Doing Time in the Texas Prison Rodeo

Doing Time in the Depression, Ethan Blue’s seminal work on prison life in the 1930s, is coming out in paperback next month! To celebrate, we pulled one of our favorite excerpts from the book to share with y’all. 

In the passage below, Blue takes us into the world of prison sports, starting with the king of all penal sporting events: the Texas Prison Rodeo.

Texas Spectacle

Prison sport in Texas shared something with sports in California and elsewhere. Inmates in Texas played baseball, they boxed, and they even had volleyball. While black and white athletes might play together in the San Quentin or Folsom baseball leagues, this was unthinkable in Texas, which sponsored firmly defined white and Negro leagues. But penal sport in the Lone Star State had a peculiar twist. Rather than private affairs, prison sports and celebrations became massive, public spectacles.

The Texas Prison Rodeo, originally billed as the “Fastest and Wildest Rodeo in Texas” (later expanded to “the World”) was first instituted in 1931 as a self-proclaimed progressive reform. Lee Simmons, who claimed the rodeo as his brainchild, thought a rodeo would be cheap entertainment for prisoners and guards. It was this and more—the rodeo ballooned into a huge public relations success and a source of considerable income. Audiences grew from just a few hundred in 1931 to tens of thousands by the end of the decade. The prison stadium was built, expanded, and rebuilt to hold the overflowing crowds, thousands of whom were regularly turned away for lack of capacity. According to prison official Albert Moore, the first Sunday’s rodeo in 1939 drew “the largest crowd ever to witness a rodeo in the United States.”

The rodeo drew from Lee Simmons’s invocation of the slaveholding tradition of forcing captives to celebrate. Its form was of an imagined Texas frontier past. A radio advertisement hyped the event, where “one hundred and fifty daring inmate buckaroos will clash with outlaw broncs, vicious brahma bulls and steers, which have been brought in from the outlying reaches of the vast farmlands and river bottom pastures of the System. It’s a case where outlaw meets outlaw! And there will be action such as you have never seen before.”

Baseball may have been America’s game, but rodeos held a special place in Texans’ hearts. The rodeo accessed a different form of nationalism and statemediated identity than baseball did. Like baseball, the rodeo was notable in the way that it structured the temporality of the prison year, and in the way its creation of “leisure” validated the existence of “labor” as an organizing force of life. But unlike baseball, the Texas rodeo was based in an Anglo-Texan memory of the American West, steeped in the lore of the open frontier.

For more information on this book, visit our website.

Q&A with Kyle Bulthuis, author of Four Steeples over the City Streets

In the interview below, historian Kyle Bulthuis discusses his forthcoming book, Four Steeples over the City Streets: Religion and Society in New York’s Early Republic Congregations (NYU Press, October 2014).

What led you to write the book?

Kyle Bulthuis: In graduate school I found myself drawn to two historical fields—religious and social history—that often do not mix. When they interact, each tends to flatten and simplify the other field. In this book I wanted to do justice to both methods. In New York City, individuals such as John Jay, James Harper, Sojourner Truth, and Peter Williams were not just prominent citizens but also churchgoers. I strove to tell their story as religious as well as social individuals, people located in a time and place that included religious and secular commitments.

In two sentences, what is the argument of your book?

These four New York City congregations—Trinity Episcopal Church, John Street Methodist Chapel, Mother Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, and St. Philip’s (African) Episcopal Church—were all historically significant in their respective denominations (and socially significant landmarks in New York City), and each were profoundly shaped by the social changes of the early Republic. The language of Christian unity that congregants voiced proved to be an ideal that was impossible to maintain in an environment where wealth and poverty, race and gender, and physical and material development tended to divide religious bodies more than unite them.

Why do we need to read Four Steeples over the City Streets?

