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In contentious times, CU prof William Wei brings new perspective to the revamped role of Colorado’s state historian

Though he specializes in Chinese and Asian American history, a background in immigration finds him taking an outspoken turn in the History Colorado position

William Wei, the Colorado state historian, inside the History Colorado Center and the "Zoom In - The Centennial State in 100 Objects" exhibit on July 31, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. One of Wei's favorite objects in the exhibit includes this ballot box used in 1894 in El Paso County during the first statewide election in which women voted. (Kathryn Scott for The Colorado Sun)
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As William Wei stands amid the museum exhibit he helped conceive, a collection of 100 Colorado historical artifacts at the History Colorado Center dubbed “Zoom In,” someone asks him to pick out his favorite. He doesn’t consider the question long.

He walks directly to where two sturdy wooden containers sit side by side. Assembled one inside the other, they served as a ballot box from El Paso County, circa 1894, the first statewide election that counted the votes of Colorado women.

“The reason why I like this artifact is because it represents something central to democratic society, and that is voting,” says Wei, 71, who today — Colorado Day — takes over the role of state historian. “And these days, in this time and place, voting securely is a national issue.”

He pauses for a moment to consider the crude guardian of the ballots. “This,” he adds admiringly, “is hack proof.”

Perhaps no other relic in the exhibit better illustrates the intersection of past and present, which in large part is where the rotating task of state historian resides. Wei, a history professor at the University of Colorado, takes his turn as leader among a council of five historians at a moment when civic discourse on defining cultural characteristics — immigration, to name a prominent example — has become both heated and, in some cases, ill-informed.

William Wei, the Colorado state historian, inside the History Colorado Center on July 31, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott for The Colorado Sun)

He envisions the role as providing a bully pulpit to speak to issues of importance and provide historical context to render them in a more accurate light. Wei, 71, succeeds longtime historian Tom Noel in a position that changes hands every Colorado Day, when a new face with new background and perspective lends expertise to the ongoing task of education and outreach through the museum.

Wei’s background includes a broad-based study of world history, but he specialized in modern China as well as Asian American history, most recently reflected in his book, “Asians in Colorado: A History of Persecution and Perseverance in the Centennial State.” 

He’s also writing a book about the “Zoom In” exhibit and, earlier in his career, served as a correspondent covering the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to mainland China — a lone, but exciting, venture into the world of journalism. 

“He’s not just a top-flight historian, he’s a big-picture thinker,” says Jason Hanson, the museum’s chief creative officer and director of interpretation and research. “He’s never short a big idea. He brings this perspective of Asian-American history and Chinese history to the position, and expertise in immigration broadly that’s going to be valuable in a lot of ways for us.”

Wei also serves as editor-in-chief for the Colorado Encyclopedia, an online resource featuring a wide range of articles on the people and events that have shaped the state, and that will provide abridged versions geared to the fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders studying Colorado history as well as aids for instructors.

That his year in the spotlight and expertise dovetail well with the run-up to the 2020 election, where immigration concerns figure prominently, is an added bonus, Hanson notes, though his selection wasn’t intentionally structured that way. “I don’t think the immigration issue ever goes away,” he says.

Since 1924, History Colorado has in most years appointed a single state historian, who originally was an employee of the museum. But in 2018 it sought ways to expand its reach and deepen scholarship. A representative group seemed the obvious way to go. 

“In a state that celebrates collaboration as much as Colorado does — we’re very proud of our purple hue politically and how our Western ethos helps us be problem solvers and work together — it made all the sense in the world to bring together a council that would bring different perspectives, diverse geographic constituencies, different expertise in the history field,” Hanson says.

So the inaugural five-member State Historian’s Council was formed, drawn from different institutions around the state. Aside from Wei, the group includes Noel, the prolific author and University of Colorado Denver professor dubbed “Dr. Colorado”; Nicki Gonzales, an associate history professor at Regis University who has researched the state’s Chicano movement; Jared Orsi, a Colorado State University history professor specializing in environmental and borderlands history; and Duane Vandenbusche, history professor at Western Colorado University with expertise in water, public lands, and the environment, with particular emphasis on the Western Slope.

William Wei, the Colorado state historian, inside the History Colorado Center on July 31, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott for The Colorado Sun)

Hanson points out that the arrangement immediately paid dividends in terms of broadening the museum’s reach. Members of the council have presented dozens of talks, participated in more than 30 programs, joined History Colorado guests on tours and treks, and served as resources for news media statewide. Vandenbusche, for instance, has given the museum a presence in the Gunnison Valley, where he even produces local radio spots on Colorado history.

