Do we need to re-write American history?; NOLA’s mayor on monument removal; Trump’s proposed tax cut is not the largest in U.S. history, but perhaps the opposition movement he spawned is

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Could this find cause a major re-write of American history?

OK, this could potentially be huge find, or not. Remember how last year we got word that the path that we have always believed the first humans took across the “land bridge” is probably inaccurate? Well, this new development would shake things up even more than that. Researchers have discovered what they believe is stunning evidence that humans were in North America as early as 130,000 years ago (that is about 100,000 years sooner than is generally accepted). If this is true, how did they get here?  (Watercraft??) Others are very skeptical, to say the least. But this is definitely interesting, and could radically change those first lectures that teachers and professors all over the country give on the first day of a US history class!

More on monuments: The Washington Post has a good interview with the mayor of New Orleans about their ongoing project to remove monuments in the city. Two best quotes: ” “You can’t change history. Taking down a monument doesn’t change history.” And “We ought to be able to look back on [the Civil War] … and say, ‘You know what, the Confederacy was wrong.” Amen, brother.

Trump’s tax cut is not the “largest in history,” as he claims. Although it would be in the top three. The problem? It would cause the national debt to become the largest in history, that no amount of economic growth would fix.

But take heart, Donald! There is one way that you have made history in your first 100 days in office, and that is the historically unprecedented protests, marches, and general civic activism that your presidency has spawned. (And just a reminder, on the day after the election I predicted this was coming , and that prediction was based solely on the things I heard my millennial college students say that day when we discussed Trump’s victory. I think there is a lesson there about listening to the young).

 

I promise you, Confederate history is NOT being erased; Oh, and that Declaration of Independence is NOT an “original.”

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Oh my gosh! Look at that man erasing history! NOT.

Quick thoughts on monuments in the news:

So, New Orleans has begun the process of taking down monuments, starting with one that is NOT a Confederate monument (no matter how it has been labeled as such by the media). They are set to remove three others that ARE Confederate monuments in the coming days. I really don’t have the desire to comment much on these types of removals, because I think I have made my position on this very clear in the past.  Simply put, I prefer contextualization and/or counter monuments (which is a powerful way of confronting and challenging the iconography of previous generations in a way that is in itself educational) instead of removal. Yep, you heard me right. I do not think removal is the best way to deal with this.

BUT removing them is NOT “erasing history,” it is an attempt to be honest about it. If I hear or read another person claiming this is an attempt to erase history, I am going to have a full on conniption fit. As I have seen other historians say, don’t worry folks, we are not going to be letting anyone suddenly forget what the Confederacy was and what it stood for, I promise you that. It is what me and a great number of other people are paid to do, and we do it passionately. Research and teaching about the history of the southern confederacy and the Civil War isn’t going anywhere, monuments or no monuments.

So don’t worry, hundreds of Civil War books are going to keep coming out every year, the Civil War is still going to get taught in class, more and more battlefield land is going to be preserved (which has only increased in recent years), and historians are going to keep increasingly getting involved in public history and on social media.

But you say, it is erasing older interpretations about the Confederacy and the Civil War, and replacing them with ones you don’t agree with. Nope. We may be correcting/challenging older interpretations, but we aren’t  erasing them. The fact that people once interpreted the Civil War in the ways reflected in the monuments is not going away either. It too is part of the story, and I can again promise you that historians are not going to let anyone forget how the Civil War used to be interpreted. This is called “historiography,” and every professional historian is trained in it. You can’t be a good historian without learning how events have been interpreted by others, and how that has evolved over time. In fact, the removal of these monuments only adds to the story that historians tell about the Confederacy and the Civil War. In essence, it is Confederate history continuing to be made today. The removals are now part of a story that will never be erased. So please just stop saying that history is being erased. Just stop it, please.

But as to the removals, regardless of mine or anyone else’s opinions, these decisions are best left to local communities that have the right to commemorate or not commemorate whatever they want to. Yet there are two things I find funny/hypocritical in the nationwide reaction to New Orleans’ decision. 1) We hear people say that today’s Trump protestors need to “get over it” and move on. Yet they seem to be the most vocal against these removals, which is ironic given that the placement of the monuments themselves is the product of people who couldn’t “get over” their loss in the war, and their attempt to reframe what it was all about. (The “Lost Cause.”) And 2) it seems that Republicans are the most vocal against these removals (like this clown pretending to be a southerner and running for governor of Virginia), which is ironic because they are supposedly the champions of letting state and local governments do most of our governing. So shouldn’t we let local governments/communities make their own choices about these monuments? I’m just calling for some consistency,  . . . again.

