Over the summer, the popular Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough died at age 89. Revered by history buffs, his best sellers were lauded for the way he spun the complex lives of famous Americans—from John Adams to the Wright brothers—into compelling narratives. The stories he told were not new, but the innovative, captivating ways he told them inspired millions of Americans to learn more about their past.
This year, the United States also lost scholars in a category that’s almost the inverse of McCullough’s: those who painstakingly collected stories from undercovered communities that had rarely been studied before. These researchers aren’t widely known, and they didn’t focus on America’s famous chapters or heroes. Instead, they broke ground. They built the foundations of entirely new fields of study, chronicling groups that academia had long overlooked or failed to take seriously.
As the year comes to a close, here’s a look back at three of their legacies.
Part of the team behind a groundbreaking early dictionary of American Sign Language (ASL), linguist Carl Croneberg helped legitimize and elevate the study of sign language and deaf culture.
Born in 1930, Croneberg grew up outside of Stockholm and lost his hearing at age 12 following a series of ear infections. He studied Swedish sign language at a specialized school, while also learning written English and German on the side, according to the New York Times’ Clay Risen. In the ’50s, he enrolled in Gallaudet University, still the world’s only liberal arts university for the deaf and hard of hearing, in Washington, D.C. After he graduated in 1955, the university hired him to teach English.
By the late ’50s, William Stokoe, a fellow Gallaudet linguist, was preparing to embark on an ambitious project: creating a dictionary of ASL. He was not deaf himself, so he asked two deaf colleagues, Croneberg and Dorothy Casterline, to join him.
At the time, sign language “was not seen as a proper language, but as a sort of pantomime or gestural code, or perhaps a sort of broken English on the hands,” as author and neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in Seeing Voices. A growing movement in deaf education actually discouraged signing altogether, believing instead that oralism, or lip reading, would best enable the deaf community to function in society.
Stokoe thought otherwise. Observing his students, he came to believe that ASL was already a functioning language, with as much nuance and complexity as the spoken word.
After Croneberg joined the team, he traveled across the United States to study how ASL differed among locations and communities. While his findings “may not have surprised his research subjects,” they “astounded other linguists,” writes the Times. “He identified significant regional variations; the sign for cheese, for example, was different in Washington, D.C. and Virginia. Catholics and Protestants had different words for the same religious objects.”
In particular, Croneberg was one the first to explore the unique properties of Black American Sign Language, and how it differed from the ASL used by white communities. He also was among the first to define and examine deaf culture—a term he coined—which would go on to become a field of study in its own right.
A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles, now considered a foundational text, came out in 1965. Croneberg died this past August, just months after Gallaudet awarded him and Casterline honorary doctoral degrees in May.
“They set out to prove through linguistic analysis that American Sign Language was its own authentic language separate from English, and was on par and equal to all other spoken languages in every way,” said Roberta Cordano, Gallaudet’s president, in a video announcing the honor.
John Rice Irwin
Known for founding the Museum of Appalachia, historian John Rice Irwin dedicated most of his life to preserving rural communities’ stories, customs and artifacts. He died in January 2022 in Clinton, Tennessee, just a short jaunt from Union County, where he was born in 1930.
Growing up, listening to his maternal grandparents regale him with tales of generations past, he developed a deep appreciation for storytelling—and how to use stories to keep the past alive. He also developed an interest in objects passed down from his ancestors. His grandfather, Marcellus Moss “Sill” Rice, once told him, “You ought to keep the old-timey things that belonged to our people and start you a little museum sometime.”
After serving in Germany during the Korean War, Irwin earned a bachelor’s in history at Lincoln Memorial University and a master’s in international law at the University of Tennessee. Collecting artifacts became a hobby. He sought out estate sales and auctions, where, as the New York Times’ Alex Traub puts it, “he found himself troubled by how a family’s sacred patrimony could be sold like scrap.”
The heart of Irwin’s work was always his own family history: Just before his grandparents’ house was torn down, Irwin was unsettled to see disorganized piles of his grandmother’s belongings—objects that had once told the story of who she was and the everyday decisions that she made. “The idea began to form in his mind that something greater lay behind his sentimentality—a whole culture and heritage that might be thrown away,” writes the Times.
Irwin purchased a log house to hold his growing collection of artifacts, which quickly began attracting guests. This would become the Museum of Appalachia, which officially opened in Clinton in 1969, bringing in 600 visitors in its first year.
Two decades later, Irwin received a MacArthur Foundation grant for his efforts. The museum was granted nonprofit status in 2003, and it became a Smithsonian affiliate in 2007. Over the years, Irwin also published several books on Appalachian culture, music and history, including A People and Their Quilts, Baskets and Basketmakers in Southern Appalachia and The Unlikely Story of the Museum of Appalachia and How It Came to Be.
Today, located on around 65 acres, the museum attracts about 100,000 visitors a year. The site holds historic log cabins, gardens, more than 250,000 artifacts and a working farm with free-range animals.
Gwendolyn Midlo Hall
For many years, historians believed that detailed records of colonial-era enslaved Africans in Louisiana were lost to time. But Gwendolyn Midlo Hall disagreed. The records were lost, but they still existed. Nobody knew where they were packed away, but they could be found.
Hall, a scholar of Latin American history at Rutgers University, is best known as the historian behind a sprawling, ambitious project to record information about Louisiana’s enslaved individuals in a searchable database. When she died this year, at age 93, she had collected more than 100,000 names of enslaved people.
Born in 1929, Hall was a New Orleans native. Her father was a civil rights lawyer, and she grew up spending time in the courthouses. “My father taught me to be a revolutionary,” she told the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate’s Susan Larson last year, “so I always had a sense of carrying on the family tradition.”
In 1984, Hall found herself in another courthouse in Louisiana, conducting research for a book project, when she stumbled across something extraordinary: a book that held records of hundreds of enslaved people. It was written by 18th-century notaries, who had filled it with extensive details that brought each individual to life on the page.
“I was astounded at how much information there was in the records,” she told the New York Times’ David Firestone in 2000. “In the English colonies, there was almost no information like this. The French just seemed more interested in the origins of people, who they were and where they came from. Maybe it’s because they had a much longer history of slave trading posts in Africa.”
After that day, Hall wondered what other records were waiting to be discovered. She acquired five research assistants; she traveled to France and Spain, where even more records of slavery in Louisiana were recoverable. The team eventually created a database of more than 100,000 names. In 1992, Hall also published Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the 18th Century, a book based on her team’s findings.
In recent years, other researchers have incorporated her data into even larger collections of records. “Some day,” she told the Times, “people will be asking this database questions that I can’t even imagine right now.”