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Refusing to Forget wins Autry Public History Prize

Refusing to Forget wins Autry Public History Prize

Benjamin Johnson is an Associate Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago. His primary areas of research and teaching include environmental history, North American borders, and Latino history. This week, Refusing to Forget, an organization founded by Dr. Johnson, was awarded the Western History Association’s 2017 Autry Public History Prize. Dr. Johnson talked to Public Media Assistant Meagan McChesney about the important work of this organization.  

Q: Congratulations on the Autry Public History Prize! Can you tell our readers what “Refusing to Forget” is and how it came about?

A:  Thanks!  “Refusing to Forget” is an organization that I and four other scholars of the U.S-Mexico border and Mexican American history founded in 2013.  We had all written and taught about different aspects of 1910s racial violence targeted at Latinos.  My first book, Revolution in Texas:  How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans(2003), traced the ways that organized racial violence condoned by the state had led to the segregation and disfranchisement of most ethnic Mexicans in a large part of southern Texas where they had remained landowners, elected officials, and voters into the twentieth century.  My colleagues and I were frustrated that all of the academic work on this subject, including our own, wasn’t seeping out into the general public, despite all of the attention being paid to the border and Latinos in American politics and culture.  We thought that the centennial of the worse mass killings might provide a chance to rectify this.

So we met to work up some plans to secure a museum exhibit and the erection of some historical markers. We were referred to the Bullock Museum of Texas History, the state’s most prominent historical museum.  Somewhat to our surprise given the sensitive politics of this – we’re talking about episodes in which Anglo-American vigilantes and the Texas Rangers and some local law enforcement officers grotesquely killed hundreds, possibly thousands – they were delighted to have the chance to develop an exhibit and enthusiastically backed it.  Some of our marker applications were approved, and we have also developed a 7th grade history lesson, with others in gestation.  And these efforts, especially the exhibit and markers, have generated a tremendous amount of press coverage.

Q: As the Western History Association’s website indicates, this prize is awarded annually to a public history project that “contribute[s] to a broader reflection and appreciation of the past or serve[s] as a model of professional public history practice.” How does Refusing to Forget accomplish this?

A:  Honestly, we made it up as we went along.  None of the five of us had any formal training as a public historian, though one of us had worked as a consultant for an exhibit about migrant workers and some of us had written for non-academic audiences in op-eds and the like.  A key early step was partnering with people who had museum expertise, which is why the Bullock and its staff members were so important.  They worked with us in developing the concepts of the exhibit, especially nestling this violence in a longer history that also featured cross-racial cooperation and harmony, and in presenting historical developments through images and artifacts as well as words.  Something that I think also worked well was our use of a website and facebook page to attract and audience and provide them with reports not only about our projects, but also more broadly about the themes of violence, race, and historical memory that have become so prominent since the white supremacist rallies and violence in Charlottesville, Virgina this past summer.

Q: In talking about your work with Refusing to Forget, you have discussed the importance of telling the “hard truths” about the past. Why is this so important and how do you accomplish this in your classes at Loyola?

A:  I try to take to heart the Czech writer Milan Kundera’s famous statement that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” It is no accident that oppressive regimes, whether in the Jim Crow South, contemporary China, or Donald Trump’s America, go to great lengths to control the history conveyed in books and classrooms, suppressing unflattering chapters. 

Honest and inclusive accounts of the past, in contrast, are indispensable tools for democratic societies.  When we recover and remember the lives taken by racist violence, whether in a classroom or a public commemoration, we model the empathy needed to hold together an enormous and polyglot country.  When we explain how people in high places – government, the press, the judiciary – looked the other way and even endorsed horrific actions, we remind ourselves of the dangers of demagogues in high places today.  In 2017 we have returned to a point where some of our leaders profit from depicting Mexicans as criminals and invaders, stoking the fears of a heavily armed citizenry. Scholars of mass political violence should feel a great responsibility to bear witness to the past, in their writings and classrooms, lest its worse chapters be repeated.

Q: Refusing to Forget has already achieved several of its goals this year. What’s next for you and the organization?

A:  We’d like to secure and unveil a few more historical markers, as we just recently did outside of Brownsville, Texas.  Some more curricula would help get these stories into middle and high-school classrooms.  A traveling version of the Bullock Exhibit would expose these stories to more of the general public.  That will cost something like $60,000 to develop, so we’ve begun fundraising to that end.  We’re going to have a conference to study and commemorate the centennial of the 1919 legislative hearings that exposed some of the worse of the crimes.  I hope that that event will emphasize the lives and legacies of those who stood up for multiracial democracy, thereby telling more hopeful stories about past travails.  Finally, we’ve begun conversations with scholars and public historians focused on other events to see what we might accomplish by coordinating our efforts and learning from one another.