When we look at things from different angles, we get different answers for the same question. We get this diversity of perspective by having conversations, by reading, and, as I learned in college, by studying history.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a new way to study history — called new social history — began. It did not focus on famous events, such as the Boston Tea Party, speeches like the Gettysburg Address, or legal decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education. Instead, It focused on ordinary people, the lives they lived, the struggles they encountered and the small victories of the individual.
When we ask ourselves how something came to be from the perspective of the people rather than the famous few, we get different answers to the same question. We get answers from workers, from women and from minorities. We get our history.
That’s what the Hear, Here project is all about. This project — put together by nine students, three community members and one faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse — tells the everyday history in our downtown. We do this to gain a broader perspective of our city, beyond the common statements we tell ourselves like: “It’s a beautiful part of Wisconsin,” or “a great place to raise children.” There is more to the history of our city than this.
All the stories people will hear as part of this project will be from the voices of those who lived them. These are not historical placards telling the history of a space; these are stories that happened to real people in the space people will be standing — people like you or me. Our motto is that everyone has a story.
From the Oral History collection at UW-L, stories from the 19th century were uncovered by local historian Sue Hessel and academic engagement librarian Teri Holford-Talpe. This helps us relate stories that have fallen out of living memory.
One man explains how he was first to arrive at the carriage bridge after it was hit by a car resulting in the drowning of three people and the destruction of the bridge. Another explains how he delivered packages to the women who resided in the brothels that once spanned three blocks of our downtown.
Adding to this, students began to research, record and edit stories from average citizens. This allows us to hear Chris Kahlow tell us why it’s important to preserve historic architecture, Anne Snow tell us how the Children’s Museum of La Crosse came to be and Maureen Freedland explains the controversy around the 10 Commandments monument in Cameron Park.
New social history has a mission beyond telling the stories of the every day. It calls for us to tell the stories of those unrepresented in history, and those who have been silenced in the historic record. As one of my students Jennifer Derocher has written about La Crosse history, “We hear about the 89.8 percent white population. We do not hear about the 10.2 percent made up of African Americans, Ho-Chunk Nation, Hmong and other ethnic groups.”
In order to represent our entire population, students found stories from historically underrepresented groups, LGBT people, homeless people and foreign nationals. As well as the perspective that we so often hear, having stories from these groups will help us understand not only how the average citizen experiences our town but also those opinions that are not prevalent, and those who we might not automatically consider.
We should ask ourselves as a community: Why is it that people experience the same event in different ways? What does it mean when people experience things differently? In order to begin answering these questions, we return to the lessons of new social history and ask ourselves what are the social structures that allowed this person’s experience to take place?
The Hear, Here project launched this week and will continue until 2020. We begin with 30 stories and will add another 30 as the community sends us new stories on the phone and at our website, www.hearherelacrosse.org. In this way we will discover where our city has been, where it is now and, most importantly, we can decide as a community where we want to go next.
Join the conversation. What’s your story?