Vikings, Baking Powder And Poets: Boston’s Long And Confusing History With Leif Erikson
If you were to believe a small plaque on the grounds of Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, you’d think there was a time when the Vikings sailed the Charles River.
But there’s a reason you didn’t read that story in your American history books.
The plaque, which can be found if you walk along Fresh Pond Parkway with Gerry’s Landing Road to the left, reads, “On this spot in the year 1000 Leif Erikson built his house in Vineland.” One of our readers asked why the marker is there, and it turns out the plaque is not the only nod to the renowned Viking explorer that Greater Bostonians could spot across the region.
So we set off to break down the long timeline of Massachusetts’ complicated, largely unproven and definitely unorthodox infatuation with Erikson and Viking heritage.
Joshua Abraham Norton (February 4, 1818 – January 8, 1880), known as Emperor Norton, was a citizen of San Francisco, California, who proclaimed himself “Norton I, Emperor of the United States” in 1859. He later assumed the secondary title of “Protector of Mexico”. Norton was born in England but spent most of his early life in South Africa. He sailed west after the death of his mother in 1846 and his father in 1848, arriving in San Francisco possibly in November 1849.
Norton initially made a living as a businessman, but he lost his fortune investing in Peruvian rice. Hoping that a Chinese rice shortage would allow him to sell at a steep profit, he bought rice at 12 cents per pound from Peruvian ships, but more Peruvian ships arrived in port which caused the price to drop sharply to 4 cents. He then lost a lawsuit in which he tried to void his rice contract, and his public prominence faded. He re-emerged in September 1859, laying claim to the position of Emperor of the United States.
Norton had no formal political power; nevertheless, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments that he frequented. Some considered him insane or eccentric, but citizens of San Francisco celebrated his imperial presence and his proclamations, such as his order that the United States Congress be dissolved by force and his numerous decrees calling for the construction of a bridge and tunnel crossing San Francisco Bay to connect San Francisco with Oakland.
On January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed at the corner of California and Dupont (now Grant) streets and died before he could be given medical treatment. Upwards of 10,000 people lined the streets of San Francisco to pay him homage at his funeral.
Norton was buried in the Masonic Cemetery at city expense. In 1934, his remains, along with all others in the city, were transferred to a grave site at Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, California.
For the past four years we have been observing the centennials of the various events that comprised the Great War, including the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916) and the Battle of Vimy Ridge (April 9, 1917). Today we mark the end of it: on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, an armistice went into effect, ending hostilities on the Western Front, which had thus far killed over three million people and wounded over eight million, all started by some damned fool thing in the Balkans. And, as everyone knows, the settlement that ended the war simply set the stage for the next one: the Treaty of Versailles was not as fair as Wilson had promised in his Fourteen Points, nor as punitive as it needed to be to ensure that Germany did not rise again. So just as the Great Famine of 1315-22 weakened the immune systems of a whole generation of Europeans, and made the Black Death of 1346-51 more virulent than it otherwise would have been, so also did the First World War lead directly to the Second, which then overshadowed it in cultural memory.
This is especially true in the United States, which only joined the First World War in 1917, and only as a result of a potential threat as revealed by the Zimmerman Telegram. The United States also joined the Second World War “late,” i.e. over two years after Germany invaded Poland, but it did so as the result of a direct attack on its naval base at Pearl Harbor. The Americans played a significant role in defeating Nazi Germany; they played an even bigger role in the defeat of Imperial Japan, including through the use of the atomic bomb, which they had developed at great expense. So it’s only natural that, to an American, the Second World War means more than the First.
It’s somewhat different in Britain and the Commonwealth. Once the United Kingdom declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, all the Empire, even the Dominions, immediately followed, and fought, and bled quite profusely, for the sake of Britain’s allies on the continent. For well-known reasons, the war bogged down into a bloody stalemate where the advantage was always to the defense, and it soon became obvious that this was going to be a war of attrition – the first side to run out of men and materiel was going to be the one to lose, and this is more or less what ended up happening. Four years of mass industrial slaughter on the Western Front was deeply traumatizing, and gave birth to rituals of remembrance that Americans generally don’t share: the sanctification of November 11 (at first designated Armistice Day, and now as Remembrance Day), the wearing of a lapel poppy* in the run-up to this, the ceremonial placement of wreaths of poppies at war memorials on the day itself, and the two-minute silence at 11:00 AM. (November 11 may be Veterans’ Day in the United States, but memorializing the war dead is the function of Memorial Day in May, which derives from the Civil War. The VFW occasionally sells poppies, but the practice is nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is in Canada or the United Kingdom.) Of course, as with the United States, the UK and its Commonwealth also remember the Second World War, and probably to a greater extent, given Churchill’s refusal to make a deal with Hitler, his inspirational speeches, the evacuation of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, D-Day, and an unconditional surrender forced on a monstrously evil regime.
