Selma, on the long continuum of the freedom struggle

—Hasan Kwame Jeffries

[Note: This piece was inspired by the author's remarks at a recent event honoring Dr. King’s birthday, hosted by the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.]

There is no right more fundamental in a democracy than the right to vote. But fifty years ago, in 1965, African Americans throughout the South were denied this most basic right.

In some places, like Selma, Alabama, a handful of African Americans could vote. But in many places, especially in rural areas, the exclusion of African Americans from the ballot box was absolute. In Lowndes County, Alabama, the county neighboring Selma, there were 5,122 African Americans of voting age in 1965, but not a single one was registered. And this kind of absolute exclusion was common throughout the Black Belt, those counties whose populations were overwhelmingly African American.

Dr. Martin Luther King understood how vitally important the ballot was.

Participants in the Selma to Montgomery March make their way in the rain along U.S. Route 80 in Lowndes County on March 23, 1965.
© Associated Press.

That’s why, in 1965, he directed his energies, and the resources of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), toward drawing the nation’s attention to black disenfranchisement by dramatizing the exclusion of black people from the ballot box in Selma.

Speaking at the conclusion of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, Dr. King said: “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave Negroes some part of their rightful dignity, but without the vote it was dignity without strength.”

The importance of the ballot was no new revelation to black people in 1965. One hundred years earlier, when the shackles of slavery were finally shattered, Frederick Douglass, the outspoken abolitionist, said:  ”Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.” And for the next century, African Americans fought vigorously for the ballot, often losing their lives in the process.

So it is critically important to locate Selma on the long continuum of the African American struggle for freedom—which included, of course, not only fighting for the ballot, but also fighting for quality education, land ownership, fair wages, decent housing, and personal safety.

And, just as the continuum of the African American freedom struggle stretches backward in time, so, too, it stretches forward.

Today, fifty years after Selma, we find the voting rights of African Americans still under threat. Not the voting rights of all African Americans, as once was the case, but of just enough to make a difference in local, state, and federal elections. And not just in the South, but far beyond Dixieland. That’s what the wave of voter ID laws sweeping across the country is all about—restricting the franchise, rather than maintaining its integrity. And the US Supreme Court, of course, has cleared a path for these laws, especially in the worst offending states, by eliminating the requirement to submit proposed voting-law changes to the Justice Department for preclearance.

And the broader freedom struggle continues as well, including the struggle for personal safety. In Selma, Alabama, Governor George Wallace’s state troopers and Sheriff Jim Clark’s posse enforced state-sponsored racial terrorism. And today, in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and Cleveland, Ohio, young people are fighting the legacy of police enforced state-sponsored racial terrorism.

And so, fifty years after Selma, the struggle for basic civil and human rights continues, because the denial of these basic rights continues. But there is some good news. Despite setbacks in the African American freedom struggle, this movement will never be defeated because truth, justice, and righteousness have always been and will continue to be on the side of the People. As Dr. King said at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward Justice.”

Hasan Kwame Jeffries is Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University, where he holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. He is the author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (NYU Press, 2010).

No scrubbing away America’s racist past

—Carl A. Zimring

Last week, @deray tweeted an image of a century old soap advertisement showing a young white boy using soap to wash the pigment off of a young African-American boy’s body. He captioned it “Ads. Bleaching. History. America.”

Had he wished to, @deray could have sent out dozens of such tweets, each with a different image. The tweeted image was but one of dozens printed between 1880 and 1915 displaying claims soaps could literally washed dark pigment off of skin. My forthcoming book, Clean and White, reproduces similar examples from Lautz Brothers, Kirkman and Sons, and Pearline. The latter featured an illustration of an African-American woman scrubbing a young child and exclaiming “Golly! I B’leve PEARLINE Make Dat Chile White.”

