In today’s fifth installment of the September 28, 2019 symposium Before They Were Americans interview series, Katherine “Kate” Egner Gruber takes the spotlight. Gruber is the special exhibition curator for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. She earned her B.A. in historic preservation and classical humanities from the University of Mary Washington, and her M.A. in early American history from the College of William and Mary.
Employed by the Foundation as a curator since 2013, Kate Gruber has contributed to the development of the permanent galleries at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, including the award-winning signature film, Liberty Fever. As special exhibition curator, Gruber develops exhibitions for galleries at Yorktown and Jamestown Settlement, including “Tenacity: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia,” open now through January 5, 2020 at Jamestown Settlement, and “Forgotten Soldier: African Americans in the Revolution,” open now through March 22, 2020 at Yorktown.
Kate Gruber will be presenting her talk “A Tailor-Made Revolution: Clothing William Carlin’s Alexandria” at the September symposium.
What do you believe was a significant event in the American Revolution era that not many Americans may know about or recognize?
More so than any singular event, I believe most Americans lack an understanding of how complex and encompassing the revolutionary era really was for a very vast population. Too often we take for granted that everyone in the colonial era felt patriotically inclined and fought for that belief against an invading enemy army. People living in the North American colonies exhibited a vast array of opinions and motivations and reacted to choices and opportunities outside of a cut and dry “patriot” vs. “loyalist” paradigm. We study the Revolution with the benefit of the hindsight that those actually living it did not have. The outcome was never a foregone conclusion–the war itself and its impact on the population (military and civilian alike), the act of defining a new government and the experiment in democracy we’ve inherited since, was and is complicated, messy, and full of humanity.
What first attracted you to the study of early American history? What keeps you involved in the study of this history? Do you find these things are the same or different?
I’ve always been drawn to history, interested in family stories, in heirlooms and memories passed down through generations. I’ve always felt drawn to old “stuff,” and the stories that artifacts can tell (I’m a museum curator by day, after all). What I was really attracted to was the thrill of the hunt, I think. I started out studying archaeology, and while I don’t get to dig in the dirt anymore, I still get to “dig”—in object collections and the historical record! Uncovering unknown, forgotten, or little-told stories of our past and the people who lived it is what fuels me every day.
Do you believe the impact of the American Revolution is visible on our current society? In what ways?
Of course! The framer’s great experiment in democracy is still evolving today—the impact of the American Revolution is organic, it’s living and breathing in our everyday lives. We have a collective memory in this country and carry the legacies of the Revolution–positive and negative—with us always. I think it’s also fair to say that we often operate within the framework of this collective memory or personal perceptions of our national narrative. Think about the ways in which the Revolution was silent or did little to achieve “revolutionary” change for certain people or institutions. In many ways our current society lives with that legacy and continues to unpack those silences.
How has your study of early Amercian history impacted how you perceive our current nation and its relations with other countries? Would you say this impact is beneficial or hindersome?
My study of history hasn’t necessarily impacted how I perceive our current nation, current events, etc., rather, being attune to current events certainly impacts how I interpret early American history to the public. When I’m giving a tour of one of our exhibitions or giving a lecture, it’s important to meet my audience where they are, in 2019, and find ways for them to engage with early American history in a way that’s relevant to us today. Oftentimes current events or national dialog lends itself to helping us better understanding our shared past.
With any violent conflict, there are opposing sides. How important do you believe the Loyalist side was to the American Revolution? Do you believe the existence of this group of colonists has been diminished through romanticization of the American Revolution?
How can we tell a complete narrative of the American Revolution without loyalists, or for that matter, those who preferred to remain neutral during the conflict? The American Revolution is not just a story about patriots. The Revolution, whether on the battlefield or in the hearts and minds of the people, was a serious conflict with serious consequences, sacrifices, and violence for nearly all involved. Unfortunately, the historiography of the Revolution has predominately focused on the winners, as history so often does, and our national narrative has championed the Revolution through a patriot lens. I’m thankful that more researchers in academia and public history are turning an eye toward other experiences of the Revolution, including loyalists, to better complete the narrative.
Do you think there are common misconceptions of the era of the American Revolution among the American people? If so, what are they and have they ever affected your work?
My goal is to tell stories of the ordinary people who faced difficult decisions, who found their lives upended by the war and its impact on the economy, on society, etc. If I can complicate what you think you know about the American Revolution, and encourage an active dialog about the past, then I’ve done my job.