Documenting History

Today is Martin Luther King Day–an appropriate time to think about civil rights and the importance of remembering our history, not just for African-Americans, but for all of us.

It is profoundly depressing to initiate a discussion with undergraduate students and discover that they know very little about American history and government. It’s particularly galling when–as happened again just last week– African-American students look at me blankly when I ask what the 13th Amendment did, and then proceed to demonstrate only the foggiest familiarity with the civil rights movement.

There is a lesson here for the gay community: while the community embraces the sea change in attitudes toward LGBT folks (even in Indiana, Mike Delph and Scott Schneider notwithstanding), that change should not mean losing touch with a rich, albeit difficult, history.

Fortunately, the Indiana Historical Society understands the need to document and safeguard that history. The Society has launched The Indiana LGBT Collecting Initiative, to “collect, preserve and make accessible archival material that documents the rich history, tradition and culture of the gay community in Indiana.”

The first phase of this initiative is an Oral History Project; local photographer Mark Lee has been videotaping interviews with various individuals who have been part of the struggle to achieve equality for LGBT Hoosiers. Those interviews are being transcribed, digitized and made available as part of the collection.

The Historical Society is also looking for all sorts of “archival” materials: books, magazines, letters, photographs–anything that will help document and preserve the history of gay people in Indiana.

If anyone reading this blog post has such items, I encourage you to send them to the Historical Society, 450 W. Ohio Street, 46202, attention Eric Mundell. And tell a friend.

I think it was Santayana who warned that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.


  1. So much of our History is lost. Even though we have books, the internet and an enormous amount of information, how we arrived here for some people is a mystery at best or of no concern at worst. The struggles to achieve a fair wage, a safe work place, Unionization, Civil Rights, etc. may be as distant in History as the Battle of Hastings. I am still shocked at how many young people and people of my Baby Boomer generation do not understand Evolution or reject it in favor of Creationism.

    Orwell had it partly right in his book 1984. Big Brother is not only watching us, but is also bombarding us with 24/7 – 365 with mindless entertainment.

  2. We are proudly the United States of America but
    citizens of a ‘ United States of Amnesia’ with memory loss of national and world history and our small place in it. We keep repeating the mistakes previously made.

    But there is still

  3. Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it and the rest of us are apparently doomed to watch it happen or serve as a Cassandra

  4. on further thought—-
    Hope is: education of history and its successes and errors, for civic engagement and debate, for praising diversity, for protecting the Earth,for science, against income inequality , for civility in our relations with others and for awareness of exactly where we are in the cosmos.

  5. This is a country rich in history; but it is not without it’s dark chapters. Trying to hide or bury them will not change their facts and forgetting them has already moved us back to the mid-1950’s on too many issues. Do we again have to fight our way out of the darkness and into the light at the end of the tunnel? What more will we lose along the way? Racism, lessening civil rights such as freedom to register to vote, LGBT issues, medical decisions taken from women by politial grandstanding; continuing to destroy our planet due to semantics deliberately misinterpreted by one politial party to continue receiving financial support from polluters and legal support from SCOTUS leading us backwards with their decisions on all of these issues. LGBT issues and rights are very old issues but new in the public eye via social media and – again – SCOTUS interventon by allowing local courts to fight these rights. They can’t find this issue addressed anywhere in the Constitution or Amendments but still schedule court hearings to render their lofty decisions.

    How long will this battle continue and what will be the end result? No matter what decisions courts reach; LGBT are facts of life and will continue. Why are so many people interested in the sex lives of others, the majority of them strangers, what do they believe they will gain if they “win” and prevent same-sex marriages? As Pete so often says; I don’t know, I just don’t know.

  6. I Googled George Santayana and found another applicable quote; “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” The GOP and some members of SCOTUS have certainly forgotten their aim and the aim of the Constitution and all Amendments; freedom from tyranny for all Americans.

