Tag Archives: US history

Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson 2010)

Rating: 4/5

In The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson describes the migration of African Americans from the south to northern cities from World War I through 1970. She follows Ida Mae Gladney’s journey from Mississippi to Chicago in the 30’s, George Starling’s journey from Florida to New York in the 40s, and Dr. Robert Foster’s journey from Louisiana to Los Angeles in the 50s. With these three stories (and some shorter accounts of others), Wilkerson describes the larger movements of a massive and yet relatively-little discussed movement of people.

Five million African-Americans moved north during the Great Migration; the 1850s California Gold Rush drew 100,000 west and the 30s Dust Bowl migration brought 300,000 west. African Americans across the south moved north, drawn by jobs and hope, pushed by discrimination and fear. Detroit went from 1.4% black to 44%; the Great Migration reshaped the racial and cultural landscape of the country, north and south.

WHY THIS BOOK?

I haven’t read a lot of black history. Between the prominent racial stories of St. Louis (my hometown) and the nation in the last few years, it felt like time to do some catch-up. Most of my friends and family have read less black history than me. It’s strange that race relations, a topic that garners so much discussion, is understood with so little depth by so many.

THE GOOD

The Great Migration is a massive amorphous movement of 5 million people from one large region of the country to another across two generations. Wilkerson captures much of the diversity of this movement in her three subjects. They have different education levels and travel to and from different places at different times. The Warmth of Other Suns is a story of people that made tough choice to leave what they knew hoping to improve their lives and their children’s lives. We follow Ida Mae, George, and Robert from childhood to death, and we get to see their successes and failures. Wilkerson augments these anecdotes with the statistics of the other millions.

The Warmth of Other Suns relates the depravity of the Jim Crow south in a way that many histories tend to avoid. Ida Mae describes how young men dangled her over a well when she was five; she knew that, if dropped, she would never have been found. George Starling fled Florida after a friend overheard plans of his murder when he organized the orange pickers. Arrington High was institutionalized in an insane asylum for exposing white politicians that patronized a colored brothel; after two years he was smuggled north in a coffin. Separate but equal was a blatant sham; a Louisiana superintendent said, “the money allocated to the colored children is spent on the education of the white children. We have twice as many colored children… as we have white… Colored children are mighty profitable to us.” Wilkerson compares blacks moving north to those that fled the Soviet Union. She notes how the migration ebbed after the Civil Rights movement dismantled the worst of Jim Crow.

Blacks continued to face hardships after moving north. In Chicago, blacks were restricted to tiny portions of the city, whose sub-standard housing grew crowded and expensive. Race riots erupted in many of the northern cities. This passage about Jesse Owens lays bare the hypocrisy quietly hiding in the north:

It made headlines throughout the United Staes that Adolf Hitler, who had watched the races, had refused to shake hands with Owens, as he had with white medalists. But Owens found that in Nazi Germany, he had been able to stay in the same quarters and eat with his white teammates, something he could not do in his home country. Upon his return, there was a ticker-tape parade in New York. Afterward, he was forced to ride the freight elevator to his own reception at the Waldorf-Astoria.

I grew up in one of the most segregated cities in the country. We still had bussing to enforce desegregation when I attended school. St. Louis went from 6.4% black in the 1910 census to 40.9% in the 1970 census. I never realized that the white flight that created my suburbs was driven by migration. After all, Missouri was a slave state, I assumed blacks had always been a part of the city. Reading about the Great Migration led me to look at my own community differently. Who hasn’t heard political discussion of the ghetto, of black poverty, of wealth inequality and racially disparate criminal justice outcomes? These discussions usually center on northern cities, and the Great Migration and the forces that drove it created those communities. It’s tempting to view black history as separate history, but it obviously isn’t.

When we understand what happened 50 years ago, we are better able to understand what happens today. A black boy was tortured to death in front of his father for sending a girl a Christmas card. The man who publicized this murder, Harry T. Moore, was murdered when his home was bombed in 1951. This is not ancient history. And yet, by the reaction to Black Lives Matters, there are many who bristle at the idea that blacks still face systematic obstacles.

THE BAD

The last hundred pages were weaker. The first part told me about a movement with a scope I didn’t know, driven by evil I hadn’t fully realized. The last hundred pages narrow to cover the last decades of the three subjects. Wilkerson makes fewer connections to the larger world here. Ida Mae, George, and Robert felt so grounded, the representatives of millions in the first 400 pages of the book. In the last 100 pages, they float unconnected from demographics and national forces. As people, well, they’re not that interesting. It felt like a missed opportunity to connect the past and the present.

OVERALL

The Warmth of Other Suns is an American story. It’s the fight for the American Dream; African Americans trekked north in their own country instead of crossing an ocean to a new country. Unlike my Czech ancestors, they couldn’t shed their otherness, either in the north or the south. They weren’t allowed to. This shapes our cities and communities.

