New Book Battles Old Ways of Telling Germantown’s History

October 17, 2019 | by Kimberly Haas


For generations, interpreters of Germantown’s history failed to tell the whole story, especially when it comes to representing the African American community. The historic identity of the neighborhood has been largely dominated by the 1777 Battle of Germantown. In the 1940s, efforts were made to create a Philadelphia version of Colonial Williamsburg. Faced with a financial imperative—change or die—Germantown’s historic sites began devising public history programs to engage the community and expand the narrative of the neighborhood. That process has been documented by author and public historian David W. Young in his new book, The Battles of Germantown: Effective Public History in America, published this month by Temple University Press. Young, a Germantown resident and former director of historic sites there, sat down with Kimberly Haas to discuss lessons learned in figuring out how to represent the full history of the neighborhood.


Kimberly Haas: Definitions of “public history” usually depict it as being directed from historians to the public. By contrast, I’d describe your vision of effective public history as circular, with historians and the public informing each other. 

David Young: History is not just a topic, but a method, and public history is its own brand of method. Effective public history is open to understanding our own biases in the method. It involves the extension of one’s personal interest in the past, which can be subjective and highly individualized and often written and read in isolation. Effective public history extends that personal interest to a larger social context, shaped by encounters with other peoples’ perspective on the past. Ideally, it brings things around to a more holistic look. 

A metaphor I’ve used is if you’re looking at a beach ball by yourself, you only see a few colors, but if you bounce it around among other people, you get a better sense of the whole. 

KH: It seems like one of the changes from the way historic sites were previously set up is a change of viewpoint to consider “Whose history?” and “Who gets to decide?”

DY: Yes. When you include the public, it offers the ability to craft experiences of the past, including dialogue about it, with people who may not agree with you. The listening exposes you to multiple authorities, creating a shared authority.  

As I documented in the book, in Germantown, that’s been a welcome process. Peoples’ response is often, ‘Well, I hadn’t thought about it like that,’ because they were hearing it from a perspective they might not have considered, until an open process offered a safe and welcoming way to experience that perspective. 

The Cliveden Conversations series and the Germantown Speaks project are examples of that. What they revealed was, wow, we can lean into the kinds of things that historic sites shied away from, like the history of violence in the community or the role of discriminatory or exclusionary institutions, including the outsize presence of the Ku Klux Klan into the 1940s—in Germantown! And even though that doesn’t reflect well on the neighborhood, it is information and there’s a collaborative way to understand that. 

That process, what I describe as a “community of memory,” becomes a key ally in that. A group of individuals that agree that they share a heritage or background and then they openly discuss what’s good and criticize openly what’s bad about what they share. And in this case, the neighborhood is the shared heritage. And that’s what I think can apply to other neighborhoods, not just Germantown. 

KH: It’s hard to take that leap, isn’t it? Preservation so often is done with the intention of remembering something honorable or good. By contrast, you wrote, “Negative history is entitled to a seat at the table, too.” 

DY: It is, if you are so wrapped up in your personal stake in it. It’s like walking against the direction of the moveable sidewalk at the airport. It’s hard, but it is possible. 

If you were running a historic site in a largely African American neighborhood and the site was related to plantation owning, wouldn’t you want to know that so you could have a more trustworthy approach to making the place relevant? 

These historic houses are going to go away unless they’re relevant, and part of that is, “How does this relate to the neighborhood as it is now?” There wasn’t an African-American monument in Germantown until 1987. A kind of cynicism develops in a community if many residents are not reflected in the memory infrastructure—the museums, the monuments, and the historic markers. And so one of the imperatives, as hard as it feels, is to take ownership of the truth of our own perspective on the past, the truth of our own organizations. 

KH: The book has five chapters with very concise titles: “Conversations,” “Amnesia,” “Authority,” “Integrity,” and “Projections.” Each represents an aspect of the process of creating an effective public history. Did you intend it as a sort of how-to plan?

DY: These are five things that any community will encounter when considering how history is presented to the public. If there are open conversations or not, that matters. There’s also amnesia, especially in organizations where not all the institutional history is presented. Authority is who gets to make certain decisions, from which buildings get saved, right down to what verbiage gets put on the historic marker. 

The fourth is integrity. Germantown didn’t have integrity with respect to its African American community until there was representation in the memory infrastructure. A significant step in this direction was the reclamation of the Johnson House and its designation as a National Historic Landmark for its role as a station on the Underground Railroad. 

The fifth is projection. We all project things onto those empty historic buildings. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can check what we are projecting and consider that maybe others are seeing something different in that building. 

So I see these five as cornerstones of how public history is forged in any community. It isn’t a strict playbook, but they represent concepts that could apply and should be considered. 

