Weissman Symposium on Women's History

Posted: May 10, 2006

In Ellen Craft: Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, Marcia Estabrook plays Ellen, who escapes from bondage by boarding a train north, disguised as a white man, while her husband, William, acts as her slave.

"I had much rather starve … a free woman, than be a slave for the best man that ever breathed," she tells the audience in this harrowing true story that illustrates the power of individual testimony. With her one-woman performance, Estabrook of Characters Educational Theatre opened the program Recalling History: A Symposium on Women and American Memories, held May 4-5 in Mount Holyoke's Gamble Auditorium. The symposium was the final event in the 2006 spring series, Acts of Reconstruction, sponsored by the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts.

Estabrook was among writers, historians, students, educators, storytellers, and artists reconstructing the past by examining and experimenting with the role of memory and personal history. "We offered students, staff, faculty, alumnae--the Mount Holyoke community at large--a look at the many intriguing ways in which women are shaping and reshaping the world through recalling history," said Lois Brown, the center's director. "It was an ideal forum for intensifying and refining the connection between a liberal arts education and leadership. Acts of Reconstruction, involving a myriad of talented people from a variety of disciplines and professions, explored what it means for women to reconstruct history--the tools, agendas, and innovation required."

Documenting the Past
Saturday's events began with "Women Recalling the Past: Facts and Fictions." The session included panelist Katherine Butler Jones '57, founder of the Newton (Massachusetts) Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunities and former Mount Holyoke trustee; panelist Louise Knight, independent scholar and author of the recently published biography, Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy; and moderator Jane Crosthwaite, Mount Holyoke Professor of Religion.

Jones challenged the fiction of African Americans all located in the South at one time, uncovering documents showing that her forbearers had been in the North since the pre-Revolutionary War Era. Knight spoke of Jane Addams' fascination with the role memory plays in both identifying fact and creating fiction. "Memory has ultimate power--memory is the protean mother," said Knight, quoting Addams, a social reformer who had been struck by the "power of memory to enlighten and transform" those whose lives seemed most intolerable.

Panelists for "Total Recall: Documenting Protest at Home and Abroad" included students Tamara Bullock '07 and Brenda Rivera '07, who presented work done for a January Term course, The Power of Personal History: Reconstructing the Past with Memoirs. Course instructor Eileen McCarthy Rakouskas moderated the panel, in which slides, photos, and oral testimonies documented the "ordinary" lives of family and friends involved in political upheaval and strife. A third panelist, Mount Holyoke special student Lee Bouse, documented the1997 campus upheaval in which students demanded "cultural places" and a "need-blind admission" policy.

Next on the agenda was keynote speaker Thulani Davis, who addressed the audience with "Acts of Reconstruction, Then and Now: An Exceptional Experiment to Realize American History." Davis--veteran journalist, accomplished playwright, teacher, Grammy Award winner, and ordained Buddhist priest--teaches at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts and the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television.

Davis spoke of the importance of personal testimony for confronting the "lapses, absences, and biases in documentation." She described her early work as a journalist and subsequent realization that the press is often "in conspiracy to determine the outcome of events." Davis recalled "the lasting impression" of comparing accounts of slavery by Southern historians with oral testimonies by former slaves in a high school history class.

"If we can see people as ordinary human beings, the facts will have greater meaning," she pointed out, rephrasing the words of W.E.B. DuBois in his well-known work, Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880, words that informed her own treatment of both the black and white family members in her recently released autobiography, My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Confronts Her Roots. She reminded the audience that "reconstruction is an experiment" and "restoring the balance will feel uncomfortable."

Confronting and Reconciling the Past
The first afternoon panel, "Yankee Pride and Prejudice: Slavery in New England," moderated by Lynda Morgan, Associate Professor of History and Chair of History, delved further into the discomfort associated with reassembling historical reality. Panelist Katrina Browne, senior staff member of AmeriCorps' Public Allies program, aired her documentary, Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, in which Browne confronts a prominent ancestor's involvement in the slave trade. Hartford Courrant journalists Anne Farrow and Jennifer Frank discussed, on a broader scale, New England's implication in the growth of slavery, based on research done for their recent book, Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited From Slavery.

The role of material artifacts in contributing to a deeper understanding of the past was explored in the next panel, "Evidence: Women and the Tangible Past," moderated by Heidi Moon '60, active alumna and former teacher. Panelists included L'Merchie Frazier, artist and director of education at the Museum of Afro-American History in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Margaret Bruchac, Native American scholar and storyteller; and Deborah Roth-Howe, coauthor of the permanent exhibit, A Reason to Remember: Roth, Germany 1933-1942, at the Hatikvah Holocaust Education Center in Springfield, Massachusetts.

As former president and member of One by One, a nonprofit group "created to provide dialogue opportunities" for children of Holocaust survivors and Nazis, Roth-Howe pointed out that confronting difficult memories can open a door to forgiveness and be a "healing experience." Frazier "honored ritual, mask, and belief" with a dramatic interpretation of "women and the ritual rhythms of Africa," as well as with her stunning textile creations. Bruchac relied on documents and artifacts to challenge the myth that Native Americans had disappeared from New England centuries ago.

Professor Robert Schwartz and his students ended the symposium with "Mount Holyoke College: Mission and Memories." Ally Toomey '08, Melissa Joyce '08, Besame Alghussein '08, and Rebekah Dutkiewicz '09 spoke about their course work in A Cultural and Environmental History of the Mount Holyoke College Campus. Speaking of alumnae missionaries to China in the nineteenth century, Dutkiewicz concluded, "I truly am studying the memories of these women--getting to know their lives through memories--and coming to understand their personal struggles, their fears and anxieties, but most importantly, their devotion, passion, and love of others."

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