Another Historic Wrong Turn: June 28, 1914

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Yesterday, a frenzied crowd surrounded Pope Francis’ car in Rio de Janeiro. The scene made security experts around the world cringe and was a huge embarrassment for Brazilian police. Apparently, the pontiff’s own driver took a wrong turn. (“With Modesty, Pope Francis Begins a Week in Brazil“)  While the Pope survived yesterday’s mistake, the incident recalls a more horrific outcome in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. On that fateful day, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, were not so lucky when their driver took a wrong turn.

The Archduke and his wife were in Sarajevo on their wedding anniversary as a political statement reinforcing Austria-Hungary’s authority in the turbulent Balkan region. Serbian nationalists were especially angry at the Archduke’s visit and its connection to the Austria-Hungary annexation of the region in 1909. The day started badly for the Archduke. Serbian nationalist conspirator Nedjelko Čabrinović threw a bomb at the regent’s motorcade, but the bomb missed its target and instead injured a police officer and several bystanders. Čabrinović tried to commit suicide by taking a cyanide pill and diving in the river. The pill failed to do its job and an angry crowd dragged Čabrinović from the river, providing a severe beating before he was taken into custody. Shaken, the Archduke and his wife went ahead the day’s plans stopping at the Town Hall for speeches and a presentation. After the ceremonies, there was some confusion about the motorcade’s next route and the Archduke’s driver took a wrong turn at the junction of Appel Quay and Franzjosefstrasse.

One of Čabrinović’s co-cospirators, 19-year-old Gavrillo Princip happened to be around the corner and saw his chance. He fired a pistol into the Archduke’s car, fatally wounding Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. They both died within an hour.

Historians point to the assassination of Franz-Ferdinand and Sophie as the spark that fueled the start of World War I. Austria-Hungary blamed the Serbian government for the attack and declared war on July 28, 1914. A series of secret treaties among the major European powers soon unleashed a game of falling dominos that ignited the start of World War I. Over 37 million people lost their lives in The Great War and the unsatisfactory peace that followed is named as the major cause of the Second World War.

Luckily, yesterday’s wrong turn in Rio de Janeiro did not have a parallel outcome.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie

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Dateline: July 5, 2013–Philadelphia


Living in Philadelphia is a kick for an American historian. I’m especially a sucker for the city’s 4th of July celebrations. This year’s program at Independence Hall  emphasized the importance and complex history of the struggle for civil rights in the United States. The topic is a good reminder that there is still “so much to do,” as singer-songwriter Ben Taylor reminded the crowd enjoying the festivities.

Mayor Michael Nutter noted during his speech that 2013 marks the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Battle of Gettysburg.  The Emancipation did not end slavery, but it shifted the war from a fight to save the union to a struggle to end slavery, thereby bringing the United States closer to the ideals spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. The 13th Amendment put a legal end to slavery in the United States, but the fight for racial equality continued. Underscoring that point, Mayor Nutter noted that 2013 also marks 50 years since the murder of 4 girls in a terrorist bombing at the 9th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. That event and the civil rights protests that followed were an important turning point for the modern Civil Rights Movement, eventually leading to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.  Philadelphia invited the Mayor of Birmingham, William D. Bell, Sr. to read the Declaration of Independence at yesterday’s 4th of July ceremony. Mayor Bell also road on a float carrying images of significant civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and the iconic Rosa Parks in the city’s Independence Day parade.

“Yes, the country has come a long way,” I thought to myself. But, of course, as a historian I should be more careful. A conversation I overheard between a mother and her teenage daughter ended my complacency.

“Mom, who was Rosa Parks?”  the smartly-dressed light-haired teenager asked her mother.

To my surprise, the 40-something white middle-class mother dismissed the question by shrugging her shoulders and replying, “I don’t know,” and apparently, didn’t care.

Flabbergasted at the response by a woman who I assume had at least graduated from a U.S. high school, I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she was tired, hot, or simply distracted. Smiling, I offered, “You probably remember that Rosa Parks was the brave woman in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 that refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. There is a statue of her in the U.S. Capitol.”

The woman’s only grunted and my friendly reminder didn’t seem to stimulate any memory of Parks’ story in the daughter either. Is it possible that these 2 middle-class white Americans had never heard of Rosa Parks? I hope not.

Historical memory is fleeting, but more important, forgetting the past can be hurtful. A blog post in today’s by Dr. Brittany Cooper makes my point. An Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, Dr. Cooper wrote about her experience this week while boarding a flight to Louisiana to visit relatives over the 4th of July holiday. A woman Dr. Cooper describes as white, middle-class, and a mother traveling with 2 sons sat down in the next seat. In such close quarters, Dr. Cooper innocently read the last few words of a phone text the woman sent to a friend, “on the plane, sitting thigh to thigh with a big fat nigger. Lucky me.”

