Weaving Our Stories into the History of the Baltimore Uprising

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

Denise MeringoloToo often in the past, the history of protest and civil unrest was shaped by official accounts. They may capture the perspectives of police officers, government leaders, and even high-ranking activists. However, they inevitably leave out the perspectives of the very people who were directly affected by incidents of injustice, violence, or civil disobedience. These histories are incomplete. And this matters.

Historical accounts shape what we think we know about our country, our city, and ourselves. Incomplete accounts create profound misunderstandings about the past that have consequences in the present. More complete stories can help us empathize with one another, recognize systems of inequality, and address pressing social problems.

The response in Baltimore to the death of Freddie Gray is complex. On the one hand, it is part of a national trend. Across the country, frustration about police brutality toward African Americans has been growing.

At the same time, the events in Baltimore are local and specific. A long series of political and economic choices, public policies, and social transformations created deep inequalities in our city.

We have a responsibility to ensure that a more complete history of these events can be written. Public History students, faculty, and organizations from UMBC and around the city are joining forces to create a digital archive of the Baltimore Uprising. As we gather images, stories, videos, documents, and other materials, we will be able to create digital exhibitions that tell a more complete story about what happened here.

Help us.

Share your stories. Upload photographs. Show us what you’ve seen. Show us the sign you carried. Tell us what you witnessed. When were you there? Where did you stand? Your contributions will build our digital archive. Together, we will make sure the history of the Baltimore Uprising of 2015 can include voices from the streets as well as voices from the halls of government.

Contact the author, Denise D. Meringolo, at ddm@umbc.edu.

Teaching Power, Globally and Locally (BreakingGround TV)

Dinah Winnick is UMBC’s Director of Communications.

CommunicationsTeam-8262Since BreakingGround’s launch two years ago this month, I’ve had dozens of thought-provoking conversations with faculty and students working together to address real-world problems in ways that both educate and empower. Thanks to New Media Studio Director Bill Shewbridge and students in his TV production course, I’m delighted to now share two of those thought-provoking conversations.

In the first video, below, I interview assistant professor Lee Blaney, chemical, biochemical and environmental engineering, and Dalton Hughes, ’14, chemical engineering, about their Engineers Without Borders project in Isongo Kenya. In the second, I speak with associate professor Denise Meringolo, history, about her BreakingGround grant-funded course on supporting Baltimore communities through public history and digital storytelling.

1. Interview with Lee Blaney and Dalton Hughes


2. Interview with Denise Meringolo


Contact the author, Dinah Winnick, at dwinnick@umbc.edu.

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 ms@umbc.edu.

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 ddm@umbc.edu.

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 pousson@baltimoreheritage.org.

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 chelseah@umbc.edu.