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Selma and the decline of history

“Today I want to tell the city of Selma, today I want to say to the state of Alabama, today I want to say to the people of America and the nations of the world, that we are not about to turn around. We are on the move now.” Martin Luther King, Jr. 25 March 1965, address at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march.

Edmund Pettus. Lawman, senator, klansman, soldier. To be frank, I did not know Pettus’s credentials until last night, although I guessed three out of four epigraphs correctly when prompted. I never investigated because I never needed to. There are some things southerners don’t need to be historians to know because the struggle for and against white supremacy is written deep into our geography.

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Unfortunately, it is now impossible to discuss Selma without acknowledging recent controversy over its so-called historical accuracy. Mark Updegrove (Director of the L.B.J. Presidential Library and Museum), Joseph A. Califano, Jr. (former Johnson aide), and David E. Kaiser (retired Harvard/Carnegie Mellon professor) are the leading voices in this debate, which argues that director Ava DuVernay exercised excessive creative license and soft-pedaled LBJ’s stance on voting rights legislation. Responses from other historians to this initial criticism have varied. Julian Zelizer (professor of history and public affairs at Princeton) will be writing a multi-part series for CNN about the “real story behind Selma” based on recorded White House conversations. Author Mark Pinsky argued that the film “ostracizes” and silences the work of Jewish activists. Others have taken issue with DuVernay’s interpretation of King (although no one can criticize David Oyelowo’s performance, which is masterful). In DuVernay’s King, historians see both undue attention focused on leaders at the expense of grassroots activists and the overshadowing of King’s political genius.

But it isn’t all bad. Just this morning, Peniel Joseph (professor of history at Tufts) has offered his thoughts to NPR about what the Selma backlash misses, and mainstream film reviews have been generally positive, including this wonderfully-written review from Wesley Morris. Seriously, if you only read one extended review, make it Morris’s.

Despite all this huffing about historical accuracy, only Joseph and Kaiser attempt to make the case as to why this conversation matters beyond academic nit-picking. First Kaiser, who argues that in slighting LBJ’s legacy, we damage the historical integrity of civil rights memory. He writes, “The civil rights movement won its greatest triumphs in the 1950s and 1960s by working through the system as well as in the streets; by finding allies among white institutions such as labor unions, universities and churches; and by appealing to fundamental American values.” Of course, there are historians who believe that preserving alliances with white institutions set back rather than propelled the civil rights movement. This is complicated stuff. But, for the moment, let’s agree that monumental legislation is a product of cross-firing actions across a spectrum of historical actors: lawmakers, politicians, activists, the press, the public. And, let’s also acknowledge that this cross-firing is at times extremely difficult to analyze and is often omitted from popular historical interpretation, from museum exhibits to feature films much to the frustration of historians.

But let’s also look at what Joseph has to say, because I am conceding some things to Kaiser based on the idea that all interpreted history is inherently flawed in some way. Why, then, has criticism of Selma from historians taken shape the way that it has? Joseph argues that such critiques “are part of a larger debate about who owns American history, especially the portions of that history that were led, organized, and shaped in large part by African-Americans.”

I am on the side of Joseph (and others) here. And let me raise a point about these public debates that has not yet been addressed: that we, as historians, cannot condemn the decline of history as a taught art while simultaneously snubbing popular history and those who make and consume it.

There would be no end to the linking of articles should I attempt to offer a selection of opinion pieces that warn of the decline of historical knowledge. Pieces on K-12 education, contingent faculty at universities, the employment prospects of history graduates, the under-funding of cultural institutions all signpost a potentially grim fate for the humanities in this country – one that is certainly linked to an academic disinterest from students of color. As a public historian, I have been part of debates concerning how best to put history to work in the world so that it engages (our current buzzword) “diverse” audiences. And over the years, I have heard some really smart people suggest really dumb ideas (myself included) about how to get someone – anyone – to care about history.

Selma will make people care. And they’ll care despite our debates.

Does that mean we shouldn’t have them? Not at all, but our tone here has been really, really weird. It has been authoritative, dismissive, snide, and detached. And worst of all, the tone used by some historians has actually put me off diving back into civil rights historiography because the debate has produced the same effect for which DuVernay is criticized: it reduces the complexity of the movement into a monolithic interpretation, in this case, the historian’s own.

