There appears to be some discussion in online history circles these days about “hidden history.”
Hidden history refers to history that is claimed to have been deliberately suppressed or ignored, either by established scholars, politicians, or the general public. Casually study history of any time period for any length of time, and it’s a guarantee you’ll soon come across hidden history of one kind or another.
This current online controversy seems to revolve around the word “hidden.” Wrote one professional historian on Twitter, “Pals, I hate the term ‘hidden histories’ increasingly and would much prefer ‘stories we discriminate(d) against,” suggesting that not only do historians quibble about terminology, but they are daringly cavalier about grammatical rules.
Added another, “I have had so many rants about this. I’ve generally settled on ‘excluded’ rather than ‘hidden.’”
Said a third, “I really dislike it for lots of reasons, mostly because it lets people off the hook. If the history has been ‘hidden’ then people have an excuse for not having seen it.”
Well, yes, that would be an excellent reason for people not having seen it. The expectation here is that those who are not professional historians should carry some blame for not knowing which patches of history have been placed beyond their reach by people—historians—who should be in the business of bringing to light all facets of history, even the unpleasant and uncomfortable bits.
Because the awkward fact is, historians who knew better did hide and otherwise obscure vast portions of the nation’s history for a variety of reasons. Mostly, their motives seem to have been to comfort themselves by assuring average citizens wouldn’t become ‘confused,’ or at least that’s what they seemed to have told themselves. Because the conventional wisdom about the nation’s history was sometimes either the exact opposite of what we—the consumers of popular history including grade and high school students—were told and taught, or that there were a lot of gray areas that made black and white, good and evil comparisons difficult if not impossible.
For instance, slavery being the major cause of the Civil War was hidden for years as the South’s “Lost Cause” myth about states’ rights dominated history texts for decades. The myth was a cornerstone of the Jim Crow Laws that terrorized Southern blacks in the late 19th Century, preventing them from enjoying the most basic rights as Americans.
In fact, the racist myth continues to be actively supported while also being publicly hidden for political reasons by many today. But all it takes is reading the actual articles of secession passed by Southern legislatures when they rebelled against the U.S. Government in 1860 and 1861 to confirm that, yes, in the words of the leaders of the Southern states at the time, slavery was THE major and proximate cause of the Civil War.
More locally, the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s was hidden when the rampant anti-immigrant and casual racism of the era moderated. This second iteration of the Klan (reestablished in 1920) was a popular and vigorous political movement here in the Midwest in general and throughout the Fox Valley in particular, bringing its opposition to and hate of immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and people of any color other than white right to our own doorsteps.
The Feb. 28, 1923 edition of our county newspaper, the Kendall County Record, reported that: “A Klan was organized in Sandwich last week when 75 of our neighboring townsmen allied themselves with the much criticized organization. The Sandwich Free Press prints the following creed of the Ku Klux Klan:
“The tenets of the Christian religion.
“Protection of our pure womanhood.
“Just laws and liberty.
“Closer relationship of pure Americanism.
“The upholding of the Constitution of these United States.
“The sovereignty of our State Rights.
“The separation of church and state.
“Freedom of speech and press.
“Closer relationship between capital and American labor.
“Preventing the cause of mob violence and lynchings.
“Preventing unwarranted strikes by foreign labor agitators.
“Prevention of fires and destruction of property by lawless elements.
“The limitation of foreign immigration.
“The much needed local reforms.
“Law and order.”
The language of these declarations is always fascinating to read. Here, that one that particularly stands out is the one concerning lynching. Which doesn’t advocate preventing lynching itself, but the ‘cause’ of lynnchings. In other words, if we lynch somebody, they made us do it—the classic excuse of spousal abusers the world over—so these people must stop making us kill them.
The extent of the Klan’s popularity is truly astonishing by our modern 21st Century sensibilities. On June 4, 1924, the Record reported: “Members of the Ku Klux Klan from Aurora, Elgin, and Joliet staged a big picnic and demonstration at the big woods east of town [Yorkville] Friday. It was a perfect day for the outing and several thousand visitors took advantage of the day to visit Yorkville, the beauty spot of the Fox, and take part in the events of the organization. During the day there was a steady influx of cars and people, basket dinner, viewing the scenery along the river, and attending the ball game. In the evening, the Yorkville band gave a concert for the visitors which was much enjoyed and the members of the Klan expressed their appreciation.
“As darkness fell a large fiery cross was displayed on a prominent hill south of the ball park and several speeches were made by Klan enthusiasts. The weird light of the cross, reflecting on the strange costumes of the members of the order made an impression on the visitors never to be forgotten and the words delivered from the speakers’ stand left an indelible impression.
