Farewell to the NHC

Marian J. Barber, April 2014

It’s nearly midnight, and the deadline looms for my last National History Center column for Perspectives. On Friday, February 28, I say good-bye to 400 A Street SE, my home away from home for the past two and a half years, and head back to Austin to become director of the Catholic Archives of Texas. I’m excited about the new job; as a historian, I look forward to experiencing an archive from the other side of the desk. The Catholic Archives collects from throughout the state, and though most of the documents and artifacts are from the past 150 years or so, some date back to the eras when Texas was part of New Spain and Mexico, and then an independent republic. Since August 2011, I’ve spent three weeks of every month in Washington and one at home in Texas. I look forward to being reunited full-time with spouse, house, and dogs.

But I will miss my friends at AHA headquarters and being at what is in a sense the epicenter of the history profession in the United States. It has been great fun to meet and work with historians whose work I found inspiring as a student, as well as those I knew only by reputation. I thank the founders of the center, those like—Roger Louis, Jim Banner, Maureen Murphy Nutting, Arnita Jones, Albert Beveridge, and Miriam Hauss Cunningham—who shepherded it into existence and shepherded me into its orbit, and those whose financial sacrifices gave it legs. I will treasure the opportunities I had to catch the rising stars of decolonization studies on their way up; to spend my Monday afternoons at the Washington History Seminar with scholars like Margaret MacMillan, John Voll, and Maya Jasanoff; to greet fellow South Texan John Lewis Gaddis at one of our foreign relations conversations in New York; and to observe the C-SPAN crews setting up their robotic cameras to record our stellar Congressional Briefings panels.

As much as I’ve enjoyed the professional historians, though, my favorite parts of the job have involved those outside the profession, or those who are stepping outside their scholarly safety zones. I’ll never forget the WHSmith crowd singing along to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” at the beginning of a talk by scholar of Greece and Rome Art Eckstein on the Weather Underground. I was always happy to see Steven Shore, who managed to slip away from his desk at the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation to add piquant questions to the WHS conversation, and James Tsang, retired IBM physicist, who brought us a scientist’s perspective.

As a one-time reporter-clerk for the Kansas City Star, I’ve especially enjoyed our Historians, Journalists, and the Challenges of Getting It Right initiative, bringing together those who write the “first draft of history” with those of us who revise and revise and revise it. I’ve learned from our partner, master moderator Marty Kaplan of USC Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center, how to bring a panel with disparate experiences together and to life. My favorite session was “The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers” at the AHA annual meeting in New Orleans, organized by veteran newswoman Geneva Overholser. For 2015, the NHC has a session in the works on how obituary desks of major papers are coping with the surge in deaths of members of “the Greatest Generation.” I think it will be worth coming back for.

I have also appreciated working with Susan Ferber of Oxford University Press on our Reinterpreting History series, and with talented, enthusiastic staffers at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, and the Council on Foreign Relations.

Three last things I will happily remember: working with our wonderful interns, answering random and sometimes misdirected phone calls, and wandering the halls of the Library of Congress’s Jefferson Building. We’ve had great luck with interns. They’ve played crucial roles in our Congressional Briefings and the Decolonization Seminar. Especially adept were Christine Kelly, now a doctoral student at Fordham, and Michael Pierce, who organized a 40-person outing to a Nationals’ game and who is combining a master’s program in sports management at Georgetown with assisting my successor with the 2014 decolonization seminar.

They’ve also been a great help with the phone calls. I think it’s mainly because of search engines and whoever was wise enough to christen this endeavor The National History Center, but about once every couple of months we get a call from someone who just needs some assistance with history or something historic. Often we can’t help, but when we can, I rejoice. About the third call we got was from a man who had discovered a century-old land deed in the trunk of a decrepit car he had bought. Intern John Emmitt got the pertinent details, found the county where the land was located, and connected the finder with a local museum curator who was delighted to accept the document.

The Jefferson Building is my nominee for the best place in America to get lost. Because the Decolonization Seminar participants, faculty, and staff have access to areas off-limits to regular visitors, I’ve been able to linger among the beautifully restored turn-of-the-20th-century murals gracing the walls and ceilings of the hidden corridors that connect our meeting room, the Whittall Pavilion, with the Kluge Center. The Whittall itself is home to a magnificent collection of historic musical instruments, including a crystal flute and stringed instruments by Stradivari. For their preservation, the room is air-conditioned to the point of discomfort, but sharing the space with them is worth remembering to bring a shawl in July.

I want to close by expressing my gratitude to Jim Grossman, the AHA staff past and present, and Lee White of the National Coalition for History for providing the NHC and me a cozy space and a congenial community. I wish new NHC director Dane Kennedy and my successor, assistant director Amanda Moniz, as much fun as I have had. And for encouraging me to write these columns, I thank former Perspectives editor Pillarisetti Sudhir and his able successor, Allen Mikaelian, as well as those of you who have taken the time to read them. If you’re ever in Texas, you know where to find me.

Marian J. Barber was associate director of the National History Center from 2011 to 2014.

NHCNinth International Seminar on Decolonization Participants Announced

The National History Center has announced the members of the Ninth International Seminar on Decolonization. The seminar is hosted by the Library of Congress and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. It will convene in July at the library. The participants, their affiliations, and project titles are:

Amber Abbas, St. Joseph's University, Indian Students and Decolonization: American Interests, the Cold War, and the Prospects of Radicalism

Jeffrey Byrne, University of British Columbia, A World Too Fast for Theories: Ideology, Oil, and Interdependence in US-Algerian Relations

Arie Dubnov, University of Haifa, The Dream of the Seventh Dominion: Lewis Namier, Josiah Wedgwood, A. J. Toynbee, and the Question of Palestine in Interwar Liberal Imperialist Thought

Elisabeth (Liz) Fink, New York University, Decolonization by the Ballot: The Referendum of 1958 in French West Africa

Frank Gerits, European University Institute, The Counterinsurgency of Public Diplomacy: The USIA's Management of Insurgency in Africa, 1961-1969 

Rajbir Hazelwood, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Race, Murder, Riots: Being Punjabi in London, 1976-1984

Daniel Immerwahr, Northwestern University, The Decolonization of the United States

Stephen Jackson, University of Sioux Falls, The View from the Colonies: The American Educator's Perception of the End of the British Empire

Jack Loveridge, University of Texas at Austin, The Green Reaction: Britain, the United States, and India's Food Economy, 1942-1955

Molly McCullers, University of West Georgia, Division in the Desert: Men, Water, and the Fight for the Future in Apartheid Namibia, 1945-1985

Thomas (Tom) Meaney, Columbia University, A War against Empire? The ­Dependent Areas Branch and the Politics of Trusteeship

Malika Rahal, Institut d'histoire du temps présent (CNRS), Underground in International Relations

Caroline Ritter, University of California, Berkeley, The BBC and the ­Development of Broadcasting in Africa

Tehila Sasson, University of California, Berkeley, Humanity after Empire: ­Technologies for Relief in the Age of Decolonization, 1943-1973

Kate Stevens, University of Cambridge, "Half of Vanuatu Is Still Colonized by Herself": Race, Gender, and Law in the Era of Pacific Decolonization

Alden Young, University of Pennsylvania, The Economic Origins of Sudan's First Civil War: The Military and Development Planning from 1958 to 1964

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