Baltimore Revisited: Social History for the Twenty-First Century City

Nicole King is associate professor and chair of UMBC’s Department of American Studies.

Nicole King - SquareIn fall 2014, Kate Drabinski (Gender & Women’s Studies) and I co-taught UMBC’s first-year Humanities Scholars seminar, which focused on Baltimore’s social history. It was a great semester of introducing students to the rich history of our city and bringing them downtown to do research and interviews. At the end of the semester, students’ work aired on The Marc Steiner Show (WEAA 88.9) in the form of the public humanities radio show “Downtown Stories.”

Kate Drabinski and I have used The Baltimore Book: New Views on Local History in our classes for years and realized that nearing twenty-five years in print this invaluable text needed an update. That realization led to a panel at the 2015 Chesapeake American Studies Association (CHASA) conference at UMBC with past editors and contributors to The Baltimore Book along with local professors who use the text asking: What would a “new” Baltimore Book look like? Now we are working to make such a book for researchers and teachers interested in making the social history of Baltimore a reality.

Baltimore Revisited: Social History for the Twenty-First Century City will draw from a wide range of researchers inside and outside of the academy to tell the stories of how and why Baltimore looks and functions as it does today. We are specifically looking for heavily researched pieces written in an accessible voice that can offer new perspectives on the city’s social history grounded in the specific places, neighborhoods, and communities in Baltimore. Each chapter could stand alone, but together, they will offer a newer vision of local history from the ground up to complicate our view of the past, as well as the present.

It has been over twenty years since Linda Shopes, Elizabeth Fee, and Linda Zeidman published The Baltimore Book: New Views of Local History with Temple University Press. The book broke new ground, telling histories of Baltimore City not from the perspective of the Great Men of the city—the robber barons, war heroes, and politicians—but from the perspective of groups traditionally marginalized from mainstream history: workers, activists, organizers, and agitators. Growing out of a radical history bus tour, The Baltimore Book was also unique in embracing voices from inside and outside the academy, resulting in an accessible and beautifully illustrated book that still claims a broad readership today.

While The Baltimore Book is still a relevant text, it is time for a twenty-first century version of this project, one that continues the path started in 1991 while harvesting new histories from “The Greatest City in America.” The historical time frame for this book will cover a wide range of eras, from the 18th century when Baltimore’s industrial prominence was on the rise to the city’s current period of deindustrialization. The 2015 Baltimore Uprising further illustrated that the city of Baltimore is an important subject for analyses of the deeply embedded structural inequalities and the great tenacity and potential of the city in the twenty-first century. Baltimore Revisited will address the past in the guise of informing a better future for Baltimore and other urban centers in the US and beyond.

Submissions are invited from a diversity of disciplines—not just history—such as: American Studies, Gender and Women Studies, Public History, Historic Preservation, Local History, Human Geography or Architecture, Comparative Ethnic Studies, Urban Studies or other similar fields. Chapters should be between 2,000 – 6,000 words (small and longer articles are fine), excluding references. Please email 500-word abstracts and/or completed papers and a CV to and by September 1. Authors will be notified of acceptance of proposed chapters by October 1 with full draft of the chapters to editors by spring 2016.

We are excited to work on making a text that will do justice to the many complex and compelling stories of our city. We are revisiting the social history of Baltimore because we believe the city is the engine of the future, and our future is always connected to understanding our past.

Contact the author, Nicole King, at

What Remains? Baltimore Neighborhoods in Transition (9/19)

Michelle Stefano, folklorist in residence for UMBC’s department of American studies, coordinates the Maryland Traditions program for the Maryland State Arts Council.

Michelle StefanoWhat are the impacts of post-industrial change at the community level? Whether industrial landscapes – the temples to the long-standing and once thriving US manufacturing enterprise – are re-purposed or destroyed, what lives on in the hearts and minds of those who knew them best?

The decline, dismantling, and disappearance of the many industries across the US deeply affects the towns, cities, and regions in which they were situated and the local communities with which they were intimately related. I believe understanding the effects of these post-industrial transitions, especially with respect to the relationships between community and place in both historical and contemporary contexts, is key to ensuring economically, environmentally, and culturally sustainable futures for American communities.

