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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Bringing the World Wars to Life

As a history major during my undergraduate years of college, I felt at times that my program actually should have been called, “The History of War.” So much of what I had been studying consisted of what this government did to that government and the resulting conflicts. When all I wanted to do was study the history of fashion and pop culture, you can imagine how this focus seemed unnecessarily narrow to me.

My love of anything old and historic carried me though these difficult times, however, and I continued on in my schooling and life -- loving all things old and searching for my own personal “gems” in the vastness of our world’s history.

I came here to the Anacostia Community Museum as an excited intern, eager to work in a world that is so face-to-face with this history I love. I was assigned a collection to process and I dove in, sifting through the varied materials of the Sullivan Family Papers. I noted with some chagrin, however, the dates that most of the materials were falling into -- early Twentieth Century, a time when the world was understandably wrapped up in two of the biggest wars in our recent past. With my own history of shying away from all things war related, I was shocked when I came into work one day and realized how much I had fallen in love with this collection I was processing.

The collection brought the period alive for me. Living mainly in the Boston, Massachusetts area, the Sullivan family members were dedicated participants of both World Wars. Sons volunteered their services in all branches of the armed forces while their mothers, sisters and daughters became the heart of their local chapters of the American Legion and Red Cross. For decades of their family history, these men and women gave their all to their country.

In the papers and photographs that were carefully saved by the Sullivan family members, I found myself getting lost in the narratives of a soldier’s daily life as I perused the dozens of letters exchanged between a Sullivan daughter and her beau during the last five years of World War II. I realized with a jolt what difficulties the Tuskegee Airmen had to endure as I read the letters a Sullivan son wrote to his mother while training at the famous Alabama program. My heart wrenched along with his mother as I came to the abrupt end of his correspondence and realized that he died in training, at the age of 19. Stumbling across a striking photograph of the young pilot, Earle Sullivan, in his flight suit, I mourned the loss of this man I will never meet.

Needless to say, my indifference towards the early part of the twentieth century is indifference no more. Without the fashion and pop culture that I have so desired in the past, I found myself lost in the Sullivan’s world. This is the power that so many of these archival collections hold – the power of seeing the images and reading words written by people in our past that bring history alive in a way that nothing else can.

Image:  Theodore M. Sullivan, circa 1918

Jill Berrett, Intern
Anacostia Community Museum Archives

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