These racist caricatures focused primarily but not exclusively on African-Americans. Kirkman and Sons released an advertisement sometime after 1906 that referenced the year’s Pure Food and Drug Act. The ad showed three white women washing three wealthy Turkish men’s skin from brown to white. The accompanying poem tells the story of how the women were the Turkish men’s maids. They convinced the men to let them wash them with the soap, transforming their features to milky white. The story ended happily, with the now-white men marrying each of the maids. Cross-racial and cross-class lines were transcended, all through the miracle of a pure, cleansing soap.

Such a message was consistent with the trope that skin darker than white was somehow impure and dirty. Products boasting of absolute purity claimed to be so powerful that they could literally wash away the stain of race.

Why do these images matter as anything beyond century-old relics of America’s racist past? These images proliferated at a time when the rhetoric and imagery of hygiene became conflated with a racial order that made white people pure, and anyone who was not considered white was somehow dirty. The order extended from caricatures to labor markets. Analysis of census data indicates the work of handling waste (be it garbage, scrap metal, laundry, or domestic cleaning) was disproportionately done by people who were not native-born white Americans.

Through World War II, this involved work by African Americans and first- and second-generation immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and Southern and Eastern Europe. In the second half of the twentieth century, the burdens of this dirty and dangerous work fell heavier on Hispanic and African-American workers, creating environmental inequalities that endure to this day. They are evident in the conditions that led to the Memphis’s sanitation workers strike in 1968, as well as the residents of Warren County, North Carolina laying down in the street to block bulldozers from developing a hazardous waste landfill in 1982. Environmental inequalities are evident still in environmental justice movements active across the United States in 2015.

Since the end of the Civil War, American sanitation systems, zoning boards, real estate practices, federal, state, and municipal governments, and makers and marketers of cleaning products have all worked with an understanding of hygiene that assumes “white people” are clean, and “nonwhite people” are less than clean. This assumption is fundamental to racist claims of white supremacy, a rhetoric that involves “race pollution,” white purity, and the dangers of nonwhite sexuality as miscegenation. It is also fundamental to broad social and environmental inequalities that emerged after the Civil War and that remain in place in the early twenty-first century. Learning the history of racist attitudes towards hygiene allows us to better understand the roots of present-day inequalities, for the attitudes that shaped those racist soap advertisements remain embedded in our culture.

Carl A. Zimring is Associate Professor of Sustainability Studies at Pratt Institute. He is the author of Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States from Monticello to Memphis (forthcoming from NYU Press).

Martin Luther King’s legacy: Recognition of past realities

—Arthur I. Cyr

[Note: This piece was originally published on the Deseret News.]

January 19, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, provides occasion for reflection as well as recognition. We honor his personal courage as well as political impact as catalyst for the civil rights revolution.

Initially, he was reluctant to lead beyond his local community, concerned as well as insightful in seeing the crusade might ultimately cost his life. Nonetheless, he took on the national effort, and persevered continuously until his assassination in the spring of 1968.

King’s leadership qualities were recognized while he was still young. Striking rhetorical skill was one key ingredient, cast in charismatic delivery. He was also often, though not always, a shrewd strategist.

To reflect usefully on King’s legacy, accurate understanding of his life is essential. Especially in the case of a murdered martyr, there is a natural tendency to idealize and therefore distort history. That is unfortunate for two reasons. First, oversimplifying complexity of human existence can easily diminish the person described. The leader seems less consequential as the internal personal as well as external battles that define courage are erased.

Second, oversimplifying past times limits our contemporary capacity to draw the most accurate and therefore best lessons for the future. Martin Luther King was not a saint; he was a great leader.

As political passions and social turmoil intensified during the 1960s, a once broadly unified civil rights effort became fractured. King preached unity, but confronted almost constant divisiveness. His Southern Christian Leadership Conference preached racial integration and nonviolence, but was increasingly overshadowed by various other organizations. The Congress of Racial Equality staked out much more militant ground. The separatist Black Panther Party, always a very small fringe group, nonetheless garnered enormous media attention through alarming rhetoric and occasional violence.

The fact that King endures from that era so sharply defined testifies to the value of both his message and his efforts. The ecumenical March on Washington in 1963 continues to be remembered because of the enormous scale of the pilgrimage, and also the timing. Immediately thereafter, President John F. Kennedy moved from caution to active support of major civil rights legislation.

As this implies, King’s efforts were part of a broad current of great change in American race relations. In 1955, Rosa Parks helped spark the modern civil rights movement by refusing to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She and others built the foundation for King’s later efforts.

Fully making this point requires discussing noteworthy elected government leaders. President Lyndon B. Johnson secured passage of major civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, with vital help from Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen. Equally important today is President Harry S. Truman’s historic decision in 1948 to desegregate the armed forces.

Also in 1948, at the Democratic national convention, young Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey pressed to include civil rights in the party platform. Many advised Humphrey against this; he persevered successfully.

In the resulting maelstrom, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Southern delegates bolted the convention. They established the breakaway Dixiecrat Party, with Thurmond the presidential nominee, and won Deep South states in the fall election. Despite this, President Truman was re-elected.

This set the stage for King’s pivotal role. Without him our nation might have pursued a far worse course. His message is important to recall in evaluating current events and leaders, both elected and self-appointed.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of After the Cold War: American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia (NYU Press, 2000).

Q&A with Andrew M. Schocket, author of Fighting over the Founders

In the interview below, author and historian Andrew M. Schocket discusses his longstanding love of history, the inspiration behind his new book, and his thoughts on the shifting legacy of the American Revolution.

We would also like to extend our thanks to the interviewer, graduate student Adam Crockett, for generously allowing us to publish the piece here.

Q: When did you become interested in history, and was it always American history?

Andrew M. Schocket: Even as an adolescent, I was interested in history. I was lucky to have wonderful American history teachers and a teacher of European history who was Russian. Russian history is the history of suffering and perseverance, the steppes and the winter, forbearance and, of course, the state and Mother Russia. By contrast, American history is the history of promises kept and broken, of liberty and power, of many groups figuring out where they fit in the grander dreams they have for themselves and the nation.

Is your particular area of expertise the era of the American Revolution?

It is, and I’m finally getting back to the American Revolution in my writing. It was what I went to graduate school to learn and write about, and still my greatest passion in history. My first book, on the origins of corporate power in the United States, was an exploration of how Americans in Philadelphia reorganized their polity and economy in the aftermath of the Revolution. I’m now working on several projects. Chief among them is a book about the scale of violence during the American Revolution, and how it was mostly resolved by the end of the eighteenth century. The violence and dislocation of the Revolution has been greatly downplayed. Admitting that, what I’m asking is, given that a majority of Americans were either neutral (“disaffected,” they called it) or loyalist, what led people to begin to recognize their new governments—local, state, and national—as legitimate?  Why did they start obeying the laws, serving on juries, paying their taxes? As with so many questions about the past, it’s also partly inspired by the present, as we look around the world and wonder how to restore some sense of order to the many countries suffering chaos. That said, it’s a question I’ve been thinking about on and off for close to twenty years.

Was the spark for this really a political flyer? How long have you been writing this book for?

Invoking a political flyer served was a good hook to my chapter about politics in Fighting over the Founders, because it’s something that so many of us has encountered.  But the book came out of some work I was doing around 2008, as I was writing a more theoretical piece on future directions of the scholarship on the American Revolution. Most historians in America are very unreflexive, that is, don’t think much about our own position in our scholarship, as we are taught to be, and especially most historians of the American Revolution. How could we, and the general public, understand the American Revolution without considering the lenses through which we view it?  So I began to look around at political culture and popular culture to see how we encounter the American Revolution, and the book grew from there.

Do you feel that American history is unique in that regard? Is America a land of “promises kept and broken”?

It is, perhaps to a greater extent than most countries, because American nationalism may have a stronger dose of idealism to it than most. Nationalism for most countries is bound up more centrally with ethnicity. To be sure, historically and even in the present day, many Americans have imbued American nationalism with ethnocentrism. Nonetheless, a nation that claims to be a “citie on a hill,” dedicated to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” whose sovereignty is vested in “we the people,” and that has a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is one that has many promises woven into its fabric.

Do you feel you’ll ever have an answer to that question, of what inspired
the “disaffected” to recognize the new government?

Maybe. Stay tuned. But even if I have an answer, as with the work of any historian, it won’t be the last word.

When did you settle on the terms “organicist” and “essentialist” for the
different political parties? Specifically, at what point did you recognize
the patterns in their respective discourses?

It was clear that there was a stark difference in the kinds of language that Republicans used versus what Democrats used.  It surprised me a little, in that I had expected that they would be pretty similar. The use of “essentialism” was pretty easy, as it’s a term already out there describing a similar mindset in other contexts.  ”Organicism” was harder, and it’s not as perfect a fit, which is why I devoted some space to defining both of them and the history of the concepts.

It’s not exactly a historian’s job to predict the future, but then where’s
the fun without it? Given how you’ve said most of the landscape was
dominated by essentialists up until the 1970s, do you see organicism
eventually becoming the dominate view? If not, what do you see happening
farther down the road with regards to how the public sees the Revolution
the farther away from it we get?

As best I can tell, essentialism and organicism are both becoming entrenched, just in different ways than before. Popular and political culture are too vast for large elements of the national self-image to disappear; plus, in some ways these two threads represent deep fissures in American culture that show no signs of going away. We’ve been debating the American Revolution for over two hundred years. It will be fascinating to see how the debates will go concerning the next big milestone, the nation’s sestercentennial, or whatever we decide to call the nation’s 250th anniversary.

And finally, the most important question, what do you like to drink when
you’re writing?

Water neat, sometimes with a water chaser. Although apparently best practice suggests alcohol for creativity, and caffeine for productivity.

Andrew M. Schocket is Director of American Culture Studies and Associate Professor of History and American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University (OH). He is the author of Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution (NYU Press, 2015).

Book giveaway: Fighting over the Founders

To celebrate the stellar Publishers Weekly review that just came in for our forthcoming book, Fighting over the Founders, we are giving away a free copy to two lucky winners!

In Fighting over the Founders, Andrew M. Schocket explores how politicians, screenwriters, activists, biographers, jurists, museum professionals, and reenactors portray the American Revolution. Identifying competing “essentialist” and “organicist” interpretations of the American Revolution, Schocket shows how today’s memories of the American Revolution reveal Americans’ conflicted ideas about class, about race, and about gender—as well as the nature of history itself.

From Publishers Weekly:
“Schocket is an opinionated and sometimes cynical writer who makes his argument—which is that institutions and politicians use the founding fathers for commercial and political purposes—with direct and provocative examples. For example, he reveals his deep concern over American difficulties with race through a critique of the way in which politicians, biographers, and others ignore the founding fathers’ views on slavery (he considers these views the ‘greatest collective failure’ of the founding fathers’ generation). An entertaining feature of Schocket’s writing is the gusto with which he takes on those he feels have misconstrued American history for political gain or profit, all of whom he happily skewers. Schocket covers a lot of ground in an accessible and entertaining style, with many provocative opinions to engage readers.”

To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred e-mail address. We will randomly select our winners on Monday, January 5th, 2015 at 1:00 pm EST.

Buzzed on research

—Andrew M. Schocket

Research can be boring, draining, sometimes physically or emotionally exhausting. For previous projects, I’ve logged weeks worth of time doing data entry, and have had students who have dealt with such topics as rape and infanticide, and the appearance of cannibalism (soon to be published with NYU Press!). Every once in a while, though, research can become a delightful adventure in ways one would not expect no more so than on a steamy afternoon in Philadelphia in 2011, much like the ones during the summer of ’76.