In major American cities, churches are often prominent landmarks that tourists treat as museums of the past. American politics and culture tend to identify cities as places of primarily secular, not religious, commitments. These assumptions have carried weight in the scholarly community. American religious histories often focus on denominations, or large movements, rather than individual buildings or congregations. Further, scholars of American religion have traditionally focused on the western frontier, the place of big camp meeting revivals, rather than urban centers. My examination of city congregations therefore reveals a different scale in a different place than is typical. I found that these central New York City congregations experienced religious change earlier and more intensely than elsewhere: rather than being a place where religion was peripheral, New York City was a place where religious change was cutting-edge, for good as well as for ill. Democratization, revivalism, feminization, racial segregation, reform: these developments all contributed to the urban religious experience.

[Note: An expanded version of this post originally appeared on The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog.]

Finding the lost children

​—James Marten

In 1904, J. M. Barrie prefaced his beloved play Peter Pan, or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up with the words, “All this has happened before.  And all this will happen again.” (The narrator utters the same passage at the beginning of the animated 1953 Disney version of the story.) A few years earlier, the Swedish sociologist Ellen Key had coined the phrase “The Century of the Child” to describe the coming epoch, in which the lives of children and youth would be broadened and improved through enlightened policies and practices in education, social welfare, and parenting.

The tension between the meanings of these two highly quotable passages is reflected in the essays in Children and Youth during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Barrie’s words (taken completely out of context, I freely admit) suggest a repetitive and inevitable cycle of birth, coming of age, resistance, and resigned maturity. Key’s words suggest a linear, equally inevitable march of progress shaped by rationality and compassion. Neither fully capture the ways that the lives of young people were changed during the “long twentieth century,” but together they help explain this complex era.

The collection of essays covers the period that launched that so-called “century of the child.” Thanks to the countless surveys and studies launched by policy makers, “child-savers,” and members of the burgeoning profession of social work, there are almost limitless sources about the lives of youngsters available to historians of the period. And thanks to the changing constructions of childhood and youth, to incipient notions of governmental responsibility, and to middle-class concerns about the apparent decline of family, there are countless books and articles and editorials and other commentary on attitudes about children. As a result, this may be the most written-about period in the histories of American children and youth.

The eleven essays in the book show both the progress that Key predicted both the progress and the reluctance to change suggested by Barrie. This was an era when child’s play became a “right;” education became a central element of virtually all children’s lives; and governments and courts began to take up their responsibilities to American society’s youngest members. But many of the issues addressed by the authors have echoed down to the far end of the “century of the child” and beyond: concerns about immigrants, issues related to race and sexuality, and the role of children in the economy.

There were plenty of “lost” boys and girls living in the United States in the Gilded Age and Progressive Eras (for one great example, check out the defiant young mill hand staring out from the book’s cover, as captured by the National Child Labor Committee’s Lewis Hine), but there were also plenty of visionaries like Ellen Key who sought a better future for those youngsters, their children, and their children’s children. Children and Youth in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era offers a wide-ranging sampling of some of those stories.

James Marten is Professor and Chair of the History Department at Marquette University. He is author or editor of more than a dozen books, including the forthcoming Children and Youth during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (NYU Press, 2014).

Bringing home the bodies, after World War I and today

This week marks the centennial of the outbreak of World War I. To commemorate, Lisa M. Budreau, author of Bodies of War, gives us a glimpse into the history of America’s memorialization efforts after the First World War. 

—Lisa M. Budreau

While watching the appalling recent events surrounding the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, I was struck by some uncanny parallels between the mayhem surrounding the slaughter of these innocent civilians, and the similarly ghastly situation left upon the former battlefields after the First World War. The presumably mistaken, but nevertheless brutal murder on July 17th that left bodies scattered for miles across eastern Ukraine, resulted in a complex, macabre travesty where no plans or policy existed for the protection of the site, the identification of the dead, their burial or transportation home. Under the watchful eye of the global media, militants attempting to guard the site were exposed as woefully unprepared to handle this grisly state of affairs that engendered looting, corruption, public suspicion and marked irreverence to the dead.

