I was walking through the library where I work earlier today when this book waiting to be shelved caught my eye. It may be difficult to believe in our polarized and confusing historical moment that by most cultural indicators the world has been getting better now for decades. Steven Pinker for one has written extensively on this, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Look back at what the world was like in the years before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, or the influenza pandemic that occurred during and just after the war. Of course saying this is not to be pollyannish; our world has serious problems that will not be going away entirely anytime soon. And terrible things can happen when one least expects. Still, we must remember our blessings as we can.
We had a great time in Yonkers yesterday for the film showing and discussion about our documentary New Yorkers in Uniform: From World War One to Today. I do not have any pictures of the event itself right now, but I believe a few of the others took some still photographs and possibly even some film footage. If so, I will share when I have. The subject of our film, Thomas Michael Tobin, was born in Yonkers in 1886 and died there in 1966. I have only been to Yonkers three times now: for the on location film shooting in March 2017, the showing this past December, and now again yesterday for the one at the historical society. The city has come to mean a lot to me. I took the photo you see above aboard the train on the way up yesterday morning. As you can see, even though it is late April the foliage has not yet begun here in the Greater New York area.
After the program a small group of us ended up at the Yonkers Brewing Company across the street from the train station for dinner. I don’t want to discuss the details too much right now, but we have some interesting plans that we believe will bring our film project to full fruition between now and the 100th anniversary of the Armistice in November. Ideally we will go back to Yonkers in the fall but we are not 100% certain. We’ll see how it goes.
Doing the event yesterday at the Yonkers Historical Society was a great treat. There were many interesting people involved in some fascinating projects that they told me about during the after party. The doing of local history helps keep the stories alive in immediate and direct ways. I was glad to see there were some young people in attendance as well. I will keep everyone up to date on how things develop over the spring and summer.
Hey all, I am sorry about the lack of posts recently. The semester has been in full swing and I have been involved in a number of different projects. In a few minutes I am headed to Grand Central Station to catch a train to Yonkers with a small group of others to show the World War One film we completed last November. We will be at the Yonkers Historical Society. It feels good to begin to the city from where our doughboy came. Today is an important and probably much overlooked day in New York City history: it wagon April 28, 1858–160 years ago today–that the Central Park commissioners awarded first prize to Plan Number 33. This was Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s Greensward Plan, the template for what became Central Park.
The original law creating a park for Manhattan was passed in 1853. As I point out in the manuscript of my book, we are all fortunate that no progress ensued because Olmsted in those years was touring the South and writing about his experiences witnessing slavery and Southern society. Had construction began then, his and Vaux’s vision for a “central” park would never have been realized, at least not in New York City. It is a theme I come back to with students and others often, but when we are in Central Park or other parks such as Prospect here in Brooklyn we get the impression landscape architects put a stone wall around nature and left it at that. Nothing could be further from the truth. These are fully realized man-made spaces, just like a building, a sculpture, or what have you.
Hopefully today when the many thousands of people are enjoying Central Park on this spring day, a few will pause and appreciate that the process of creating what they are experiencing started on this date all those years ago.
I came across this image while researching something else and thought I would share. It comes from the July 1918 edition of The National Magazine. The children are refugees in a Venetian bomb shelter and their caretaker is a nun with the American Red Cross. They are looking up at an airplane during a bombardment. From the day Italy entered the war in May 1915 until the end, the Central Powers bombed Venice more than forty times. The damage to the city was as great as anything Italians would see during the Second World War, which is saying a lot. The editors described this as a “flashlight photograph,” by which they presumably meant it was taken in darkness with a flash bulb. Hence the title: “A Modern Rubens by Flashlight.” The Rubens reference may be to the Flemish master’s early seventeenth century “The Massacre of the Innocents.”
