The Future of Public History

When I interviewed Dr. Rosengarten, I asked him, “do you think of yourself as a public historian?” He told me, “I don’t think of myself as a historian in the first place. I am an educator first.” And then he asked me, ““isn’t every history a public history?” I did not answer him at the moment. But is every part of history is public history?
When I tried to define public history, the first thing to jump out of my mind was not some museums, memorials, or something else. It was Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “of the people, by the people, for the people.” The history should be the same as a government. Every time I think of public history, it was always about people. For a public historian, the works should be about the people and for the people. The word “public” always comes first. And the public is the people. An ancient story about historians was told in the Zuo Zhuan, a Chinese narrative history written in the 400 B.C. The story was about a historian’s family stayed in truth for the history and the people. The story inspired me since I was a child, and when I writing history, I was always asking myself, who is my audience.
Community history should be a big part of the future of public history. And this community is not only a physical term. It was also meant the virtual community. Because of the internet, people who had the same interests can form their very own communities. Two people sitting apart from the world can communicate the same interests they had. One luckiest thing I have is I can communicate in Chinese, a language that has the largest online communities. It was always fascinating to find some online forums that were built for people who have the least popular hobbies. I did spend quite a time in a lot of different online communities, and in the last thirty years of internet history, a lot of interesting things happened that can be part of writing history. It can help people to learn from each other. But there are also some disadvantages of these online forums. It supposes be exists until the world ends (the Internet was designed for nuclear wars, so I guess it could last after the world end,) but the servers of these forums can be removed, shut down, or any other reason which can make them disappear forever. And unlike archives that can be stored in physical evidence, a shutdown forums meat most of the staff in the serve would disappear forever.
I believe for future public history, the method of transform the information would be more important than other things. Podcasts, Tiktoks could become the next tool for public historians to record and transmit history. It could be a new way of “writing” history. If public history is built on the memories people shared, then the memorials of social media are definitely would become part of history in the future.


I interviewed a graduate student from the aviation program in Auburn who is currently attending a master’s program for community planning. He is an example of people who faced a life-changing event in 2020, and a little part of history.

I asked about his daily life in the current situation, and what is the difference between his pre-pandemic life. He told me that this is the first time in his life that he is trying to pick up pens to draw something. He stared his pilot training since he was in high school, he usually flies five days a week before the pandemic, and now he says he is a “weekend warrior.” He complained to me how difficult for him to actually draw something in the studio and he is on a topic that he “knows nothing about it!”

We also talked about how technology played a role in this pandemic life, he told me now he is dependent more on it than ever before, all the classes, job interviews, and most importantly, for entertainment. He said usually his entertainment was fly his plane, which was how he spent most of his time before the pandemic. Now he sits at his apartment, got nothing to do for fun, and the internet is the only thing that prevents him “going crazy!”

Before the pandemic, his life plan to work for some airline company that he had internship with. And when the Covid-19 hit right before his graduation, he knew that in the least five years there will be no major airlines would hiring any new pilot, and he told me “if I can’t work, why don’t I get another degree?” So after a rush research, he applied to any Master program that has the lowest requirements, which in Auburn, it was the community planning. After a little waiting period, now he says, “it’s not a bad one.”

He told me that he used to have a great plan. He was a good pilot with enough experience to start as an entry-level commercial pilot in some small airlines. And now he is studying a degree that he never thought about it before.

COVID did change many things, some people got lucky, but it is a historical event that affected everyone’s life. For him, it may turn his life in a whole different direction; for me, I did witness how a big event changed a small life. We always talking about all these historical influences, all the big History, and oftentimes we would forget the small history. The Big “H” history is exciting, they are famous, eye-catching, those big news we having today would still be the big History in the future. But the small “h” history is also the past, it could be my friend’s story, a post on social media, they are not notable, and probably not very important to the world, but they are history. We are the small “h” history. Most of us would never be remembered by the rest of the world, and most small history probably would be buried after the time. But I think this could be the fun of studying public history, which is to dig out the small history.

Ask a Public Historian: Ted Rosengarten

Dr. Theodore Rosengarten is a writer, Professor of History at the College of Charleston,  he specialized in race relations, Holocaust studies, and environmental history and consulted with museums, municipalities, public schools, colleges, and universities on projects relating to African-American history, environmental studies, and the Holocaust, since the 1970s.  He is also the author of my all-time favorite book All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw. I met Dr. Rosengarten at the event of “The Life and Legacy of Ned Cobb” in 2019, and I felt it would be very interesting to interview him. After a long time of exchange emails, I finally had a face time interview with him, which was a wonderful experience.

Q: What is your first interest in history and what made you choose to be a historian?

A: I was born and spent my first ten years, in Brooklyn, NY, the years immediately after WWII and if ever a child could feel that history was happening all around him, this was the time and place.  The two big dramas I remember from childhood were 1-a flood of refugees arriving in the city, in the very apartment building where we lived, in the aftermath of the murder of the Jews in Europe.  Whatever had happened had not ended emotionally for the poor survivors.  The word Holocaust did not exist and it was difficult to conceptualize the mass murder of a whole people to whom I was somehow related    2-the breaking down of racial segregation in baseball which, at the time was the only major sport, that was happening three streets from where we lived, in Ebbets Field, where the Brooklyn Dodgers played (now the LA Dodgers) and where Jackie Robinson was single-handedly integrating baseball and America.  The story of the Jews and story of the Negroes—the respectable term for African Americans at the time—seemed to me, as a child, to be threads of a single story that now, seventy years later, I am still trying to unravel.

