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Robert Searing on the Campbell Conversations

Robert Searing
Robert Searing

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Robert Searing, Curator of History at the Onondaga Historical Association, as well as a teacher of history at SUNY Cortland and Tompkins-Cortland Community College. Searing also pens a regular history column for the Syracuse Post-Standard.

Program Transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Robert Searing. He's the curator of history at the Onondaga Historical Association. And he also teaches history at SUNY Cortland and Tompkins-Cortland Community College. His name may be familiar to many of you as he has been writing a regular local history column for the Syracuse Post-Standard. Bob, welcome to the program.

Robert Searing: Grant, thanks so much for having me. It's a real pleasure to be with you.

GR: It's great to have you. Well, first of all, let me just say that I've enjoyed your writing and the paper, but I do want to start a little further back in the process. Let me just ask you this: How did you get into your work for the Onondaga Historical Association itself?

RS: Oh, honestly, by chance. And some connections that I made at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University during graduate school. I went to work on my doctorate with Roger Sharp in the early American history, and I made a good friend, Dr. Thomas Guiler who was at Winterthur and the academic market was rough I was trying to finish a dissertation. I had my wife and I had had two children at this point, and I was adjuncting at various institutions and a friend of mine who was in the museum business, something I hadn't really ever thought about sent me a trade publication saying that the OHA was looking for a new curator, and I took a flier and put the application in and five years later, I've been the curator of history there and I've loved every minute of it. I never imagined that the job would take me in so many different directions and allow me so many different avenues but that's really it. It was sort of a chance thing. I never saw myself as a museum professional, as a public historian. I always thought that I was going to be a classroom instructor and a professor and reach people that way. So it's really been sort of a left turn, but it's been incredibly rewarding, and I honestly couldn't see myself doing anything else at this point. It's really it's been an incredible journey.

GR: That's great to hear that I'm a big believer in serendipity. So you really you really embodied that. You mentioned Roger Sharp. He has written a lot for the paper on various topics. So let's talk about this column. How did the idea to write the column in the Post-Standard originate?

RS: Well, it actually came about when I came on staff at OHA they had been doing sort of a, “this day in history” type thing with basically a nice image that popped. And with the gentleman that would have been working on that left OHA, it fell to me, and I was sort of picked up the ball and ran with it. I love to write, I love to teach. And I felt like this was a really good avenue to educate the public, you know, in a way that often wasn't the case, particularly in a newspaper where, you know, journalists have to stick to a story of the day. It really gave me a perspective. And like I said, you know, I have a tendency for verbosity as a lot of those of us who came through academics do it and, you know, all your ability and sort of so what was a 50 word or a hundred word sort of caption, you know, it stretched to 250 words and 500 words, and no one ever told me to stop. And in fact they told me that they liked it. And then they asked, I guess it's two years ago now to extend it into basically a full page. And we did it. And the feedback has been amazing from the general public, from readers. I've gotten emails from, I mean literally people across the Northeast, especially since it's gone on to syracuse.com, and I've just been sort of amazed at the interest and people reading it. You know, it just makes it it makes it all worthwhile. It also makes you work a little harder to make sure everything is as good as it can be.

GR: Well, you've got this treasure trove of different things there at OHA to go through. I'm curious, how do you go about picking what it is that you're going to write about any particular week? How does that process work?

RS: Well, you're right about the treasure trove at the OHA, Grant. OHA has been around since 1863. The breadth of the collection is absolutely astonishing, both from ephemera, 2-D stuff, manuscript collections and 3-D. Really what I try to do is sort of keep it roughly chronological, which helps ground it because otherwise there's just so much to write about, it would be difficult. So it's roughly a chronological idea like this happened, you know, this week in history and what can I bring to bear? You know, putting it again, my background as an early American historian to try to put things in context there, you know, but basically it's a chronological thing. And I've got a bunch of calendars and a couple of timelines of historic events in the history of Central New York. And I try to use that as a signpost. Every once in a while something will happen in the news that will sort of spur me to draw something sort of ripped from the headlines, to use the old Law & Order phrase. But I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the National Women's Convention in 1852, and that was sort of spurred by the leaked Alito decision and what might happen to Roe. And so every once in a while I will do that. And I feel as I sort of grow into the role, I may take more leeway with that. But generally it's sort of a chronological, “this happened, this week” 150 years ago or whatever.

