Talking Hart Island podcast

I received an email recently from author and podcaster Michael T. Keene, who introduced himself and told me of his exciting new project: the Talking Hart Island podcast. For those who may not know, Hart Island is located in Long Island Sound near the Bronx and since 1869 has served as New York City’s potters field. It is the largest public burial ground in the United States. Approximately one million souls rest there today. Hart Island is still very much a working cemetery; officials estimate it has about another decade to go before reaching full capacity. One hundred and fifty years of burials dating back the days of Tammany offer many exciting interpretive possibilities for a podcast.

Today is an exciting time in the long history of Hart Island. Currently run by the NYC Department of Correction and tended by inmates from Rikers, Hart Island may soon open as a public park if the city council votes to change the island’s jurisdiction to the Parks Department. DNA is now making it possible to identify some of the unknown. These are the stories Mike Keene and his team are telling. Today I listened to the segment one featuring Russell Shorto, To start at the very beginning was a great move. Too often when the public thinks of the history of New York they think it begins with the British. In reality it was the Dutch who set the tone and character of what they called New Netherland. Much of that Dutch ethos remains with us today.

There are already three episodes of Talking Hart Island available for listening, with a new episode coming weekly. Give it a listen by clicking on the image above.

Constitution Day

Audience at FDR’s Constitution Day speech, September 17, 1937

Today, September 17, is Constitution Day. It was on this date in 1787 that the Framers met for the final time to sign the document they had written over that contentious summer. It was never a sure thing and was still not a done deal; after that the Constitution went to the states for ratification, a process that took several years as state delegates argued for and against. It was in this period that Hamilton, Jay, and Madison authored The Federalist.

Constitution Day is one of those holidays, like Flag Day and Evacuation Day, that used to be a significant part of American culture but that are hardly remembered today. We would do wise to keep in mind what we stand to lose; if we have learned anything over the past few years it is that our world is more fragile than we would like to think. Many thousands used to turn out in places like Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and Borough Hall for speeches and parades. There is still some of that. The Rufus King Manor in Queens, for instance, is having its annual observation and fundraiser today. King himself was one of the drafters of the Constitution and was there in Philadelphia for most of the convention. Other events are undoubtedly taking place elsewhere.

President Roosevelt gave his 1937 Constitution Day speech during his Supreme Court packing initiative, largely seen today as one of the major blunders of his administration.

Here are two images from the 1937 Constitution.Day. President Roosevelt spoke that evening at the base of the Washington Monument. One can see the seriousness on his face. That is because this event came during his notorious Courting Packing controversy and he was trying to rally support. The thing never went his way and it is justifiably seen as a low mark in his twelve year presidency.

(images/Library of Congress)


The summer of 1919’s terrible climax

Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Headquarters of the National Guard during the September 1919 police strike. Governor Calvin Coolidge called out the guard in response to lotting and violence.

Summer technically has another week and a half to go, and these waning days mark the anniversary of one of the worst events of that terrible Red Summer of 1919: the Boston Police Strike raged for nearly a week that September. It was anarchy when more than 1000 police officers walked off the job. Hobbes was right. The same thing happened in Montreal half a century later in 1969. The Boston strike was just one of the many violent outbreaks that year, many of which were essentially pogroms against African-Americans. In a broader context in can also be seen as another in one of the thousands of strikes that had taken place across the country dating back decades to the Gilded Age.

Guardsmen rounding up gamblers in Boston Common during the municipal police strike of 1919

The big winner in the 1919 Boston Police Strike was Governor Calvin Coolidge, whose calling out of the National Guard helped staunch the violence and looting. The following year Coolidge was on the national ticket when he and Warren G. Harding defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt and James M. Cox in the 1920 presidential election. I wish my grandparents on both sides were still alive for me to ask if they remembered the incident; all four grew up in Boston and would have been between 5-10 at the time, old enough perhaps to remember something or to have heard older relatives discussing it in later years. Alas I will ever know because the opportunity is just no longer there.

