markles.html.

[3] Zach Johnson, “Prince Harry Defends Girlfriend Meghan Markle From Sexism and Racism” on Social Media.” November 8, 2016. http://www.eonline.com/news/807834/prince-harry-defends-girlfriend-meghan-markle-from-sexism-and-racism-on-social-media.

[4] https://www.vogue.com/contributor/elaine-musiwa.

[5] Elaine Musiwa, “The Problem With Calling Meghan Markle the “First Black Princess.” November 28, 2017. https://www.vogue.com/article/meghan-markle-biracial-identity-politics-personal-essay.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sam Kashner, “Meghan Markle, Wild About Harry,” https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2017/09/meghan-markle-cover-story.

[8] Invictusgamesfoundation.org

[9] Amy Mackeldon, “6 Times Meghan Markle Used Her Celeb Status for Advocacy and Charity.” December 5, 2017. http://www.harpersbazaar.com/celebrity/latest/a13945782/meghan-markle-charity-work-philanthropy/.

[10] Worldvision Press Release: “Event hosted by Suits star Meghan Markle brings clean water to children.” https://www.worldvision.ca/about-us/media-centre/meghan-markle-brings-clean-water-to-children.

[11] Martin  Luther  King, “The Drum Major Instinct,” February 4, 1968.

Great start to the year!

We had a wonderful presentation yesterday from Lindsay Chervinsky, a new fellow at the Center for Presidential History and a historian of early American politics.  She summarized her discussion here, for those who weren’t able to make it.  Her advice for students really resonated for scholars of all levels.  Here’s a taste:

The overwhelming consensus from everyone I consulted is that your web presence is supposed to enhance your scholarship, not replace or detract from it. So don’t blog at the expense of classwork, don’t build an enormous Twitter following and neglect your dissertation, and don’t get into Facebook arguments while forgetting to politely engage with your immediate colleagues. You get the idea. That being said, here is a condensed version of my talk.

We’ve got so many students working on issues that are not just historically important, but also relevant to discussions going on in the culture — political violence and Southern religion during the Civil War, to name just two.  I’m excited to see what we can come up with!

Becoming a historian in 2017

What a moment to start a graduate career in history.  Anxiety about the decline of the humanities has come to be tempered by whiffs of hope that critical thinking about society is highly valued, not just by intellectuals but by Capitalists.  But even more important, as the United States has been overtaken by a violent contest over its own past, historians – and historical thinking – have become a part of mainstream discourse.  A recent graph created by the Southern Poverty Law Center has been shared widely across the internet, explaining in a snapshot something that Americans desperately need to understand: public monuments praising Confederate military heroes were produced many years after that war, not to memorialize the dead but rather to intimidate and terrorize those Americans whom the likes of Lee and Jackson committed treason to enslave.

Image from Southern Poverty Law Center


It’s a complex argument, but it’s been amazingly successful: Confederate monuments don’t represent the Confederacy, but the tyranny of the Jim Crow era and resistance to African Americans being included in full citizenship rights. Even the descendants of Stonewall Jackson have made the argument.

For the moment, and in the present context, I’m focused less on the civics lesson being made here than on the role of historians in the process, and the wider trend of historians using new media to build historical knowledge in the American public.  The SPLC graphic is a great example of the kind of visualizations being done by digital humanists.  The growth of graphical interpretations of history is one of the most exciting trends in the field.  It has allowed historians to present enormous amounts of careful research to a much wider public audience, encapsulating complexity and encouraging exploration of humanistic data.  The New York Times’s Upshot series bends towards the social scientific, but its influence on public discussion has included more than a little history as well.  Then there are the many ways that this argument has been disseminated.  The Washington Post has a new series that presents historical arguments.  Scholars like Kevin Kruse and Joanne Freeman have leveraged Twitter to build followings.  Group blogs, like Religion and American History and the Junto, get thousands of hits, and they use their platforms to speak to issues that are topical and historical.  Podcasts, like Ben Franklin’s World, bring scholarship to a public that might be scared off by a book full of footnotes, but is more than willing to hear the complex insights contained within.

The current generation of history graduate students has an opportunity, and a challenge, to think through what these various mediums mean for the discipline.  What kinds of arguments are best suited to what venue?  How can we best help inform public discussions about issues that cry out for historical framing?  How can we bring what we study – the arcane questions that animate us – to the public arena at the right moment?

Welcome to the SMU History Grad Student Blog

The world seems to afford us endless opportunities to apply the past to the present, and graduate students in history have a special vantage point from make those connections.  The graduate students in the William P. Clements Department of History specialize in a wide range of areas of history.  Our department has long pioneered the study of the region of the southwest borderlands between the US and Mexico, through the incredible work of the Clements Center for Southwest Studies.  We interpret “borders” widely around here, however, and our students study borders, boundaries and crossings in many places around the world.  More recently, we’ve broadened our interests to include a range of other areas, and we benefit greatly from the presence of the Center for Presidential History.

Over the next few months, this blog will grow to include the voices of many of our students, and we hope some guest posts for those who might offer us some guidance.  If you have comments or suggestions, send them our way!

Kate Carté Engel, Director of Graduate Studies