Happy Birthday, NPS! (And thank you);Why the Smithsonian will display Emmett Till’s casket; the UDC is still in the education business; uncovering WWII aircraft carriers and a huge T-Rex skull!


This year the National Park Service has been celebrating its 100th anniversary, but tomorrow (Thursday) is the actual date of its creation. Over on We’re History, NPS historian Benjamin Todd Arrington has a good succinct history of the federal agency. While this is the 100th anniversary, he nicely shows that the history of America’s parks goes back further than that. (On a personal note: We all love our National Parks, and we history lovers can all attest to how special it is to be able to visit so many well preserved historical sites. There is something indefinably special about them, and I am a big believer that they are our best teaching tools. But those of us that have worked, or still work, for the NPS have an even deeper affection for it. Personally, it saved me from a miserable job at a bookstore chain, gave me my first job for which my undergraduate history degree prepared me, and then later saved me from having to substitute teach high school classes when I first started looking for teaching jobs. Many of the things that I researched and learned while working for the NPS helped to shape and inform my book. The agency played an enormous role in creating the historian that I am now, and I can’t even begin to express my sincere appreciation for the National Park Service). Happy 100!!!

We have seen many stories lately that have given us a preview of what to expect from the Smithsonian’s soon-to-open African American History Museum, but this one from the Washington Post really caught my attention. It focuses on the institution’s determination to not only be celebratory (there will be a lot of that), but to also not hide from the uglier parts of America’s history.  Founding director Lonnie G. Bunch remarked, “You couldn’t tell the story of the African American experience without wrestling with difficult issues, without creating those moments where people have to ponder the pain of slavery, segregation or racial violence.” As a result, visitors will encounter some objects that will be difficult to view, especially those connected to racial violence. I was stunned to learn, for example, that the museum houses Emmett Till’s casket—yes, the one his body was in when his mother shocked America by having an open casket funeral so that the world could see what was done to her child. Wow. Honestly, I’m not sure I could deal with seeing that and imagine that it will stir some very powerful emotions. Which is exactly what it and other displays will be designed to do. As such, there will also be a healthy dose of slave history, but I really appreciate what Bunch had to say about their slavery interpretations: “Slavery is this horribly painful moment,” he said, “but it is also a moment when people were strong and lived a life that many of us would emulate if we could in terms of trying to keep family together despite everything.” Amen. As you know, I wish that our current pop cultural depictions of slavery would focus on this fact more than they do. Can’t wait to visit this museum when it opens.

Call this next article the flip side to the story above, as well as to Vanderbilt’s decision to remove “Confederate” from the name of their memorial hall. As you know, the University is having to pay the Daughters of the Confederacy over a million dollars in order to change the name. Not sure how they will spend it, but if you think the UDC is no longer in the business of trying to educate our young, think again.

Out in the pacific, underwater researchers are using robotic subs to explore the WWII era aircraft carrier “Independence.” It not only saw action in the war, but was used in atomic blast experiments after the war. Be sure to check out the video that accompanies this story. 

Meanwhile, out in Montana, paleontologists have discovered one of the best preserved T-Rex skeletons ever found. But what has them really excited is the beast’s skull. It is one of the largest and best-preserved specimens ever dug up. Cool!



Ole Miss does away with Dixie; history teachers should be replaced with videos?; Destroying history is a war crime; Williamsburg captures the Pokemon crowd


The University of Mississippi, (or Ole Miss, as we call it down here) is in the news for once again confronting their long history of connection with the Confederacy. This time, it concerns the decision to have their band stop playing Dixie at sporting events. It is a big move that no doubt has angered a major portion of their fan base, but has received high praise from others, both inside and outside of the Ole Miss community. Over on Civil War Pop, Christian McWhirter shares his thoughts on the decision, arguing that the institution really had no choice but to do what they did.  (As a foremost historian on Civil War music, as well as an SEC football fan, he’s well qualified to comment on the situation).

Speaking of southern universities and the Confederacy: last week I pointed out the irony of Vanderbilt having to pay the Daughters of the Confederacy over a million dollars in order to change the name of their Memorial Hall, given that the organization played a large role in the creation and spread of the Lost Cause. Over the weekend, Kevin Levin did an excellent job for the Daily Beast digging much deeper into that irony than I did, offering a good primer on how the Daughters mainstreamed their revisionist history of the Confederacy.

