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.

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.

Finding "Place" in the Past

By Camden Burd

M-20 is a not a particularly unique highway. It’s just one of many that crisscross the Michigan landscape. Yet the highway does carry some special significance to me. I drove it often when commuting between my family’s small cabin near Remus (pictured above) and Mt. Pleasant while studying at Central Michigan University. I can still visualize many of the sites along the route. Whether it was the humble façade of the Remus Tavern or the grandiose “Welcome to Mt. Pleasant” painted across the Ann Arbor Railroad Bridge on western edge of town, the familiar landmarks connected me to specific place, time, and experience.

We all have these places: a childhood home, a familiar walk, an iconic tree—even a favorite coffee shop can stir feelings of familiarity, and comfort. Most significantly, though, they create meaning. John Brinckerhoff Jackson, scholar of landscape studies, describes this type of attachment as a “sense of place.” People often transform mundane locations, nameless vistas, and sprawling landscapes into places because of “a lively awareness of the familiar environment, a ritual repetition, [and] a sense of fellowship based on shared experience.” Understanding the significance of a place tells us about the values of people who find meaning in the landscapes, monuments, and activities associated with those particular places.  

Historicizing a “sense place” has been the constant thread of my academic work since I began my MA in History at Central Michigan University in 2012. I first became interested with the study of place when I examined the historical roots of Michigan’s tourism industry in Northern Michigan. I was enamored with the perennial tradition of tourists and cottage-goers that traveled “Up North” for recreation and respite. With guidance from Jay Martin and Brittany Bayless Fremion, I dedicated my MA thesis to the cultural and environmental roots of the still-modern tradition. The core material of that research would later become the basis for my first peer-reviewed article, “Imagining a Pure Michigan Landscape: Advertisers, Tourists, and the Making of Michigan’s Northern Vacationlands,” published in the Michigan Historical Review. Since then I have written on various topics related to “sense of place.” Whether it was an essay describing how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha served as a shared language for progressive-era conservationists to find new meaning in the cutover districts of the Upper Midwest or another article that illustrates how diminished economic activity on the Erie Canal motivated state and national politicians to create a new heritage-tourism industry along the artificial river. I have always started my research with a particular place and study the people who found meaning in it. Like a mirror, the study of the sense of place can reveal cultural assumptions, environmental values, and community values. 

Of course, a place’s meaning can change over time. Economic forces often disrupt livelihoods and community networks. New technologies shift the nature of work and how individuals interact with each other as well as local geography. Environmental changes can also shift the meaning of a place. Forests fall, rivers become dammed, and the behemoth influence of industrialization commodifies, extracts, and alters landscapes beyond recognition. Therefore, a sense of place can be a valuable lens to study past cultures. How historic groups value, interpret, and use landscape offers historians a unique lens to track environmental, economic, political, and cultural shifts over time. After all, these are the places where people make a home, find work, form identity, and create meaning.

 

Some suggested/favorite readings on Place:

Kate Brown, Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

Jared Famer, On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

John Brinckerhoff Jackson, A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).


Camden Burd received his PhD in History from the University of Rochester in 2019. Before his time in Western New York, he spent two years completing his MA in History from Central Michigan University. During the 2019-2020 academic year Camden will be an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the New York Botanical Garden.

www.camdenburd.com

New Year, new editor

Chiara visiting the Yerebatan Sarnıcı in Istanbul. The cistern was built in the 6th century under Justinian I. The cistern was also one of the locations of the 1963 James Bond movie  From Russia with Love.

Chiara visiting the Yerebatan Sarnıcı in Istanbul. The cistern was built in the 6th century under Justinian I. The cistern was also one of the locations of the 1963 James Bond movie From Russia with Love.

By Chiara Ziletti

The holiday break has been great (probably even more than great if – like me – you love having a lot of time to read on the couch), but the new semester is finally here. It is time to roll up the sleeves, put away all the decorations, and get ready for this new adventure.

My name is Chiara Ziletti, and I have the pleasure to be the new editor of [Re]collection. I come from Italy, and I am a third-year student in the Transnational and Comparative History PhD program here at Central Michigan University. Allow me to introduce myself.

