Last November, I had the distinct pleasure of joining Paul LaRue on a panel about youth service learning at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Now, truth be told, I wasn’t particularly psyched about the trip all the way out west (I’m a New Yorker), nor was I excited to hear that our session had been scheduled towards the very end of the convention’s schedule of offerings. In my mind, this represented far too closely the way so many preservationists prioritize and approach outreach to young people. They are, after all, the future of our movement and our work - not afterthoughts.
Despite my misgivings, the panel attracted a small but engaged audience of teachers and community organizers eager to discuss youth programs. And of course, with his signature enthusiasm and inspiring stories, Paul stole the show.
Before our session in Tulsa, my team at A&E Television Networks and History awarded Paul's Research History class from Washington Court House, Ohio with a national Save Our History Award for their inspiring work on the Staunton Cemetery. That was such a worthwhile and touching project. Not only did Paul’s students learn an enormous amount about the Civil War and race relations in the United States in the late 19th century, they figured out how to work with the VA to acquire headstones for forgotten soldiers.
My father was a World War II veteran, and when he turned 80, he reminded my mother and me to get the VA to provide his headstone when he died. "It's my right, and my due,” he would say. Between this touching personal experience and a general love of history that stems from an unusually empathetic response to events long past, I was enormously touched by Paul’s kids working so hard to get headstones for those African American soldiers' burial sites. Take a second to imagine being buried anonymously after going through what those men went through in their lives. Nothing makes me more proud than knowing that it was young people who ultimately got headstones for them.
To quote my dad, it was their right and their due.
These days, I hear a new Research History class from Washington Court House, Ohio is rolling up its sleeves and digging into history and archeology, this time at Good Hope Cemetery. What an apt name for their project - Good Hope. See, I know America is not - and never will be - a perfect place, but there is more justice and equality out there than ever before, and these kids are the future of that. Under Paul’s wing, they will learn so much…about process, about history, about memory. They are lucky to have him as their teacher and mentor, and I know Paul well enough to recognize that he feels lucky to have them as his students.
To Research History 2009: You are the future of historic preservation! Good luck and good hope!
- Libby O'Connell
Libby O'Connell is the chief historian and senior vice president for corporate outreach at A&E Television Networks. Stay tuned this semester as Paul and his students document their project at Good Hope Cemetery here on our blog and on their Flickr photostream.