Wednesday, April 12, 2017

NCHE 2017 Highlights

By Jeff Burns

I just attended the annual conference of the National Council for History Education held in Atlanta.  It’s always fun to hang out with people from all over who are big history nerds, just like yourself, and to learn about new stories and new resources.


Here’s a list of the some resources I learned about from sessions and exhibitors.

The US Army Heritage and Education Center - Educators Toolbox with lots of primary and secondary sources, lesson plans,  and topics related to the American military

James Madison Foundation not only provides fellowships to teachers who want to more US Constitution knowledge, but they also provide lessons and have a Youtube series called Constitutional Conversations, which consists of illustrated lectures by scholars on various topics.

The American Bar Association has lesson plans for all levels.



The Smithsonian American Art Museum offers a summer workshop history and English teachers and lots of resources online  and offers video conferences between curators and your classes.  They also The American Experience in the classroom which looks very promising. 

The Smithsonian also offers Learning Lab which allows you to pull objects and documents from across all the digital collections of all the museums. You can create your own collection or view others. 

Backstory, a program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, is a podcast.  If you’re a history fan, give it a listen.  

Interested in economic history? The Federal Reserve has lots of info for you.

Tons of resources available at the Digital Public Library of America

STEAM or STEM school? Looking to combine history and technology?  REACH


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Charleston: Happy Historic House Hopping!

By Jeff Burns

Charleston South Carolina is full of history, wherever you look.  There is no shortage of historic homes that you can tour.  Sure, on Plantation Road, you can see several plantations, or the remains of plantations. However, I think the real treats are the houses in town.  For most of the plantation owners, plantation life was not suitable for entertaining and socializing, so most planters owned a townhouse as well.  Many of these houses have been carefully preserved, and they comprise a fascinating part of Charleston’s unique architectural history.

If visiting Charleston, your first stop has to be the Visitors Center. Knowledgeable, friendly people are there to answer any questions and to make recommendations, and you can purchase a Heritage Passport that you will need.  For one bargain price, you can get admission to most of the houses and numerous other sites. From the downtown visitors center, go across the street to the Charleston Museum, which bills itself as America’s oldest museum. There you can see Charleston’s story, the natural and cultural history of the South Carolina low country.

Nearby, the museum maintains two outstanding house museums: the Joseph Manigault House and the Heyward-Washington House. The Manigault House was built in 1803 by one of the wealthiest rice-planting families, and it is a terrific example of Federal-style architecture and furnishings. 





The Heyward –Washington House was built by a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and George Washington stayed there for a week during his presidency. It has another famous person connection, as well. It was the childhood home of Sarah Grimke.  Sarah and her sister Angelina were unique in American history.  Born to a prominent slave-owning family, the sisters became two of the most famous abolitionists and women’s rights advocates of their day.



Garden and rear 

I wrote about the Aiken Rhett House in another blog, as an example of preservation instead of restoration
.  The goal  is to show the original house as much as possible. It was built around 1820 and passed down through family members for 145 years.  One of the most interesting aspects of this house tour is the life of the urban slaves who worked here.  The two prominent outbuildings are the kitchen/laundry and the stables/carriage house.  Twelve or fifteen slaves lived and toiled here.




At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Nathaniel Russell House, built in the late 1700s by one of the wealthiest planters and merchants in Charleston. It is beautifully restored to the state of luxury and grandeur that one of America’s wealthiest families of the 18th century enjoyed.



These are just a few of the impressive house museums open to you when you visit Charleston.  Don’t miss them!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Charleston, South Carolina: Telling the Story Through Preservation

By Jeff Burns

If you’re a history lover, Charleston is a great city for you to visit.  In colonial America, it was one of the most prosperous cities, and it was a leading city of the South well into the 19th century.  Of course, Charleston is also where the Civil War began, when South Carolinians opened fire on Fort Sumter, forcing its surrender.  Charlestonians are keenly aware of their history, and they have been for quite a while.  Charlestonians have been actively preserving and commemorating their rich history for well over a century. There’s history everywhere you turn in the city and surrounding area.  