Americans want not only to see the founders’ houses and know what made them tick, but also to drink their beer. The desire for authenticity and appreciation for a connection with the past goes far beyond reenactors, public history professionals, historians, and movie makers, to walks of life one might not expect: since 2001, a Philadelphia microbrewery has been brewing beers based upon 18-century recipes. I was in Philly on a research trip anyway, and figured I should investigate. I visited Yards Brewing Company on a brutally hot afternoon, after walking all afternoon, and having had little to eat or drink since that morning. I was only too happy to sample Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale, General Washington’s Tavern Porter, and Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce in my research.

Yards Brewery has been trying to reproduce as best they can the taste of several Revolutionary-era brews. It began when Walter Staib, the chef and owner of Philadelphia’s City Tavern, asked Yards for an authentic eighteenth-century ale for his restaurant. These beers became an artisanal labor of love, as one brewer there, Franklin Winslow, told me. Reproducing 18th-century tastes with contemporary equipment further raises the degree of difficulty. He and others have researched the original recipes, but even the most detailed of them are vague, and of course Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson experimented by varying the proportion of ingredients and the brewing process. Some ingredients available to eighteenth-century American brewers aren’t easily obtainable today, and those that can be gotten are often different varieties, grown under different conditions. Yards produces greater quantities than did Franklin or Jefferson and bottle or keg it in modern fashion, under modern safety regulations. But Winslow gets a thrill from bringing beers back to life drunk by regular folk and the famous founders. Through his work, he also makes a connection with Franklin or Jefferson as people, as craftsmen, as brewers, as beer-drinkers, as humans. And he finds that human connection inspiring: he was tickled to have sent a letter to his parents about his work, post-marked from the Benjamin Franklin post office in Philadelphia, and how he had later talked to them on the phone about it. This is a deeply emotional connection that transcends the political cant that often surrounds invocations of the American Revolution.

Winslow was happy to talk, and I was happy to listen. Every few minutes, it seemed, he’d say, “Here’s something to try!,” or, “Have a sip of this brew we’ve just made,” reach around the bar, and pour a few ounces of a different variety in my glass. After a while, as I paid attention to him as best I could, it suddenly hit me, a research revelation: I was definitely a little buzzed. Now this was the way to do research!

As I wrote my book, my account of my happy afternoon at Yards Brewery first appeared in the chapter on public history, then got moved in with the reenactors, and finally—just like my paragraphs on City Tavern and on Staib’s cooking show—just didn’t fit in the flow of either, so it got cut. Still, it might have been the best hour of research I ever spent.

Andrew M. Schocket is Director of American Culture Studies and Associate Professor of History and American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University (OH). He is the author of Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution (NYU Press, 2015). 

[Note: This post originally appeared on the author's website.]

Nation of newcomers

—Peter G. Vellon

A recent letter to the editor published in the New York Daily News expressed its disappointment that television commenters covering the Columbus Day Parade used the words “illegal” and “legal” to differentiate contemporary immigrants from earlier, Italian, arrivals. Why do so many Americans feel compelled to make such a distinction, especially since the term “illegal” is so problematic and inaccurate? Part of the answer, no doubt, lies in political manipulation meant to encourage an association between immigrants and criminality. However, the desire to differentiate “legal” from “illegal” may be deeply rooted within the history of immigration and race in the United States.

Here’s what we know. The majority of immigrants in the United States have permission to be here. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Equal Rights Center, undocumented immigrants comprise a small proportion of contemporary immigration. Of those who are here without documents, a large portion roughly 45% entered country legally, only to have their visas expire.

We also know that many of the same critiques hurled at today’s immigrants, especially those described as “illegal,” are almost identical to those faced by southern Italians 100 years ago. Prone to criminality? Check. Lack of desire in becoming American citizens? Check. Siphoning tax dollars and jobs away from Americans? Check. Sending their earnings money back to their country of origin? Check. Given this historical context, it is ironic that many Americans today think of the Ellis Island era with nostalgia and perceive it as quintessentially American.