In the aftermath of war in November 1918, the burial, exhumation, reburial and eventual shipment of American war dead home was equally ghastly, similarly disorganized and mysteriously unplanned for. Families grew increasingly intolerant as the passing months brought no evidence of any effort being made to return their loved ones. Their impatient pleas began arriving at the War Department within days of the cease-fire, with friends and families clamoring for the return of the war dead. Yet the government had entered the conflict in April 1917 with no clear measures for coping with the remains of the deceased.

Once plans were arranged for the return of the war dead, transportation of bodies across France became a logistical nightmare requiring a generous allowance of trucks, canal boats, and railway cars. Coffins had to be procured and more labor was required to complete the task on a time scale that would keep the American public content. Yet, despite the government’s best attempts to deny allegations against its efficiency, accusations mounted as press surveillance reports struggled to meet the demands of an increasingly suspicious public. Numerous cases of mistaken identity were reported by families who claimed to have received the wrong body (while others were promised remains that never arrived). In an attempt to get bodies back more expeditiously from overseas, some families with the means to do so, were willing to pay as much as $2,500 for their loved ones, to unscrupulous officials.

By the close of 1921, the gruesome burial work was nearly complete after the American military had shipped close to 46,000 dead to the United States and 764 to European places of birth. Those who remained overseas were laid to rest in immaculately constructed national cemeteries in England, France and Belgium. For these dead, war’s purposefulness— rather than its tragedy—was emphasized, as death in battle became a noble deed for a “worthy” cause.

By contrast, marked ambivalence will likely shroud the memory of those shot down from the skies above the Ukranian war zone as these tragic deaths can ever be fully justified. But the sacrifice of life still needs to be fully mourned and remembered in an honorable way. Regardless of national affiliation, we all owe a lingering moral obligation to the dead and to their families, and those in mourning need a collective site to remember their loved ones. It will be interesting to see if and how these losses will be remembered beyond the tributes left at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport since this well-intentioned site can offer only the smallest, temporary measure of consolation.

Lisa M. Budreau, PhD, is a consultant to the WWI Regional Office with the American Battle Monuments Commission, based in Arlington, VA, and Garches, France. She is author of Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933 (NYU Press, 2009).

 

Upcoming events with Gerald Horne

Author and historian Gerald Horne will be on a mini book tour this weekend to discuss his two new books, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, released in April 2014 from NYU Press and Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba during Slavery and Jim Crow, ​out now from Monthly Review Press. 

All events below are free and open to the public.

Friday, July 25 at 7:00pm
New Haven People’s Center, 37 Howe Street, New Haven, CT

Gerald Horne will launch his new book, Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba during Slavery and Jim Crowas part of the People’s World Friday Night Film and Discussion Series. Books will be available for signing at a discounted price. For more information, please contact ct-pww@pobox.com.

Saturday, July 26 at 6:30pm
Sistas’ Place
456 Nostrand Avenue, Brooklyn, NY

Join NYU Press and Gerald Horne for a book signing and discussion on his recently published book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the origins of the United States. This important historical analysis highlights how slavery and ongoing racism are tied into the fabric of US society. Books will be for sale at the event.

Sunday, July 27 at 7:30pm
Red Emma’s
, 30 
W. North Avenue, Baltimore, MD

Special double book event! Gerald Horne will present and sign copies of ​The Counter-Revolution of 1776 ​and ​Race to Revolution. RSVP on Facebook (optional).

What Freedom Summer means to me

—F. Michael Higginbotham

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…”

The famous line from the song “Summertime,” written by George and Ira Gershwin for the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, captures how I feel when I reminisce about most summers gone by. Playing little league baseball, swimming at the beach or local public pool, or roasting marshmallows over the open fire, playing team tag under the stars, and gazing at fireworks on the 4th of July, all represent the best of what an American summer should entail. Yet, the summer of 1964 brings up very different images of America’s past.

