Moving On: NARA’s Role in a Presidential Transition

Archivist portrait and swearing in ceremony

David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States

After the pomp and ceremony of Inauguration Day, a new President arrives at a White House that is ready to support a new administration. This readiness is made possible by months of preparation and coordination among people from across the federal government.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is proud to play a critical role in the transition from one Presidential administration to another.

Since the enactment of the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which first applied to the Reagan administration, legal custody of the President’s records are automatically transferred to NARA at noon on the last day of the administration. Right now we’re in the midst of planning a massive move, and because of the experience and expertise of our staff, we’ll be ready on January 20, 2017, when we take legal custody of President Barack Obama’s records.

When a President has served two full terms, as President Obama has, we have time to plan. The decision to build the future Obama Library in Chicago was made in 2015, and this year a temporary storage site was chosen in the Chicago area. Our staff in Washington, D.C., have been hard at work for months, packing artifacts and preparing records for eventual shipment the Midwest. By January 20, 2017, we will have transferred hundreds of millions of textual, electronic, and audiovisual records, and tens of thousands of Presidential gifts. Continue reading


Historians Ask Presidential Debate Questions


Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy debate during the 1960 presidential campaign. (Wikimedia)

Over the past couple of weeks, we asked our twitter followers the question “As a historian, what would be your first question if you were moderating the Presidential debates?” Here are some of the best responses we received.

What would you ask Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump if you were moderating the debate? Share your response in the comments below.

What lessons might we draw from the past?

Historians don’t think that history repeats itself, but they do think that it offers some useful lessons.

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Organizing the Prisons in the 1960s and 1970s: Part Three, Organizing Past, Present, Future Roundtable discussion with Dan Berger, Alan Eladio Gómez, Garrett Felber, Toussaint Losier, Lydia Pelot-Hobbs, Tony Platt, and Heather Ann Thompson. Process guest editor: Jessie Kindig.

On the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison rebellion in 1971, Process speaks with seven scholars of the carceral state about prisoners’ organizing in the 1960s and 1970s and movements protesting mass incarceration today. This is the second of a three-part series, guest edited for Process by Jessie Kindig. Check out parts one and two.

Process: Can you describe how prisoners have built movements and spaces of freedom in heavily controlled and repressive environments?

Heather Ann Thompson: This is complicated and, to my mind, often misunderstood. Earlier histories of the prisoner rights movement have tended to locate the roots of prisoner activism largely outside of prison walls—they suggest that it was activists on the outside whose agitation seeped into prisons and motivated the incarcerated to mobilize on the inside. The reality was, though, that it didn’t take outside activists to persuade prisoners to organize. The conditions of their confinement were brutal enough that acts of resistance happened regularly and collective action was seen time and again and the most effective way of netting change. To be sure, it mattered that prisoners read Malcolm and Mao, but their material circumstances bred resistance all on its own. Indeed, it was the writings and activism of prisoners—think of men like George Jackson or Eldridge Cleaver—that informed the movement on the outside as much, if not more, than the other way around. Again, prisoners experienced a level of brutality and dehumanization that even residents of the impoverished and highly criminalized communities did not. The way they made sense of this—and argued as well as mobilized against it—was deeply instructive and inspirational to the black freedom struggle writ large.

Tony Platt: There is a tendency in much of the current literature on the carceral state to emphasize its massive power and extraordinary reach: a panopticon on steroids. The web of surveillance is now so pervasive, some argue, that we are all willing participants in an “infinite loop” of self-subjugation. I think this overestimates the rationality and coordination of a “criminal justice system” that is disorganized, often chaotic, and fractured, more like Kafka’s penal colony than Orwell’s 1984. Even when the penal system is extraordinarily repressive, as in supermaxes, prisoners resist and organize, from hurling their body fluids at guards, to seeking legal remedies to alleviate the horrors of solitary confinement. Continue reading


Organizing the Prisons in the 1960s and 1970s: Part Two, Hearing Prisoners’ Voices Roundtable discussion with Dan Berger, Alan Eladio Gómez, Garrett Felber, Toussaint Losier, Lydia Pelot-Hobbs, Tony Platt, and Heather Ann Thompson. Process guest editor: Jessie Kindig.