What I love about Selma is how it shows the push and pull between activists and agents of the state. This is where historians believe the film becomes dicey, but I live in a world where civil rights exists in a textbook chapter and a 55-minute lecture. I live in a world where students – both black and white – write papers about Emmett Till and Rosa Parks and conclude with their relief that “racism is over.” I live in a world where Martin Luther King sometimes freed the slaves, according to test answers. During the film, I tried to put myself in the shoes of a student. As a student,  I would see recognizable black leaders supported by committed black activists from a variety of organizations, religions, and geographies. I would see a smaller, but equally sincere contingent of white allies. And I would see members of both groups die horribly at the hands of white supremacists. I would see a president who favored his own solutions but ultimately concedes legislation. I would see black men and women gathered in churches and surrounded by death and uplift in equal measure. I would see bystanders with ambiguous motives and destinies. I would see white supremacy as more than men in hoods. This initial impression would not be radically different, and in fact would surpass in many regards, what students may encounter in the classroom.

And, thus engaged, I might wonder, “What became of Diane Nash? What did Viola Luizzo do before coming to Selma? Why did some of the activists wear suits and others overalls? Did John Lewis and Jim Foreman ever reconcile?” And if I wondered these things and dared to ask a historian, I would hope not to be dismissed because I was drawn to questions more ordinary than the political debate surrounding voting rights legislation. We all start somewhere.

A few historians will argue that historical accuracy in this matters because the narrative contributes to the view that “white people were hopelessly infected by racism and that black people could and should depend only on themselves.” I don’t get that sense from the film at all, and I am somewhat uncomfortable with that idea being presented as a point of concern made by white, elite academics to black audiences. Nevertheless, these individuals have a much richer grasp of history than me, and I would encourage them to speak to a general audience more often, not just when someone gets something wrong.

In the meantime, the next time I teach a survey of American history Selma will be available for home viewing and I am excited to see how the film improves the quality and depth of classroom discussions about civil rights.

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riots

W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, and the 1906 Atlanta Riot

(The following is an excerpt from my chapter on riots and memory)

It is September 22, 1906, and there is a riot in the Gate City. Throughout the day, and well into the evening, Atlanta paper boys circulated via the Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Evening News stories of vicious assaults on white women at the hands of black men. Reports of fresh attacks surfaced with each of the four editions published that day, and these attacks seemed to confirm the highly publicized warnings from white city officials that the salacious crimes of the black vice district at Peters and Decatur streets would soon spread to the rest of the city.

It was no coincidence that Atlanta’s white press was taking such an interest in black crime on the eve of an important gubernatorial election. Both Democrat candidates were newspaper editors, and inflaming racial tensions was a tested party method for securing the vote of southern white men. A decade prior, city had served as the birthplace of Booker T. Washington’s infamous Atlanta Compromise that exchanged black aspirations and progress for interracial peace and charity, and Atlanta’s educated and wealthy black community had grown uneasily in the shadow of this pact. White businessmen were becoming resentful of black success, and the Democrats promised a return a familiar social order that became more distant with each special edition.

By late afternoon, thousands of outraged white men had gathered in downtown Atlanta in response to the scandalous, but completely fictitious crimes, ignoring orders from law enforcement to disperse and go home. An appeal from Mayor James Woodward also fell on deaf ears. “Go to your homes quietly and leave this matter in the hands of law,” he reasoned, “and I promise you that every negro shall receive justice and the guilty will not escape.” “You go home, Jim,” came the response, “we’re going to kill some niggers!”[1]

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Hoke Smith, editor of the Atlanta Journal, succeeded in becoming Governor.

The mob terrorized downtown’s Five Points until early the next morning. Sunday’s daybreak carried rumors that the mob intended to venture further that night, southwards from the city center to the black residential districts. On Houston Street, a thirteen year old Walter White watched his father George meet with other neighborhood men to determine what, if anything, could be done to protect their families. White’s middle-class upbringing and fair complexion had insulated the teenager from some of the daily troubles experienced by southern blacks, but he knew today was different. Any attempt to reach the working-class black neighborhood that whites called “Dark Town” would lead the mob through the mixed-race neighborhood where his family lived. White was a decade away from embarking on the series of courageous lynching investigations that would earn him a spot amongst NAACP’s senior leadership, and at that moment, he was a scared teenager. When someone shot out the street lamps, George sent his wife, Madeline, and his daughters to their back bedroom. With the women hidden, father and son assumed make-shift sentry positions at their second floor windows and listened to the mob grow closer.