And while we are on the Lost Cause, yesterday was “Confederate Memorial Day” here in Alabama. Ugh. But I take it as a sign of progress that the ceremony marking the day at our state capitol building was attended by a whopping 150 or so people. Nice. It is a good thing we have these people around to remind us of the Confederacy, since its history would apparently just disappear if they weren’t here to remind us.

Lastly, and on a different subject: Another news story that is all over the place is that a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence has been discovered in a British archive. Unfortunately, the story is getting blown out of proportion and/or misunderstood by people that are apparently inspired by that stupid Nicholas Cage movie. My local news got it all wrong last night, as has been the case all over social media. This is not an unknown second “original” copy of the Declaration. It is a handwritten copy that was made on parchment in the 1780s, which is rare indeed, but not exactly an original and/or something that should set off conspiracy theories. Researchers believe it was commissioned by James Wilson (who was the signer that was treated so poorly and portrayed so inaccurately in the otherwise awesome musical 1776). How did it wind up in Britain? That seems to be mostly a mystery.

Philly’s new American Revolution museum opens; More big finds in Egypt; Trump’s history shortcomings bite him again; Dana Carvey’s history lesson on “maniac” presidents

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Just a few odds and ends on a Friday:

Philadelphia’s new Museum of the American Revolution opened this week with great fanfare and high profile speakers, including David McCullough. It appears that the new institution is strongly dedicated to telling an inclusive story, which sounds awesome, unless you are this guy. (As previously noted, I plan to be there next month, so my own review is forthcoming).

This week we got more news of big discoveries in Egypt, this time of a tomb containing eight mummies and thousands of carved figurines. The sarcophagi are covered with intricate and colorful drawings in red, blue, black, green and yellow and are well-preserved. Check out the photos. 

Trump’s ignorance of history has gotten him into trouble again, this time with our South Korean allies. (I’ll give him credit though, I heard him say something historically accurate today for a change when he acknowledged that as far as secretaries of the treasury go,  Hamilton would be a tough one to beat for best ever. You are correct, sir. Don’t get used to it).

And to leave you with a laugh: Did you see Dana Carvey on Conan last night? The man has still got it. He unleashed a string of his presidential impersonations, arguing that Trump is not the first “maniac” to inhabit the White House. Best bits: Trump bragging about our “tremendous” nuclear war and the size of our bomb bunkers, and what Nixon would have been like on Twitter. Enjoy.

 

Why Mercy Street is too important to let die

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Well, today I am mainly posting just one thing, written by me, but I hope that you don’t see it as self serving. Smithsonian Magazine has graciously agreed to help add their weight behind my plea for the saving of PBS’s Mercy Street. In the article I wrote for them I did a brief review of the way that the American Civil War has historically been portrayed on film and television, concluding that Mercy Street was becoming our most important pop cultural depiction of the American Civil War, and thus is too important a show to let die. I hope you’ll give it a read and help share it on social media.

(And thanks to rockstar historian Megan Kate Nelson for helping edit the piece so I could make my best plea).

The show is about to premiere in the UK, one of its creators, Lisa Q. Wolfinger just won a Gracie Award for her production of the show,  and we’ve recently gotten some indication that she has had meetings with some cable networks about possibly saving the show.

Obviously, I am very passionate about this, so please share the article on your social media and lets #SaveMercyStreet.

Last of the Doolittle raiders; new info about allied knowledge of the Holocaust; CNN’s explores the “soundtrack” of history; Georgetown makes amends

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Today is the 75th anniversary of WII’s “Doolittle Raid.” The men that participated in the daring bombing raid over Tokyo in early 1942 have been gathering yearly since 1946 to toast each other and the men that are no longer with us. This year, there was only one left. Check out this story about the raid, the tradition (including their toasting goblets), and the 101 year-old veteran who is now their last man standing.

We’ve also got some of those cool newly colorized pics of the Doolittle raiders.

