About the Institute

Recognizing an Imperfect Past:

History, Memory, and the American Public

Welcome to Savannah! The Georgia Historical Society (GHS) is pleased to present Recognizing an Imperfect Past: History, Memory, and the American Public as a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute for 2017.  GHS will offer a two-week-long Institute June 11-23, 2017.

This two-week program will engage scholars—college and university professors—in an exploration of how we as a country recognize, remember, and memorialize controversial people and events in the American past as viewed with a presentist lens, and what role scholars can play in the classroom and the public arena in shaping and leading this national discussion going forward. With some of the leading scholars on history and memory, we will explore slavery and its legacy, the Confederacy, the Jim Crow era, lynching, twentieth-century politicians, and the Civil Rights movement and discuss how communities grapple with the memorialization of controversial figures and subjects in the public space. What does it mean to talk about moving or taking down statues of figures once deemed heroic and worthy of public commemoration? Are public monuments themselves history, or works of art that demonstrate the values of a particular time and place? Why is it important that we study, teach and remember subjects that are often painful, divisive, and controversial? Readings, scholarly lectures, research in primary sources, and select site visits will help to cultivate a deeper understanding among NEH Summer Scholars of the contested ground between history and memory and the ways in which we as scholars can play a meaningful role in engaging students and the American public in a national conversation about this important subject. This NEH Institute aligns squarely with the NEH’s initiative, The Common Good: Humanities in the Public Square, which connects the study of humanities to the current conditions of national life.

Intellectual Rationale

As the recent national discussions of Confederate iconography demonstrate, there is considerable confusion on the part of the public about how history is interpreted and how interpretations of our shared past change over time. As a public history educational and research institution, the Georgia Historical Society (GHS) is uniquely and perfectly suited to facilitate this dialogue. The Georgia Historical Society bridges the gap between the academy and the public, taking the sometimes-esoteric findings of the historical profession and making them accessible, understandable, and relevant to a larger public.

GHS has been having this conversation publicly for the last six years, during the entirety of the Civil War sesquicentennial. In 2010 we applied for and received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to hold a month-long seminar for scholars from around the country that explored new directions in Civil War scholarship. That same year we partnered with the Georgia Department of Economic Development and the Georgia Department of Labor on a new Civil War historical marker project that began with a survey of existing Civil War markers in Georgia, most of them erected in the 1950s and 1960s. Our survey found that there were nearly a thousand historical markers in Georgia about the Civil War. Nearly all of them were about some military aspect of the conflict, many of those were written in almost impenetrable language, and nearly all were written through the lens of the Lost Cause. Over the course of the sesquicentennial, GHS and its various partners erected eighteen new historical markers across the state on topics that had traditionally been overlooked by the State in the 1950s and 1960s and that incorporated the findings of Civil War scholars over the last generation, all of which challenged the traditional narrative of a monolithic white South committed to the Confederacy. Among other things these markers challenged the myth of the black Confederates and openly acknowledged the desire to preserve slavery as the cause of secession. All of this relied upon the scholarship of credentialed, professional historians that had been published over the last generation, and we were determined during the sesquicentennial to teach Georgians about the War in new and different ways, to challenge them to stand on new ground in order to gain a clearer understanding of the Civil War’s meaning in our lives in the 21st century.

We have also launched a historical marker project commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights movement. Both projects engaged scholars and the general public across a wide spectrum of public programming platforms, including public scholarly lectures, roundtable discussions, book discussions, film screenings, teacher training, and public history workshops, all designed to cultivate a deeper understanding among the public about how we as individuals and collectively in society come to terms with controversial moments and figures in our nation’s past.

Since the mass shooting in Charleston in June 2015, the Lost Cause narrative that has dominated our national culture and memorials has come under attack, as communities across the country are having discussions about what to do with memorials to the Confederacy, such as statues in the United States capital, on Stone Mountain in Georgia, or in public spaces in New Orleans. In addition, public discussions are also taking place about the ways in which other controversial figures—national figures like Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and regional public statesmen such as Tom Watson, Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge, and U.S. Senator Richard B. Russell—are memorialized in our public spaces and in our culture. These discussions are leading to others about how do we properly remember and memorialize slavery and the victims of lynching in this country? All of these subjects will be arenas for debate and exploration in this NEH Institute.

