We’re Listening

By Dr. Brittany Fremion

In fall of 1973, as the leaves began to take on brilliant hues that defied name, a dairy farmer in southwestern Michigan noticed something wrong with his herd. Milk production plummeted and his heifers exhibited strange health problems, such as watery eyes, patchy skin, and loss of appetite. They aborted calves and those that survived would not eat. Over the course of nine months, with much unease and persistence, the farmer, Rick Halbert, discovered the cause of his herd’s ailments: a fire retardant, polybrominated biphenyl (PBB), had accidentally been added to his livestock feed at a local coop instead of a nutritive supplement. But it was not just Halbert’s animals that had fallen ill. Other farmers across the state noticed similar problems with their herds, as well as other animalsswine, sheep, chickens, rabbits, horses, quail, ducks, and geese.[1] Farm families—men, women, and children—started to notice changes in their health, too. Many of their concerns and observations were dismissed by peers or public officials, even as information about the tragedy unfolded. A community member recalled, “they were hurting. And nobody listened to them.”[2]

What Halbert discovered was “a massive exposure,”[3] one of the largest chemical contaminations in U.S. history. PBB had chemically entered the human food chain via farm products—eggs, pork, poultry, beef, and dairy goods—exposing millions of people. When the company that manufactured PBB, Velsicol Chemical (formerly Michigan Chemical), closed its St. Louis facility doors in 1978, it left behind a heavily contaminated community.[4] The Michigan Department of Public Health (now Michigan Department of Health and Human Services) initiated research into acute health effects in 1974 and established a long-term study in 1976 with a consortium of federal agencies. Research into the long-term health effects of PBB exposure is ongoing.[5] Yet, few Americans know about the Michigan PBB contamination or its legacy.

The Michigan PBB Oral History Project documents the history of the PBB mix-up through a series of audio-recorded interviews with community members—farmers, chemical workers, consumers, public officials, researchers, and activists. Each interview is transcribed and audited. Then, a copy of the audio file and transcript are returned to each participant for feedback and clarification. Once interviewing concludes, the oral histories will be donated to the Museum of Cultural and Natural History at CMU and will be preserved in a special research collection made available to community members, researchers, and educators, with the hope that they will be used for educational purposes. These oral histories establish an important and permanent community presence in the historical record. The interviews are emotional in a way that documentary evidence is not—or cannot be. Oral histories are personal. And they are powerful.

Much of this work would not be possible without the support of CMU students, whose involvement also makes this project special. From April 2018 to the present, six undergraduate and five graduate students from history, cultural resource management, and education programs have spent nearly 2,000 hours conducting, transcribing, and auditing interviews, attending community events, and preserving donated personal papers. To date, we have conducted more than 40 interviews with 50 individuals, amounting to almost 60 hours of audio recordings. The students—Lea, Nikki, Candy, Carolyn, Tom, CJ, Emily, Anna, Elizabeth, Luke, and Logan—learned about oral history theory, methods, and ethics in their time working on the project. They also learned a great deal about the ways PBB contamination changed individual lives, communities, industry, and research, and thought deeply about why this history matters.

For instance, Candy, a graduate student in history, observed that “these stories stick with you.” She was moved to tears in a panel presentation this spring, wherein she shared insights from interviews with farm family members. Anna, an education major, wrote, “history, to me, is no longer just about places and ideas you can read about in a book, but something much more personal.” Logan and Elizabeth, education majors, have asked how the history of the PBB mix-up can be made part of Michigan’s educational standards and plan to bring their experiences from the project into their own classrooms.

These students have shared in the pain and sorrow expressed by many community members, as well as celebrated moments of joy and triumph. They have heard the voices of those who, for a long time, felt unheard. Most importantly, they have been good stewards of the past, which seems ever present, as the past is never in the past, especially when chemicals are involved. Their work matters. And the stories they have helped to preserve will make in indelible mark on future listeners. That is pretty incredible.

Many thanks to the community members who have graciously shared their time and memories, whose stories have forever changed us, and to those whose stories we have yet to document.  

We’re listening.

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The Michigan PBB Oral History Project is a collaborative endeavor inspired by community members and researchers at Emory University, which maintains The Michigan PBB Registry, the long-term health study. The oral history project is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institutes of Health, with additional support provided by the Museum of Cultural and Natural History, Department of History, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Clarke Historical Library, and Office of Research and Graduate Studies at CMU, as well as research partners at Emory University and the University of Michigan.

