The fall semester, indeed the entire 2016-17 academic year, started this past Thursday. This term our students are studying Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, with the first few weeks dedicated to the Battle of Brooklyn in order to give students a sense of place. Today my colleague and I were in Prospect Park following the route of George Washington men on this date 240 Augusts ago. I believe there were a few events scheduled for later in the day but I was surprised that no one else was looking at these markers. Here with little comment are a few snapshots from the day.
Author Brent D. Glass spoke about his new book 50 Great American Places this afternoon in the Commanding Officers Quarters at Governors Island. Author talks are not unusual at Governors Island but there was a particular reason Mr. Glass showed up when he did: this August marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service. President Woodrow Wilson signed the enabling legislation on August 25, 1916. That signing came in the midst of the presidential election and less than a year before American entered the Great War. Not all of the places about which Mr. Glass writes in his tome are under the auspices of the Park Service; some are state or local concerns, or even in the hands of privately-controlled institutions.
Glass is Director Emeritus of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution and categorized the selections into five themes, which included Democracy, Cultural Diversity, and Military. Among the sites included are the Seneca Falls (NY) Convention, the Statue of Liberty, Mesa Verde, Little Rock Central High School, and Gettysburg. That last one had special resonance for Glass; his father had trained under Eisenhower at Gettysburg’s Camp Colt during Word War I. Glass added that though Eisenhower’s job was to train doughboys in tank warfare, so unequipped was the Army that his father did not see an actual tank until he reached France. I’d read this from others’s accounts of those training exercises.
Summer is winding down but there is never a bad time to explore America’s cultural heritage. There is no substitute for going where history was made, and Brent D. Glass provides a valuable guide for doing just that.
A friend and I took a day trip to Peekskill, New York yesterday to visit the Lincoln Depot Museum. The LDP opened about fifteen months ago and, though small, is a testament to what can be done through good decision-making and a strong sense of purpose. The founders of the museum created something special. We did not quite plan it this way but it proved a good 1,2 punch with the Transit Museum’s satellite space inside Grand Central Station displaying its annual holiday train display. Trains were the theme of the day. And yes it was like Grand Central: packed with holiday-goers. The timing was not entirely coincidental; I was determined to get there in 2015 while the Civil War sesquicentennial is still technically on.
Lincoln was in Peekskill for a whistle stop in February 1861 on his way to Washington City and his inaugural. Four years and two months later his body passed through and stopped in the town once again on its way back to Illinois. I believe the Lincoln Depot Museum is about to close for the season but if one is in New York and has a few hours it is well worth the trek. It is a five minute walk from the Metro North train station with a good bakery and restaurants right there.
I noted with interest today that the city of Liverpool is to build its own immigration museum. This will not be the first museum in Europe dedicated to the mass exodus from the Old World to the New. Antwerp for one has its Red Star Line Museum, which opened in 2013. In my time volunteering at Ellis Island I always stressed that immigration to the U.S. at the turn of the last century was not a one way street and that the human drama was taking place on the other side of the Atlantic as much as it was at Ellis Island, Baltimore, Charleston, and the other port cities of the United States. Anything less is just half the story.
The Liverpool immigration museum seems to be part of city’s larger strategy to emphasize its cultural heritage. Most famously city leaders plug The Beatles and Mersey’s importance to the band’s sound and rise. And why shouldn’t the city do that?; the rough and tumble town was integral to who the group was. Hamburg, itself another port city instrumental to the Beatles development, opened its own immigration museum, the BallinStadt, in 2007. European immigration to the United States crested a hundred years earlier, 1907, but held steady until the onset of the Great War seven years later, when the sea routes were disrupted and Atlantic travel dropped off precipitately.