“Later in the evening the members of the Klan exemplified the work of initiation on some 30 novitiates, showing the visible work of the degrees to the large concourse in attendance. It was wonderfully effective and interesting.
“The crowds who visited Yorkville during the picnic were an asset to the good name of the Ku Klux Klan. They were pleasant people to meet and the conduct of the picnic was such that made friends.”
The Klan’s local popularity and its ‘good name’ were both committed to the hidden history rolls by our parents and grandparents who simply didn’t want to talk about it.
In a more benign light, the formation of a fairly vigorous community of Black farming families just south of Oswego in the post-Civil War years was also hidden. Why these families, all comprised of former slaves, decided to settle in the Minkler-Reservation Road area after the war has unfortunately been lost to history. But settle they did, sending their children to the local one-room rural schools in the neighborhood and later into Oswego to high school, where they became the first Black graduates in Kendall County.
Numerous towns and geographical features in the Fox Valley are named after the region’s former Native American residents. The stories of what happened to those people is safely hidden behind the stories of the White settlers that arrived here in the 1820s and 1830s to pioneer the ‘empty’ prairies—which were anything but empty, peopled as they were by thousands of Potawatomi, Chippewa, Ottawa, Fox, Sauk, and Kickapoo people. The Federal Government, using the threat of military force, coerced the tribes to move west of the Mississippi starting in 1836, journeys that rivaled in misery and wretchedness the infamous “Trail of Tears” of the Five Civilized Tribes, a disaster that has been successfully obscured by the tales of those early White settlers.
With right wing politicians ascendant in states across the nation is unfortunately coming more and more forceful efforts not to bring the nation’s hidden history to light, but rather to hide even more of it, seemingly in the name of some misguided version of patriotism.
As these efforts at virtually falsifying what we know about the past gather steam, arguments about whether history is being hidden, excluded, marginalized, obscured, or whatever seem more than a bit like rearranging the Lusitania’s deck chairs.
7 responses to “When it comes to ‘hidden history,’ this is no time to get hung up on semantics”
Good local news article about Payson Wolfe, son of Charlotte Waukazoo Wolfe, nephew of Chiefs Joseph and Peter Waukazoo. For far too long this whole family’s story was absent from the memories of even its own descendants. A widespread misconception is that all the Indians based east of the Mississippi were forcibly relocated by federal government away from their traditional homelands. HOWEVER, THE WAUKAZOO BANDS AND OTHER BANDS ASSOCIATED WITH THEM WERE NEVER RELOCATED. The actions of these chiefs and their colleagues prevented that from happening. Those bands are still based in Michigan.
” arguments about whether history is being hidden, excluded, marginalized, obscured, or whatever seem more than a bit like rearranging the Lusitania’s deck chairs.” I disagree completely with this statement. What is written about and what is not written about are both valid subjects for — further writings! The view that arguments are the essence of all useful discussion is overrated. Just tell the stories, all of them and every one of them. But remain aware that those who can’t answer the question “What state is Columbus, Ohio the capitol of” will likely have little to contribute to this kind of discussion.
I was perhaps a bit unclear there. Hidden history is something that definitely needs to be illuminated, the vigorous growth and popularity of the Klan in the Midwest during the 1920s being just one such topic. What seems silly is arguing about what to call it, especially at a time when so many efforts are being made to obscure even more history.
Two of my parents’ dearest old friends in Michigan were members of the KKK for a time in the 1920s. In the 1930s they basically served as foster parents for my future parents when they were dating, and ran a boarding house where my mother lived up to the time she married my father. Despite the supposed prejudice of KKK members against Catholics, non-whites and non-WASP immigrants, they helped this couple who were variously Catholic, native American and Polish. They did leave the KKK after not many years of membership. I knew them when I was very young and even then I was impressed by their kindness and basic decency.
Here is a interesting bit of “hidden history” — about Soviet Vice Admiral Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasily_Arkhipov_(vice_admiral)
Those events were unknown to the USA until about 1992 when the archives of the Soviet Union were opened to researchers.
“In 2002, Thomas Blanton, who was then director of the US National Security Archive, said that Arkhipov “saved the world”.
Whenever people start talking about recent world history I bring him up. So far none other than me have heard of what he did.
Years ago a friend gave me a book titled “The Commissar Vanishes” about efforts in the old USSR to airbrush and otherwise remove disgraced officials from photographs taken before their elimination from Stalin’s good graces.
The American Civil War so-called was a war declared on ALL the states by The Federal Government. Before that war Whites were freemen and blacks were in involuntary servitude. After that war Whites and blacks became citizen slaves of The Federal Government. The Union Soldiers were just useful idiots in that campaign.