The Hague is currently in the process of convicting a terrorist for committing a war crime because of his participation in the destruction of historic sites and relics in Timbuktu. The official charge is destruction of cultural heritage. This is obviously a good thing that the international court is seeking to protect history, but I just wonder how long it will be before the neo-confederate crowd hears this and starts to allege that Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt, and other places that are breaking free from the symbols of the Lost Cause, are committing “war crimes.” Wait for it.

So did you hear the one about the Senator that wants to replace history professors with videos posted on the internet? This isn’t an Onion story, folks. Videos are a good classroom tool that we all have used, but this dude seriously wants videos to REPLACE teachers. He then uses Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary as an example of how a good video could teach students what they need to know.  This idea is so preposterous that it doesn’t really even require/deserve a response, but I would really like to hear Ken Burns’ reaction. In the meantime, Nick Sacco’s response pretty much says it all. I’ll add only one thing: the good Senator must not realize that all across the country history teacher/coaches have been using videos as a replacement for actual teaching for years. A lot of good that has done us.

So I was very critical of my beloved Colonial Williamsburg last week in regards to their upcoming ridiculous Halloween festivities, but I’ll give them credit for this one. They have taken advantage of the Pokemon Go craze by organizing a special evening program that teaches players the history of the town, while indulging in the game. “I was just trying to take advantage of something that gets people excited to be in a museum,” said tour guide and Colonial Williamsburg interpreter Emily Doherty.  “In my mind, if Pokemon Go is that thing, then great.” I’m glad to see that the staff there still knows the purpose of the place.

19th Amendment anniversary; John Lewis–American hero and comic book author!; More new info about the Land Bridge; History of ice cream; Drunk History returns!


“At Last.”

Today is the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, granting women the right to vote. The National Constitution Center‘s blog gives us a good succinct overview of the amendment and a brief history of the suffrage movement that led to it. They also tell the story of the obscure Tennessee legislator who changed his vote at the last moment (thanks to his mother), giving the state the votes it needed and thus providing the amendment the needed number of states for ratification. Huffington Post has a nice collection of “badass images of women winning and exercising the right to vote.” Lastly, Slate dissects “the myth of the 19th amendment,” reminding us that its passage did not end all the various voter suppression measures that still disenfranchised millions of African American women (and men).

I think we all agree that John Lewis is a bonafide American hero and living legend. But did you also know that he is a comic book author? The congressmen has been collaborating on a three part series of comic books that collectively tell the story of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. What a great project!

Here’s more info about the new theories surrounding the so-called Land Bridge. I know many of you teachers are starting off your school year right about now by discussing this topic, so be sure to keep up with this latest news. (I already mentioned it just yesterday on my first day of class).

This summer has been brutal. Let’s cool off with NPR‘s history of ice cream. Looks like we have Jefferson to thank  for helping to popularize ice cream in America.

Oh boy: The new season of Drunk History starts next month, and Comedy Central has just released a new trailer. Looks like it is going to be a star-packed season of fun. (I wonder if historians will ever start trying to be on this show. Sign me up.)

New memorials in Mass. & Alabama; Vandy’s praiseworthy move; Colonial Williamsburg’s latest ridiculousness; Is first person slave interpretation appropriate? Sacrificing to Zeus; Give Trump the Caine treatment?



A rendering of a Montgomery, Alabama memorial to lynching victims.

It has been a few days since I last posted because I have been very busy with the start of a new semester. But I’m back on the case and ready to catch up on a few things.

Man, I love seeing this: Here in my home state of Alabama, plans have been unveiled for a large museum and memorial to the untold thousands of victims of racial lynchings in America. The  capital city of Montgomery–home to the Confederacy’s first capital–has given its support to the project.

Love seeing this, part two: As we know, there has been much debate lately on college campuses about building names that honor Confederate heroes. Some big news has come out of Nashville, where Vanderbilt has decided to rename their “Confederate Memorial Hall” as just “Memorial Hall.” This was not an easy thing for them to do, but not because of the typical backlash from those that hate to see the vestiges of the Lost Cause dismembered. In order to make the change, the university is actually going to have to pay over a million dollars to the Daughters of the Confederacy—an organization that played a pivotal role in the  creation and spread of the Lost Cause in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. How ironic is that?

I love seeing this, part three: As many of you know, I have a special fondness for the history of the Civil War’s 54th Massachusetts regiment, and my next book project (if and when I ever get the time) will likely be on their history and their place in our collective historic memory. (In many ways, I became a historian because of the movie Glory). So I was very happy to see that the town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, is set to unveil a memorial walkway containing the names of the men of their city that joined the 54th. It is located “just steps away” from where the recruitment center was located.