All the same, the First World War does loom larger in the Commonwealth than in the United States. And it deserves to be remembered, in both places. As pointless as all the killing was, the Great War turned out to be the Great Divide, and represented the real end of the nineteenth century and the birth of the twentieth. When the dust settled, four empires – the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman – had fallen, and many smaller nations won their independence. Communists took over Russia, and the stage was set for what Henry Luce called the American Century. Women were granted the right to vote in both Britain and the United States. Perhaps most importantly, the Great War shattered European self-confidence, and caused the mainstreaming of skepticism, pessimism, and “uncertainty” (one of the reasons, unfortunately, why Britain and France did not stand up to Hitler until it was too late).
“The Great War” was overtaken in the national consciousness by the Great Depression and World War II, says Edwin Fountain, vice-chairman of the WWI Centennial Commission. The commission has been authorised by Congress to build the new memorial in Washington, DC, as well as increase awareness of the war.
“The Centennial is the last best opportunity to teach Americans that World War I was in fact the most consequential event of the 20th Century,” he says. “It had effects that we live and struggle with today, overseas and at home.”
“The debate about the role of America in the world, the balance between national security and civil liberties, the place of women, African Americans and immigrants in our society – all those issues were vigorously discussed during WWI.
“You cannot contribute to those discussions today without understanding our historical roots.”
At the same time, how the war was fought, and not just its aftermath, deserves closer attention too. If anyone knows anything about the Great War, it is an image largely created by Remarque’s great autobiographical novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Historian Dan Snow recently countered several myths about it, including that most soldiers died, that it was the bloodiest conflict in history to that point, that the upper classes got off lightly, and that soldiers lived in the trenches for years on end (in truth, they were cycled out regularly).
Still, it was no picnic, as a recent article in the Economist reminds us:
The first world war was not just a grand tragedy. For the 67 million who fought, it was a sordid hellscape. Few of the ten million killed in combat died from a “bullet, straight to the heart”, as pro forma telegrams to relatives put it. Many more bled to death in no-man’s land, their wails lingering for days like “moist fingers being dragged down an enormous windowpane”, as a British lieutenant wrote of the Battle of the Somme. Traumatised survivors sometimes slept in open sewers, and begged for their mothers as superiors ordered them over the top.
They guarded what slivers of humanity and dignity they could. At Compiègne today visitors can view silver rings from the trenches bearing initials (LV, MJ, SH or G) or four-leaf clovers; pipes with marks worn where teeth once clenched; a tube of insect-bite cream; letter-openers fashioned from shell casings, the names of yearned-for correspondents etched into their blades (“Marguerite”, “Mlle Rose-Marie”). A certain stoic humour also played its part. “I was hit. I looked round and saw that my leg had shot out and hit the fellow behind me (who got rather annoyed about [it])” wrote Charlemagne’s great-grandfather in his diary in 1915, just outside Ypres.
The article goes on to note that (emphasis added):
The first world war happened because a generation of Victorian leaders took for granted the stable order that had prevailed in most of Europe for decades. They should have read their history books. Yet the war was also a tale of forces beyond the power of any leader, however well-read; of nations and continents not as trains on history’s railway lines, run by drivers and switchmen, but as rafts tossed about on history’s ocean, dipping at most an occasional oar into the waves. Fate was the real grand homme of the “Great War”. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 would not have happened had his driver not taken a wrong turning in Sarajevo. The German army’s initial advance was halted at Nieuwpoort by a Belgian lock-keeper who flooded the surrounding marshlands. Political twists in Berlin, not crushing defeat on the battlefield, pushed Germany to sue for peace in 1918.
I am chary of drawing “lessons” from history, but it seems in this case that history really does provide us with an instructive example.