Coming to terms with history in the public arena is not a straightforward process. The Holocaust is a good example. It is easy to draw stark moral conclusions about the Holocaust and the evils of genocide and racial hatred as expressed in that event. It is fairly straightforward for most people. But what about American slavery, slave rebellions, and lynchings in this country? It is not straightforward at all. Are slaves like Nat Turner who killed whites in the name of freedom to be considered as heroes? What about whites who openly encouraged or condoned lynchings, such as Georgia’s Tom Watson? Charleston has a Holocaust Memorial in Marion Square, yet it rejected placing a monument in the same place to Denmark Vesey, the accused leader of a Charleston slave uprising. As one historian pointed out, Charlestonians denouncing racism abroad while overlooking a long history of it at home struck some as a “commemorative sleight of hand” that betrays an inability, or even unwillingness, to come to terms with our own complex past.

One of the greatest challenges to finding a solution—if one can ever be found—as to whether monuments should stay or be removed is our failure to agree on definitions.  Are monuments history, public art with a political message, or both? Should they be treated in the same way as a history textbook or like other artifacts from the past? What history do we learn from a monument or is the only message that the person memorialized was once thought worthy of such an honor? Do monuments tell us about the subject being memorialized or the people who installed the monuments?

Many other questions abound. If monuments are history, then what history are we learning from them—the history of the subject or the history of the period in which they were installed? Will simply providing context resolve the issue? Can context be added to a monument in an outdoor setting or does the monument need to be removed (like any other artifact) to a museum where it can be properly interpreted?  Will the subjects memorialized in monuments or buildings disappear from history and/or public memory if the monuments or buildings no longer exist? Who gets to decide if a monument remains or a street or building name is changed? What criteria should we use? Should we take down objectionable monuments or simply add others that give another viewpoint of the past? And perhaps most importantly for this Institute, what role should scholars be playing in this very public discussion?

The current national dialogue about the role and place of monuments in our public spaces and discourse is ultimately about the intersection of history and memory. There is a growing body of literature on this subject, and historian David Blight is foremost among historians studying the topic. “History,” he writes, “is what trained historians do, a reasoned reconstruction of the past rooted in research; it tends to be critical and skeptical of human motive and action, and therefore more secular than what people commonly call memory. History can be read by or belong to everyone; it is more relative, and contingent on place, chronology, and scale. Memory is passed down through generations; history is revised. Memory often coalesces in objects, sites, and monuments; history seeks to understand contexts in all their complexity. History asserts the authority of academic training and canons of evidence; memory carries the often more immediate authority of community membership and experience. Bernard Bailyn has aptly stated memory’s appeal: ‘its relation to the past is an embrace . . . it is ultimately emotional, not intellectual.'”

Regarding the Civil War in particular, Blight writes that “Americans have over the years drummed the deep divisiveness of those four years into a national epic of unity, of mutual glory and sacrifice. But the politics of reconciliation came at tremendous costs in American race relations; they required a blurring and near erasure of the story of black emancipation at the heart of the war. During the first half century after Appomattox, and for most of the twentieth century as well, Americans preferred a story of reconciled conflict to the reality of unresolved racial and legal legacies.  Should the master narrative of the Civil War be an essentially reconciliationist story of mutual sacrifice by noble men and women who believed in their equal versions of the right? Or, should that narrative be a complex, pluralistic story of sections and races deeply divided over the future of slavery, free labor, and the character and breadth of American liberty? If everyone fought for “liberty” in the Civil War, as is often said, then whose collective memory of the struggle should have a privileged place in textbooks, films, and on our memorial landscape? Indeed, whose claims to liberty prevailed?”

