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 

George Washington’s bodies

—Thomas A. Foster

[Note: An expanded version of this piece was originally posted on Nursing Clio.]

Many Americans could tell you that George Washington was tall and that he had false teeth. Why? Although he is disembodied in national symbols such as the portrait on the one dollar bill and the massive obelisk and the capital city that bear his name, Americans are no strangers to George Washington’s body. The history of representation of his physical body illustrates neatly the ways in which the body informs norms of manhood and how masculinity has long been part of his popular image and even our national identity.

Washington’s earliest portraits highlight his achievements as a military leader. His images express power and confidence, often situated on the battlefield.

In his own lifetime, he dressed that body in the military uniform of the day and portrayed himself as a leader. His detractors similarly focused on his body and put it in a dress to detract from his power. This engraving of Washington was published during the American Revolution and sought to undermine his status.

That same body could speak to the virtuous project of Republican self-governance when positioned in other ways. In the Early Republic his body was portrayed in statue that featured him in a toga, to capture not just physical power but also the virtue associated with Republicanism and the Greco-Roman system of government that relied on virtuous manhood.

In the nineteenth-century popular portraits featured Washington with his wife and her children and grandchildren. The family scenes presented his body in the domestic sphere and situated it next to dependents, celebrating him as a national masculine role-model head-of-household.

At the turn of the twenty first century his body would be the site of curiosity and also anxiety. Mt Vernon launched a forensic examination of Washington to create statues of his youthful self.

His image would also trouble some, however, given a particular feature of nineteenth-century portraits. In 1999, a Georgia school district instructed teaching assistants to erase the image of his watch fob by hand-painting twenty-three hundred fifth-grade textbooks that featured Emmanuel Leutze’s masterpiece, Washington Crossing the Delaware. In another county, they tore the page from thousands of copies of the book. In 2002, several editions of an American history high school textbook that contains the image of Leutze’s nineteenth-century masterpiece were also altered because administrators feared that it would draw attention to this private area of Washington’s body or, worse, might actually appear to be his manhood, exposed.

Nearly eroticized depictions of Washington’s body have continued in the new millennium. David Hackett Fischer’s, Washington Crossing, for example, notes Washington’s “muscular legs” in the opening paragraph, and that he, “at forty-two, looked young, lean, and very fit” at the time of his famous crossing of the Delaware River.

Other authors specify that Washington was unusually desirable to those around him. Richard Brookhiser provides the usual description of Washington’s body and explicitly links it to sex appeal: “Women also took note of him,” he writes. About John Trumbull’s 1792 portrait of Washington striking a classical pose after the Battle of Trenton, he claims that it “clearly shows a pair of well-developed thighs.”

The increased emphasis on crafting an appealing body for Washington can be illustrated by comparing one author’s descriptions over time. Twenty-one years after publishing a description that included the phrase “wide across the hips,” John Ferling changed it to “broad shoulders,” “muscular arms,” and “small, flat waist,” with no mention of the wide hips that many associate with femininity. He also emphasized instead that Washington “exhibited the striking look of what we would expect today in a gifted athlete.”

The depictions of such a muscular body are not just about sex appeal. They symbolize character and idealized manhood. Comments about size, appeal, and physical attributes stand on their own and are intended to suggest that somehow nature had endowed him with a physical presence that indicated his superior skills and capabilities and the pivotal role he would play in the founding of the nation. In this way, large hands and big muscles are connected to founding the national government and acting as figure head to a fledgling country.

Washington’s reproductive body has also been the subject of national scrutiny. The father of the nation had no children with his only wife, Martha, and no definitive explanation for this lack. Nonetheless, Americans have generally ruled out impotence. “There is nothing in his behavior,” writes one biographer, “to suggest that he was impotent, or that his sexual nature caused him any deep uneasiness.” Another portrays Washington as a man who was clearly performing his husbandly duty beyond question and claims, without any evidence, that Washington was “mystified why, year after year, he and Martha could produce no Washington heir.”

The assertion that Washington was decidedly not impotent is not just limited to popular biography. In the academic medical journal, Fertility and Sterility, John K. Amory published his conclusion that Washington could not likely have been impotent given what we know about him as a “healthy, vigorous man.” Tellingly, the author also ruled out sexual infertility as the result of a sexually transmitted disease (despite their commonness in eighteenth-century America), noting Washington’s “character and strong sense of moral propriety.”

