The previous post finished with a reflection on all the stories at Suresnes that still need to be told...
While the task of pursuing all these stories seems daunting we have also found that once we started to build a network, to reach out unabashedly for support where it might be procured, to expand the crowdsourcing potential, then the resources and support necessary to find what historical documentation is available proceeds almost apace. A month and a half in we still have students jumping to the ceiling with a new document they just received from some archive they reached out to weeks prior.
I had my own such moment this week. I received an email from Lisa Oberg at the University of Washington's Special Collections. Since I made contact with her earlier this year Lisa has not failed to begin such emails with remarkable offerings. Today, she shared the following picture, of the main entrance to the University of Washington, known as Memorial Way. Lisa explained that 58 London Plane sycamores flank this entrance, one for each UW student lost in WWI, including Homer Ward. She also included the original receipt showing the planting for Ward.
In addition to these sources Lisa offered an opportunity on this Memorial Day weekend to reflect on the diversity of individuals buried in Suresnes, where they have or have not fit into our investment of research time and energy so far, and what their stories could add to our understanding of this historical moment. Lisa asked that I have a student find the geo-coordinates of the grave of Eva Emmons, a woman that died during the war and who is buried in Suresnes. As she explained, there were a number of other women that shared a similar fate and ended up in Suresnes, including twin sisters who jointly took their own lives on the journey home, possibly a result of shell shock, or PTSD.
Oberg had researched Emmons in particular and wanted to share her story on our map but she needed the exact location of her grave and monument to finalize her app pin. Peyton had already worked with Lisa because her soldier of interest was a UW alum and Lisa has helped Peyton along in her research. I explained the situation to Peyton and asked if she could find Emmons's grave and pass along the coordinates to Lisa.
Not only did Peyton meet that need, she also pointed out the graves of 4 other women, which she'd taken note of while walking from the center of Suresnes to Plot C. Peyton is now excited to lead an effort among her peers to start telling the stories of all the women buried in Suresnes and expand our contextual understanding of the war and the time accordingly. Peyton came to Suresnes this afternoon to commemorate and share what she already learned in her research but she left knowing that she had more work to do, ready to find more stories to share, and confident that she had the skills to do so.
Oberg's email and Peyton's experience in revisiting Suresnes highlighted the range of backgrounds represented in just this cemetery and how working through these varied lenses, students might better know not just the individual but the time period in all its complexity and where their service members of interest fit into that.
The possibilities for exploring this complex context through just the individuals in Suresnes are rich. Consider how students recently responded to the two Draft Registration Cards below. The one on the left has its bottom left corner torn off to indicate that the registrant was African-American. His name is Maceo Alston. He is buried in Suresnes, in Plot A, Row 7, Grave 17.
Here are some questions my students wrote about Maceo after analyzing just these two cards:
With a range of background experiences like that of Mr. Alston or Ms. Emmons, or Samuel Harrison, a Russian Jewish immigrant to Pennsylvania, Suresnes provides a rich opportunity to learn about a diverse range of the American experience in an intensely personal way. Giving our students a chance to piece together the stories of these varied lives on their own and challenging them to convey these stories to others forces them to confront and develop their own perspective on America's complicated history. These Suresnes stories challenge our students to reconcile the contribution of women in the war with their lack of agency outside of it, Wilson's record on race at home with his rhetoric on freedom abroad, and the considerable sacrifice and contributions that immigrants like Harrison made for the US despite less than ten years as a citizen. To know the lives of those in Suresnes more intimately in this way is to know America more intimately, even if it is not all so comfortable to recall.
These are hardly groundbreaking discussion points in our mainstream historical narrative. There is ample scholarship on the contradictions of the time but as a packaged narrative, such history resonates only to a limited degree. Better to put these students in a position where they can explore it for themselves, work outward from their own uncertainties, and draw their own conclusions based on evidence that they gather, which they can add to the overall narrative in turn.
Watch again as Peyton grapples with her wonders about women in the war and in America at that time. Watch as she reworks her wonders and questions based on what she Knows and what she wants and Needs to Know. Consider her attitude and confidence in her ability to carry out the Next Steps necessary to tell those stories. And consider that she is now working with the support of a professional archivist and researcher who is not just offering support and tips but treating her like a collaborator. Our time is running low but chances are she'll find more to share for those visiting Suresnes and she'll be doing so by taking a direction of her own choosing.
What you see now is a student that has come to this pivot authentically, one who will pursue the answers to these new puzzles more deeply, and feel its lessons more personally. She was empowered with the time, resources, and trust necessary to do real work, she felt comfortable taking risks in the process, and the results and direction her project have taken since the start could not have been predicted. It's her project now. And that's kind of the point.
29 May 2017