* The poppy as a symbol of remembrance derives from the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Col. John McCrae of Guelph, Ontario, who was serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and who died of pneumonia in January, 1918. He was by no means the only English-language war poet: the First World War produced a remarkable amount of poetry from the viewpoint of its participants, a product of the war taking place after the advent of mass literacy but before other forms of entertainment relegated poetry to a niche interest (see Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory for more on this). I was pleased to see the memorial to sixteen representative war poets in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey this summer, including the greats Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen.
Sadly, the poppy is “political” in some parts of the world, and not just because people believe that it justifies war. Among the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, the poppy represents “Britain’s War,” and thus represents British imperialism and British oppression. Nationalists, as noted, wear lilies in memory of the Easter Rising, and will generally refuse to wear poppies, even going so far as to taunt those who do.
The Wikipedia category “Irish emigrants to the United States (before 1923)” contains some 872 entries – that is, people notable enough to merit a Wikipedia article. This is really quite remarkable. Two of them have recently been brought to my attention, and deserve to be better known. From Wikipedia:
Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore (1829-1892) was an Irish-born American composer and bandmaster who lived and worked in the United States after 1848. Whilst serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, Gilmore wrote the lyrics to the song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” This was published under the pseudonym Louis Lambert in September 1863…
In many ways Gilmore can be seen as the principal figure in 19th-century American music. He was a composer, and the “Famous 22nd Regiment March” from 1874 is just one example of his work. He held the first “Promenade Concert in America” in 1855, the forerunner to today’s Boston Pops. He set up “Gilmore’s Concert Garden”, which became Madison Square Garden. He was the Musical Director of the Nation in effect, leading the festivities for the 1876 Centennial celebrations in Philadelphia and the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886.
Ron Good adds (having heard RTE’s P.S. Gilmore: Ireland’s First Superstar):
He made adjustments to the inclusion of instruments in bands (i.e. the addition of woodwinds) which resulted what we know today as concert bands. He also used anvils specially made in England which gave off sparks when struck with the hammers of dozens of faux blacksmiths. Also used artillery pieces to add excitement.
Also from Wikipedia, we have notice of:
Thomas Francis Meagher (“Marr”; 1823-1867) was an Irish nationalist and leader of the Young Irelanders in the Rebellion of 1848. After being convicted of sedition, he was first sentenced to death, but received transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) in Australia.
In 1852 he escaped and made his way to the United States, where he settled in New York City. He studied law, worked as a journalist, and traveled to present lectures on the Irish cause. He married for a second time in New York. At the beginning of the American Civil War, Meagher joined the U.S. Army and rose to the rank of brigadier general. He was most notable for recruiting and leading the Irish Brigade, and encouraging support among Irish immigrants for the Union. By his first marriage in Ireland, he had one surviving son; the two never met.
Following the Civil War, Meagher was appointed acting governor of the Montana Territory. In 1867, Meagher drowned in the swift-running Missouri River after falling from a steamboat at Fort Benton.
What a fascinating character.
From my former student Laura Craig, news of something I had not known about:
The moon-eyed people are a race of people from Cherokee tradition who are said to have lived in Appalachia until the Cherokee expelled them. They are mentioned in a 1797 book by Benjamin Smith Barton, who explains they are called “moon-eyed” because they saw poorly during the day. Later variants add additional details, claiming the people had white skin, that they created the area’s pre-Columbian ruins, and that they went west after their defeat. Barton cited as his source a conversation with Colonel Leonard Marbury (c.1749-1796), an early settler of Georgia. Marbury, a Revolutionary War officer and a Congressman in the Second Provincial Congress of Georgia (1775), acted as intermediary between Native American Indians in the state of Georgia and the United States government…
The Cherokee tradition may have been influenced by contemporary European-American legends of the “Welsh Indians”. These legends attributed ancient ruins to a Welsh pre-Columbian voyage; some versions specifically connect this voyage to a prince named Madoc. In an 1810 letter, former Tennessee governor John Sevier wrote that the Cherokee leader Oconostota told him in 1783 that local mounds had been built by white people who were pushed from the area by the ascendant Cherokee. According to Sevier, Oconostota confirmed that these were Welsh from across the ocean. Historian Gwyn A. Williams notes this is “a beautiful example of the way minds were working in the late eighteenth century – and of the power of suggestion which white minds could exercise over red”.
