Friday, September 26, 2014

Link: breaking the NFL color barrier

Interesting link to a new documentary on the first four African American NFL players to break the color barrier imposed between 1933 and 1946 -- a year before Jackie Robinson famously began the process of dismantling segregation in Major League Baseball.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Interesting Resource Link: Political Cartoons of Clifford Berryman

I haven't had a chance to look through the entire online exhibit yet, but I just came across a cool Web site devoted to the cartoons of Clifford Berryman, who drew political cartoons first for the Washington Post (1896-1907) and then the Washington Evening Star (1907-1949).  I enjoy using political cartoons to illustrate lectures, as they often convey essential truths about an era better than any other medium I might choose.  Nice to be aware of this resource for future reference.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Today in History: Civil War

Union forces entered Atlanta, Georgia, on this date in 1864.  Atlanta's status as a railroad link made this Union victory especially significant; General William Sherman embarked upon from Atlanta upon his famous March to the Sea.

In lieu of the historical photo posting I missed yesterday (ah, Labor Day, in my life you are a day filled with labor), here's a great 1950s-era soap commercial I found while looking up newsreel footage for class.  Useful preparation for the next time you find yourself "showing off your trousseau":

Friday, August 29, 2014

World War I in Britain, Then and Now

Take a look at this interactive Web site contrasting historical photos taken in Britain during World War I with contemporary street views.  Fascinating!  The site was created by a British real estate company, of all things.  I was struck by the continuity in many of these photos, even where structures suffered significant bomb damage.  I would love to see a comparable time-lapse comparison of, say, streets in Los Angeles.  If you've come across something similar in your travels through the ether, let me know; if I come across anything like that I will post it here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Today in History: Lutherans!

The first Lutheran church body in America, the Pennsylvania Ministerium, was founded on this date in 1748.  There were Lutherans in North America before this date.  Click here for the Web site of the Lutheran Church of the Ascension, a Savannah, Georgia congregation dating from 1741 and housed in a beautiful building in the city's historical district.  The Pennsylvania Ministerium was important, though, because it marked a first effort at wide-scale organization and a common liturgy.  German immigrant pastor Henry Muhlenberg was central in this effort.  A historical feature I've written including a profile of Muhlenberg will be published in the November 2014 issue of The Lutheran magazine.  Will link when that appears.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Images from the Past: Althea Gibson

You might have noticed that today's "Google doodle" honors Althea Gibson, the women's tennis great, who was born on this date in 1927.  Here's an interesting profile of her life and career.  I was intrigued to note that prior to her first major tournament win at the French Open in 1956, she was sent by her sponsor, the United States Lawn Tennis Association, on a U.S. State Department-sponsored world tour.  Gibson competed in places such as India, Pakistan, and Burma.  Not coincidentally, nations like these were among the "non-aligned" states that the U.S. and the Soviet Union so assiduously courted during the Cold War years.  American racism impacted Gibson significantly -- and it also impacted U.S. foreign policy.  State Department tours like this one in 1955 aimed to counteract the justifiably poor reputation the United States suffered for its backward race relations.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Reflection on the Week: Aspiration

As you may have heard, artist Mary Engelbreit has become the center of a firestorm of controversy this week for a piece of art she created to benefit the Michael Brown, Jr. Memorial Fund.  The art, visible at this link to an "artnet news" story on the controversy, depicts a child in his mother's lap; a single tear courses down the mother's face as they gaze at a newspaper headline from "Everywhere, U.S.A." reading "Hands up!  Don't Shoot!"  The little boy's hands are raised.  Engelbreit's caption reads "No one should have to teach their children this in the U.S.A."