A few weeks back on Opening Day I mentioned that baseball once began much later than it does today. The Cubs and Cardinals began their 1918 seasons playing each other on April 16. Those on the field in St.Louis that day included Grover Cleveland Alexander, starting for the Cubs, and Rogers Hornsby, playing shortstop for the Cardinals. Alexander was an established star by this point and was slated to earn $8000 for the season; Hornsby, an up-and-comer in his third season with the Cardinals, would earn precisely half that after losing a bitter contract dispute to the Cardinals’ Branch Rickey. Throughout late 1917 and early 1918 baseball players were getting their draft notices from their local boards. In January 1918 Hornsby had appealed for a deferment to board officials back home in Fort Worth, Texas. Hornsby argued that his baseball salary was his family’s sole source of income. He received a Class 3 deferment and was thus free to play ball.
Owners understood that there was a manpower shortage and agreed to a 21 (not 25) player roster for the 1918 season. They also held an abbreviated spring training. Though Grover Cleveland Alexander turned thirty-one in February 1918 he was still eligible for the draft. In December 1917 the Philadelphia Phillies traded Alexander and batterymate Bill Killefer to the Cubs. The trade was partly about money but another, more cynical, reason may have been because Phillies management realized that both players were likely to be drafted into the A.E.F. sometime in 1918. The trade was a huge deal and made headlines across the country.
Alexander held out for a signing bonus but finally reported to the Cubs in mid-March. Meanwhile his draft board went about its work. The head clerk in Howard Country, Nebraska announced on April 12 that as of yet Alexander had not been called. There was great confusion, with some newspapers saying Alexander had been drafted and others saying he had not. Less than forty-eight hours later things had become clearer. Grover Cleveland Alexander had indeed been drafted into the Army and was to report to Camp Funston by the end of the month. Alexander asked to be allowed to join the Navy but his draft board would not have it.
The pitcher’s call-up finally came just as the Cubs were breaking training in mid-April. On April 16 Alexander and the Cubs were in St. Louis to begin their season against the Cardinals. That very day Killefer received notice from his own draft board in Michigan that he had been declared 1A: eligible for draft and service. The board had originally designated Killefer 4A but the government appealed that status and won. So there they were facing the Rogers Hornsby and the Cardinals at Robison Field. Alexander pitched well but not effectively enough to win. The Cardinals took the contest 4-2. He went 1-for 3 at the plate. Hornsby went 1-for-4 with a run scored and an RBI. Sure enough, Alexander would soon leave the Cubs to train at Camp Funston. He pitched two more games, winning both and ending his season, before it truly began, with three complete games and a 1.73 ERA.
New Yorkers stopped what they were doing in mid-April 1918 to remember the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It is important to remember that Lincoln’s death was still within living memory for many Americans; it had only occurred fifty-three years previously. With so many young men now in training camps and soon to be on their way to France, the Lincoln commemoration was muted. As the headline here shows, the Brooklyn Riding and Driving Club remembered both Washington and Lincoln at its 27th annual dinner on Saturday 13 April. Present for that event at the Montauk Club were officers from the British and French Armies. During a toast to men for the BRDC who had joined the AEF, one poilu reflected “The German [1918 spring] offensive is to be taken seriously but the real days of anxiety were the days of 1914. Now we know that you are rushing troops to our aid. Then it was a question of ‘to be; or not to be.”
Lincoln was being remembered throughout the city that weekend. In its April 14 edition the New York Times published recently discovered letters by Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. Maybe I am reading too much into it, but it could be that in presenting letters from both Lincoln and Lee the Times sought to balance regional sympathies. That day the Calvary M.E. Church in Harlem hosted Laura D. Prisk, who for the past several years was pushing to officially designate June 14 as Flag Day. (That came to pass in 1949.) There were many veterans from the Grand Army of the Republic on hand to see Mrs. Prisk and others talk about the ongoing war in Europe. Prisk proclaimed that “Much attention is being payed to the long-range gun of the Hun but the real long-range gun is that of America, reaching 3,000 miles to the battle line.” Prisk was in attendance again the next day when she laid a wreath and spoke at the Lincoln statue in Union Square. On hand were sailors from the USS Recruit, the depot established in Union Square the previous May to sell liberty bonds and spur enlistment.
