A grant from President Brian Rosenberg has paved the way for the chairs of the history and American studies departments to offer a course that will take 15 students to the year-old National Museum of African American History and Culture over fall break next year.
The course, titled “Public Histories: African American Life—Past, Present, and Future,” will be jointly taught by professors Linda Sturtz and Duchess Harris. Students will be required to fill out a special application to register.
The class came together as a result of the museum’s opening.
“Duchess and I talk a lot anyway, and I think at some point — she can correct me on this, I’m sure she will — with the new African American Smithsonian opening up, [we decided] it was a really good time to think about public history and how it was being represented,” Sturtz said.
“Initially, we thought we could read articles and do archives and museums,” she continued. “But then we thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could actually go to the museum and have a tour?’”
Around that time, the prospective course benefited from a stroke of seemingly divine intervention.
On inauguration day, January 20, former history major Tsione Wolde-Michael ’08 was at Macalester to participate in a panel discussion. At this panel, Sturtz discovered that Wolde-Michael both worked at the museum and would be happy to lead a behind-the-scenes tour.
From there, the course came together quickly. “We had to figure out how we were going to pay for this, so we approached President Rosenberg, and he was excited about the prospect as well,” Sturtz said. “He came back a few days later and gave us the funding.”
That means that the visit to Washington D.C. over fall break will be free for students enrolled in the course. For Harris, that trip will be a particular highlight.
“I want students to have a guided tour of the Smithsonian that is dedicated to African American history,” Harris wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly. “The museum has been almost 100 hundred years in the making—the first idea for a museum focusing on African Americans was proposed by Civil Rights leaders in 1915.”
The museum has proven extraordinarily popular in its short life. Despite ordering tickets almost two months ago — nearly six months ahead of their trip — Sturtz and Harris could only purchase ten tickets for Friday and a handful of afternoon tickets for Saturday.
With the visit to the museum, the class will deal directly with public history, a renewed focus of the history department.
“I taught a public history class before — not here — but students love it,” Sturtz said. “Public history gives students a chance to think about how they might apply their historical knowledge to speak to a wider public.”
From an American studies perspective, public history can make for a powerful point of study.
“I want [us] to consider that American history has been told without the wrought-iron shackles used to restrain enslaved people coming to the Americas, the dress Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks was making the day she was arrested in 1955, and the Bulls jersey Michael Jordan wore during the 1996-1997 playoffs,” Harris wrote. “Those objects make American history.”
Along with a grant from the President’s office, the class was blessed financially in another way. “The college has a Mellon Grant right now to do digital humanities, and this will dovetail with that well,” Sturtz said.“All the pieces just came together. It wasn’t even a struggle to put it together. It was like it was meant to be.”