Back in school, my relationship with history was one of “love and hate.” Something in it attracted me (for example, I have always loved visiting museums and historical places), but most of the time the amount of dates to be memorized discouraged any deeper approach to it beyond the basic “let’s study to pass the test.” After high-school, I decided to study Italian Literature at University of Pavia (which was founded in 1361, more than 650 years ago!), and it was during those years that I discovered my passion for history. Classes like philology and history of Italian Language had already captivated me. I loved to understand why and how Italian had evolved from Latin, but the real breakthrough was the Early Modern European History class. It was while taking that class that I realized how much I actually enjoyed studying history despite being very bad at remembering dates. This happened because for the first time a professor made me realize that history was more than just sheer memorization. Finally, someone was teaching me about broader historical events and concepts. Thanks to that professor, I became aware – borrowing from Fernand Braudel – of the longer and broader social, economic, and cultural trends and forces beyond the history of events; and I was fascinated. I loved the deeper understanding coming from the combination of these different historical planes; and those aspects of human history capable of transcending time conquered my imagination. After that experience, I began to take more and more classes in history, enabling me to deepen my knowledge and understanding of both the past and our own reality (all this enriched by the development of critical thinking and writing skills).

Following my bachelors, I earned my Masters Degree in European History (again from University of Pavia). During my Masters, I also had the opportunity to do a four months internship in Istanbul with the Erasmus Placement program. Istanbul is a big and chaotic city, but it is also fascinating and full of history. Therefore, even though I was doing my internship at Maltepe University on the Asian side of the city, I had the opportunity to go visiting all the historical sites on the European side over the weekends – what a dream!

After obtaining my Masters, my personal adventure brought me to CMU, where I was admitted in the Transnational and Comparative History PhD program. Here I furthered my training as a historian, and soon I will have to take my Comprehensive examination (for a taste of the fear, imagine Darth Vader approaching on the notes of the Imperial march). In addition to this, I also had the opportunity to work as a Teaching Assistant for the Department of History (an enriching experience), and now I am the new editor of [Re]collection after Jennifer graduated last semester. I want to congratulate her on her success. Furthermore, I want to thank her for her wonderful job here in the past year. If I feel more confident about my future work here, it is thanks to the solid path she traced.

I wish everyone a happy new year and the best for this new semester. As always, we continue to welcome your submissions!


 

Advocacy: What Historians Do

Last week, CMU professor Dr. Jonathan Truitt published "A Cry for Help" advocating that universities offer their resources to help displaced Puerto Rican students continue their education. Two weeks ago Dr. Andrew Wehrman issued different call to action by tying the history of statistical analysis to address public health crises with today's gun violence. With that inspiration, this week [Re]collection offers a glimpse of other advocacy efforts by historians and published by AHA.


September 5, 2017 - In preparation for the Supreme Court's hearing of Gill v. Whitford, a group of 15 historians, including 11 AHA members, filed a brief of amici curiae that laid out the history of equal representation in early American voting systems and why the Court should strike down Wisconsin's district maps. The historians are joined by numerous other organizations, many of whom agree that Wisconsin's 2010 redistricting plan contains a statistically significant bias towards the party that drew it. A decision on the case is expected by June 2018. 

August 2017 - The tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, have re-ignited debate about the place of Confederate monuments in public spaces, as well as related conversations about the role of Confederate, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist imagery in American political culture.The AHA has released the following statement about the role of history and historians in these public conversations. Rather than seeking to provide definitive answers to the questions posed by individual monuments, the AHA emphasizes the imperative of understanding historical context in any consideration of removing or recontextualizing monuments, or renaming public spaces.

April 6, 2017 - The AHA Council signed on to a letter from the Coalition for International Education urging members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to reject the Trump administration's proposal threatening to reduce or eliminate funding for the US Department of Education's International Education and Foreign Language Studies Programs. After this mobilization, Congress passed an omnibus appropriations bill on May 4, 2017, which kept these programs funded at previous levels through September 30.

April 5, 2017 - AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman sent a letter to Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson urging him to reject HB 1834, which would prohibit any Arkansas public school from using materials authored by Howard Zinn in their courses. Grossman denounced the measure as an "egregious micromanagement of the work of Arkansas teachers." The measure was dropped shortly afterward.

March 16 and May 23, 2017- Following the Trump administration's proposals to eliminate funding for programs imperative to the work of historians, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, Title VI, and Fulbright-Hays, the AHA issued action alerts on March 16 and May 23 calling on members to express their concerns by contacting their congressional representatives. Our early efforts were rewarded when the FY17 omnibus appropriations bill, passed on May 4, 2107, included a modest increase in the NEH budget through September 30. As the appropriations process begins for FY 18, however, and the threat against humanities programs renews, the AHA will mobilize our partners and members again to resist any cuts.


This is a small representation of different advocacy efforts by historians, particularly through AHA. Historians can be important advocates for academic freedom, access to education and resources (therefore budgetary concerns), and public policy based on consideration of past efforts and prejudices. AHA has provided a statement called Guiding Principles for Taking a Public Stance.