(image by G-Man via Wikimedia Commons)
The piece is not too extensive but there are so few references to Brooklyn’s Ft. Hamilton that I thought I would pass along this New York Times piece about the Army base. If you have never been, I can attest that this is a great excursion. It’s something to think about especially with fall coming up. Ft Hamilton is in an interesting part of the city; the Verrazano Bridge changed the dynamic when it was completed in 1964, but the neighborhood still has its unique feel. I mention Ft. Hamilton every Sunday in my tours at Governors Island. One can’t understand New York Harbor’s coastal defenses without seeing how each fortification fits into a larger picture. Ft. Hamilton has a very long history. To the best of my knowledge it is the last of the system defenses to remain an active military base. Robert E. Lee was stationed there for five years in the early 1840s, just before the Mexican-American War.
In an episode that presages Prohibition, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted in its September 12, 1918 edition that the War Department closed fourteen saloons adjacent to the base that day. The article adds that saloons throughout Bay Ridge had been shut down for months prior to that. It is not a coincidence that Prohibition came when it did. The Temperance Movement had been making headway for decades and saw the First World War as their golden opportunity. Many states and localities went dry between 1914-18. The Volstead Act came on May 27, 1919 while President Wilson and his Administration were finalizing Versailles.
(image/Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. “Cropsey house, Ft. Hamilton , Bay Ridge, Brooklyn” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1885 – 1914. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5e66b3e8-6cee-d471-e040-e00a180654d7)
I remember reading an article a very long time ago by Alex Haley in which he recounted his experience in retracing the Middle Passage of his African ancestor. In that piece Haley mentioned lying in the hold of the ship in which he was traveling across the Atlantic to re-live, to the extent he could, the crossing. That experience was all the more poignant for Haley because he had served in the U.S. Coast Guard for twenty years and knew the sea. For the past decade and a half museum professional Joseph McGill has been on a similar mission; since 1999 he has traveled to various sites across the country and spent the night trying to re-live the experiences of the slaves who once lived there. This summer he is in New York State.
New York is rich in abolitionist and Underground Railroad history. Harriet Tubman, Gerrit Smith, and Sojourner Truth are just a few of the people who lived at least part of their lives in New York. Slavery existed in the Empire State until 1827. Sojourner Truth was born into bondage here in 1797. Today’s New York Times has more on Mr. McGill and his project. The New-York Historical Society had an outstanding exhibit on slavery in New York a few years ago. Jennifer Schuessler’s article fills in even more of the blanks on this still relatively unknown story.
(image/Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “I sell the shadow to support the substance, Sojourner Truth.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1864. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-cde8-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99)
Late last week I was walking though Brooklyn Heights on my way to meet a friend for lunch when I saw that the gates of the First Unitarian Congregational Society Church were open. I love to visit the many places of worship here in New York City, which depending on the era might have been built by Italian craftsmen who came through Ellis Island or were centers of Abolition during the Civil War Era. No, not all of them have such a dramatic provenance but one gets the idea. I had never been in the First Unitarian before, though I had walked past it dozens of times. The neo-gothic structure dates to 1844 and carries the years well.
I was only there for all of five minutes when, heading toward the door, I noticed a Great War marker on the wall in the vestibule. Of course I took a few pictures to research and submit to the World War 1 Memorial Inventory Project. The plaque itself was nothing out of the ordinary, nor would one expect it to be. With simple dignity it marked the contributions of those from the the congregation who served in war from 1917-18. A few of them made the ultimate sacrifice. I could not find too much information about when the plaque was dedicated. The church leader though turned out to be an interesting individual.
The Reverend Dr. John Howland Lathrop led the First Unitarian from 1911-57. He was against American involvement in the war but when it came in April 1917 he made his own contribution: Lathrop helped bring the Red Cross into the United States Navy. When that initial work was done he led the Red Cross’s WW1 initiative within the Third Naval District. That jurisdiction covered most of the Northeast. He was successful in these endeavors and continued a life of public service until his retirement in the late 1950s. A lot of that work involved cleaning up the mess in Europe that resulted from the chaos and destruction of the Great War.
I intend t do a little more with Lathrop in the coming months. A little digging revealed that his papers are at the Brooklyn Historical Society, which is across the street from the church that he served for nearly half a century.
