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>  News Releases >   2006 >   October

Politics of Memory - A Conference in Honor of James O. Freedman

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs
Posted 10/24/06 • (603) 646-3661

Welcome and Introduction by President James Wright

Thank you, Ned, and thank you for all that you have done to envision and lead this conference. It is a pleasure to add my welcome to those you have already received and it is wonderful to see so many colleagues here today. 

It is an honor to join you today as we celebrate a part of the intellectual legacy of Dartmouth's 15th President, James Freedman.  Jim was intellectually curious and as President he encouraged and led all of us - students, faculty, staff and community members - to question, to probe, and to take pleasure in learning more about ourselves and our world. Throughout his tenure as President of Dartmouth he devoted much thought to the need for the academy to play a greater role in setting the course for a national discourse on the most crucial topics of our time. As the leader of an educational institution he felt it was critical that he use his position to call attention to not only the greatest achievements, but also our failures.  He believed that to understand the present we cannot reject aspects of history that we find unflattering or might be subject to criticism.

Jim would very much have enjoyed a conference on "The Politics of Memory." Indeed, he enjoyed all academic conferences. But this one would have been particularly important to him. He was proud that Ned LeBow was the inaugural occupant of the James O. Freedman Professorship. We are delighted that Professor LeBow is on our faculty. His research, his presence, his questions and his thoughtfulness make this a more interesting place. Ned, thank you for organizing this conference.

W.E.B. Du Bois once wrote:

One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. ...We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner . . . and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.

Surely, history does not always tell the truth - and this is not primarily because chroniclers and historians seek to deceive. Sometimes they do, of course, but not normally. That would be too easy an explanation for histories that are not fully truthful. More fundamentally, as we seek to find the truth we need to pay attention to the questions we ask, the assumptions we challenge, who and what we seek as sources, and the methods we use.

Ruth Simmons, the President of Brown University, asked a different set of questions a few years ago when she established a committee to look into that university's implication in the slave trade, and this week the committee released their report, "Slavery and Justice." The report is very well done. They had the courage to confront some difficult aspects of their history. We will review their report to see what we can learn from it.

As a historian I have sometimes asked different questions about this College's history. Dartmouth did not have the same involvement with the slave trade, but we nonetheless have some matters in our own past that can more fully be part of our history. Our founder Eleazor Wheelock did not keep the promises about Dartmouth that he made to Samson Occom, a Mohegan Indian who assisted Mr. Wheelock in raising money for Dartmouth to provide an education for Indian youth. Very quickly there were no Indian students at Dartmouth. And it was in recognition of this unkept promise that President John Kemeny started our modern efforts to recruit Native American students.

Edward Mitchell, whom we celebrate as the first African American to graduate from Dartmouth in 1828, was most probably the slave - not the servant as he was typically described - of President Francis Brown, who brought him to Hanover from the Caribbean. Nathan Lord, Dartmouth's sixth president, during the Civil War supported slavery and fought with the board of trustees about awarding an honorary degree to Abraham Lincoln. The irony is that Mitchell was admitted and that Lord also admitted several African American students to the College well before many other universities did. We know that Dartmouth was not as open to Jewish students in the years before World War II as it could have been. Jim Freedman, our second Jewish president, helped us to understand and confront that. We should explore these questions - and others - as we seek to make Dartmouth true to its founding mission.

As a historian and as president, I have been concerned at Dartmouth that we have so little public memory around our record on diversity. The assumption usually is that we do not have much of a history here, or if we do, it is fairly short. But in fact, the history of African Americans at Dartmouth is a long and proud one - and it is a history that we should remind ourselves of frequently. In the 19th century Dartmouth was a true leader in admitting and graduating African-American students. John Hope Franklin said at my inauguration in 1998 that few colleges could claim as long a commitment to diversity than could Dartmouth. This history has not always been respected, but it does exist, and it needs to be celebrated.

In addition, we also need to think about the methods we employ to ensure that historians capture the full range of voices that contributed to our history. I spent much of my professional life working to expand our understanding of the past and giving voice to those who had not been heard. I worked to understand better miners and farmers, seeking different types of records in order to do this. One of the most interesting projects was my work in the 1970s on a documentary film on the Battle of the Little Big Horn. I was concerned that essentially all of the records were from one side - and none of the participants from that side lived to record what happened anyway! So I with a small film crew went up to Pine Ridge, out to the Kyle area where the Crazy Horse band had lived, and talked to the old people. They had an oral history that was critical. Frank Fools Crow contributed greatly to the retelling of that particular event.

I still recall spending a full summer day with him nearly 30 years ago. Mr. Fools Crow - or Talbert Looking Elk or Johnson Holy Rock and others with whom I visited may also have had an incomplete understanding of what had happened. But their views needed to be part of our common memory.

Provost Barry Scherr will speak in more detail about President Freedman and his contribution to the way we remember Dartmouth history. Barry is the Mandel Family Professor of Russian and has written extensively in the fields of linguistics and modern Russian literature. I am often impressed with how well he keeps up his scholarship while also doing all the things that he does as provost. It is not unusual to walk into his office to find him surrounded by Russian texts that he is working on between meetings on facilities or budgets.

Barry joined the Dartmouth faculty in 1974. In addition to his teaching and scholarship, he has served as Associate Provost, as Associate Dean of the Faculty for the Humanities, and as Chair of the Department of Russian Language and Literature. Barry helped found the Jewish Studies program at Dartmouth and also the Linguistics and Cognitive Science program, a program he went on to Chair.

During the many years we have worked together Barry has demonstrated his willingness to face challenges head on, inviting the full participation of our entire community. He never runs from our history, but always seeks to learn from it. He is currently chairing two committees - one on our hiring and retention process and the other on how we can better coordinate our diversity programs. I am delighted to have him as a colleague - he is someone I depend on frequently for his good judgment and guidance. Please join me in welcoming Provost Barry Scherr.

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