I believe in aspiration.  I routinely encounter history students who are comprehensively distressed by the many misdeeds of the American past.  I tell them this: American history is littered, from its origins to the present, with racism and injustice.  We've done terrible things, and we need to understand what we've done as a foundation for living better into the future.  What we do have, though, is a set of founding documents that have been expanded over time to mean way, WAY more than our Founding Fathers could ever have dreamed.  Their expansive language of liberty and justice has been successfully employed to fight for the rights of those they enslaved, and those they refused to let vote or hold property.  It continues to animate our better angels to advocate for continued progress toward a path to justice and equality that Does. Not. Yet. Exist.  And guess what?  They're Americans, gifted with this legacy.  It's their -- our -- job to continue the quest.

They look a little shell shocked sometimes, but I think it's good for them.

We can do better.  We should do better.  We have been granted an incredible legacy that should empower us to do better.  Engelbreit's right.  No child should ever have to learn this lesson, and no mother should face the pain of teaching it.

Patriotism should always come with a to-do list.  In that spirit:

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Article Link: Roméo Dallaire

General Roméo Dallaire was the Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) in 1994.  In January 1994, the Canadian general's mission received information from a Hutu informant about Hutu extremists stockpiling arms in preparation for mass killings.  Gen. Dallaire informed UN headquarters that he planned to raid the arms caches and break up the genocide planning.  UN headquarters overturned his plans.  He repeated his request the next month.  Again, he was turned down.  By April, Rwanda was in crisis.  Eventually 850,000 would die, with millions of people displaced and thousands raped and subjected to other atrocities.*

Gen. Dallaire has published a piece in the Washington Post arguing that the international community is making the same mistake in Iraq.  In particular, he is deeply concerned about the role played by children in this crisis.  The record demonstrates that we should have listened to Gen. Dallaire in 1994.  I'd argue it's well worth listening to him now.

* Information taken from Bruce W. Jentleson, American Foreign Policy, 5th ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014), 574-575.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Today in History: Orville Wright

Orville Wright, the younger of the famous Wright brothers who designed the first airplane to make a sustained flight, was born on this date in 1871.  His brother Wilbur was four years older.  See here for an interesting biography of Orville (and the opportunity to connect to interesting biographies of other members of the Wright family -- click on "History and Culture" to the left and then on "People").

I, at least, tend to think of events like the Wright brothers' historic flight as feats of adventure.  An adventure it was, but the Wright brothers were practical; not only did they study the work of other aviation pioneers, even going so far as to write the Smithsonian Institution that would one day own their historic airplane, but they were so wary of competitors that they refrained from conducting flight tests between late 1905 and spring 1908 while some of their patents pended.  The romance of the skies, tempered by a dose of business-world reality.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Images from the Past: Fire Hydrant Fun

It's hot, and I'm hot (and very thankful for modern air conditioning), and just looking at these historic images of children playing in New York fire hydrants makes me cooler.  Enjoy!

Harlem, 1939

Lower East Side, 1957

Block Party, 1970

For more great photos, click on this link (also the source of the images shared above).

Friday, August 15, 2014

Reflection on the Week: Fun Charts

It has been a busy week, and I seem to have used the last vestiges of the "deep reflection" part of my brain attempting final revisions on a journal article.  Happily, the New York Times has provided light stimulation for my tired brain by publishing a fascinating interactive feature graphically demonstrating U.S. population movement since 1900: find it here.  It's a wealth of information, some predictable (14 percent of Oregonians are successful California escapees) and some rather surprising, at least to me (only 40 percent of current Wyoming residents were born in the state!).  Seventy-two percent of Mississippians were born in the state, while only 55 percent of Georgia residents are natives -- statistics very much in keeping with Atlanta's status as a "Sunbelt" migrant draw.  Late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century immigration trends are especially clear in states such as the Dakotas, where influxes of Scandinavian settlers were not countered by new immigrant streams in the latter part of the twentieth century (the charts tabulate population movement from "outside the United States" but don't break that down by country or region).  Take a look -- I'd love to hear of any surprises you find in the data.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Article Link: John Dean