Cover of a 1977 issue of The Angolite, published by prisoners of Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Cover of a 1977 issue of The Angolite, published by prisoners of Louisiana State Penitentiary.

On the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison rebellion in 1971, Process speaks with seven scholars of the carceral state about prisoners’ organizing in the 1960s and 1970s and movements protesting mass incarceration today. This is the second of a three-part series, guest edited for Process by Jessie Kindig. Check out parts one and three.

Part II: Hearing Prisoners’ Voices

PROCESS: Recent scholarship on the carceral state, in the JAH and elsewhere, has focused on state formation and systems of policing and imprisonment. How does a focus on prisoners’ self-organizing and prisoners’ voices add to or change this conversation?

Tony Platt: There’s always been activism inside prisons and prisoners raising their voices. We mostly don’t listen. When we do listen, their voices not only add a new layer of information and experience to our knowledge, and humanize people who have been demonized, but also change the way that we understand the carceral state. Think of the impact on public consciousness of the prison-related writings of Eugene Debs, Kate Richards O’Hare, Malcolm X, George Jackson, Angela Davis, Piri Thomas, and many more.

Toussaint Losier: Scholarship that pays attention to prisoners’ agency, their self-activity and organizing, should remind us that systems of control, however much they aspire to being total, rely on a fundamental negotiation between the seemingly all powerful and the powerless. To some degree, this scholarship should make us hopeful, as it would suggest that however concrete state institutions might appear, they are in fact permeable. If we look closely, we can find stark examples of resistance and revolt, examples that might not only add depth to our understanding of the past, but also inspiration for what is possible in the present.

On the other hand, this scholarship should also be sobering, leaving us with a sense of how key developments in state formation have been initiated in response to prisoners’ resistance. The militarization of policing, the rise of mass incarceration, and the expansion of solitary confinement are, in part, examples of state building in response to resistance. In sum, this sort of scholarship points both to the potential for rebellion as well as the backlash that failed rebellions are likely to engender.  Continue reading


Organizing the Prisons in the 1960s and 1970s: Part One, Building Movements Roundtable discussion with Dan Berger, Alan Eladio Gómez, Garrett Felber, Toussaint Losier, Lydia Pelot-Hobbs, Tony Platt, and Heather Ann Thompson. Process guest editor: Jessie Kindig.

Cell block at West Virginia State Penitentiary, site of a 1986 riot.

Cell block at West Virginia State Penitentiary, site of a 1986 uprising. (Source: Library of Congress)

On the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison rebellion in 1971, Process speaks with seven scholars of the carceral state about prisoners’ organizing in the 1960s and 1970s and movements protesting mass incarceration today. This is the first of a three-part series, guest edited for Process by Jessie Kindig. Check out parts two and three.

Part I: Building Movements

Process: What kinds of demands and visions did activist-prisoners from the 1960s and 1970s propose? What was won, and what goals were not realized?

Heather Ann Thompson: Prisoners have been treated inhumanely throughout American history and in every region of the country and they have always resisted. With increasing determination after World War II, and in conjunction with the rise of the black freedom struggle nationally, prisoners became particularly active in the 1960s and 1970s. On the one hand their demands very much mirrored those of activists on city streets—they spoke out against racism, against the violence directed at them by officers of the state, for better living and working conditions, for greater access to education, and for better medical care. On the other hand, as people under the full control of the state, their demands often and most pointedly focused on fundamental human rights—they demanded time and again to be treated like people.

Garrett Felber: The Ruffin v. Commonwealth ruling of 1871 established that a prisoner, “as a consequence of his crime, not only forfeited his liberty, but all his personal rights except those which the law in its humanity accords to him. He is for the time being the slave of the State.” This meant that nearly a century later prisoners were still denied basic constitutional rights and had little access to the courts. But the demands to basic constitutional rights of the early 1960s expanded dramatically alongside broader transformations within the black freedom struggle by the latter part of the decade. This included anti-colonial critiques of the Vietnam War, labor demands such as unions, a minimum wage, and workmen’s compensation for prison labor, as well as intersectional analyses drawn from women of color feminists. Most importantly, the movement asserted prisoners’ humanity and demanded dignity. For example, the Attica Liberation Faction ended its manifesto in 1971: “We are firm in our resolve and we demand, as human beings, the dignity and justice that is due to us by our right of birth.” Continue reading


The Trump Challenge

Delton photo (1)

Jennifer Delton is the Douglas Family Chair in American Culture, History, and Literary and Interdisciplinary Studies at Skidmore College. She is the author of several books on race, liberalism, and twentieth century U.S. history.

