By David Frank
He did not have to make that trip, on a small bumpy airplane on a route that is no longer in service. To travel from Boston, Massachusetts to Fredericton, New Brunswick, he had to go out to Logan Airport twice. The evening flight was cancelled at the last minute, but he was determined to come, and he made his way back for another flight the next day.
Having missed the morning sessions, he arrived in time for a hasty lunch. Then our guest spoke to an assembled workshop of research scholars and community partners, who had come together to talk about a Community-University Research Alliance on the history of labour in New Brunswick.
Some of us had known Jim Green for years, and we knew we were inviting one of North America’s prime advocates of labour history as a form of public history. His commitment to an activist history went back to his days as a graduate student, when he joined the editorial collective at Radical America while also working on the Yale University dissertation that became his first book, Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895-1943.
As a young professor in the 1970s, Jim was especially impressed by the History Workshop movement in Britain, which was bringing a new level of democratization and collaboration to the practice of history. From his base at the College of Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts, Jim worked tirelessly to bring that idea to life.
Many of the labour and social historians of my generation were greatly influenced by the giants in the field, such as Herb Gutman and David Montgomery in the United States and Edward Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm in Britain. Their work raised high expectations, and I was fortunate to meet two of them. But it was a little less daunting to identify with people such as Jim Green, who were closer to us in age and experience.
Participants at that workshop in Fredericton in 2004 included students and professors from the University of New Brunswick and the Université de Moncton, but the key figures were the community partners. They included union officers and staff from local, provincial and national labour organizations, and representatives from museums, archives and heritage institutions.
They came to the meeting because they were intrigued by the idea of a collaborative project on provincial labour history. We believed that this kind of partnership would serve the needs of union members and that it would also contribute to a wider public knowledge about the history of workers in the province.
Jim’s presentation was thoughtful and deliberate, conversational rather than rhetorical. And he paused for questions and observations. He also made sure there was time for the translator to keep pace, as we wanted to make it clear that our project would be conducted in the province’s two official languages.
He began with his own story of coming to question the conventional wisdoms of official history and learning to listen to the so-called “ordinary” people, people whose vision of solidarity and social justice was the driving force for much of the new labour history. Certainly, there was a political purpose to this kind of work, and Jim reminded us how important it was to study those historic moments when grievances and discontents take shape as social movements of resistance and change.
When I think back to that session in 2004, I remember Jim citing vivid examples of the kind of work he and others had been doing over the years. It was not just about writing books and articles but about promoting union education and oral history, working on films and public memorials, organizing walking tours and holding history workshops. And along the way, he was explaining that historians have the capacity to address present-day questions by showing how similar challenges were faced, for better or worse, under other historical circumstances.
Much of Jim’s experience in public history was summarized in 2000 in Taking History to Heart: The Power of the Past in Building Social Movements, and we had ordered copies for the participants. One of the key statements in the book echoed Howard Zinn’s call for historians to highlight the times and places where people have organized to bring about change. As Jim put it, “these stories can become part of a popular effort to shape a different future from the one global capital has in store for us, a future in which new crusades for equality, democracy and social justice appear as extensions of nearly forgotten stories kept alive within movement culture by activists and historians working together”.
After Jim had finished his talk, the room was buzzing with excitement about what we could accomplish. With funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, we were able to embark the next year on our own adventure in public history, under the title Re-Connecting with the History of Labour in New Brunswick: Historical Perspectives on Contemporary Issues. Some of the results may be visited at our website, which remains available (thanks to the heroic efforts of our webmaster Nelson Ouellet) at http://www.lhtnb.ca even though the formal activities have ended.
When we asked Jim to our workshop, we knew that his time was in demand but also that he was well-organized and efficient in taking on tasks. On the way to the airport the morning after the event, he told me that he would be sitting down the next day to write his next book. It was published less than two years later by Random House as Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America. Most recently he worked on a film about the West Virginia mine wars of the 1920s, which was seen by some four million people when it was broadcast on PBS this year; he also wrote the companion book, The Devil is Here in These Hills.
Then there was the news late last month that, only a short time into his formal retirement, Jim had succumbed to cancer. Many others will bear witness in detail to Jim’s scholarship and teaching and leadership. His contributions were recognized earlier this year in a Distinguished Service Award from the Labor and Working-Class History Association, the organization he helped to found.
But there is also a place in the historical record for a remembrance of the time and care Jim took to help launch one relatively small project in Atlantic Canada. His enthusiasm and his example helped convince our partners that our goals were realistic and worthwhile. And his participation reminded us that a provincial undertaking such as ours belonged to a larger international movement.
He did not have to make that trip, but we are grateful that he did, and for the model of dedication and achievement that he embodied.
David Frank was director of the Labour History in New Brunswick project (2005-11), which was funded by the Community-University Research Alliances programme of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. He is the author of Provincial Solidarities: A History of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour (Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2013), texte publié ègalement en français sous le titre Solidarités provinciales : Histoire de la Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Nouveau-Brunswick.