It’s hard for me to imagine the pain and anger Dr. Cooper must have felt seeing those hateful words. Professor Cooper composed herself and decided she had to say something. She created a posting on on Facebook, then called up the post. Holding back tears, Dr. Cooper quietly showed the woman the FB posting and said, “I just want to let you know that your words were hurtful. And I hope you don’t pass that kind of ignorance down to your beautiful boys.” The woman did not apologize and instead only offered a curt reply, “I don’t.” Despite the uncomfortable atmosphere, Professor Cooper reached her destination without further incident or exchange.

As a historian and a white woman of a certain age, I’m appalled at the behavior of both mothers.  Recent events in the news add to my dismay.  It is indefensible for any American to argue that it is excusable for the Food Network’s, now former celebrity, Paula Deen to use the “n” word because of her “cultural heritage.”  I am also troubled at the Supreme Court’s decision ending the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act because it is no longer necessary. Both issues may seem insignificant to many Americans. To the contrary, on this holiday marking the 237th birthday of the United States, no American should be willing to accept excuses of cultural heritage, indifference, ignorance, or mission accomplished for behaviors and policies that are discriminatory and hinder the rights of anyone.

As singer-songwriter Ben Taylor reminded the crowd at Independence Hall on July 4, 2013 in Philadelphia, there is still “so much to do.”

Rosa Parks Biography
Dr. Brittany Cooper in
Ben Taylor,  Youtube performance

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Myth of NINA and St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S.

This afternoon, March 16, 2013, I was lucky enough to enjoy the spontaneous visit of the 2nd Street Irish Society Pipes and Drums at Bridget Foy’s in Philadelphia. pipers-062About the same time, two million people watched or participated in today’s 252nd St. Paddy’s Day parade.
Today and tomorrow many communities will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and the ethnic pride such events represent for the almost 40 million Americans that claim Irish or Scots-Irish heritage (2008 U.S. Census Bureau survey). Six times more people claiming Irish ancestry live in the U.S. than in Ireland and Northern Ireland combined. The popular memory of the Irish diaspora is the story of a struggling ethnic group overcoming poverty and discrimination. No slogan better represents the dark history of discrimination against Irish Americans than the 19th century phrase, “No Irish Need Apply” (NINA). Nevertheless, while many aspects of that popular story are true, Richard Jensen and others have shown that the NINA slogan is more myth than reality. Instead, the story of Irish Americans includes many interesting elements that are often overlooked on St. Patrick’s Day and help to explain why some immigrant groups assimilate faster than others.

Substantial immigration from Ireland to North America began in the 1740s. Dominated by Protestants from Ireland that were being displaced for a second time by the British government, many were from families that had originally migrated from Protestant Scotland to Catholic Ireland. After several decades, however, British land policies changed, luring many to the new British colonies in North America, especially the Carolinas. Staunchly anti-British, this first wave of Irish Americans were strong Patriots that fought bravely against British troops during the American Revolution. In the early National period, this wave of Irish Americans continued to hold anti-British sentiments, favoring the policies of Thomas Jefferson and the Republican opposition over George Washington and the Federalists. This made Irish Americans targets of the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts.

Irish immigration to the U.S. rose again in the 1840s amid the Great Potato Famine. The earlier generation of Irish Americans traced its roots to the Revolutionary Period and began to self-identify as Scots-Irish, distinguished from the new Irish Catholic immigrants arriving in rising numbers on U.S. shores. This latter wave of immigrants from Ireland faced intense anti-Catholic discrimination from a growing nativist, anti-immigrant native-born American political base. Nonetheless, Irish Catholics were important participants in the Mexican-American War and most fought for the Union in the Civil War. They also formed the largest ethnic group constructing the country’s first canals and the eastern section of the Transcontinental Railroad. Many also labored as miners and in other crucial jobs building fueling the Industrial Revolution. It is also fascinating to recognize as Hasia Diner argued in her book Erin’s Daughters, Irish Americans constituted the fist wave of new Americans dominated by female migrants. This foreshadowed patterns more common to the decades after 1965 and still a part of U.S. immigration today.

Somewhat contrary to the historical memory suggested by the slogan, “No Irish Need Apply,” Irish immigrants to the U.S. had important advantages over other ethnic groups that helped their children quickly assimilate to the mainstream. Irish immigrants generally spoke English, arrived when low wage labor jobs were plentiful, could move into higher paid positions because of their language skills, were considered “white,” had access to the expansion of urban public schools for their children, and female immigrants often married up and outside their ethnic group. In addition, as Richard Jensen discovered, the memory of the NINA slogan is more myth than historical accuracy. Instead of being a large part o of the Irish immigrant labor experience, the slogan was popularized in a song published in Philadelphia in 1862 disparaging Irish immigrant women.

