3 Things I’ve Learned as Historian
This semester, I have embarked on a deep exploration of Wash archives in order to create a more developed digital record of our history. This has been a component of my work that I have thoroughly enjoyed. What follows is a collection of lessons I learned from our Society’s secretary’s books from about 1900-1914.
One – The Wash has always been the same.
There is much to be praised about The Wash’s constantly evolving culture as a product of our cycles of membership and emphasis on free speech in the hall. Yes, no semester in The Wash will ever be predictable, but don’t be fooled, The Wash has always very much, maybe almost too much, been an endearingly chaotic and energetic Society in distinct ways.
As every member knows, and as every provie will soon learn, The Wash awards a couple of big honors to its members each year, including meritorious debate and literary presentation medals. In our modern tradition, these are usually awarded at our Banquet in the Spring to graduating fourth years. There has been a running joke in the society for the past couple of years over our failure to obtain actual medals to give to their recipients for the awards that we refer to as medals. Every year some alumni and members get together and promise that this year, this year!!!!, will finally be the year that we get medals for Banquet. And every year, this doesn’t happen. While this seems like the kind of “millennial laziness” that our Wash ghosts would have never tolerated, that is not the case. I came across several secretary’s minutes from meetings that had several members across varying years promising to obtain medals for the year’s awards. Of course, these ceremonies were not recorded in the books, and perhaps the actual medals did make their way into the proceedings. Nevertheless, it seems that there has always been some sort of concern over the existence of medals in the Society, which provides a consistency to our medal disorganization that is amusing.
Elections are another formidable portion of Wash lore. They are surrounded each semester by mutterings of past drama, stories of hours long deliberations, and lots of speculation. It seems a goal for modern elections, so far, is to have an election so contentious that the membership is leaving the hall as soon as Starbucks is opening. While, again, this may seem like the product of 21st century pettiness and immaturity, The Wash has always had a flair for the dramatic. Indeed, the election of the 1910 January-March term (more on that below) was particularly contentious. There were two members that wanted to run for president, and they both agreed that the other would respectfully run for vice president once one was elected president. However, that agreement quickly fell apart and drama ensued. The drama appeared to be so intense that the normal order of elections was abandoned so that the vice president was elected last, presumably to ease tensions. Not to be outdone, secretary was a three way race with a dark horse candidate winning by questionable means. TLDR: The Wash has ALWAYS been a little petty when it comes to elections.
While it may be hard to picture anything before Olympus, there actually was another Wash residence. Some variations of the roll had Washies include their addresses, and in the 1912-1913 roll there were several members that noted that they lived on 503 West Main. This is a property on Main Street on the way to downtown that I’m sure you’ve walked past without even realizing it! Originally named Paxton Place, this building was built in 1824, and much of its original structure is still intact today. Unfortunately, like Wash Hall, we cannot reclaim it because the city currently has plans to modify it into a hotel along with a couple other surrounding historical properties. My favorite factoid about this property is that it became a funeral home in the 1920s, roughly coinciding with our Society’s 2nd Interregnum. This confirms that life without The Wash is, indeed, just death.
Two – Historical research is challenging.
Spelling, Handwriting, and Organization
This is a list that may strike you as things that may not be the Society’s strengths, and you would be right. Our proud Society’s past secretaries all had wildly different handwriting and ways of organizing our books. All of our rolls and entries look different each semester, and many names are spelled in multiple ways across the same semester. I don’t include this to complain- I think that it is one of the coolest parts of the Society that our record keeping is so personal and unique to each secretary. But I include this to say that historical research is much more interactive than you may expect; it takes lots of cross-referencing against itself and other sources to corroborate and record accurate information for our digital records, and you may end up spending half an hour staring at a cursive chart contemporary to the time period trying to determine what the hell is that letter??
I had a fun afternoon mid-February when I discovered that the man named McManaway I had been tracking for the past three school years (which at this time meant 9 terms worth of entries) were actually two different men. I had to go back and sort out which one was H.M. McManaway and which one was N.H. McManaway (due to spelling and handwriting, I was forced to make assumptions about letters to get the records to be consistent, and here was one instance where I over-corrected), and by the time I had done that and moved on, a J. McManaway popped up. As a later roll lists both N.H. McManaway and J. McManaway as being from Charlottesville, it then became clear that this was likely a family of three brothers who had all gone to UVA and forced each younger one to join The Wash. While I have been unable to find proof for this theory, I did find that H.M. McManaway became the Superintendent of Charlottesville Schools in the early 1920s, while J., or Judson, McManaway died serving in WWI. N.H. McManaway has not made himself known to me on Google searches quite yet, but I am confident I will get him soon. This was a great historical experience, as it reminded me to not make assumptions about the information I was finding, and allowed me to do lots of research into Wash alumni in a way that makes me feel even more connected to the Society.
Three-Terms Per School Year
Now that this has been alluded to twice, here it is: The Wash used to have three election cycles. I am surprisingly having a lot of trouble trying to determine if the University used to use a trimester or quarter system that would explain this. However, the significance of this to me was that it shows how the Historian has to think in large scale ways to be able to contextualize our history through different lenses, whether that be the University community, Charlottesville, or American politics in general.
Three – What we do matters.
Being a part of this lovely Society means that your thoughts, feelings, and opinions are being recorded and stored indefinitely. It is an incredible privilege, recording our history and making our voices heard, that most people don’t get. We are constantly creating a primary source of what it is like to be alive right now, and that is a consideration that we should all take seriously. You are literally making history, so what are you going to do with it? What are you going to do with your words in our Society? How do you want to be remembered? What do you want to say? Future historians are waiting.