Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Al Young, Public Historian

From 1982 to 1993, Al Young worked with the Chicago Historical Society (now called the Chicago History Museum) to create an exhibition, We the People: Creating a New Nation, 1765–1820. When We the People opened to the public in September 1987, it was designated a “permanent” exhibition, with an estimated lifespan of ten years. In fact, it lasted eighteen years, finally closing in 2005. It lives on today on as an award-winning book, We the People: Voices and Images of the New Nation.

How did this chapter in Al’s life begin? With a grant proposal. In 1982, I became assistant to the president of the Chicago Historical Society, Ellsworth Brown. Ellsworth gave me my first major assignment: to develop a grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities on the topic of the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.

The CHS holds distinguished collections in American history, but its staff curators focused on Chicago’s history, so I had to look outside for appropriate expertise. Where to start? In a file on the CHS’s 1976 American history exhibit, I came across a notice that Bill Towner, president of the Newberry Library, had given the opening public lecture. I called him for a reference, and he recommended Al Young, whom he had known since both were graduate students in American history at Northwestern University. Al was interested, but realized he would need help. He recommended Terry Fife, who was working on a master’s degree under his direction at Northern Illinois University.

We enlisted the advice of the Washington, D.C.—based exhibit design firm of Staples & Charles, and secured an NEH “planning grant,” which enabled us to do preliminary research in the collections and to consult with the designers and other historians. Two implementation grant proposals followed. (We were turned down the first time.) Public history requires patience, teamwork, and determination. But it makes a difference in ways that Al could not have anticipated.

Al must have been very proud of Terry Fife’s subsequent career in public history. In 1988, she founded History Works, Inc., which brings sophisticated research, excellent writing, and beautiful design to corporate, organization, and family histories. He could also take credit for recruiting historian Eric Foner to follow in his footsteps at the Chicago Historical Society. A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln, which Foner co-curated with Libby Mahoney of the CHS staff, opened in 1990. The connecting galleries of We the People and A House Divided provided a brilliant interpretation of the first century of American history, which served CHS visitors well for fifteen years.

In 1994, I followed Al Young to the Newberry Library, where he was a resident fellow. He had encouraged me to apply to head the new Public Programs department. He was still working on We the People in the form of a biography of one of the exhibit’s most intriguing characters, Deborah Sampson, a woman who fought in the Revolutionary War disguised as a man. Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier was published in 2004. I remember seeing him consulting over coffee with one of the younger Newberry scholars of gender studies. He never stopped learning and teaching, which is what made him a model and inspiration to so many.

Mary Janzen Quinn