Saturday, June 2, 2007

Holding on To Our History

The history of our country is filled with people's struggle and social movements. It is the Smithsonian Institute's mission to collect, preserve and interpret that history. Its collections give us a way to understand the experiences and customs of our institutions and the everyday lives of our citizens. The collected artifacts cover the gamut of American history and life.

It has the Woolworth's lunch counter from Greensboro, North Carolina. It was at that counter young students, black and white challenged the Jim Crow laws of the south. You can see Dorothy's Ruby Slippers, Archie and Edith Bunker's chairs, a section of the Aids Quilt, and Lewis and Clark’s compass. It also has Ed Robert's wheelchair.

Ed Roberts is one of our early Heros. At the University of California at Berkeley, in the tumultuous 60s, Ed and a group of students, The Rolling Quads, got organized. Ed understood that the struggle for independence was similar to other liberation movements... it was a civil rights issue; it was political. That seems obvious now, but at that time disability was defined as medical, more about function than about rights. Roberts died in 1995. After his Washington D.C. memorial service, "friends wheeled his chair to the [Smithsonian] Castle and left it there with a note explaining that this donation was a tribute to Roberts' amazing life." [1]

Here is what is written about his wheelchair:

Outfitted with the type of seat used in Porsche automobiles and a large headlight for traveling at night, this motorized wheelchair captures the unique personality of a man who dedicated his life to securing rights, freedoms, and improved quality of life for people with disabilities.

We owe Ed’s friends a real debt of gratitude. Generations to come will see that chair and come to know his accomplishments. They will recognize his talents, and by association with the independent living movement, our talents too. Brilliant!

Also in the Legacies Collection is Helen Keller's watch. After Keller died in 1968, a niece and nephew inherited her watch. They donated it to the Smithsonian in 1975 saying they believed their aunt would want the watch "placed where it would make the maximum impact…”

There is more...

  • ADAPT rally photographs of various demonstrations.
  • Pictures of activists that many of us know. There is one of a youthful Diane Coleman, and a long-haired, hippified, Bob Fleming.
  • Assorted tee shirts: “Not Dead Yet”, “ADAPT or Perish”, "I am not a case and I do not need to be managed."
  • A badge from Disabled People's Civil Rights Day, on the Washington Mall in1979.
  • A piece of street curb broken from a Denver intersection by activists from the independent living center in protest of the lack of curb cuts.
  • A "Piss on Pity" button.
  • Ads featuring people with disabilities; the kind we like to see, and the kind we don’t.
  • Artifacts that show our struggle for self-definition and autonomy... Homemade keys confiscated from patients at the Winnebago, Wisconsin, Mental Health Institute. Isolated people trying to get some measure of control over their lives. And,
  • more, so much more.

I am thankful that someone took the time to preserve these precious artifacts. I also wondered if more needed to be added to the collection. In other words, what isn't there? Illinoisans with disabilities have mightily contributed to our collective history.

  • In 1948, the University of Illinois became the first post-secondary institution to provide a support service program enabling students with disabilities to attend college. What documentation is there of the event. Where are those pictures?
  • Jean Driscoll earned a B.A. and M.S. at the University of Illinois. While living here she achieved what most only dream of. She is the only eight-time champion of the Boston Marathon in its 100+ year history. Jean is also the only person to ever break the course and world record at the Boston Marathon five times. Where is her racing wheelchair? Just think of the budding athletes that chair could inspire.
  • A "My Name is Rosa Parks" name tag. In September 1984, a band of people with disabilities rolled in front of a city bus in Chicago. They were protesting the Chicago Transit Authority's decision to buy 323 new buses; none would be accessible. Each wore a plain stick-on name tag that read, "My name is Rosa Parks."
  • Jamie Ziegler's bra. In Alton last year, at the Freedom Ride kick-off, she told her story. She is a former nursing home administrator who, due to illness, was forced into a nursing home, the only option she had to receive the care she needed. Without her permission, staff kept entering her bathroom, while she was in it. To protect her privacy she used her bra to create a lock. One end on the door handle, the other hooked to a support on the opposite wall. An individual act of defiance.
  • Mike Ervin is an excellent writer and advocate from Illinois. Are his articles and speeches saved and safely archived? I hope so.
  • Kathy Connour's, "Pat me on the head and I’ll bit your hand" bumper sticker. When I saw her with that bumper sticker at rallies or at the capitol, it always reminded me of a scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Would-be do-gooders would look at her, then the sticker. Their faces conveyed confusion, as if to say, "Who are those guys?"

The list barely scratches the surface of the personal triumphs and events that are our history. I know there is more. What is stashed away in someone’s basement or closet that will inspire the next generation of activists? What will happen to it? What are we doing to preserve them? What is already lost?

Illinois needs a repository for our precious artifacts. We need to know our past to build for the future. Could the collection be headquartered at the Disability Studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a center for independent living, The Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living (INCIL), CCDI?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know we’re making history every single day and the precious artifacts that tell our story must not be lost.

[1] Smithsonian Institution Press. Ed Roberts' wheelchair, about 1978
http://www.smithsonianlegacies.si.edu/objectdescription.cfm?ID=127> (31 May 2007)

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