Man, I HATE to see this: As you may recall, Colonial Williamsburg stirred a lot of negative reactions from historical purists and public historians when they decided to have zombies invade the town for Halloween last year. Unfortunately, it was a smashing success for them, and so this year they are going even more overboard with it, with a storyline in which a sea witch has cursed the town. How bad will it be? Um, sea monster tentacles coming out of the Capitol building, a haunted house in the Raleigh Tavern, and dead pirates again roaming the streets. (And much more). As someone that is truly in love with Colonial Williamsburg and its mission, all this nonsense really hurts my heart. And I mean that.

One of the things that Colonial Williamsburg does best is their first person interpretations of the town’s enslaved community. For years, these programs have been their best and most powerful, giving visitors a personal perspective from which to view slavery. Over on his blog, public historian Nick Sacco muses about the benefits, problems, and appropriateness of first person slave interpretation at historic sites. I must say that I’m very uncomfortable with the premise behind the program he focuses on (“Follow the North Star” in Fischers, Indiana), which essentially has audiences play the role of runaway slaves. But over the years I have seen Williamsburg do some pretty incredible things with their African American interpreters. (Another reason the Halloween goofiness is an abomination when considering the true value of their mission).

Recent archeology in Greece has turned up a 3,000 year old skeleton of a teenage boy. The find may be definitive proof of the legend that the ancient Greeks made human sacrifices to the greek god Zeus.

Well, someone beat me to it: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Donald Trump and the classic Bogart movie, The Caine Mutiny (if you have not seen it, you need to add it to your list of “must sees” in order to be film literate). Over on the History News NetworkRobert Brent Toplin has also made a connection, but in a different way than me. He sees the film as a model for how the GOP can rid themselves of Trump. (Count me as believing that it is way too late for that). My thoughts were that the famous court martial scene provides a model for how Hillary should handle the debates: lay a trap that will play on his insecurities and paranoid personality disorders so that they are on full display. (Similar to how Tom Cruise handles Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men).  Either way, you should check out Toplin’s essay and the film clips– if nothing else you  will see one of Bogie’s best performances. Maybe his best.







Historical significance of Manuel’s gold; White House Historical Advisors?; More news on Miranda’s Drunk History appearance; 1800s NYC google map in photos



Some real history was made last night at the Olympics that sheds light on one of the lasting legacies of Jim Crow in America. Simone Manuel is the first African American woman to win an individual gold medal in swimming, but the story is deeper than that. It is estimated that 70% of blacks do not know how to swim, and that is largely the product of the fact African Americans were long denied access to pools in the Jim Crow era (as well as beaches), and once legal segregation ended, white flight left municipal facilities to languish and deteriorate. Or whites simply created “members only” private pools.  Further, what new pools were built in black neighborhoods were usually of poor quality and small. Thus, swimming never became as large a part of African American culture as it has long been for white Americans.  The fact that so few blacks know how to swim was often blamed on ridiculous and disgusting ideas involving bone density or the lack of buoyancy of black people, instead of the real culprit. So Manuel’s victory last night is significant on many levels, hopefully signals progress in several ways, and will inspire more black kids to hit the pools.

I expected there would be some sort of response to that Atlantic article that recommended a White House Council of Historical Advisors, and now we get the first big one in the Chronicle of Higher Education. My initial qualm with the idea revolved around the fact that there would be political pressure to cherry pick evidence and practice agenda-driven history. But Princeton University Professor Jeremy Adelman “call[s] for a little more humility about what we historians have to offer.” (I can’t help feeling this way too after attending any of the major historical societies’ yearly conferences).

Today we get more news about the upcoming Drunk History episode featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda telling the story of the Hamilton/Burr duel. It isn’t airing until November 29th (ugh). But the most interesting news: there’s some gender-bending in the casting.

Pretty neat: some dude used the New York City Public Library’s collection of over 80,000 historic photographs to create a Google-style map of late 1800s and early 1900s NYC. How fun would it be to get out on the streets with an iPad and this website?

Check out this high school history teacher in Washington state that dresses up as Theodore Roosevelt for his classes. I’m sure the kids get a kick out of it, but it takes a lot of nerve to get up in front of a group of teenagers like that. My hat is off to him.