In the summer of 1964, major civil rights organizations implemented a plan to significantly increase black voter registration in Mississippi. Officially called the Mississippi Summer Project but popularly referred to as Freedom Summer, the initiative was a bold step to directly tackle racial exclusion in the political process in a state with, arguably, one of the worst civil rights records. Due to discriminatory laws and practices such as grandfather clauses, poll taxes, literacy tests, economic punishments, and physical intimidation, black registration in Mississippi was at 6%, the lowest of any state. The plan involved over one thousand volunteers, mostly white college students from northern universities, working closely with civil rights workers and leaders in the Mississippi black community, facilitating black voter registration.

From the onset, most white Mississippians resented any attempts to increase black voter registration, or to alter the racial status quo in any way. During the course of the two and a half month project, massive and often violent resistance occurred, including bombings and burnings of black churches, businesses, and homes; arrests and beatings of volunteers and aspiring registrants; and the murder of four civil rights workers and three state residents. These resistance efforts were successful at dissuading black Mississippians from registering.

While few additional voters were registered during Freedom Summer, the voter registration efforts in Mississippi helped to focus attention on racial barriers to voting rights throughout the South. Recognition that Mississippi was not an aberration but rather a reflection of widespread exclusion of black voters throughout the south, and in some parts of the north, helped further efforts by civil rights groups and leaders of the Democratic Party, including President Lyndon Johnson, to secure passage of voting rights protection on a national scale. The result was the Voting Rights Act (VRA), enacted in 1965, the most democratizing piece of legislation ever passed.

In signing the law, President Johnson termed it “a monumental law in the history of American freedom.” He was right. In less than four years after the law was enacted, 800,000 blacks registered to vote. In Mississippi, for example, black registration increased from 6% to 66%.

Certainly substantial progress has been made since 1965 when the VRA was passed. Much is owed to those brave young participants in Freedom Summer who helped bring attention to the broken promises of democracy for thousands of Mississippi blacks. Yet today, racially-polarized voting patterns, the practice of reducing minority participation for partisan advantage in many parts of the nation, with blatant racism in others, suggest a continued need for an effective VRA. Anything less would diminish the meaning of Freedom Summer.

F. Michael Higginbotham is the Wilson H. Elkins Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore, former interim dean and the author of Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism In Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2013).

The 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer: The struggle continues

—Akinyele Omowale Umoja

In late June, hundreds will convene in Jackson, Mississippi to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. The 1964 Freedom Summer was one of the most courageous campaigns for freedom in the history of the United States. It built upon heroic work of Mississippi human rights activists who labored without much national media attention and support or protection from the federal government.

After emancipation from enslavement, Black Mississippians were denied basic human rights through a system of white supremacy and racial terror. Mississippi’s state leaders unashamedly promoted and supported Jim Crow apartheid in the state, which included denying voting rights of people of African descent, 42% of its population. Racial violence was a major force in maintaining white supremacy in Mississippi and other southern states.

In the early 1950s, an indigenous network of African-American activists emerged under the banner of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership and the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With the guidance of movement veteran Ella Baker, young Robert Moses, a Harvard graduate, came to Mississippi in 1961 on behalf of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Moses began to recruit Mississippi Black college students and youth to organize for voting and human rights in the state, in coordination with the network local Black freedom fighters. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) soon joined Moses, SNCC, and local NAACP chapters in the effort to secure voting rights in the state.

The white supremacist power structure responded to the upsurge of Black activism with an increased campaign of racial terrorism, harassing, repressing, and in some cases, assassinating local Black activists and movement supporters. The terrorism in the state, which drew almost no attention from the media, inspired the singer Nina Simone to title a protest song “Mississippi Goddam.”

To overcome the ongoing campaign of terror, Bob Moses proposed an intensive campaign known as the Mississippi Summer Project. The project would organize a racially-inclusive Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), organize voter registration, and establish a network of Freedom Schools to educate Black children in literacy, math, and African-American history. Given the lack of media attention and the government’s failure to act, Moses advocated bringing in hundreds of white college students to volunteer in the summer project. The national news media and powerful government officials would pay attention if their sons and daughters were in racist, violent Mississippi.

