Roger Aden is Professor of Communication at Ohio University. This interview is based on his new book, Upon the Ruins of Liberty: Slavery, the President's House at Independence National Historical Park, and Public Memory (Temple University Press, December 2014).
RA: I was immediately struck by the power of the story: an amateur historian, responding to disinterest from the National Park Service, determines the exact site and layout of the executive mansion of George Washington and John Adams. He also discovers that Washington kept nine Africans enslaved in the home, circumventing Pennsylvania law to deny them their freedom. Two compelling tales, and both were found in the same place: on the front door of the new Liberty Bell Center in Independence National Historical Park. As each chapter of the story unfolded, the complexities of doing public history in the park known as "the cradle of liberty" became evident. I learned of the story a couple of years after it emerged, and I immediately knew that the project deserved a book-length treatment. I resolved to follow the process to the end, so that a full accounting of how the saga unfolded would be available.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Upon the Ruins of Liberty?
RA: Upon the Ruins of Liberty reveals how the nation and the caretakers of its history continue to struggle with how we can simultaneously honor the magnificent achievements of the nation's founders while recognizing the widespread, systematic denial of liberty to enslaved Africans. In telling the story of the development of the President's House site, the book vividly illustrates how racial politics and public history collided in every step in the process--from recognition to design to interpretation.
JF: Why do we need to read Upon the Ruins of Liberty?
RA: The book provides two distinct contributions. First, it offers a beginning-to-end account of the development of a public memory installation. While we often recognize how completed public memory sites tell selective stories about history, we don't always get to see how those selections are made. In this case, I had the advantage of examining a very public process that was extensively covered in the Philadelphia media and, perhaps more important, the willingness of individuals involved in the process to talk to me about what happened along the way. Second, the book explains how this particular story of public memory is at once the product of local politics, the National Park Service's organizational culture, and the history of race in the United States. In many cases, we understand a site only within the context of its physical placement and/or sponsoring organization. The President's House site, however, is a product of a multitude of intersecting interests--many of them lingering since the nation's founding. All told, readers will learn about the messy process involved in crafting a memory site and the ways in which the nation's legacies of slavery and inequality emerged in this site.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RA: I'm not a historian, but a student of the places in which we invest ourselves. I've written about places of the imagination (Popular Stories and Promised Lands), places where cultural histories and geographies intersect (Huskerville), and now places of public memory. My interest is in the meanings places have for us, and those meanings invariably have historical roots. I like to think that I bring a historically-sensitive and meaning-focused perspective to my study of places.
JF: What is your next project?
RA: I'm beginning a project on why, how, and to what effect we carry individual places of memory with us as we travel through life.
JF: Thanks Roger!
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner