Is Jamestown about to lose some of its time travel magic?

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****UPDATE as of 7/8/2017: The Army Cops of Engineers has given final approval for the project, but perhaps the impact on the site of the fort might not be as big as I’d feared. Still, the experience of traveling there will definitely be changed. ****

 

As many of you know, there has been a battle going on in Virginia between Dominion Power and a large number of historical preservation groups and public history sites. Today it looks like the forces of preservation are going to lose.

The power company has been wanting to place massive lines and towers across the James River near the site of many historic attractions, most notably Jamestown. They insist that it is necessary to continue to deliver power to the lower Virginia Peninsula, a region that is ripe with extremely important historical sites from Native,  Colonial, Revolutionary, and Civil War America. As far as history is concerned, the whole area of the “historic triangle” (which includes Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Jamestown) is an unparalleled American treasure.

If you have ever visited Jamestown, you know that one of the most magical things about the place is that the view of the river is largely unobstructed by modern clutter. You can stand at the historic site of the first successfully sustained English colony in the “New World,” looking out at the river and pondering what it must have been like to have landed there in 1607 (the fear, the hopes, the curiosity). But it’s not just a lily-white man thing: The first Africans to arrive in the colonies that became the United States arrived here in 1619 as indentured servants. The region was also the domain of the most powerful native confederation of tribes on the eastern seaboard, and you can connect to the perspective of the natives as they saw their beautiful lands invaded by men who only saw it as profit. What must they have thought while looking at those strange ships coming up the river for the first time? If you want a “period rush,” there are few places that can deliver it as well as Jamestown.

When (or if) the lines go up, the view is likely to be changed drastically, spoiling a truly sacred site.

The fight against the lines was placed into the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers, as they had to sign off on the project before it could go forward. Many were hopeful that the corps would squash the whole thing, but when they approved the Dakota Access Pipeline a few months ago despite the Standing Rock protests, things started looking bleak.

(FYI: News today that the Standing Rock fight isn’t over just yet, as the Sioux Tribe won a small legal victory).

Now the Army Corps of Engineers have followed up their dastard decision in Dakota by provisionally approving Dominion’s permit. They still have to jump through a few environmental impact hoops (needing approval from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality).

The good news is that Dominion will be forced to spend a lot of money trying to mitigate the impact on the historic view-shed, and to enhance landscapes and views at many other Virginia Peninsula historic sites. They will also have to donate millions to local native tribes and their efforts at preserving and interpreting sites associated with their land and history.

Such conditions, however, did not satisfy most preservation groups. Sadly, they may have to now start turning their attention to working with Dominion in order to lessen the impact on Jamestown and other James River sites. I’m guessing that is going to be difficult for them to accept.

Shame on the Corps of Engineers, and shame on Dominion Power.

If you have never been to Jamestown, I recommend getting there ASAP. It will always be a very special site, but its current time travel magic may soon be a thing of the past.

In search of slave resistance, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman on Maryland’s Eastern Shore

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You guys recall that show, “In Search of” with Leonard Nimoy? What a great series (even though it was probably an inspiration for that later pile of rubbish,  Ancient Aliens).

Anyway . . . more travel blog today:

Last month after leaving Philadelphia (where we visited the new Museum of the American Revolution) our band of history nerds travelled south by going through Delaware and the Maryland Eastern shore. Our ultimate destination was Yorktown’s new American Revolution museum, via the Virginia Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel. This once again allowed us to skip the hell that is I-95 (after we got out of the Philly metro area) enjoying a rather pleasant drive through a mix of suburban sprawl and rural countryside.

The bigger reason for this route, however, was to locate Frederick Douglass’s birthplace, visit some of the sites on Maryland’s Harriet Tubman Byway, and check out the brand new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor’s Center in Church Creek, Maryland. We stopped for the night at a really well-kept Best Western in Denton, Md. which is very near the neighborhood of Douglass’s early youth.

The site of the famed abolitionist’s birth has long been marked with a roadside historic marker on route 328 near Easton, Md, as well as a nearby bridge dedicated to him.  The marker was probably placed there to catch traffic on the heavily traveled US 50 (and from which a road sign leads you the short distance down route 328 to the marker), but in reality it is 4-6 miles away from the actual spot— which is on a secluded farm with very little traffic (even local). If you’ve stopped at this highway marker before, I hate to tell you, it’s not really very close to the real spot.

Douglass himself visited the area in 1878 looking for his birth site, and indicated it was on a farm near “Tapper’s Corner.”  This is the intersection of Lewistown Rd. and Maryland Rt. 303. At birth, Douglass was owned by Aaron Anthony (or “Captain” Anthony, as Douglass names him in his autobiography, and who might have actually been his father), who had a small farm in the shadow of the enormous nearby Wye Plantation (which dominated the region). Many of the slaves on the Wye Planation were apparently bred on Anthony’s farm and later sold to the larger plantation, which is the case with Frederick Douglass. He was born in his grandmother’s cabin on the Anthony farm.

Census records indicate that if you are standing at Tapper’s Corner looking east, you’re looking at what was Anthony’s farm (today it is called No-No Acres). The northern side of the farm is bounded by a creek that had a grist mill on it (the remnants of which are still highly visible when you drive by). When Douglass was there in 1878, he identified the probable location of his grandmother’s cabin as being at the head of a heavily wooded and un-tillable ravine which runs into the Tuckahoe River (which forms the eastern border of the Anthony farm).

The farm house that stands on the property now was not there when Douglass was born, but was when he visited in 1878. The farm is privately owned, so after getting our bearings at Tapper’s Corner,  we approached the owner and asked if we could walk out to the head of the ravine (which was apparently called “Kentucky” in Douglass’s day). He was a very nice man that has received this request before, so he happily gave us permission. Luckily, he’d recently cut a path all the way around his hay field, so we were actually able to carefully drive a circuitous route around the field out to the head of the ravine.  Nice.

It is important to keep in mind that the identification of the spot is a product of Douglass’s memory as an older man, recalling a farm he lived on only until he was about 8 years old. (And upon which he experienced the only connection to his mother, as she sometimes slipped off at night from another planation twelve miles away just to slip into the cabin and sleep next to her child for a few precious moments before walking back).  Thus, it might not actually be the precise location of the cabin. However, it is still pretty cool to be on the ground that he felt pretty sure was the spot, and even if it’s not correct, these are definitely the fields that his grandmother toiled on as an enslaved laborer. That in itself is pretty amazing to contemplate as you stand in the fields.

