Auburn University and Needed Change


            Being relatively new to Auburn and Auburn University, I did not know much about the campus other than the University owned a few plantation homes. Walking the campus during my first couple months here, I made connections to some of the names of buildings such as Comer Hall and the Graves Amphitheater. Other than being former Alabama governors, I knew B.B. Comer’s history of child labor at his Avondale Mills company and use of convict labor and of David Graves’s leadership within the KKK. Finding these names on buildings, especially that of Graves, proved an enormous surprise to me. Campuses throughout the country have buildings named for less than pure historical figures, but the experience of seeing it at my own university put into perspective the breadth of this issue. Through learning of names I didn’t recognize on buildings, I found that Auburn University should undertake a task to rename some of these buildings named for people who committed especially atrocious acts of inhumanity.

            Aside from buildings, another marker of history I noticed was the Civil War cannon lathe next to Samford Hall. This massive piece of machinery placed out in the open and under the weather elements not only shows the University’s attachment to Civil War history, but that they don’t value this artifact. Having the lathe here itself isn’t a problem, but I think it should be stored somewhere inside, with proper signage to explain the machine’s use and why it came to Auburn University. Its location now is often overlooked and the machine will eventually rust beyond repair.

            Overall, I truly believe that Auburn University has a history that should be expressed in place of names of prominent Alabama Confederates and white supremacists. Alumni and scholars who have gone on to complete great academic or humanitarian work could easily replace the names of Comer, Graves, and others on buildings. This symbolic act would create a more inclusive university experience as well as show that Auburn is a university willing to grow and adapt to change.

Reflecting on Avondale Park

Avondale Park, 2020

            I visited Avondale Park in Birmingham for my landscape documentation. This park, and its surrounding neighborhood, is a landscape extremely familiar to me. I have sat here and observed on many occasions, but during this reflection, I attempted to observe the park, the people there, and how it felt without thinking of what I already know of the landscape. Despite my attempts to take a fresh look at the park, there remains a strong sense of place here for me because of my many hours here. I find familiarity in the sounds of people walking, ducks in the pond, and the traffic nearby. The woods and the pond create a smell of moss, dirt, and algae that surrounds the area. Very little has changed in the park since I started visiting it a few years ago, so a strong sense of familiarity, continuity, and comfort remains here.

            When I first walk up to the park today, I took note of the large, metal sign reading “Avondale Park” visible from the entrance. It sits in front of the pond, the focal point of the park. Surrounding the pond, there is an amphitheater, library, and baseball field. The park during these morning hours is quiet with only a few visitors other than myself. I see a couple walking quickly around the sidewalk that circles the pond, a man running with his large dog, and a woman sleeping on a bench near the pond. The front of the park gives the impression of community and recreation as its primary use and from the back, the amphitheater and the stage show that entertainment is another use of Avondale Park.

            Thinking on my visit, one of my first reflections is that Avondale Park remains a unique space within the city. Its location farther from the city center, away from the skyscrapers and corporate buildings, which allows for a sense of place more like a small community park than a planned city park. Another reflection I had focused on the history of the park. Only one historic marker in the park contextualizes any importance of the park. This marker, located off the trail in the very back of the park, discusses the now blocked natural spring that drew people to the area in the 1800s. The history and the importance of the park overall is lost to visiting people who don’t know the history. Historic markers could add so much to the space by telling the story of the zoo once there and the work done by the Friends of Avondale Park to rejuvenate the park for the community. Even the tall sign reading “Avondale Park” mimics the font and design of the Avondale Zoo sign once standing. This would transform the park from just a place of recreation and entertainment to one of known historical importance.

Material Culture – Object Biography

Jewelry Box, American, ca. 2010-2020

Jewelry Box

American, ca. 2010-2020

Beads and Felt

Twenty-first century beaded jewelry box featuring silver, white, and blue beadwork. Dimensions are approximately 2 ½ in. x 1 ½ in.

This square jewelry box features small, silver beadwork along the base and sides and a more ornate beaded detail on the lid with navy blue and white beads arranged into a simple geometric pattern. The beads vary from small spherical shapes to longer cylindrical shapes. Along the edges, square metal colored beads create a border. The top is removable and inside the box features smooth black felt. It was produced approximately 2017 and was mass produced, likely in China, for commercial distribution.

This jewelry box is found in my bedroom and functions as a place to store and protect jewelry such as rings and necklaces when not in use. Its more ornate design also features as a decoration within my bedroom and a reminder of when and by who it was given to me.