GR: But you are trying to engage, as I understand, some broader themes that you're aiming at in this writing in terms of placing these events. In taking various moments in central New York's history, but then looking at them and placing them in a broader way. Could you talk about that a little bit?

RS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, what I found as somebody who's as learning every day about the history of Central New York is just how important this region was to shaping the nation's history. And I think what I find interesting, certainly as a historian, but just as a person of intellectual curiosity, and I find this in the feedback I get from the readers, is that by taking an event that happened in Syracuse or happened in Auburn or happened somewhere locally and placing those figures or those events in a larger context that people may have remembered, you know, from high school or even their college survey history class, I think it really lends itself to letting people see the activities that were going on locally, how local action can affect national and even international change. And so I think it's a really powerful teaching tool. I think it's a really powerful way to get people interested in history. You know, there's a saying in the Executive Director of OHA Gregg Tripoli has the saying, and I steal it from time to time and I'll steal now is that, “People don't necessarily like to be taught, but they like to learn.” And I think that if you can engage people, you know, meet them halfway, it's something that they may have learned before or that they're familiar with and then give them this local flavor where they can recognize a name of a street or they recognize the name of an individual and then they put it in that context. I just I think it's really, really useful. I think it's really helpful. And I think the feedback I've heard really bears that out. So it's something that I'm going to continue to do because without it, I think, you know, local history becomes like, it's parochial, it's not as impactful as it really is. And I think that's the history of Central New York in particular, it had such an outstripped impact on the history of the state and the history of the United States. It's really a story that can be told again and again and again.

GR: I want to come back to that last point you just made a little bit later in our conversation. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with Robert Searing, the curator of history for the Onondaga Historical Association. You're going through all of these different events, you're pulling out nuggets of things. Is there any one that you've come across that's really surprised you the most? Like, “oh, wow, I just never would have thought I would have found something like that.”

RS: The one that really sticks out to me, Grant, is the story of the National Colored Man's Convention that met in Syracuse in October of 1864. It's an event that I honestly, I mean, even as an early Americanist, had not heard of before. And it may just be a product of whatever it was I was looking at. But the fact that just weeks before, arguably the most consequential election in American history, where literally the election is the freedom of millions is on the ballot, the fate of the union is on the ballot, you have what David Blight at Yale called the greatest meeting of minds of African-American leadership comes to Syracuse, 117 delegates, and they are there debating and discussing what freedom is going to look like if and this is really, you know, that's the important thing to see, if and when it comes. And they're doing it right in the streets of downtown Syracuse and they meet in the Wesleyan Church, which is still there, right outside the courthouse, just down the street from our museum in downtown Syracuse. And so with an event like that, that is of such tremendous significance... and the players. John Mercer Langston, Frederick Douglass is the president. Henry Highland Garnet are here discussing these absolutely world consequential events, doing it right here. That's the sort of stuff that to me is just piques your interest and then makes you want to dig deeper. And we have some really incredible primary source materials from the press accounts that round out in a way that even the proceedings of the convention, which were published, you know, by John Rock, who had attended and was the first African-American granted to practice and argue in front of Supreme Court, we've got a lot of local coverage in Syracuse that isn't in any other archives. So I find that that's something that is really unique to my position because the OHA’s collections are so incredibly expansive and so well documented and curated over the last 160 years. It allows me an avenue of exploration and investigation. I mean source materials that may not be at the beck and call of every other researcher. So I think that that is something that really allows me to do what I'm able to do, but that's one that really sticks out to me. It's an event that I still think needs to be told more, you know, and should be out there more and a major player in that was Reverend Jermain Loguen, who was Central New York's Underground Railroad king, who was friends and compatriots with all the names people know of the Underground Railroad, you know, and he was right here in Syracuse doing his thing just to fight for the cause of freedom.

GR: Do you have a like a personal favorite that might not be as of great historical significance as the one that you just described that you just sort of chuckled over or carried with you in a different way?

RS: Oh, there are so many. I mean, the story of Libba Cotten is one that has just recently been something I’ve loved.

GR: I remember that.