The national leadership embraced Moses’ proposal (despite opposition from the majority of Black Mississippi SNCC organizers)—and in 1964, hundreds of Black and white volunteers from around the United States arrived in segregated Mississippi to confront white supremacy.

The Freedom Summer did not deter violence. On the eve of volunteers coming to the state, three members of CORE—James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andy Goodman—disappeared and were ultimately found murdered in Neshoba County. Over one thousand activists were arrested in the state between June and October that year; 37 churches were bombed or burned to the ground; and 15 people were murdered, due to white supremacist violence. Local Black communities re-doubled their efforts to provide protection for activists and volunteers; some formed roving, armed patrols to protect their neighbors from attack. Activists from nonviolent organizations even picked up arms to join local Blacks in protecting the community.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) presented a persuasive challenge at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. MFDP leader and spokesperson Fannie Lou Hamer, an activist Black sharecropper, powerfully described, to the U.S. and the world, the violent terror of Mississippi. Hamer passionately illustrated her experience of being evicted from the plantation where she and her husband worked, incarcerated, and brutally beaten for attempting to register to vote.

The National Democratic Party and its leader, President Lyndon Johnson, chose to maintain its relationship with the pro-segregationist Mississippi delegation. The MFDP was offered a compromise of two seats within the pro-segregationist delegation. This compromise was rejected by the MFDP. The national Democratic Party leadership realized the potentiality of the MFDP challenge, particularly as the freedom struggle was winning the fight for voting rights. This led to the undermining of segregationist policies in the Democratic Party in the South and the inclusion of Black people.

On the other hand, some SNCC and CORE activist chose not to rely on political parties, but instead to move in an autonomous direction calling for independent Black political organization. Some began to focus on grassroots, economic development through cooperatives. Fannie Lou Hamer and other activists in the historic Mississippi Delta initiated the cooperative Freedom Farms. The call for Black political self-determination or “Black Power” was also complimented with a call for self-defense particularly since the federal government could not be relied upon for protection, echoing the sentiment of local Mississippians, many from previously nonviolent organizations embraced the advocacy and practice of We Will Shoot Back!

The legacy of a system of apartheid and white supremacy manifested in contemporary institutional racism stills effects Black Mississippi. With it large Black population, Mississippi is the poorest state in the U.S. In Jackson, the state capital, a movement has emerged for grassroots Black politics. Jackson is 80% Black, the second highest African-American population of any major city in the U.S.

The People’s Assembly was organized in 2008 in the city’s Ward 2 to elect revolutionary Attorney Chokwe Lumumba to City Council. Born and raised in Detroit, Lumumba had first came to Mississippi in 1971 as a member of the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Africa (RNA) in 1971. The RNA desired to establish in an independent, Black government and socialist economy in the Deep South, including Jackson and the Black majority counties of Mississippi. Lumumba later became the Chairman and co-founder of the pro-Black self-determination, pro-socialist New Afrikan People’s Organization and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM). He also worked to bring Bryon De La Beckwith, the assassin of Medgar Evers to justice and for a Black agenda for city’s first Black Mayor. Lumumba identified himself as a “Fannie Lou Hamer Democrat” and was a card-carrying member of the MFDP, not the state Democratic Party, which he associated with the legacy of white supremacy.

