Public History in New York City’s Cultural Life, in memory of Adina Back

2009 April 7
by Pennee Bender

On April 6th, the American Social History Project and The Gotham Center for New York City History organized a public seminar to honor the life and work Adina Back, a very dear colleague and public historian who passed away last August. (see program below)

Adina Back

Adina Back

Adina’s work as an historian exemplified the excitement, the challenges, and the difficulties of doing public history in NYC. She worked in a wide variety of public venues – starting her career producing radio documentaries, including Meridel Le Sueur: Fierce for Change a portrait of the feminist writer of the 1930s and 40s.

She worked on museum exhibitions most notably for the Jewish Museum curating Bridges and Boundaries: African Americans and American Jews, and consulted on other exhibits such as Brooklyn Works at the Brooklyn Historical Society.

In the late 1990s, Adina jumped right into new media and created an oral history website entitled Student Voices from WWII and the McCarthy Era. In addition to creating her own web project, Adina consulted on a number of other web projects. She also consulted on oral history projects and film projects.

Adina also wielded the pen and wrote articles and editorials for popular and academic journals. She wrote a neighborhood history of Flatbush Brooklyn and was an editor of the Radical History Review. For the last few years Adina was completing a history of Women Activists in New York City’s School Desegregation Battles of the 1940s and 1950s.

And last, but not least, Adina was an educator – she taught in trade union education programs, led professional development workshops for high school teachers, and was a professor at Brooklyn College.

Part of what made Adina such a great public historian was her incredible personal warmth, generosity, and integrity. Like many public historians, Adina did not just study dusty documents in the archives. Her work involved relationships with a wide range of people and she had an amazing openness and ability to engage fully with people as subjects of history, creators of history, and audiences of history. These relationships enriched her work and our understanding of individuals as active agents of historical change.

Obviously, juggling all these different mediums, projects, and relationships is no easy task. And doing all this work with minimal funding, little or no institutional support, and very little public recognition – is the life of most public historians.

So with this panel discussion we want to celebrate the important contributions that Adina made and public historians continue to make to life in the city. And to recognize, that even though public historians are rarely in the spotlight, their efforts and work live on in all those who follow. Given her great contributions to honoring the role of ordinary people in New York City’s history, I trust that Adina will remain present (or presente in the Latino tradition) in the hearts and minds of the individuals and institutions, who keep history public in New York City.


  • Oneka LaBennett, Research Director, Bronx African American History Project and Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies, Fordham University
  • Deborah F. Schwartz, President, Brooklyn Historical Society
  • Ruth Sergel, Filmmaker and artist, creator of CHALK, an annual commemoration of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
  • Dave Herman, Fire Fighter and Founder, The City Reliquary, a new Brooklyn Museum with Community Collections and events
  • Ron Grele, Former Director, Columbia Oral History Research Office and Professor Emeritus, Columbia University
2009 April 28
Michelle Slater permalink

Re Adina..her qualities reminiscent of your qualities old friend. She is not the first person I have come to know through your attention. There were so many over the past decades. I am taking this opportunity to thank you for introducing one more. Her also is my ‘vote’ for the Public Historian toiling away at the important task of holding up the millions whose stories make the world such a rich tapestry.

2009 April 28
Michelle Slater permalink

correction…here not her in the last sentence.

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