My History Is Ameria's History

By Riechers, Maggie | Humanities, November/December 1999 | Go to article overview

My History Is Ameria's History

Riechers, Maggie, Humanities

The Endowment Launches a New Program to Share Our Stories

SOME FORTY YEARS after her father became the last member of her family to emigrate to the United States, Julia Fong visited the Chinese Historical Society in San Francisco and became intrigued by a program called, "In Search of Roots." Sparked by the program and her own growing interest in her family's genealogy, Fong began a journey to discover her family's history that included interviewing relatives, examining immigration files, and touring the former Angel Island Immigration Center. She even made a trip to China.

Through her research, Fong was able to trace her grandfather's incredible journey from his homeland and to understand her family history. At the same time, she got a strong dose of American history. "Many Americans are historians without being aware of it. Most of us have heard stories that have been handed down from generation to generation like family heirlooms, defining us and linking us with faraway Places and long-ago events," says Endowment Chairman William R. Ferris.

"We want to encourage Americans of all ages to explore their families' histories and to tie their stories to the larger patterns of community life, migration, settlement, and interaction, which have grown together to make up our American history," says Ferris. That is the goal of "My History Is America's History," a project developed as part of the Endowment's end-of -the century initiative, "Rediscovering America: The Humanities and the Millennium."

In recent years the search for ancestral roots and family reunions have become popular pastimes throughout the country. A recent study, published in The Presence of the Past by Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen (Columbia University Press, 1998), found that as many as 40 percent of Americans have "looked into the history of their family or worked on their family tree." Nearly 65 percent had "attended a family reunion or a reunion of some other group of people with whom they had shared a common experience."

According to Ferris, the project is a way for Americans to make connections between families, the past, and the hopes for the future. "We can make history an adventure for the entire family," Ferris adds. "My History Is America's History," which is being launched this fall, has developed materials including a family history guidebook and a website, where family stories can be shared, to give Americans of all ages useful tools to help them explore their own and the nation's past.

"The idea is not a project on family history," says Patti Van Tuyl, a senior program and development officer in the NEH Enterprise Office. "The idea is that there are already many, many people participating in activities such as genealogical research, oral histories, family reunions, and cultural tourism in their grandparents hometowns. These people are a hair's breath away from being historians. We want to nudge them into genuine historical thinking."

American history professor James Horton, an adviser to the project, believes there is a strong fink between personal history and the country's history. "It's about connecting yourself to the nation's history," says Horton, the Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University. "We're all important in the nation's history, but people tend to make a distinction between their history and America's history." He cites as an example the experience of historians at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution when gathering artifacts for its permanent exhibition on African American migration to the north titled, "Field To Factory."

"People were asked for items they might have such as old suitcases," says Horton. "They responded,'We have some old photographs and a suitcase in the attic, but you don't want that old stuff. History is about important people! "Everyone makes history-it's not limited to the study of presidents, military leaders or heads of corporations. …

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