American history, says Brent Glass, is “a resource for understanding our own times and our own lives.” Its study is patriotic, even when it unearths injustice and the fight against oppression.
You might remember Glass. From 1987 to 2002, he was executive director of the Pennsylvania Museum and Historical Commission, helping win PA Keystone funding to maintain historic sites. He left Harrisburg for Washington to become director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, managing a two-year overhaul before retiring in 2011.
So, when you hear that Glass has written “50 Great American Places: Essential Historic Sites across the U.S.,” with a foreword by no less than his friend David McCullough, you have to figure he knows his stuff.
Glass often returns to Harrisburg to visit family, and on a recent trip, he shared the thinking behind his new book, published by Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. There’s no magic in the list, and it’s certainly not definitive, he said. Presented chronologically, the sites encapsulate the themes of freedom, war, innovation, diversity and land and landscape.
“American identity is defined, I think, by those five things,” Glass said. “Other countries may have those same five things, but not in that unique configuration.”
Hence, the Alamo is followed by the upstate New York birthplace of the women’s movement. The tragic Indian Wars sites of Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee precede “The Bridge and The Statue”—you know the ones—in New York City.
“It’s an introduction to American history, and it’s also an appeal to public memory, that we need to remember and value these places because of how they reflect our traditions and values and ideals,” Glass said.
The book’s first listing, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is the only site presented non-chronologically.
As a kid, Glass visited the monument-dotted span he now calls “America’s front porch.” As National Museum of American History director, he stepped onto that porch almost daily. Under his watch, the museum underwent renovations reflecting new thinking in use of public space.
Under those renovations, the preserved fragments of the original Star Spangled Banner got a new gallery, and a replica of the massive 30-by-42-foot original, “meant to be seen at a great distance,” is sometimes unfurled for visitors to hold while singing the National Anthem.
It is, said Glass, “a patriotic moment,” but he added that patriotism means different things to different people. Profiling essential sites doesn’t mean glossing over the dark patches in American history. Someone once asked him, “What’s so great about Wounded Knee?” where U.S. cavalry soldiers massacred 300 Native Americans in 1890.
“What is great about it is that it’s essential to know about Wounded Knee if we’re going to understand how American history involves overcoming barriers,” he said. “And to be a democracy and to really be patriotic, we have to acknowledge the fact that there is some tragedy in our history, and we recognize it, and at least in this country, we talk about it and we acknowledge it. We don’t try to bury it.”
Similarly, from his Smithsonian tenure, Glass cities the counter from the Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth’s, where, in 1960, sit-in participants re-enacted their defiance against segregation. A schoolchild on a museum tour once asked Glass, “Did this really happen?”
“He couldn’t fathom it, that we had laws and customs enforcing segregation,” he recalled. “That was something I was proud of, that we could make history accessible, not only through our collection, which is the best in the world, but using the museum as a stage for providing the content.”
Asked his definition of patriotism, Harrisburg political consultant Charlie Gerow said that America needs citizens who “know a little bit more about history and a little bit more about civics.” The history buff, who hadn’t yet read Glass’ book but looked forward to picking up a copy, quoted 19th-century U.S. Senator Carl Schurz: “My Country! When right, keep it right; when wrong, set it right!”
But a warts-and-all view of history must be put in context, said Gerow, CEO of Harrisburg-based Quantum Communications. Any discussion of the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans should be paired with the “vicious, malicious, unprovoked attack on the American people by the imperial Japanese government,” he said.
“This is the most exceptional country in the history of the world, built on very high ideals,” he said. “Because we are human beings, we sometimes fall short of those ideals, and, when we do, it’s important to reflect on how it happened and what we need to do to correct it, but that’s not an indictment of the country or its system of government.”
Glass does, indeed, feature consecutive chapters on the Pearl Harbor attack and Minidoka Camp in Idaho, where 120,000 forcibly relocated Japanese-Americans built a community and erected an honor roll of internees who performed military service “even while family and friends were held captive in the high desert of Idaho.”
Pennsylvania appears often in Glass’ book. Gettysburg, the Liberty Bell and the forks of the Ohio River at Pittsburgh’s Point get their own chapters. Other Keystone State sites and people make cameo appearances. Gifford Pinchot butts heads with fellow conservationist John Muir. In charming but tumultuous New Castle, Del., freewheeling descendants of Dutch settlers rebel against control by the conservative Quaker government of William Penn’s Pennsylvania.
By selecting still-standing sites, Glass paid tribute to historic preservationists, including President Dwight Eisenhower, advocate for protection of the Gettysburg battlefield.
“The past is not inevitable,” Glass said. “It is not inevitable that we have these places. People made decisions to save some of these structures. And people made decisions that gave these places their historic meaning. When you go to Gettysburg, you really can appreciate how history is contingent on so many individual decisions and so many what-ifs.”
Even Harrisburg, which receives one mention as the end goal for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, has scored telling victories with the City Beautiful movement and preservation of its unique riverfront, said Glass.
“You can’t go wrong if you have access to that scene,” he said.
Harrisburg also embodies a theme of the book—that history is in our midst and easily accessible. Glass believes it’s time to stop complaining about the excess of nontaxable state properties in the city and, instead, market their tourism value, especially the Capitol, Forum building and State Museum.
“All those buildings were built at a time when they paid artists to decorate them,” he said. “I would put the Harrisburg Capitol as one of the best, not only for the Capitol building but the whole complex.”
Public disinvestment in heritage sites “is very shortsighted,” Glass said, but the passion that historical assets generate is heartening. Investments in visible history “have such a tremendous effect on the morale of people, to know they are connected to a bigger story.”
“You can’t measure that,” Glass said. “There aren’t a lot of metrics to say, ‘What’s the return on that investment?’ But I’m really convinced that we’re enriched by preserving history and knowing the history and telling that story to the next generation and getting them engaged in it.”
“50 Great American Places: Essential Historic Sites across the U.S.” by Brent Glass is available in bookstores and online.