I recently had the privilege of participating in a fundraiser for the City of Fountain’s Fairview Cemetery as a living history interpreter. My background both as an historian, and as a formally trained actress, allowed me to delve into this project, and I’ve come away from it with a distinctly profound feeling of reverence for the woman I portrayed, and in particular for her sons. The deep, meaningful connection I continue to experience toward this family I’ve never met, has made me pause in reflection, to contemplate the significance of how public history affects those who view it, and those who portray it.
I am grateful when two aspects of my life can combine so seamlessly. I have always used my historian’s mind and skills to research characters, plays, and the specifics of a theatrical production, but the ability to bring my stage skills back to my academic world is a rare and cherished event. When I was asked to portray Emma Maria McCarty Eubank for The Friends of the Fountain Fairview Cemetery’s (FFFC) annual Cemetery Crawl fundraiser I jumped at it.
The fundraiser is an event that I strongly believe in. Begun by Barbara Headle, a senior history instructor and her students four years ago after the cemetery had been vandalized, it exists to help fund conservation efforts, site improvements, and purchase equipment like surveillance cameras. The cemetery holds descendants of the first settler families in the region, some of whom still have family in the area, and is both an historical treasure and spiritual repository for the community.
The theme of this year’s fundraiser, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, centered on veterans. There are approximately 175 veterans interred at Fairview, with their service spanning the Civil War to Vietnam. Six interpreters were chosen to portray veterans, or family members of veterans, whose task it was to then convey the life story of the man or woman they represented.
The day of the fundraiser was spectacular. The sunlight filtering through the trees was buttery, and the breeze barely touched the leaves. Occasionally, a dried leaf, tanned from the summer heat and curled, would fall from above, kissing the ground with a small scratch of sound. Crows spoke to each other from the tree-heights, and though traffic was near, it faded as the Veterans of Foreign War’s Color Guard began the presentation of colors. Taps rang out in the still morning air, the notes silvery and beautiful and haunting.
Each interpreter was stationed at the gravesite of the person they portrayed. I made my way to the Eubank family plot, the sixth, and last station on the tour. The still morning was peaceful as I waited for visitors. I reviewed my presentation several times in my head, going over my lines, checking dates, listing off the names of my character’s six children. I sat. And then the enormity of what I was about to do hit me. Emma Eubank was not a character. She had been a wife, a mother. I was sitting at the foot of her grave, asked to speak in her voice about her family, about two of her sons who fought in World War I. What I knew about her and her family had been gleaned from newspaper articles, census reports, draft registration cards, birth and death certificates, meticulously researched by the FFFC. I had pieced together the various bits of information into a monologue, a narrative about Emma and her family, yet in my heart the Eubanks deserved to be more than bullet points of research.
The visitors sometimes came to my station in groups, some singly. I told them Emma’s story. With each telling I felt more, and more protective of the family. Between visitors I read the grave markers in the family plot: Robert, William, Jane, Florence (four of Emma’s six children); WT McCarty (her brother); Fred (her husband) and Emma who shared a marker together. All six markers, nine members of the family (including the girls’ husbands) together in that beautiful, shaded, peaceful ground. It was profoundly moving.
I told Emma’s tale to many visitors that day, as honestly as I could. I came to realize that public history, living history, done in the right way, can connect both historians and the general public to a deeper understanding of our past. I’ve always had great respect and appreciation for the ordinary people who don’t often make it into history books, searching for the voices who traditionally are silent in the larger narratives we tell. But the act of translating facts, data, into a voice, has reminded me how much I love being an historian, and the enormous responsibility I have to properly, ethically, and diligently, pursue the discipline.
Public history provides an open doorway that many will comfortably step through. It is a more accessible, and less intimidating medium for many who would never wish to pick up a history book, to engage with the past. My first experience with living history has inspired and humbled me, and has given me a deeper connection to the people I represent as an historian, and those who come to view the history.
Thank you Emma.