Other charges questioning immigrant’s willingness to assimilate are similarly off base. In fact, the insatiable demand for English language classes throughout the country contradict allegations of immigrant nonchalance in learning English. More familiar charges portraying a country overrun by undocumented immigrants, or that undocumented immigrants increase crime, similarly fall flat against closer analysis. Once again, the only accurate aspect of the charges is how strikingly similar they are to ones leveled against Italians in the early 20th century.

During this period, anti-immigration crusaders primarily targeted Italian and Jewish newcomers. Defined as a different, and inferior, race to northern and western European stocks (“old” immigrants), southern Italians and eastern European Jewish immigrants (“new” immigrants) remained consistently dogged by assumptions about their inherent “un-Americanness.” Assisted by a relatively open immigration policy in place since 1792, Italians could enter the country relatively unrestricted, and therefore avoided some of the barriers that immigrants confront today. However, this did not stop some immigrants from forging documents such as health certificates, or stowing away on steamships.

Today long waitlists for visas often create an almost impossible situation for family members and children who seek to reunite with those living in the United States. Who is to say how prospective immigrants a century ago would have responded if these laws had been in place from 1880 through 1920? Would folks have patiently accepted wait times of up to 20 years for “legal” entry?

Much of the need to distinguish between “legal” and “illegal” immigration lies in how people assign meaning to those terms. According to Department of Homeland Security statistics, undocumented Mexican immigrants in 2011 numbered approximately 6.8 million, and comprised 59% of the undocumented population in total.  To many people in the United States, the term “illegal immigrant” has become reflexively interchangeable with “Mexican,” or any immigrant from Latin or Central America. No doubt, the fact that Mexico is the leading source of “unauthorized” immigration, rather than, say, Ireland, has much to do with the tenor of the immigration debate. Indeed, as Matthew Jacobson pointed out in his book, Roots Too, illegality never became a major issue when in the 1980s and 1990s an influx of Irish immigrants, many of whom overstayed their visas, hence becoming “illegal,” entered the country. In fact, quite the opposite occurred, and Irish “illegal” aliens never became a source of nationwide concern. Categories of race and whiteness proved fundamental in constructing the difference between “old” and “new” immigrants 100 years ago, and remain a primary element in the debate over legal versus illegal today.

Given that we are a nation of immigrants and celebrated as such, why is there not more understanding for many of today’s immigrants seeking similar paths as those who came before them? It’s possible that for the descendants of those questionable European immigrants who came through Ellis Island, their own family’s problematic status may be an uncomfortable reminder of a more contentious, less linear path toward assimilation. Now, fully socialized within the American racial system, it is easier to construct an “illegal other” rather than face the uncomfortable questions about how our society constructs Americanness, race, and whiteness. The assignation of criminal status to today’s new immigrants serves as a perfect balm. Unwilling to acknowledge the obvious commonalities between immigrants today and those from 100 years ago, “legal” versus “illegal” becomes a useful, and in the minds of many, justifiable delineation that their forebears did it the right way.

Similar to the debate over “old” and “new” immigrants a century ago, is it possible that much of the “illegal” immigration debate revolves around racially informed perceptions of what America should look like? However, whether fleeing economic, political, or social despair, just as those who came before them, the overwhelming majority of immigrants arriving today want a better life for themselves and their children. When viewed through that lens, what could be more American?

Peter G. Vellon is Associate Professor of History at Queens College, and the author of A Great Conspiracy against Our Race: Italian Immigrant Newspapers and the Construction of Whiteness in the Early 20th Century (NYU Press, 2014).

Q&A with Judith Wellman, author of Brooklyn’s Promised Land

In Brooklyn’s Promised Land, historian Judith Wellman sheds light on the virtually lost history of Weeksville, an independent free black community in nineteenth-century Brooklyn. 

Founded after slavery ended in New York State in 1827, Weeksville provided a space of safety, prosperity, education, and even power. Its residents owned property, set up their own churches, established two newspapers, and even created a baseball team, appropriately named the Weeksville Unknowns. 

