Making History Public: A Virginia Example

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New York has many programs that promote public interest in, and understanding of, history. Their initiatives and accomplishments are often reported here on the New York History Blog. But readers of the Blog might be interested in taking a look at the work of Virginia historian Edward Ayers, former president of the University of Richmond where he now teaches history, as another example of how to deepen public understanding of history and bring history into public discussions.

Ayers established the new online site, BUNK HISTORY, profiled in this recent post here on the New York History Blog. The site features articles from the press and web sources presenting historical perspectives on current events.

He is one of the hosts and commentators on BackStory a radio show that provides historical perspectives on events in the news. BackStory is “more than facts and headlines,” says its website. “It’s about how the past has shaped who we are today.”

Ayers was one of the organizers of The Valley of the Shadow project, detailing life in two American counties, Franklin County, Pennsylvania, and Augusta County, Virginia, from the time of John Brown’s 1859 raid through the end of Reconstruction. The site, hosted by the University of Virginia, began in 1993 and was one of the first to present carefully selected and carefully organized digital source material to show the impact of the war on two very different communities, one in the north and the other in the south. It presents digital versions of letters, diaries, newspapers, government records, and church records from the two counties.

Ayers is also a prolific author. His book In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1864 (2005), drawing on The Valley of the Shadow project, traced the impact of the early years of the war on the people of Franklin County and Augusta County. His new book, published in October 2017, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, continues the story through Reconstruction. A concluding chapter, “The Past is Not Dead,” carries the story to 1902, including tracing how the war was recalled and commemorated in the two counties.

The work of Ed Ayers and his colleagues illustrates a number of things that might be of particular interest here in New York:

*The Valley of the Shadow project and the two books cited above illustrate imaginative ways to tie local and national history together. The new book is particularly good in that regard. It gets at the impact of the war on individuals and families in both counties. But there is also a more direct connection – Augusta County was the scene of fighting, and Franklin County includes the city of Chambersburg which was raided and mostly destroyed by Confederate forces in October 1862, an event which The Thin Light of Freedom describes in detail.

*The projects are multi-sponsored where appropriate. For instance, the University of Virginia hosts The Valley of the Shadow site and the University of Richmond hosts BUNK. BackStory has multiple sponsors including the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, an organization comparable to Humanities New York in our state.

* All of these projects are examples of “putting history to work” – drawing on history to achieve insights and perspectives. Ayers’ writings, while scholarly and well-researched, are written for a popular audience. He continues to contribute to public discussions, for instance, being interviewed on the issue of Confederate statues in August 2017.

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Bruce Dearstyne

About Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne served on the staff of the New York State Office of State History and the State Archives. He was a professor and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and has written widely about New York history and occasionally writes about New York history issues for the “Perspective” section of the Sunday Albany Times Union. Bruce is the author of two books published in 2015: The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History (SUNY Press) and also Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning and Advocacy for the Digital Age (Rowman and Littlefield and the AASLH). He can bereached at

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