From my October 2023 Newsletter:
In just two weeks, I’ll be in Phoenix, Arizona, where I will be privileged to receive the Historian of the Year Award for 2023 from Historic Hotels of America, part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Historic Hotels presents this award annually to “An individual for making a unique contribution in the research and presentation of history and whose work has encouraged a wide, if not provocative, discussion and greater understanding of the history and the diverse heritages and cultures of our nation and the world.”
That is a pretty heady statement. I’ve not considered myself a historian.
I write about people whose stories have been overlooked and mostly forgotten but are nonetheless significant. As renowned WWI British historian Lyn Macdonald said, her chronicling of long-overlooked stories had explored a “great, unhewn seam of memory and information on the war.”
These stories are necessary to complete our understanding of the time, whether the World War I period or World War II.
Yet, I have learned three major lessons in researching these stories.
First, history does not occur in separate, discrete blocks of time. We may study it this way—like World War II, the Postwar Period, the Great Depression, etc…
But it doesn’t happen that way—not with clear dividing lines separating one era or block from another. The past is one endless flowing stream of interconnected events and people, cultures and societies.
The lesson is that time does not constrain but connects events, the places where events occur, and not the people living at the time, but their disparate legacies connect generations—movements, social changes, developments in education, achievements in the sciences and more.
I’ve discovered it is, at times, easy to alter our understanding of the flow of history by what media, authors, teachers, and others highlight in their reporting and analysis of events.
Interpretations are subject to omissions and perhaps bias, conscious or not.
I also found that women who served in WWII were unable to discuss their contributions, many of them for security reasons.
Others felt limited by the cultural constraints of the time. The Greatest Generation was a modest one. “I just did my bit,” many would say. Their modesty unwittingly conspired to help their stories remain on the sidelines.
At last, the contributions of the 6888 Central Postal Battalion are being celebrated and its veterans held up as the role models they are.
Retired Master Sergeant Elizabeth Helm-Frazier touches the likeness of Lieutenant Colonel Charity Adams Earley on the monument honoring the all-female, all African-American 6888 Central Postal Directory Battalion. November 29, 2018. U.S. Army photo.
Others continue to take their rightful places as trailblazers. But we will have to work to remember them.
Absent that commitment, the final lesson I learned is that forever is not always forever.
My great grandfather’s will specified that his gravesite be cared for ‘in perpetuity.’ That lasted for two generations until the money ran out. I only learned about his bequest through genealogy research.
We name bridges and highways, schools and post offices for significant figures from our times.
Yet, memories diminish over time, and often those who were once honored are now nothing more than a name on a plaque. The plaques tarnish, the pictures fade and the cemetery becomes neglected. We tend to forget quickly.
Historic Hotels of America understands the importance of these stories—people and the places where events occurred that are central to our history.
This unique organization preserves, through dedicated attention and focus, the legacy of those who built this nation—their achievements, ingenuity, and, yes, even their mistakes.
By visiting these properties and learning more about their role in our shared history, we understand more about the flow and continuity of our past, and the possibilities for our future.
I’m grateful to be part of it all.
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