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“X” marks the spot. Mississippi University for Women Assistant Professor Jonathon Hooks (left) and myself standing near the spot that Frederick Douglass identified as his birth site.

The entire area has changed extremely little from the time Frederick Douglass was enslaved here, and is still very secluded (probably the reason why the marker was never placed in the area), as we saw only one or two other cars (and they were locals) the whole hour that we were snooping around.  (Seeing us pulled off the road, one truck turned around and came back just to see if we were OK). If you want to “feel” the past, this is a remarkable spot for it. It was one of the more emotional experiences that I’ve had while visiting an historic site.

If you’d like to go to the location yourself, I highly recommend viewing this website for information and help. It is invaluable. And PLEASE, keep in mind that this is private property and that you need to ask for permission to get out into the fields.

After this highly moving experience (all the more special because we had to work for it), we drove to the Wye Planation house, which is where Douglass was sent at about age eight. At its peak in the early 1800s, this planation was well over 20,000 acres (some sources say as much as 42,000) and around 750 enslaved laborers toiled on it, making it highly profitable for the white masters (by far the area’s largest slaveholding plantation). It isn’t anywhere near that size now, but is still in the same family, thus it is privately owned and can not be toured. We were disappointed that the house sits at the end of a long private drive that has signs on it clearly discouraging sightseers. Still, it was interesting to be in the heart of a plantation that Douglass memorably wrote about in his autobiography (describing the especial brutality of the overseer as one of his first exposures to slavery’s cruelty), even if he was there only about a year before he was given to the Auld family and forcefully taken to Baltimore.  The countryside around the Wye Plantation house has also changed very little since the antebellum era.

Better still, while traveling through the region we stumbled along another gem (thanks to Maryland’s Civil War Trail signs). We stopped at historic St. Stephens AME Church, about three miles from the Wye house.  Before the war, the area was near a spot where local slaves gathered to worship, and after emancipation they established the church nearby. Naming their community “Unionville,” the formerly enslaved citizens bought land cheaply from local Quakers and began farming.

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St. Stephens AME Church in “Unionville,” Maryland

The center of the community was the church, and behind it is a cemetery in which eighteen African American Union soldiers (USCTs) are buried. We couldn’t help but feel it is likely that some of these men had been enslaved on the Wye Plantation, but had “come back fightin’ men” (to quote the movie Glory). As a former park ranger at the Richmond National Battlefield Park, I was interested to see that some of the veterans had fought at New Market Heights, Virginia, where fourteen black soldiers earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Again, the area around the church has changed very little, so this too was a very moving experience, and I left wanting to know more about Unionville and the postwar experiences of its community of U.S. veterans and former slaves.

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Our next destination was the new Harriet Tubman museum, which acts as a visitor’s center for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, 125 miles of roads that connect 45 sites together associated with Tubman and/or the Underground Railroad. Even before finding Douglass’s birth site, we’d already visited a few of these places, including the Caroline County Courthouse where captured runaways and alleged conductors (like Hugh Hazlett) were jailed, the Choptank Riverbank site where a runaway named Daniel Crouse gave the slip to a pack of dogs and crossed in a canoe, and Tuckahoe Neck Meeting House, where local Quakers coordinated efforts to help runaways.

Finally reaching the museum in Church Creek, Maryland, we found this area too is vastly untouched by time, which is one reason the location was chosen near the fields Tubman grew up in as an enslaved child and young adult. The building itself is rather nice and has all the gloss and shine you’d expect from a brand new facility. The small museum features few relics, however, relying on the effective presentation of interpretation. This is nicely done, as I was struck by how successful it was at delivering solid and thought-provoking history, yet also providing kid-friendly interpretation.

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Displays offer a solid overview of Tubman’s biography, slavery, and the Underground Railroad, introducing themes explored in more detail at sites along the trail. One display that stands out is a listing of the names of people that Tubman is known to have helped rescue from slavery. Despite its rather out-of-the-way location, we were pleased to find a healthy number of visitors filling the museum and parking lot.

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We were sad that the museum’s film is not yet ready for viewing, but we had an engaging conversation with a Maryland park ranger who stuck around even after closing to talk with us about Tubman, and an area in which she herself had grown up. We even got so deep in conversation that we talked with this African American woman about modern race relations, why many blacks are often reluctant to want to learn or talk about slave history, and how many whites refuse to accept that the legacy of slavery still infects and shape’s our society and culture.

Yet the best part of the hunt for Tubman came afterwards.  The farm she grew up on is but a short drive away, and again takes you through fields that are untouched by time. We located the site of the Bucktown Village Store, where a reproduction of the building stands at a crossroads in the middle of farm land.IMG_20170520_180655734.jpg

Here as a young girl Tubman had perhaps her first moment of overt resistance. While she was in the store, an enslaved man that did not have permission to be there was caught by his overseer, who then ordered the young Tubman to help him tie-up the fugitive. She refused (a remarkable act of defiance by a young enslaved girl) and the enslaved man then tried to run. The white man grabbed a two pound weight and threw it at the absconding slave, but struck Tubman instead, gashing her head open. The injury plagued Tubman the rest of her life, as she was prone to blackout spells that came and went unexpectedly, perhaps a reminder of her young act of overt defiance.

We also visited more sites associated with Quakers that helped runaways, and another Choptank River crossing spot on the Underground Railroad. Yet perhaps most emotionally compelling was the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where it is believed that Tubman met with enslaved individuals who were contemplating escape.

It was getting late in the day when we arrived at this spot, a cool breeze was blowing, and it was here that I think I most connected with Harriet Tubman. I imagined her meeting under the cover of darkness and amongst the graves with folks that might have still needed to be inspired by her determination and bravado in order to overcome their legitimate fears. The courage it took to try and escape slavery is more than the average person possesses, and I was moved while standing in a spot in which Tubman infected others with her uncommonly large reservoir of bravery.

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Mount Pleasant Cemetery. None of the current headstones date to antebellum America, but it’s still a powerful spot for connecting with Tubman

Once this amazing day came to an end, we all agreed that the travel experience had answered many questions for us about Tubman. Visiting the sites, it becomes abundantly clear that much of her Underground Railroad success was due not just to her, but to a strong and defiant community of both free and enslaved African Americans, as well as a large and active population of white Quakers in the region, who together created a highly efficient and effective network on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and in Delaware.