When I was in college, my professors regularly declared President Ronald Reagan “insane,” “irrational,” “dangerous,” and “mentally incompetent.”  The same is true of many (not all) of my colleagues today with regard to Goldwater, Nixon, or George W. Bush.  In their teaching, they explain why conservatives are wrong or racist and why people fall prey to their erroneous and dangerous ideas.  These explanations are not necessarily wrong, but they give students a deeply partisan view of the world under the guise of scholarly objectivity or “alternative” history.

At the small Northeastern liberal arts college where I teach history, most of my students describe themselves as liberal and are already inclined to see conservatives as dangerous and irrational.  My aim is not to reinforce their prejudices, but rather to help them understand the rationality and merits of ideas that may fall outside the liberal norm but are very much a part of the nation they live in.   I try to avoid the alarmist hyperbole and dismissive gibes that a large contingent of my left/liberal colleagues typically dispense when talking about Republicans and conservatives, and ask students to consider the validity of ideas that they think may be dangerous, wrong-headed, or just plain stupid.

This year I am confronted with Trump, who imperils not just a democracy, but also this teaching philosophy.  True, I can find a way to teach about Trump and his supporters, to contextualize his unlikely candidacy in the recent history of political and racial polarization, the ongoing disintegration of anything resembling a national political community, and the politics of white nationalism.  But this adopts the left/liberal academic, New York Times perspective that I would normally want to disarm or challenge.  I could, alternatively, approach the election from the perspective of horrified conservatives and Republicans, who have been forced into a politically impossible situation by the revolt of their base. But this also affirms the liberal perspective.  Either approach implies endorsement of Hillary Clinton, who, despite her shortcomings, has the trappings of a traditional candidate: discipline, competence, a clear program, and arguments to support her positions.  We may not agree about her politics, but at least we can talk about their merits and understand how rational people might disagree about them. Continue reading


Using Objects in Teaching

Geralyn Ducady

Geralyn Ducady is the Curator of Programs and Education at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.

I am the Curator of Programs and Education at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. Because I’m lucky enough to work at a museum, I am able to scaffold my teaching with material culture. Since we are an anthropology museum, we aren’t necessarily teaching only about history. We look at contemporary cultures, too (and even subcultures within the “American” culture). I’m sure many of you know that people (kids and adults) learn differently. Some people learn best through lecture (auditory learners), some learn better by seeing (visual learners), while others learn better by feeling (tactile learners), and, really, we are all some combination of those. Traditional teaching tends to do well with the first two; combining lectures with a PowerPoint or with assigned readings. The last one, tactile learning, tends to get left out. Most teachers aren’t necessarily trained to teach using objects and relevant objects can be difficult to come by. For this post, I will highlight a few of our most popular programs and explain how we use material culture in teaching.

In our Culture CaraVan outreach programs, we have objects that complement the subject-matter from the Museum’s educational collections. Education collections are separated from regular museum collections (the one people usually don’t get to touch) and are specifically selected so that they can be touched (and sometimes roughly handled by children). Some objects were ethnographically collected specifically for educational use, some are replicas made by Native American artists using traditional means, and others were re-created by volunteers (but we are trying to move away from the latter). Aside from “objects,” we also gather examples of plants and animal parts that were used in the past. Examples are pieces of ash splint alongside an ash splint basket or deer antler alongside tools fashioned from antler. In one of our most popular programs, Native People of Southeastern New England, students can feel a soft deer skin moccasin that would have been worn by Indigenous people in the early contact period compared to a hard-soled moccasin worn under influence of the English colonists. Sometimes called ‘realia’ by Pre-K to 12 teachers, learning from objects makes the experience more tangible.

Used to seeing things on television or the Internet, students often ask “is this real? Like really real?” The experience excites them into wanting to learn more and leads them to remember more details at a later date. Continue reading


Imagining Futures: Architecture, Planning, and the Black Power Movement

Courtesy Arthur Symes.