The pride in America’s Irish heritage that I and many Americans will witness over the next two days shows that times and attitudes can change. Knowing the details of that history highlights the advantages for all Americans in helping immigrants easily assimilate and make valuable contributions to the future of the United States.

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Dropping In: Education and the American Dream

Myth of the Successful College Dropout

Myth of the Successful College Dropout

“Appealing as it may be, the against-all-odds story of the college dropout is not the story we should be selling our young people.” (The Atlantic) The term “dropout” entered the American discourse in the 1930s. Before 1937, the majority of Americans did not earn a high school diploma, much less a college degree. However, since the founding of the United States, access to high quality and affordable education has been the safest bet for reaching the American Dream of financial independence. The onset of the Great Depression highlighted the necessity of secondary education for success as an adult. The 1920 census marked the first time that the majority of American lived in urban areas rather than the rural countryside. The nation’s slow transformation from a rural society to a more urban landscape paralleled the growth of advanced public education. In 1931, historian James Truslow Adams coined the phrase, “The American Dream” as a shared national value. He denied that the American Dream was a desire for great wealth. Adams argued instead that the idea was “of a land where life should be better, and richer, and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement”(The Epic of America, 1931). Public education provided that road to opportunity for the majority of young Americans.

In 1910, 20% of 10-15 year olds spent their days working for wages and most Americans did not attend school beyond age 14. An even higher percentage of young people labored in agriculture. Only 15% of American adults had a high school education and most communities did not offer public schooling beyond 8th grade. Race, class, gender, and ethnicity also hindered access. The number of high schools expanded rapidly in the 1920s, but primarily in cities. Small towns and rural communities continued to lag far behind and Jim Crow segregation meant that black Americans had even fewer opportunities for quality education.

By 1930, only 50% of 14-17 year olds attended high school. The onset of the Great Depression forced thousands of schools to close their doors or shorten school terms. Nevertheless, by 1933, the New Deal included funding to keep thousands of teachers employed in school districts that ran out of money. Work-relief programs like the Works Progress Administration paid for the construction of thousands of new high schools. These new facilities coupled with the dismal job market to encourage teenagers and their parents to believe that a high school education as a necessity for success in adulthood. The New Deal’s National Youth Administration sweetened the pot by offering modest stipends to young people who stayed in school and earned a high school diploma, or even a college degree. In 1937, for the first time in American history, the majority of the nation’s 17 year-olds earned a high school diploma.

The trend continued in the decades after the Second World War. Baby boomers and their parents increasingly embraced attending college as a necessity. The recent attention to the problem of college loan debt makes it enticing to believe that college dropouts may be better off than their peers who stay in school. Success stories like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are often used as examples of successful college dropouts. However, these individuals are exceptions. As a look at the experience of young Americans in the past shows, a high school and college education is an individual and a public good. (The Atlantic).

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Today’s Best History Blooper: Ben Franklin was the Greatest U.S. President

Calvin Coolidge was Greatest President

Calvin Coolidge was Greatest President

Another sad history howler in online media. Today, THRILLIST, a national media/entertainment blog, sent the following statement in an email to subscribers:

“Many Philadelphians would argue local hero Ben Franklin is the greatest president of all time, because his face is on the $100 bill, and because the quality of American education has really declined in recent generations. Thankfully Thrillist is here on George Washington’s birthday to explain to you why the greatest ever was actually… Calvin Coolidge?”

The suggestion that Silent Cal was the greatest president is galling. Gratefully the laughable reference to founding father Ben Franklin as a possible alternative is a bad joke about the quality of American education. Historians have a lot of work to do.

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WHM: It’s That Time of Year…Again

The profusion of events crowded into annual Women’s History Month celebrations can be exhausting. I’ve spent my professional career advocating for the inclusion of women and gender in historical study, but I’m conflicted about themed history months as the best way to educate the public about this neglected past. Even more daunting, the desire to celebrate women’s history too often results in a lack of critical analysis about the missteps and failures of well-intentioned activists and their allies.

Tonight’s Women’s History Month roll-out event at WHYY, Philadelphia’s PBS affiliate, previewed parts of a new documentary that skillfully balances celebration and criticism. The slick 3-hour film MAKERS: Women Who Make America is described on the PBS website as “the remarkable story of the most sweeping social revolution in American history, as women have asserted their rights to a full and fair share of political power, economic opportunity, and personal autonomy.” Narrated by Meryl Streep, the opening sequences predictably use the usual suspects and historical media images to tell the story of second wave feminism following World War II. Most important, the documentary includes new voices from the next generations of women examining the failures of the movement and the need for a continuing struggle to protect civil rights and gain equal opportunity for every citizen regardless of gender and class.