After Lumumba was elected with 63% of the vote to the Jackson City Council in 2009, the People’s Assembly continued to organize task forces around youth and economic development, educational policy, and improving the ward’s infrastructure, as well as providing direction for the councilman in his voting on the city’s legislative body. This formula served as the model for Lumumba’s election to the city’s Mayor in 2013. In the runoff of the Democratic primary, he earned 58% of the vote while his opponent rose five times of Lumumba’s campaign fund. Lumumba received 86% of the vote during the general election. With this mandate, he planned to expand the People’s Assembly citywide and institute a plan of worker-managed cooperatives to reinvigorate the city’s crumbling economy. Lumumba consciously tied himself to the Mississippi Freedom Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Lumumba’s untimely death in February 2014, eight months after his inauguration to Mayor, is a setback to his initiatives and the agenda of the Assembly. But the struggle continues. The People’s Assembly is still building citywide and in May 2014, a Jackson Rising New Economies conference announced Cooperation Jackson, an initiative to organize worker-managed cooperatives in the city as a model for impoverished Black communities in the state.

As we commemorate 1964 Freedom Summer, we must not ignore the continued fight for Black self-determination, democracy, human rights and economic justice in the Mississippi and the U.S. The People’s Assembly and Cooperation Jackson represent contemporary manifestations of this fight and a continuation of the promise of Freedom Summer. Let us not forget: in Mississippi, the struggle for freedom continues!

Akinyele Omowale Umoja is an educator and scholar-activist. He is an associate professor and chair of the department of African-American studies at Georgia State University, and author of We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013).

Book giveaway: Open Veins of Latin America

Since its publication in 1971, Open Veins of Latin America has been translated into more than a dozen languages and has sold more than a million copies. Written by Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano, the book chronicles five centuries of exploitation in Latin America—first by European empires, and later the United States. In it, Galeano argues that this “structure of plunder” led to the region’s enduring poverty and underdevelopment.

Now, according to a recent New York Times article, Galeano has disavowed the book. But has he?

In light of the controversy, we’re giving away a FREE copy of Open Veins of Latin America to three lucky winners. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and e-mail address. Winners will be randomly selected on Friday, June 6 at 12:00pm EST.

Q&A with Phillip Papas, author of Renegade Revolutionary

We invited Phillip Papas on our blog for an exclusive Q&A session on his new book, Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee. Happily, he obliged. Below, Papas discusses his inspiration for writing the book, shares a surprising moment in his research, and gives us the final word on Charles Lee in Assassin’s Creed. Read it, and if you haven’t already, check out the gorgeous trailer for the book!

What prompted you to write Renegade Revolutionary?

Phillip Papas: I came to the subject of Charles Lee through my doctoral dissertation which looked at the conditions that fostered strong Loyalist sentiments on Staten Island (subsequently published by NYU Press as That Ever Loyal Island: Staten Island and the American Revolution). In setting up the defenses of New York from February through March 1776, Lee had left the loyalist community of Staten Island at the entrance to New York harbor and by extension the Narrows, undefended. This did not mean that Lee had not thought about the island strategically. He had. Lee recommended that all of the livestock should be removed from Staten Island and that its residents be disarmed. If this approach did not work, Lee suggested Congress “secure their [the Staten Islanders’] children as hostages.”

I had heard of Charles Lee before working on my dissertation. More often than not, the references were to George Washington’s eccentric, egomaniacal second-in-command who was followed around by a pack of mangy dogs, who always challenged Washington’s military judgment, was captured by the British and offered them a plan that would keep them in the colonies, and faced a court martial after the battle of Monmouth in 1778 which eventually ended his military career.  Of course, Lee was an avid dog lover and always had a few of them by his side, especially his favorite Spado. Lee also had an ego the size of Texas, but who else among the leading revolutionaries didn’t? And he did challenge Washington’s military judgment, he was captured by the British in December 1776 in New Jersey, and he did face a court martial after the battle of Monmouth, where Washington had famously confronted him on the battlefield. But who was Charles Lee? Who was this former British officer who had become an avid supporter of the American resistance against Britain’s imperial policies and who eventually became one of the earliest and loudest voices for American independence? Who was this intellectual who recognized America’s potential and characterized her as the “last asylum of liberty?” Who was this professional soldier who admired the fighting spirit and irregular tactics of the colonial militiamen? I found these questions interesting and they led me to do further research on Charles Lee.