Well, this just changed one aspect of how I deliver one particular lecture (ironically one that I just presented today in my Western Civ class). Newly accessed United Nations documents reveal that the WWII allies knew about the mass murders in the concentration camps (or “Holocaust Centers”) earlier than is generally assumed. (Although, this article makes the mistake of claiming that December of 1942  is “two-and-a-half years earlier than is generally assumed.” Um, no. I guess the key phrase here is “generally assumed” but 2.5 years is stretching the significance of the find.)

CNN has another original series coming up, debuting on Thursday. Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History “explores seminal moments in history by illuminating how music played an integral role in celebrating, criticizing and amplifying these seismic events.” Sounds great, but lest we get too excited, the list of events are all only recent American history, with the oldest events taking place in the late 1960s. I was pretty disappointed with CNN’s last series, The History of Comedy, as it wasn’t much more than current comedians sitting around discussing their favorites and how they influenced them.  I hope to see more historians involved in this project, as well as musicologists. Let’s see how it goes.

As you know, Georgetown University has recently acknowledged that their institution was financially saved in the early 1800s by the sale of over 200 slaves. Just a couple of weeks ago, there was a conference in the Louisiana town where most of the slaves were brought to after the sale. Now we learn that the university brought the descendants to campus for a ceremony honoring the victims, recognizing their forced sacrifice that saved the institution, and apologizing for the grievous deed that was ironically done by Jesuit priests. Georgetown has announced they they are going to give preferential admissions treatment to these descendants, the same as to the children of alumni. Discussions are also underway for an on-campus memorial and a scholarship program. Great ideas.

And speaking of universities and the enslaved . . . today is the birthday of my beloved University of Alabama. I’m glad to see that this short news blurb makes room for mentioning the enslaved laborers that played a large role in the early construction of the university’s buildings. As at many southern colleges and universities, research on the role of enslaved peoples on campus is pretty new and “hot” right now, and it is interesting to see how this is playing out at institutions around the country: from building name changes, to removal of monuments, to ceremonies and etc.

A couple of historical houses in the news; Prestigious award for PBS’s Mercy Street; Glenn Beck wants to prepare students to battle their college history profs; History of the White House Easter egg hunt

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A few quickies on a Good Friday afternoon:

Did you see the awesome story about a woman that recently visited the house that she was born in, as it is now on display in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture? The institution has it on display because it was originally built in 1853 as a slave cabin on Edisto Island, South Carolina. 86 year old Isabell Leggett Lucas was born in it and lived there with 10 other family members until she was 19 years old. Be sure to watch the video linked above to see her and her family visiting the museum!

And speaking of historic homes, but in a less inspiring story: The Shaifer House just outside of Port Gibson, Mississippi was recently pillaged by criminals that were apparently after the house’s structural beams, as well as bricks. What the heck?? This site is one of the most pristine and isolated locations associated with a Civil War military campaign. It is pretty difficult to get to, as it is on an unpaved dirt road that turns into a major mud bog after heavy rains (Trust me, I know. Several years ago some friends and I did a rather stupid thing and drove down the thickly mudded road in my Honda Accord after a heavy rain, even though we had been warned by locals not to risk it. Luckily we made it there and out, but it was touch and go. Bad decision, great memory). Built in 1823, it is along the historic road that Grant’s troops took after they landed south of Vicksburg, and the site of the first rebel resistance they faced as they marched northeast toward Jackson, with a view of  swinging back west and thus taking Vicksburg from the east. It was also the site of a Union hospital after the battle. It is a lovely historic site and a real treasure that is basically untouched by the modern era, and one of those places where you can really feel like you’ve taken a time-machine. That it is difficult to reach makes it all the more of a rewarding experience to visit. The people that did this need to be strung up by their entrails. If you have any info that might lead to an arrest, please share!

Mercy Street is not dead yet. A couple of weeks ago, show creator and producer Lisa Q. Wolfinger won a prestigious Gracie Award for producing the show (the award is named after the incomparable Gracie Allen), which celebrates and honors “programming created for women, by women, and about women.” Now one of Wolfinger’s hometown news channels has done a segment on her award and Mercy Street, so check out the interesting interview here. We also learn that she is busy meeting with cable executives to try and save the show. (As I have mentioned before, I have my own plea for saving the show that will appear soon on a higher profile site than my blog, so continue to stay tuned). #SaveMercyStreet.