The Daily Beast recently ran an interesting interview with John Dean, available here.  I don't particularly agree with his characterization of the skills of lawyers versus historians (no problem with lawyers; just think he should give historians more credit).  It's fascinating that one of the key figures in the Watergate affair has become perhaps the authoritative expert on Nixon's role in the cover-up.  The interview includes a link to Bob Woodward's glowing review of Dean's The Nixon Defense.  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Today in History: Windy City

Chicago was incorporated as a town on this date in 1833.  It would be incorporated as a city four years later.  As historian William Cronon so eloquently explained in his Nature's Metropolis, the Windy City became the locus point for the development of the United States as breadbasket -- and side of beef, and so on -- to the world.

Chicago's first permanent non-Native resident was a man named Jean Baptist Point du Sable.  He was a free black man, probably from Haiti, who arrived in the 1770s.  Chicago's checkered racial legacy -- burgeoning African American culture spurred by the Great Migration of the World War I era coupled with insidious residential "red-lining" -- makes this origin story all the more fascinating.

See this history provided by the City of Chicago for more information and anecdotes regarding this central location, literally and figuratively, in the development of American political, economic, and cultural life.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Images from the Past: Summer Camp

Here's a nice little colorized number in honor of day camp week here at the Gifford household, a blessed time of fun for the 8-year-old and lesson planning/article editing for me.  This hand-tinted vintage postcard from the 1950s (available for purchase from a Eugene, Oregon artist via the link) demonstrates that while styles may change, the goofy faces children of this age make for photographs remain constant...

Friday, August 8, 2014

Reflection on the Week: Stories

Our community recently experienced the tragedy of a missing wife and mother.  Sadly, she was found a couple days ago, having evidently experienced the hopelessness that leads to suicide.  Unfortunately, even those close to an individual can't always discern what is going on inside another's head.  I feel awful for her husband, her children, and her family and friends.

One thing that struck me, though, was how news of her story -- her life as a member of the community, and her unexplained disappearance after leaving to run errands one day -- permeated our town, prompting search efforts and communication networks that extended for days.  Folks knew her story.  They identified with her and her family.  And they cared.

Remarks have been made about citizens' willingess to put forth so much effort to find someone who was white, who was relatively privileged (simply by being middle class), who perhaps looked like them, when so many people in our country fail to receive similar treatment.  Perhaps they're too poor; perhaps they're minorities; perhaps their life journeys have taken them down paths with which it's harder for middle-class America to identify.  And I know that -- tragically -- this is true.  It happens.  It's not just.

Even so, I'm intrigued by the possibilities of story.  We who are human are storytellers.  We need narrative to feel compassion, to move down the road toward understanding.  I would argue this is something fundamental in the way we are wired.  Part of the problem with the deficiencies in our society noted in the previous paragraph is our failure to take sufficient time to hear others' stories, to develop the connections narrative brings and start to feel that compassion.  It was easy to hear this local woman's story; it's harder to hear the stories that come from contexts outside our lived experience.

What would happen if we worked harder to learn stories?  We privilege quantifiable information -- refugee numbers, casualty figures, crime statistics, and lines of demarcation in conflicts.  What if we spent more time on refugees' stories?  The details of the lives that are lost?  The life journey traveled, both by the victim and the criminal?  The identities of combatants?  For that matter, what would happen if we knew more about our elected officials -- and our elected officials knew the stories of the people and groups with whom they disagree?  If we recognized people, and not just undifferentiated populations, how might that change things?