At their webpage, The American Society for Reproductive Medicine features Dr. Amory’s work which concluded: “Could Washington have had sexual dysfunction? … Erectile dysfunction due to diabetes or vascular disease seems implausible in such a healthy, vigorous man. Inadequate sexual frequency is theoretically possible but unlikely because Washington’s relationship with Martha was intimate, and as a farmer and expert mule breeder he was certainly well aware of the necessary means!”

In the absence of documentation, Americans have conceded that their virile Founding Father may have been infertile but impotence is beyond the pale. Sexualized manhood has long been predicated on the ability to penetrate. On the scale of emasculating sexual deficiencies, sterility ranks slightly lower than impotence.

Satire has poked fun at this American embrace of the super-man Founding Father. The Real Brad Neely’s YouTube video crudely mocks the national emphasis on Washington’s greatness by emphasizing especially his heights and prowess (here giving him multiple “dicks”).

Similarily, a large mural depicting Washington in a dress, featured on the side of a building in Cincinnati, jolts the viewer in part because of his traditional association with American masculinity.

The variety of ways that Americans have thought about George Washington’s body and its militaristic, domestic, and sexual and reproductive capabilities, should not surprise us as we’ve long known that gender and sexuality inform our national identity. That it occurs in our most basic understandings of our most primary national figures serves as a reminder of the influence of gender, sexuality, and the body in our national identity.

Thomas A. Foster is Associate Professor of History at DePaul University in Chicago, and the author of Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past (Temple University Press, 2014) and New Men: Manliness in Early America (NYU Press, 2011).

Women’s History Month: Remembering Viola Wyle, “a mother to all”

—Caroline E. Light

Many common threads link the lives of the orphans and widowed mothers documented in the case files of the Hebrew Orphans Home of Atlanta. They came to the home when life circumstances left them no other choice: economic crisis, illness, death, and abandonment recur in these records, and the institution extended to each the helping hand of Jewish gemilut hasadim, or “loving kindness.” But another constant, from just before the Great Depression until World War II, was their contact with a woman who many came to see as a surrogate mother during a time of extreme hardship and emotional strain.

Viola Wyle, the orphan home’s Director of Case Work starting in January 1929, was born in Ohio in 1881, the daughter of a native-born father and a Czechoslovakian mother. Before arriving at the Atlanta home at age 49 with her husband Armand, the home’s new superintendent, and her daughter, Eleanor, she had served Jewish orphan homes in Rochester, New York; Newark, New Jersey; and Cleveland, Ohio.

Early in her career, Wyle had attended the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children in January 1909—less than one year before she herself became a mother—where she joined two hundred other social work professionals to discuss the effects of institutionalization on young children. Declaring that “home life is the highest and finest product of civilization,” President Theodore Roosevelt called for an end to the institutionalization of impoverished children. Twenty years later, Viola Wyle would make it her mission to provide loving homes for the Jewish orphans and half-orphans of the southeast.

The Wyles moved to Atlanta in January 1929, just months before the Stock Market crash would send the nation hurtling into economic crisis, with a catastrophic impact on southern immigrant communities. While the wives of past Superintendents had assumed the role of “Matron” or home mother, Viola Wyle worked as a vital part of the home’s professional team, overseeing the process of assigning children to foster families in the community and supervising widowed mothers who received monthly subsidies to care for their own children. It was through her efforts and ingenuity that the home ended its institutionalized care by 1931.

Wyle’s substantial personal qualities and warmth helped generate trust and cooperation among her clients throughout the home’s five state region, and her impact is evident in the extensive case files she compiled and managed during her tenure. As a result of a combination of meticulous record-keeping and what one might call sentimentality, the case files she left behind provide a treasure trove of insight into the lives of Jewish southerners who struggled for survival during the Depression. Her tendency to keep and file the sometimes personal correspondence that transpired between herself and the widows and orphans whose lives she touched illuminate the complexity and ambivalence that characterized the relationship between social workers and their clients.

Hers was difficult and sometimes heartbreaking work, in which she had to balance sympathy for her clients with discerning attention to the institution’s strained budget. For example, Wyle visited the homes of subsidized mothers, ensuring that their children were properly socialized and educated. She determined which local families could provide suitable foster homes for orphans. She collected report cards from all children in the home’s care, providing additional support for subsidized and foster mothers whose children struggled academically.

