Street History

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Recently, I was stopped at the entrance to the Eaton Centre by a man selling a short pamphlet on Black history.  I bought a copy.  Flipping through the pages, the pamphlet shared short stories about the contributions of key Black individuals, the racism they experienced, and important moments where Canadian and American communities were open to racial and ethnic difference.

The promotion of this history at the entrance of the Eaton Centre fascinated me.  Often the public face of history is seen in museums or government issued historical plaques; but important historical narratives also exist outside of these structures, and they often tell stories that otherwise remain obscure or hidden by more official ways of historical story telling. I call this way of sharing the past street history.

Although I have been unable to find out more about the Black history pamphlet, there are a number of other similar projects that demonstrate the vibrancy of this type of history.

[murmur] is an oral history project that anchors stories from the past to specific places.  Their ‘green ears’ can be found in cities such as Toronto, Montreal, and Edinburgh.  By phoning the number on one of the ears, you can listen to a variety of histories and personal reflections about the area in which you are standing.  The stories are often deeply meaningful but seldom recognized in more official histories of the place.

Tim Groves’s ‘Missing Plaque Project’ uses historical posters as tools for social change.  Groves believes that Toronto’s history only focuses on one story, which is conservative, British, and boring.  The Missing Plaque Project challenges this story by describing lesser-known (but often equally important) historical events.  In Toronto his posters have covered the Christie Pit Riots, the Bathhouse raids, and the commemoration of the Northwest Rebellion.

Over the past two decades Mi’kmaq author and historian Daniel Paul has been leading a campaign to change some of the dominant narratives in Nova Scotian history. Although not a street history project in the same sense as [murmur] and the Missing Plaque Project, his popular book We Were not the Savages, and newspaper columns, have challenged Nova Scotians to reconsider their history in ways similar to [murmur] and the Missing Plaque Project.

Paul’s focus has been on the legacy of Edward Cornwallis.  Considered the founder of Halifax, Paul challenges the way this man has been celebrated by emphasizing Cornwallis’s desire to create a colony rid of the Mi’kmaq (he placed a bounty on their heads).  By situating the founding of Halifax in this darker history, Paul believes that the name Cornwallis should be removed from many of Nova Scotia’s public spaces to allow for a greater diversity of stories to be told.

Paul’s campaign recently met with some success in Kings County (home of the Cornwallis River).  Following a meeting with Paul in mid-March, the municipal council recommended that letters be sent to both the nearby town of Kentville and the provincial NDP government requesting that his petition for the renaming of all-things Cornwallis be officially addressed.

Paul’s work in Nova Scotia demonstrates the importance and impact of street history.  In each of the above examples, people working outside of traditional historical institutions have sought to promote alternative stories in non-traditional ways that challenge popular understandings of the past.  They draw attention to stories that have been ignored, forgotten or deliberately concealed and challenge the public to consider history more deeply.

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