“That’s where that nigger mail carrier lives!” a voice shouted. “Let’s burn it down! It’s too nice for a nigger to live in!”[2] More than forty years after the riot, White retold the event vividly in his autobiography, including the moment he accepted a gun from his father along with the instructions not to miss, which his father delivered “as quiet as though he were asking me to pass him the sugar at the breakfast table.”[3] Watching the mob pass beneath his window, White experienced “a great awareness; I knew then who I was. I was a Negro, a human being with an invisible pigmentation that marked me a person to be hunted, hanged, abused, or discriminated against.”[4] As he wondered what it would be like to kill a man, shots rang out across the street, fired by neighbors from behind a barricade. The shots sent the mob into retreat, swaying in the darkness down Houston Street toward other things in the night.

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W.E.B. Du Bois and Walter White

The same evening, on a train a state away, another man wondered if he could take a life. A research trip had called W.E.B. Du Bois, the black sociologist, activist, and future colleague of Water White, to Alabama, and his wife and daughter were alone in their home near Atlanta University. His train would not arrive in Atlanta until Monday, and he feared the crowd would target the university as a symbol of black progress. On the train, he penned “Litany of Atlanta,” begging for the salvation of blacks from a city infected by “twin Murder and Black Hate.”[5] Although his classmates at Fisk University often armed themselves when traveling into Nashville, the thought of violence terrified Du Bois. Instead, Du Bois often made his family practice how they might hide from attackers. Nevertheless, Du Bois’s first priority upon arriving in Atlanta was to purchase a shot gun, “lest prayers failed.”[6] “I bought a Winchester double-barreled shot gun and two dozen rounds of shells filled with buckshot,” he remembered, “and if a white had stepped on the campus where I lived I would without hesitation have sprayed their guts over the grass.”[7]

Although their families passed through the event unscathed, both men underwent transformative periods after the riot. The elder of the two and already a well-established race leader, Du Bois mourned the Atlanta riot, which caused the deaths of at least forty black residents and the countless migration of many others, with a great intensity. Although he opposed Washington’s notion of a racial compromise, he wondered if a riot might well be the inevitable result of race-mixing.[8] Worse, Washington castigated the flight of prominent black citizens from Atlanta during and after the riot, and insinuated Du Bois was among them. Although Du Bois stood his ground in a way still resonates today, Washington’s sympathizers tinkered with Du Bois’s riot timeline, reporting erroneously that Du Bois had departed to, rather than returned from, Alabama. With his leadership, manhood, and racial affiliations in question, Du Bois withdrew from post-riot reconciliation discussions and returned to his research. The riot also caused a philosophical rift as well as personal. While he disagreed with Washington on many subjects, both men genuinely believed, at that time, in the existence of more naturally capable blacks who were better suited for the task of elevating the race, and who were therefore privileged with some degree of protection not afforded to blacks of a lower order. The riot’s indiscriminate violence against all blacks, and willingness of blacks to commit violence in return, troubled the leader for many years to come.[9]

The riot also transformed Walter White, in this instance prompting him to embrace his African ancestry. Vowing to reject any social ease afforded to him by his blond hair and blue eyes, White became “a Negro by choice.”[10] The Atlanta riot became the first witnessed by White, who would secure his promotion up the ranks of the NAACP with his investigation of forty-one lynchings and eight other race riots. White’s investigations, which he published in essays such as “I Investigate Lynchings” and The Rope and the Faggot, presented lynching as a southern blood sport, and he carried out his work at great personal risk. Although he would later develop a reputation as a consummate organization man and expert lobbyist, White’s initial roles with the NAACP exposed him to the depths of white hatred. Unlike Du Bois, with whom he frequently sparred during their NAACP tenures, White had little difficultly reconciling violence with violence, and at times, he offered the willingness of blacks to use violence in the protection of their families as a point of similarity between races.[11] While Du Bois remained troubled by his reflex to forsake prayers for arms during the Atlanta riot, White repeatedly embellished his narrative of self-defense. His sisters often teased him about his re-telling of the Atlanta riot, and reminded him in letters that their father never kept guns in the house. The teenaged Walter White with his finger on the trigger in his autobiography was simply the version of White he wanted, and felt his readers needed him, to be.