Internally, the collective experience of the five has deepened the institution’s scholarship.

“This has given us five top-notch scholars who I’ve been able to call on, our exhibit teams have been able to call on, to make sure the interpretation that we’re bringing to wide audiences is in step with the latest scholarship,” Hanson says. “And in some cases they’re producing new scholarship that we’re publishing.”

History Colorado also produces Colorado Heritage, a magazine that not only publishes historians’ work but also provides an opportunity for students interested in entering the field to have their work published.

While the collective approach has its advantages, History Colorado also realized that there are occasions that call for a single voice as historian, whether for ceremonial or practical purposes. So the five rotate in a predetermined order, and after five years they can reapply for the position, though the museum will always search for new perspectives.

Noel has promoted Colorado history through a TV news segment and focused on cultivating the next generation of historians — something accomplished in part through publication. The Emerging Historians essay contest solicits material from graduate and undergraduate student writers, dangling $1,000 and the publishing credit that looms so important in academia.

“As a teacher,” Noel says, “I’ve used publication in Colorado Heritage as an incentive to do better research. The first time I ever saw my byline was in Colorado Magazine, which preceded Colorado Heritage, and it was a thrill to get that on my resume. It’s open to all institutions, and motivates them to do better.”

As his year in the spotlight ends, Noel notes another thing he loved about the position: arbiter of historical controversies. For example, was Colorado’s best-known cannibal Alferd Packer — or Alfred Packer? Noel insists it’s the latter, based on his tombstone and court records, “but you can’t win that one,” he laughs.

Then there’s the dispute over what to call someone from the state — a Coloradan or Coloradoan. It’s the former, Noel says, notwithstanding that the Fort Collins newspaper and formerly the University of Colorado’s yearbook have employed the latter.

“That’s kind of fun,” Noel says. “You feel infallible, like the pope. Even if you’re wrong, you’re right.”

Wei steps into the job at an intensely divisive political moment. Rather than shy away from it, he embraces the opportunity — the obligation, as he sees it — to try to bring faithful portrayals of history to both the national and local conversation. 

“It’s the responsibility of all historians, let alone the state historian, to challenge those misconceptions or this misinformation and distortion,” he says. “We have in our state history seen how this xenophobia, this nativist reaction, has resulted in the persecution of groups. This is not a new story. This has happened nationally. There were (persecuted) groups that are now considered part of the mainstream. The point is, at some point, they’re all part of the mainstream.”

One of his favorite examples is the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869 by joining the Union Pacific and Central Pacific tracks in Utah. The Central Pacific segment, Wei says, was built primarily by about 10,000 Chinese workers, while the Union Pacific relied heavily on Irish workers. 

Visitors view the items on display inside “Zoom In – The Centennial State in 100 Objects” exhibit on July 31, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott for The Colorado Sun)

“These two major immigrant groups built the Transcontinental Railroad that integrated the nation culturally and economically,” he says. “For the state this is important as well. If we hadn’t built a railroad spur to the Transcontinental Railroad, we never would have been a major metropolis.”

Many of those workers shifted to mining. Wei contends that while we romanticize the cowboy, who certainly was a significant figure, “it’s really the immigrant miner who made the American West.” 

And while various immigrant groups have been targeted as being disruptive to a homogeneous American society, he adds, many people fail to acknowledge that the country has always been multicultural — and groups from Germans to the Irish to Italians to Asians and Latinos have wrongly been tagged as unable or unwilling to assimilate. He argues that it happens by the third generation.

“Succeeding groups of people go through the same pattern,” Wei says. “You’d think by this point we’d have learned from this. Yet the same arguments resurface. The point being, we’ve always been a multicultural society and immigrant groups have enriched this multicultural society…Our diversity makes us a much stronger nation.”

While his intensive study of immigration remains top of mind, Wei has broad-based plans for his year as state historian. For the most part, he says, historians — including himself — tend to be academics. That influence generally touches their approach to the subject and even their writing, which can be necessarily dense and aimed at a primarily academic audience.

Wei would like to see more of what he calls “applied history” — making it more accessible for the average person. Part of that approach is reflected in his involvement with the Colorado Encyclopedia. Initially, he envisioned it as a traditional collection of books. But after much discussion, he became convinced that it would be best pursued as a digital work that presented material to a broad audience in digestible chunks.

“People just want to hear this history,” Wei says, “which to me is a story well told.” 

William Wei, the Colorado state historian, inside the History Colorado Center on July 31, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott for The Colorado Sun)
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