Opinion: The Town That Hosts Us: A Conversation on Retaining Legacy
By The Gettysburgian Editorial Board
Gettysburg College and the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania have an inseparable relationship of host and guest. The intertwined histories of both locations, and the remembrance of these histories, complicate current relationships between town and campus. Change comes from understanding the importance of these histories and how they impact students today.
The town of Gettysburg has a storied history with the three-day influential Civil War battle, though the current state of the town represents a different understanding of its legacy. Gettysburg gets nearly one million tourists a year, and as a smaller town, these numbers heavily contribute to the local economy. The pressure of vacationers has led to a commodification effect on the town and the remembrance of the Battle of Gettysburg. Walking into town, there are many tourist shops filled with souvenirs, which range from rigorously researched stories recounting the battle to lewd images of women riding Confederate flags with the text “the South will rise again.” The town’s commodified remembrance of the battle by tourism reconstructs the message of why the battle was fought: to end slavery. It is replaced with the misrepresentation of rampant racist perspectives. This is why the question of the future of Gettysburg belongs to us.
Students should work to preserve the legacy of the town. We are too quick to forget that the college has Civil War history; the past saw armies sweeping campus grounds on the first day of battle and Pennsylvania Hall working as a hospital for Northern and Southern soldiers. Civil War history, and, more specifically, the battle of Gettysburg, is imperative for students’ education. It is the duty of academics at the college to preserve the message which stood on these grounds. The Civil War Era Studies department has a variety of classes in relation to the ongoing impact of the war. Classes like CWES 237: From Reconstruction to Black Lives Matter and CWES 245: Gettysburg to Charlottesville: Race in the American Imagination demonstrate that the history of conflict in this country is an important piece in the education of all Gettysburg College students. In discussion of “Just Mercy,” Anthony Ray Hinton came to speak to the college in 2018. These courses and lectures on racial discourse and social change form the bedrock for a student to preserve the legacy of the battle of Gettysburg. Students and faculty should be encouraged to attend lectures on Gettysburg’s history and the modern connections of race relations in the United States as ways to preserve the town’s legacy.
The College needs to include more cooperation in collaborative events between town and campus with a focus on reciprocity. The Center for Public Service’s programs such as the Painted Turtle Farm, El Centro and ESL tutoring allow for collaborative efforts between town and campus. These events work towards lessening the divisive nature of the town and campus in an effort to include a more respectful and comfortable environment for everyone. The promotion of community service and the support of local businesses begin the work of giving back to the town that hosts us.
Salsa on the Square, an event hosted in town, celebrates Latinx culture alongside community members in positive contributions. The celebration of culture assists in the union of members of town and college students through open discussion and thoughtful moments of sharing heritages. The exposure to different cultures is incredibly important in a town like Gettysburg, a predominantly white area. The benefits are not limited to just the town; with Gettysburg College being a predominantly white institution, it is essential as a liberal arts college to lift the voices of students of color, promoting diverse academics outside of the classroom. By having the event in town, the College is effectively working to have these collaborative events break the boundaries of town and campus. The inclusion of members of town in cultural events works to facilitate healthy relationships with students and hands-on education through celebratory events. By initiating conversation outside of campus, there is a loss of restricted identities of student or townsperson, promoting a united celebration of culture in a town we call home. The College and the student body should continue organizing unions between the town and campus in celebrations of culture, especially those underrepresented in the town and on campus to raise voices of color in meaningful teaching moments with lasting impacts on the relationship.
Unions of cultural celebration are not limited to the confines of town. The Gender and Sexuality Resource Center has recently hosted a celebration for National Coming Out Day. Some local businesses and community leaders were invited to join the festivities. The inclusion of these community leaders on campus helped remove the borders between the town and the College, creating a more inviting environment. These integrative events should not be outliers. If the campus continues to host community members, it will help facilitate healthy conversations surrounding the identity of Gettysburg, town and campus, not as two separate spheres, but as a location of acceptance and welcomed discussion.
Incidents during the first half of the fall 2022 semester made many students face the troubling relationship with the town of Gettysburg. The issue of the town is always relevant, but more so now because of current events and issues on campus. The aggravated assault near Diaspora House and the slurs yelled from cars prove that the College needs to act if they care about the safety of its students. The apparent lack of effective communication by the College left students feeling unsafe and unrespected.
President Iuliano sent out an email on Sept. 20. Though the Vice President of College Life and Dean of Students Anne Ehrlich had sent a message a few days after the assault, the president’s email came 30 days after what he refers to as the “incident that occurred on Carlisle Street.” The late response, while noted in the president’s statement as a future adjustment, left students feeling lost with little protection or communication from the College. This is not the first event of violence against students of color and could have been avoided had the College worked to adequately protect its students.
Theme houses, and many off-campus houses, are mere blocks away from the heart of Gettysburg. The proximity of the campus and these houses results in active communication between townspeople and members of campus. While all cross-relationships of townsperson and student cannot be said to be the same, it is evident that students of color are at a higher risk of harassment by members of the town.
The history of Gettysburg largely impacts current relationships between town and campus, with issues of commodification of the battle and the plethora of tourists supporting racist perspectives combating the legacy of the town. It is the role of the students and the college to enact change. The consequential education provided at Gettysburg through the Civil War studies department and the invitation of cultural community leaders on campus indicates strides to the betterment of the relationship. Change happens over time. The relationship between Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and Gettysburg College will not happen overnight. It is through these supported events, classes, and lectures that change begins. Change is possible, but it needs support.
This article originally appeared on pages 20–21 of the October 2022 edition of The Gettysburgian’s magazine.