  7. An example of today’s discussion: the movie “Imitation Game”.

    Alan Touring should be held in the same scientific esteem as Albert Einstein or Robert Oppenheimer or any of the others who advanced our understanding of the universe radically with their boundless intellect. He’s not, because his work that military historians believe shortened WWII was classified and he was gay. Criminally gay in those days. Sentenced to chemical castration which contributed to his suicide at a young age.

    A tough but essential lesson in the power of culture and the cost to all of us of ignorance.

    We’d like to deny it (the Dunning Krugar effect still has us in its grip) but today’s culture is just as, though differently, dysfunctional. And ignorance just as costly.

    It seems axiomatic that we all have the same choice in life. Learn from the experts in each field of study or trust them to apply their expertise on our behalf. None of us have the time to learn every, or even more than one or two fields so we are all completely dependant on others to know stuff that is essential to our well being. So be it. Live with it. Lose the ego and accept the reality of collaboration as the only functional option.

    As that reality hovers over us many react by retreating into past cultures that are more comfortable to them. The Marlboro Man with his steely gaze taking in miles of empty horizon. They will be left behind but not before they drag us down and down.

    We have power because we elect, we consume, we invest, we teach, we lead. Each of those actions must be employed thoughtfully if we are to overcome ignorance and its accompanying bigotry. Never have the stakes been higher.

  8. I am concerned that the LGBT community is at risk of disappearing – not next year or even next decade, but in 20, 30, 40 years. Already my mother-in-law’s Unitarian Universalist church has had lesbian members complain about the church’s outreach and active support of the LGBT community. They don’t need that they say, they are successful and happy and don’t want to have attention brought to their mainstream lives.

    Admittedly, this is at this point a small percentage of lesbians. But it is realty that fighting for our rights, or more accurately for our very humanity, has defined many of our lives and made us both smarter and better as individuals and as members of our society.

    Once we are nearly all mainstreamed, non of that matters anymore. Our success and assimilation can too easily become the end of our LGBT identity, community and history.

  9. I’m reminded of the story about the two persons who were starting a country, where the question was who would have the most influence. One said, “You write the laws, and I’ll write the songs”. The mythology can serve to build us and make us strong or serve to ruin us. There is the vision of a society run by laws, communal responsibility to one another, equality and the common good. Then there is the vision of the Marlboro man. revised “no evidence” versions of the Constitution, that we are on “God’s side”, and the rest. At a viewing of “The Imitation Game”, we were subjected to the usual previews which constituted mainly of explosions, “American heroes” and the “elite” military saving the day. Of course there is American Sniper, all of which foist a jingoistic and distorted mythology. It sure is fun and easy, adopting the second delusional mythology, but it sure has bad consequences.

  10. The Indiana Historical Society has a nice collection of artifacts, and I believe the addition of an Oral History Project would enhance its relevance. On the other hand, there’s so much room for growth and expansion that could be available if connected with the state and with a major state university whereby there’d exist an Online Digital access point for reading the historical accounts and also for hearing the audio of any and all oral histories.

    The Queer Appalachia Oral History Project offers Online access to its interviews which are fascinating.

  11. Documenting oral history does seem appropriate for the MLK holiday. Hearing the voices from the past is especially important, at least for me and perhaps for others. From Guthrie, Kentucky native son Robert Penn Warren, here’s a audio collection of his interviews with Civil Rights leaders from the 1960’s as gathered from the Robert Penn Warren Civil Rights Oral History Project.

  12. For her birthday I took my wife to see “Selma.” When I told our two youngest children (in their mid-thirties) what we were seeing, they said what is that? They had never been made aware of that horrible event in our past. As we left the movie, I told my wife that every history student ought to have to watch that movie. I see us repeating that history with the new violence of whites against blacks and with the violence, often emotional violence, against my GLBTQ brothers and sisters.

  13. I forgot to include this in my post. Thank you Barbara for sharing your links to the oral history projects. I so appreciate when Sheila and some of you share links to sites where you find helpful information. I almost always bookmark these and go back to them from time to time. Keep sharing!

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