[1] Michigan Department of Agriculture, “PBB Contamination Status Report,” June 16, 1975, in Dr. Alpha Clark Papers, Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University (accessible by request).

[2] Patrick Muldoon interviewed by Brittany Fremion in Grand Rapids, Michigan, October 10, 2018 for the Michigan PBB Oral History Project.

[3] Frederic and Sandra Halbert, Bitter Harvest: The Investigation of the PBB Contamination: A Personal Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), p. 158.

[4] After closing the St. Louis, Michigan, plant in 1978, Velsicol estimates it paid the state $38.5 million to clean-up. The total cost to date is $480 million and includes Pine River sediment remediation, a radioactive site, and three Superfund sites. The Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force formed in 1998 and mobilized community members to oversee EPA clean-up efforts. It is one of the most successful EPA-designated Community Advisory Groups (CAG) in the country. For more information, visit their website: http://www.pinerivercag.org

[5] According to recent studies, 6 out of 10 Michiganders still have elevated levels of PBB in their bodies (higher than 95% of the U.S. population). For more information about findings and research, visit the Michigan PBB Registry: http://pbbregistry.emory.edu


Brittany Fremion is an environmental and oral historian at CMU. She is the project director for the Michigan PBB Oral History Project, a proud member of the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force, and new board member for the Michigan Oral History Association.

A Family Affair

Michigan’s Mexican-American Migrants

By Ethan Veenhuis

On 12 June 1993, the Frank O. Barrera Chapter of the American G.I. Forum held a ceremony in Flint, Michigan, to honor the Mexican American veterans of the Second World War who hailed from Genesee County. Private First Class Epifanio V. Barajas was one of the honorees that night. Barajas, a member of F Company, 47th Infantry, 9th Division of the U.S. Army during the war, was amongst the most highly decorated Latinx veterans from the state of Michigan. During his time in the army, he saw action in the North African theater, Germany, and France in the initial D-Day invasion force that landed on Omaha Beach. For his service the Army awarded him (among other medals), two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star, and special recognition for his skill as a sharpshooter.

Born in San Antonio, Texas in 1921, Barajas came to Michigan with his family sometime before the war began. The Barajas family worked as migrant farm labor in Texas picking cotton and other agricultural products whenever and wherever they could before following a wave of workers north to the upper Midwest and Michigan. According to the historian Steven Rosales, by the mid-1920s, agricultural workers of Mexican descent made up between “75-90%” of the work force in the sugar beet fields of Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, and, of course, Michigan. These workers came to the region as migrant farm labor. Recruited in Texas these workers were promised free travel, high wages, and in some cases even a house to live in. Many of these promises fell through but were effective nonetheless as workers came by the thousands every year. They settled across Michigan especially in the cities of Detroit, Pontiac, Flint, and Saginaw, where they found work harvesting sugar beets, cucumbers, apples, and cherries. When the United States entered the Second World War, many of these migrant farmers enlisted in the armed forces and served their country proudly.

After the war Barajas returned to Flint, and like so many others in Michigan’s Mexican-American community, took a job working for General Motors, raised a family, and found the better life that his parents had hoped for when they arrived in the early 1920s. Epifanio Barajas’ story is one small part of a much larger tale that began in Central Texas and found its conclusion right here in mid-Michigan. A story shared by thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans who came to the upper Midwest as migrant farm labor seeking the “American Dream” for their families, and wound up contributing significantly to their country in the process. This larger story is the focus of my current research and I plan to build and expand on what Steven Rosales began in his fantastic book Soldados Razos At War: Chicano Politics, Identity, and Masculinity in the U.S. Military from World War II to Vietnam.

Despite pioneering work on migration to Michigan, Rosales’ work on Mexican and Mexican American migration to Michigan is largely limited to the colonia in Saginaw and used in a discussion of life for these workers that lead up to their participation in the Second World War. My research goal and aspirations are to expand the scope of the project and include the rest of the significant Mexican colonias in the state. Furthermore, examine what life was like for these workers and their families leading up to, during, and in the immediate aftermath of the war. By utilizing the lenses of labor, gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, immigration, migration, and cultural expression I hope to offer a more complete picture of our state’s often overlooked and erased Mexican American community during this significant period. It is incredibly important that we continually strive to revisit the moments in our history where entire groups of people have been relegated to the margins and create works that center their perspectives and magnify their voices. Since I quite literally would not be here without my abuelo, Private First Class Epifanio Barajas, telling his story and the stories of thousands of others like him is the very least I can do as a grandson and as a historian.