These are hard questions that we are collectively struggling with as a nation now. They are the questions that will guide this Institute as we examine people and events from our collective past whose meanings and place in today’s culture are conflicted

Intended Beneficiaries & Educational Context

This institute is intended to serve humanities faculty at U.S. community colleges, colleges and universities. The Institute is designed to address the intersection of history, memory, and race in American history covered in the broad themes of a basic history, literature, or humanities survey course. Content will advance humanities teaching and classroom discussion of the slave trade, colonial and antebellum slavery, the causes of the Civil War and its aftermath, the Jim Crow era, lynching, and the Civil Rights movement. We will discuss the changing ways in which history is interpreted and memorialized over time, as community values evolve.

In addition to the 2010 NEH-funded summer seminar referenced above, GHS has successfully presented four separate NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture workshops for community college faculty entitled “African-American History and Culture in the Georgia Lowcountry: Savannah and the Coastal Islands, 1750-1950” (in 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2012) as well as an NEH Summer Institute on the same subject held in the summer of 2013. NEH summer scholars who participated in these programs expressed the deep personal impact of their experiences with the program. Overwhelmingly, and across years, participants praised the programmatic elements of these workshops and expressed their thanks and admiration for the work of GHS and its staff. Participants shared an array of emotions during each workshop and through NEH evaluations. It was not uncommon to hear the experience called “overwhelming,” “challenging,” “engaging and insightful,” “extremely informative and thought-provoking,” “emotional,” “life changing,” and a “valuable professional development opportunity.”  Recognizing an Imperfect Past will expand on topics covered during earlier workshops and provide more depth to perennially popular group discussions about the lasting impact of.

Institute Content, Design and Implementation

The Georgia Historical Society will host this NEH Institute from June 11 to June 23, 2017, in Savannah, Georgia. The Institute will immerse scholars in intensive study of  how we as a country recognize, remember, and memorialize controversial people and events in the American past and how scholars approach, teach about, and discuss often-difficult content in classrooms across the country. It is expected that participating Summer Scholars will be active learners, fully engaged in all aspects of Institute programming. This includes completion of all required readings in advance of lectures, active participation in all lectures and discussion sessions, and participation in all site visits.

The Institute has been designed as a dialogue between faculty, visiting scholars, community guides, and NEH Summer Scholars. Speakers and course readings have been selected to engage Summer Scholars in rigorous review and study of history and memory and are intended to inform our collective understanding of the themes presented in the Institute. These, paired with pedagogic discussions, research in primary source documents, and strategic excursions will converge to challenge participants’ preconceived ideas, offer new information and historical evidence for consideration, and broaden and deepen our understanding of prevalent themes in American history as we explore the subject through new lenses.

During their time in residency, NEH summer scholars will be asked to consider the following questions as they engage in scholarship:

  • How does history and memory intersect to provide the context for how we remember individuals and events in our past that are controversial in the 21st century?
  • How do we as scholars best engage the public on remembering and learning about slavery, the Civil War, lynching, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights in public spaces?
  • Why is it important that we study, teach and remember subjects that are often painful, divisive, and controversial?
  • What should we be teaching our students about the ways in which we as a society remember and memorialize subjects and individuals that do not fit neatly into modern sensibilities?

Pre-Institute Preparation and Overview

Before arrival in Savannah, NEH Summer Scholars will receive a reading list and course packet with course texts to prepare for their time in residency. Participants will be asked to read selections from the following books prior to arrival: David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory and American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era; Thomas J Brown, The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History with Documents; Karen Cox, Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture; James Oliver Horton, and Lois E. Horton, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory; Anne Sarah Rubin, Through the Heart of Dixie:  Sherman’s March and America; as well as several articles. These carefully selected readings will provide the foundation for the Institute and the larger questions that we will explore about the ways in which we recognize, remember, and memorialize controversial people and events in the American past and what role scholars can play in the classroom and the public arena in shaping and leading this national discussion going forward. For more information about our visiting scholars, please click here.