Yet beyond her provision of guidance and supervision for the home’s regionally dispersed clientele, Wyle served as a source of warmth and reassurance, a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, for many of the struggling families she served. Her death in March 1944 sent shockwaves through her community, and the home sent letters to clients both past and present notifying them of the tragic loss of a “mother to all.” Viola Wyle’s personal mementoes—the wedding and bar and bat mitzvah invitations, New Years and Mothers’ Day cards, and baby announcements—are all preserved alongside the professionally assembled case records documenting the lives touched by this “professional altruist.” We owe the depth and richness of this archive to her.

Caroline E. Light is Director of Undergraduate Studies at Harvard’s Program in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She is the author of That Pride of Race and Character: The Roots of Jewish Benevolence in the Jim Crow South (NYU Press, 2014).

A “more Irish” St. Patrick’s Day parade tradition?

—Jennifer Nugent Duffy

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio added another layer of controversy to this year’s St. Patrick’s Day season when he announced his decision to boycott the city’s parade because of its policy that prohibits homosexuals from marching under a separate banner. Undoubtedly many Irish Americans will dismiss de Blasio’s stance and possibly attribute it to his Italian heritage, but it will be more difficult, however, to overlook Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who has threatened to boycott his city’s parade if gay groups are excluded. As the son of Irish immigrants, perhaps Walsh’s choice is shaped by St. Patrick’s Day parade traditions in Ireland, which are far more tolerant than the ones on this side of the Atlantic. Of course, the parades emerged in dramatically different contexts.

St. Patrick’s Day parades emerged in the mid-nineteenth century United States in a profoundly nativist and hostile climate.  The Irish—who began to arrive in the 1830s— witnessed church attacks and efforts by fraternal organizations like the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, or the Know Nothings, to bar the foreign-born from holding office. Anti-Irish sentiment only intensified as 1.5 million Irish people sought refuge in the United States from Ireland’s Great Famine. Here Irish immigrants faced resentment for their Catholicism, but also questions regarding their loyalty to the United States, as many remained committed to nationalist groups that sought to free Ireland of British rule.

As the United States became increasingly urbanized and industrialized, meager wages and industrial accidents made it difficult for Irish men to support their families.  As a result, the Irish had the second highest number of female-headed households in the United States. Yet Irish households were condemned as disorderly because they did not have the economic security to meet America’s middle-class domestic ideal of a wage-earning husband and a family-rearing wife. Furthermore, Irish immigrants transgressed America’s racial order by engaging in intimate relationships with Chinese immigrants and free Blacks in New York neighborhoods like the notorious Five Points in lower Manhattan. In political cartoons, Irish immigrants and African Americans were depicted as similarly repulsive to the American public.

The Irish response to this hostility was a mixed bag. They refused to yield in regards to their Catholicism, but demonstrated their loyalty to the United States by fighting in the Civil War. Unlike Chinese immigrants, the Irish could naturalize and vote, and they leveraged their political power to secure better-paying municipal jobs, which soon allowed Irish immigrants to form more traditional households. But they also learned to adhere to America’s racial order. Within a generation, Irish immigrants went from being attacked to participating in the 1863 Draft Riots, lynching free Blacks on the streets of New York City, and attacking interracial couples.  With these actions they made it clear that Irishness in the United States, meant white.

We see the legacy of this history in St. Patrick’s Day parade traditions in cities like New York. Parade leaders fiercely resist any displays that may challenge their religion or traditional definitions of marriage and family.  Adherence to conventional gender roles is also on display, as grand marshals are almost always male but also white. The Irish are so removed from liaisons with nineteenth-century free Blacks that African Americans with Irish surnames, like “Eddie Murphy,” are not considered Irish.  President Obama, who traces some of his ancestry to Moneygall, County Offaly, will probably never be asked to lead the parade in Manhattan (although I am sure that he would be welcomed at the St. Pat’s for All parade in Queens).

