The Inheritance: Creating and contesting national imaginaries at the Hall of Fame for Great Americans

Authors: Tamar Rothenberg*, Bronx Community College of the City University of New York
Topics: Cultural Geography, Historical Geography, Higher Education
Keywords: Commemoration, pedagogy, national imaginary
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/14/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Balcony N, Marriott, River Tower Elevators, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

In the late 1800s, New York University expanded from its lower Manhattan campus, purchasing Bronx land overlooking the Hudson River. The goal was to establish NYU as a national university, and the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, a grand colonnade designed by Stanford White, opened in 1901. Busts of honorees, selected by a committee from a national public nomination process, lined both sides, and their population grew as elections were held every five years.
NYU sold its Bronx campus to New York City in 1973, and so the Hall of Fame came to reside at the City University of New York’s Bronx Community College. Since then, Bronx Community College faculty and students have puzzled over what to make of their strange inheritance. Physically maintained but existentially moribund, the Hall of Fame was mostly forgotten about, by the mostly Latinx, Black, and immigrant student population as well as by the nation as a whole.
In August 2017, after over 40 years of inactivity, on the order of New York’s governor, busts were removed for the first time in the Hall’s existence: Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. What they were doing there in the first place—how they figured into the national imaginary installed by a white American elite—is one of the issues this paper will address, as well as the ways in which Bronx Community College faculty and students have used the Hall of Fame to interrogate historical and current notions of “American” and “greatness.”

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