 It fits into the cultural pattern of women wearing jewelry and the many variations that can be found in the size of individual collections. For me specifically, it shows that while I do wear jewelry, I only own a small amount and an even smaller amount I consider valuable enough to protect within the small box. While the box itself is of little monetary value, the contents are more telling of me as a person. It generally holds my engagement ring, a necklace given to me, and my grandmother’s wedding rings. Someone looking into the jewelry box would be able to see things that I value such as the sentimental value of a present and even more importantly my grandmother’s rings show my attachment to a lost family member. This in itself shows a jewelry box as a larger cultural indicator because often the contents are more valuable than the box itself.

Reflection on COVID Interview

Interview Completed on September 19, 2020

            After completing this interview, I reflected on the answers and their deeper meaning. One of my first thoughts was that COVID and this pandemic as a whole holds different meanings for everyone. For example, I interviewed an academic, somehow who looks at the bigger picture behind events or decisions. Their interpretation often holds a lot of pessimistic views, so questions such as asking about hurdles they faced during this period proved difficult to answer and resulted in some agitation in tone. The answer I received to asking about hurdles was, “Jobs. The capitalist system sucks and this pandemic proves that it needs to be completely overhauled. You have people with advanced degrees who can’t find work and have to volunteer their labor in hopes of making connections that will lead to pay. Free labor is a joke. It completely shakes your confidence and makes you second guess what you want to do in life. Mentally, this has been horrible.” For others, hurdles may have been simpler such as missing the simplicity of our day-to-day lives prior to the pandemic, but neither answer is less valid.

            Another thought I had with completing this interview focused on the role of media. I would argue that everyone believes media has played a role in the pandemic, but the split is on whether this role has been positive or negative, or even a combination of both. I asked my interviewee, “What are your impressions of the media coverage of the pandemic, both currently and before it arrived in the United States?” For this, I tried not to bring my own answer into this question by asking in a certain tone. The answer given was, “It’s not the media handling things poorly, except for some. It’s our leaders who aren’t making good decisions for the nation as a whole. Media is just easy to blame. International coverage before it arrived, I think, did a decent job, but no one really knew what we were in for. Now people essentially think the pandemic is over and ignore updates and information media tries to provide.” This answer, I believe, shows part of the great divide in interpretation currently in the United States. It does provide some balance in blame pushed on the media, but seemed the not answer the question fully. In retrospection, this is the question I asked that I believe most needed a follow up question. The answer was not specific enough to gage the meaning.

            Overall, I believe the interview successfully answered my questions and showed how the pandemic has personally impacted people. It also showed how within one interview, tone can change fluidly with the types of questions asked. To me, this also demonstrates how transcripts of interviews can lose aspects of the interview in comparison to listening.

Ask a Public Historian – Ty Malugani

Sloss Furnace, Birmingham, AL

Ty Malugani – Education Coordinator for Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark,

1) What led you to the job you have now?

I have always been interested in history and I came to Birmingham to get my degree at UAB. I had never really been here before, so I started visiting sites around the city including Sloss and I just fell in love with the place. During my, I think my Junior year, I did an internship at Sloss and started giving tours and getting to know the site. I then volunteered, and then did another internship during the master’s program, and then volunteered again. When the job opened up, I just sort of jumped at it.

2) Did you always want to do public history over academic history?

That’s a good question. No, I didn’t know at all. It was one of those things, where I grew up going to museums and I loved it. Throughout school, I wanted to be a high school history teacher because I thought of all the terrible history teachers I had. Then I got to UAB and through teaching as a TA and just being there I thought maybe being a college professor, but after experiencing public history I saw that I could teach kids, but not all the time. I could teach and be involved in other things. Public history could give me bits of everything I liked. So, not until my master’s did I sort of buy into this idea of public history.

3) What is your favorite project you’ve done at any site you’ve worked at?

As weird as it sounds, and I know it’s weird, but probably cataloging all of the Birmingham postcards at the Vulcan. That is where I found that I liked working with artifacts and touching the history. Also at Oak Hill I got to develop the accession system and worked on accessing the books, which hadn’t been done there yet. For Sloss, I currently am working on developing virtual tours and stuff like that and it’s really, really fun. But, the Vulcan project is one of my favorites when I think about it. I found I lived developing systems and being hands on and organizing stuff even if it’s a lot of just sitting on a computer and entering data. It can be pretty fulfilling. I thought of the night tours at Sloss, too, but those can get pretty corny, so yeah, I think just the cataloging.

4) What are the pros and cons of your job?