I don't want to suggest this is a one-step path to world peace, but I do believe it's worth some thought.  I am weary of vitriol and weary of "othering."  By that logic, I am somebody else's "other."  You are somebody else's "other."  We both know we are so much more than that, don't we?  Let's learn the stories.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Article Link: Science in History

This article in the Huffington Post about a colonial-era ship discovered during excavations for the new World Trade Center buildings illustrates a contention I've long made with my introductory survey students: the study of history is the study of everything about our past, all the innumerable elements that contribute to our existence today.  Here, remarkable tools of science -- dendrochronology, in particular -- have been put in service of understanding when this ship was constructed, where it was built, how it was used and even what might have led to its discovery almost two and a half centuries later, buried deep under lower Manhattan.  History is about curiosity and a search for understanding.  The names and the dates of our common perceptions of "history class" are mere data points in the context of something far deeper and broader -- and essential to our understanding of who we are.  Our self-perceptions may not turn upon the identification of one ship, but the story is a great illustration of how many approaches we can take toward exploration of our past.  Science, too, is a historical discipline!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Today in History: Red Means Stop and Green Means Go

In my new weekly schema, tomorrow (Wednesday) is designated "article link day" and today (Tuesday) is "today in history."  That said, sometimes it isn't worth duplicating what somebody else has done so well.  A hundred years ago today, the first electric traffic light was installed, at the corner of East 105th and Euclid in Cleveland, Ohio.  Take a look at this brief, interesting story about the genesis of traffic signals from the International Business Times.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Images from the Past: World War I

I've designated Mondays "historical image day," and while typically this will be an image from American history I wanted to commemorate British entry into World War I, 100 years ago today, with this variation on what Americans have tended to think of as their iconic image!  

We recently returned from two weeks in Britain, and with the centenary of the Great War approaching quite a lot of public attention was focused upon remembrance of this conflict.  A hundred years on, ceremonies are planned and poppies adorn monuments in almost all the towns we visited in England and Wales.  Many of the country's Great War monuments were simply updated with the names of men lost in World War Two.  I was struck by the fact that in most cases, the list from the former was longer than the list from the latter.  Devastating as World War II was to Britain -- and to its Empire -- the sheer numbers lost during World War I beggar belief.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Reflection on the Week: Immigration

In an effort to be more disciplined about writing this blog regularly, I've decided to develop some regular "features" upon which I hope to focus my efforts.  Friday I plan to examine an issue in the news that might benefit from historical context.  Some of these will be more reflective than others.  I hesitated to start with immigration because the issue is so fraught and controversy is so rife -- and I admit I am not huge on controversy.  Thoughtful people disagree about the best way to address this issue, but I can't escape the conclusion that context is the most serious omission in this debate.  So, here goes.  

Our current immigration crisis defies easy conclusions or straightforward solutions.  No one avenue will "solve" this problem -- but I'd posit that greater regard for history would, at minimum, add important perspective to this debate.

We need to understand why children are fleeing Central America in such large numbers.  Can you imagine sending your child off on his or her own, across hundreds or even thousands of miles of territory, in hopes of keeping him or her safe?  This is a tremendous sacrifice for all concerned.  These people are not opportunists.  They love their children, and these children love their parents.  

The sad reality is that these kids are fleeing dangerous gang violence, extreme poverty, and governmental failure caused in part by the decisions people in the United States have made over the years.  We have chosen to consume illegal drugs and therefore provide a marketplace in which these criminal gangs can thrive.  Our government followed a policy of "ABC" -- "anything but Communism" -- that allowed governmental corruption to flourish and prevented reformist leadership from taking hold.  We protected American corporations that sought to preserve overwhelmingly favorable land, taxation, and labor policies instead of encouraging the development of strong institutions in Central America.    

Illuminating these conditions does not exonerate Central American countries of responsibility.  We all remain responsible for our decisions, even within imperfect circumstances -- and yes, most of us face imperfect circumstances.  Our role in all this, however, is to recognize the myriad barriers we have placed in the path of effective government, strong societal institutions, and healthy economic development in this part of the world.  This isn't a liberal or conservative, Republican or Democratic issue.  Administrations from both major parties and individuals of varying political stripes have contributed to this legacy.  When we pay proper regard to the historical antecedents of our contemporary crisis, we gain the ability to more effectively evaluate policy solutions.  Border security is important -- but how might we help Central American countries address endemic gang violence?  Deportation may well be necessary, but how might we 1) reunite families and 2) help these countries develop institutions that can support effective government and economic development?  

