Answering Big Historical Questions in a Local Setting

(Editor’s Note: KHS and three contributors to the Autumn 2015 Register of the Kentucky Historical Society will be at the Henderson County Public Library on Saturday, Oct. 17, 1-3 p.m. for an author talk. Admission is free.)

By Amanda Higgins, associate editor, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

register_hendersonBig historical questions often seem difficult to tackle in any meaningful way. As a graduate student and later a visiting professor, I found it particularly difficult to answer well-meaning students’ “big questions” in satisfactory ways. Answering questions such as, “Who freed the slaves?” and “How did African Americans and whites work together during the civil rights movement?” required so much nuance that students quickly lost interest or left the conversation more confused than when it started.

Being able to explore such definitive questions in a local setting makes history more approachable. Thus, microhistory can be a perfect vehicle for answering larger questions. Microhistory explores the history that unfolded in a town to help answer big historical questions. A perfect example of this approach comes in the most recent issue (Autumn 2015) of the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society,  in which all the contributors focus on the Henderson County area of Western Kentucky to answer big questions in a small geographical area.

This microhistorical technique allowed the authors to explore the experiences of little-known Kentuckians in two of the defining events of the American past—the Civil War and the civil rights movement. By zooming in on a specific locale, the seemingly impossible to comprehend becomes tangible and real. In this issue of the Register, we see individual slaves in Western Kentucky free themselves by crossing Union lines and joining United States Colored Troops regiments. We see a Confederate guerrilla fighter playing both soldier and outlaw in his hometown. A century later, we see white Henderson clergy find their place in the narrative of civil rights in Kentucky, and readers see the way townspeople worked together—and against one another—for progress.

Our state and national history is a collection of local stories. To understand how change occurs over time, we can look at a single place, like Henderson County, and see the richness of its past. This issue of the Register does just that—exposing Hendersonians’ contributions to a reconstructed nation and a changing region. This issue is also a great tool for understanding the connections across time in a single place.  Hopefully now, teachers and students can find answers to their big questions—and more importantly, see that they can answer them by looking at the effects of national events in their own hometowns.

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