Those of us that enjoy visiting historic sites know that there is nothing like standing on these spots to help connect with the past, to “feel” the presence of our forebears, and to understand their experiences.

Which points to a truth: We need to preserve more sites like these and interpret them properly. Yes, the fact that we had to work to find Douglass’s birth site, and stumbled upon the Unionville Cemetery,  made the experience all the more special, but sites like these need to be in the hands of more state and national parks. The Tubman Byway and the new Reconstruction Era National Monument park in Beaufort, South Carolina are hopefully just the beginning of efforts to mark and interpret such locations.

Think of all the land that we have that tells the story of the Civil War. What if we had an equal number of sites that interpreted slavery and resistance to it? Or Reconstruction? So much could be learned and “felt” about both topics at even small places like Unionville.  Sadly, most surviving antebellum planation homes are in private or local hands, filled with guides still hashing out romanticized versions of the Old South and the Lost Cause.

While it is true that an increasing number of sites are more fully developing interpretations of slavery (good recent examples are James Madison’s Montpelier, as well as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and a Nat Turner visitor center and trail is in the works, though progressing slowly), we need more places like the Whitney Planation in Louisiana, where the entire focus is centered on the enslaved community.

With the recent cancellation of WGN’s Underground (by the way, the show’s producers had been at the Tubman museum just a few days before we were there), I’m afraid that Harriet Tubman and the many other heroes of the Underground Railroad will become less highly visible again, as will the plight of the enslaved and their resistance.

Let’s become less worried about tearing down Rebel monuments, and more active in marking, memorializing, and interpreting our sites associated with slavery and emancipation, so more people in more places can have experiences like my friends and I had on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. These stories need to be told and these lives and decisions understood.

I’ve spent untold hours visiting Civil War battlefields and antebellum sites, but this experience of traversing these battlefields of survival and resistance to slavery is one that I’ll long remember.

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Forgive my cheesy selfie with Harriet Tubman, but after such a great experience, I just had to.

 

 

 

 

Visiting our two new American Revolution museums

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Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution (left) and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown (right)

My “travel blog” continues today. Two of the four brand new museums I recently visited were Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution, and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, Virginia.

My group of history nerd friends headed to Philadelphia after our day in DC (in which I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture), deciding to go via Annapolis and the Maryland Eastern Shore/Delaware route rather than up I-95 North through Baltimore. What a great decision! Anyone that has ever travelled on I-95 north of Richmond (all the way to Boston) will tell you to avoid it at all costs if you can. Not only did our route cut down on the toll charges, but it was a relaxing drive with very little traffic as we came through in the late evening. Having driven the stressful I-95 route many times (which sucks no matter what time of day or night it is), I can tell you, this was an extremely nice alternative. If you are traveling from DC to Philadelphia, I highly recommend it (sorry, Baltimore).

Our hotel was only a short walk from the museum (I also recommend the Wyndham Philadelphia Historic District. I have stayed there twice now and it is easy walking distance from just about everything you want to see in Philly). The new museum is in a great location (the site of the old visitor’s center), across the street from the First Bank of the US, and next door to the historic (and delicious) City Tavern (don’t miss the dining experience there). Before construction began on the brand new building, they found about 82,000 relics from colonial and 19th century Philadelphia while excavating the site.

The new facility is visually appealing on the outside and strikingly beautiful inside, featuring a grand spiraling staircase. The ground floor contains the obligatory introductory movie (honestly I don’t recall much about it), and then you ascend the stairs to the main galleries.

Here you are immediately immersed into the history, as a film projected on a wall around and above you places you in the middle of the pulling down of the King George III statue in New York (an event that took place on July 9, 1776). This first room asks you to question why the colonists came to despise a king that they once celebrated with a monument. I don’t think the museum’s planners intended a connection to our current wave of dismantling monuments, but it is a good reminder that there are precedents for Americans tearing down monuments when they no longer wanted to lionize men that they once did. It seems our revolutionary generation was not against “erasing history.”

The tight hallways then usher you through the exhibits, starting with George III’s coronation and ending with the New Republic. Unlike some museums, there is no guesswork involved in where to go and what to view next, as tight corridors snake through chronologically arranged displays. These are a nice mix of relics, interpretation, and immersive experiences.

The core of the objects on display were first obtained in the early 20th century by Reverend W. Herbert Burk, a collector/amateur historian from Valley Forge who obtained the pieces and later bequeathed the collection to the Valley Forge Historical Society. Some of the objects were then loaned out to other institutions, but most of them sat in warehouses waiting for the organization to build a large facility to display it all. That didn’t come until the early 2000s when the collection was handed over to the planners of the Museum of the American Revolution, who then spent nearly two decades cataloging the relics, planning the museum, raising funds, constructing the 118,000 square foot facility, and finally openings the doors in April 2017.

On display are such items as a pocket bible that was carried by a soldier during the Battle of Bunker Hill, Benjamin Lincoln’s sword, some of Patrick Henry’s law books, remnants of the aforementioned destroyed statue of George III, silver cups used by Washington and his staff, a powder horn used in the Battle of Fort Washington, a wooden plank from Concord Bridge (seriously cool), and a sash that Washington used early in the war to distinguish his rank and which he is seen wearing in the famous portrait painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1776.

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Washington wearing the sash in the Peale painting (left), and the sash on display

The relic collection is amazing, but the museum is also heavy on exhibits that use technology and carefully constructed sets and life-sized figurines to immerse visitors into the times. For instance, you’ll stand under Boston’s Liberty Tree, smell the tea that was cast into the Harbor, sit in replica chairs in a mockup of Independence Hall, get shot at during a skirmish with British troops, and (my favorite of all) stand among elders of the Oneida Nation as they make the decision to support the Patriots in the Revolution. (It is even way cooler that it might sound, and FYI, the Oneida Nation was one of the museum’s biggest financial contributors).

As the presence of the Oneida Nation suggests, the emphasis is on inclusiveness, and everyone in my group agreed that the Museum of the American Revolution does this exceptionally well. Instead of having a women’s section, or an African American section, or Native American section, etc., those people, their experiences, the roles they played in shaping the Revolution, and (most important) how it effected them, is fully, appropriately, and effectively interwoven into the narrative at nearly every step along the way.