About 10-12 years ago I was having coffee with someone from work when we somehow got on the topic of Classic Studies. I mentioned that in today’s world the study of Classical Antiquity and Literature has been de-emphasized, to our detriment. I included myself in the category of those whose knowledge about these fields is woefully inadequate. That now-long-ago conversation came back to me last night when a friend and I went to the CUNY Graduate Center to hear historian David Waldstreicher discuss the progress of his current project, a biography of African-American poet Phillis Wheatley. Dr. Waldstreicher specifically mentioned our current generation’s lack of Classical Education. That so few people–again, myself included–have read the works of Virgil, Herodotus and others prevents contemporary readers from fully understanding the works of poets such a Ms. Wheatley, who incorporated themes from ancient texts into her own work.
Dr. Waldstreicher said during his talk that for his biography of Wheatley he has had to educate himself in two areas about which he previously knew little, the Greek and Roman Classics & West African History. Wheatley herself had come from West Africa and later self-educated herself in the Classics. These experiences were pillars in her writing. It was impressive the way Professor Waldstreicher pulled all these threads together during his talk. In passing, he mentioned Jonathan Williams, Benjamin Franklin’s grand-nephew who was the first superintendent of West Point and who shortly after that worked on the forts at Governors Island. I spoke to Dr. Waldstreicher after his talk and mentioned these Williams’s connections. He seemed duly impressed.
Waldstreicher is a Distinguished Professor of History in the Graduate Center and an authority on slavery in the early years of the Republic. He did an extraordinary job explaining the fluidity of slavery in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century American society and how it differed from bondsmanship in the Caribbean and Brazil, and later in the United States. Apparently that his talk fell during National Poetry Month was a coincidence. If it was, it proved to be a fortunate one. The lecture gave the audience a great deal to think about, which was obvious in the number of questions asked during the Q&A period, which ran long. That’s the true sign that a speaker has engaged his audience well.
I would be remiss if I did not pause and write a few words on this, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I was less than a year old when he was killed in Memphis. Oddly however, the older I get the more events like this seem less like “history” and more like current events. Here in full-blown middle-age, my entire concept of time has evolved. When my father was alive he lived within a few hour’s drive from Memphis. I visited each summer I would usually borrow his car and take an overnight side trip to somewhere or other. More than once that place was Memphis. I visited the Lorraine Hotel, site of the King assassination and home today to the National Civil Rights Museum, more than once. Walking in the vicinity one could see the empty lots that were the results of the riots and, later, urban renewal. I have not been there now in many years, but I believe that gentrification is at last moving things along.
I remember when MLK Jr. Day became a holiday in the early 1980s. Again, at the time I thought his death was part of some ancient past, and yet the creation of the holiday was only fifteen years after the shooting. The evolution of the holiday itself has a convoluted history, one mired in national and even international events. A search of the New York Times digital archive from 1983 pulls up all kinds of articles about the unresolved issues of the Civil Rights Movement as well as commentary from TASS, the Soviet news agency, offering their cynical take on the drama of the holiday hanging in the balance. When King was assassinated the Tet Offensive was in its fifth week. Bobby Kennedy gave the eulogy for King and would himself be assassinated two months later. All that spring and summer there were riots and political upheaval across the United States, in Paris, Czechoslovakia, and Mexico City just before the Summer Olympics.
Viewed a certain way, King’s activities can be seen in the context of the World Wars. His assassination came just fifty years after Woodrow Wilson issued his Fourteen Points, and twenty-seven years after FDR announced the Four Freedoms in his January 1941 State of the Union address. King knew these things. It is not an accident that the Civil Rights Movement here in the U.S., and Independence Movements around the world, developed how and when they did. One can’t help but think of things like Ho Chi Minh at Versailles after the Armistice pleading his case for an independent Vietnam. King was reluctant to speak publicly against Lyndon Johnson because of all the president had done for Civil Rights, but in the year before his assassination King’s denunciations of the war in Southeast Asia became increasingly strident. In the library where I work, over the past fifteen years, a colleague and I have been ordering the King Papers as they have incrementally released. The historiography on the release of someone’s correspondence is itself a fascinating genre. History is a humbling thing and the deeper one goes the more one sees the relationships between what are very complicated events.
(image/White House Photo Office)