A visitor to Charleston can not only enjoy this history and the gracious hospitality for which Charleston has long been famous, but also enjoy a lesson in historical preservation versus restoration. We’ve all been in beautifully restored homes and buildings where the trustees have gone to great pains to display the house as it might have been in its prime, carefully re-creating carpets, wallpaper and paint, and  furniture.  Some houses are even fortunate enough to have some of the original family possessions to display.  Charleston has a number of these houses, and they are great.  However, Charleston also has a couple of examples of another way of thinking, preservation.

Preservation is the idea that the buildings themselves tell an important story.  The mission of preservationists is to keep the building as close to its original condition as possible and to arrest any deterioration.  Therefore, when you enter a preserved house, you won’t see furniture or fineries.  Instead you’ll see faded paint, torn wallpaper and carpets, exposed boards, and even holes in the wall. 

There are two great preservation sites in Charleston.  First is Drayton Hall, first occupied in the 1750s and passed down through family members until it became a historic site in the 1970s.  It is a rarity on Charleston’s Plantation Road, virtually the only “big” house not destroyed by Union troops during the Civil War.  Legend has that it the occupant at the time, a physician, saved the house by flying yellow flags on the road, alerting Union troops to the smallpox cases being treated there.  Apparently, the plantation had been used to treat small pox among slaves, but historians still haven’t confirmed the story.

Drayton Hall is a can’t-miss sight in Charleston.  We were fortunate to have a guided tour from Mac, a young docent whose excitement about working at Drayton was clearly visible, as he led us from room to room.  Although the house is devoid of furnishings, Mac’s knowledge and stories helped us visualize life on the plantation over the years.  Two features stand out for being very evocative. One is the unmistakable set of fingerprints on one of the bricks in an interior wall, fingerprints probably belonging to a slave boy of 10 or so who was a brickmaker or an apprentice.  Most of the bricks used in Charleston construction were made by slaves on local plantations, of local clay. The second is the little hole cut into the bottom of the attic door, possibly the oldest extant cat-door in the United States, cut so that the cat could have easy access to attic rodents.  

In the city, there is another example of preservation.  Many of the plantation owners had townhouses as well, for entertaining and urban living.  One of these houses now owned by the Charleston Museum is the Aiken–Rhett House, built around 1820 and occupied by the same family for the next 142 years.  Not only do you see the house on the self-guided tour, but you also get a small sense of the life of the urban slaves who lived and worked in the kitchen, laundry, stable, and carriage house out back.




For more pictures, go to the Histocrats’ Facebook page and explore the Charleston album.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Docents Make a Difference

By Jeff Burns

You’ve probably noticed that we Histocrats love good tours, and we’ve taken a lot of tours. We’ve also had experiences with a lot of docents or tour guides, some great and some not so great.  A docent can make or break a visitor’s experience.  We love history so much that it pains us to know that “civilians” sometimes get stuck with a weak docent, and that docent’s performance can affect a visitor’s attraction to history.

On a recent trip to Charleston South Carolina, I experienced the good and the bad.  At Drayton Hall, an antebellum plantation, our tour guide was Mac, a recent graduate with a degree in history.  He embodied all the attributes of a great docent.  First of all, he knew his stuff, but he didn’t pretend that he knew all the answers.  We have had our share of docents who didn’t know their stuff.  That can be dangerous if there are history teachers in the tour group. Secondly, he was a natural.  It didn’t feel like a canned speech, from rote memory.  I’m sure that he hits the same major points with each tour, but it felt like he was talking just to us. At another historic home, the docent was obviously repeating the same memorized script, with no variation, which leads us to point three.  Mac was enthusiastic. It was obvious that he loved the house and he loved his job.  He made our visit to Drayton Hall a wonderful experience.


Docents are an important part of a museum or historic site, and the Histocrats salute all the great ones. Thank you for making history come to life!