This is the way that I think history should be done, not just in museums, but in textbooks and classrooms. I am not a fan of segregating people that were not caucasian men off in their own museum sections, book sidebars, or separate lectures, because that in itself suggests that they are not included in the mainstream narrative. For instance, I’ll never deliver a lecture titled “African Americans in the Revolution,” or “Women in the Civil War,” because I feel when done correctly, those groups show up in meaningful ways in every lecture. In my mind, the Museum of the American Revolution is now a model for how to do this effectively. Other museums, and teachers, take note.

The crown jewel in the museum’s collection is the exterior section of one of George Washington’s headquarter tents (his office and sleeping tent). Once you have finished your trip through the exhibits, you’ll be sent into a movie-theater-like room where a high tech audio/visual program introduces the history of the tent and its usage during the war. The climax is the reveal of the tent, which you’ll never come anywhere near arm’s reach to, as swelling music and dramatic dialogue dictate exactly how you should feel as you view the relic. I found this presentation to be a bit overly dramatic/cheesy. (“The Republic, like the tent, endures”), but I’ll admit it was effective, leaving you feeling like you have seen and experienced something quite amazing.

Visitors should know, however, that Washington had two campaign tents, and the interior of the other one (the dining and meeting tent for Washington and his officers) is at the Yorktown Battlefield Visitor’s Center at the Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia. Yet not only do they have the interior of the dining/meeting tent, they possess the interior of the sleeping/office tent (the exterior of which is what they are displaying in Philadelphia) as well as its poles. Further, without the stirring music and grandiose rhetoric, the Yorktown display is set up in a way that allows you to walk part-way inside the tent (you are separated from it by glass). Personally,  I like the tent display by the National Park Service in Yorktown much better. It is immersive and powerful without the high tech and overly dramatic fluff.

And speaking of Yorktown, the other new American Revolution museum is there at the site of what was formally known as the Yorktown Victory Center. After 50 million in upgrades, the institution has recently opened a new museum dedicated to telling the story of the whole Revolution. My group visited it two days later (after spending a day on Maryland’s Eastern Shore tracking down Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. More on that in my next posting).

Like the one in Philly, the building is immediately impressive and welcoming, with a brand new smell and shine. First up is once again the obligatory intro movie, but the Yorktown film is far more original than the one in Philadelphia (and most other historic sites). Set in the early 19th century, the film depicts a traveling carnival-type show that uses high tech (for the times) displays and a charismatic barker (“gather round, ladies and gents!”) to tell the story of the American Revolution to a group of enthralled children and adults. I really appreciated the originality of this film’s introduction to the museum’s interpretive themes. You really feel as though you are about to experience something special.

The museum does not disappoint. Honestly, the thing I immediately liked most about it is that it is open and airy, containing far more places to sit down among the exhibits than are available in the Philadelphia museum (for a weary traveler with a strained back and tired feet, this was a godsend).  It too is laid out in mostly easy to follow chronological order (although the drawback to the openness is that in contrast to the tight corridors in Philly, there are a couple of spots where it is not clear where you should go next to maintain the chronological flow. But that doesn’t last for long and is not a major problem.)

The Yorktown museum has less relics (though there are many, and some nice pieces, such as pistols owned by Lafayette), relying mostly on the interpretation and immersive exhibits.

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Two of Lafayette’s pistols on display at Yorktown

Unlike Philadelphia’s museum, Yorktown’s focuses more attention on the “big name” Founders and their influences. For instance, the Enlightenment, the philosophes, and their impact on the Founders is largely missing in Philly, and less attention is paid to the standard pantheon of Founding Fathers. These men get more of their just due in Yorktown.

Yet, while the Yorktown museum also strives for an inclusive story, it commits what I consider the sin of mostly (not exclusively) segregating women, African Americans, and Native Americans into their own separate sections.

In defense of the museum, these exhibits feature solid interpretation and derive from a genuine and non-patronizing effort (there are no “tokens” here). I just think there is a better way.

Further stemming from efforts at inclusiveness, the museum has exhibits on the typical life and the homes of colonial and revolutionary Americans of all classes.  I found this to be an odd waste of space, as Colonial Williamsburg is nearby, and anyone visiting the area will likely be spending time there. (The Philadelphia museum, for instance, spends little time on Benjamin Franklin or even the Continental Congress, presumably because there are famous areas nearby where those stories are explored in detail).

As in Philadelphia, technology is used to draw you into the Revolution, as an especially neat exhibit features a battle simulation game in which visitors can compete against the computer, or each other, and then learn how the real battle played out. Yorktown also has a Liberty Tree exhibit, yet upstages the Philly museum because visitors can type in a message that is quickly posted electronically on the tree’s lanterns. (I may or may not have posted something about being vigilant against tyranny and the need to resist chief executives that obstruct justice and decry a free press).

Far and away, however, the coolest thing I found at either museum was Yorktown’s immersive film on the Battle of the Capes and the Yorktown Siege. It is only about 12 minutes long, but is rather amazing. As you sit surrounded on three sides by film screens, you’ll feel the sea air in your face, smell the coffee being served to troops in the entrenchments (seriously, the coffee), feel the rattle of shell explosions and thunder, and be surrounded by fog and smoke during the Alexander Hamilton-led attack on redoubt # 10. The combat scenes are beautifully filmed and thrilling, yet not gruesomely realistic. Yes, other museums have similar presentations, but this one if by far the best I have ever seen (I watched it three times!) It alone is worth the price of admission.

The Yorktown museum includes a living-history area, where siege lines, military encampments, and even a colonial farm are replicated. My group did not have time to visit this area, and it didn’t seem to be much different than what has long been available at the previous Yorktown Victory Center. Still, it should be noted this alone makes a visit to the Yorktown museum a much different experience than the one in Philadelphia.

In both museums, all the high tech bells and whistles are largely designed to deliver the message that the American Revolution and our experiment in republican government are far from over. The last exhibits in both focus on the fact that our nation’s history is largely the story of increasing freedoms for peoples and groups that our Founders left out when creating a government to protect individual liberties.

