The Value of History

The Value of History

MTSU professor and Tennessee state historian Carroll Van West guides one of MTSU’S most respected centers of excellence in preserving our state’s most vital assets


On a recent spring day on the campus of MTSU, Carroll Van West, Department of History professor and director of MTSU’s Center for Historic Preservation, hooded his 20th Ph.D. student at the University’s graduate school commencement. The following Monday was reserved for graduate school defenses, and on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, he was all over the state doing his so-called “economic development thing” in Jackson, Dayton, Knoxville, and Chattanooga.

“That aspect of economic development was in the original charge given to the Center for Historic Preservation, which was MTSU’s first Center of Excellence, when Lamar Alexander created it during his time as governor in 1984,” said West, who assumed an additional role in 2013 when Gov. Bill Haslam appointed him state historian. “We were created to produce better, more-competitive students, but then also to have that impact on the state. I wasn’t here that first year, but I came the second year, and since then, we’ve stayed true to that general approach.”

Indeed, the CHP’s mission is twofold: to help Tennessee communities identify and use their heritage assets — historical sites, artifacts, and narratives that tell stories of the past— and to support and direct student research and experiential learning opportunities. The second part of the mission is a byproduct of the first, because satisfying the first goal naturally creates real-world opportunities for Master of Arts and Ph.D. students in Public History who work alongside West and his staff on every project.

Illustration by Micah Loyed


Since its inception, the CHP has had its hand in more projects than one can count, and over the years, West said, they’ve taken the general wish that a Center of Excellence contribute to the state’s economic development and focused it in a couple of different ways.

“One would be really promoting a philosophy and approach of adaptive reuse, instead of historic preservation, per se,” he said. “Adaptive reuse recognizes that a preserved historic building need not be a museum. It can continue to be part of the functioning economy.”

A recent example that warranted West’s trip to Dayton in southeast Tennessee during that busy, yet typical, week in spring involved presenting a Heritage Development Plan for the Rhea County Courthouse, which was home to the 1925 Scopes Trial. In this famous case, teacher John T. Scopes was tried for teaching students that humans evolved from a lower order of animals. The case, which ultimately made it to the Tennessee Supreme Court, garnered national attention and sparked debate about the relationship between science and religion. It drew big-name lawyers on opposing sides:, three-time presidential candidate Williams Jennings Bryan and renowned defense attorney Clarence Darrow.



Today, the courthouse needs some repairs, and though it contains exhibits related to the trial, West said the town believes outsiders have forgotten about the “jewel of the county.”

“They said, ‘We know it’s here, we know it’s important, but no one else does,’” West said, paraphrasing his conversations with folks in Dayton. “‘Can you help us get the story out there?’”

The CHP’s first step was conducting the research to get the story right. The next was looking over the building to determine the best way to display the history.

“So, this is our way; it’s adaptive reuse,” West said. “We don’t want this whole thing to be a museum. It’s a courthouse, and that’s how it needs to be used, but when visitors come, there is no reason why they can’t get that story of the building. It can also serve the county as a historical attraction, and in this county, heritage tourism can make a big difference.”

“Heritage tourism” is the CHP’s other focus when it comes to satisfying the wish that the center foster economic development.

“There wasn’t even a heritage tourism initiative until the late 1980s, so we said, ‘Let’s find a way to contribute to this new concept,’” West said.

In that capacity, the MTSU center has worked closely with the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. The largest project with perhaps the greatest impact on the state was the Tennessee Civil War Trails program, which is part of a five-state program that includes Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Maryland. A seven-year commitment for the CHP, the Tennessee Civil War Trails program, also called the CWT, launched in 2008 and represents 425 interpretive markers in all 95 Tennessee counties. The CHP’s role was to create a product that state tourism officials could sell.

“That’s where our partnership merged, because they needed someone to tell true, accurate, and full stories, but we’re not marketers — they are,” West said. “So we quickly realized that we do different sides of this, and if we work together, that could be really impactful.”

Research Faculty-Student Portraits with Dr. Carroll Van West, Professor and Director of the Center for Historic Preservation, right, and Elizabeth Johnson, Graduate Teaching Assistant.

And impactful it has been. Lee Curtis, the state tourism department’s legislative liaison who worked most closely with West and his team, said the number of visitors to Tennessee has increased since the advent of the CWT program, especially in conjunction with the Civil War Sesquicentennial. In addition, the department has distributed more than 2.5 million Tennessee Civil War Trails map guides, making it the most-requested map guide and the most downloaded of the five-state program.

“The success is largely due to the partnership with Dr. Carroll Van West and the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area, or TCWNHA, which is the only NHA that encompasses an entire state and is dedicated to Civil War,” Curtis summed up.

The TCWNHA, which is administered by the CHP, is a partnership unit of the National Park Service that helps communities both rural and urban create opportunities to continue to tell Civil War stories through projects that are funded by Congress each year.

