The stories of working people and their movements for economic justice are largely missing from schools, media, and heritage institutions. Yet record income inequality in the United States—due to the declining numbers and power of union members in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries—and recent worker militancy against giant low-wage employers such as Amazon and Starbucks call for renewed attention to this history. As a new contribution of the distinguished University of Illinois Press Working Class in American History series, Where Are the Workers provides innovative models that document, interpret, and share the local histories of workers and their activism through exhibits, outreach programs, and place-based commemorations.

The essays in Where Are the Workers demonstrate to public historians, who are on the front lines of debates about history education, how to remedy the (mis)remembering of local history and class conflict. As Eric Loomis finds in the dearth of National Park Service labor history sites, the specter of the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay debacle has made national funders, museums, and historic sites reluctant to portray controversial events. Since local institutions depend on support from state and local governments, boards, and foundations, translating new scholarship about working people so that it is publicly accessible and appreciated without jeopardizing that support can be challenging indeed. Many of the authors wrestle with how to expose the truth without alienating local constituencies.

Although most essays in this collection focus on the eastern half of the US and some of the familiar sites of labor history—including Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Paterson, New Jersey—many reveal that hidden labor history exists even in rural and red states. Lou Martin explains how the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum successfully contested the state’s and coal industry’s narratives about the 1920s mine wars in a region currently suffering from unemployment, pollution, and addiction. In her article on the Columbus Museum, in Columbus, Georgia (known as the “Lowell of the South”), Rebecca Bush discusses how staff navigated the dominant positive memories of textile mill life to insert stories of unionization and resistance by including oral histories from multiple perspectives in exhibits. Rachel Donaldson describes how historic preservationists and public historians in rural Arkansas used landmark designation to create the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum and share with area communities the oppositional history of agricultural workers. Rob Linné demonstrates how “un-curated” street murals in Texas Latinx neighborhoods represent very visible and public collaborative creations that tell each generation’s past and present struggles.

A unique feature and strength of the collection are the conversations that take place between authors in wrestling with common dilemmas of telling working-class stories. Editors Forrant and Trasciatti have led authors to comment and reflect on each other’s essays as they engage with challenges such as how to gently contest the local official story and elite portrayals of the past. Some of the authors conclude that even when offering multiple or different perspectives, public historians depend on visitors’ willingness to read or listen to those perspectives. Rachel Donaldson notes that ideally interpreters can lead audiences into a “discomfort zone,” where the “museum experience not only provides a more complex and inclusive historical interpretation, but it also causes visitors to think about the relevance of the past in contemporary society” (168). However, visitors often cling to preconceived understandings of the past.

Many of the book’s authors conclude that successfully portraying local working-class history requires delicate balancing, deliberate and frequent communications with constituencies, and careful collaboration with various participants. Karen Sieber and Elijah Gaddis offer an instructive example from their project interpreting the Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina. The creation of a history center featured the memories of community members and the interpretations of scholarly partners while privileging the vernacular collections chosen by community members to signify everyday work and life. Historians then involved community members in the identification, collection, and digitization of records, reflecting the “shared authority” that the authors view as “not just a reciprocity of ideas but of approaches as well” (110).

Where Are the Workers? is both a call to include working people at the center of stories about our communities and a how-to guide for overcoming present-day political challenges to the telling of those stories. Public history institutions have long faced funding difficulties, scrutiny over the content of their collections and programming efforts, and pressures from local governments, boards, members, and granting agencies and donors. This book is a valuable addition to growing efforts to tell “difficult” histories, embrace new constituencies, and document that working people and their demands for economic and social justice are an important part of the American story.

Laurie Mercier, Washington State University Vancouver