Why an Inclusive History?
In 1837, the Concord Presbytery established Davidson College to educate young white men, particularly those inclined towards the ministry. The college integrated and accepted non-white male students in 1962 and female students in 1972. Most historical narratives, or stories about the past, written about Davidson College have characterized the campus community as an exclusive place: one predominantly white, male, able-bodied, privileged, and Protestant for much of the institution’s existence. Official college histories, information provided in admissions tours, and materials used for fundraising serve particular present-day purposes that shape our presentation of the past. The records created by trustees, administrators, faculty, and students tell more complicated stories, however. We created this web page to draw attention to the gap between themes emphasized in traditional and official histories of Davidson College and alternative patterns suggested by inclusive readings of the primary sources preserved by the college. In addition, we highlight archival silences resulting from a lack of sources that leave some questions unanswerable. At least for now.
As historians, we recognize that history — both as an academic discipline and as a term referring to evidence-based stories we tell about the past — changes over time. We understand that we are not capturing or recreating events that happened long ago as those then alive experienced them. Rather, history is the study of the past based on records that are interpreted and communicated in the present in order to give context and meaning to our thoughts and experiences. We call first-hand evidence of an event a primary source, and historians draw their conclusions from the evaluation of them collectively and in context. Human biases and complexities shape the creation of primary sources and our interpretation of them.
Likewise, archives are not morally neutral spaces. People collaborating through institutions such as churches, schools, and governments decide what records to create and which ones to keep, and so, like the documents themselves, archives are authored. They do not exist outside of social structures that privilege and disempower, and they normalize hierarchies, such as those of gender and race. They also can sanitize the human experience of violence by naming, categorizing, and organizing traumas in ways that reduce the unspeakable to data. Above all, archives can silence by denying some experiences or existences.
Historians teaching at the college today bring different skill sets to this work in comparison to our colleagues who taught here decades ago. The social history revolution of the late twentieth century, in particular, produced scholars who look beyond the traditional emphasis on powerful political, military, and religious leaders and ask questions about the daily experiences of common people. By trying to understand the past from the bottom up, we have fundamentally altered how we explain change over time and how power functions then and now. Faculty at Davidson College teach classes on the histories of people that previous generations of historians once considered to be unworthy of analysis. Because this project originated in a course on women’s history, we initially sought to correct stories told about Davidson’s early decades that exclude women, both white and Black, enslaved and free. Informed by feminist theory, we crafted essays that challenged the ideas that women were not present at this all-boys school until the 1970s and that they are not visible in the archive. It isn’t just that women were central to the founding and growth of the college. Gender norms shaped Davidson from the beginning, and women’s labor has sustained it since 1837. The archives record this impact; indeed, women wrote some of those documents in their own hands.
What is an Inclusive History?
Historians today also readily engage in the digital humanities, which refers to the use of computers and web-based technology to study the human experience and, as relevant here, to communicate it to broad audiences using accessible and engaging platforms. This site exists as an ongoing exploration of primary sources in Davidson College’s archives. Students, faculty, and staff have collaborated to present digitized versions of documents whose significance we explain in short accompanying essays. We are addressing specific topics to answer questions that we commonly hear from current members of the college community and to spotlight omissions we have identified in official and traditional histories. This project is ongoing, and we welcome suggestions and questions. We intend not to create an alternative master narrative or replace one truth with another but to invite inquiry into the processes through which records are created and preserved, documents are selected and interpreted, and stories are crafted and legitimized.
In our ongoing work, we emphasize different themes than those prevalent in traditional and official histories. Written by those in positions of power and serving institutional purposes, such as recruiting and fundraising, these narratives have tended to elevate the labor of faculty; frame excellence as post-graduate professional accomplishment and financial success (particularly when it results in donations); explain change as the product of presidential leadership or college trustees; and characterize students as undifferentiated canvases upon whom institutional values have been imprinted. There are important insights to be learned from these stories, and we can take pride in (some of) them.
At the same time, there are other stories yet to be told. Our reading of the documents suggests additional themes: the essential role of students and staff in creating the intellectual life of the college; the impact of unseen/undervalued labor in maintaining and growing the institution; the revolutionary outcomes of student dissent; the prevalence of excellence expressed as cooperation for the common good; and the presence of students of diverse identities whose experiences here also included desire, and, occasionally, deviance. When we pivot away from emphasizing prestige and harmony, we find a community more complex, fully human, and inspirational. These stories you will encounter on this webpage are organized around these themes, which you can explore through the tagging system featured on the “How To Navigate” page. You can also explore all stories at once by clicking “All Stories,” or sort stories by the campus locations with which they are associated by clicking “Campus Tour.”
We envision this platform as a tool that enables members of the college community and visitors to engage different kinds of stories about who we have been, who we are, and who we will become. We understand that our critical and at times irreverent approach challenges beliefs about who and what matters that have long been presented as truths, but we believe we are better for asking new questions and offering up our answers for debate. As historian Gerda Lerner argued in her passionate advocacy for the reconceptualization of historical narratives to include women, “The new history threatens only the hegemony of the powerful; it does not threaten the essential integrity of the past.”1
Thanks to the staff at the Davidson College Archives and Special Collections and at the Instructional Design team at the Center for Teaching and Learning for their support. We also recognize the work that previous generations of students, faculty, staff, and community members have done to make this possible.
For a comprehensive list of sources consulted throughout the duration of this project, click here.
Please direct questions and comments to Dr. Rose Stremlau.