RS: The Franklin Automobile is another one that I keep coming back to as the you know, this idea of just how Central New York, and just how important Syracuse was to the great industrial boom of the United States and all of the ingenuity I mean, the geniuses and the mechanical engineers and the marketers and the people that were here in Syracuse really shaping the nation. Those are stories that that really stick with me. I often will try to be as amusing as I can, though often the subject matter is a little too much. But I do try to bring some humor to bear. But, you know, there's been so many at this point, it's hard to say that ones stick with me. But those big sort of historical events are the ones that I carry with me because those are the stories I think that really can do a lot of good out there in the public sphere.

GR: You know, you just mention this and you're anticipating, really, my meatier questions here. But in my own readings, about the history of Central New York, outside of your column, I've always been struck by a couple of things and one of them is the one that you just referred to. It was, first of all, by just how important Syracuse was as a city and the region, too, in the United States economy in the 19th century and into the 20th century, it's really almost impossible to believe now. (Do you) have any further reflections on that?

RS: For instance, I know you've been in Syracuse now for a very long time. It's the Salt City, right? People say, “Well, what? The Salt City?” 90% of the country’s salt came from 600 acres around Onondaga Lake. And, you know, to us, salt is just something on the table that, you know, we use to season our food, but the salt was transformative. It was necessary to life in a way that it's hard for us to fathom. And without that salt, without the tax on that salt, the Erie Canal isn’t built. The guys that pushed for the Erie Canal -which is hard to overstate the importance of the Erie Canal - but nearly 50% of the of the cost of the original canals’ construction were paid for with the tax on an Onondaga salt. So without that salt and without the gentlemen pushing for the canal way back in the Jefferson administration, you probably don't necessarily get an Erie Canal, and without an Erie Canal, we're not here first of all, neither one of us are sitting in Syracuse. Syracuse University isn't here, none of that is stuff is here. So I mean, I think like, those contingencies and the fact that this industry, which is now forgotten, I mean, completely, it's been basically dead for a hundred years, had such an outstripped effect on the nation. Whether it was in the creation of the canal, which transported goods and materials and made Upstate New York the center of reform and politics or, you know, in the Civil War, where salt was critical to the Union war effort, it was one of the things that allowed the Union to win the war, which, you know, again, back to the Colored Man’s Convention in 1864. Then you don't have the abolition of slavery. All these things are connected. And to your point, it's all here, you know, in the central city, it's something that continually astonishes me in my work at the Onondaga Historical Association.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Robert Searing. He's the curator of history at the Onondaga Historical Association, and he also teaches history at SUNY Cortland and Tompkins-Cortland Community College. In addition, he writes a regular local history column for the Syracuse Post-Standard. So the other one of my meatier questions that you anticipated as well that I still want to ask you about it, is so I've been struck by, you know, just how important Syracuse was in the in the nation's economy and its and its industrial base. But the other thing that strikes me, and you've alluded to it a couple of times already is - and actually I'm currently in the middle of reading a book that relates to this theme - is just how important Central New York was in some of the great moral crusades of the past. In the United States, and in particular the second Great Awakening and the abolitionist movement. You've talked about the abolitionist movement and the Colored Man's Convention and other kinds of things. But, you know, we were really ground zero here for both of those things. And I'm just curious if you have any more reflections to say about that.

RS: You know, we were at ground zero, is a good way to put it. Whether it's going all the way back to the 1830’s and the beginnings of abolition, and again it's Syracuse because it is almost the geographic center. Even going back to the days of the Haudenosaunee, it was a major crossroads for people traveling north and south and east and west and so it was a natural convention city and as a result it was constantly at the center of these great political (maelstroms) and these great reform movements where it was easy to get people from west and east together in Syracuse. So whether it’s right after Seneca Falls, and I just wrote a column about this a couple of weeks ago, in 1852 of the third National Women's Convention is here. And that is an incredibly significant event. It's the first time that Susan B. Anthony speaks in public. And it's the first time that Matilda Joslyn Gage addresses the public. And those two women, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, will become the triumvirate of the women's suffrage movement and they will literally write the book on it and they cut their teeth in Syracuse. So they're constantly back and forth. And then, I mean, the abolition movement, I mean, the Jerry Rescue is an event that a lot of people in Syracuse know about. But the Jerry Rescue which was when William Jerry Henry was freed from his recapture on October 1st 1851, became a national celebration for the abolitionists. They got together every year until the Civil War, in Syracuse, and celebrated Jerry's Rescue and his escape to Canada. So I mean, this was an event that would have gone viral in 2022 right? That's at the forefront of this movement, and again it's all here. Meanwhile, you had state political conventions here. This was a hotbed of radical political thought, radical political activity. Garrett Smith, who was just east of Peterborough, was in Syracuse constantly was obviously a part of the Jerry Rescue and a major funder of the abolition movement and one of the founders of the Liberty Party who would often speak in Syracuse. Frederick Douglass was here constantly speaking. He was a good friends with Jermain Loguen and their families actually intermarried at one point. Samuel May, one of the great thinkers and advocates for women's rights and abolition, was here preaching in the 1840’s and he came to Syracuse because of its reputation as a center for progressive political thought. So I think those are incredibly important historical events but they also can help inspire, hopefully people today, as a push for social justice seems to be ramping up in a way that we haven't seen in a while.

