What Makes History Most Memorable?

Steven Palmer is a current OHMA student. In this post, he contemplates how history might be told best.

In his superb history of Washington Heights, Crossing Broadway, Robert Snyder blends traditional historic research with oral testimony to create, at least to my mind, a template for the way in which history books ought to be written, and how history itself ought to be taught.  Though Snyder’s family left for the suburbs when Snyder was young, his parents lived in Washington Heights for decades and shared that personal history with their children.   Snyder establishes the foundation of Washington Heights’ history with traditional historical research.  But the blood that courses through the veins of this historical research is fed with the oral testimonies of everyday folks representing generations of immigrant communities living amongst each other and struggling to establish themselves for a better life. For me, this hybrid captured my imagination and allowed me to remember historical facts in a way that traditional research just wouldn’t have been able to.

The book helped place me in the history of the neighborhood I myself have resided in since 1997.

Washington Heights has been the home to multiple ethnic groups over the last 70 years including Jews, Greeks, Cubans, Germans, Irish, African Americans, and Dominicans.  They have been involved in every aspect of civic and social life from attending the public and private school systems, attending services at their local churches or temples, owning shops and restaurants, playing sports, and immersing themselves in local politics.  Though Snyder’s recounting of these histories is rich in its representation, it doesn’t prejudice the reader to favor one group over the other.   Instead what is portrayed is the back and forth, the push and pull of the aspirations of these different groups for their families in their communities.  It is the unfolding of this history in a dialectic fashion that allows Snyder to maintain an egalitarian view of how these communities struggled and cooperated with each other, often highlighting individual life stories that also speak to the importance of the community.   

One individual whose civic and personal life story POPS out for me and speaks to this dialectic is Ellen Lurie.  Lurie was a Jewish socialist with a husband and children living in Castle Village, easily the nicest housing in the prettiest part of Washington Heights.  Though Lurie was privileged, by evidence of her address, she agitated for integration of the schools – not just for students in Harlem to attend schools in Washington Heights, but also for students in the more fortunate neighborhoods to be bused to schools in Harlem.  Lurie wanted a radical remedying of this injustice when she wrote in a memoir:  “Social, economic and racial segregation can be deadly to community life.  It is apparent that integration, even when it is accepted policy, cannot take place without consistent effort.”   And this is where Snyder ineluctably matches hard evidence with oral testimony: Lurie pulls her kids out of PS 187 and sends them to PS 161 in Harlem – talk about practicing what you preach!  Sara, Ellen’s daughter, shares her testimony by saying that she and her brother Lieb were treated “like royalty” at PS 161, making friends that they visited in the projects and bringing those friends to their home in Washington Heights.   On one sad occasion, Sara brought home a black girl named Sharon Long who was jeered at by someone saying “We don’t want any niggers here.”  As Snyder points out, “the contrast between the welcome she (Sara) received at PS 161 and the rejection of her friend at Castle Village spoke volumes.”   The intensity of Lurie’s effort to bridge the education gap, as recorded in oral histories, jars the reader’s imagination.

The above paragraph is the perfect example of the value of mixing oral testimony with traditional historic research – the facts sink into the readers’ mind as they are enriched with the first-hand accounts of those who lived them.  When I read Snyder’s book, I was taken by how those stories stuck with me and I wondered how my grammar and high school education might have been enhanced had our history books been this rich hybrid of traditional and oral history – how those shared experiences might’ve resonated with me to fill my imagination in a more immediate and memorable way.  If history books were written like Robert Snyder’s Crossing Broadway, history would be a much more appreciated, valued, and utilizable discipline.