Despite powerful and significant opposition, slow and halting progress, and significant times of retrogression, we’ve continually forced the United States to live up to and expand the promises of the Revolutionary generation in ways that the Founders never intended or even envisoned. Instead of canonizing them, their work, and their design for our government as infallible, we’ve honed, expanded, and bettered what they started. It is up to us to continue to do so.  Thus, both museums stress, the Revolution continues, and whatever it becomes is up to our current values and actions, as well as our vigilance and resistance to those that would turn the Revolution backwards.

It may have been because I was rushed at the end of the day through the final exhibits at Yorktown, but I felt the Philadelphia museum delivered this message more powerfully. As you exit the exhibits, you very literally look into the faces of the current generation of revolutionaries. (Hint: it is us).

Bottom line: Both of these new museums are exceptional and dedicated to telling an inclusive story of the American Revolution.  The intro movie is more unique at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, the facility is more comfortable, and the Yorktown battle presentation is by far the coolest and most successfully immersive exhibit at either site. Nevertheless, Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution more effectively tells its inclusive narrative, has more awe-inspiring relics, and more inspiringly delivers its message.

Thus the Philadelphia museum is the superior one, but not by much (and perhaps the outdoor living history displays at Yorktown make the experience there superior in the end).

I highly encourage you to make it a goal to see visit both institutions.

Visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood!

Back from vacation!

It has been a while since my last posting, and of course much has happened (Trump and terrorist related), but for the next few days I’m going to turn this into a travel blog, detailing and reviewing the four brand new history museums that I visited on my trip.

I’ll start today with the big one: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Like many of you, I’ve been anxiously awaiting my chance to visit this amazing facility, and I can tell you that despite my high expectations,  I was not disappointed.

It didn’t start out that way. As I am sure you are aware, the only advance tickets at this point must be reserved months ahead of time (they won’t be taking orders again until July, for September visits!). I failed to do so, which means I had to get up at 6:30 AM on the morning of my visit (last Thursday, May 18, 2017) to try and snag some same-day tickets on the internet. Despite the fact that three of us were trying to get the tickets, we all struck out, and they were sold-out for the day in a matter of 15 minutes (or less). We were saddened, but decided to make the best of the day by visiting other DC sites we had never seen, or had not seen in a while. This sent all four in my group scattering in different directions.

There was still one more possibility, however. The museum gives out a very limited number of “walk-up” tickets at 1 PM, and I was the only one in my group that decided to give it a shot despite the odds. I showed up at around 12:30, and the line was already a monster. I had little hope.

But then a miracle occurred. As I took my place at the back of the line, a museum employee was working her way around asking for veterans or first responders. It was not until she made it to two people just in front of me that she found two of them, a married couple. Pulling them out of the line, she said she could take them straight in, as well as two others as their guests. They had no others with them, so one woman spoke up immediately and  uncouthly begged, “take me! take me!” So she was chosen. When asked who else they wanted to take inside as a guest, the couple demurred (we were all strangers, after all), so the museum employee asked where they were from. Would you believe it? They said “Alabama!” (Even better, they were Alabama fans, not Auburn).  I then spoke up and said, “me too!” Which got me chosen as their guest! Yep, I was in the massive walkup line for all of 5 minutes before I got to walk right into the museum. I chalked it up to good karma. 🙂 Roll Tide.

Once inside, I quickly submerged to the underground bottom floors where the museum begins shuffling visitors through a chronologically displayed tour of American history. The design is brilliant, as the early exhibits deal with European history and conceptions of race, as well as the powerful West African kingdoms, in the 1400s. These are laid out in a way that shows the convergence of the two, and at the same time  gradually crams visitors tightly together in the replica hull of a “Middle Passage” ship. It was very dark and cramped, as I viewed slave shackles, original beams and planks from a slave cargo ship, and other Atlantic slave trade relics. It was a powerful and sobering start.

As the timeline-advances from Colonial to Revolutionary America, the rooms get slowly larger as the interpretation takes on the paradoxical nature of the American Revolution and its impact on slavery. Eventually, I emerged into a large room with the opening words of the Declaration of Independence looming massively large overhead and an impressive life-sized statute of Thomas Jefferson presiding over the scene. He stands in front of a wall constructed from bricks representing the number (and names) of the slaves he owned. (The exhibit takes it as a given that he fathered Sally Hemings’ children). Pictures do not do justice to the powerful nature of this interpretation and display design, especially as you enter the large room after being cramped in the tighter spaces.

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From there, the museum takes you through displays covering slave life and resistance (both violent and subtle), abolitionism and sectionalism, the role of African Americans in the Civil War, and finally Reconstruction (embracing Eric Foner’s interpretation of both the failure and the small but extremely important successes of the Reconstruction era). Relic highlights here include Nat Turner’s small bible (awesome), a large cotton gin, a slave master’s whip (on loan from Oprah Winfrey), Harriet Tubman’s shawl and hymnal, first edition copies of slave autobiographies, and most impressively, a full sized slave cabin from Edisto Island, South Carolina (not a reproduction, the real deal).

This first (underground) floor is simply amazing. If the museum were just this first floor, it would still be a remarkable facility.

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Nat Turner’s bible. Just wow.

At that point, visitors climb a ramp up to the second floor, where exhibits focus on the early 20th century/Jim Crow Era, as well as the modern Civil Rights movement. Here, displays and relics focusing on the cultural construction of black stereotypes and their purposes are particularly powerful and well done, as are those that deal with black migration during the world wars. I felt that while the modern Civil Rights movement displays were extensive, they were less than comprehensive. Still,  the Emmett Till exhibit was particularly powerful, especially the viewing of his coffin. (I came in expecting to be shaken up by the sight of it, and I was). This rather morbid display is crucial to what the entire museum is trying to accomplish.

Besides the coffin, relic highlights here include two of the dolls used in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, IMG_20170518_150909466.jpga full sized and segregated railroad car, a bucket that MLK used to soak his feet after the Selma March, and most imposing, a plane used in training the Tuskegee Airmen.

Lastly, the ramp takes you up again to the final chronologically arranged exhibits, using 1968 as its starting point for carrying visitors through the ongoing fight for Civil Rights, culminating with Obama’s presidency.  (I was born in the momentous and eventful year of 1968, so it really interested me to pause and consider the ways that my own life growing up in Birmingham, Alabama played out during, and was shaped by, these more modern events and cultural transformations).IMG_20170518_152719854.jpg

Most interesting to me were the displays dealing with the role that 70s and 80s television and movies played in shaping and changing perceptions of African Americans. Here, Bill Cosby was noticeably missing from the narrative. This is understandable given his current troubles, but I feel The Cosby Show and its creators and cast deserve to have its very important cultural impact significantly explored in the museum.

