“Normal” People Made History

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

“Why would I want to study peasants, when I can study kings?”, asked a fellow historian, who is a best-selling author.   “Kings,” he continued, “made history.”    

He was reacting to my comment that it’s important to study “normal” people.  My friend thought I trumpeted the usual, social history mantra.  But I meant something different.

For reference, let me first define social history.  It is the emphasis on the experience of ordinary Americans, and according to one historian, it is “attention to previously neglected groups. . . . [and] a fundamental redefinition of history.”  Since the 1960s, a new American history is being written that puts workers and minorities—to name two examples—as principal agents in the making of United States history.  Social history also presents government intervention (not all the time, but most of the time) as the solution to societal problems.  If a problem wasn’t solved, it was because the government didn’t intervene enough.

My friend’s sarcastic answer was based on that definition, and because many social historians have overemphasized previously ignored groups and movements and have undone the American narrative. But he missed my point:  Many times it’s not the subject that is the problem, but how it is studied and presented.  For instance, by studying ordinary Americans, one can learn how individuals and families solved many of their own problems.  In short, one can learn how the free market has offered solutions to societal problems.

To me, strictly asking questions dealing with kings or presidents or officials indicates an assumption that only important things happen in government, because kings “made history.”  In some ways, then, this “conservative” or “traditional” approach to history can also foster statist assumptions and continue to ignore the history of the private sector in America.

Here are three examples from African American history that reveal the history of the private sector:

1.    In 1928, the Raleigh News and Observer featured a story about “Aunt Eliza,” a freedwoman who earned an income and took care of needy children in her neighborhood.  She assisted white families with newborn children.  Her income enabled her to buy a farm and home in which she later provided a “refuge for all the little outcasts and waifs in the community.”  Eliza trained the children in “habits of industry” and to obey the “laws of God and man.”

2.    During an age when government passed segregation laws, Charlotte Hawkins Brown established a school in 1902 for African Americans in Sedalia: the Palmer Memorial Institute.  A good fundraiser, Brown secured private funds to keep the school open for over 50 years.  Palmer Memorial students had a rigorous curriculum that not only included traditional subjects but also music, French, tennis, and etiquette.    

3.    Another example from African American history is to look at the increasing number of black property holders and businessmen during the late 1800s.  Black businessmen and women were experiencing economic success.  Robert C. Kenzer in Enterprising Southerners reveals how these African Americans earned profits while providing goods and services for blacks and whites in their communities.  

The examples could go on.  Even everyday life provides stories.  The act of going to work and providing for one’s and for his or her family’s needs is a remarkable story.

This Fourth of July, I will indeed remember my favorite presidents and the founders of the United States of America and the principles for which they fought, but I will also remember ordinary Americans, then and now, who embody the American innovative, individualistic, and rugged American spirit.