Author Barbara Alice Mann, who identifies herself as Ohio Bear Clan Seneca, suggests that “moon-eyed people” were Adena culture people from Ohio who merged with the Cherokees around 200 BCE.
The article does not deal with the connection between the purported expulsion of the Moon-Eyed People and Cherokee Removal in the 1830s, although I would be very surprised if no one brought it up at the time. “You expelled white people, now white people are expelling you. Just desserts!”
I was pleased to see yesterday this reference to another historical myth, on the side of a U-Haul:
The Kensington Runestone is a nineteenth-century forgery, but it has not prevented Alexandria, Minnesota, from constructing Big Ole, a twenty-five foot tall statue of a Viking, complete with spear, winged helmet, and “Alexandria: Birthplace of America” on his shield.
Some Wikipedia discoveries about internal territorial disputes in the United States.
1. “The State of Franklin was an unrecognized and autonomous territory located in what is today Eastern Tennessee, United States. Franklin was created in 1784 from part of the territory west of the Appalachian Mountains that had been offered by North Carolina as a cession to Congress to help pay off debts related to the American War for Independence. It was founded with the intent of becoming the fourteenth state of the new United States.
“Franklin’s first capital was Jonesborough. After the summer of 1785, the government of Franklin (which was by then based in Greeneville), ruled as a “parallel government” running alongside (but not harmoniously with) a re-established North Carolina bureaucracy. Franklin was never admitted into the union. The extra-legal state existed for only about four and a half years, ostensibly as a republic, after which North Carolina re-assumed full control of the area….
“Soon thereafter, North Carolina once again ceded the area to the federal government to form the Southwest Territory, the precursor to the State of Tennessee.”
2. “The Walton War was an 1804 boundary dispute between the U.S. states of North Carolina and Georgia over the twelve-mile-wide strip of land called the Orphan Strip. The Orphan Strip was given to Georgia in 1802. Georgia and North Carolina thus had a shared border. Problems arose when Georgia established Walton County in the small piece of land, because the state boundaries had never been clarified, and it was unclear as to whether the Orphan Strip was part of North Carolina or Georgia.
“The Walton War remained a dispute primarily between the settlers and the Walton County government until John Havner, a North Carolinian constable, was killed and North Carolina’s Buncombe County called in the militia. By calling in the militia, North Carolina effectively asserted authority over the territory, causing the Walton County government to fail. In 1807, after two years of dispute, a joint commission confirmed that the Orphan Strip belonged to North Carolina, at which point North Carolina extended full amnesty to previous supporters of Walton County. The Walton War officially ended in 1811 when Georgia’s own survey reiterated the 1807 commission’s findings, and North Carolina took full responsibility for governing the Orphan Strip.”
3. “The Republic of West Florida was a short-lived republic in the western region of Spanish West Florida for several months during 1810. It was annexed and occupied by the United States later in 1810 and subsequently became part of eastern Louisiana.
“The boundaries of the Republic of West Florida included all territory south of parallel 31°N, east of the Mississippi River, and north of the waterway formed by the Iberville River, Amite River, Lake Maurepas, Pass Manchac, Lake Pontchartrain, and the Rigolets. The Pearl River, with its branch that flowed into the Rigolets, formed the eastern boundary of the republic. A military expedition from the republic attempted but failed to capture the Spanish outpost at Mobile, which was situated between the Pearl and the Perdido River, farther to the east. Despite its name, none of the Republic of West Florida was within the borders of the present-day state of Florida, but rather entirely within the present borders of Louisiana.”
4. “The Toledo War (1835–36), also known as the Michigan–Ohio War, was an almost bloodless boundary dispute between the U.S. state of Ohio and the adjoining territory of Michigan.
“Poor geographical understanding of the Great Lakes helped produce conflicting state and federal legislation between 1787 and 1805, and varying interpretations of the laws led the governments of Ohio and Michigan to both claim jurisdiction over a 468-square-mile (1,210 km2) region along the border, now known as the Toledo Strip. The situation came to a head when Michigan petitioned for statehood in 1835 and sought to include the disputed territory within its boundaries. Both sides passed legislation attempting to force the other side’s capitulation, while Ohio’s Governor Robert Lucas and Michigan’s 24-year-old “Boy Governor” Stevens T. Mason helped institute criminal penalties for citizens submitting to the other’s authority. Both states deployed militias on opposite sides of the Maumee River near Toledo, but besides mutual taunting, there was little interaction between the two forces. The single military confrontation of the “war” ended with a report of shots being fired into the air, incurring no casualties.