And another event was the 1963 black church bombing on 60th street gave me a reason to study African-American history.

Q: I KNOW WHEN YOU FINISHED YOUR Ph.D. AT Harvard university, public history was a very new field. Do you think of yourself as a public historian?

A: Public history is a very old field that has only recently gone by that name.  Cultures and societies that build memorials, that engage in cave and rock art, that preserve legacies in storytelling and song are practicing public history.  To the extent that I am a public historian I am first an educator, I try to bring the power of literacy and research into the open, in writing that anyone can read, in exhibitions of historical artifacts that speak to the imagination, in classrooms, museums, and at historic sites.  I think of myself as a writer, a historian, and an activist, particularly when it comes to social justice.

I think myself as a educator first, then is a historian.

Q: You’ve spent your career in and out of the university. How have you balanced academia and more public work?

A: I never tried to climb the academic ladder or sought a job with tenure.  As a lifelong adjunct instructor I’ve put my time on campus 100% into teaching, formally and informally.  And my time off-campus into writing and editing, political activism, public school reform, and coaching youth sports.  Dragging my two sons with me at every step along the way.

Q: I loved your book All God’s Dangers, but what is your personal favorite history book?

A: All God’s Dangers is the work I live with every day, fifty-one years after meeting Ned Cobb. Which history books other than my own are my favorites?  Let me name a few.  Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina, from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (1739), by Peter Wood. Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth-Century, by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall.  Sisters and Rebels: A Struggle for the Soul of America, by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall.  Throw in a handful of great European novels and you could lock me up in a room for a month with those books and bring me my meals.    

Q: I noticed you have done five city projects from 1998 to 2003, can you talk about some of your experiences in those projects, and what is your role in those projects?

A: I worked on a Marion Square project in Charleston, SC, which was one of my earliest city projects. Then there was the Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn, New York, it was a beautiful urban park near the Brooklyn Bridge and East River. I was the historian on the site which gave consultation to the architect and the design firm. Most of my job was to proved research information and gave advice. I currently working on a project in The Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II in Markowa, Poland.

Q: In your long career, what is the biggest challenge or the most faced challenge?  

A: The biggest challenge I have faced as a historian of race in America and the Holocaust in Europe is using what I know to help move the world in a certain direction.  Practically speaking, after having some success in bringing improvements to elementary and middle school education in our majority-black rural district, I was stymied, stopped cold, trying to introduce changes to the local high school that would have allowed me to send my children there.  

Q: You worked on the Governor’s school in College of Charleston for eight tears, what do you think about this summer program for the high school students, and what did you learn from teaching them?

A: The Governor’s School at the College of Charleston brought the state’s top rising high school seniors to campus for six weeks—later reduced to four—of college-level work where it was okay to be smart, creative, and contrary.   Students and teachers loved the experience.   We all learned so much.   I learned that the great Russian writer Tolstoy was not kidding when he wrote an essay in his later years called, “Should We Teach the Children to Write or Should They teach Us?”  Ending this amazing investment in human capital was a crime against the people of South Carolina.

 Q: What is your opinion of the BLM and other activist calls to bring down monuments?

A: I support without reservation non-violent civil disobedience against police brutality and all racially motivated violence against black people.  That, to me, is the essence of BLM.  On the question of what to do about monuments that glorify the Confederacy, or are perceived as instruments and reminders of white supremacy, well, I’m not sorry to see them come down but my preferred solution would be to leave them up and raise monuments next to them that creates a dialectic and commemorate resistance.     

Social Media, the new history classroom for Gen-Z

One of the biggest problems in the survey is most of the questions were out dated. Most of people do not read a book about past for personal pleasure. My roommate, who is a cs student, has no interest to read any books about any kind history. And for almost one year, the only “historical” movie he watched was the “1917” film I rented. It is easy to understand, what history or past can help him to develop a computer program. However, because of Twitter and TikTok, and the BLM movement now is taking all the headlight, he told me he did learn a lot of African American history in the past few months via all the short videos he watched on the social media. So from my experience, add a question like “where did you learn your history lessons” could be up to date. And I can guarantee many of the answers would be “youtube,” “Instagram,” “tiktok,” or any kind social media we may know or not know. And I will not surprise that very soon there will be people telling me “Soviet caused the WWII.” (From the recent Call of Duty trailer, I feel that can be happened very soon.)

From 2018 to 2020

Long before the Pandemic, the nationwide protesting, the chaos of 2020, removing Confederate monuments became a popular statement that protesters would make in all kind antiracism rally. One of the cases which left me the most memorable impression was the removal of the Confederate Monument in UNC, also known as Silent Sam. Like many other confederate monuments I have visited in the past, Silent Sam was vandalized multiple times before it was pulled down. This hundred and five years old monument was pulled down by protesters on the night of August 20, 2018. For the people on the rally, it is a symbol to “tear down UNC’s white supremacy.”

For all the confederate monuments across the United States, they are all facing the same problem, would they be the next monument on the removing list? I believe the deeper question about those monuments is this: is the confederate monument a historic artifact, or a political statement? I think instead of thinking do monuments belong in a museum, think do they have a place in the museum is better to suit the current environment we are living in. The study of history is not isolated from our political environment, the public opinion. And so far many people see those monuments as a symbol of racism and the failure of the system. In the past months, we have seen the painting of the BLM slogans on a lot of monuments, and many of them have been removed or vandalized during the riots.

I recently visited the Vicksburg national park which contains multiple confederate monuments. In some ways, those monuments belong to this public “museum.” But what worries me is if the people cannot stand one confederate monument on their public street, how can they be ok for more of the monuments stand on their public land?