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Historians bring national conference to St. Louis, seek to historicize Ferguson

Alex Heuer
St. Louis Public Radio

Even before events in Ferguson unfolded last August, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) was planning to hold a session about race relations in St. Louis.

The shooting death of Michael Brown and the ensuing community reaction brought on new meaning for the OAH, as the group convenes its 108th annual meeting April 16-19 in downtown St. Louis.

Two conference panels will center on the historical implications of the events in Ferguson. They will be led by Peter Kastor, history professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and Donna Murch, history professor at Rutgers University.

“This is exactly the moment to think, not so much what [Ferguson] means historically, but rather how a historical perspective helps us understand why this happens, what it means and what it might be a product of. Because in the immediate aftermath of Michael Brown’s death, people understandably thought in contemporary terms,” Kastor told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Wednesday.

The goal of Kastor’s panel is to look at American history from the inside out. Kastor said stories told from the center of the country are different than those told from the East Coast, as is the case with events in Ferguson.

Another Ferguson-related panel is “Historicizing Ferguson: Police Violence and the Genesis of a National Movement.”

“What we see in Ferguson is a combination of looking at the local history of Midwestern cities, of St. Louis, of Detroit, of cities that have undergone industrialization and job loss … but also combined with a national movement and national response to a transformation of policing and mass incarceration,” said Murch, who will lead that panel.

More than 1,200 historians are expected to attend the four-day conference in St. Louis that will feature workshops, panel discussions, plenary sessions, film screenings and tours.

“Historical perspective is an essential form of sometimes wisdom, but at least deeper thought, and not just quick, immediate reaction,” said Patty Limerick, president of the Organization of American Historians.

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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