Going through old notes I came across a lecture I attended in the fall of 1999 at the Chicago Humanities Festival. The theme that year was “Old and New” and incorporated many lectures about history. One such lecture was “History’s Value Today,” presented by four historians: Johnathan Clark, John Milton Cooper, Michael Kammen, and David Kennedy.
Clark explored the idea that history has big underlying themes. It is complex and can be used for scholarship to teach or propaganda to sway public opinion. Cooper argued that people expect to get certain knowledge out of history. Kammen took the stand that history should be studied because it is necessary to see the whole human experience. Doing so allows people to know where they are now and where they came from. Kennedy argued that history helps us see who we are and what makes us different from others. From a family historian’s perspective, Kammen and Kennedy’s arguments should be understood so we may better write our ancestors stories.
Kammen’s stand that history should be studied to see the whole human experience is crucial to family historians. We must look at the historical context of our ancestors to have some understanding of their values; the choices they made; the lives they lived; and the beliefs and ideas that were passed down to their children, and in some cases, to their present day descendants. Without looking at the historical context, we could make assumptions and judgments about the kind of person our ancestor was, that may be incorrect.
An example about making judgments about an ancestor can be taken from my husband’s Italian side. His great uncle, Fortunato Fratto, was born about 1869 in Italy, was educated, and held a job as a customs agent. He immigrated to the United States three separate times in the late 1890’s before settling permanently in Chicago. Here, in Chicago he worked for the city as a Street Cleaner. In an interview in the 1980’s with his daughter, Rose, at the University of Illinois at Chicago for the Italian Project, Rose describes her father as a very strict, demanding, almost dictator-like father figure. She describes how the children would kneel at his feet at bedtime, kiss his hand and ask for his blessing. She goes on to describe how his word was law and if you disobeyed or spoke against him, you were sometimes hit. She also describes how he felt degraded working as a Street Cleaner and how he disliked living near undesirables (people he considered lower class).
Without understanding the historical time period, one might compare him to a father in the present day and believe Fortunato was the devil himself. What kind of father behaves this way? Was he prejudice? Were some of those beliefs passed down to his children? When you examine the time period and his ethnicity, you see that class and standing were very important to Italian men. In Italy he was considered petty-bourgeoisie due to his education and occupational standing. In the United States, he was considered to be in the lower class because of his job, earnings, and language skills. As head of the house, the Italian father’s word was law. And in the early 1900’s in Chicago, ethnic groups tended to live together in certain areas of the city. While there was some mixing of ethnicities within an area, typically a street would divide one ethnic group from another, keeping the “undesirables” from being too close. The whole historical picture must be examined in order to form more correct assumptions about the lives of our ancestors. By not looking at the whole picture, how could we understand what life was like for our ancestors and their descendants?
Looking at Fortunato’s life leads into Kennedy’s desire for us to understand that history helps us see who we are and what makes us different from others. From the standpoint of looking at our immigrant ancestors, it is easier to see “who they were.” We can see what their ethnic beliefs and values were. We can see how they were different from other ethnicities. Once our ancestors became part of the melting pot, and ethnicities, beliefs and values were merged, “who we are” becomes a complex make-up of those beliefs and values. Going a step beyond looking solely at “who we are” based on ethnicity, I think we need to examine “who we are” based on being American. Who are we in the present day? How are we different from people of other countries? How are we similar and different from our assimilated and American-born ancestors? All these questions generate new insights into our family histories and provide new research paths.
Studying history today and incorporating it into our family histories, allows us to present a more historically complete narrative and make fewer incorrect judgments. It allows us to view the people as they were during the time in which they lived, rather than what we wish them to be based on our present day experiences. That is the value of studying history today.