Courtesy Arthur Symes.

Brian D. Goldstein’s open-access article, “‘The Search for New Forms’: Black Power and the Making of the Postmodern City,” appears in the September 2016 issue of the Journal of American History. His forthcoming book, The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle Over Harlem, will be published in February 2017.

In May 1968, J. Max Bond, Jr. stood before a group that left few other traces in the historical record: Architects and Planners Against the War in Viet Nam. Bond, who was African American and himself an architect, took this occasion to angrily denounce two ongoing federal programs: the Vietnam War and urban renewal, the government-backed clearance and reconstruction of American cities in the postwar period. The war’s violence and destruction showed America’s disregard for non-white people, Bond explained. So too did urban renewal. “Urban renewal has meant Negro removal, and still does,” Bond told his audience.

In his wide-ranging speech, Bond wondered about other ways of shaping the city. Specifically, he envisioned methods that remained within the rubrics of architecture and planning, but with very different kinds of people doing the shaping. “The idea of a Black expression in architecture is… something that is scoffed at, for which there is very little respect,” he noted. Yet, he contended, “it seems reasonable… to expect that were Black Americans in a position to express their particular conditions and values through understanding architects and planners, distinctive buildings and plans would result.”

Bond’s argument—that race mattered in forming the built environment, and that empowering African Americans to determine the shape of their communities would produce a different sort of city—grew out of frustration with the costs of urban renewal but also drew from the larger politics of the ongoing black power movement. Black power activists demanded the right to racial self-determination, arguing that community control of education and government could improve inequalities that racial liberalism had ineffectively addressed. They also sought control over urban space itself, as their movement took root in predominantly black neighborhoods across American cities.

The vision that resulted from this pursuit is the focus of my article, “‘The Search for New Forms’: Black Power and the Making of the Postmodern City,” in the September 2016 issue of the Journal of American History. The article’s title comes from a phrase in Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton’s 1967 book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, effectively the manifesto of the black power movement. In demanding racial self-determination in schools, housing, politics, and business, they called for “new forms.” As Bond’s example shows, this phrase had concrete implications too. Black power activists imagined alternative urban futures through the formal vocabulary of architecture and planning. Continue reading


Imagining Ben Anderson


Augusto Espiritu teaches history and Asian American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Five Faces of Exile: The Nation and Filipino American Intellectuals and co-editor of Filipino Studies: Palimpsests of Nation and Diaspora. He also edits Brill’s series Southeast Asian Diasporas in the Americas.


Benedict Anderson was a giant in the human sciences and I am both honored and daunted by the task of contributing some reflections about him. I am reminded of something Victor Turner said about systems, which now seems strangely apropos: “the culture of any society at any moment,” said Turner, “is more like the debris, or ‘fall-out,’ of past ideological systems, than it is itself a system, a coherent whole.”[i] In the wake of Anderson’s passing, I suspect that we (his intellectual inheritors) shall be living with “the debris,” the “fall-out,”—the specters, as Jacques Derrida might say—of all that he has contributed to this unstable field of knowledge. I take comfort in the fact that it will take some time to comprehend Anderson’s life, work, and activism. And so I offer these fragmentary, fleeting thoughts towards the realization of that future project. While I am no Anderson expert, what I have discovered in writing these reflections is that throughout my entire intellectual life, I have been inspired and engaged by him. It has been a critical engagement, but an engagement nonetheless, an ongoing conversation, even if I have only imagined it. I am not unique in this, but this is perhaps the highest tribute I can give him.


I have no special relationship to Anderson. As an undergraduate, I saw him speak once at UCLA. I don’t recall anymore what the topic was. I just remember a dry presentation by a tall, elderly white man, though he impressed me as being extremely knowledgeable. No doubt I was more interested in the quotidian struggles I was going through as an activist—affirmative action, ethnic studies, boycotting grapes, ending martial law in the Philippines, or divesting from South Africa—to appreciate his wisdom. To my regret, I did not come up after his talk to shake his hand or to introduce myself, as that was the only time I ever came face to face with him.


