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‘Craft a future out of the past’: Award-winning historian presents keynote address at Ohio Valley History Conference at WKU

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Photo provided by Kendra Field.

The Ohio Valley History Conference, hosted at WKU, held a presentation titled “Stories and Silences: African American Family Histories After Emancipation” by Kendra Taira Field on Thursday, Oct. 26 in the Gary Ransdell Hall Auditorium.

The conference is a “decades-old conference that invites historians from the Ohio Valley to gather, present their scholarship, and be in community,” primary organizer and WKU history professor Kathryn McClurkin said.

After a three-year hiatus, members from over a dozen institutions were welcomed to WKU’s campus for three days of programs and Field’s keynote address.

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Field is an award-winning historian of African American and Afro-Native experience in the United States and scholar of family history and genealogy, as well as an associate professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University.

Field co-founded the African American Trail Project and the Du Bois Forum and is chief historian of the 10 Million Names Project, a collaboration between historians and genealogists.

Field described her interest in the overlap of black and Indigenous histories as an “important part of the story [she] was trying to resurrect.” This has become a way of mourning and remembering.

She described growing interested in how and why certain stories were retold and others never were.

As ancestors were separated from their family history, her work and the work of others in her field is an attempt to rebuild family trees “lost through sale or through negligence of history.”

Field believes family history is also kinship and attachment. She desires to “craft a future out of the past.”

She values family history as a source of power, sharing that the more children know about their family history, the more control they feel they have over their own lives.

“We in turn create the unseen structure in which our children must live,” Field said.

She illustrated the progression of the field, to which subjectivity was initially foundational. Now, she describes history as both an art and a science. McClurkin agreed and said “we would do well as a field to develop both in our practice.”

Graduate student Christian Knoche enjoyed the presentation and research and was struck by the future of the subject and the methods she and other historians have added to the field. 

“There are so many stories to be told and ones that add to the depth and intrigue of history, as well as opening up avenues for future research,” Knoche said.

McClurkin also shared the impact and importance of hosting presentations like Field’s.

“The stories that are told and passed down through generations are just as important as the ones that are not shared,” she said.

News reporter Lindsey Coates can be reached at [email protected]

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