MAKERS is scheduled to air Tuesday, February 26, 8pm on PBS.
Check local listings imagePBS

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Wanted: Historians to Advise Emory President

How is it possible that the president of Emory University pointed to the 3/5ths Compromise as an example of political compromise and good governance? President James W. Wagner made that claim in the winter edition of Emory Magazine. Many faculty formally protested the claim and the president’s weak apology. Clearly a constitutional “compromise” that indirectly recognized slavery, denied rights of citizenship, and was a major factor leading to a civil war that divided the nation and led to the death and suffering of many Americans is not a symbol of compromise and good governance. Too bad Emory’s president and the magazine’s editors didn’t take more American history courses.

Even Wikipedia has a more complex interpretation of the 3/5ths Compromise than President Wagner.

The president’s “apology”is available at

For subscribers, today’s Chronicle of Higher Education includes the Emory controversy.

Busted by history.

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Buffalo Bill Cody in the News

Wild Bill Cody

Often called “cigar store Indians” because most were stylized portrayals of Native Americans, such statues were advertising markers for tobacco stores. Of an estimated 100,000 crafted in the late 19th and early 20th century, less than 3,000 still exist.

Kit and Barry Cody were killed in a plane crash in Central Florida on February 16, 2013. The Missoulian identified the victims as the great-grandsons of William Cody, the founder and star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. For better or worse, the sad story will be noticed by many  because of the brothers’ link to William Cody and his over-the-top, circus-style production of the American West. The late-nineteenth century cigar-store statue of William Cody on display in the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania is a glimpse into Cody’s popularity during his lifetime. The statue appeared on the streets of Philadelphia after Cody’s Wild West Show visited the city in the late 1880s. The four-hour, distinctly American, circus-style extravaganza toured the United States, Great Britain, and Europe from 1883-1913. The Library of Congress has a plethora of research material on Cody’s Wild West Show. The Cody Archive is also a good source and includes Thomas Edison films of the diverse performers in this over-the-top extravaganza.

Studio 360 did a terrific audio presentation, available online, analyzing the Wild West Show’s continuing influence in shaping the public image of the United States and its history.

It is interesting that Cody’s great grandsons sadly lost their lives in Florida, a state that the Wild West Show ignored, but was another important part of the settling of America’s last frontiers. Land hungry Americans rapidly grabbed land in Central and South Florida at the same time Cody’s Wild West Show popularized images of the Wild West. The modernization of both regions depended on industrialization and the country’s increasingly diverse population. Questions about immigration, citizenship, land development, and the role of the federal government continue to shape today’s political debates. The settlement of these last frontiers within the continental United States contained huge commitments from the federal government. Understanding the breadth of U.S. expansion in the West and the Southeast in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century offer valuable insights about the roots of continued political debates. Broadening the history of frontier settlement to include Florida as well as the iconic West helps to explain why this battleground state today is so influential and and important contributor often to the circus-like politics that surpass the battles in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

William Cody's Wild West Show

William Cody’s Wild West Show

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Priceless Melton Barker Short Films

Capturing the voices and images of children from the past can be illusive. Even when the sources do exist, archives and libraries rarely make it easy to identify sources that relate the direct experiences of kids. One exception is The Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI) website featuring short films by Melton Barker produced from the 1930s through the 1970s.

Barker was an entrepreneurial filmmaker traveling across the United States and remaking the same short film, “Kidnappers Foil” over and over. He made money by casting local kids and then selling tickets to screenings of his newest remake of the film in the community’s local theater. Unfortunately, most of Barker’s films no longer exist, but TAMI has posted a few priceless examples. The current collection features kids from small-towns in Arkansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania. The young performers are clearly parroting Barker’s simplistic script, but the films reveal the kids’ voices and regional accents. The diverse ethnic and racial make-up of their daily lives is also depicted in some of the films’ black and white images.

The TAMI Melton Barker film collection is a terrific resource that helps break the myth that children’s experiences are too illusive for serious historical research.

Priceless Melton Barker films

Priceless Melton Barker films

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1922 Kodachrome Color Movie

1922 Color Movies

This mesmerizing short film from 1922 is “bewitching” and important for its coquettish  portrayal of female sensuality. The flapper image popularized by movies of the time showcased female sexuality in ways previously unheard of in mainstream culture. This amazing color film clip dramatically displays the revolutionary change in this significant decade. Conservative social critics and some first wave feminists condemned the changes putting female sexuality on public display. Many younger women, however, saw the changes as reflections of greater freedoms. In many ways the debate parallels similar complaints about Beyonce’s all-female revue at last week’s 2013 Super Bowl. Public displays of female sexuality = power, or exploitation?

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