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River Sites as Sites of Conscience: the Past Strengthens the Future

At this point in history, the early 21st century, most folks generally understand that our history hasn’t always been a uniform, steady story of progress whereby enlightened and sensitive people make unerring choices as society moves toward an ever-brighter future for everyone. (In case you think I’m being my usual semi-snarky self, let me just say that this was the dominant narrative in K-12 history classes for a very long time.)

We know, of course, that history is fraught with stories of mistakes, violence, well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) efforts that reaped unintended consequences.  Telling those stories in public places, whether through memorials, or through interpretive programs at historic sites, parks, and open spaces, is part of how our rich and complex legacy is conveyed to people today.

Shockoe Bottom is a site in the City of Richmond VA that is deeply associated with slave trading in the city’s past.  Currently, the city and others plan to redevelop the site, further erasing the opportunity to convey this painful part of the city’s past.  A coalition of local and national advocates is rallying for a different future, one that incorporates the site’s past into its present, and retains the site’s capacity to act as a “site of conscience.”

What has this got to do with our work, you may ask?  Rivers were historically the key routes of transportation, commerce, and exchange between communities, regions, and nations.  River sites such as Fort Snelling and the sites of many indigenous settlements, now all but erased in the dominant society’s memory are strong candidates to become “safe places to tell challenging stories” as a recent National Park Service report said.

A richer, more nuanced understanding of our river’s past is necessary for us to engage a broader and deeper set of possibilities for its future.

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One Comment

  1. alliesmsJanuary 26, 2015 at 10:02 am

    YES! YES! YES! And with careful consideration of who tells the challenging stories.

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