Friday, April 11, 2008

President Bill and “Alfafa Bill” – The Presidential Address

Outgoing NCPH president Bill Bryans spoke on “A Tale of Two Bills: Racism, Anti-Semitism, and the Sensibilities of a Public Historian” at the awards luncheon today. The talk chronicled a controversy at Bryans’s home institution, Oklahoma State University, over the proposed re-christening of a building named for “Alfafa Bill” Murray, an agrarian populist politician who combined progressive-era reforms with a firm belief in racial segregation and (late in life) a bitter anti-Semitism. To many on the campus, particularly among those concerned about the campus’s very real lack of diversity and lack of discussion about race, re-naming the building was an unquestioned good.

Bryans, though, did question the change, and was labelled by some as a racist and anti-Semite for doing so. He felt, though, that the push to do the socially expeditious thing was short-circuiting any discussion of the complexities of Murray’s history, and he didn’t want to see the less-obvious history of the building (as a dorm and a central part of the campus for many years) expunged. He contrasted the university’s lack of attention to the nuances of the historical record with a case at the University of Colorado in the 1980s, when the administration responded to a similar re-naming proposal by appointing a historian to investigate and make recommendations. (Perhaps this approach mirrors the discussion on the Liverpool conference blog about whether the British government needs a chief historical advisor?)

Bryans’s central point—“We gain more from confronting our past than erasing it”—made an interesting comparison with Ed Linenthal’s keynote plenary address this morning. Linenthal notes that sites of memory and commemoration can create conflict in a community as often as they facilitate reconciliation. Bryans probably wouldn’t disagree, but he seems to welcome the conflict as a potential teaching moment that can do more in the long run to address racial dialogue and diversity at OSU than a simple and simplistic change of name at Murray Hall.

Posted by Cathy Stanton

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