Ethan Veenhuis is a CMU History Masters Alumnus who graduated in December 2018. Ethan is a dog-dad from Flint, Michigan. His current research expands upon Rosales’ pioneering work, especially the Mexican-American story in Michigan. Further research interests are in Chicano History from the Second World War through the Civil Rights Movement. For more information or to contact him: veenh1ed@icmich.edu

The Japanese Emperor Abdicates

Emperor Akihito walks during a ritual called Taiirei Tojitsu Kashikodokoro Omae no Gi, a ceremony for the emperor to report the abdication ceremony to the goddess Amaterasu, at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan, on April 30, 2019.

By Dr. Jennifer Liu

Rituals filled the day of the abdication of Japan’s Emperor Akihito on April 30, 2019. According to Japanese mythology, the 2,600-year imperial line begins with the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu. At dawn, the 85-year-old Akihito told the goddess he would be abdicating. Later, at the abdication ceremony (which lasted just over 10 minutes), he symbolically ended his reign by returning the “three sacred treasures” (a sword, jewels, and seals) that symbolize the throne. A crowd of nearly 300 politicians, Supreme Court judges, and their spouses attended. The following morning, Naruhito – the new emperor and Akihito’s elder son – returned to the same room at the palace to receive the regalia. Akihito’s Heisei (“achieving peace”) reign ended and Naruhito became the 126th emperor, beginning the Reiwa (“beautiful harmony”) era. Japan’s annual spring holiday, the “Golden Week break,” was extended to ten days to mark the occasion.

The enormously popular Akihito is the first emperor to abdicate in 200 years. The last Japanese monarch to do so was Kokaku in 1817. In August 2016, Akihito, citing concerns about his age and declining health, expressed his wish to abdicate while he was still well and capable. Having been treated for prostate cancer in 2003 and undergoing heart surgery in 2012, he sought understanding in a message to his people and immediately won overwhelming public support and sympathy, paving the way for the government’s approval. With Japan’s Imperial House Law lacking a provision on abdication by a reigning emperor and virtually allowing only posthumous succession, the government enacted a one-time law to allow Akihito’s abdication in 2017.

Akihito, joined by Empress Michiko and members of the royal family, speaks during his abdication ceremony on April 30.

Japan has the world’s oldest continuing hereditary monarchy. Legend dates it to about 660 BCE. Formerly the emperors were seen as living gods, but Hirohito – Akihito’s father – publicly renounced his divinity as part of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. Akihito became the first emperor who was a constitutionally defined symbol with no political power when he succeeded in 1989.

Nevertheless, Akihito was pivotal in helping repair Japan’s postwar reputation. He sought to make amends by traveling throughout Asia to apologize for his country’s wartime atrocities and acted as Japan’s chief consoler during times of disaster including the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that left approximately 20,000 people dead or missing. Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, visited survivors at shelters and were generally heralded by the public for their compassion in helping the battered nation recover.

The succession leaves only three heirs to the Chrysanthemum Throne: Akihito’s younger brother, Prince Hitachi; Naruhito’s younger brother, Akishino; and Prince Hisahito, Akishino’s only son. Japan’s current law forbids women from inheriting the throne. Should more female family members relinquish their royal status upon marriage to a commoner, as stipulated by law, it will be more difficult for the imperial family to carry out official activities. In retirement, Akihito no longer performs official duties. Known by the title joko (emperor emeritus), he and Michiko have moved into Togu Palace, a smaller royal residence in Tokyo.

Naruhito is taking the throne at a time when Japan faces numerous challenges, including plummeting birthrates and a declining, aging population. The country is making efforts to open itself to foreign workers, change Japan’s brutal, entrenched work culture, and reduce gender inequality. The emperor has no power to address any of these issues directly, but he can set an important tone. Analysts have been scrutinizing Naruhito’s previous public statements for hints of what his reign might look like. He has indicated that he believes the monarchy should adjust to modernity and is likely to continue emphasizing pacifism and war remembrance as well as continuing his father’s efforts to humanize the throne.

Naruhito delivers his first speech after his ascension to the throne on May 1.


