What We Forgot About the Four Little Girls
Published on September 19, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at Student Activism, Angus Johnston has an interesting post about the Birmingham church bombing that killed "four little girls" in 1963, and how some crucial facts about it have been forgotten or overlooked.

For instance, the four little girls weren't little girls at all - three of them were 14 and the youngest, Denise McNair, was 11.

Johnston writes, "There is a mythology to our collective memory of the civil rights movement, a mythology in which the righteousness of the integrationist cause is sometimes misrepresented as innocence. Teenagers become — as in the title of Spike Lee’s magnificent documentary on the church bombing — 'little girls.' A teenager driven by anger to throw rocks at racists disappears entirely."

This seems about right. The people involved in the civil rights movement were great people, but history has turned them into saints. I'm not sure this is particularly helpful. After all, the whole point of mass movement is that all sorts of people can come together to make change. Once change becomes something only saints and innocents are capable of, nobody will ever try to change the world.

Click here to read Johnston's whole piece.

The Heroic Nazi Fighting Bear
Published on July 15, 2012 by Sara Foss

Courtesy of Yahoo News, comes a delightful story about Wojtek, an orphaned bear who was sold to the Polish Army and made an official soldier, with a number and rank.

Click here to read more.

History Colorado
Published on April 30, 2012 by Sara Foss

My friend Melissa's museum was reviewed in the New York Times, which makes me eager to visit it the next time I'm in Denver.

However, the review also makes me wonder whether it's possible to work at the Times and not be a raging snob. Check out the first three paragraphs:

"An East Coast visitor’s first reaction, provincially enough, has to be skepticism: does Colorado even have that much history?

Enough history to justify a $110 million museum — the History Colorado Center — which is opening on Saturday, with plans for 40,000 square feet of exhibitions costing an additional $33 million, state-of-the-art technological displays, a research center and archival storage for over 15 million items, including more than 750,000 photographs and 200,000 artifacts?

The state is under 140 years old, and even if you include the ancient cliff dwellings preserved in Mesa Verde National Park, there is little documented history before the incursion of outsiders in the 18th century."

I think Erik Loomis captures the ridiculousness of this review pretty well, when he writes: "Well, thank you Mr. East Coast Elite for giving your seal of approval that a state like Colorado has History! As a native of Oregon, will you please fly out to Portland and tell us whether we have enough history so I can know whether to write my book or not?"

Blacks and the Civil War
Published on December 8, 2011 by Sara Foss

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been blogging about the Civil War for quite awhile - one of his more interesting assertions, which I largely agree with, is that the Civil War was not a tragedy - and this month he has an excellent article in the Atlantic titled "Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?"

He opens his piece by writing about a school trip to Gettysburg:

"I remember riding in a beautiful coach bus, as opposed to the hated yellow cheese. I remember stopping at Hardee’s for lunch, and savoring the res­pite from my vegetarian father’s lima beans and tofu. I remember cannons, and a display of guns. But as for any connections to the very history I was regularly baptized in, there is nothing. In fact, when I recall all the attempts to inculcate my classmates with some sense of legacy and history, the gaping hole of Gettys­burg opens into the chasm of the Civil War.

We knew, of course, about Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. But our general sense of the war was that a horrible tragedy somehow had the magical effect of getting us free. Its legacy belonged not to us, but to those who reveled in the costume and technology of a time when we were property.

Our alienation was neither achieved in independence, nor stumbled upon by accident, but produced by American design. The belief that the Civil War wasn’t for us was the result of the country’s long search for a narrative that could reconcile white people with each other, one that avoided what professional historians now know to be true: that one group of Americans attempted to raise a country wholly premised on property in Negroes, and that another group of Americans, including many Negroes, stopped them. In the popular mind, that demonstrable truth has been evaded in favor of a more comforting story of tragedy, failed compromise, and individual gallantry. For that more ennobling narrative, as for so much of American history, the fact of black people is a problem.