It was a fun and exhausting day on Governors Island. There was a lot going on, which I will talk more about as the week progresses. You never know who or what you will see. Today there was an old Coast Guard member who had served on the island for twenty years. He was even there on 9/11 as part of the skeleton crew left over after the closing of the base in the late 90s. That would have put him just half a mile rom the Trade Center. One of my favorite things about the island is seeing which flag the Park Service has decided to fly over Fort Jay. It varies depending on the occasion and/or the mood of the personnel doing the hoisting. It is one of those neat little things I like to point out to visitors. Some thought has always gone into it. This week it is the Grand Union flag in recognition for the Battle of Brooklyn, the anniversary of which is in a few days.
I was in Boston earlier in the week visiting relatives and we went to Concord and Lexington. I had never been there before and feel I now have a sense of the Shot Heard Round the World that I did not have previously. As with Civil War sites, one must visit and walk the battle grounds of the Revolutionary War to get a sense of the action. I had a good talk with Park personnel about the hows and whys of the construction of the visitor center in the early Seventies in preparation for the Bicentennial. Over the past few day I have been reading the Cultural Landscape Report for Minute Man National Historic Park. The evolution of historic sites is fascinating in and of itself. I read an article a few years ago, for the life of me I cannot remember where, in which the author argued that New York State lags behind Massachusetts and Virginia in the Revolutionary War tourism industry because the Empire State was late to the game at the turn of the 20th century. It certainly sounds feasible and would explain why New York’s role in the Revolution is under-appreciated. That is why I was glad to see the Grand Union flying today.
Two years ago, on June 17, 2012 to be precise, I posted this small vignette about the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. Now today is the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. August 9, 1974 was a momentous day in my family’s history. We moved from Connecticut to Florida that day. I was all of seven years old and even though I did not understand the specifics I understood that major changes for my parents, brother, sister, and me were underway. It was probably for the best that I didn’t all that was happening; my parents marital troubles were the reason for the relocation and they divorced the following year. In my mind the Nixon resignation and the relocation are forever linked.
Today is the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. I have seen surprisingly little about this in the news. I suppose a reason is that it was never the break-in, but the cover-up, that was considered the big crime. It could be, too, that the Watergate scandal has reached that intermediary stage where it is no longer a current event and not quite yet history. Demographically, Washington has changed a great deal in the past several decades as well. Gentrification has brought many younger people–young twenty- and thirty-somethings–who are too busy building their careers to think about it. We know the least about the decade just before and the decade after we are born.
The area around the Watergate Building Complex is off the beaten path and visited by very few tourists taking in the sights. We ourselves go to DC fairly frequently and I must say we have never gone out of our way to see it. Cultural Tourism DC is planning to install signage in the neighborhood. I wonder if the 50th anniversary of this event will be a bigger deal. We’ll know just a short decade from now.
(image/Watergate Building Complex, Allen Lew)
Two years ago I contacted a particular cultural institution here in New York City about setting up a walking tour of Lower Manhattan related to African-American history, especially nineteenth century African-American history. After showing great initial excitement, the individual with whom I was corresponding lost interest; I know this because he stopped returning my messages. I found the whole thing curious, especially because it was pretty clear I would do all the work, including the tours themselves. For free. Basically, the institution would have provided its imprimatur and done a little publicity on its website. Who it was I will never say.
Over the weekend I am going to write an encyclopedia entry about Nicodemus, the all-black Kansas town founded in the 1870s by individuals from Kentucky and Tennessee. Nicodemus is now a national historic site. I have been to Kansas before, but alas never to Nicodemus. It will someday be part of the Great Driving Tour of the Midwest the Hayfoot and I take in a few years. There is no substitute for going to the places where history is made.
For Black History Month the Civil War Trust has published its top ten list of African-American places to visit. A few of them I have been to; others are on my to-do list. One need not wait for spring. Put your parka on and go.
(image/Library of Congress)