In marked contrast, displays of Irishness in the Republic of Ireland are not as firmly anchored in sexuality, gender, race or even ethnicity for that matter. Christine Quinn, New York’s first female and openly gay City Council Speaker, led the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, as did Samantha Mumba, an Afro-Irish singer and actress. Drag queens are a popular presence in the Dublin parade and in local celebrations; it is not unusual for new groups, like Polish immigrants to participate under their own banners. Though St. Patrick’s Day initially was a religious holiday in Ireland, current parade practices indicate how traditions can and do change, often dramatically. Political independence and economic growth has shaped a parade tradition that is confident and encompassing, rather than defensive or exclusionary.

Though St. Patrick’s Day parades in the United States initially were formed by an unreceptive environment in which the Irish defended themselves from hostile nativists, parade leaders are still defensive—even though that hostility and fears about an Irish social, economic and political presence have dissipated.

Do we still need a parade defined by that experience? Though leaders speak as if the parade is under attack, the real threat stems not from the participation of Irish homosexuals but from the leaders themselves. Graying parade leadership suggests that their narrow definition of Irishness, so inflexibly grounded in the nineteenth century, is unappealing not only to Mayor de Blasio and other progressives, but also to young Irish Americans, who are conspicuously absent from the parade committee. Parade leaders take notice: if the St. Patrick’s Day parade tradition does not change, it may be doomed to extinction.

Jennifer Nugent Duffy is Associate Professor of History, Western Connecticut State University. She is the author of Who’s Your Paddy? Racial Expectations and the Struggle for Irish American Identity (NYU Press 2013).

Making America Christian: A forgotten HERstory

—Priscilla Pope-Levison

Visit dusty archives around the country, even into Canada, and you’ll discover a slew of sermons, diaries, papers, and autobiographies of women evangelists, whose profound impact on American religion is now neatly boxed away on tidy—and more often untidy—shelves, from Oskaloosa, Iowa, to the farthest eastern tip of Nova Scotia. The women whose letters and papers you’ll find there are notably absent from the conventional history of American evangelism, which moves from Jonathan Edwards to Charles Finney to Dwight Moody to Billy Sunday to Billy Graham.

Two decades ago, as I did my class prep for an introductory lecture on American evangelism, resources by and about these men flooded my desk. I began to ask a simple question: Were there any women? I wasn’t aware enough of any women evangelists to pose the question, “Where have all the women gone?” because I didn’t know if they were there in the first place.

Twenty years later, I know. Yes, they were there, a whole army of them, like Evangeline Booth in this Salvation Army photo. Women weren’t just there, in fact; they were actually shaping American religion in profound and powerful ways, as they engaged in courageous social outreach, changed the shape of American politics, and attracted hundreds of thousands of devotees.

Social outreach

These women evangelists championed an intrepid humanitarianism. Sojourner Truth solicited aid for freed slaves living in squalid camps in the nation’s capital city. Phoebe Palmer began Five Points Mission, one of America’s first urban mission centers, in a New York City slum. Within two months after Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple Free Dining Hall opened in 1931, its workers had already fed more than 80,000 hungry people, and the Angelus Temple Commissary, opened in 1927, was crucial to the survival of many in Los Angeles during the Depression. And their contribution to race relations? Women evangelists held integrated meetings—Jarena Lee, for example, whose audiences in the 1820s included “white and colored,” “slaves and the holders,” and “Indians.” This practice continued into the twentieth century, with Aimee Semple McPherson’s and Kathryn Kuhlman’s racially integrated services.

Political impact

These women influenced the nation’s leaders, too. Harriet Livermore preached in Congress several times between 1827 and 1843 about the predicament of Native Americans. Sojourner Truth generated a petition and presented it to President Ulysses S. Grant, requesting that a colony for freed slaves be established in the western United States. Jennie Fowler Willing’s speech on women and temperance in 1874 prompted hearers to form the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the largest women’s organization in its day. Through her periodical, Woman’s Chains, Alma White supported the platform of the National Woman’s Party, including the Equal Rights Amendment. And Aimee Semple McPherson marshaled her vast number of followers to help defeat Upton Sinclair in his 1934 bid to become California’s governor because, she claimed—albeit mistakenly—that he would introduce Communist and anti-Christian legislature in the state.

