Effective Public History in AmericaDavid W. Young
Known as America’s most historic neighborhood, the Germantown section of Philadelphia (established in 1683) has distinguished itself by using public history initiatives to forge community. Progressive programs about ethnic history, postwar urban planning, and civil rights have helped make historic preservation and public history meaningful. The Battles of Germantown considers what these efforts can tell us about public history’s practice and purpose in the United States.
Author David Young, a neighborhood resident who worked at Germantown historic sites for decades, uses his practitioner’s perspective to give examples of what he calls “effective public history.” The Battles of Germantown shows how the region celebrated “Negro Achievement Week” in 1928 and, for example, how social history research proved that the neighborhood’s Johnson House was a station on the Underground Railroad. These encounters have useful implications for addressing questions of race, history, and memory, as well as issues of urban planning and economic revitalization.
Germantown’s historic sites use public history and provide leadership to motivate residents in an area challenged by job loss, population change, and institutional inertia. The Battles of Germantown illustrates how understanding and engaging with the past can benefit communities today.
“ Reflecting on how we make our contested past relevant to our diverse present, David Young, a gifted public historian, has chosen an ideal case study—Philadelphia’s richly historic Germantown. Its landscape includes austere Quaker and Mennonite meetinghouses, stately colonial mansions, George Washington’s summer White House, and a prominent stop on the Underground Railroad, alongside storefront churches, a shuttered high school, and shabby discount stores. In this provocative mix of historical analysis, reflection, and memoir, Young recounts Germantown’s ongoing efforts to preserve its history and present it to diverse audiences, including working-class neighborhood residents, blacks and whites, antiquarians, tourists, and the city’s elite. This is engaged history at its best.”
—Thomas J. Sugrue, Professor of History and Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University, and author of Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North
“ David Young’s The Battles of Germantown ranges across many important facets of public history practice with stylistic flair and analytical heft. His multiplicity of approaches is the book’s greatest strength. Young’s primary concern is to reveal the extent to which Germantown, a richly historic section of Philadelphia’s northwest corner, emerged after World War I as an incubator for public history. This is, at once, a microhistory of a fascinating community, a genealogy of best public history practices during the past century, a study of the particular challenges of history making in urban places, and a professional memoir by one of the nation’s leading public historians. Young shows us that community engagement has a history and that understanding this history is vital for house museums motivated to make change. This book is a remarkable accomplishment.”—
Seth C. Bruggeman, Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for Public History at Temple University and editor of Born in the U.S.A.: Birth, Commemoration, and American Public Memory
“ (A) detailed and powerful new book.... Young is eager for public history to move beyond what he calls 'building-ism,' the disproportionate focus on the architectural features of historic places, and to focus instead on 'beingness,' a fuller appreciation for the communities and social engagement processes that make and remake history on a daily basis.... But 'effective public history' is fundamentally about people and their communities. How the history of a place is made, interpreted, and preserved or discarded depends on who occupies that place and whose voices get heard. As such, this book... (should) be of great interest to social scientists, urban planners, and activists interested in how urban communities develop, change, and record their memories..”—
Journal of Urban Affairs
"Germantown has played an important role in Philadelphia history. But for many years it was best known as the site of a Revolutionary War battle in which George Washington’s army lost. As David W. Young shows in this book about the politics of public memory, reenactments of the 1777 Battle of Germantown, first conducted in 1877, obscured more than they revealed about the history of this neighborhood. Only after public historians reimagined their interpretations of it could Germantown’s rich and complex history attract widespread community interest and engagement.... Young’s message is personal and political as well as analytical."
—Journal of American History
" The power of this book comes from the author using that local history to highlight issues of class, race, and gender that have universal applicability to public history as practiced at the community level. Young’s work is a masterful combination of current scholarship and his lived experience.... This book should be read by everyone interested in public history, and it is a response to the common complaint that often links declines in historic site visits and historical society membership with the claim that people just are not interested in history anymore."
—American Historical Review
The History and the Public book series, edited by Steven Conn, aims to foster conversations among practitioners, public historians, and academic historians of all stripes from the United States and internationally. This series begins with the assumption that almost all the work we do as historians has a public dimension and a public purpose. We will publish research monographs, author collaborations, and edited collections that examine the variety of ways in which history and historians interact with a wider public. The series will broaden our conception of what is meant by "public history," while also demonstrating the role historians can and should play in the civic arena.