Each year the call goes up: “History is dying. Interest in the humanities is shrinking. Departments are withering.” Usually, around graduation time, this claim comes up in an article or two, each flaunting a different statistic of decline. In 2013, The New York Times ran a piece on the dethronement of history at Yale University. In 1991, it pointed out, more students majored in English and history than any other majors. By 2013, political science and economics had replaced them as students’ disciplines of choice.
For those students that remain, the elegiac tone in which authors often discuss history and the humanities produces a gnawing insecurity. What do we hope to do with our degrees? Why do we study and write about history?
For this author, tackling local history — the redheaded cousin to political, military or environmental history — only doubles the discomfort. But it also hones in on why history matters.
The summer before my sophomore year, I went home. I had not managed to secure an internship downtown, or even a job at a local camp, store or the like. So, to convince my parents and myself I was doing something productive, I volunteered with a local museum. The museum’s director — exactly the soft-spoken septuagenarian the words “local history” call forth — enlisted me to join a project. We were looking for slaves.
I’m not from the South. I’m from Farmington, Connecticut. It’s a steeple-town, founded by Puritans in the 1640s. Farmington didn’t have plantations, although natives lived along the town’s floodplain when settlers first arrived. So the project took me by surprise. But when we began looking, the results spoke for themselves. Scattered among official accounts of people’s possessions, between oxen, spoons, cloth and acreage, were names. Josiah Hart owned a man named Peter, to whom he would promise freedom and later swindle. James Wadsworth, whose descendants include Farmington’s state representative, bought a six-year-old girl, Candace.
My town was not immune to history. Neither, I learned, was our university, which sold 272 slaves downriver and named a building after Thomas Mulledy, the man responsible.
This place’s history both wounds and inspires. After all, Georgetown made a commitment to financial aid before it could afford it. Georgetown educated people of all creeds when religious persecution was the norm in American life. In the 1960s, students at Georgetown participated in protests during the civil rights movement. And in 2005, 25 students put their bodies on the line, hunger striking for 10 days to secure a living wage for Georgetown’s workers.
Some of Georgetown’s most powerful moral voices have emerged from suffering.
In 2000, David Shick died after a fellow student pushed him to the ground in the parking lot behind Lauinger Library, smacking his head on the concrete. A plaque in his memory offers the most basic admonishment: “Be kind.”
In 1991, Stephen Plumb returned to Georgetown to share his diagnosis of and struggle against AIDS. He expressed sadness that the university would not distribute condoms, which he saw as its obligation.
At the time, the debate around contraception at Georgetown raged with unusual ferocity; Students of Georgetown, Inc. had launched a failed attempt to sell condoms after the university failed to respond to the AIDS crisis. A year after two Georgetown students died of the disease, students admitted to the Georgetown Voice that they would be surprised to learn that anyone at Georgetown had AIDS. John J. DeGioia, then then dean of student affairs, had expressed impatience with students who thought the university should allow the sale of condoms on campus, explaining that, “‘[he could not] accept that the campus is really far removed from condoms, when they’re only an eighth-mile walk away… Nobody complains about walking to Dixie’s to get alcohol, but they can’t walk [the same distance] for condoms?”
Stephen Plumb’s remarks offered a stark rebuttal. “[Most] victims,” Plumb said, “aren’t proud of their disease, but at least they aren’t made to feel guilty about it.” Plumb died in 1992.
While administrators wrung their hands, AIDS was killing other Georgetown students. Of the four students who initiated a lawsuit against the university for its steadfast refusal to recognize a student group for LGBTQ students, citing its Catholic identity, three died of AIDS. The suit took 10 years to achieve its goal; meanwhile, Georgetown poured money into lawyers for the express purpose of discriminating against its own students.
I once read their obituaries. I have seen the lawsuit — the paper and ink with which they committed themselves to the fight. As a young man discovering and growing into his queerness, I found myself and community in those voices and pages. They demanded that my experience be already shot through with meaning.
Local history makes the proposal that all history makes with unusual force. It allows us to discover our best and worst selves. It insists that the past, like the present, happened to real people in meaningful ways, and that it made and is still making us.
So, explore, excavate and interrogate the past, your past. If you really look, I can tell you what you will find: the agonies and intimacies of history; the thousands of narrative lines that make and unmake each of us.
Matthew Quallen is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. This is the final appearance of Hoya Historian this semester.
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