What surprised you most as you conducted your research?

I think it would have to be Lee’s cosmopolitanism, his intellectual curiosity, his support for providing women with a formal education, his recognition of America’s potential, and his attempts to dispel the British media’s portrayal of the Native Americans. Lee’s confidence in a popular war of mass resistance against the British fought using a strategy of petite guerre or irregular warfare also caught my attention. Lee’s belief that a strategy of petite guerre carried out by small units of Continentals in cooperation with local militia and roving groups of partisans to effectively stymie the British war machine, neutralize Loyalists, and win American independence fascinated me because it seemed to portent certain aspects of modern revolutionary military strategy.

In your book, you write that Lee suffered from manic depression, experienced phases of hypersexuality, drank to excess, and preferred the companionship of dogs to humans. What is the biggest misconception about him?

That he was an “oddity” or an eccentric. For Americans, a true gentleman was a man of honor and integrity; someone who embraced rigid rules of etiquette and manners, demonstrated emotional self-restraint, exhibited a proper sense of decorum in public and displayed elegance in speech and dress. The impressions of Lee by his American contemporaries revealed a provincial misunderstanding about what it meant to be an English gentleman. Although Lee’s outward appearance and behavior did not meet with American standards of gentility, in his background, upbringing, financial independence, and classical education Lee was an English gentleman.

Moreover, much of Lee’s behavior evidenced signs of what modern psychiatry would classify as manic depression.

Charles Lee is featured as one of the main antagonists in the video game Assassin’s Creed. How accurate is this portrayal of Lee as the ultimate villain?

I first heard about the video game Assassin’s Creed 3 from one of my students at Union County College. I could not believe that the subject of my research was a key character in a video game set during the American Revolution. Perhaps the game designers chose Lee as the game’s ultimate villain because he lacked political savvy and throughout his career he openly challenged the decisions of his superior officers and, of course, during the American Revolution became Washington’s chief antagonist. Lee was ambitious and an opportunist; he was a person who was willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve his goals. Many of Lee’s actions and decisions exemplified the saying “the end justifies the means.”

What do you hope readers learn from your book?

I hope that readers come away from the book with a new view of Charles Lee as a complex, fascinating person who made important contributions to the Revolutionary era as a propagandist and as a soldier and whose ideas on the education of women and on democratic societies set him apart from many of his contemporaries. I also hope that readers will gain new insights into the way the Americans waged the Revolutionary war and debated the question of the proper military organization in a democracy.

Why NYC must save the South Street Seaport

—James M. Lindgren

Most New Yorkers think of South Street Seaport as only a touristy shopping mall. But the real South Street Seaport is a historic district with three piers and 11 blocks surrounded by Manhattan’s skyscrapers. It’s a treasure we must protect. Its heart is Schermerhorn Row. Built in 1811-12, the Row was “the city’s first world trade center.” It’s the largest survivor of an era when South Street businesses were making New York “the Empire State” and the United States the world’s rising power.

We owe thanks to the preservationists of the South Street Seaport Museum, who saved what we see today. In 1966, as nearby neighborhoods were falling to bulldozers, they wanted New Yorkers to remember the sailors, captains and merchants who made the world’s greatest port. To recreate its fabled “street of ships” on the East River, they assembled the nation’s largest museum fleet of historic ships.

In a 1967 charter, New York state charged the Seaport Museum with the responsibility of telling that story. Mayor John Lindsay designated the museum as the district’s protector — though he provided no public funding. Through a benefactor, the museum was slated to receive 50 buildings, but the deal fell apart in 1972. Those properties ended up in the hands of City Hall, which leased the buildings and piers to the museum. With big expenses on land and water, the museum struggled. Because of its proximity to Wall Street, developers wanted the museum’s lucrative leases. Finally, after NYC’s financial meltdown in 1975, developers got what they wanted.

