Public history raises a host of provocative questions about power, voice, location, and representation. These concerns have long occupied the attention of oral historians who attempt to reconstruct places stigmatized in local lore. In an effort to bring justice to communities marginalized by race and class, do historians inject themselves into the creation of public memory in order to tell a more noble story of community struggle and togetherness? How might historians use narratives to challenge distorted images of communities without romanticizing the past? In Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community, Douglas Boyd boldly tackles these dilemmas as he deconstructs hegemonic narratives and “countermemories” surrounding a community destroyed by urban renewal (p. 185). This approach not only makes Crawfish Bottom an intriguing and compelling story but also an extremely useful text for examining the possibilities and pitfalls in recreating public memory.
Professor Douglas A. Boyd is the director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky. He has written about African American history in Kentucky and the uses of technology in oral history. In this recent book, Boyd explores the history of the “poorest section of Frankfort,” Kentucky’s capitol (p. 15). The reader learns that the “Craw,” as it was sometimes called, had a reputation for prostitution, bootlegging, election fraud, gambling, and violence. In telling and retelling the stories of Crawfish Bottom, Boyd draws on archival materials—maps, photographs, newspaper articles, court records, biography, and oral histories, including those conducted by James Wallace who, during the 1990s, interviewed twenty-five residents, mostly African Americans.
Along with the introduction and conclusion, Crawfish Bottom is organized into five thematic chapters that explore important elements in the reconstruction of place, identity, and narratives about notorious and complex figures such as Ida Howard who operated a house [End Page 95] of prostitution and John Fallis, a grocery-store owner who became a legendary outlaw killed in a street shooting. Chapter one examines the history of Crawfish Bottom as gleaned from the scarce documentary record. Boyd effectively uses newspapers, maps, photographic collections, and published histories by historians and folklorists to trace the origins of the public legacy of the neighborhood. Analyzing the origins of the name and identity of the community in chapter two, Boyd introduces the readers to Wallace’s interviews housed in the Kentucky Historical Society. In chapter three, Boyd unpacks the interplay between social structure and the contested images of the community while exploring how oral historians are participants in the memory-making process. Delving deeper into the oral histories of the Craw, chapter four guides the reader through a rich discussion of the construction of place in public memory. Chapter five follows the life of “the King of Craw,” the most celebrated and notorious figure of the neighborhood—John Fallis.
One of the many intriguing aspects of this book is Boyd’s analysis of the interviews conducted by Wallace who had set out to tell the story of the community from the perspective of its residents to dispel the unsavory reputation of the neighborhood. Boyd shows how Wallace became part of the public memory by interjecting his own telling and meaning-making during the interviews. To move the reader beyond a simplistic critique of Wallace’s interference, Boyd draws on a rich tradition of sociological and historical theory to explain how hegemonic and counternarratives can “bring a reconstituted public memory into balance” (p. 184). The history of this lost Kentucky neighborhood has relevance for many communities in the metropolitan United States being swept away by redevelopment and sprawl. From this perspective, Crawfish Bottom is not only a textured story but a model that scrutinizes the problems and promises for public history-making. [End Page 96]
Barbara J. Shircliffe is an associate professor of psychological and social foundations of education at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida.