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Plenary Sessions

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Thursday, April 6
4:00 pm--5:30 pm 

Historians in Court

Chair: Kenneth W. Mack, Lawrence D. Biele Professor of Law and Affiliate Professor of History,
Harvard University

• Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law, Harvard Law School and Professor of History, Harvard University
• George Chauncey, Samuel Knight Professor of History & American Studies, Yale University
• Linda Gordon, University Professor of the Humanities and Florence Kelley Professor of History, New York University
• Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, Stanford University

Historians have increasingly responded when attorneys call on them to supplement strictly legal argument with additional corroborative and persuasive angles, especially in cases involving the assertion or defense of constitutional rights. This follows in a twentieth-century practice begun in 1908, when attorney Louis Brandeis successfully argued for state controls on women's employment conditions by bringing social scientific evidence of the strains women experienced. Not acting as advocates, but ostensibly providing impartial historical facts and opinion, historians have offered expert testimony that becomes part of important cases and also have written amicus curiae briefs that may possibly influence the court.

In this session, four historians will reflect on their significant experiences in this mode of making history matter in the present. Tomiko Brown-Nagin's comments stem from her involvement in cases on affirmative action in education, including Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), Parents Involved v. Seattle (2007), and Fisher v. Texas (2013). George Chauncey will discuss his participation as expert witness and author of amicus briefs in gay rights litigation from Romer v. Evans (1996) and Lawrence v. Texas (2003) to several more recent cases on equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, including U.S. v. Windsor (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). Linda Gordon has co-authored historians' amicus briefs in major abortion rights cases, from Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989), where the Supreme Court upheld Missouri's restrictions on abortion rights, to Whole Women's Health v. Hellerstadt (2016) where the court struck down Texas' excessive requirements for abortion clinics. Richard White's service as an expert witness in tribal recognition and treaty rights cases in the Pacific Northwest extends back to 1977 and up to today.

Panelists will address several of the many pressing questions arising from this kind of endeavor. What kinds of historical evidence count in court? Are they acting as advocates or neutral experts? What are the differing ways that lawyers and historians read and use historical evidence? Does the history they contribute actually make a difference to the outcome of the case? Can any impact of historians' contributions be seen in change over time in the Supreme Court's interpretation of constitutional rights?


Friday, April 7
4:00 pm--5:30 pm

African American History, Art and the Public Museum: A Conversation with Lonnie Bunch and Richard Powell

Chair: Darlene Clark Hine, Northwestern University

• Lonnie G Bunch III, National Museum of African American History and Culture
• Richard J. Powell, Duke University

Moderated by National Humanities Medal recipient historian and former OAH President Darlene Clark Hine (2002), this plenary explores the rich intersections of art, history memory, commemoration and activism as expressed in the process of establishing the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. In conversation will be the veteran museum innovator and administrator, NMAAHC's founding director, Lonnie Bunch and celebrated scholar and curator of African American arts traditions, Richard Powell of Duke University.

Literally a century in the making, the NMAAHC will mark the fruition of efforts that began as early as 1915—the same year that Carter G. Woodson began the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History–when African American Civil War veterans collected funds to help create a national museum that would recognize and celebrate African American achievements and contributions to the country. Meanwhile, public, artistic, and academic institutions, along with activists, established in university departments, exhibition spaces, and publications—both academic and public–the legitimacy of examining and analyzing the African American experience as an integral part of the American narrative. All these labors occurred against the backdrop of an expansive tradition of civil/human rights battles meant to guarantee full citizenship and equality for black Americans. It would be decades later, in 2003, that President George W. Bush signed the legislation to authorize NMAAHC's creation on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It took another 13 years to secure its funding, construction, artifact collection and opening. Director Bunch and Professor Powell will walk the OAH audience through this history, delineating the roots of this movement for the museum and its relationship to the evolving story of African American life, struggle and triumph. Profoundly important to their discussion will be the thorny questions that address issues of aesthetic value and historical representation: "What is African American art? What attributes of African American history should be on display? How should this history be illustrated for public consumption? What is the interplay between art and history? and What relationship does African American art and history, as represented in this museum, have with other artistic and historical traditions within the nation and throughout the African diaspora?