By Joanne Doucette
Do you enjoy reading local history? Would you like to know more about the past of your neighbourhood? If you do, please read this.
Most, but not all, people who research and write about the history of neighbourhoods do not have advanced academic degrees, such as the very Harry Potterish picture of Professor John Ashley Soames Grenville, historian, taken in 1950 (Public Domain) featured above. The local historian is, like me, an amateur not a professional.
Many academic historians look down on local historians as muddlers who don’t get the big picture. And sometimes that is true, but often not.
Local history is a very democratic kind of practice, drawing on community histories (e.g., in the local history collections of our branch libraries), family history, genealogy and oral history. The best local history relies on meticulous and careful use of original and secondary sources as well as ongoing discussion with professional historians. But local historians have limited resources. Not everyone has the money to get those letters behind the name. We do not have access to the records, the peer-review process, conferences and journals of the academic historian. We rely on sources and our works are published informally – on blogs, Facebook groups, etc. My peers are those who read my posts and blogs and respond. And I am very grateful to you. But I rely on sources and sources are not always right.
There are basically two kinds of sources – primary sources and secondary sources.
Primary sources are things like newspaper accounts, letters, marriage licenses, death certificates, baptismal certificates, tax assessment rolls, etc. They are usually reliable but have to be “handled with care”. Sometimes original sources contain simple mistakes. Sometimes the originator actually lied. Sometimes they didn’t know what they were talking about. Not so different than today. Usually, the records are biased in ways that we now recognize – racist, sexist, etc.
Secondary sources are records written after the event. The writers rely on records that they might not understand or they may not have researched adequately. Or they too can intentionally distort the truth, often with “little white lies” that romanticize things – the “good old days”, etc.
And then there’s oral history. Memories fail and stories passed down often begin to stray from the facts though there’s usually a core that can be verified through researching primary and secondary sources – which leads me back to where I wanted to go.
Why am I saying all this?
When the Leslieville Historical Society wrote up a plaque to the Underground Railroad two years ago, we made a mistake. The quote didn’t begin to appear until 2007. We relied on secondary sources, even a leading U.S. politician, and the Harriet Tubman Monument and other apparently reliable sources for the following quote:
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” -Harriet Tubman (1822-1913)
But, as a Toronto historian brought to my attention, Harriet Tubman said no such thing.
Here’s the back story. We did our best three years ago in terms of due diligence, believing our sources were valid and checking with various authorities, including some friendly folks with PhDs. We also ran the wording by the Ontario Black History Society which suggested some changes which we duly made. They shared generously of their time and sent representatives to the unveiling. While they gave us the go-ahead, the responsibility lies with us and more particularly me.
Here’s a quote from Harriet Tubman in a book from 1869 that we could have/should have used.:
“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven”.Harriet Tubman
Sometimes, as when I wrote a small paragraph about Black World War one hero, Jeremiah Jones seven years ago, I did not have access to primary sources. I found nothing in the news of 1914-1920 about him and could not access his military records as they were not digitized yet.
So, I followed the lead of the CBC and noted that he was wounded at Vimy and Passchendaele. The journalist apparently relied on family history as recounted by a descendant, Adam Jones.
Jones was wounded at Vimy Ridge but not the other battle. (Yesterday I downloaded his military records online and double-checked.)
We work diligently to uncover lost histories but ask for fairness and respect for the work we get right and the service we provide to our communities. It is fair to ask for some courtesy when our sources fail us.
Public shaming is far from helpful and comes across as an attempt to silence. If local historians were to be silent, then the stories of ordinary families on ordinary streets would be lost. And I for one think that would be a shame because all families are extraordinary and all streets have stories to tell. We need to respect each other.
To quote a perceptive article:
“The academic historian is the discipline expert. They therefore have a responsibility to provide leadership. They should inspire amateur historians to increase their standards of scholarship. This needs understanding, trust and encouragement from academics. Not paternalism.”The Conversation, April 3, 2012