GR: And so, here's all the ways that Syracuse was so important in the nation in times past. But now it's a smallish city of, I think fair to say, regional importance only. Is there is there one moment in your mind or one event or one change that best demonstrates or symbolizes Syracuse's decline from those heights? Of its past national importance?

RS: Oh, that's a great question. The one thing that I think is tying in history and the history of the city as a Rust Belt and maybe the move forward, is this discussion of Interstate 81. I mean, because when you go back to the construction of 81, Syracuse is at the apotheosis of its power. It's per capita one of the best places to live, particularly if you're a white middle class worker. Its population is at its peak and this artery is supposed to revitalize the downtown area. It obviously has just the opposite effect. And I think that now the discussion about its divider coming down is, it's bringing back a lot of those, sort of the dark underside of those discussions, whether it was the displacement of African-Americans from the 15th ward, the destruction of those neighborhoods, the sort of urban decay and the white flight of which Syracuse is really a prime example, as are a lot of those canal zone cities in Upstate New York. I just think as somebody who grew up in Vestal, New York, which is just a little bit south, I had a first-hand seat. My father was an IBM’er and watched those factories close. I think about maybe even Syracuse University right now with the with the sort of swirling, and I don't want to call it controversy, but the renaming of the Carrier Dome. I've seen in some emails and things to us at the OHA, the sense that the Carrier Dome coming off is like ripping off an old wound or something. Of what the loss of manufacturing jobs and what sort of the corporate state leaving the community did to what's left. And really it was when those jobs started pulling out when Allied Chemical closed in ‘85 and when Carrier downsized and all the gear factories that had been here, I mean all these vestiges of a century old industrial history are basically gone now. And I think there is a real, you know, it's sort of an open wound, if you will, for a lot of people of a certain generation. I think that the discussions of 81 and the Dome, these things that are in the news really keep these things sort of bubbling back up. So as a historian it's interesting to see the different perspectives of people both in emails and in conversations I have out in the public today.

GR: If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is the curator of history for the Onondaga Historical Association. Robert Searing. So you are a political historian by trade. And as you've already pointed out, many of your stories do involve politics. Here's maybe a tougher question for you. What are the ways in which you would describe the current political culture of central New York?

RS: Oh, that's fascinating. I often in my writings will make allusions to the 1850’s. I think that we are incredibly polarized. I studied with Roger Sharp, and the 1790’s. I will often, by way of comparison, you know, throw up discussions or verbiage from the 1790’s to sort of illustrate, “politics have been this vicious before in the United States.” But I think we're at a crossroads here in Central New York because we have a changing demographic, a very much in flux economic situation. What buoys me, I think is I see a lot of young people in the city. I'm downtown in Syracuse a lot, there's people coming in. So you've got this old guard. The baby boomers are getting up there in age, and they're still holding on to the reins of power. And you see the young folks coming up who have drastically different worldviews, obviously, I think there's still this very bi polar idea. Folks that grew up in the Cold War, and I'm sort of a Gen-Xer I'm 40 years old, so I remember the Cold War. But when I talk to students, the Cold War might as well be the Civil War. And I think that informs a lot of that and young people just have a different view. They're obviously much more, I think, tolerant across the board of certain things. And I think their idea of politics is very different. But they're active again. And so when we're talking about the 1840’s and the 1850’s and this real activity, ground-up political organizing and conventions and people getting out into the streets and really trying to actuate change from the bottom up. I think, that's I think that's really good. I think it's a positive thing that's happening. But, you know, we're as polarized as we've been in decades and decades and decades and what concerns me as a historian of political institutions is, have we reached a point where those institutions are failing, where trust, that distrust, in the institutions is as low as it's ever been. I don't think there's many things polling lower than the United States Congress. I don't I don't necessarily see that changing because I mean, this is one of things I love about teaching young people, as I'm sure you can attest to, is they sort of are always coming in with new perspectives and forcing us to sort of reevaluate. But sometimes their perspectives can be disheartening in a way. The idea that they are looking at these institutions as essentially done and over with and it's time just to start again. So I don't know. I’m a bit leery. History offers a great perspective I think, you know, again, we've been here before, but nothing is inevitable, certainly. But there are there are certainly things that signal to me personally that while we may be wading into some really, really dark waters here.

