Fw: NYTimes.com Article: Debra Bernhardt, Historian for the Unsung, Dies at 47
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Mon Mar 26 17:19:58 MST 2001
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Debra Bernhardt, Historian for the Unsung, Dies at 47
By MARGALIT FOX
Debra E. Bernhardt, a labor historian who spearheaded a successful
three-year drive to obtain landmark status for Union Square Park in
Manhattan, died on Thursday at her home in Brooklyn. She was 47.
The cause was cancer, said her sister, Andra Bernhardt Ladd.
head of the Tamiment Library and the Robert F. Wagner Labor
Archives at New York University, Dr. Bernhardt devoted her career
to documenting the lives of the largely unsung men and women who
built New York City and, day in and day out, nudged it along:
sandhogs and seamstresses, pipe fitters and child welfare workers,
secretaries and short-order cooks.
She was the author, with Rachel Bernstein, of "Ordinary People,
Extraordinary Lives" (New York University Press, 2000), a book of
photographs and oral histories of working New Yorkers that grew out
of an exhibition of the same name at the Museum of the City of New
At her death, Dr. Bernhardt was at work on Labor Arts, a Web site
devoted to the art and artifacts of working people, scheduled to
make its debut in May.
As a public historian, Dr. Bernhardt immersed herself in the kinds
of workaday narratives that traditional academic historians, with
their eyes trained on the powerful, often overlook. She described
her work as "documenting the undocumented," a phrase that neatly
encapsulated the particular challenge of public history: how to
chronicle the lives of people not in the habit of generating
collections of personal papers, boxed and ready for posterity.
But what these people did have was stuff leaflets, lapel
buttons, picket signs and photographs and part of Dr. Bernhardt's
job was to persuade them that each of these dusty artifacts was a
window on a bygone union election, organizing drive or strike; she
would acquire many of them for the Tamiment Library, a research
collection devoted to radical movements in the United States from
the Civil War onward, as well as for the Wagner Archives, dedicated
to labor studies.
"The dustbin of history is lighter because of her," said Miriam
Frank, a colleague at N.Y.U.
Debra Ellen Bernhardt was born on May 9, 1953, in Nuremberg, West
Germany, where her parents were civilian employees of the United
States Army; she was raised in Iron River, Mich., where several
members of her Danish-American family worked in the iron mines. She
received a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan, a
master's from Wayne State University and, in 1988, one of the first
doctorates from N.Y.U. in public history.
In conjunction with her dissertation, she produced "New Yorkers at
Work," an eight-part series broadcast on National Public Radio. In
1995, Dr. Bernhardt received the John Commerford Award, the highest
honor of the New York Labor History Association, and, this year,
the Distinguished Service Award from the New York City Central
Dr. Bernhardt is survived by her sister, of Lafayette, La.; her
parents, Harold and Marcia Bernhardt, of Iron River; and by her
husband, Jonathan Bloom, and her children, Alexander and Sonia, all
Despite her professional prominence, Dr. Bernhardt remained
intensely proud of her own working- class roots. She sang in the
New York City Labor Chorus; her business cards bore the logo of the
union shop that printed them, as did her son's bar mitzvah
invitations. She was known to her friends as Debs shorthand not
only for Debra, but also for Eugene V.
And it was largely as a result of Dr. Bernhardt's efforts that in
September 1998, Union Square Park was declared a national historic
landmark by the National Park Service. The square was the cradle of
American labor history a perennial home to anarchists,
Communists, socialists, unionists and assorted rabble-rousing
orators, and the site, in 1882, of what was later recognized as the
first Labor Day parade.
"No one realizes that the eight- hour day was won by working
people on these streets, in this park," Dr. Bernhardt told The New
York Times in 1998, as she sat in Union Square, once ringed by
union halls and threadbare left-wing publishers and now by upscale
restaurants and chain retailers. "We wanted to celebrate the fact
that ordinary people were able to express their rights to free
speech and assembly on this spot."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
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