Dr. Jennifer Liu Demas is a Professor of History at Central Michigan University. Dr. Liu specializes in the political and social history of twentieth-century China, particularly education, youth culture, student protest, and ethnic identity. Her current project, Indoctrinating the Youth, examines the Nationalist (Guomindang) government’s attempts to inculcate political loyalty through youth groups, compulsory military training, and secondary school curriculum from 1930–1960. For more information and to contact her please visit her faculty page.

An Experience to Remember: CMU’s History Department

By Analiese Guettler

Central Michigan University’s history department has filled my college experience with a wide range of opportunities of which, the opportunity to both learn from and learn with professors, graduate assistants, and my fellow students has been very rewarding. Though I may have my favorite professors, each and every one of them are excited and passionate about the topics and areas of history that they are teaching. All the professors have unique viewpoints and want to share as much of their knowledge as they can with their students. Though each student’s experience is different, my time in the history department was memorable.

One of my favorite classes was History 323: History of Native Americans taught by Dr. Cassidy. The class is a writing intensive and fills a requirement for my degree. Dr. Cassidy herself is an asset to the department. She is so knowledgeable and always willing to help with resources for class projects or final essays. I am always recommending her class to other students, both in and out of the history department, whether they need a Writing Intensive class or not because of how much I enjoyed my experience. The class focuses on the Native American Experience, the Native Ground, and the American Indian Movement.

One of the best assets that the history department has to offer students are their Graduate Assistants. It has been my experience that getting to know one of the GAs in a class and asking them for help is one of the best ways to achieve success—and the grade you want—particularly, when working through material or a class format that is not suited to your particular learning style. On more than on occasion I have walked into one of my Graduate Assistants’ offices and gone over material and difficult concepts in order to make me feel more comfortable. Our conversations have made lecture and doing assignments so much easier; it’s okay to ask for help if you need it! During my experience with History 112 The Struggle for Equality: The United States 1865-Present, interactions with my TA Gillian helped me make sense of the Reacting to the Past pedagogy. She helped me with my reflections and assignments so that the concepts like Marxism and Socialism were more approachable and understandable and for gaining points (PIPs) during the game.

Extract from HST201 Syllabus

Extract from HST201 Syllabus

Because of the nature of my degree, I have tried to take as many different classes with different professors as possible. Since I want to be an educator, I felt that it was important to see all the different ways to set-up classes and then explore what I thought were the strengths and weaknesses of each format. The game-based learning structure in History 201: World History to 1500—taught by Dr. Truitt—was probably my favorite format to learn in. Dr. Truitt allows students to explore different ways of learning and to pick and choose the type of assignments that they want to complete, making it an extremely inclusive class for all different types of learners. Furthermore, it accommodates students’ crazy schedules by giving them a small amount of flexibility when assignments are due. For example, the final in Dr Truitt’s class was game based, which meant that we created a game as a group about our chosen topic of interest and ran it as a class final which was a really cool way of being examined rather than the traditional written exam at the end.

Each and every one of the professors that I have taken classes with focus on getting students involved with not only the material but also each other. We discuss ideas in both group projects and discussion where different views and ideas and how best to approach different topics. Alongside this, we discuss what each student finds particularly interesting about the class. I have found this aspect of classes to be extremely helpful with finding new information, new interpretations, and continuing to expand my knowledge beyond what I have read to also include what my fellow students have to say as well. Overall, I have had a very positive experience and I will continue to encourage other students to take history classes for not only their interest but also to experience different teaching styles.


Analiese Guettler is a final year undergraduate student who is studying secondary social studies with a concentration in political science and a history minor. She is also part of the Central Michigan University Band. For more information or to contact her:

Email: guett1am@cmich.edu or on twitter: @AGuettler

Lynn Hunt on Why History Matters Now More Than Ever: An Enthusiastically Biased Report

by Dr. Gregory Smith

When I volunteered to write a brief report on Lynn Hunt’s keynote address for the 2019 International Graduate Historical Studies Conference, I knew enough to expect a tour de force. (Anyone who has encountered Professor Hunt’s work has learned to expect tours de force.) But it was only in the days leading up to the conference, when I finally got a chance to finish her excellent book History: Why It Matters (Polity Press, 2018), that I started to suspect her talk might upend my other expectations.