Like so many scholars, my acquaintance with Anderson came through Imagined Communities.[ii] It was in 1991, while taking Michael Salman’s “History of the Philippines” class that I encountered him. He will forever be associated in my mind with his former students—Reynaldo Ileto and Vicente Rafael—to whom Michael had also introduced us. At that time, I was in my second semester of the master’s program in Asian American studies at UCLA. I would encounter the book again as a doctoral student in history. My cohort of scholars in U.S. history—Ned Blackhawk, Bob Myers, Jaime Cardenas, Arleen de Vera, Joan Johnson, and Anthony Macias—was exposed to his ideas. For several of us doing work in Philippine and Filipino American studies, working with Michael Salman for our dissertations, Anderson had a special importance—Arleen de Vera, Catherine Ceniza Choy, and myself. Having spent some of his most fruitful years as a scholar of Indonesia and as a notable participant in its history in the 1960s and 70s, Anderson had turned his sights to other Southeast Asian countries, especially for us, the Philippines, as evidenced by his long sections on Jose Rizal, the Philippine national hero, martyr, novelist, and intellectual par excellence. I suspect this phase was what concerned us most of all. I confess that to this day, with the exception of a scintillating article on power in Java, which helped to inspire Reynaldo Ileto’s landmark study of Philippine popular movements under Spanish and American rule,[iii] much of Anderson’s writings on Indonesia remain, for me, terra incognita.

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From the Archives… September 11, 2001 and the War on Terror


On September 12, 2001, a New York Times editorial described the horrific attacks of the previous day as “one of those moments in which history splits, and we define the world as ‘before’ and ‘after.’” Yet as all of us know, history never rips in two. “Before” and “after” are never entirely severed, even in the moments of greatest historical rupture. The discontinuities of the past always remain within the whole cloth of the longue durée. As historians, we devote our careers to placing the seemingly new in historical contexts.

These were editor Joanne Meyerowitz’s opening words for the Journal of American History special issue on “History and September 11.” Published a year after the attacks, this issue brought together scholars from across many fields to think through the attacks historically.

Several of the special issue’s authors used their historical scholarship to challenge the ideological formations of the early stages of the “War on Terror.” Michael H. Hunt argued that a deeper awareness of history would allow us to move past simplistic binaries in our framing of the War on Terror. He wrote “Historical perspective will not make any easier the resolution of the difficulties now facing the United States in the Middle East. On the other hand, it would be reckless to engage ever more deeply and especially militarily in the region without first considering the possible pitfalls that a historical perspective might reveal.” Likewise, Bruce R. Kuniholm rejected the Cold War–era framing of America’s geopolitical context after 9/11. Rather than viewing the War on Terror as a clash of states and civilizations, he wrote, “it is a conflict within states, within cultures, and within an increasingly global community over the values and ideas that underpin modernization and the norms and direction of modern civilization.” In his piece, Bruce B. Lawrence reminded readers that the terrorists who flew airplanes into the Pentagon and World Trade Centers were not just driven by religion, but also by global disparities in economic, political, and military power. Finally, R. Scott Appleby explored the historical worldviews of fundamentalist movements within Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Meyerowitz added in her introduction to the issue that “if we learned anything from the events of September 11, we should have learned, once again, that we cannot understand American history by dwelling solely on the United States.” A number of contributors to this special issue took up this point. By working through the thirty-year history of pre-9/11 terrorism, Melani McAlister challenged George W. Bush’s claim that the War on Terror would be “a new and different war.” Nick Cullather examined U.S. development schemes in Afghanistan in the mid-twentieth century (this article was accompanied with student exercises and primary sources). John Prados looked to the first U.S. war in Afghanistan, in the 1980s, to understand the second war in the 2000s. Nur Bilge Criss examined U.S.-Turkish relations since the 1950s to study the roots of anti-Americanism. Similarly, Ussama Makdisi offered an overview of anti-American sentiment in the Arab world.

September 11 had historiographical consequences far beyond this special issue. The June 2011 issue of the Journal of American History included a state-of-the-field on “Terrorism and the American Experience” by Beverly Gage. When the September 11 attacks occurred, Gage writes, no “coherent historiography of terrorism” existed. But the period following the attacks has witnessed a new “post–9/11 boom” in writing on terrorism. Gage was interviewed for the June 2011 JAH podcast and her article was featured in the Teaching the JAH section. Continue reading