I’ve just returned from three days in Birmingham, Alabama, where I attended the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History. Lots of great sessions and I was often caught struggling to decide which one to attend. Of course, it’s always great to meet colleagues from around the country but I was struck by how many graduate students attended. Melissa Bingmann, who directs the public history program at West Virginia University, brought a dozen students because she believes it’s a more effective use of her limited funds–students hear more “guest” speakers, visit more museums and historic places, and learn more about the field than if they had stayed on campus all year.
Birmingham isn’t high on my list of tourist destinations, but the AASLH meeting gave me a chance to see the places associated with the Civil Rights Movement, including Kelly Ingram Park, Gaston Hotel, and the 16th Street Baptist Church (which was bombed fifty years ago and resulted in the deaths of four girls). I read a couple books on the events of the 1950s and 1960s to prepare, but my “aha” moment came when I visited the places where it happened. They’re all so close together, literally across the street from each other, that you can see how easily the planning and organization could occur as well as explain Police Chief Bull Connor’s decision to focus his forces on this location. A variety of sculptures and wayside markers help interpret these events, giving visitors a chance to better understand the history of the Civil Rights movement in one of the places where it occurred.
Next year’s AASLH annual meeting will be in St. Paul, Minnesota on September 17-20, 2014 in collaboration with the Association of Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museums. Session proposals are due November 15.