Distinguished Lecturers
Philip Levy

Philip Levy

Philip Levy is a Professor of History at the University of South Florida. His work sits at the intersection of history, historical archaeology, landscape, memory, and public history. Levy is the author of several books dealing with George Washington, both as a person and as a national icon. Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home (2013) and George Washington Written Upon the Land: Nature, Memory, Myth, and Landscape (2015) focus on the places of Washington childhood. The Permanent Resident: Excavations and Explorations of the Life of George Washington (2022) explores the many sites of Washington’s life and how their stories have been shaped by archaeology and issues of memory and commemoration. His newest book, Yard Birds: The Lives and Times of America’s Urban Chickens (2023), tells a very different story from his other work and explores how chickens and cities have shaped one another. Levy is currently completing a new history of Washington’s childhood that will finally fill the longstanding gaps in that important part of Washington’s biography. That book draws on decades of archaeological and documentary research and a new Historical Resource Study he wrote for the George Washington Birthplace National Monument. He is also working on a book about forged Washingtoniana—a project that stems from his long experience working with Washington sites and their associated material culture. Levy has appeared on NPR, C-SPAN, and National Geographic, and presented public talks for audiences at venues including National Park Service sites and the National Archives. He is also a champion old-time fiddler and prize-winning clawhammer banjo player.

OAH Lectures by Philip Levy

In 1932, the nation celebrated the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth. Federal and state governments and countless private organizations poured money into all things George. Those pots of money, though, also attracted a large number of shady characters eager to cash in on the nation’s enthusiasm. This lecture looks at the careers and creations of a few of the most prolific and fascinating fraudsters to show the idea of material authenticity can be pushed and pulled to suit different purposes.

The story of the Washington family is usually told as a heroic tale featuring a few key male family members. Recent work, though, has shown the role that slavery played in the family’s seventeenth- and eighteenth-century rise. This lecture focuses on one particular woman named Betty, whose mixed-race children at the end of the 1600s were both kin to and enslaved by the Washingtons. Using her connections and the ambiguity of Virginia law, Betty was able to secure freedom for two of her sons and education for her six other children. Betty’s story highlights the complicated mix of kinship and racial categories that already had taken form even as planters were still establishing the legal contours of Virginia slavery.

In the 1990s, city dwellers across the land began to turn their backyards into urban hen yards. The desire for local clean food supplies was often the motivator, and practice and practitioners were both celebrated and derided in popular media. But the reality behind the trendiness is that chickens have a long and complicated history in American cities. This lectures follows how cities were crucial to the development of modern chicken breeds in the early nineteenth century, and then how changing ideas of disease transmission at the turn of the century led to chickens’ banishment. 

Few American childhoods have been as mythologized as much as has George Washington’s. The quantity of fictional accounts could almost break a bookshelf. But even fiction carries truths—and knowing the real story is not as impossible as it sometimes seems. This lecture takes the audience through what decades of archeological and documentary research tells us about young Washington and also what has been behind some of that childhood’s best-known made-up stories. Spoiler alert: it is about a lot more than simply not telling a lie.

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