By Meghan Chua
When Joy Huntington reads a novel, she wants to know what everyone is thinking, not just the narrator or main character.
Huntington has always been motivated to understand others. She brought that mindset to her work as a PhD student in Design Studies at the UW–Madison School of Human Ecology, where her dissertation examined Madison’s history and how women shaped the urban landscape.
To uncover these stories, Huntington dug through archival records that allowed her to read the buildings and landscapes that have existed in Madison over time. Drawing on skills from art history professor Anna Andrzejewski’s class, Huntington connected the dots between existing historical records to provide a fuller picture of women in Madison.
“I love mystery books,” Huntington said. “I love that process of figuring things out and trying to see things from the perspective of different people. That has helped me be able to really dig into these records and be able to see these things.”
Andrzejewski also introduced Huntington to Amy Scanlon, who, at the time, was the City of Madison’s preservationist. Huntington talked with Scanlon to find out what the city was interested in knowing more about, aiming to make sure her research wasn’t confined to academic spaces alone. She found out that her interests in learning the stories of women fit with the city’s goals, too.
Through working with the city’s historic preservation office, Huntington was also invited to sit on the historic preservation plan advisory committee. Some of her research also made it into the preservation plan.
That experience working with the city helped Huntington secure a Leading Edge Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies after graduating with her PhD.
As a Leading Edge Fellow, Huntington is digging into a new set of records, this time focused on Philadelphia’s Historic Germantown. Billing itself as “Freedom’s Backyard,” Historic Germantown includes 18 houses, destinations, and museums in Northwest Philadelphia and was also the location of the Battle of Germantown during the Revolutionary War.
Using Historic Germantown’s archives, Huntington seeks to understand what the culture of the area was at the time and why things were presented the way they were in the records – in this case, from a colonial perspective. She’s also interested in how that narrative has continued over time.
In one project, Huntington will create an online exhibit about the African American and minority businesses in Historic Germantown during the early 1900s. So far, the earliest record she has is the Souvenir of Germantown, a small publication by J. Gordon Baugh Jr. that was issued for the 15th-anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Souvenir details where African Americans lived, the businesses they owned, and the churches they attended. Though, Huntington said, the information isn’t always clear in retrospect.
“One of the things that I found said, ‘Our barbershop’,” she said. “That’s probably not really the name of the barbershop.”
Huntington said she hopes to complete the exhibit by Juneteenth this year. It’s important to her to share the results of her work widely.
“I want my work to relate to people,” she said. “These are stories about real people that people today might have a connection to.”
Though the exhibit’s focus is on African American and minority businesses, Huntington does not think of her work as centering any single group.
“For me, it’s not ever centering a group of people,” she said. “It’s looking at an event and trying to figure out how people around it interacted either with each other or with that event. For me, that’s when we get a more holistic and honest history.”
For example, Huntington said that with the Battle of Germantown, there were the soldiers, those caring for the injured or dead, those feeding the soldiers, and the servants and slaves. Beyond the battlefield, there were also families whose brothers, sons, and husbands were fighting.
Looking at each different point of view provides a clearer picture of history through the stories of those who experienced it.
“Sometimes, those stories that you get become stories of folklore, embellished because they’ve been passed [down] over generations. If they’re never written down, [there’s] a little enhancement of some things. But it’s still all worthy,” Huntington said. “Even in that enhancement of the story over time, you learn something about how people remember history and you take that into account.”
While constraints like time and space in an exhibit can limit how many stories a scholar like Huntington can tell – meaning that they will have to leave some stories out – Huntington said that she always acknowledges that there are more stories to tell and investigate.
Throughout her research and her life more broadly, Huntington has always sought out people’s stories. She grew up listening to her great aunts, great grandparents, and grandparents tell stories of their lives. That has shaped her approach to everything.
For Huntington, listening to and reading stories about people’s experience is a way of respecting them and honoring the life they’ve lived.
“And yes, that informs my work, but I think the most important part of me is just connecting and hearing a person’s story, and letting them be heard,” she said.