“During the summer of 1836, Congress proposed a compromise whereby Michigan gave up its claim to the strip in exchange for its statehood and about three-quarters of the Upper Peninsula. The compromise was considered a poor outcome for Michigan. Voters in a state convention in September soundly rejected the proposal. But in December, the Michigan government, facing a dire financial crisis and pressure from Congress and President Andrew Jackson, called another convention (called the “Frostbitten Convention”) which accepted the compromise that resolved the Toledo War.”
Finally, “Cascadia is a bioregion and proposed country located within the western region of North America. Potential boundaries differ, with some drawn along existing political state and provincial lines, and others drawn along larger ecological, cultural, political, and economic boundaries.
“The proposed country largely would consist of the Canadian province of British Columbia and the US States of Washington and Oregon. At its maximum extent, Cascadia would stretch from coastal Alaska in the north into Northern California in the south, and inland to include parts of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, as far Southeast as Colorado, and Yukon. More conservative advocates propose borders that include the land west of the crest of Cascade Range, and the western side of British Columbia.
“The Doug flag, also referred to as the Cascadian flag or the Cascadia Doug flag and nicknamed “Old Doug” or simply “the Doug”, is one of the primary symbols and an unofficial flag of the Cascadia region…. It was designed by Portland, Oregon native Alexander Baretich in the academic year of 1994-1995. It is named after the Douglas fir, featured on the flag.”
I first became aware of the artist Jon McNaughton in 2011, when on a summer road trip we ate lunch in a Christian-patriotic themed diner in Towanda, Pennsylvania. On the wall was a reproduction of McNaughton’s painting One Nation Under God. Please click the link to view the image as I do not want to violate copyright by reprinting it here. At the center of the action is a figure of Jesus… holding a copy of the Constitution of the United States! Behind him, our ancestors look down on us in judgment. To Jesus’ right, and facing him, are good, honest citizens – and to Jesus’ left, facing away from him, are such folks as a lawyer counting a pile of bills, a “liberal news reporter,” and a college professor clutching a copy of The Origin of Species to his breast, all under the inspiration of Satan. More details, and explanations, may be found at the One Nation Under God interactive page.
As I wrote at the time: all that is missing is a crying Statue of Liberty from The Onion.
I see that McNaughton’s work The Forgotten Man (2010) has earned itself a Wikipedia entry. I guess I can reprint this one:
As you can see, McNaughton is not just patriotic, but partisan. All presidents prior to Barack Obama are gathered on a lawn in front of the White House. The cooler ones are beseeching Obama to remember the “forgotten man,” who sits slumped over on a park bench in despair. The less cool ones (in particular, those who added substantially to the national debt) are applauding Obama – who himself is trampling the Constitution underfoot! (And see One Nation Under Socialism, in which he’s actually burning it.) Apparently this painting was inspired by the passage of the Affordable Care Act – unconstitutionally and at great expense, according to our artist – although you’d think the young man might be happy for some health care, at least.
The Forgotten Man also has an interactive page. It was roundly mocked by Rachel Maddow and Stephen Colbert around the time it was created, the reason for its appearance on Wikipedia.
As you can probably imagine, McNaughton is a big fan of Donald Trump, and his latest painting depicts Trump, his wife, daughter, and various cabinet officials, dressed in hunting camouflage, riding a boat through a swamp, and repelling alligators, all arranged like the figures in Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. This one was noticed by the Never Trump Weekly Standard, which called it “angry kitsch” and “pure id art.” I think it’s an interesting image but Trump does not seem to be draining the swamp, as he promised. And how much longer before this painting is out of date, rendered obsolete by a resignation or firing? (This is the trouble with all topical art, especially art that is essentially a political cartoon.)
It would be easy enough to condemn the lack of subtlety and sophistication of McNaughton’s oeuvre, and to take issue with his political bias, but I celebrate the originality of his vision and courage in sticking to it, even if I disagree – somewhat like the art of Jack T. Chick (third item). I do find his efforts at conflating church and state to be most interesting (not just Jesus and the Constitution, but Moses and the Supreme Court, and congressmen jeering Jesus out of the House of Representatives – even though the motto “In God We Trust” is clearly engraved on the entablature). Are Mormons especially susceptible to the idea that America is a new Israel, with a sacred covenant with God?