What NEH Summer Scholars in Residence Can Expect

Our Institute will unfold chronologically over two weeks, integrating lectures, discussions, readings, and site visits. Ample time will be allotted each day for discussions between Visiting Scholars, Institute Faculty, and NEH Summer Scholars on pedagogical strategies for teaching the various themes and subjects in the classroom.  On Sunday, June 11, the Institute will begin with an afternoon orientation at the Georgia Historical Society’s Research Center. Activities will include registration, introductions, an overview of Institute activities and participant expectations, and an evening reception.  On Monday, June 12, Dr. David Blight of Yale University will present an opening plenary that will discuss the broad themes of the ways in which history and memory interact in the public arena, with a particular focus on slavery, race and the Civil War, based on the scholarship in two of his books. On Tuesday, June 13, Dr. Alexander Byrd of Rice University will focus more narrowly on remembering and memorializing slavery and the slave trade in modern America. On Wednesday, June 14, NEH summer scholars will get out of the classroom for two tours of Savannah. The first will begin at Wright Square in historic Savannah where Vaughnette Goode-Walker, the director of the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum in Savannah, will lead the “Footprints of Savannah” urban slavery tour. Ms. Goode-Walker created the tour based on extensive research conducted on urban slavery in Savannah. The tour focuses on the institution of slavery and the slave trade and guides participants through Savannah’s historic district to significant sites that tell the story of slavery as commerce and its role in the development of the city of Savannah as a cultural and economic hub of the greater Atlantic world. In the afternoon we will take a riding tour of the site in west Savannah of “The Weeping Time,” the largest sale of enslaved people in antebellum America. In March 1859, 436 men, women, and children were sold by Pierce Butler to settle debts. The tour will be led by Dr. Amir Jamal Toure, a local public historian, who will lead our discussion on the ways in which this event has been remembered—or not—in Savannah’s public spaces. On Thursday, June 15, public historian Kevin Levin will turn our focus to the Civil War and the myriad and contentious ways that history and memory have created conflicting narratives about that event and its causes and legacy. In the afternoon, Professor Levin and Institute faculty will lead the Summer Scholars on a walking tour of Savannah’s National Historic Landmark District monuments, in order to engage a larger discussion of the memorialization of the Confederacy and what role monuments and historical markers play in teaching or preserving history. On Friday, June 16, Dr. Anne Sarah Rubin of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, will continue our discussion of controversial Civil War history with a lecture about how Americans have remembered General William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea, and the myths and legends that have grown up around it.

The second week will begin on Monday, June 19, when Dr. E.M. “Woody” Beck of the University of Georgia turns our attention toward the twentieth century by focusing on the Jim Crow era and the ways in which Americans have remembered and memorialized lynching.  On Tuesday, June 20, Dr. Karen Cox from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte will explore in depth the ways in which the American South has been portrayed in popular culture, and the ways in which the romanticization of southern culture has obscured harder truths about race in the region. On Wednesday, June 21, Summer Scholars will travel to Ossabaw Island, one of Georgia’s undeveloped barrier sea islands, accessible only by boat. Dr. Paul Pressly, director of the Ossabaw Island Educational Alliance, will lead the day’s activities, particularly a discussion about how slavery is remembered and taught on the island, through a visit to the archeological site of three existing tabby slave cabins and to Middle Place Plantation. On Thursday, June 22, our focus turns to the Civil Rights movement when Dr. Glenn T. Eskew of Georgia State University discusses how the movement and its opponents have been remembered and memorialized in public spaces across the country. On Friday, June 23, we will end the conference when all NEH Summer Scholars will gather for a group breakfast and discussion at that will be dedicated to discussing their individual perspectives on the activities of the two weeks and their presentation of pedagogical tools for implementing workshop resources in the classroom. Throughout the two weeks, there will be optional time in the afternoons for scholars to conduct individual research in GHS’s research center.  For a complete schedule, click here. For more about conducting research at the Georgia Historical Society, click here.