[1] Rebecca Butts Burns, Rage in the Gate City: The Story of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009), 121.

 

[2] Walter White, A Man Called White (1948; repr., Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1975), 10.

 

[3] Ibid.

 

[4] Ibid.

 

[5] W.E.B. Du Bois, “Litany at Atlanta,” Darkwater; Voices from Behind the Veil (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Howe, 1920), 26.

 

[6] Dominic J. Capeci, Jr., and Jack C. Knight, “Reckoning with Violence: W.E.B. Du Bois and the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot,” The Journal of Southern History 62, no. 4 (November 1996): 740.

 

[7] Quoted in Nicholas Johnson, Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms (New York: Prometheus Books, 2014), 151.

 

[8] Capeci and Knight, 746.

[9] Ibid., 751.

 

[10] Kenneth Robert Janken, Walter White: Mr. NAACP (New York: New Press, 2006), 2.  Although his family always identified as Negro, White’s fair skin offered him a degree of social mobility he could never fully reject, but which at times he used to obtain information prudent to NAACP investigations by passing as white.

[11] Ibid., 18.

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lgbtq history, professional culture, public history

What public history can learn from LGBTQ history

I recently had the great pleasure to be in Chicago to celebrate the career of John D’Emilio, a scholar and mentor whose contributions to LGBTQ history are impossible to measure. From his 1983 work Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities to his retirement in August, Professor D’Emilio has been an activist, teacher, and great friend to many. My own advisor was a student of Professor D’Emilio, and the symposium was, in a way, a family reunion.

The event’s closing remarks belonged to Professor D’Emilio, and something he articulated has stuck with me since, which thanks to an excellent write-up in the Windy City Times I can now reflect on further. He concluded that, “There are times when I long for marginality. We are contesting the policy and the power bases of institutions all the time. But we are also members of those institutions. The work that’s most important is the work in which we speak to each other.”

For those at the symposium, marginality has a very specific meaning. To be an LGBTQ scholar, in words and in deeds, was once a difficult path, and continues to be so in many ways. Some of the most moving testimony from the symposium came from those who understood the professional and personal implications of committing to scholarship outside the academy’s priorities. This scholarship not only posed difficult intellectual questions, but invited critical readers into a living world inhabited by its creators. “Forty years ago,” Professor D’Emilio commented, “all of us felt excluded from the resources or the legitimacy of doing this kind of work.”

Those mentored by Professor D’Emilio can attest this is no longer the case. Institutional and public support for LGBTQ scholarship has grown exponentially in the past two decades. That the National Parks Service is currently seeking LGBTQ historic sites is a substantial metric of the influence of sexuality studies. This influence has come with wider representation of LGBTQ scholars and activists at powerful institutions. And this is where public history might consider the lessons of LGBTQ history.

LGBTQ history and public history have a surprising amount in common. Both fields have origins in debates of the 1970s that helped reshape the academy, and both fields spent their seminal years considering long-ignored questions about how best to put history to work in the wider world. In essence, the existence of both fields comes to us from scholars who noted important connections to the relationship between historical knowledge and power, particularly on “invisible” communities. In public history, emphasizing race and the inclusion of African American history at historic sites and culture institutions was an early hallmark of the field. And as both fields grew in both number of practitioners and influence, so was introduced a debate about professionalizing areas of study that had long depended on grass-roots momentum and activism.

“We are contesting the policy and the power bases of institutions all the time. But we are also members of those institutions.” Reflecting on this simple but forceful contradiction should be a priority for public historians. Since 2005 (when I entered the field), the number of graduate programs offering training in public history has doubled, and our professional conferences are experiencing record-breaking numbers. And we’re not only making more public historians, we’re also making them differently. A recent survey indicated that most students wanted better training practical skills like grant-writing and budgeting over theory and historiography. Like all other fields experiencing an on-going job crisis, we are scrambling to reconnect the training we provide to the skills employers want. But what are we losing in the process?