The Warmth of Other Suns relates a huge demographic shift through individuals. The Great Migration stirred our national culture. Michelle Obama, Miles Davis, Toni Morrison, Spike Lee and Denzel Washington were all children of the Great Migration. It deserves its place in the American legend along with the Oregon Trail, Route 66, pioneers, and other tales of self-determinism and bravery. The Warmth of Other Suns does a good job toward that end.

Book review: A Midwife’s Tale (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich 1990)

Rating: 4/5

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on her Diary, 1785-1812 tells the tale of midwife Martha Ballard in 18th century frontier Maine. Every day for 35 years, Martha Ballard detailed the weather, her travels, her housework, her community, and her deliveries. If not for her diary, history would only have known Martha’s date of birth, the day she married, the day her children were born, and the day she died. Thanks to her diary, we have insight into her life and into the lives of frontier women in this time period. A Midwife’s Tale discusses rape, family conflict, the role of women in medicine, a family annihilation murder, women’s housework, sexual morays, and frontier life, among other things.

For content, this book is 5/5, it details a unique and wonderful document. For readability, I give A Midwife’s Tale a 3.5/5. Most of the difficulty of the book is inevitable; it has lots of original quotes.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Most history is written by rich older white men. In Martha’s town of Hallowell, Maine, two other diaries of the period survive, written by such men. Although she mentions the authors of these diaries multiple times, she barely appears in theirs. Her diary has roughly even numbers of men and women; theirs barely mention women. The wife of one of these men was a hatmaker; we know that from Martha’s diary, not his.

Martha Ballard’s diary is an ideal historical source. It’s a day to day documentation of her life, without narrative. It wasn’t written to entertain or titillate. It was private. To the extent that one person’s perspective and recording of the days can be honest, her account was.

THE GOOD

A Midwife’s Tale covers a range of topics. That’s part of its difficulty; it’s very broad. We learn about birth, medicine, illness and death, as one might expect from the diary of a midwife. We also learn about economics, debtors’ prison, family, the religious and political conflicts of colonial New England, sexuality, and crime.

Women of Martha’s era were tough. They had babies every other year, and said births typically kept them in bed for a week. They managed their own money, managed gardening and cloth making. Martha continued deliveries until her death at age 77, staying up long hours and traveling through all weather. She didn’t even begin her career until she was 50.

Colonial Maine is full of family squabbles, politics, and trysts. History is less chaste than we imagine when it’s recorded honestly; 38% of firstborns that Martha delivered were conceived out of wedlock. A few women even have multiple children out of wedlock, failing to marry at all. Unlike The Scarlet Letter, they are part of society too, and the fathers of their children are on the hook for support.

Martha moved to Hallowell at the beginning of the American experiment, and her life was full of changes from this. Her landlord had to flee to Canada for being a loyalist. She switches from shillings to dollars in her transactions. The town of Hallowell grew continuously while she lived there; it gave her much of her work. And the economics of her region changed with time. Her nephew was part of the Malta War, caused by economics conflicts of the Plymouth Company owning massive amounts of land and people chafing under this yolk.

THE BAD

This seems to be a recurring complaint for me, but there were too many people to keep track of. Is it too much to ask for a glossary of characters? This was especially bad in A Midwife’s Tale; people were referred to by more than one name or, with Martha’s tenuous grasp on spelling, said name could be spelled half a dozen different ways. Also, Martha had a large family and I totally lost track of who was related to her. A family tree would have been an asset.

A Midwife’s Tale is a slow and challenging read. Because Ulrich has to make (extremely well-researched) inferences, the details are presented with qualifications and caveats. While I appreciated the insight into the process of teasing  out the truth, it impacted the narrative flow substantially. This is less of a “bad thing” and more of a warning–this book makes the reader work.

 

OVERALL

This isn’t a book that tells you the narrative of a single event; it gives perspective on the lives of ordinary people as they traversed the many events of this time period. Life was complicated, but in many ways that are still recognizable today.

If you ever wonder about time travel, this book is probably one of the closest things we have to living a woman’s life in colonial Maine. It’s a unique work on a unique document and seems likely to be as timeless as the source document.

Exploring New Mexican Names: Mount Taylor

Mount Taylor is a volcano 80 miles west of Albuquerque, the most prominent feature in the western panorama looking from the foothills of the Sandias. It was named in 1849 for then-President Zachary Taylor. The Navajo call it “Tsoodził” (don’t ask me to pronounce that), and the mountain is important in the beliefs of the Navajo and local pueblo peoples. The mountain is rich in uranium, and was a mine until 1990. In nearby Grants, you can visit a mock uranium mine. Mount Taylor is also the site of the grueling-sounding Mount Taylor Quadrathlon, featuring biking, running, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. 

Zachary Taylor was the second and last Whig to be elected to the presidency. Both he and William Henry Harrison were generals, and both died early in their presidential terms. Taylor was mostly apolitical; the presidency was his first elected office. He fought in the War of 1812, against the Black Hawk Indians in what is now Minnesota, and against the Seminoles in Florida. He became known as “old rough and ready.” His daughter married future president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, but she died three months into the marriage.