Some will question the ending of the history lesson with Obama, but I have no doubt the museum will continue to evolve and is not ending the story with our first black president as a means of embracing the concept of a “post racial” society. The last video that we see before emerging on the ground floor contains a clip of Obama’s brilliant speech at the Pettus Bridge in Selma (I am convinced it will go down as one of our greatest presidential speeches), in which he strongly rebukes those that believe there has been no racial progress in this country, yet insists that the artificially and purposely created barrier of race is far from dismantled.

As the museum’s interpretations are largely focused on our artificial construction of race that has prevented us from living up to our greatest founding promises, this ending is appropriate. The museum definitely embraces the “arc of the moral universe bends toward justice” interpretation of American history, (which is physically conveyed as visitors start in the darkened lowest floor, slowly rising via ramps to more airy and elevated spaces) while still acknowledging that it is our responsibility to fight the powerful and deeply entrenched forces that have and would bend it off course and backwards (hence the importance of uncomfortable relics like slave shackles, whips, pictures of lynchings, and Till’s coffin). It is a sobering presentation and ending, but a clearly hopeful one.

From there, visitors can explore the above ground floors that take you on a less chronological tour through the American past, focusing on the cultural and pop cultural impact of African Americans in the shaping of the United States. I was disappointed by the jazz exhibits, but the TV and film and sports sections were quite good. Highlights included a short film on the transformation of the depiction of blacks in movies, as well as relics like Chuck Berry’s guitar and convertible Cadillac, the track shoes Jesse Owen wore in the ’36 Olympics, the gloves Joe Lewis used in his rematch with Max Schmeling, and Jackie Robinson’s uniform.

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Joe Lewis’ boxing gloves

But these just scratch the surface of what is upstairs (they even have Eddie Murphy’s jacket from the first Beverly Hills Cop movie), as these cultural exhibits are heavier on objects than they are on interpretation (the reverse is true in the below ground, chronological history sections). These exhibits are more fun and certainly entertaining.

I spent a total of about 4.5 hours in the museum, only because I did not get in until 12:30ish. I definitely needed more time.

Besides not having enough hours to do the upstairs portions more justice, I was mostly disappointed by the number of kids and teens frolicking around seemingly oblivious to the remarkable facility’s interpretive power. Don’t get me wrong, I saw a large number of youngsters transfixed and interested in the exhibits (and there are many high tech and “immersive” exhibits meant to draw them in and get them pondering what kinds of choices they would have made if they had been in our past), but those that were treating it like a playground made me feel sorry for all the people that have been trying to get into the museum and were not as fortunate as myself (like the three friends I traveled with). All in all, the museum was not as successful at keeping the attention of children as were the three other museums I saw on my trip (more on those in later postings).

My final assessment: A few quibbles aside, the museum is every bit as amazing as you have heard and read about. I was astounded by the relics, at times numbed by the experience, and inspired by its sobering, yet ultimately hopeful interpretation of United States history.   A+.

Get there ASAP.

Historians on the Comey firing; Thoughts on Underground’s second season; Jefferson Davis gets hauled off; Fiorina and Colonial Williamsburg?

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Tubman stealing from the collection plate??

I’ve been away from this site for about a week now because of the grading that comes with the end of another semester. Anything happen while I was gone?

HA! Look, there is really no point in me commenting here about the Comey firing, because you have already read all the stories about the parallels to Watergate. Here’s a good run-down of what some top historians have been saying about it on social media. Otherwise, I’ll spare you and just move on . . .

WGN’s Underground wrapped up its second season last night. I have not commented much since the season began (except on that awesome episode that was exclusively dedicated to a Harriet Tubman speech), and that is largely because I have struggled with how I feel about it. On the one hand, I like that it developed the growing rift in the abolitionist movement over the more violent tactics and fanaticism of John Brown, and it seems that a third season of the show will depict the Harper’s Ferry Raid. Further, if my Twitter feed is an indication, the show is becoming increasingly beloved by people who are excited that we have a pop cultural depiction of the Antebellum era that features an empowered slave community. On the other hand, as I have expressed many times before, I think that this recent pop cultural trend toward focusing on violent resistance is problematic, because it does a disservice to the overwhelming majority of the enslaved that resisted the complete control of their lives in more subtle and realistic ways (Mercy Street was far superior in depicting this). This season of Underground even featured a ridiculous scene straight out of Django Unchained, in which our heroes brought down an entire planation home in a fiery explosion and then made it from Georgia all the way back to Ohio with apparent ease. Ugh. I also noticed a strong unevenness in the episodes, which I am chalking up to disparity in the quality of direction. And what was with that scene in which Harriet Tubman encouraged our heroes to rob a church of its tithes? Further, Tubman’s near constant presence in Ohio this season is not historically accurate. And last night our heroes got into a full-scale battle with a Kentucky militia unit (or perhaps they were just slave patrollers) and yet they too escaped unscathed back into Ohio. About the only realistic thing that happened in the last episode was that our heroes that were left behind in Ohio (while the others were in KY) all got captured. (Setting up a cliff hanger).  Still, I can’t get too down on a show that has so many people looking at the enslaved with new eyes (delivering a powerful blow to the Lost Cause), and which appears to be headed toward the immediate events that led to the Civil War. Stay tuned for season three!

And speaking of the Civil War: The Jefferson Davis statue in New Orleans finally came down, and I love how Kevin Levin over on Civil War Memory pointed out that it appears that Davis has once again been hauled away wearing a skirt. Haha. Kidding aside though, my sentiments about these removals are on record (I am against it, but it is a local decision and is NOT “erasing” history), but when I see a video like this, (warning: rough language) I can’t help but feel they are doing the right thing.

And what the heck is this? Colonial Williamsburg has added Carly Fiorina to its Board of Trustees (yes, that Carly Fiorina). Does this mean the interpretation there (which is already changing drastically and in questionable ways) will become more conservative and/or politicized? Is she just trying to get more engrained in the Virginia community to test the waters for a senate run? Or does it mean nothing? Stay tuned.