Let me reflect on my own answer by adding the final piece of Professor D’Emilio’s quote above: “The work that’s most important is the work in which we speak to each other.” I exist in a world that is very privileged. It’s a world that encourages students to own and customize a professional identity that at times feels more like a brand than field of study. And in that branding are we are losing the ability to speak to one another. Our focus is narrowed. We occasionally become unintentionally dismissive of colleagues and peers who can’t provide a productive intersection in the form of a conference panel, paper, or project. Of course, these problems are native across all academic and professional institutions, but we must concede that many of the same issues turned our first mentors “radical” decades ago.

So how can public historians learn from LGBTQ scholars? Many of the most productive LGBTQ scholars I know recognize themselves as part of an intellectual tradition. This recognition doesn’t mean that LGBTQ scholars never take issue with current or past scholarship, or are squeamish about introducing concepts that could, to use an academic buzzword, “de-stabilize” the field. It simply means that many LBGTQ scholars carry with them knowledge of the field’s origins and their place in its development. As public historians, we could do a better job of exploring the intellectual foundations of public history with our students. Although one of the aspects of public history I love best is its willingness to be reflective and open about definitions of the field, I also wonder if we are missing the opportunity to create important solidarity by constantly re-visioning and re-branding public history with each generation.

We must also be exceptional mentors. What I learned in Chicago is that one e-mail, one appointment, or one seminar can have an enormous impact on an individual. Professor Julio Capo expressed a common tribute when he invited those who knew John D’Emilio as students to “pay it forward” in their careers.  One of the hallmarks of Professor D’Emilio’s influence as an educator was his willingness to work with individuals at all levels in their development, often doing work that was nothing like his own. Once a niche area of study, public history now has its own niches, and our professional priorities often drive us to those most likely to offer productive inspiration, networking, or career coaching. I would challenge those of us who are still students to make the most of existing in a world of such diversity, and I would remind those in a position to advise students that well-timed words of encouragement or advice can often make or break a student’s success. The symposium to honor Professor D’Emilio reminded me of my own advisors, and how much I owed to them, both professional and personally. It’s not that we, as a field, do a bad job mentoring students and new professionals; it’s just that we now have more than ever and must wonder who we might be unintentionally excluding.

Last year, remarking on the state of the field, National Council on Public History reminded us that we should be “open and welcoming to all public historians, old hands and new, inside and outside the academy.” But how, in such a time of transition? I think part of the answer is to look to other fields, in other transitions, and I hope the above suggestions and reflections are useful way to frame a conversation we must have.

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public history, riots

The Harlem Hellfighters in the American South

harlem hellfightersAt the beginning of August, I sent off my last re-write of the summer – a chapter about a riotous confrontation between black sailors and white military police during WWII – and looked forward to a short break before the start of the Fall semester at the end of the month. And then a police officer in Ferguson killed Michael Brown, and the sorrows and violence of the past happened all over again.

I read as historians expertly, thoughtfully, and forcefully contextualized the events of Ferguson as part of the ever-connected and ever-present story of police brutality and black protest. Although my work is only parallel to the urban examples (Harlem, Detroit, Los Angeles) most often cited, a common thread in analyses that link Ferguson to past riots is transformation of civilian police presence into an organized, militaristic machine. Much more than a policing strategy, this show of force is an all-suppressing demonstration of authority that also has its own murky history.

In 1943 alone, during the height of World War II, the United States military experienced more than twenty race riots, most triggered by confrontations between white military police and black servicemen. Ulysses S. Lee provided a thorough catalogue of these incidents in his 1966 manual The Employment of Negro Troops. The twelfth chapter, “Harvest of Disorder,” offers its full attention to military race violence, noting a clear pattern of escalation between 1941 and 1943. As the War Department continued to ignore potential corrective solutions – such as the employment of more black servicemen as military police – and black personnel grew more frustrated by their treatment in the armed forces, incidents of violent conflict both grew in number and seriousness.

The experiences of black members of the 369th Infantry Regiment at Georgia’s Camp Stewart epitomize the oppressive, dangerous, and counter-productive policing of black servicemen during the war. During World War I, the 369th became the Harlem Hellfighters, black war heroes of the highest order. Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has an excellent biography of the Hellfighters on The Root, which explores the regiment’s exploits in Europe and the importance of their contributions to black America.