KH: In the chapter “Projections” you examine empty historic buildings and sites in Germantown, with four examples: Germantown Town Hall, the historic house Upsala, the Potter’s Field, and Cliveden’s 1767 kitchen. They each represent a different problematic situation that kept or is keeping them from offering a meaningful public history.

DY: Of my work in Germantown, I’m most proud of engaging in a conversational approach. With Cliveden’s 1767 kitchen, we brought the neighbors in to show them what we were researching and finding about that building and asking what they thought. That structure had layers of history. After serving as a colonial kitchen it was later used as slave quarters. We wanted to show them we weren’t imposing one narrative. The Cliveden Conversations series allowed us to offer a way of having more than one meaning.

Those conversations were also essential in the case of Upsala. After struggling as a separate organization, it was turned over to Cliveden to manage. Four years of openly discussing the options with the neighbors brought about a success story. 

It didn’t have to be a house museum, but it is protected. Private owners were found, who can care for it and it’s still publicly accessible from time to time. What may seem like a failure of a house museum turned out to be a success story from a preservation stand point. This may not be an option in every instance, but that public process is likely to be a really good model in other communities. 

Stenton, a house museum in North Philly, will celebrate the legacy of Dinah, a former slave, with their Pew-funded project, “Inequality in Bronze.” | Photo: Michael Bixler

KH: You say public history’s work should include dialogue, participation, and respect for other viewpoints. Will public historians need a different kind of training, beyond facts and research, to include people skills? 

DY: The field is adapting rapidly. Being open to new ways of telling is a really important part of what public historians bring to a project. 

I think an expanded toolkit is underway. Some of the most innovative in public history in Philadelphia is not coming from the larger institutions, but out in the neighborhoods at innovative historic sites like Stenton. 

Preservation has often been a method of power, whether that was idealizing versions of the past presented by descendants or wealthy individuals like John D. Rockefeller, who funded Colonial Williamsburg, or the next generation, who were experts, professional historians, who, in the end, were often no less exclusionary than the earlier plutocrats. 

Public historians can help diminish the power of preservationist policy by embracing the social aspect of history. We can’t know all we want to know about the past, but we can learn a little bit more of it together. 

By embracing the very public aspect of public history, we have an opportunity to lean into that perhaps outdated perception that preservation is the movement of “no,” or trying to prevent progress. In fact, good preservationists are among the most community-oriented or relationship building people I know. 

Chronology only gets us so far. The things we can agree on in history are the least meaningful. We can agree on when the Civil War happened. But why it happened, or why it matters, we’re still wrestling with. 

KH: In 2012, the staff of Cliveden rewrote the site’s 1962 National Historic Landmark designation, extending its period of significance beyond the Battle of Germantown and including a more diverse social history of the site. Have other historic buildings or sites also done this?

DY: Only about three percent of sites have updated, and typically it’s about new research or to add new findings, not to expand their interpretation. 

The National Park Service’s process actually makes it hard to update, other than something like a boundary change. With national historic landmark designation, it’s really about the building, whereas public historians want to get beyond “building-ism” and move towards “beingness.” We have to make the case for a broader social history based on the architecture, which was the only way the system allowed. There are efforts afoot to allow different types of evidence to be considered in the designation process. 

KH: The Germantown experience in public history has helped the different groups in a diverse community feel like they’re being heard, but the neighborhood still struggles with economic issues. Do you feel this process helps that in some way?

DY: I’m hopeful that people in Germantown can see the book and the conversational processes it details as demystifying how the neighborhood got to be the way it is. And that not all the efforts were constructive, like the urban renewal programs in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

There’s no mistaking the fact that there’s a reason why Germantown doesn’t get ahead, and part of it is that there’s dynamics that are intentionally kept apart, whether it’s the political machine or neighborhood associations being too disparate without a lot of incentive to collaborate. 

Also, sometimes the process kicks off energy that can be fruitful in unanticipated ways. A recent example is Germantown High School, speaking of empty buildings. The public really got things going when there was an alarming development plan being pitched. And the community said, “Wait a minute, we need to have some authorship of what the end result is going to be.” Elected officials took notice and helped add more community participation to the process. 

That gives muscle memory for future projects, for different groups to be at the table working together rather than against each other. More of these will build experiences and examples that will be useful to draw from, when the issues get thornier as with gentrification. The community is in a better place in terms of healthier processes for community input. I think that will help, but as long as there’s councilmanic prerogative and pay to play, they’re the thumb on the scale against community participation. 


On Saturday, October 19 author David W. Young will give an talk on his new book, The Battles of Germantown: Effective Public History in America, at the Philadelphia City Institute Branch of the Free Library. See event details HERE.


About the Author

Kimberly Haas is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. She is a long time radio journalist, both nationally and locally with WHYY and WXPN. In particular, she enjoys covering Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, culture and history, as well as urban sustainability and public policy, in both print and audio.

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