Massive numbers

These women preached to audiences often numbering in the thousands. During her 1889 Oakland revival, Maria Woodworth-Etter repeatedly packed to capacity her 8000-seat tent. Aimee Semple McPherson’s church in Los Angeles, Angelus Temple, boasted a 5300-seat auditorium, which filled up three times for Sunday services. Crowds for the weekly healing service stood in long lines, waiting for an open seat in the auditorium. At the age of fourteen, Uldine Utley preached on Halloween night in Madison Square Garden in 1926 to a crowd of 14,000. This service marked the end of her four-week, two-sermons-a-day evangelistic campaign in New York City. Numbers are impossible to gauge for Kathryn Kuhlman’s radio program, “Heart-to-Heart,” broadcast regularly for over 40 years, or her long-running CBS television program, “I Believe in Miracles.”

I no longer ask the question, Were there any women? Nor do I ask, Where have all the women gone? Now I know, at least in part. They’ve underwritten the legacy of American religion, which, until now, has been overwritten by the lives and legacy of their male counterparts. No more, however. It is time to write women evangelists into the history of American religion because our take on American religion is different—changed—by their ubiquitous presence, their bold initiatives, their fascinating personalities.

Priscilla Pope-Levison is Professor of Theology and Assistant Director of Women’s Studies at Seattle Pacific University. She is the author of Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era (NYU Press, 2013).

[This post originally appeared on the Patheos blog, spiritchatter.]

Black History Month: Remembering the sacrifices of everyday activists

—Sekou M. Franklin

In the upcoming months, there will be countless celebrations marking the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights of 1965. Without a doubt, these laws were crowning achievements in American political history. Congress did in fact adopt two civil rights measures in 1957 and 1960. Yet, they were watered down and did little to contain racial hostilities in the Jim Crow South. Thus by the 1960s, many lawmakers and contenders for the White House were pessimistic about the prospects of passing transformative civil rights policies, especially over the objections of pro-segregationist lawmakers.

Reminding Americans of this history is important as we embark on a series of fiftieth anniversary celebrations. American political institutions (and the leaders that shaped them) had little hope that the long arm of the federal government could be used to bring down de jure segregation. Civil rights and grassroots activists, on the other hand, pushed forward and brought pressure to bear at great risk to their families, communities, and civic institutions. Most of these activists were part of an invisible segment of American political discourse—activists who are unfamiliar to mainstream media and the American public, but through the use of diverse strategies and tactics, helped to usher in major civil rights and social reforms.

In my forthcoming book After the Rebellion: Black Youth, Social Movement Activism, and the Post-Civil Rights Generation, I highlight the important contributions of these unfamiliar activists and groups. I focus on youth-based movements and intergenerational collaborations of the post-civil rights era such as the Free South Africa Movement, the Black Student Leadership Network, the New Haven Youth Movement, the Juvenile Justice Reform Movement, and the AFL-CIO’s Union Summer initiative. The book also highlights the work of movement formations of the 1930s/1940s and 1960s/1970s. These include the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Student Organization for Black Unity, and the African Liberation Support Committee.

By focusing on youth-based movements, I wanted to shed light on how an invisible segment of American politics helped to remedy longstanding and seemingly insurmountable inequities. At the same time, the book looks at how these movement formations wrestled with the internal challenges of movement building such as raising resources, sustaining intergenerational collaborations, surviving political repression, and embedding young activists into grassroots networks.

As we celebrate Black History Month, it is important to remember that the civil rights victories of the 1960s were won because of the sacrifices of ordinary Americans, activists, and organizations. Though most are largely ignored in contemporary political discourse, they were central to the advancement of an emancipatory vision of racial democracy and internationalism.

Sekou M. Franklin is Associate Professor of Political Science at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) and the author of After the Rebellion: Black Youth, Social Movement Activism, and the Post-Civil Rights Generation (NYU Press, 2014).

Black History Month: “Toxic Communities” are still prevalent

—Dorceta E. Taylor

It is Black History Month and I am reflecting on the significant strides we have made on issues of racial justice, social equity, and human rights. However, I have also been thinking of the long and difficult road ahead before we can say everyone has true equality in this country. Nowhere is this more evident than in the environmental arena. While some are content to see environment as untarnished hills and glens and others work hard to protect it, what is often missing from such discourses are the social class and racial inequities that arise in environmental practices and decision making.

