Wednesday, July 17, 2019

A Public History Ghost Story

When you are a public historian, the public finds you. I get calls and emails all the time with research queries, historical items that people want to be appraised or authenticated, and some pretty interesting stories. This post is about one of the latter. I hope it is OK to tell it here.

Lowell School, 1922. Photo from the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture
Maybe four or five years ago, I got a phone call from a man who had found my name through a mutual friend. The man was Native American, a member of a southwestern or California tribe, I forget which. I was actually in Centralia at the time, strolling down the historic main street. I remember that it was a sunny fall afternoon, and I was grateful for that as the man's macabre tale unfolded.

He told me how, as a boy, maybe eight years old, he was haunted by a series of terrible and realistic nightmares. In his dreams, he was a Spokane Indian boy his same age, forced to attend a white-run school. He had never been to Spokane and had no connections to our area. In his dreams, he was constantly disciplined at this school for things like speaking his own language and not being a good student. Sometimes he would be beaten in his dreams and wake up screaming. Often he would be locked in a basement cell without food or water for days at a time.

The dreams became so bad, he told me, that he underwent therapy. It went on for several years, and he was terrified to go to sleep at night. Finally, in one particularly awful dream, he was beaten and thrown into his basement cell--and in his dream, he died there. The school principal walled up the cell with his body inside.

The nightmares went away as he became a teenager, but he never forgot about them. It sounded to me like he still carried scars from those years. Then, in his thirties (I think?) he ended up moving to Spokane.

One day he ended up driving through the Vinegar Flats neighborhood. This is a quaint part of Spokane along Hangman Creek just before it flows into the Spokane River. It is a traditional worker's neighborhood that also includes some of the little commercial farmland still being worked within city limits. And before the arrival of the white invaders, it was the traditional sinter season campground of the Upper Spokane band of Indians. Anyway, the man was taken aback and stopped dead in his tracks when he came across this abandoned school building. The Lowell School, it was the school in his old nightmares.

Photo courtesy Spokane Historic Preservation Office
He arranged with the owner, he told me, to go inside. He recognized everything, even things like doorknobs and hinges, from his dreams. He said that he felt such a chill at the time, and I felt the same chill standing on the sidewalk in Centralia listening to the story. He was adamant that he recognized every single thing in the old building, which is apparently well preserved inside as we see in these photos from its 2015 nomination for the historic register.

Photo courtesy Spokane Historic Preservation Office
Then they went down into the basement. There was no sign of a cell. The basalt walls seemed original and that there was no sign of any alterations--no bricked up old doorway or other hints that there had ever been a cell down there. He said it was strange that every other detail was exactly as he remembered, but there was no sign at all of the cell where, in another life, he had died.

Photo courtesy Spokane Historic Preservation Office
The man wanted to know if the school had ever been a school for Native American children. I told him no, I was pretty sure that it was never used for that purpose (as the historic register nomination above confirms). There was a boarding school for Spokane Indian children at Fort Spokane, and it was terrible, but nothing at the Lowell School.

We talked for a long time. I am convinced that he was not pulling my leg but telling me the truth about experiences that he was trying to understand. He was smart and articulate and sane. I suggested that sometimes people have visions and that they are not always to be understood literally. We agreed to talk more--but we never did.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Nominate Someone for the Washington History Awards

Readers, I just received notice from the Washington State Historical Society that they have extended the deadline for award nominations to May 15. If you have visited this blog, you surely know someone who is doing excellent historical work in Washington State. Why not take a few minutes and nominate them for one of the awards below?


The Washington State Historical Society's annual awards recognize excellence in advancing the field of history in the state of Washington through writing, teaching, historic projects, and understanding cultural diversity. 

Click here for a nomination form, and here for a printable list of awards. 

The awards are presented to recipients each year at the Society's annual meeting in September.  

