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Historians at Large on City Streets
Organization of American Historians Convention brings 2,000 Downtown

Photo by Michael Horne

Two thousand historians are in our midst for the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians and the National Council on Public History. Their conference, at the Frontier Airlines Center April 18-22, features enough panels, workshops and meeting groups to give seemingly every historian present a chance to deliver an address.

There are events for specialty groups, like the “Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era Reception” or the “Community College Historians Breakfast.”

Many of the topics of the sessions include new scholarship on old themes, like the slave trade, the early civil rights era, and the labor movement.

Milwaukee native Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, a history professor at Cornell University, was among the panelists discussing “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Rise of Punitive Policy at the Federal, State, and Local Levels.”

This sobering discussion of the get-tough-on-crime policies of recent years was a primer on racial politics. How did supposedly colorblind sentencing decisions somehow result in disproportionate levels of minority incarceration?

“Unintended consequences,” was the theme of the day, as panelists commented on the fate of prison rights activists who sought the end of indeterminate sentencing. They won that battle but lost the war, for when fixed sentences became the rule in many states, (including Wisconsin) they were set at the maximum rate.

These educational sessions follow the academic model, in which a Chair introduces the theme and the panelists, who then go on to deliver their papers, followed by remarks from a Commentator.

That’s just the way historians roll.

Of course it does little good to keep historians penned up inside a convention center, so organizers have included a “Public History Commons” on-site where all attendees are welcome to assemble to “meet a mentor, finish a cup of coffee, or gather a group for a downtown excursion.”

Historians seem to excurse as a matter of nature, and have been spotted at Benelux Cafe, The Swingin’ Door Saloon and Eatery, and marveling at such architectural wonders as the scaffolding surrounding the Iron Block Building and City Hall, along with the structures themselves, which are only slightly older.

The host committee has provided a large manifest of group and individual tours for the historians, including a tour of Turner Hall, (including optional community service time painting the building’s gymnasium), a Labor History excursion, a trip to Old World Wisconsin, and the intriguingly named “Riverwest: An Exploration of Milwaukee’s Tavern Culture for Grad Students Bus Tour,” set for Friday from 5-11 p.m. When a drinking tour has a colon in its title, it’s sure to be a hit.

Historic Milwaukee, Inc. gets a double-whammy from its tour through its “Walking Tour of Downtown With Workshop on the Creation of a Local History Nonprofit.” This is like heroin for historians.

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