In April 1865, the United States was faced with a discomfiting reality: it had seen 2 percent of its population destroyed because a section of its citizenry would countenance anything to protect, and expand, the right to own other people. The mass bloodletting shocked the senses. At the war’s start, Senator James Chesnut Jr. of South Carolina, believing that casualties would be minimal, claimed he would drink all the blood shed in the coming disturbance. Five years later, 620,000 Americans were dead. But the fact that such carnage had been wreaked for a cause that Ulys­ses S. Grant called “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse” invited the damnation of history. Honor is salvageable from a military defeat; much less so from an ideological defeat, and especially one so duly earned in defense of slavery in a country premised on liberty."

Click here to read the whole thing.


Fred Shuttlesworth, R.I.P.
Published on October 5, 2011 by guest author: Sara Foss and Cindy F. Crawford

Some thoughts from Sara Foss and Cindy F. Crawford on the passing of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth:

From Cindy:

Birmingham lost a legend today with the death of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.

He withstood bombings, dogs and hoses and bigotry to become the instrumental leader who brought Birmingham to the forefront of the civil rights movement. The city is now trying to celebrate the movement as a key part of its own history and place the Magic City at the forefront of the game-changing turnaround of racial attitudes and prejudicial laws that impacted the entire country.

Growing up in Alabama, we were forced to take a class in ninth grade called “Alabama history,” and while we all made fun of it and questioned its relevancy, I always reveled in the civil rights history section of the class. I think it is keenly important to teach native Alabamians our complicated history, good and bad, to ensure we understand how far we’ve come and identify how much further we still need to go to reach full equality.

Shuttlesworth was a key player in the civil rights movement, and to the students he seemed more like a character in a novel or movie than a real-life hero.


Alexander Hamilton and Me
Published on October 3, 2011 by Sara Foss

On her blog Virgin Islands Traveller, my friend Susanna Henighan Potter writes about Alexander Hamilton's Caribbean roots, and her visit to his home in New York City.

Here's an excerpt:

"Alexander Hamilton and I are friends. Or so it seems. The founding father and first Treasury Secretary of the United States was famously killed in a duel by Aaron Burr in 1804. Most schoolchildren also learn that Hamilton was one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, a series of essays which established the moral rationale for the system of government which grew into modern American democracy.

But fewer people know that Alexander Hamilton was born in Nevis in the West Indies and spent approximately eight formative childhood years on St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands (then the Danish West Indies). ...

Visitors to St. Croix encounter Hamilton at Fort Christiansvaern in Christiansted, where there is a display about Hamilton’s life on St. Croix and that of his mother, Rachel Faucett, whose tragic story you could not invent if you tried. On a walking tour of the town you can also pass buildings where Hamilton once worked, worshiped and lived as a child and young man.

It’s not often that I have common ground with a person of such historic stature, and I have developed feelings of kinship for Hamilton over the years.  So when I was in New York recently and noticed in the paper that Hamilton’s New York home had recently re-opened to the public, I decided to pay the site a visit. Hamilton Grange, as the home is called, has been moved twice: once in 1889 and once in 2008 to its current home at St Nicholas Park on the upper west side of Manhattan. In Hamilton’s day it took about two hours by carriage to get from Wall Street to the Grange, a pastoral retreat which Hamilton and his family occupied primarily during the summer months. On the A train from Wall Street on a recent Saturday morning it took about 45 minutes to make the journey uptown."

A Newly Discovered Street Photographer
Published on September 18, 2011 by Sara Foss

A recent issue of Mother Jones (which I just finished reading) featured an interesting article on a nanny named Vivian Maier, who shot over 100,000 photographs of men, women and children in Chicago.

Maier never exhibited her work, which was discovered four years ago by a Chicago real estate developer who bought a box of negatives at an estate sale, "hoping it might hold some vintage photos of his neighborhood." Impressed by the quality of Maier's photography, the real estate developer began researching Maier and tryng to bring more attention to her work. Over at Mother Jones, there's an article about Maier and a gallery of her work that is well worth checking out.

New York's Haunted Hudson Valley
Published on August 29, 2011 by Sara Foss

Courtesy of The Morning News comes this fascinating essay about the Hudson Valley's reputation as a hotbed of supernatural activity.