Between the wars, the 369th converted back to a New York National Guard unit still celebrated for its “grand and glorious demonstrations of soldiering.”Although the regiment faded from the memory of many white supporters, the Harlem Hellfighters became a powerful symbol of black manhood that was “never flinching, reckless in its bravery, and loyal unto death.” During World War II, the Army reorganized the Hellfighters as the 369th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment. Unlike other newly formed regiments, the 369th included a number of combat veterans and experienced soldiers, and the Army immediately deployed several hundred of its troops to Hawaii in the days following the attacks on Pearl Harbor. In the Spring of 1943, the Army decided to transfer around 200 members of the 369th to Camp Stewart, Georgia. The 369th had kept Hawaii safe from aerial attacks, and the Army believed the soldiers could now be useful stateside as instructors.

Around seventy-five percent of all black servicemen spent part of their military careers in the South. At Camp Stewart, black recruits endured educational programs that explained the logic of Jim Crow laws and their place in the South’s social hierarchy:

Most slave owners were good-hearted Christian people who liked for everyone around them to be happy. They were, as a rule, good to their slaves . . . Many able Negroes helped end slavery. But, the American Negro could have never gotten far by himself. Slavery came to an end because thousands of white people thought it was wrong, that every human being in this world should carry the blessings of freedom won by the blood of patriots in the Revolution. Many Negroes did not understand their new freedom. They flocked to town, thinking that freedom meant they didn’t have to work anymore, somebody would take care of them while they lead “the Life of Riley.” A great deal of hard work was necessary, by great educations like Booker T. Washington, before the American Negro got where he is today . . . Be polite and respectful in any talk you may have with white people. Don’t try to start conversations with strangers. Stay out of white places, and sit where you are supposed to sit on trains and buses. Above all, don’t do or say anything that somebody might take as an insult to a white or colored woman.

This speech, from the Army’s “Suggested Material for Inclusion in Talk on Military and Civil Laws to Soldiers of Negro Organizations” began, “It was a pretty smart man who said: When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” It was into this culture that the Army sent the 369th.

Camp Stewart also housed fourteen other black anti-aircraft artillery regiments. Like the 369th, the 100th was composed of black men from the North who were educated, experienced, and proud of their service. While the Army ostensibly selected seasoned, northern regiments to provide leadership to fresh black southern recruits, the camp’s white commander, General Ochs, quickly replaced the regiments’ own black leaders with white officers. Of these new leaders, one member of the 369th wrote to his family, “Instead of demanding respect, they substitute fear and it won’t work until you have a racial incident, it’s as simple as that.” Another member wrote to NAACP assistant secretary Roy Wilkins that, “I am in an outfit that calls for coordination of mind and body, an outfit that has to match wits with the enemy at all times, and I am tired when it is time to be off. I have things to learn that are important and complicated and I don’t want some soldier who is physically unit to do the job that I have to do hanging over my head with a billy stick for the edification and general amusement of the local populace.” Several members of the 369th took to arming themselves while in camp, reckoning that “we’d all just as soon die in Georgia than die on foreign soil.”

In April 1943, the 369th decided to protest. Largely confined to camp due to segregation in nearby towns, the men of the 369th devised a letter-writing campaign, flooding the NAACP, the War Department, and other black clubs and churches with boiler-plate letters of protest at the harsh conditions imposed on black troops by white military authorities: ““I know you will be surprised to hear from me in this vein, but I want you to judge this letter seriously . . . I want you to write to the Adjunct General’s office in Washington D.C. . . .requesting that this cadre contingent of the 369th be moved out of Georgia as quickly as possible, before a lot of lives are unmercifully sacrificed.”

The regiment’s celebrity made their letting writing campaign successful in some regards. Both the Amsterdam News and the Pittsburgh Courier reprinted their letters, casting an unfavorable spotlight on Camp Stewart. General Ochs denounced the accusations as attention-seeking tactics from the black press and pronounced himself satisfied with the conditions and racial harmony of the camp. The NAACP, and particularly Roy Wilkins, refused to let the matter go. “I do not think the boys from Harlem are going to stand for that kind of situation very long,” Wilkins wrote to the War Department, “and I can assure you the people of Harlem are going to raise plenty of hell.”