In short, we should be focusing not upon our own problems, but upon Central American concerns.  We've played a historical role in the development of this region's crises, but developing thoughtful policies to help address them now will reap benefits far beyond the borders of Honduras or El Salvador.  If we don't want Central American gang activity in the United States, we should help Hondurans and Salvadorans fight it in their own countries -- and we should continue to examine the logs in our own eye regarding U.S. drug consumption and tolerance of human trafficking.  If we don't want the costs of additional fences and of detention centers, we might consider investing in the future of these countries.  Money spent now will save millions later.

Finally, a moment for humanity.  As regards the current influx of minors, these are children.  Thoughtful people can and will disagree about the course of action that should be taken in dealing with this problem.  The specter of grown people screaming in protest against the presence of children in their communities -- children fleeing violence and deprivation in a quest for safety -- shames our country.  There are better ways to handle this.  

Friday, May 23, 2014

Coates on "The Case for Reparations"

Every now and then I come across an article that I wish I could assign as required reading for everyone in the United States.  This Atlantic article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, "The Case for Reparations," is one of them:

Well-argued, well-documented, and profoundly insightful.  And disturbing.  We need to know these things.  We need to understand.  The head-in-sand mentality that denies the full breadth and depth of racism in America hobbles us as a nation and will continue to do so until we deal with our past -- and our present.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Link and comment: Fancy degree? Most Americans say it's not required to be president

Interesting results from the Pew Research Center regarding Americans' perceptions of candidates with elite university credentials.  I was heartened to note that "There’s no group in which more would have a negative than positive reaction to a candidate with an elite education, including Republicans and leaners who agree with the Tea Party." (Among Tea Party members, arguably the most vociferous anti-elitists in the contemporary political sphere, 10 percent would be more likely to support a candidate with a prestigious university degree while another 10 percent were less likely.)  We should want to elect educated people.  Critical thinking is found across all sectors of society, and a university education is no guarantor of analytical skills.  Even so, higher education, done well, plays a vital role in developing public servants with the capacity to reason carefully and govern responsibly.  

That said: what do we mean by "elite" or "prestigious," and who has access to these institutions?  Questions of race and class surge to the fore, but I'd posit a third factor, as well: geography.  As the article points out, since 1988 every president has had an undergraduate or graduate degree (or both) from an Ivy League institution.  While Americans enjoy remarkable geographic mobility, there's no getting away from the fact that New England is a long, long way from the states beyond the Continental Divide.  Equating "prestigious" with "East Coast" sacrifices the interests, abilities, and unique regional attributes of large swathes of the country.  The American West is more than cowboys and recalcitrant ranchers, Hollywood and Portlandia.  Education is important -- even, perhaps, paramount.  But I'd suggest that an education from Oregon State or Pacific Lutheran, UC Davis or the University of Seattle, might develop critical thinking and regional identity in ways that will benefit the nation as a whole.  Perhaps the most important question we could ask is not "where did you go to school?" but "what did you learn while you were there?"

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Nostalgia and Continuity

"Nostalgia is a selective sentiment.  It is Williamsburg in the 1750s without the mud, the outhouses, and the flies.  It is Laramie in the 1880s without the heat, the cold, the vomit, and the bedbugs.  It is the New England colonial town without the censoriousness and the intolerance.

And yet the gentle glow of nostalgia does shed light on institutions and values that are worth preserving or adapting if we can.  It reminds us that continuity is a satisfaction if not a duty.  The very selectivity, moreover, which nostalgia brings to the past encourages rejection of the shoddy and meretricious in the present.  And if it is true that we cannot have it both ways, we can at least make more intelligent compromises between the compulsions of change and the attractions of continuity if the tug of the latter is strong."