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Frankly, I was expecting a jeremiad. When I see a title like “Why History Matters” I expect to hear something like the voice of one crying in the wilderness, telling us to take courage in the face of (1) a gathering storm where our words will likely be ignored, effaced, or taken out of context; and/or (2) a world of declining history enrollments, where people equate a liberal arts degree with un(der)employment or “useless” skills, no matter how often and loudly we cite decisive evidence to the contrary.

Fortunately for those of us present and for readers of this post, Professor Hunt’s address was emphatically not a jeremiad. Instead she argued persuasively that historians make a demonstrable difference, that the world (our world) is in no more danger of ending than it was twenty or thirty or fifty years ago, and that we should not give up on interpretation or epistemological self-scrutiny in the face of “alternative facts.” “Why History Matters Now More Than Ever” also featured a brilliant thumbnail sketch of postmodern theory – the kind of perfectly distilled summary that makes graduate students wonder why their teachers didn’t just say so in the first place —- and closed with an exemplary Q and A. Current and future professionals take note: this is how to do it.

On the major point, Professor Hunt reminded us that history matters because ordinary people listen and respond to how historians interpret the past. No, seriously, they really do! The last few decades have witnessed wide-ranging and non-trivial changes to the way Civil War history is taught in American schools, for example, even in those states where “revisionist” history textbooks were most resisted in the 1980s and 1990s.[1] There are many reasons not to be satisfied with the status quo, but in the midst of culture wars and literal wars it is easy to forget that professional historians have made a lasting difference. Crucial claims that used to be “controversial,” such as the role of slavery as primary cause of the Civil War, have become commonplace. Inclined to focus on how long it took, historians often underplay the more important fact that it happened in the first place.

In the aftermath (or in the midst) of “post-truth,” historians might also be tempted to give up on the critical self-evaluation that has always been a feature of the best sort of history. After all, isn’t postmodernism at least partially to blame for the rise of alternative facts, echo chambers, and the legitimizing of conspiracy theory?[2] Some might go farther still and eschew interpretation (at least temporarily) in favor of establishing “what actually happened”: historians as fact-checkers awarding Pinocchios. To all this Professor Hunt says “no.” It is the wrong response, and a self-defeating one. Facts are important, and historians know what to do to establish and debate the basic evidence. But interpretation remains central to the enterprise. Particular interpretations can be more or less persuasive than others, and we can still have meaningful debates that are not reducible to power-plays, aesthetic taste, or individual whim.

Another cause for cheer, and re-evaluation: Professor Hunt observed that public interest in history is as high as it has ever been. History museums, sites, parks, television – all are being consumed in numbers that present a bracing contrast to recent declines in history majors. Among other lessons is the fact that people who want history will get it from somewhere: professional historians ought to be playing an instrumental role in answering the demand.

The author and guest speaker, Dr Lynn Hunt

The author and guest speaker, Dr Lynn Hunt

I, for one, was convinced on almost every point. (I am not sure I quite share Professor Hunt’s long and broadly optimistic view on social media. She thinks it need not be any more negatively disruptive than other revolutions in the history of human communication, whereas I suspect that the invention of writing and printing are as different as they are similar to the sudden concentration of knowledge, power, wealth, and proprietary algorithms in the hands of an extraordinarily small set of people in California and Washington.)

But the best final summary and recommendation I can make, for those who were present and those who couldn’t make the talk, is to read History: Why It Matters. To list all the things I love about this book would be to write another blog post (or ten), but I cannot endorse heartily enough its observations about the universality of history-writing (pp. 48–52), its warning that “one day our histories will look just as incomplete” as the older work whose limitations we so often (and rightly) challenge (p. 55), its warnings against “presentism” (p. 111), and a set of almost-final words that reflect my own understanding and experience of history as well as anything I have ever read: “What do we learn from the past? For me, it is above all else respect for those who came before us” (p. 112).

  1. Jacey Fortin, “Texas Students Will Now Learn That Slavery Was ‘Central’ to the Civil War,” New York Times, November 21, 2018.

  2. Among many possibilities, see Matt McManus, “The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism,” Quillette, May 17, 2018; Carole Cadwalladr, “Daniel Dennett: ‘I begrudge every hour I have to spend worrying about politics’,” The Guardian, February 12, 2017; and a rejoinder by Aaron Hanlon, “Postmodernism didn’t cause Trump. It explains him.” Washington Post, August 31, 2018.