This time we stopped at the George Dickel Distillery in Tullahoma, Tennessee. I had visited the Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland and was keen to learn how American whiskey was different from Irish. (Answers: the composition of the mash, the state of the aging barrels, and in Tennessee, the Lincoln County Process.)
In St. Louis itself we got to see the refurbished and newly-reopened Museum at the Gateway Arch. It’s larger than the previous one, and deals with westward expansion in more detail and from a greater variety of perspectives. There’s also some good background on the arch itself, and no longer an animatronic Red Cloud.
The City Museum is like nothing you’ve ever seen. It occupies the former International Shoe Company building and is constantly colonizing new areas of it. The “museum” aspect consists largely of architectural detailing (I was pleased to discover the St. George pictured above), recovered nineteenth-century trash, a large insect collection, and other found objects; these are interspersed throughout an artificial cave system, a ten-story spiral slide, a ferris wheel on the roof, giant ball pits, skateboard ramps, a miniature train for people to ride, a space for circus performers, welded creations to climb on, and much, much more, all eccentrically decorated. As you can probably surmise, the museum appeals mostly to children, although it is fun for anyone to visit; what I like about it is that it’s dark and mysterious, even slightly sinister, an exciting contrast to much of the pabulum served up to kids these days.
Our event took place at the Contemporary Art Center, which we had never before seen. It’s what you’d expect: a brutalist building, with installation art like that depicted above (Jacob Stanley, TIME). It’s worth a visit, and it’s free.
At the St. Louis Science Center we saw a traveling Smithsonian exhibition entitled “Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission.” The showpiece is the actual Columbia capsule that took Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins to the Moon and back; this was accompanied by Aldrin’s helmet, a part of one of the Saturn V engines that Jeff Bezos fished out of the Atlantic, and other such objects. I especially liked all the Space Race newspaper headlines, videos of Kennedy speaking to Congress and giving his “We choose to go to the Moon” speech at Rice, and the midcentury-modern living room that you entered through (although I doubt that the television depicted above was all that common in middle America!).
On our way back, we stopped at something called the Arant Confederate Memorial Park, an SCV project situated beside I-24 just outside Paducah, Kentucky. This has appeared recently, and advertises itself, like a car dealership, with a massive flag. But the Battle Flag is not the only one on display: as you can see in the photo above, there are other ones, including all three national flags of the CSA, and the Bonnie Blue Flag.
The flag I was most curious about (as I had never seen it before): the flag of the Orphan Brigade, a Confederate brigade recruited in Kentucky (so-called as Kentucky was not really a member state of the Confederacy).
The flea market next door was festooned with American flags, and I can’t help but think this was some sort of a riposte to Arant Park.
From the Atlantic, via Dartblog:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” Famed black abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass posed this question before a large, mostly white crowd in Rochester, New York on July 5, 1852. It is “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim,” Douglass explained, adding that he felt much the same: “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! … This Fourth [of] July is yours not mine.”
A little over a decade later, however, African Americans like Douglass began making the glorious anniversary their own. After the end of the Civil War in 1865, the nation’s four million newly emancipated citizens transformed Independence Day into a celebration of black freedom. The Fourth became an almost exclusively African American holiday in the states of the former Confederacy—until white Southerners, after violently reasserting their dominance of the region, snuffed these black commemorations out.
Before the Civil War, white Americans from every corner of the country had annually marked the Fourth with feasts, parades, and copious quantities of alcohol. A European visitor observed that it was “almost the only holy-day kept in America.” Black Americans demonstrated considerably less enthusiasm. And those who did observe the holiday preferred—like Douglass—to do so on July 5 to better accentuate the difference between the high promises of the Fourth and the low realities of life for African Americans, while also avoiding confrontations with drunken white revelers.
Yet the tables had turned by July 4, 1865, at least in the South. Having lost a bloody four-year war to break free from the United States and defend the institution of slavery, Confederate sympathizers had little desire to celebrate the Fourth now that they were back in the Union and slavery was no more. “The white people,” wrote a young woman in Columbia, South Carolina, “shut themselves within doors.”
African Americans, meanwhile, embraced the Fourth like never before. From Washington, D.C., to Mobile, Alabama, they gathered together to watch fireworks and listen to orators recite the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery when it was ratified in late 1865.
Read the whole thing.