I interviewed Keith S. Hébert, Ph.D.Associate Professor of History, Public History Program Officer, Auburn University
What got you interested in History and the field that you study?
I grew up in a county filled with historic buildings and sites associated with the American Civil War. Raised by a single mother, we did not have a great deal of money for travel, but we spent a lot of time on the weekends and holidays visiting regional state and national parks. I visited Chickamauga National Military Park many times as well as New Echota State Park and the Etowah Indian Mounds. When I was 8, my mother purchased a set of encyclopedias. I read those books daily. Although I am a historian, I am interested in a wide array of topics and encyclopedias exposed me to a broad base of knowledge. In the seventh grade, my teacher Ms. Hale showed us a film Nicholas and Alexandria–a drama that examined the rise and fall of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. From that moment on, I was hooked on Russian history. When I enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of West Georgia, I started out as a pre-medicine major but quickly changed to history because the university offered a broad range of Russian history courses. My senior year, I broke my leg trying to impress my French girlfriend. Due to my surgeries I had to drop a class and finish up my degree the following semester. The sole course available that summer was a Public History Internship which I completed at the Atlanta History Center. From that moment on, I knew that wanted to be a public historian because I enjoy sharing what I know with audiences both in and outside of the classroom.
Were you ever discouraged about your work?
Studying history was not something that my family understood. I come from a working class family. Just going to college was seen as a necessary step toward a career, but history was not the career path those closest to me envisioned. Overcoming their doubts and constant reminders that I could always become a nurse or lawyer rather than a historian was and remains hard. Most folks do not run into too many historians who make a good living and love what they do. I could not imagine doing anything else.
Have you traveled for your history work?
I have traveled across the United States for my work. Writing my first book on Bartow County, Georgia, I traveled to California for several weeks to research some archival papers related to my subject held in San Francisco. As someone who grew up in the rural South, being a temporary resident of San Francisco was one of the most enjoyable times in my life. Growing up without a lot of money and little opportunity for travel, my career as a historian has taken me to many places that I would have never had access to. For example, several years ago I got to interview President Jimmy Carter in his apartment in Atlanta. Years ago, I was part of an exhibit committee at the Atlanta History Center that included actor Sean Connery. A few years back, I was working on a project to preserve a historic monastery. The monks allowed me to live among them for a few days and to visit and photograph their most private places within their sanctuary. They had taken a vow of silence. The fact that I was able to stay silent for three days was quite a miracle. A few years ago, I got to hand out with historian Eric Foner, my favorite historian. I picked him up from the airport and hung out with him for three days!
Do you think that there is more to learn in your field?
Despite what other historians might think, there is still much to be discovered about the history of the American Civil War and Public History. Anyone who thinks the Civil War has been exhausted does not know what they are talking about. Anyone who think neither the Civil War nor Public History scholarship is not as rigorous and exceptional as work in their field is also delusion and deeply prejudiced. The Civil War offers scholars a chance to investigate in depth the intersections of race and class and regionalism in American history.
How do you think that history in today’s world is seen and do you agree with how it’s being treated?
I think most people are quite ignorant about the study of history. What passes for history on television and movies is abysmal and has fed our increasing ignorant society. We need history more than ever but unfortunately like everything else history, based on sound research and methods, has fallen victim to our nation’s poisonous political climate. When we live in a society that cannot come to an agreement that slavery was foundational to our nation’s past and as such continues to play some role in our contemporary race relations and society, I mourn for the small place that academic historians hold in American public discourse. None of this is surprising when we live in a society devoid of facts and distrustful of experts in all fields whether it be public health or climate change. History is no different.
What do you think should happen to monuments and statues that are taken down?
My thoughts on this topic have evolved quite a bit because of my interactions with Neo-Confederates over the years. In the past, I pleaded with Neo-Confederates to do a better job of contextualizing their monuments to tell a more complete version of history than the one they tended to present–the Confederacy had little to do with slavery and that it was a superior society defeated at the hands of an inferior society because of the latter’s greater resources and numbers–ie The Lost Cause. Neo-Confederates had generations to clean up their pitiful act but failed to do so. Now, there is great momentum to bring down monuments. I now find myself in support of those who wish to topple these relics of the past that offer nothing noteworthy about the Civil War but only reflect the lies told by generations of white southerners as part of the Lost Cause mythology–the lies that I was taught as a student growing up but later discovered were falsehoods. I would not mind seeing those monuments dumped into the Alabama River or Mobile Bay at this point. Their supporters had generations of time to clean up their act and to improve their interpretation of what scholars have been telling them for years. If they go into museums they need to include an accurate story of why they were erected in the first place and why their removal was seen as necessary by many in society.