GR: Well, we've got about 3 minutes left or so, but I want to try to squeeze in two more questions and the first one is about the politics of this place. And then the other one, I want you to look into the future a little bit. But I've been struck by two things in my 30 years here about the city and the region's politics. And the first is it's a very small town and a very small county in comparison to its population size, I mean, it's small. Everybody knows everybody who is in this game. And second, it seems to me it's very tribal and it's orientation in terms of different groups. Do you have any thoughts about that?

RS: Well, you know, it's funny, my line is, “Syracuse is a really big, small town,” and as someone who's not from here, particularly somebody who deals with the history of the region, I'm often sort of laughing at people. I will never be a Syracuse, and I've been here for 15 years, but I was not born here, so I will never be a Syracusan even if I lived here for another 50 years. So I think you're right. I think that there is certainly something to that. And it's another reason that I try to sort of bring that perspective of the local history farther out to give people a sense. But I think parochial and provincial would be a way to describe it. I think that that can have its negatives and its positives though too. I think that there's a real buy in from a large segment of the community that are trying to sort of bring Syracuse back. I mean, I think, you know, again, you've been here for 30 years, so you really can speak to it even more than I can. But I think we, certainly before the pandemic, I really felt like we had a real momentum in Syracuse, you know, and again, because of its geography, because of its educated workforce and because of it, we've got a really good seed here to get back. Syracuse is never going to be one of the 30th largest cities in the country like it was at the turn of the 20th century. But I think Syracuse could position itself and obviously my conversations with people, developers and politicians, business leaders that there's a real sign out there that Syracuse may be a place that can set for future growth. I'm optimistic about the region's possibilities with that leadership. And so I think that sometimes that parochialism or that really locally oriented view can be beneficial where people have a real pride of place in Central New York. But there's a lot of transients. One of the things I think that we can do better is sort of retaining young people. I mean, we've got a couple of meccas of higher education with Cornell being just Ithaca and obviously Syracuse University. These are world class institutions that are churning out the next generations of business and political leaders, if we can get them to recognize the beauty and the possibilities of this region. And part of that for me as a historian is telling the amazing history of the people that lived here before and what this community and what this city and what this county did to help shape the nation. I think that that helps build that pride of place and instill a confidence in the future.

GR: We'll have to do this last one as a lightning round, but I think you've already answered it. So maybe just give me one sentence on this, but thinking of the long term arc of Syracuse, where is the arc bending in the next 20 years? The next 50 years? You sound pretty optimistic.

RS: I think if the city has positioned itself well. I think they have in terms of tech. I think that with the move to off site and people being able to work remotely. I love living in upstate New York. The Finger Lakes are here. It's beautiful. There's a reason that the Haudenosaunee have been here for thousands and thousands of years. This is a wonderful place to live. So I think that with technology change, perhaps Syracuse can continue its renaissance and be a destination for people to set up shop and put down roots.

GR: I liked a happy note. That was Robert's clearing. You could find his writing on local history in the Syracuse Post-Standard. Bob, it's been a real pleasure, and I want to thank you for writing your column.

RS: Thank you so much for having me. Great. It's been it's been a pleasure to talk to you and hopefully we'll do it again.

GR: Yeah, I'd like that. You've been listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

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Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.