For further information about the awards program, contact Mary Mikel Stump, Director of Audience Engagement, at (253) 798-5878 or email:
Washington State Historical Society employees are not eligible for the awards.
To submit a nomination please download the nomination form and return via email to Mary Mikel Stump
List of Awards:
·         Robert Gray Medal
First given in 1968, the Robert Gray Medal is the highest award bestowed by the Washington State Historical Society. It recognizes distinguished and long-term contributions to Pacific Northwest history through demonstrated excellence in one or more of the following areas: teaching, writing, research, historic preservation, and service to local historical societies. The winner receives a framed Robert Gray Medal with a certificate.
Robert Gray Medal·         David Douglas Award
First given in 1979, the David Douglas Award recognizes the significant contribution of an individual or an organization through projects, exhibits, digital presentations, or programs such as apps, websites or blogs, educational products or any other vehicle that informs or expands appreciation of any field of Washington State history during the previous year. No book nominations permitted. The winner receives a framed certificate and David Douglas pin.
·         Governor's Award for Excellence in Teaching History
First given in 1998, the Governor’s Award is presented to an outstanding certified teacher of Pacific Northwest history in an accredited K-12 school in Washington or to a nonprofit organization. The awards committee welcomes nominations of persons who demonstrate effective teaching by any measure of excellence. This may include, but is not limited to the use and development and an innovative curriculum, consistent effectiveness in utilizing Pacific Northwest history in either the classroom or the community over an extended period of time, the advancement of Pacific Northwest history as a field of academic inquiry, a lasting impact on students, the use or development of innovative technology, and the encouragement of Pacific Northwest themes in History Day presentations. The award includes $750 and a Gold Star of recognition.
·         Peace and Friendship Awards
First given in 1975, one of the two Peace and Friendship Awards is presented to a Native American and the other to a non-Native individual who has advanced public understanding of the cultural diversity of the peoples of Washington State.  Winners receive a framed President Jefferson Peace and Friendship Medal with a certificate. If nominating for both awards, submit separate nomination materials.

·         Charles Gates Memorial Award
First given in 1965, the Charles Gates Memorial Award recognizes the most significant achievement among all articles published in Pacific Northwest Quarterly during the previous year.

·         John McClelland, Jr. Award
First given in 1989, the John McClelland, Jr. Award is presented for the best article in a particular volume of Columbia Magazine. The winning article exhibits the readability and interest that typifies Columbia.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Short Lesson: The Green Book, or, Driving While Black in Jim Crow America

I love good historical podcasts and have been working them into my public history classes. I find a podcast episode that I think my students will like, play it in class, and then have them explore some related resources in a structured way. With the current buzz around the controversial best picture, The Green Book, I thought this might be a good opportunity to share one such short lesson: 

The Green Book, or, Driving While Black in Jim Crow America

American automobile culture reached its peak in the decades after the Second World War. An economic boom, the Interstate Highway Act and a new emphasis on family vacations gave rise to a new American tradition: The road trip.  These same decades, however, were the era of Jim Crow America, where racial segregation was the rule in most public and private spaces. What was a middle-class black family to do?

Enter The Green Book. Published from 1936 to 1967, this travel guide for African-American motorists provided a list of businesses that did not discriminate. The Green Book promised blacks the opportunity to travel “without embarrassment.” Using information assembled by an army of black volunteers, the information in the Green Book was never complete, but by the 1950s the listings were extensive and nationwide, offering African Americans an opportunity to travel from coast to coast--if they planned carefully.


Possible Classroom Activities:
  • Plan a trip, pretending that you are a black family during this time period. Perhaps you are touring the major National Parks, or historic sites along the east coast, or visiting the Great Lakes. Use your imagination. Plan a six-day trip including places to eat, sleep, get gas, and use the bathroom. Your car, a 1954 Buick Plymouth Plaza Station wagon, has a range of 356 miles on a full tank of gas--less in the mountains. Your kids always swear that they used the bathroom before you left the hotel, but you know kids. Record your itinerary, either as a document or for extra points as a custom Google Map.
  • Examine the advertising and names of businesses in the Green Book. Are there ways that businesses signaled that they were open to African Americans?
  • Use Google Maps Street View picture to go looking for some of these businesses. Do the buildings still stand? What are they used for now?