While lectures, discussions, and research will be conducted indoors, the Institute’s urban walking tours and Ossabaw Island excursion will take place in the heat of Savannah’s summer. You can reasonably expect very warm days (average June temperature in Savannah is 90 degrees with high humidity), potentially rainy afternoons, and flying insects of various kinds both in town and when we visit the islands. You’ll want to dress accordingly for both environments, and you will always want to wear comfortable walking shoes.


Each Institute Summer Scholar will receive a $2,100 stipend to assist with housing, meals, and incidental expenses.  Please note, the participant is solely responsible for costs incurred while attending the Institute and stipends are not to be considered as reimbursements of participant expenses. Summer scholars will receive one-half of the stipend when you arrive and the other half at the close of the Institute; participants are required to attend 100% of the program to receive the full stipend.  Those that do not attend all Institute sessions, including opening and closing sessions, will have their stipend prorated based on a daily rate formula.  Participant stipends are taxable income.

Savannah and the Lowcountry

Savannah is truly a national treasure!  The site of the founding of Britain’s thirteenth and final colony and one of the nation’s first planned cities, Savannah and its rich history are matched only by its unsurpassed beauty and charm.  The city boasts eight nationally recognized historic districts and thirty-five nationally recognized historic structures (eight of which are historic landmarks). In addition to stunning squares, historic sites, and local haunts, Savannah is home to countless artists and inspired chefs who delight the senses in galleries and restaurants throughout the city. Even in summer Savannah remains one of the most visited tourist attractions in the country, and the city is overflowing with charm, great food, beautiful architecture, and unique historic sites and cultural attractions. We think you’ll find it a wonderful place to visit, and we invite you to take advantage of all that it has to offer. Go to http://www.visitsavannah.com/ for more information.

In addition to walking tours of Savannah’s Historic Landmark District, we’ll also visit Ossabaw Island, six miles from Savannah.  The island is unique for several reasons: it possesses a peerless archeological site, well-preserved plantation records, the founding of a traditional African-American community on the coast, the connections of a barrier island with an urban center like Savannah, and illuminates the role of Northerners in shaping the coast of Georgia. Accessible only by a special pre-arranged ferry, the 26,000-acre island of salt marsh and maritime forest is a Heritage Preserve cared for by the Ossabaw Island Foundation.  In 1995, Ossabaw was listed on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered List and in 1996 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Ossabaw tells an important story about the African-American population of this region and its unique culture; some 205 African Americans (Census of 1860) lived on the barrier island and developed a culture that drew deeply on their African roots.  The landmark focal point revolves around three tabby slave cabins on the north end of the island, described by the state archaeologist as “one of Georgia’s most significant archaeological and historical sites.” The complex includes the cabins constructed ca. 1820-1840, an associated yard and field system, and rich archaeological deposits relating to African-American life dating to the pre-Revolutionary era. The tabbies have kept their original appearance and yet were lived in as late as the 1980s. The cabins offer the opportunity to tell three different stories: that of the enslaved workers of the colonial and antebellum periods, the freedmen of the second half of the nineteenth century and their struggle to carve out an existence for themselves in Reconstruction America, and the African-Americans of the twentieth century who lived on the island or in small communities on the mainland and came over to work.  Giving this story particular impetus is the fact that several families who live in Pin Point, Georgia (birthplace of Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas), five miles away by water, are descended from those who were on the island in the late nineteenth century.  The site visit to Ossabaw Island will include a tour of the archaeological site and a co-lecture by Dr. Paul Pressly, Director of the Ossabaw Island Educational Alliance, and Emory Campbell of the Penn Center, the preeminent institution for the study of Gullah culture.

Please join us!

Please note that at least five Institute spaces will be reserved for non-tenure-track/adjunct faculty members. Remember that your completed application should be postmarked no later than March 1, 2017. Successful applicants will be notified of their selection on Friday, March 31, 2017, and will have until Friday, April 7, 2017, to accept or decline the offer. Read more about complete eligibility requirements and application procedures.

Thank you for your interest! Please do not hesitate to contact us at nehinfo@georgiahistory.com if you have any questions or need additional information. We look forward to receiving your application and to seeing you in Savannah!