In The Environment and the People in American Cities, 1600s-1900s: Disorder, Inequality, and Social Change (Duke University Press, 2009), I chronicled the rise of American cities and the environmental problems they confronted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As part of the narrative, I documented how environmental racism resulted in the placement of African American communities in the most hazard-prone areas of cities. I also chronicled industrial incursion into and the pollution of Black neighborhoods, the destruction of Black communities and displacement of African Americans to make way for the construction of parks, water systems, and other public works.

Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (NYU Press, 2014) examines similar themes in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These same patterns are evident—some to a greater extent than existed in earlier times. In Toxic Communities, I examine African American and other communities of color that are inundated with pollutants emanating from hulking industrial facilities. The air, ground, and water are tainted and residents live in fear of explosions or toxic releases from these facilities.

The challenges do not stop there. Black communities have been systematically been destroyed in the name of urban renewal and that highways could be built to connect the cities and suburbs.  While segregated White communities were built in the suburbs and financed by federal funds, Black communities were redlined and denied such funding. Rampant housing discrimination continues today in the form of discriminatory financing methods, racial steering, and other obstacles Blacks face when they seek housing. Consequently, African Americans still live in some of the most toxic and hazard prone communities in the country.

The book challenges us to develop a better understanding how these inequalities arise. We have to make connections with seemingly unrelated events, policies, and processes. We need more effective research as well as community organizing to hold responsible parties accountable.

Dorceta E. Taylor is the Field of Studies Coordinator for Environmental Justice at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. She is the author of Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (NYU Press, 2014).

The racism that still plagues America

Excerpted from The Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America by David Dante Troutt (NYU Press, 2014).

The impatience that characterizes discussions of race and racism in our so-called color-blind society has its roots in the momentous  legislative changes of the 1960s. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965, and 1968 reached into nearly every aspect of daily life—from segregated facilities to voting to housing—and represented a long overdue re-installation of the equality principle in our social compact. The question was what it would take—and from whom—to get to equality.

Was racial equality something that could be had without sacrifice? If not, then who would be forced to participate and who would be exempt? As implementation of the laws engendered a far-reaching bureaucracy of agencies, rules, and programs for everything from affirmative action hiring goals to federal contracting formula, the commitment was quickly tested. For a great many who already opposed the changes, patience was quickly exhausted. As welfare rolls rapidly increased, crime surged, and the real and perceived burdens of busing took their toll, many voters pointed to the apparent failure of a growing federal government to fix the problems it was essentially paid to cure. Among Democratic voters this made for unsteady alliances and vulnerable anxieties. People don’t live in policy and statistics as much as they do through anecdote and personal burdens. A riot here, a horrific crime there, a job loss or perhaps the fiery oratory of a public personality could tip a liberal-leaning person’s thinking toward more conservative conclusions—or at least fuel her impatience. Impatience would ossify into anger, turning everything into monetary costs, and making these costs the basis for political opposition to a liberal state. As it happened, this process moves the date of our supposed final triumph over racism from the mid-1960s to at least the mid-1980s. In the end, impatience won.

What I call impatience, others have characterized as a simmering voter ambivalence—even antagonism, in the case of working-class whites—to civil rights remedies, one that was susceptible to the peculiar backlash politics that elected both Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush president. Language was central to this strategy, and the language that stuck was colorblindness. As Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary Edsall wrote in “Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics,” “In facing an electorate with sharply divided commitments on race—theoretically in favor of egalitarian principle but hostile to many forms of implementation—the use of a race-free political language proved crucial to building a broad-based, center-right coalition.” Ronald Reagan managed to communicate a message that embodied all the racial resentments around poverty programs, affirmative action, minority set-asides, busing, crime, and the Supreme Court without mentioning race, something his conservative forebears—Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Richard Nixon—could not quite do. The linchpin was “costs” and “values.” Whenever “racism” was raised, it became an issue of “reverse racism” against whites. The effect was the conversion of millions of once fiscally liberal, middle-class suburban Democrats to the Republican Party. Issues identified with race—the “costs of liberalism”—fractured the very base of the Democratic Party. In the 1980 presidential election, for example, 22 percent of Democrats voted Republican.