The piece mentions one of the most famous ghost legends of all, Rip Van Winkle's Headless Horsemen, but also specters I knew nothing about, such as the wailing maid of Kaaterskill Falls and rumors of a poltergeist in the state Department of Education Building in Albany. But the region also contains its share of living terrors, and author Tobias Seamon focuses on a clan of hermitic basket-makers called the Pondshiners, who lived in the Taconic Hills of Columbia County and avoided most contact with civilization.

Seamon writes, "The Pondshiners’ origins are obscured, to say the least. All that’s known is sometime in the 1700s or early 1800s, a small group of families—mostly named Hotaling, Proper, and Simmons—settled on 'the Hill,' an isolated height above a lake in what’s now Taconic State Park. Why they retreated to the woods is a mystery. One story was that they were Yankee ne’er-do-wells on the run from Connecticut’s puritanical censures. Another tale, likely apocryphal, said they fled Hudson Valley rent collectors during the 1840s anti-rent wars between tenant farmers and the upstate landed gentry. The few times anyone was able to get close enough to ask about their origins, the Pondshiners said they had no clue how they’d come to live on the Hill."

Sadly, the Pondshiners eventually disappeared. Seamon tells of their gradual demise, writing "Forced into society by compulsory schooling, the clans slowly integrated. The art of basket-making disappeared also, at least partly because the younger generations were so upset at being called Pondshiners that they no longer wanted to be associated with the craft. The last true Pondshiner artisan was Elizabeth Proper, who sold baskets to Columbia County shopkeepers well into the 1980s. Lizzy Proper also carried on the tradition of Pondshiner obstinacy, refusing to let anyone observe her weaving methods. One store owner who knew her laughed, 'If she liked you, she liked you, and if she didn’t… you didn’t get baskets.'"

Anyway, the article makes me want to take a night-time drive down the Taconic, look at the stars, and listen to the night-time sounds that no doubt helps lend the area its ghostly renown.

The Freedom Riders at 50
Published on August 25, 2011 by Sara Foss

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders - the civil rights activists who rode buses throughout the Jim Crow south in an effort to demonstrate that terminals, restaurants and other facilities serving buses remained segregated despite a Supreme Court ruling outlawing the doctrine of "separate but equal" in interstate bus travel.

Last night I finally got around to reading an interesting July New Yorker piece by Calvin Trillin reflecting upon his experiences covering the civil rights movement, and riding with the Freedom Riders. The article is behind a paywall (though you can visit the abstract here), but it's worth a look; what makes it especially compelling is Trillin's vivid recall of details. We learn that reporters covering the non-violent protests and controversy over segregation referred to their work as the Seg Beat, and that incarcerated protestors singing freedom songs could make a jailhouse sound like a full church choir. If there's one criticism I have of the piece, it's that it belongs to that tired genre of white people explaining how the life-and-death struggles of black people affected them.

The Freedom Riders marked their 50th anniversary with commemorations in Chicago and Mississippi, though a handful of Freedom Riders declined to attend the Mississippi event. They said that the struggle for racial equality continues in Mississippi, and also accused the state of "stealing the legacy of the civil rights movement so they can profit from tourism."

The civil rights era might seem like ancient history, but its wounds are still raw. When I worked at the newspaper the Birmingham Post-Herald, I interviewed foot soldiers of the civil rights movement, as well as leaders; and I was part of a team of reporters that covered the aftermath of the guilty verdict in the trial of the man accused of planting the bomb that killed four little girls in a Birmingham church.

Decades later, reminders of the civil rights movement were everywhere. The first thing I saw when I entered the newsroom every morning was a photograph taken by Post-Herald photographer Tommy Langston in 1961. The picture depicts Klansmen viciously beating Freedom Riders upon their arrival at the Birmingham Trailways station; moments after the picture was shot, Langston himself was beaten. You can see the photo over on the Birmingham View, which refers to it as "the picture that changed Birmingham."

And Birmingham has changed, as has the entire south. But it's still important to remember the Freedom Riders, their courage and conviction, and the sacrifices that they made. 

In this interview with On the Media (which isn't behind a paywall), Trillin talks a little bit about covering segregation in the south.