Do we need to rewrite textbook coverage of the “Land Bridge?”; the 8 weirdest Olympic events; noted (and conservative) Reagan biographer on Trump


Pretty much every survey-level US history class begins by discussing the Ice Age movement of nomads across the interior of the so-called Land Bridge, leading to the first population of peoples in North America. A new study, however, contends that we may be not exactly right about that. Humans were here, it argues, well before the Land Bridge became biologically capable of sustaining humans during the arduous journey.  Those first peoples, therefore, must have used the coastline of the Land Bridge to get here. Interesting. We all may need to get ready to revise our lecture notes!

The Olympics have thus far been very fun to watch (how awesome are Lily King, Michael Phelps, and the “Final Five?”) While all these games are pretty legit (no curling like in the Winter Olympics), in the past there have been some pretty weird competitions. Check out this list of the 8 weirdest events in the history of the games. Shooting at live pigeons? Pistol dueling?

The “Historians on Donald Trump” Facebook page has added a new video today. This one is from Craig Shirley, noted (and conservative) biographer of Ronald Reagan. Add him to the list of conservative Republicans that reject Trump. His video is particularly interesting and Reagan fans will especially find it compelling:


Here’s a good laugh: remember that “historian” from Florida that is part of Trump’s campaign there, and that believes the “black confederate” myth? Well, Kevin Levin has posted today that the guy also apparently thinks that Confederate General Edmund K. Smith was black (strange since he infamously ordered Rebel troops to shoot down surrendering black Union soldiers), and that the US Military Academy is in the state of Virginia (these things are in his book!). Hmm, there is a West Point in Virginia. It is a quaint little town with a rich history (native American and Civil War, especially), and beautiful views of the confluence of the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, and York rivers. At last check, however, it is not, and has never been, the home of the United States Military Academy. Such are the people with which Trump surrounds himself. I’ll let Bugs Bunny have the last line on this guy:

Trump jokes about political violence; Newt compares him to A. Jackson; more news about the new Smithsonian museum; 400 year old petroglyphs surface in Hawaii.


Honestly, I would rather not have a story or comment about Trump every day, but he makes that so difficult. I’m starting to wonder if we are going to go more than a day or two without a headline like, “Outrage Erupts Over Trump Comment.” I will say this about his latest: it is of course  inexcusably outrageous for a presidential candidate to insinuate (joking or not) that the way to take care of a Hillary presidency would be to assassinate her by exercising our 2nd amendment rights. I’m guessing this is a first in American history– a presidential candidate suggesting that the way to keep an elected president from making supreme court appointments is to use violence.  Lord, I know this man has a strange sense of humor that he likes to let loose at his rallies because his supporters eat it up, but you just can’t stay stuff like this and not expect some people to take it to heart (and possibly act on it in the future). There is no way his advisers have not told him to be careful about this stuff, yet here he goes again. The fact that he knows his every word is being heavily scrutinized, yet still makes such comments (again, whether he sees them as a joke or not), proves once again that he simply can not be reigned in by anyone. Period.

But I’m going to give historian Brooks D. Simpson the last word on this one though:

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But what really brings me back to Trump today is what Newt had to say when asked if he thought Trump was stable enough to be president. “Sure,” he said, “he is at least as reliable as Andrew Jackson, who was one of the most decisive presidents in American history.” Goodness gracious. Yes, he surely was. But in being decisive he redefined the presidency away from what the Founders intended, stubbornly and vindictively destroyed one of the backbones of our economic system, fathered one of the most cruel and tragic removals of a people ever, and defied the system of checks and balances in doing so. Wait, maybe Newt is dead on.

Very interesting article/photo essay from The Atlantic today about one of the largest displays featured in the soon-to-open National Museum of African American History in DC. It is a home built originally by a formally enslaved man name Richard Jones in 1875. Visitors will actually be able to enter the house, as it serves as a centerpiece for telling the story of Reconstruction. “The home itself tells the story of African American know-how, engineering, and creativity,” says Smithsonian curator Paul Gardullo. There are some interesting details and photos in the essay about the house’s removal, restoration, and installment in the museum.

Meanwhile, the museum just got another high profile donor, as Michael Jordan has pledged to chip in about 5 million. Nice. As a result, part of the museum’s sports section will be named after him, which of course is also rather fitting, with or without the donation.

News out of Hawaii: shifting sands on Oahu’s coast have revealed some 400 year old petroglyphs created by the island’s  aboriginal people. They were discovered by tourists that just happened upon them. Plans for preservation are in the early stages. Check out the video on this story link.