A historical dig will take place on the campus of Albion College later this month. But this excavation will rely on conversations and tours with local historians instead of the more traditional trowels, brushes and sieves.
Those who speak and guide will focus on the history of the city of Albion, in addition to events and individuals of historical significance in surrounding communities such as Battle Creek, Homer, and Jackson during the Historical Society of Michigan’s 148th Annual Meeting and Michigan History Conference Sept. 23-25.
This year marks a return to an in-person gathering after a virtual format necessitated by COVID, says Erika McDowell, Events Manager for the state Historical Society. She says between 175 and 200 people are expected to attend the two-day event.
“The Michigan History Conference travels throughout the Lower Peninsula every year and visits a different city with a goal to tell that region’s history,” she says. “We always try to either find someplace new or try to not go to the same city within at least 10 years.”
Attendees at this year’s conference
will have opportunities to take walking tours of Albion College and surrounding communities including Marshall and Homer to better understand their historical significance to Michigan.
The location of this year’s conference speaks to the deep commitment Albion College
has to the history of the region where it’s located and the ongoing development of a lived history, says Cathy Cole, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for the College.
“We have deep connections with many of the folks who come from Michigan and have made a huge contribution to our community,” Cole says. “We try to bring that alive by hosting conferences like this and scholars who want to learn through in-depth learning.”
The late President Gerald R. Ford established the Gerald R. Ford Institute for Leadership in 1977 at Albion College and Dr. James L. Curtis, an Albion College alumnus, established the James L. Curtis Institute for Race and Belonging at the College in 2020.
“As much as we want to bring our students experiential learning as part of their liberal arts education, we certainly want to open up our campus to these opportunities for others,” Cole says.
Those who participate in the conference will be able to learn about historically significant contributions to the region, including the Anishinabek people who found and harvested wild rice throughout the Great Lakes region; the musical history of African Americans in Battle Creek; and Harriet Quimby, Michigan’s first female pilot.
There also will be a State History Awards Banquet and Keynote - Creating Community: African Americans in Albion on Friday and an opening keynote on Saturday titled “Albion College: Salacious Scandal and Momentous Milestones”.
“We have people travel from throughout the state to attend the conference no matter where it is,” McDowell says. “Knowing the history of your community gives you a better understanding of where you live. You get the good, the bad, and the ugly and gain a better understanding of where you live.”
As a resident of Cedar Springs, McDowell says by taking the time to learn about the town’s history, she knows how it came to be known for its long association with red flannel which led to the creation in 1939 of the first Red Flannel Day in Cedar Springs and eventually became the Red Flannel Festival
While members of the State Historical Society are very aware of Michigan’s rich history, McDowell says the general public likely is not. She says history curriculum at the state’s public schools is offered in third through 12th grade.
“You get a little bit in school and beyond that, you do it yourself,” McDowell says. “If history isn’t on your radar, there’s really a disconnect with people realizing how culturally rich this state is. Our members are committed to keeping history alive.”
As a way to keep members engaged, the Historical Society of Michigan offers opportunities such as weekly lectures on various topics of historical interest, she says.
To keep school students involved and engaged, there is an annual Michigan History Day in March that is the culmination of yearlong projects focused on history.
Students work throughout the year on a specific theme selected for that particular Michigan History Day observance.
“They select a topic that relates to the theme and use libraries and archives and search through oral history interviews,” McDowell says. “They analyze and interpret those findings and create projects that could include writing a paper, creating a website, or doing a performance.”
Their projects are entered into competitions at the district and state levels. Finalists are selected at the state level to represent Michigan at the national finals in Maryland.
Sometimes the topic selected leads to difficult, but necessary conversations such as one that focused on frontiers and the history, people, places, and ideas, McDowell says.
“There is a lot of stigma or negative connotation with the word ‘frontier’ and what that means throughout history and certain acts that were committed in the United States,” she says. “Through working on topics like this, kids can learn the more difficult parts of history. I will always advocate for teaching histories in school and training that next generation of historians. This lets kids know that they don’t have to be a teacher or college historian to be a historian.”
McDowell says she is an example of this.
“I am an events manager and I work with conferences and adult ed programs. It’s important for younger kids to know that they can be a historian and do other things as well,” she says.