By Natalie Walker
Michael Frisch, author of A Shared Authority, writes that “public historians need to realize that their method can do much more than merely redistribute knowledge. It can, rather, promote a more democratized and widely shared historical consciousness.” In short, as public historians, it is our responsibility to not simply retell a story, but to add all of the competing ideas that have a part in this story – that “share” a part.
As I have been writing the site histories for my internship, I find this to be one of the most difficult aspects of my research. A lot of the information I use comes from files that contain site descriptions listed in the National Register for Historic Places. These documents depict the architectural importance of a place as well as its historical significance. Where my work begins is when I have to combine these elements to tell a complete story. While I may not be a real Public Historian yet, it is still my responsibility to do more than “redistribute knowledge.” One site in particular, The Santa Fe Neighborhood, I found to be particularly challenging. This area of Kansas City (see map) was in 1931 an all-White neighborhood with a covenant banning African Americans from living in the houses for a 30 year period. However, by 1948, a prominent African American doctor moved into one of the homes leading to the overturning of this covenant by the Missouri Supreme Court. Had I not told you this, there would still be plenty of history to write about in this area. The Disney Family, for example, lived in the neighborhood for sometime and so did the famous baseball player Satchel Page. Not to mention the unique bungalow style homes that create a unique architectural neighborhood in Kansas City.
I think what Frisch is encouraging us to do, whether we are writing a site history, combing through archives, or writing a research paper is to remember that it is our job to tell a complete story. More importantly, and I find that this relates specifically to my internship, is not to redistribute history with a newer, flashier title. Just because I am working to update a new guidebook to Kansas City’s historical buildings and neighborhoods does not mean I should regurgitate the same information. It is my responsibility to uncover anything that can be added to these site histories and to do so in a way that fosters a “shared historical consciousness.” Essentially, every part of the Santa Fe Neighborhood history is important. From its farm community and service as an outpost for supplies in the late 1880s to its significance as place where African Americans challenged unjust rules. If we all remember that our duty is to tell a complete story that portrays a “widely” understood and interpreted history, we are one step closer to being true historians for of and for the public.