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Heritage and history two different things


I try not to use it as a crutch.

But for someone who has had to come up with a weekly historical story for the News-Sun’s Monday edition for a couple of decades, I take comfort in knowing there’s a list of local historic disasters I can turn to.

My go-to list is in the small collections category in the archives of the Clark County Heritage Center.

Those interested can check it out easily: Get online, search for “Heritage Center of Clark County,” click on “Library and Archives” at the left, then on “Search our Collections” and type in “disasters.”

Hit enter and you’ll be transported into the world of retro Nostradamus, which translates from its original Latin as “desperate journalist” (see Tom Stafford).

So, for instance, I’ve never written about the flood that overflowed Mad River in March of 1866 in which a horse survived but its rider was swept away. But I could.

Nor have I done a story about the fire the next year in which Capt. Oscar died of internal injuries after a fall down an elevator shaft.

If needed, I could look up old papers to find out about cyclones that struck the south end of Springfield in 1892 and 1894 or the half million dollar fire at the Buffalo Springfield Road Roller Co. April 11, 1917.

Or my mood might move me in the direction of the collapse of the Columbia Theater into Mill Run on Sept. 28 of the same year.

More interesting to me, however, is that the list of disasters includes the city’s 1904 and 1906 race riots and the city’s KKK convention the day after April Fool’s Day, 1913.

This caught my attention the other week after the small flap over the appearance of a Ku Klux Klan photo in the exhibit of historic photos at the Greene County Fair.

There had been a similar photo in the Clark County Fair as well, though it did not garner the Blue Ribbon like the photo at the Greene County Fair did before officials withdrew the ribbon and, in Survivor fashion, voted the photo off the island.

Strictly speaking, the photo of the Klan rally is simply a historic photo, one a serious collector is likely to collect. Where the confusion comes in, of course, is over whether an image of such an event should be associated with a blue ribbon.

This gets to the heart of the difficulty we have in handling a wide, ugly swath of American history.

The reason for our troubles, I think, is twofold: One, ugly truth is hard to deal with, pure and simple. And there are some ugly truths in American history.

Two, we like to associate stories of American history with an uplifting spirit — a way that affirms the values and celebrates what we want to associate with the nation and our ideals.

Sometimes the two are hard to reconcile.

While trying to sort this out a few years back, I fell into the very kind of foul-mouthed funk that descended me the morning I decide to finally untie the knot one one side of my shoelace that made it difficult to tie my laces for a couple of years.

In an apparent move to guarantee failure, I decided to shred my fingernails on the knot while not quite awake and in the pitch dark of my bedroom.

Fortunately, a friend came to my rescue — not on untying the shoelace, but in picking apart the historic knot.

When I complained how out of touch we sometimes seem with some of the undeniable ugliness of American history, John Bernard told me a simple truth.

For the most part, history is taught to the young. Knowing that, we want to teach them the inspiring aspects of our history story so they can be inspired. We want to make sure our children know our flag is worth pledging allegiance to.

The downside is that it can lead to a lifelong delusion that American history, our story with all the warts and ugliness, is the same thing as American heritage, that part of our history we like to celebrate.

So when bits of real and ugly history surface — when a historic photo of a Klan rally shows up at a county fair — we consider it some kind of disaster. And, given our history, we wonder whether it’s part of someone’s attempt to celebrate ugliness as a virtue.

But for me, the bottom line is this: As uncomfortable as it can be, I think it’s important for us to stay in touch with our history at the deeper, sometimes down-and-dirty level.

Keeping the discussion on the polite plane of American heritage encourages a shallow understanding of history and encourages us to gloss over our often all-too-human behavior.

Furthermore, failing to fully acknowledge our failings make it more likely that we’ll fail learn from them and fail again — not something true history allows.

I, too, like to celebrate our American heritage.

But I try not to use it as a crutch that allows me to forget that our history includes the Klan. Forgetting, it seems to me, is the path to a series of more profound disasters than the ones on my Heritage Center go-to list.


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