Oh goodness, Glenn Beck and David Barton are at it again, trying to peddle their fake history nonsense. They have started a two week program, where for $375 students can get armed with everything they need to “set their ignorant professors straight on the ‘real’ history of America.” Beck promises, “Your kids will be challenged to go and find the documents to make the cases that they’re most likely going to have to make in college with their professors. I guarantee you the professors at college will have the wrong answer.” Um, bring it. You remember Glenn Beck, right? He is the guy that was such a nutcase that he got kicked off of Fox News, and didn’t even have to sexually harass someone to get fired. (Oh wait, do you get fired for that on Fox News? Depends on your ratings, I guess).

We will be treated to yet another White House Lawn easter egg hunt on Monday, but how did this tradition get started? Smithsonian has the answer. 

PBS’s The Great War finished strong, and WGN’s Underground broke the mold by trying something bold

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Aisha Hinds as Harriet Tubman in WGN’s Underground

WooHoo! I had a fun time in front of the TV last night (I am ashamed to admit how long I was in front of it). First, the Boston Celtics (I am a long time fan) secured the #1 seed in the NBA Eastern Conference Playoffs (but this isn’t a sports blog, so that’s all I’ll say about that), then I really enjoyed the last episode of PBS’s The Great War, and lastly I was amazed that WGN’s Underground spent an entire episode solely on an abolitionist speech by Harriet Tubman. It was truly original.

All three episodes of The Great War were riveting, and perhaps one of the finest American Experience documentaries in years (and that is saying a lot, considering the high quality of most of their shows). It touched on a wide-array of homefront and military topics, and I was not disappointed in its coverage of Alice Paul and the Woman’s Suffrage movement. It also did a bit on the spread of Jazz to Paris by African American troops, though I would have liked to have seen more. Unfortunately, Theodore Roosevelt’s attempt to lead troops and Wilson’s rejection of his offer was strangely missing, as was Pershing’s trip to LaFayette’s grave. But the show was particularly strong in how it handled Wilson’s hypocritical treatment of dissenters here in the United States, and especially racial issues involving black troops, their enlightening experiences while abroad, and their hopes that serving their country in the name of democracy would help promote equality at home. Sadly, of course, those hopes were mostly dashed, and in often violent ways upon their return home. This was all handled excellently. Again, I can’t recommend these three episodes to you highly enough, so be sure to stream them online if you missed them. (I wouldn’t wait very long, however, because I am sure they will soon only make it available to paid subscribers). It is also available now on DVD. Trust me, this is one to own.

As for Underground. Wow. I did not see that one coming. The midseason episode took a major step back from the normally fast paced and heart thumping action scenes, and slowed things down in a rather unprecedented and daring way. As you know, one of the main characters this year is Harriet Tubman, although we have not seen her much since the season premiere. This episode was 100% just her, giving a speech to a gathered group of abolitionist in Philadelphia. No flashbacks, no interruptions (other than commercial breaks), just a 45+ minute speech by Tubman as portrayed by Aisha Hinds (Here’s an interview with her about the episode from the NY Times). It didn’t always work, but there were moments of brilliance that hit home hard, and it is the most screen time this amazing woman has ever gotten. Tubman did indeed give many speeches to groups like this as a means of fundraising for the cause, and as the show depicts, because she was a hunted woman, she could not give them in well-advertised events in high profile venues like other abolitionists. The writers had her focus on her life (especially as a young girl), her escape, and her thoughts on whether the movement should embrace the violent tactics of John Brown. But the boldest segment of all came after the last commercial, as the camera slowly (starting with a distant shot from the barn’s rafters) honed in on her face, until she finally looked directly at us, ending with words that unmistakably were intended as a statement about our current events. This moment felt a bit forced to me (they tried too hard to help audiences make the connection, if you saw it, you know what I mean), but there is no denying that it powerfully got the point across, and was a bold ending to a very boldly creative choice by the show’s producers. I’m guessing this thing will show up in classrooms all across the country.

Further, if you enjoyed this episode of Underground, keep in mind that this is the sort of thing you can encounter at many public history sites across the country, as first person interpreters do these kinds of presentations regularly. Some are pretty bad and frequently cheesy, many are very engaging, and some are downright brilliant. When it is done well, (as in last night’s show), it can be a very powerful and effective tool for delivering historical interpretation to popular audiences. So look for these kinds of presentations the next time you are at a history site, particularly if they are presented by reputable institutions, like the National Park Service.