In the interview below, Wellman discusses her research for the book, Weeksville’s most remarkable features, and the national significance of this extraordinary place.

Q: Why is Weeksville important?

Judith Wellman: Through the lens of Weeksville as a unique community, we see how real people dealt with national events and movements in African American and American history. Formed at the end of slavery in New York State, Weeksville was a reaction to the attempt to send free people of color to Africa. Its citizens were involved in virtually every movement for African American rights in the nineteenth century, including the black convention movement, voting rights, Underground Railroad, Civil War and Reconstruction, and the emergence of Progressive reform. Weeksville’s success transcends its unique local history and makes it an important model for the world.

When and how did you first come across the space of Weeksville?

In the early 1980s, I was working with a National Park Service Ranger named Stephanie Dyer. Stephanie lived in the Bronx, but she and I were both working at Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York. When I visited Stephanie in New York, I thought we were going to visit the Teddy Roosevelt birthplace, but Stephanie took me instead to Weeksville. I’ll be forever grateful for that. And I’ll never forget my first sight of Joan Maynard, founding director, coming down the narrow staircase of one of the old houses on Hunterfly Road, now owned by the Weeksville Heritage Center. I have been hooked ever since! 

Your study relies mostly on public sources instead of private manuscripts. Could you say more about these materials?

So few early Weeksville residents wrote specifically about their own experiences that we began to look for every public record we could find. Census records recorded (or at least attempted to record) the names of all U.S. residents, including those in Weeksville. They gave us vital information about race, age, sex, occupation, literacy, and property ownership of Weeksville residents. They also gave us names, which we used to look up deeds, assessment records, genealogical materials, and newspaper accounts. Newspapers, especially the Brooklyn Eagle, online through the Brooklyn Public Library, provided invaluable details. So did numerous maps. Most unexpectedly, we also found many images relating to Weeksville’s houses, institutions, and people.

This book includes forty-two images and six maps, to give readers a sense of Weeksville as a real place. Wherever possible, it also includes direct quotations from Weeksville’s residents, so readers can hear real voices.   

You described your approach as both chronological and topical. Which period between 1770 and 2010 would you consider to be the most representative or most important in Weeksville’s development?

I most enjoyed learning about Weeksville in the two decades before the Civil War, when it was first founded and grew. By 1855, 521 people lived in Weeksville. Eighty-two percent of them were African Americans. It was a cosmopolitan community, attracting people from the eastern U.S. (including New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., South and North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland) and also from the West Indies and Africa.

Although only the school principal—Junius C. Morel—was nationally known before the Civil War, Weeksville was home to a variety of remarkable people, including Francis P. Graham, “a man of many eccentricities,” as noted by the New York Times, who was accused of participating in the Denmark Vesey rebellion in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822, went to Liberia, and then returned to New York City. He later became a minister, shoemaker, and the largest resident landowner in Weeksville. His nephew (or perhaps his natural son), James LeGrant, became Weeksville’s only carpenter. James LeGrant married Lydia Ann Elizabeth Simmons LeGrant, one of only four women in Weeksville who owned land. All of these people and more lived on the block just north of the current Weeksville Heritage Center house, where the Kingsborough housing project now stands.

How was this community rediscovered in 1966? Was there any historical reason behind this rediscovering moment?

Weeksville was rediscovered in the context of the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s. Major credit for this rediscovery goes to Jim Hurley, formerly an aerial photographer with the U.S. Navy and Vice Consul to Pakistan. In the mid-1960s, Mr. Hurley was giving tours of New York City neighborhood through the Museum of the City of New York. In 1968, he offered a noncredit workshop through the Pratt Institute of Community Development called “Exploring Bedford-Stuyvesant and New York City.” Delores McCullough and Patricia Johnson were students in this course, and they focused on Weeksville. This group identified the old Hunterfly Road. Then Joseph Haynes, an engineer for the Transit Authority and a professional pilot, took Jim Hurley on a flight to take photos of the old landscape.

