Scott and I spent Independence Day at Genesee Country Village and Museum in New York last year. Having celebrated the 4th of July in 1876 style at Old World Wisconsin for 12 seasons, I was eager to see how another large historic site interpreted the holiday.
The first special event of the day, however was not an historic reenactment or period activity. It was a citizenship ceremony that took place in front of the town hall in the Village square.
The presiding judge told of his father and grandfather, who had immigrated from Italy. He spoke eloquently of visiting Ellis Island. He assured the newcomers that this was a country where they could keep cherished cultural traditions from their homeland while embracing their new status as American citizens. He reminded them that as citizens, they have a responsibility to help govern; to be involved.
Thirty-two people recited their oath of allegiance. They represented twenty-three countries: China and Somalia, Australia and Russia, Sri Lanka and Honduras, and many more.
Then each came forward to receive their certificate of citizenship. Some wore something traditional from their homeland. Many clutched American flags.
I had a lump in my throat. I could think of no better way to begin celebrating the Fourth of July. And I could think of no better place to hold a naturalization ceremony than at an historic site like Genesee Country Village.
Many of the participants stayed at the site for the day. They were in the crowds as interpreters reenacted celebrations from 1836 and 1876.
And the site had lots of opportunities for guests of all ages to simply have fun. Period activities included sack races and a pie-eating contest.
But the ceremony lingered in my mind. Modern immigration is part of the continuing story. The juxtaposition of period reenactments and modern ceremony reminded everyone, I think, of some of the principles that formed our nation, and continue to do so.
Historic sites are, of course, by definition largely about the past. And my personal philosophy of interpreting historic places is generally narrow. I’m usually not a fan of interjecting anything contemporary into an historic setting.
But historic sites also exist to help us all understand how we got to be here, now. Watching these modern immigrants, I thought of my own paternal grandparents, taking similar vows almost a century ago after they left Switzerland. I thought about how hard people have struggled for over more than two centuries to create and maintain a democracy. I was reminded that for all its heartbreaking flaws, the United States of American is still a beacon for, to paraphrase poet Emma Lazarus, the tired, poor, and huddled masses on distant shores, yearning to breathe free.
That’s interpretation at its best.