(images/Boston Public Library)

Friday notes

It was a good day yesterday when I both downloaded the Hamilton soundtrack and found the Fall 2019 Mount Vernon program booklet in the mailbox. At Federal Hall this summer there were many patrons visiting the site either after or before going to see the Broadway musical. Most of them were not New Yorkers, but individuals and families from across the country who came to the city for the express purpose of attending. They are always fun to talk to, not least because they are so excited. Usually they do Federal Hall, Hamilton’s resting place in the Trinity Church cemetery down Wall Street, and the Grange in Northern Manhattan. A few of the more adventurous even take the trip to Weehawken to see the dueling, though from what I understand there is not much to see. Still, there is that notion of place. I’m listening to it right now as I wrap up my coffee.

Catalogs such as this one from George Washington’s Mount Vernon are coming, in the mail and online, from various places. With summer winding down and people returning from vacation, institutions are rolling out their fall programming.

Sunday morning coffee

Volumes 1-7 of the John Calhoun papers were released between 1959 and 1987. The project concluded with volume 28 in 2003.

I hope everyone’s Labor Day Weekend is going well. I am having my coffee and doing a few things. It should be a quiet day, though we plan on going out for lunch later. Here is a picture I snapped in the stacks of the DAR Library yesterday. It is volumes one through seven of The Papers of John C. Calhoun. I find these projects, which often last decades, fascinating. The Calhoun endeavor took almost half a century; volume one was released in 1959 and an internet search informs us that the editors released volume 28, the final volume, in 2003. The first installment was edited by a historian named Robert L. Meriwether, who died in 1958 as that initial volume was in galleys. A cursory JSTOR search of Meriwether’s writings reveals the strong Lost Cause sensibility of his worldview, which should not be surpassing in a white South Carolinian born in the late nineteenth century. Whatever that initial provenance, Meriwether and the editors who came after him did historiography a great service in the editing of Calhoun’s extensive papers.

I don’t claim to be an expert on John C. Calhoun but he is a fascinating figure in American history. The duality is evident: involved in American affairs for decades, he did so much to build the American republic as part of that generation that came immediately after the Founders; conversely, his unapologetic support for slavery, and willingness to secede and tear the union asunder, are also his legacy. How if at all does one square that circle? History is complicated and filled with all kinds of irony.

I remember the case a few years ago when a dining room employee at Yale destroyed a stained-glass window in Calhoun College depicting slaves picking cotton. The school was later renamed. Over a long career Calhoun served as vice president, a U.S. House & Senate member, and Secretary of State & War, among other things. He died in 1850 when that generation of Clay, Webster, and others left the scene just prior to the Civil War.

Searching for one’s Revolutionary War ancestors

These genealogy pamphlets produced by the Daughters of the American Revolution are testament to the ethnic complexity of the American Revolution.

I went today as a tourist to the Daughters of the American Revolution headquarters in Washington. The museum and library are in Memorial Continental Hall, which are connected by a hallway to Constitution Hall, which I did not see. The museum is really something, as is the library. There were many things to see; among the things that struck me the most were these genealogy pamphlets about how to research one’s Revolutionary War ancestor by ethnicity. It’s a small reminder of how complicated the Revolutionary War period was. There are handouts for French, Jewish, Native American, and Spanish ancestry. And this is just touching the surface. The Dutch, for instance, are another category all their own. Then there are the Portuguese, and so on and so forth. New York City alone was a babel of languages and dialects.

I had a great talk with several young staffers during my excursion about the museum and its historical mission and memory. If you are ever in D.C. and are looking for something to see right near the mall, the DAR headquarters is not a bad choice.


The ubiquitous Lincoln cent

People line up outside the Pine Street entrance of the NYC Sub-Treasury to buy the newly released Lincoln penny, August 2, 1909

The Lincoln penny is one of the most common, perhaps the most common, examples of American material cultural. It is so ubiquitous, such a part of our everyday lives, that we think nothing of it. The Lincoln one cent coin replaced the Indian Head, which had been in circulation for sixty years, from 1859, just prior to the Civil War, until 1909, the centennial of Lincoln’s birth. In the words of one observer writing in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in August 1909 during the coin’s rollout: “The new cent is a dignified and handsome coin, the head of Lincoln being particularly good and free from suggestion of caricature, which attended so many of the earlier attempts to picture the great but homely President.”