Sparrows Point 3

(Photo: UMBC New Media Studio)

Nonetheless, when we hear about these stories of plants, mills and factories closing, it is often through the language of economics; statistics reflecting jobs lost, the rise in unemployment and the crumbling of local businesses tend to mask the more personal, or human, elements of such change. In this light, the panel, What Remains? Baltimore Neighborhoods in Transition (Thursday 9/19, 4:30 p.m., Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery) seeks to spotlight the stories and memories – the intangible remnants of post-industrialization – of the communities of two historically interrelated and, yet, geographically separate areas: Baybrook, a group of six ethnically and racially diverse industrial neighborhoods in the southern peninsula of Baltimore City and the Sparrows Point Steel Mill area of Dundalk, situated just across the southwestern city border in Baltimore County. The lives of hundreds of thousands of Baltimore area residents (and beyond) have been shaped by these industrial centers, and the significance of them – from the personal and shared perspectives of those who knew them best – does not disappear as quickly.

(Photo: UMBC New Media Studio)

(Photo: UMBC New Media Studio)

Panel participants are both UMBC researchers and members of the Baybrook and Sparrows Point Steel Mill communities. Deborah Rudacille (English), who grew up in Dundalk, will reflect on the changes she has seen in the Sparrows Point area, drawing also from her oral history research for the book, Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town. Steve Bradley (Visual Arts) and Nicole King (American Studies) will discuss their work in Baybrook, funded in part through the BreakingGround initiative, focusing on the mapping of places of both historical and contemporary importance, as well as the stories and memories associated with them. Bill Shewbridge (Media and Communication Studies/the New Media Studio) and I will highlight our work in the Sparrows Point area, Mill Storiesa collection of digital stories that aim to amplify the voices, experiences, and importance of the Mill to a wider public. Community members include Jason Reed, who is involved with environmental justice projects in Baybrook, and Troy Pritt and Eddie Bartee, who worked at Sparrows Point for numerous years. Eddie is a third generation Sparrows Point steelworker who grew up in the company town, which was situated in the middle of the Mill complex and was razed in the 1970s. Denise Meringolo (History), whose research has focused on community-based public history practice, particularly in Baltimore, will moderate the discussion.

Contact the author, Michele Stefano, at

In the Archives: Creating ‘Free Hour’

Lindsey Loeper ’04, American Studies, is an archivist at UMBC’s Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery.

Lindsey LoeperI believe understanding our shared history enables and empowers us to work together to build the UMBC of our hopes. “In the Archives” is my series highlighting the ways people have co-created this campus and its traditions.

In response to my very first “In the Archives” post, UMBC staff member Delana Gregg suggested that I write about the history of UMBC’s Free Hour, the hour without scheduled classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. That struck me as a strange idea, because the free hour is, at face value, a gap in the schedule; the real story, it seemed to me, was what took place during free hour: the club meetings, rehearsals, brainstorming and creative work. But as it turns out, free hour has a fascinating story of its own.

TRW19700324_01.pdfIn 1970, a group of students formed a Student Union to address what it called the “power structure” of the university, and provide an alternative to SGA as a source of direct action and advocacy. “Participants in the ‘movement’, as many have called it, are free to work within or around the system, or to provoke the system’s leaders into a direct confrontation. Everyone is responsible to himself; no one claims responsibility to anyone else” (The Retriever, March 24, 1970: page 3).

The Student Union held widely-attended meetings, protested what they viewed as unfair restrictions on the student literary magazine, and submitted three requests to the Faculty Senate. The first: independent groups should have the right to solicit on campus (they did, and still do). The second and most controversial: abolish the student activity fee (the Faculty Senate initially approved the request, but the fee remains in place). The third: establish a free and unscheduled hour for student assembly, organization, and advising (request granted).

[Read more…]

Beyond Formal Politics: Scholarship as Civic Engagement

Denise Meringolo is an associate professor of history and director of public history at UMBC.

Denise Meringolo, UMBCRecently I clicked on a link titled, “Civic Engagement in the Digital Age,” and found myself reading the latest in a series of reports produced by the Pew Research Center as part of its Internet and American Life Project. Project researchers have been tracking the expansion of what they term “civic engagement” in social media. The most recent report notes a significant increase in the number of Americans using social media to promote a political issue, encourage voting, communicate with an elected official, or address a political problem (from 3% of adults in 2008 to 12-17% in 2012).