By 1984, when Ronald Reagan and George Bush beat Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro in the presidential election, many white Democratic voters had come to read their own party’s messages through what Edsall calls a “racial filter.” In their minds, higher taxes were directly attributable to policies of a growing federal government; they were footing the bill for minority preference programs. If the public argument was cast as wasteful spending on people of weak values, the private discussions were explicitly racial. For instance, Edsall quotes polling studies of “Reagan Democrats” in Macomb County—the union friendly Detroit suburbs that won the battle to prevent cross-district school desegregation plans in 1973—that presents poignant evidence of voter anger: “These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics. . . . Blacks constitute the explanation for their [white defectors’] vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a neighborhood a decent place to live. These sentiments have important implications for Democrats, as virtually all progressive symbols and themes have been redefined in racial and pejorative terms.”

By 1988, these same voters had endorsed tax revolts across the country and had become steadfast suburbanites, drawing clearer lines between a suburban good life and the crime and crack-infested city. Still they were angry, as magazine articles chronicled the rising political significance of what would be known as the “Angry White Male” voter. George Bush, down seventeen points in the presidential election polls during midsummer, overcame that deficit with TV ads about murderous black convicts raping white women while on furlough. That and a pledge never to raise taxes seemed to be enough to vanquish Bush’s liberal challenger, Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. What’s important to recognize in this transition is how as recently as twenty years ago, Americans’ social lives were very much embroiled in racial controversy—despite the obfuscatory veneer of colorblind language to the contrary. Our politics followed. The election of Bill Clinton represented a distinct centrist turn among Democrats toward Republican language and themes and away from rights, the “liberal” label, and the federal safety net. The question we might ask about our current race relations is, only a couple of decades removed from this political history, what would compel us to assume that we are beyond the legacy of our racial conflicts?

 * * *

The racial polarization that connected these political outcomes was deliberately fed by national Republican candidates in order to do more than roll back civil rights. It also served to install “supply-side economics,” a system of regressive tax-based reforms that contributed mightily to the costs of income inequality we currently face. That era—which arguably ended with the election of President Barack Obama—illustrates two points central to my examination of civic connectivity. The first is that the economic underside of racial polarization proved no more than the old okey doke. The second is that localism contains its own contradictions, which have come due in our time. Let me explain.

Only racism could achieve the ideological union of the Republican rich with the working man (and woman). Nothing else could fuse their naturally opposed interests. The essence of supply-side economics was its belief in the importance of liberating the affluent from tax and regulatory burdens, a faith not typically shared by lower-income households who might at best see benefits “trickle down” to them. In fact, they often paid more under tax-reform schemes of the 1980s.  Edsall provides data on the combined federal tax rate that include all taxes—income, Social Security, and so forth. Between 1980 and 1990, families in the bottom fifth of all earners saw their rates increase by 16.1 percent; it increased by 6 percent for those in the second-lowest fifth (the lower middle class); and it increased by 1.2 percent for those in the middle fifth (the middle middle class). But those in the second-highest fifth of all income earners saw a cut in their tax rate by 2.2 percent during that decade; and those in the top fifth got a 5.5 percent decrease in their rate. Overall, the richest 10 percent of American earners received a 7.3 percent decrease in their combined federal tax rate. The top 1 percent? A 14.4 percent cut during the 1980s. Clearly this hurt the middle class, as the vaunted trickle down never arrived. But it was working-class whites who bought the message that this model of fiscal conservatism, married to social conservatism in the form of a rollback of redistributive programs they perceived to favor blacks, would benefit them. It did not. Yet it established a popular political rhetoric by which lower-income whites can be counted on to take up against “liberal” policies that may actually serve their interests as long as opposition can be wrapped in the trappings of “traditional values,” “law and order,” “special interests,” “reverse racism,” and “smaller government.” This was pure okey doke based on an erroneous notion of zero-sum mutuality—that is, that whatever “the blacks” get hurts me.