In 1981, after arm twisting by City Hall, the museum accepted a more challenging lease and a “festival marketplace” development. But the New Fulton Market (1983) and Pier 17 emporium (1985) only opened after their developer, the Rouse Company, made numerous promises to help the museum, promote local business and enhance the community.

The festival marketplace became the city’s No. 1 tourist destination in 1988, but its popularity was brief. As a result, Rouse failed to keep its promises. It never paid a nickel of the millions it had promised annually to the museum. The Koch administration did nothing to either help the museum or enforce the lease’s provisions.

Why? The festival marketplace’s real winner was City Hall, whose economic development office milked the leases. While Rouse’s shopping mall grabbed the spotlight, the museum was pushed so far backstage that it was invisible to most New Yorkers.

Still, the Seaport Museum rose to become NYC’s No. 3 history museum. In 1998, Congress even named it “America’s National Maritime Museum.”

New Yorkers should have been proud, though few knew about it.

Then came the twin blows of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, which devastated tourism and destroyed the mechanical and electrical infrastructure of the Seaport area. New York City refused to repair the museum buildings it managed — because the Bloomberg administration had, in secret negotiations, agreed to evict the museum.

The Howard Hughes Corporation, which inherited the Rouse contract, is building a new mall on Pier 17. Unable to maintain two large square-riggers, the museum is restoring its ship Wavertree, but giving Peking away. It wants to keep the rest of the fleet for all New Yorkers to enjoy, but can it afford them?

Now Howard Hughes plans on finishing the job — asking the city to evict the museum from the last buildings it occupies and for permission to erect a 50-story hotel complex on the publicly owned site of the 1930s fish market, which has moved to The Bronx.

This would be tragic. New Yorkers and the de Blasio administration need to step in and support the Seaport Museum and the district’s public space.

No 50-story hotel should intrude on the Brooklyn Bridge, the eighth wonder of the world. City Hall should also give the seaport’s small businesses the same consideration as the district’s big players. And, lastly, there should be room among the old buildings for the Seaport Museum’s original purpose — to tell the story of the great port that made the city, state and nation.

James M. Lindgren is the author of Preserving South Street Seaport: The Dream and Reality of a New York Urban Renewal District (NYU Press, 2014), out now.

[Note: This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Post on April 19, 2014.]

Book trailer for Renegade Revolutionary

In November 1774, a pamphlet to the “People of America” was published in Philadelphia and London. It forcefully articulated American rights and liberties and argued that the Americans needed to declare their independence from Britain. The author of this pamphlet was Charles Lee, a former British army officer turned revolutionary, who was one of the earliest advocates for American independence. Lee fought on and off the battlefield for expanded democracy, freedom of conscience, individual liberties, human rights, and for the formal education of women.

Phillip Papas is Associate Professor of History at Union County College in Cranford, New Jersey. He is the author of Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Leeavailable now from NYU Press.

Many thanks to the team at New York Dub for producing this gorgeous trailer!

An excerpt from The Counter-Revolution of 1776

To celebrate this week’s release of Gerald Horne’s The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, today we are featuring an exclusive excerpt from the book, in which Horne sets the stage for his trailblazing revisionist account of the creation of the United States. Read the introduction below.

Gerald Horne is the Moores Professor of History & African American Studies at the University of Houston. He has published over 30 books, including Negro Comrades of the Crown (NYU Press, 2012).

Introduction – The Counter-Revolution of 1776


Advance praise for the book:

“Horne returns with insights about the American Revolution that fracture even more some comforting myths about the Founding Fathers. The author does not tiptoe through history’s grassy fields; he swings a scythe…Clear and sometimes-passionate prose shows us the persistent nastiness underlying our founding narrative.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Horne confidently and convincingly reconstructs the origin myth of the United States grounded in the context of slavery…Though dense, Horne’s study is rich, not dry; his research is meticulous, thorough, fascinating, and thought-provoking. Horne emphasizes the importance of considering this alternate telling of our American origin myth and how such a founding still affects our nation today.”
Publishers Weekly, Starred Review