“Without the leadership of Dr. West and his vision to preserve our state’s heritage and history, many of these projects, mainly the Tennessee Civil War Trails markers, would not have been interpreted in such a seamless manner,” Curtis said. “By working with our department, the TCWNHA staff has provided the necessary research and tireless assistance that was crucial to provide for a hugely successful program from conception to installation.”

West saw firsthand what kind of impact the CWT program was having on rural counties at dedication ceremonies held throughout the state. Mayors, council members, and other local representatives came out to support the program because they were so excited about its potential.

“Civil War tourists come in droves to look at these markers,” West said. “That’s where research directly translates into opportunities across the state, and in these rural counties, you realize this is a big deal.”





The CWT success led the CHP to create statewide brochures on the Trail of Tears and on the War of 1812 during the latter’s bicentennial in 2012, both of which also attract visitors to the rural areas where the events took place. As West explained, however, some of those towns didn’t have a place to tell their story, or even distribute the brochures, so the CHP has worked with various communities in the last several years to create heritage centers.

“They’re not museums because they are not out collecting a lot of things and storing things; that’s beyond the capabilities of some of these places,” West said. “But they do become places to tell their story, and then they become places to distribute the information to visitors.”

An example is the Hiwassee River Heritage Center in Charleston, Tennessee, in Bradley County. The community provided the building and the people to staff it, and the CHP did the research for a Trail of Tears driving tour and helped create panel exhibits and an exhibit case. The National Park Service was so pleased with the heritage center that it added new interpretive signs in the community, West said, and the community has further plans to tell more of its story with the CHP’s help.

“So, in Charleston Tennessee, heritage tourism is going to be a component of what they are,” West said.

Something similar is well underway on the western side of the state in Brownsville. The West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center, off I-40, which has been telling and promoting stories about the region since the late 1990s, added an attraction about five years ago that greatly enhanced its heritage tourism footprint. It all started when Heritage Center director Sonia Outlaw-Clark called West to say the owner was ready to get rid of the old Flagg Grove school, which served black students — including music icon Tina Turner — in Haywood County from 1899 until the late 1960s.

“She said, ‘I was thinking we need to get some benches from the school for the museum,’” West recalled. “And I said, ‘Sonia, why don’t we get the whole building?’”

So Outlaw-Clark and the community went to work on obtaining the building, moving it to the heritage center, and restoring it. The CHP began researching and crafting the story of the school and early African-American education in the region. And when Turner’s representatives got wind of all this, they agreed to help tell her personal story, build exhibit cases, and provide some of her memorabilia.





“We could never have presented the history and information about the school’s past without the help of Dr. West and his team,” Outlaw-Clark said, adding that she’s grateful West encouraged her to save the school and she can’t imagine having to do the research and restore the school at the same time. “Through their research, we are able to tell the school’s story in a concise way that makes sense to our visitors.”

Since its opening in 2014, more than 81,000 guests have seen the Flagg Grove School and been exposed to rural west Tennessee culture, according to Outlaw-Clark. Just last year, the number of visitors increased 20 percent, international visitors were up 121 percent, and group tours rose 87 percent.

“Through the school, we’ve been able to increase tourism, fill hotel rooms, and have a positive economic impact on our community, including the hiring of additional personnel to help during our peak summer months,” she said.



Perhaps the real bottom line, West explained, is that Tennessee’s history is really among the state’s best sustainable resources. These stories fascinate the public, and what happened in places like Brownsville happened there, specifically.

“You can’t replicate that,” West said. “You can’t go and get that someplace else, so it can be invaluable to small towns.”

When he talks to local government and economic leaders, he said it’s clear that they value heritage tourism and its economic impact.

“We’re a sales-tax-driven state, and anything that gets people to stop and spend some coin is a plus,” West said. “Some of that rolls over into local government coffers, so it helps them, and it helps local businesses that sell services.”

As a result, the CHP’s successes lead to countless requests from communities seeking to capitalize on their heritage assets.

“We’ve embedded ourselves in the state through partnership and emphasized that partnership ethic,” West said, explaining the CHP’s strategy for economic development.

Not to be lost in all this economic development is that while the communities and the state benefit financially from this activity, West’s students are gaining invaluable experience. Whether they’re sitting in the courtroom where the Scopes Trial took place or meeting with Tina Turner’s representatives, they’re learning firsthand what it takes to help these communities preserve and capitalize on their history.

“I tell them, ‘I don’t need to talk to these guys; you guys need to get the experience of doing that,’ and when it comes back to benefit the students too, it’s just a good, win-win strategy,” West said.

Sure, West admits, it all makes for busy weeks; but for the MTSU professor and state historian, he said there’s no place else he’d rather be. MTSU


By Katie Porterfield


Read MTSU RESEARCH here: MTSU RESEARCH- Research for Tennessee Vol. 1 No. 1 Spring 2018

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