Some humble musings from a professional historian: Did Trump “radicalize” me?

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“Trump made you a blogger.”

My friend and fellow professional historian, Christian McWhirter, said that to me a few months back, and I am reminded of it today because of a New Republic article that has been making the rounds on the internet. It claims that Trump’s ignorance of basic US history has “radicalized” historians. It is an interesting and short piece, so I encourage everyone to read it.

I am not sure exactly what they mean by “radicalized,” but the context suggests it means that historians have become more publicly vocal about their views on current politics. And more active in the resistance to Trump. Of course many of us spoke out before he was elected, and the fact that he won has many of us wondering if people even listen to historians, or perhaps even that our railing against him only actually made people love him more. (Probably so).

I have discussed this here before, but one of my biggest goals as a college educator was to never let my political leanings become clear to students. Most of us have had the experience of sitting in a college class, as a professor has used his captive audience as a chance to spew out political diatribes. I recall, for example, taking a course on Gilded Age America, but having to endure a professor that spent well over 50% of our class time holding forth on modern politics and all the problems he had with a current governor. I didn’t always disagree with him, but I got increasingly angry because I wanted to study the Gilded Age, not his political opinions about current events.

As a result of such experiences, when I began teaching college in the late 90s I dedicated myself to never letting my politics shape my lectures in an obvious way. Not only because it would be more fair to my students, but also because it would make my lectures more objective. I am a firm believer that one of the most important things that studying history does is create open-mindedness, forcing students to look at things from different perspectives than their own. I felt (and still feel) that having clear political leanings in my lectures only hinders that goal, as students will only become defensive (and thus close-minded) about their beliefs if they feel the professor is trying to indoctrinate them with a particular party’s political agenda.

Thus my goal has always been to remain as objective as possible, with the goal that students would actually have a hard time figuring out my personal political sympathies. When asked by students if I am a Republican or a Democrat, I’ve always refused to answer. If I can create a classroom environment in which a student’s preconceived political leanings are challenged, whether they are a Republican or Democrat, I feel I have done my job. I think I have a history of being successful in that regard.

Further, when I started this “blog,” I never intended it to include long musings like this. I did not have time for it and felt no one would be interested anyway. My sole purpose was to simply post links to history related stories and blogs that I found interesting, share a comment or two, and encourage other folks to check them out. And I most certainly did not want to fill it with political diatribes. I still prefer it to be that way, and try to stick to that format.

Thus both here and in classes, I never intended to comment extensively on current political events. But yes, Trump changed that.

During the election, I felt he presented such a grave danger to our country that I had to publicly speak out, using my position in the classroom to demonstrate the danger of his ideas and his utter lack of preparation and qualifications for the job. Trump began to make regular appearances in my lectures, whenever a particular historical topic seemed to shed light on his shortcomings (which turned out to be numerous). I was uncomfortable with this, and still am, but it increasingly feels like a duty.

I have gotten some small blow-back from students, and have heard one or two grumbling about my Trump attacks. To counter such sentiments, I have increasingly argued that much of his policies are not mainstream Republican ones (especially foreign and trade polices), pointing out this is one of the big reasons that the Republican leadership tried so hard to derail his candidacy. You don’t have to be a Democrat to be concerned about this buffoon (just ask John McCain or Lindsey Graham).

And this carried over to my blog. If you have spent anytime here, you know that my friend Christian is right. Trump did indeed turn me into a more traditional blogger, as I find it near impossible not to unleash diatribes like this one whenever sharing a story involving him.

Part of me despises Trump for causing these changes to my classroom and this blog, but on the other hand, is this not exactly the role that historians should play? Again, I think that our most important work is to help encourage and develop the open-mindedness that is so sorely lacking in our world. How can an historian do that if they stay quiet when they hear Trump making asinine, untruthful, and historically ignorant comments?

Trump wants “truth” to be as he defines it, and anything that challenges that is “fake.” Isn’t that pretty much the definition of close-minded?

Thus if I were to just keep quiet about Trump in my classrooms and here on this blog, would it not in the end work against my own personal dedication to encourage and promote open-mindedness? I think so.

Sadly, however, I have to wonder how much good my efforts actually do, considering that Trump’s true believers listen intently to Fox News every night. There they are told that anyone that disagrees with Trump is a leftist radical, a “snowflake,” or a pompous self-important liberal. No, actually, that is not the case, and I am proof of it.

Disgraced political hack Bill O’Reilly took to Twitter and his podcast last night to explain to his followers how wrong American historians are about Trump’s recent comments on Andrew Jackson and the Civil War. Despite the fact that we make the study of both those things our professional career, knowing the history and the sources far more than he likely ever will,  he labeled us “morons.”

I am more than certain that his and Trump’s folks believe that to be true, despite our academic pedigree, or most likely because of it.  So why listen to a well educated professor? Bill O’Reilly says the president is right, so they have to be wrong.

Thus when I open my mouth in class to criticize Trump, even from a historical perspective, I am sure that my most ardent Trump supporting students only dismiss it as the inaccurate rantings of a liberal professor. The enemy.

In the past I would never have been someone you or anyone else would ever see as a radical (or a liberal). And in fact I would have run from such a label.

So does that mean that Trump has turned me into a “radical?” Sadly, in the era of Trump and Fox News, adherence to basic facts, objectivity, and open-mindedness have come to be seen as just that.  In a world of closed minds, objectivity is now radical.

So be it.  I’m a radical.

And as radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison proclaimed during the presidency of slaveholder Andrew Jackson, “I am in earnest. I will not equivocate. I will not excuse. I will not retreat a single inch. And I will be heard.”

Thoughts on Trump, Jackson, the Civil War, slavery, and autocracy

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Oh, Donald.

As I am sure you are aware by now, the so-called president opened his mouth again about American history, and demonstrated his utter and total ignorance of it.  In case you’ve not seen it yet, here is what he said:

“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that — he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’ People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

Just for fun, let’s break down how every sentence in that diatribe reveals ignorance in more ways than one.