The following year, in 1969, the Model Cities Redevelopment Program decided to demolish several old houses near the corner of Dean Street and Troy Avenue. Local residents, including William T. Harley, students from P.S. 243, and Boy Scouts from Troop 342 worked with Jim Hurley, who had a small grant to retrieve objects from these houses before they were demolished. Among other items, they found a Revolutionary War-era cannonball (Weeksville was on the pathway of British troops who came to Long Island) and a tintype of woman who came to be known as the Weeksville Lady.

Local supporters organized Project Weeksville to continue this research. Barbara Jackson worked with students in P.S. 243; Robert Swan did detailed research; Loren McMillan and students from P.S. 243 convinced New York City to designate Weeksville as a landmark. Joan Maynard became Director of the new Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford-Stuyvesant history, bringing this grassroots preservation effort to national attention. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

What are the most remarkable features of Weeksville? 

Weeksville was a success story. So often we hear about the horrors of slavery and the difficulty of African Americans surviving as free people of color. All of this is important. We need to know this. But if we focus not on what people in the dominant culture did to (or for) African Americans and highlight what African Americans did for themselves, we often find a very different, much more positive story.

This book highlights the experience of ordinary people who together created an extraordinary community—a place of physical safety, high levels of property ownership (about thirty percent of adult men owned property), political participation, education and literacy (with a 93 percent literacy rate for young adults in the 1860s), and the development of community institutions (two churches, a school, an orphan asylum, and a home for the aged) that ultimately formed an important grassroots basis of social reform—the Progressive movement—in the early 20th century.

By the 1850s and 1860s, they had attracted the attention of nationally known African American leaders. People such as Martin Delany, Henry Highland Garnet, and Rufus L. Perry made Weeksville the headquarters of the African Civilization Society (designed to set up communities of free people in West Africa). Maritcha Lyons made a career as an assistant principal in the Weeksville school, the first person in the U.S. to mentor both African American and European American student teachers together. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, daughter of one of Weeksville’s early landowners, became an early woman doctor.

One of Weeksville’s most noticeable features is that the whole village was dramatically changed—virtually wiped out—by the expansion Brooklyn’s street grid after completion of the Eastern Parkway and Brooklyn Bridge in the 1870s and 1880s. Today, only a very few of Weeksville’s pre-Civil War buildings remain, including the ones on Hunterfly Road, now owned by the Weeksville Heritage Center.

How does remembering Weeksville shed light on the future of African American communities and our society at large?

Weeksville’s citizens wanted to make real in their own lives the American ideal that all people are created equal. Ironically, to fulfill this dream, they had to move to a place outside the control of the dominant culture. As one of about one hundred African American intentional communities before the Civil War, Weeksville fulfilled its goals as a place of safety, property ownership, education, and employment for its residents.

The residents of Weeksville formed a unique community in a unique time and place, but their message transcends that uniqueness to speak to us all, as citizens of this world in the early 21st century. Specifically, Weeksville challenges us as citizens of this world to consider the usefulness of separatism versus integration as a way to create places of respect and empowerment for all people.

As a historian of European American background, how did you become involved in the project?

This project actually started out as a National Register nomination, not a book. In 2003, Pam Green, Director of the Weeksville Heritage Center, invited me to work with them on a National Register nomination for the Weeksville houses. We had a wonderful team of people—Cynthia Copeland, Judith Burgess-Abiodun, Theresa Ventura, Lee French, Victoria Huver, and others—with everyone working on different sources. We were all astounded by how much we found. The project kept growing, until it finally became this book.

Truly, in so many ways, I am an outsider to Weeksville. I did not grow up in Weeksville. I did not grow up in any African American community. So there is much that people who grew up there would instinctively know but about which I am completely unaware.

Yet, by their success, the people of Weeksville transcended their own small unique community. They spoke to Americans—white as well as black—across the country, today as well as in the nineteenth century. We all—as citizens of this world—need to know their stories, so that we can learn something from them.

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).