As far as the pros go, to me, like I said, I really like being able to teach, but not all the time. I get to work on other things. I get to have my hands in all kinds of things, teaching kids, developing programs, continuing research, handling artifacts. To me, working in a museum is basically like being able to do what I think is the full scope of history, which is all of those things. There is also the constant challenge of having to figure out how to best portray information to the public, but this is also a con. The public has to understand on their own, without me there to explain to them, what I am trying to get across. And of course, that Sloss isn’t just a haunted place. It’s a museum with real history. Also when I come up with programs, there has to be funding and especially now that’s even more difficult with a tight budget. I have to figure out how to make programs cost effective. Oh, and with teaching you get breaks, with museums, especially when I am working on a new project, I get calls constantly, so It becomes pretty time consuming.

5) What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into public history?

Volunteer, intern, volunteer, intern, volunteer. You have to get your foot in the door. It’s somewhat unfortunate, but museums require so much experience to get a job, so you have to get to these places and make yourself known. In Birmingham, I wanted a job so I spent time at all the sites volunteering. You also need to network, when you put that application in for a job, you want them to already know who you are. You have to put yourself out there. This is what worked for me.

Presence of the Past, Surveying my Mom

Using the Presence of the Past Survey questions, I interviewed my mother who has about an average level of exposure to history. My first impressions were that the survey does well in being clear and concise, but it proved a difficult survey due to the writing of the questions. Usually, questions should give the interviewee the opportunity to speak and carry the question in a way that gives more information, but some of these could be answered with just “no,” halting conversation. This could be more or less problematic depending on who is being interviewed, however. I also found them to be out of date, but with some updating to account for new ways of interacting with history through technology, digital exhibits, etc., the survey could be greatly improved.

Overall, this survey does provide a useful sample of information about how often or in what ways individuals interact with the past. For example, if I use my mother’s answers as an indication of how I should guide an exhibit or even what kinds of historical sites she would most enjoy, I would focus on more modern sites that utilize technology and video rather than just text and objects.

Looking back over the questions and answers I received, I generally found the questions related to the trustworthiness of the past to be the most effective. In this section, one question that could easily be added to help modernize the questions would be, “How trustworthy do you think social media posts on history generally are?” We often see “history” shared through social media sites, regardless of its validity, so this question would provide a good indication of current attitudes towards that. Even though I was not surprised by my mother’s answers, I think in a normal survey situation where I wouldn’t know who I am surveying, these questions can give the best indication of how people perceive history and the most impactful modes of delivery. Everyone learns and interprets differently, so a sample of these questions could provide valuable information on how people think about and internalize the past.

First Experience interacting with Public History

Every summer, my mother would drive my younger brother and I from Mississippi to Ohio. This drive took us through Birmingham, a city a read about, but never visited before living there years later. My mother agreed to a stop at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute one of these summers. This became an extremely memorable experience for me because at the time, I was in middle school, and I read and studied the Movement, but never visited the city where much of the scholarship focused.

Monuments – Symbols of Hate or History?

In considering what should be done with monuments in the present, hostile environments toward what many perceive as symbols of hate, a case by case decision process seems to be the only thoughtful methodology. Competing factors such as public versus private land, local political power in the hands of liberal or conservative interests, and laws banning removal of statues create obstacles in even broaching these issues in many areas. For example, in Birmingham, Alabama the removal of the Confederate obelisk near city hall and the courthouse after protests and significant damage prompted the state’s Attorney General to threaten hefty fines for removing the monument. But at what point do citizens’ desires to change their local narrative overrule these antiquated laws?

In the case of the Confederate General and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, the statue depicting him in Memphis was removed in 2017 while another cartoonish caricature of him remains protected in Nashville on private land. Complete removal, however, creates a missed opportunity for education and contextualization. There is much to be learned from the time period a statue was commissioned and by who as there is from the statue itself. For example, free blacks in Wilmington, North Carolina created a community for themselves and successfully integrated into local politics. After blacks were violently pushed from the city in 1898 through intimidation, lynchings, and voter suppression, white supremacist rule retook the city. Multiple Confederate monuments were erected in the coming years, retaking the town unequivocally for whites.

Nashville Statue of KKK Founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, Vandalized

By simply removing statues from places like Wilmington, this important dialogue would be completely lost. Relocation from public, government grounds, however, remains imperative. Museums and battle fields become appropriate settings for relocation, where contextualization can provide insight into the who, what, and why of each monument. New plaques can be placed with these statues indicting their original location and give readers information on why it came to its new location. These removals will take these monuments out of a spotlight for celebration and into an environment of reflection.