Academic Programs From
Case Western Reserve University

Bringing a diverse range of academic perspectives on local, national, and global issues to audiences around the world.

Case Western Reserve University

Subscribe to Our Programs
Enter your email address:

frame image
frame image
Wednesday March 2nd, 2011

Collective Memory: How the Present Shapes the Past Told through a Philadelphia Story About George Washington and Slavery

Marc Howard Ross, Ph.D., William Rand Kenan, Jr. Professor, Department of Political Science, Bryn Mawr College

Wednesday March 2, 2011, 4:30-5:30 p.m.

Sponored by the Louis C. Greenwood Lecture – CISCDR Distinguished Interdisciplinary Lecture, presented by the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Conflict & Dispute Resolution at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Collective memory is increasingly discussed as an important feature of large group behavior. Prof. Ross will outline conceptual tools for the analysis of collective memory and how present needs shape what is told and retained about the past: narratives, symbols and rituals, and symbolic landscapes as well as an empirically useful way to understand collective memory and its role in ethnic and racial conflict and conflict mitigation. To illustrate the approach, he will consider the case of race in the United States and especially the phenomenon of slavery in both the north and the south. He will emphasize the role of selective forgetting in the north and how only in recent years has the story of slavery and segregation there been publicly considered.

The specific conflict he will describe and analyze has gone on for the past nine years in Philadelphia concerning George Washington and the nine enslaved Africans who lived in the President’s House in the city from 1790-1797. The house that was torn down in the 1830’s was a block away from Independence Hall—where the national narrative of freedom and liberty is celebrated, and the former slave quarters is almost directly under the present entrance to the Liberty Bell Pavilion where the bell is housed. Unlike the simple story that was told in Independence Hall National Park, we should ask how can this complex braided history of freedom and slavery that not only is found on this site but throughout the country in its first 77 years be told together?

In Philadelphia, there have been contentious debates, strong disagreements and complicated and painful discussions about Washington, slavery in the north, and the nine enslaved individuals—two of whom escaped to freedom. These debates reveal a good deal about what is, and is not, included in collective narratives, how selective narratives are remembered or forgotten, and reinforced or discouraged. The story of this conflict offers a challenge to law and society and shows the power of collective memories unleashing and resolving long-standing, deep cultural conflicts.

Additional Information About Our Guest

Marc Howard Ross was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern University and is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Political Science at Bryn Mawr College where he has taught since 1968. He has done research in Canada, East Africa, France, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and most recently in Spain, and South Africa. His current work has two major themes (1) the role that cultural performance and memory play in the escalation and deescalation of ethnic conflict and (2) social science theories of conflict and their implications for conflict management He has written or edited eight books including Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict, (Cambridge, 2007), Culture and Belonging in Divided Societies: Contestation and Symbolic Landscapes (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009) The Culture of Conflict and The Management of Conflict (Yale University Press, 1993), and over 75 articles chapters that have appeared in academic journals and books.

Ross is especially concerned with the role that cultural expressions and enactments such as language, parades, music, flags, clothing, museums, memorials, museums and sacred sites play in the definition and expression of collective memories and identities in diverse societies. In his talk, he will ask how these lead to intense contestation at times while at others these symbolic and ritual expressions are more inclusive and redefine membership in the community, group or nation in ways that reduces conflict and differences. From his perspective collective memories are selective and regularly constructed and reconstructed. To examine this process he will look at the recent public conflict in Philadelphia over the construction and design of a memorial to the enslaved Africans who lived in the President’s House from 1790-97, one block away from Independence Hall.