The study encompasses both passive forms of engagement (following a political figure or liking a page dedicated to a particular cause or issue) and active forms of engagement (posting links to political stories). But Pew’s understanding of “civic engagement” does not appear to extend beyond engagement with formal politics. In fact the term “political engagement” often appears as a synonym for “civic engagement” in Project reports.

I think of civic engagement more expansively. As a public historian, I practice history as a form of public service. Like the vast majority of my colleagues, I work collaboratively with various organizations and individuals for whom a more nuanced understanding of the past can have immediate, practical applications for establishing a viable community identity, understanding the roots of a pressing problem, or adding a sense of authenticity to a neighborhood or landscape. In my field, we use the term “civic engagement” to describe the value of collaborative, community-based historical work. This expansive perspective also permeates UMBC’s BreakingGround initiative, which recognizes that community engagement might transcend formal politics and that research from a variety of fields and disciplines can have immediate, practical applications.

As I read the Pew report, I wondered: How many of the 39% of American adults who use social media have “liked” a particular museum? How many have posted information about a local arts event? How many have encouraged the members of their network to read a new work of fiction? Arguably, actions like these can shape a sense of shared identity and community.

As engaged scholars, then, it seems we must more actively and critically define what it is we hope to accomplish by putting our work in service to the community. What behaviors do we imagine when we use the term “civic engagement?”

Contact the author, Denise Meringolo, at

This Week: Mill Stories — Refreshments (and Laughter) Guaranteed!

Mill Stories

Collector of Stories

Jennie Williams ’14, American Studies, is a UMBC resident assistant, Sondheim Public Affairs Scholar and Undergraduate Research Award Scholar.

Jennie WilliamsI enrolled in American Studies 422: Preserving Places Making Spaces in Baltimore last fall because I was interested in taking part in a class where I could get involved in meaningful and original research. Dr. Nicole King, who was both the instructor and my academic advisor, encouraged me to take the class in order to broaden my technical skills. But I was also attracted by the course’s orientation to social action. With the Mapping Baybrook project, we were not just going to be collecting data, we would be making a civic contribution in partnership with Baybrook residents.

Baybrook is the conjunction of Curtis Bay and Brooklyn of south Baltimore. It was once rich with immigrant culture and thriving family businesses, but is now mostly overcome by invasive industry among the surviving residential areas. The goal of our class has been to collect the memories of community members, helping to preserve the community through their stories. For our individual projects, my classmates and I decided to choose businesses along the main streets of the community to investigate their history and impact through oral history interviews. [Read more…]

From the Archives: Giving Tradition

Lindsey Loeper ’04, American Studies, is an archivist at UMBC’s Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery.

Lindsey LoeperIdeally the months leading up to a student’s graduation contribute to a sense of accomplishment and momentum in pursuing life goals. Maybe your thoughts turn to your relationship with your university: How has it shaped you, and how did you successfully shape your experience and your campus community?

Maybe those thoughts inspire you to make a financial contribution to your class legacy. Class gifts are a way of making a difference for future generations following in your wake. Often these gifts take the form of a physical artifact, like the Testudo statute at College Park, donated by that university’s Class of 1933.

The first senior project that I can locate in UMBC’s history is from 1970. The class of 1970 is often referred to as the Founding Class, because the graduates were the first group to complete all four years of their degree at UMBC. As in the origin stories of many of our campus traditions, UMBC students decided to forge their own path. During the Spring [Read more…]

What Would I Do? How Do I Live Out My Values?

Theodore S. Gonzalves is associate professor and chair of UMBC’s Department of American Studies.

Theodore GonzalvesThe BreakingGround initiative is has turned out to be a wonderful platform for the kind of learning community I’m interested in helping to foster.

