Bringing hidden history to light

Cynthia History is full of unheralded figures whose achievements rarely show up in a textbook or class lecture. For the past 15 years, Cynthia “Cyndy” Douglas Bittinger ’68, who teaches a Vermont history course, has worked to bring those figures into the spotlight.

At the Community College of Vermont, Bittinger has been researching and teaching about the contributions of lesser-known Vermonters—women, Native Americans, and African Americans, who unbeknownst to many have made an indelible mark on the Green Mountain State.

That research led to the publishing of her new book, Vermont Women, Native Americans & African Americans: Out of the Shadows of History (The History Press, 2012). It’s a “multicultural narrative” that she plans to assign in her college classes, but she also hopes middle and high schools use it, too.

“Vermonters come from all different backgrounds,” says Bittinger. “All of us need a usable history—one where we can identify with historical figures and be inspired to make our own history.”

Her desire to dig into information and engage in advocacy stems back to her time at Wheaton. As a student, she wrote for the college newspaper. “I spent each Sunday night crafting articles and editorials for the weekly edition. That gave me tremendous confidence to go out in the world and write,” says Bittinger, whose mother, Frances Crosby Allen, was in the Class of 1937.

Bittinger attended Wheaton during a time of social and political change—the civil rights movement, protests of the Vietnam War, and women’s liberation. Never the bystander, she attended and helped organize provocative lectures with her friends—notably one delivered by birth control advocate Bill Baird.

“We wanted to bring new viewpoints to campus,’’ she says.

The author even changed her major from history to government and interned in 1966 with Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate by popular vote.

“As much as I enjoyed the study of history, the study of government gave me a more targeted focus,” said Bittinger, adding that her most influential professor was Jay Goodman. “I could understand the functions involved in governing and how various nations responded to change.”

She graduated from Wheaton with departmental honors and enrolled in Columbia University’s Teachers College in 1969, after which she taught history at a New Jersey high school for three years. She then worked for two New York City mayors and for the state of Massachusetts, and raised three children before moving to Hanover, N.H., in 1988. There, she became director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation (in Plymouth, Vt.), the only membership organization preserving the legacy of the 30th president. She started teaching at the Community College of Vermont in 1994.

She regularly shares her knowledge of Vermont history in lectures and on Vermont Public Radio, where her commentaries can be heard by an estimated 180,000 listeners. Somehow, she still finds time to read with elementary school children, direct a women’s networking group in her region, and serve as a docent for the Hanover (N.H.) Historical Society.

Bittinger says she hopes that by writing her book she can inspire future history makers.

—Steve Holt

Photo by Jon Gilbert Fox