Which also demonstrates the contradictions of localism. Remember my earlier argument that localism—or local control expressed formally through home rule grants, as it’s sometimes known—became the spatial successor to Jim Crow segregation. Through racially “neutral” land use and housing policy, it kept white communities white after the fall of legal segregation in the late 1950s and mid-1960s. Yet here’s the contradiction. While voters opposed to civil rights remedies and Great Society programs followed Republican leadership toward fiscal conservatism at the national level, they maintained their fiscal liberalism at the local level. The tax base they created for themselves through property taxes in suburbia could be contained and spent locally. Edsall describes the irony this way: “Suburbanization has permitted whites to satisfy liberal ideals revolving around activist government, while keeping to a minimum the number of blacks and the poor who share in government largess.” Of course, all of this worked best when “suburbs” meant middle-class white people and “cities” (or today’s “urban” areas) always signaled black and brown people. There was no mutuality of interests between the two kinds of places. It also worked when low property taxes—together with generous state aid—could reliably pay for great local public services like schools, libraries, and fire protection. It was a terrific deal. But that was then. Now, neither is true. The line between cities and suburbs has blurred into regions, and minorities and whites are busy crossing back and forth to work, live, and shop. Most of the fragmented municipalities that sprawled across suburbia are no longer able to sustain their own budgets, threatening the quality of their services, despite unimaginably high property taxes. The assumptions have not held.

Perhaps now we should consider the racially polarizing policies that became the norm under Reagan’s failed experiment. We tried them. Some believed fervently in them. But it is clear that they didn’t work and are not in our long-term national or local interest. There remains a legacy of racism, however, that continues to harm some of us disproportionately and all of us eventually. It’s to those three examples that I now turn.

Read the rest of this excerpt at Salon.com.

“I felt safer among the alligators than among the white men”

—Sylviane A. Diouf

For all its apparent fidelity to the narrative of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave falls quite short when it comes to integrating the various dimensions of community solidarity and resistance Northup witnessed and described. Making them part of the film, even tangentially, would not only have given a more faithful account of the book but, more importantly, of the historical reality.

During his years in Louisiana, Northup heard, discussed, and saw them all: from talks of rebellion to wishes of American defeat in the Mexican War, from planned mass migration to Mexico to escapes to the woods.  Especially escapes to the woods. Northup even planned for his own by mistreating the dogs so that they would not attack if sent after him; and he secretly fed Celeste, a runaway who hid in the swamps for months to avoid the whippings of her overseer.

Indeed, like her, tens of thousands of men, women, and children left for the woods, the swamps and the mountains, carving into the wilds what I call “the maroon landscape” that extended from the borderland of plantations to the hinterland and cut paths to the slave quarters, the Big House and even the cities. Some were newly-arrived Africans, like Arrow from Benin, who escaped two days after landing in Charleston and managed to stay hidden for years. Others built large communities, as did St. Malo in Louisiana, and even a fortified camp, as did Captain Cudjoe in the Lowcountry.

Counting on their own resources—the tacit solidarity of the enslaved community (a community completely absent from McQueen’s film), night raids on plantation warehouses and, sometimes, remunerated work for white and black men—the maroons created a unique alternative existence. Rejecting passing for free in the slavery South or the semi-free North, they wanted out of white-controlled areas, even if living in the wilds was hard and hazardous.

Many felt safe only when they disappeared from the face of the earth.  When her owner hit her, a young woman hit back and ran away to a cave, an underground home that her husband equipped with a stove and furniture. Three children were born there, a stone’s throw away from the plantation. While the husband remained enslaved, bringing them the food he gathered from neighbors, mother and children lived under the Georgia ground for seven years and got out only after slavery was abolished. Hundred of miles away, a Virginia family lived in its own large cave and brought to life fifteen children who never had to endure slavery.

Maroons developed new forms of life as they retreated from, but still measured themselves against, a terrorist system and took advantage of a challenging environment. Their removal to the wilderness was not only a denunciation of the social order of the land but more profoundly, a radical rupture. Like the runaways, they wanted freedom but, distinctively, they wanted freedom on their own terms, not those of the larger society.

It was a difficult enterprise and, to be sure, they made mistakes. Some cost them their freedom or their lives. But over all, their neglected narrative, is one of courage and resourcefulness; hardships endured and freedoms won that adds a crucial chapter to the multi-faceted chronicle of slave resistance. One that 12 Years a Slave, the movie, unfortunately chose to ignore.

Northup knew from experience that, “Notwithstanding the certainty of being captured, the woods and swamps are, nevertheless, continually filled with runaways.” Former maroon Tom Wilson from Texas explained why: “I felt safer among the alligators than among the white men.”

Sylviane A. Diouf is an award-winning historian of the African Diaspora. She is the author, notably, of Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons and Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, both with NYU Press.