Taylor came to national prominence during the Mexican-American War. This war eventually brought the territory of New Mexico into the union, and is detailed in Amy Greenberg’s A Wicked War. Taylor won famous victories in the Battle of Monterrey and the Battle of Buena Vista. The war was initially popular, and Taylor became correspondingly popular after his victories. Taylor privately opposed the war from its beginning, calling an early troop movement “injudicious in policy and wicked in fact.”

Democratic president James K. Polk (1845-1849), who had almost single-handedly created the war, grew frustrated that Taylor, a whig, was getting credit for what Polk considered democratic achievements. Before the Battle of Buena Vista, Polk stripped Taylor of a portion of his troops, leaving Taylor and his troops more vulnerable to attack from the army of Mexican general Santa Anna. Santa Anna was a busy boy in early Mexican history; he was president 11 nonconsecutive times, and he was the leader of the Mexican forces at the Battle of the Alamo in the Texas revolution. As time passed, the war grew unpopular, and so did Polk. After the invasion of Mexico City, the war stagnated, with US forces harassed by guerrilla warfare. US troops committed atrocities, such as the Agua Nueva Massacre. Polk wanted to annex all of Mexico, and some wealthy individuals in Mexico preferred this to the constant coups that plagued early Mexico. But would this territory permit slavery? And how would dreaded dark skinned Catholics be allowed to become citizens? Eventually, the upper one-third of Mexico’s territory was ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (a treaty that Polk opposed, but grudgingly accepted).

Taylor never saw Mount Taylor nor set foot in New Mexico, as far as I can tell. But he made his mark on the modern state of New Mexico in a couple of ways. The Mexican-American War brought most of the territory of New Mexico into the United States. And during his brief presidency, Taylor opposed Texas’ claims to the eastern half of New Mexico. Thanks in part to President Taylor, I live in New Mexico and not Texas.

Taylor assumed the presidency in March of 1849. Perhaps Polk resented this, but not for long; he had the shortest retirement of any president, dying just three months after leaving office. In the 1800s, presidents took office on March 4th after the election. Because March 4th, 1849 fell on a Sunday, Taylor refused to be sworn in. This led to “President for a Day” David Rice Atchison, who is slightly famous in my home state of Missouri. Taylor lacked specific policies and history considers him to be in the worst 25% of presidents. On July 4th, 1850, President Taylor ate some fruit and milk at a Fourth of July celebration. He became ill and died on July 9th, leaving Vice President Millard Fillmore, who is rated even worse than Taylor, historically. Polk, incidentally, is rated 10th best president, a ranking I suspect the author of A Wicked War disagrees with.

Perhaps someday I will learn how to pronounce Tsoodził, what it means, and the names and meanings of Mount Taylor in the Puebloan languages. Until then, I suppose Old Rough and Ready will have to do. He seems like the sort of person one makes do with.

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Old stuff out west: The Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe

 

From Wikimedia Commons.

When we think of old buildings in the United States, we think of the east: Boston, Philadelphia, Jamestown. Instead, we should think of the Southwest. Taos and Acoma Pueblos are pre-Columbian and still occupied today. And the New Mexico Governor’s Palace in Santa Fe was built in 1610 and housed local leaders until 1909.  By contrast, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello was built in 1772. The Palace of the Governors has a century and a half on it. New Mexico is the fourth youngest state, gaining statehood in 1912. I’ve always thought of the southwest as a new area, barring poorly recorded native activity, a region discovered in the era of Cowboys and Ranches and the Indian wars of the 1800s. Visiting the Palace of the Governors reminded me what a rich history our southwest has.

The Spanish came to New Mexico in 1598. They established the capitol in Santa Fe in 1609, building the Governor’s Palace in 1610. New Mexico was a part of Spain until 1821. It was then part of Mexico until 1848, when it became a part of the United States following the Mexican-American War. So New Mexico was a part of Spain for half a century longer than it’s been a part of the US.

Much of this tumultuous history revolves around the Governor’s Palace. In 1680, the Pueblo Indians’ revolted against Spanish Rule and took the Palace for 12 years. Governor Lew Wallace wrote Ben Hur as the sitting governor of New Mexico Territory in the Palace. This video tells the tale of Bernardo López de Mendizábal, territorial governor from 1659-1660, and his wife, Teresa de Aguilera y Roche. After criticizing the Spanish government, the Inquisition arrested them on suspicion of being crypto-Jews (this term is another wild piece of history all by itself). He died quickly in custody in Mexico City, Teresa wrote about her life in New Mexico.

Today, the palace is a history museum. You can see the various ways the palace has been modified over the years. You can look at the exhaustive list of governors that ruled from the palace. It’s impossible not to feel the immensity of the history in that list. New Mexico was the frontier for a long time, not just in the United States. And living in New Mexico today one feels that spirit.