By Tom Dalton
SALEM — Two doctoral students in history from Peking University in China had lunch this week at Red's Sandwich Shop. Gao Hao had the open-faced barbecue sandwich, while Huang Shuo chose the Cuban, which is stuffed with roast pork, onions and pickles.
There should be a lot of dining scenes like that the next few days as the World History Association descends on the city for its 18th annual conference.
More than 400 scholars and teachers from the United States and around the globe, many accompanied by family members, have signed up for the four-day event, which begins today.
Hosted by Salem State College, the historians will take part in workshops, panel discussions, lectures, film presentations and sightseeing tours.
While the conference is based at the college, many of the historians and professors will eat and sleep in the city and in neighboring communities. A shuttle bus will run between the college and downtown.
"We have managed to fill up a couple of hotels," said Alfred Andrea, vice president of the World History Association.
City officials are thrilled that Salem was chosen to host the conference and even put up a banner to welcome the visitors.
"It's very good for business," said Rinus Oosthoek, executive director of the Salem Chamber of Commerce. "It's essential for Salem to position itself for these smaller conference groups because the spinoff from something like this ... is fabulous."
There are presenters and participants coming from 34 countries and almost every continent.
"We've got folks from Japan, India and China — from all over the globe," said Dane Morrison, a professor of early American history at Salem State and one of the conference's keynote speakers.
The organization of academics and researchers met in London last year and has held past conferences in Morocco, Korea and Italy, as well as Milwaukee and Long Beach, Calif.
"We're going to Beijing in 2011," said Andrea, a professor emeritus from the University of Vermont.
So why Salem?
"It's a major city as far as the history of the United States is concerned," he said. "It was a major player in global affairs in the late 18th and early 19th century."
The World History Association executive made that boast while sitting in the lobby of the Hawthorne Hotel, where he is staying. Right behind him, mounted on the wall, was physical proof of his point: a print of the Sultan of Zanzibar welcoming a merchant ship from Salem into port in 1823.
The World History Association is running most of its programs at Salem State, where Christopher Mauriello, the chairman of the history department, and Morrison have helped organize events.
It also is working closely with the National Park Service and the Peabody Essex Museum, both of which are hosting events. Anyone wearing a conference button will be admitted free to the PEM and to tours at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.
Although most of the conference consists of panel discussions on academic subjects, there are several free public events. The public portion of the conference kicked off last night with a lecture at the Salem Athenaeum by a professor from Columbia University.
The large international conference, titled "Merchants and Missionaries in World History," is taking place in the Witch City, which is famous for its Halloween crowds and, earlier this year, hosted a convention of ghost hunters.
The crowd from the World History Association may look a little different.
"There will be a few tweed jackets and bow ties," Morrison joked.
FREE PUBLIC EVENTS
As part of the World History Association conference in Salem, several free events are open to the public.
Today: "Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North." Film and panel discussion about a Rhode Island family's encounter with its historical role in the slave trade. 7 to 10 p.m., Veterans Hall, Ellison Campus Center, Salem State.
Friday: "Leaving Western Civ Behind." Lecture by William McNeill, professor emeritus from University of Chicago and author of "The Rise of the West." 6:15 to 7:15 p.m., National Park Service Visitor Center, 2 New Liberty St.
Saturday: "The Letter." Documentary film about tension between Somali immigrants and residents of Lewiston, Maine. Film and panel discussion. 7 to 10 p.m., Veterans Hall, Ellison Campus Center, Salem State.