I first started teaching a course on the history of U.S.-based social movements when I was offering American Studies classes in Honolulu. Over the years, scholars and activists have had to fight to get the histories of various social justice and anti-colonial movements onto college and university campuses. At one point in our nation’s life, it was novel to think about the specifics of a history from below — by people who rarely leave behind archives or who have stories written about them — histories like the African American freedom movement, or the struggles waged at Stonewall, or by Latino students in the Southwest, or by Asian Americans protesting the Vietnam War. [Read more…]

Explore Baltimore Heritage: Public History in Action

Eli Pousson is a field officer at Baltimore Heritage in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Eli PoussonThanks to a BreakingGround-funded course this past fall, Baltimore Heritage enjoyed a unique opportunity to work closely with Dr. Denise Meringolo and nine UMBC students in the course Practices in Public History. The students worked with us to develop short video documentaries on the stories of Baltimore’s historic landmarks for our new website and smartphone application, Explore Baltimore Heritage. The student videos — produced with support from the UMBC New Media Studio — share images and vignettes from the history of grave-robbing at Davidge Hall, the ignominious demise of Edgar Allen Poe and his burial at the Westminster Burying Ground, and the complicated past of urban renewal at Baltimore’s First Mariner Arena.

Baltimore Heritage is dedicated to promoting historic preservation and neighborhood revitalization in neighborhoods across the city and we’ve campaigned for preservation on the west side of downtown Baltimore for over a decade. When we first started working with Dr. Meringolo and her public history students in spring semester of 2012, we developed a project that allowed students to build on on our existing research and tell new stories about historic places like the Baltimore Bargain House or Hutzler’s Department Store with writing and archival photographs. When Dr. Meringolo offered us the opportunity to continue working with her students into the fall, we settled on an ambitious goal: use the wealth of historic photos from local archives to tell stories with short videos. Fortunately, several of the students from the spring semester collaboration decided to continue with the second course and brought valuable expertise on the history of downtown Baltimore to this new challenge.

It has been exciting observe how the students have gained a new perspective on the role of public history in the often political and messy debates around economic development and preservation in an urban downtown. For Baltimore Heritage, the partnership has greatly extended the capacity of our small two-person non-profit and enabled us to expand the featured buildings on Downtown’s West Side.

Please enjoy these great videos on YouTube, check out Explore Baltimore Heritage online, or download the iPhone or Android application today!

Contact the author, Eli Pousson, at

West Side Stories

Chelsea Haddaway Williams is a communications manager in UMBC’s Office of Institutional Advancement.

Chelsea Haddaway WilliamsLast Wednesday I got to be in the room as the students in “West Side Stories,” a BreakingGround-funded public history class, presented their final projects. I was familiar with the concept of the class – it was the follow-up to a class last semester that I wrote about for UMBC Magazine – but I was excited to see the students’ final projects, videos about buildings on the West Side of Baltimore, and see how the grant from BreakingGround had changed how the participants thought about their work.

Denise Meringolo, associate professor of history, introduced the videos by telling everyone that “public history is about engaging the community in the practice of history.” I thought this was a great way to describe the purpose of the class, and that this idea aligned really well with the values of BreakingGround. It was clear throughout the presentations that Professor Meringolo and her students didn’t see themselves as the gatekeepers of history, but rather as partners with the communities whose stories they were telling.

The videos were impressive and interesting, giving the story of everything from vaudeville at the Hippodrome, to body-snatching at the University of Maryland Medical School, to the controversy surrounding the construction of First Mariner Arena. They were created to be used by local preservation organization Baltimore Heritage as part of their walking tours app, and I could easily imagine them playing on iPhones as people stood before the buildings that inspired them.

After the videos were over, the students got into a really interesting discussion about “ownership” and how it can lead to social change. There was lots of joking about the fact that, now that these students had studied these buildings for a semester or two, they thought of them as “their” buildings.  But that joking soon segued into a conversation how public history can inspire a sense of ownership, which can lead to increased engagement. After all, if people know more about a place’s past (whether it’s their own neighborhood or one they’re just visiting), they’ll be more likely to invest in its future. The students – some of whom had grown up in Baltimore, some of whom had moved here only recently – all said they felt more engaged with the community as a result of working on these videos, and hoped the people who watched them would feel more connected to the West Side.

A psychology professor said to me recently, “sometimes it’s necessary to look to the past in order to move forward.” Clearly, this is something that the public historians enrolled in “West Side Stories” understand, and something that is important for all agents of social change to remember.

Contact the author, Chelsea Haddaway Williams, at