-- Elliot Richardson, The Creative Balance (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976), p. 271

Saturday, March 29, 2014


The other day I finished a novel called Longbourn, by Jo Baker, that follows the lives of the servants in the Bennet household -- the central characters in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.  I didn't receive a complimentary copy or anything, but I did want to give a shout out to the author for addressing one of those glaring inaccuracies that characterizes so much historical fiction, whether in books or on film.  Longbourn opens on a washday, and the central theme of this opening scene is upon hands -- working hands, scalded hands, chilblain-afflicted hands, and the goose grease the maids of Longbourn rubbed into their cracked, bleeding hands at the end of the day to restore range of movement, if not comfort.  This theme continues throughout the book, whether contrasted with the soft, pale, even flaccid hands of the gentlefolk for whom the servants work or in passing comments that remind us these same cracked, blistered digits also touched (and tried to avoid bleeding upon) dainty gowns and fine veils.

Physical comfort on such a prosaic level is one of those things we tend to elide from our perusal of the past.  We might attend to the vital themes of hunger, oppression, violence, or lack of shelter, but seldom do we consider such basic and ubiquitous privations.  Take a look at the hands of the servants on Downton Abbey.  Historical accuracy might extend as far as Daisy's worn dresses, but I suspect cracked and blistered hands would take accuracy a bit too far for contemporary viewers.  Seldom have I found a written story that addresses this reality, either.

For lotion and mild soap, modern household appliances and cleaning products, give thanks.  And remember, those refinements of the upper classes came not just at the expense of servants' labor, but of their very skins.  What of modern labor?  An interesting question to ponder.  Working conditions mattered then -- a lot.  They still do.  Chemicals and practices, rules and regulations, matter.  The environment includes humans, and industry continues to involve skin, whether directly through the workplace or indirectly through the ways in which the products of industry are diffused.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Great articles on civil rights... and beards

Penn State University doctoral candidate Sean Trainor published a fascinating piece January 20 in The Atlantic titled "The Racially Fraught History of the American Beard."  Take a look here.

Historian Michael Kazin reflected January 20 upon the potential drawbacks to Hollywood's recent focus on interpreting the history of slavery.  Read it here.  I'm inclined to agree with Kazin's reasoning.  Telling the history of slavery is tremendously important, but we do run the risk of eliding the struggles African Americans have faced since emancipation if we cut off our history at 1865.  This is part of a larger struggle I face when viewing popular interpretations of civil rights history.  My 7-year-old brought home a "Weekly Reader" folio the other day about Martin Luther King, Jr.  While I realize historical interpretation for second grade readers is necessarily going to require some elimination of nuance, I was troubled by the main article's statement that because of King's work, people of all races now get along and live/work together.  Then = bad; King = the hinge upon which societal transformation swung; now = good.

Hmm.  Much as I wish this were the case, the story just isn't that simple.  The frustrating, difficult truth is that King was assassinated as a result of his work -- a work made even more dangerous when he started to challenge deeply ingrained "de facto" discrimination throughout the United States and not just the "de jure" segregation of the American South.  The frustrating, difficult truth is that the myriad problems of race continue to bedevil our society, despite the unarguable progress the brave activists of the 1950s and 1960s -- and before and after those decades -- have made.  We need to remember these truths.  We need to educate the next generation to realize how far we have come.  If we fail, however, to acknowledge the distance left to travel (and the many struggles and reverses along the way) we run a serious risk of encouraging a smug complacency that dismisses the real structural problems of American society as somebody else's personal problem -- or, in the case of those caught up in the midst of structural inequities, the enervating despair of hopelessness.

I want my child to celebrate the justice of emancipation.  I want her to value the brave, difficult work undertaken by King and others.  I want her to recognize the important distance American society has traveled.  Too, though, I want her to recognize that she needs to take up the baton; the race is far from over.