1. “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.” This shows that, unlike what others have been saying, Trump does know that Jackson was not around for the Civil War, so let’s be fair to him in this regard. However, the problem is the suggestion that the Civil War could have been averted by a stronger leader. So this means that:  a) Trump thinks Jackson was a better president than Lincoln, and B) that a strong leader would have been able to forge a compromise. The first point needs no comment, because it’s so patently absurd (and I doubt that even the people at The Hermitage would agree with Trump on that score). On the second point, it is not altogether clear what Jackson would have done about secession in 1861. On the one hand, in the Nullification Crisis he did make it clear that he felt that secession was the essence of anarchy, because democracy could not work if secession was a legitimate recourse for the minority when the majority ruled against them. This was precisely Lincoln’s stance on it, and is why he decided he could not let the South go when they seceded. Thus, the Civil War. On the other hand, Jackson’s wealth and elite status was dependent on slavery, so he might have decided that, like the South’s leaders, the preservation of slavery required secession. and thus, the Civil War. So whichever way Jackson went on it, you still get the Civil War.

Oh, but perhaps Trump meant that Jackson would have been able to forge a compromise. An entire generation of better politicians than Jackson repeatedly forged compromises on the slave issue, but eventually the Republican Party was born from the stance that compromise on the issue of slavery’s expansion was no longer desirable, lest the “slave power” take over the government and the country. But even after they won the presidency on that platform (you know, with Lincoln, the guy Trump thinks most people don’t realize was a Republican), efforts at compromise continued in Congress (with Lincoln’s blessings), all failing to avert war. What makes Trump think Jackson could have worked something out when better men than him failed? Jackson is not exactly a man that is renowned for his ability to compromise, hence his defiance of the system of checks and balances in regards to Indian removal, and his killing of the national bank. Oh, and his proposed solution for the Nullification Crisis (more on that later), was to hang a U.S. Senator by the neck until dead. Yes, he had just the temperament the country needed in the volatile secession crisis.

2. “He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart.”  Yes, indeed he was a very tough person, surviving wars, duels, and a bullet lodged in his back. But a big heart? Oh, so many ways we could smash this assertion, but I’ll settle on the two most obvious. 1) The Cherokee Indians helped Jackson win his first major victory at Horseshoe Bend in Alabama, and he even had an adopted Cherokee son. Yet he betrayed them (in defiance of the Supreme Court), by forcefully removing them from their lands via a military process that led to the death of thousands. 2) His hunting down of runaway slaves and fondness for the lash are well documented. Wow, what a tender sweetheart.

3. “And he was really angry that — he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.'” The main way that this statement has been attacked is by pointing out that Jackson could not have seen what was happening in regards to the Civil War, because he was not around by then. But, as indicated above, I think Trump knows that. So he must be referring to one of two things here, or both: 1) the growing sectionalism of the country even during Jackson’s time, or 2) the Nullification Crisis. In either case, Jackson’s presidency and temperament in fact inflamed both situations.  Again, there are many ways to attack this, but I will stick to just two. First, by alienating the previously nationalistic John C. Calhoun from his administration, Jackson in many ways created the sectionalized John C. Calhoun that worked to unite Southerners in defense of their own best interest. The Nullification Crisis was one product of this and was indeed a precursor to the Civil War. It ended via a compromise that prevented a war against the state of South Carolina. Perhaps this is why Trump believes Jackson could have prevented a Civil War. But think about this second point: Had Jackson refused to allow a compromise, and had stomped South Carolina into submission when it threatened secession, perhaps the South would have never threatened secession later over the slave issue. It was Calhoun’s argument and demonstration of the effectiveness of the secession threat that proved its power to force federal concessions. So does Jackson’s handling of the Nullification Crisis not actually in some way play a role in the South’s later secession that led to the Civil War? Hmm, maybe a stretch, but things to consider, Donald.

4. “People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War?” Well, actually, if Donald would go down to the Library of Congress (or maybe just look around the White House, I am sure there are some good history books laying around), he might find that more books have written about this, and more historians have worked on this, than just about any other American history topic. It is also a question that students all across the country are confronted with in their basic US history classes from elementary school until college. In fact, I dare say many of them wrote essays on it just today on final exams (mine did). So this one statement shows that Trump is clueless about what historians do and of what gets taught in schools. He could just ask his son, I bet he just studied the Civil War this year in that expensive Manhattan private school that Trump is keeping him in at the expense of millions of dollars each day to the American taxpayer (in security costs). But that’s another topic.

5. “Why could that one not have been worked out?” I could go into a whole lecture here about the causes of the Civil War, but the funny thing about this is that it comes from a man that has just recently admitted he thought the job of president was going to be easier than it is, and who has expressed frustration that he has not been able to even work his legislation through a Congress controlled by his own party.  Oh, and how about that North Korea thing? You tell me, Donald, why is it so hard to work things out?

But there are two bigger things to consider here.

Let’s say that Jackson did work it out, and there was no Civil War. Guess what Donald, that means that slavery would not have been destroyed (because any compromise would have had to ensure the survival of slavery in the southern states at the very least). That means that four million people would have remained in bondage (subject to the brutalization of southern slave masters like Andrew Jackson). Trump has recently praised Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass. Perhaps he should consider what their thoughts would be on a compromised settlement that would have averted the Civil War, leaving slavery intact. (Maybe he could call Douglass and asks, since he seems to think he is still alive). Was there really “no reason for this?”

And then there is this:  These statements from the president are not just ignorant and funny, they are frightening from several different perspectives. We have a man that repeatedly demonstrates he is absolutely clueless about his own nation’s history. Which is scary enough, considering how important history is for understanding our world and for making crucial decisions while leading it. Almost all of our presidents have been history buffs, and some of them, like Theodore Roosevelt, were historians themselves.  But this is also a man that has recently asserted that congressional rules are “archaic” because they require so many check and balance hoops to navigate (which protect the minority from majority tyranny), and who also seems to be considering a proposed challenge to the 1st amendment. Couple those things with these new statements about Jackson which reveal Trump (who’s presidential hero is a man that defied the system of checks and balances) thinks that powerful leaders can somehow singlehandledly bend events to their will, and this all once again points to the fact that the so-called president apparently fantasizes about autocracy.

THAT is what is scary about this Jackson/Civil War statement. And what we can’t let get lost as we continue to laugh at, criticize, and defy this presidency.

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

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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 Trump protestors need to “get over it” and move on. Yet the people that say that seem to be the most vocal against these removals, which is ironic given that the placement of the monuments themselves was done by people who couldn’t “get over” their loss in the war. It was 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 for today, 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.