There had been a move for several years under Theodore Roosevelt to improve America’s coinage. Roosevelt believed the United States needed a more dignified, aesthetically pleasing metal currency in line with the nation’s increasing role in world affairs. Roosevelt hired Augustus Saint-Gaudens and others to carry that out. Saint-Gardens created such masterpieces as the Double Eagle. The Lincoln penny was designed by Victor David Brenner, like Saint-Gaudens an immigrant who contributed greatly to our culture. The public demand for the Lincoln penny when it was first issued in August 1909 was intense.

This was the scene at the New York Sub-Treasury (Federal Hall) on August 2, 1909 as people lined up on the steps of the Pine Street entrance. The coins were rationed in New York City and elsewhere as people turned out to get the new issue. The U.S. Mint issued 25 million of the coins, but demand still outstripped supply. In mid-September someone broke into a Long Island post office and stole $5 worth of Lincoln heads. That doesn’t sounds like much but comes to 500 coins. Such stories were, if not common, not exactly unprecedented. Rumors were rampant of people selling them on the black market, if that’s what one wanted to call it, at above face value.

(image/National Park Service)


W. E. B. Du Bois, 1868 – 1963

This past weekend I purchased David Levering Lewis’s W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919, volume one of Lewis’s two-part narrative of the life and times of the historian and sociologist. It’s part of a wider plan I have for a few projects that I intend to work on this academic year. I don’t want to go too into detail now, but I will say that I intend to take an international perspective on certain issues that often are interpreted through a domestic lens. Biography of a Race was released in 1993, the year I graduated and took a class on twentieth century Black Protest as an undergraduate. For that course we had to read The Souls of Black Folk, which I was too young at the time to fully comprehend and appreciate. I might delve in again this autumn. Du Bois has never been more relevant than he is today.

Du Bois as he was when attending college in the late 1880s

It is difficult to believe it was twelve years ago, but 2007 a colleague and I ordered The Oxford W. E. B. Du Bois, a 19-volume set of the scholar’s complete works, for our library in our capacity as subject specialists. Du Bois is really always there. Two years ago during the Great War centennial students in a module I co-taught read him and others to gain different perspectives on the First World War. Sadly but not surprisingly some students had no idea who he was, though thankfully we changed that in our own small way. Du Bois lived in Brooklyn for a time, in a house he purchased from Arthur Miller no less.

I say all this because it had not occurred to me until reading about it on the social media platform of a journalist I follow that today, August 27, is the anniversary of W.E.B. Du Bois’s death. Much like Adams and Jefferson’s passing on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Du Bois’s death had a poetic aspect: the 1963 March on Washington took place the following day. It was there on the National Mall that many heard news. Du Bois was far away in both body and spirit; he was ninety-five years old at the time of his death and had long since left America. Du Bois must have found the independence movements invigorating in the winter of his life. He died in Accra, Ghana.


Remembering the Molotov & Ribbentrop Pact

Today is the 80th anniversary of one of the most significant events of the twentieth century: Molotov and Ribbentrop’s signing of the Non-agression Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union. This newspaper extra pretty much captures the story, which came as a surprise to much of the world. One of the most shaken constituencies was the International Left, many of whom had spent the past two decades unwisely admiring Stalin and Lenin. To them it seemed impossible that Soviet Russia could sign such a deal with Fascist Germany, but there it was. I’ll leave it to you to find the images of the principals signing the agreement, smiling all the while like the cat that ate the canary. There are no heroes in this story. Just a week later the two nations invaded Poland.

It is often lost on us for how long Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union remained allies. Their pact held until late June 1941, almost two years. They shared all kinds of resources while committing all kinds of cruelties, looking the other way at each others’ atrocities. How things might have gone were in not for Operation Barbarossa is one of the great counterfactuals of the Second World War. There are just so many contingencies when it comes to World War 2.