In June, a riot erupted at Camp Stewart, and in August, one in Harlem. Although the 1943 Harlem riot was triggered by the shooting of a black soldier by a white civilian policeman, the incidents are linked by the willingness of white police officers to use excessive force against black soldiers. Walter White called the atmosphere in Harlem a “cauldron of brooding misery and frustration” into which the nation dropped example after example of “gratuitous insults and beatings and humiliations” of black America.

In the aftermath of the Camp Stewart riot, which did not directly involve any member of the 369th, an Army special investigations team determined that the violence was “an outgrowth of long pent-up emotions and resentment” that caused black soldiers to fight back against abuses without regard to consequences. Despite this acknowledgement of causation, each solution recommended by the Army as corrective action for racial friction involved the behavior not of white troops, but of black. The Army recommended swifter and harsher punishments for individuals “falsely” circulating reports of racial discrimination, clearer policies for discharging black agitators, and a comprehensive educational program to teach black soldiers the dangers of rumor mongering.

 

 

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Museums, travel

Nothing to see here? Hospital in the Rock Museum, Budapest

The Sziklakórház Múzeum, or Hospital in the Rock Museum, is part of the Castle Hills caves network. During WWII, fbudapestortified caves under Hungary’s Buda Castle transformed into a secret surgical hospital, and later, a vast fallout shelter. Fortunately, Cold War era fears of nuclear annihilation were never realized, and the museum opened as a public attraction in 2008, complete with more than seventy mannequins set in a variety of gruesome tableaux. The museum also houses an archive and media center, where visitors can “time warp to hell.”  Following the guided tour, visitors can refresh themselves in the museum’s coffee shop and perhaps purchase a novelty jar of the “last breath of communism” at the gift shop for 1,500 hungarian forints.

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Hands on, riots

Riots, riots, riots

Primary source of the moment – a 1943 memo from Thurgood Marshall requesting direction from NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White regarding a marked increase in the number of violence racial conflicts at military sites. Like many academic types I spend my summers conducting research and writing, and I’m currently trying to puzzle out what more riots can tell us about the black experience during WWII. 

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altac, professional culture

5 things I learned during my career break

1960s bank queueThis week, I’ve been talking to undergraduate students about their plans after next week’s graduation. Many are excited to have interviews lined up, but seemed embarrassed that the interviews were in sectors and fields not related to their academic degree. This made me remember my own circuitous path back to the academy. I hit the glass ceiling very quickly working on the Isle of Man. Accepting a position with the island’s only heritage organization meant that I had filled the single museum-related vacancy for an entire country. Being an ex-pat is expensive and with news of an income threshold being added to immigration requirements I decided that I needed to consider a position with a higher salary and unfortunately found nothing available in my field. And so I became a banker.

The Isle of Man is a tax haven, and it was extremely easy to find employment in the financial sector. The wealth management division I worked for had a graduate scheme as well and my continuing education, even in an unrelated field, gave me a tiny bump in salary. I worked as an executive for the largest private client asset manager in the UK  for just over a year, and until recently, culled the position from my CV for the sake of saving space. I’ve had a number of jobs in my field since then, and my banking experience dropped off at the bottom of the list. I recently returned the experience to my revamped CV, however, because I realized I learned a number of important lessons and skills in banking that I could not have learned in fields of history and heritage, but which are useful nonetheless.

1. I became comfortable thinking under pressure.

Giving a lecture or facing down the barrel of a writing deadline is a lot different from signing off on financial transactions worth many times more than your annual salary. But often, the high-stakes banking was the least troublesome. Receiving contact from clients in war zones needing funds to evacuate, ensuring that the closure of a deceased client’s account is completely with the least amount of stress possible, and mediating martial disputes were all common scenarios to us and and each brought a human element to an extremely high pressure job.

2. I learned accountability in a very real way.

I’ve seen many graduate students wilt under what is essentially mild criticism. Many will learn that professional challenges are a normal and often times benign part of academic culture, and others will continue to suffer distress when hearing reviews and suggestions. Banking has little room for defensive individuals. Your mistakes are part of a meticulously kept record that can be produced at any time, and admitting errors early saves money. I made errors that inconvenienced people and cost them money, but over time, I made less and stopped being afraid to seek help when I caused a problem I couldn’t solve.

3. I worked outside the academy and didn’t die.

Here’s a confession: I actually enjoyed my banking job as much as I enjoyed working in the heritage industry. I was intellectually challenged, had many wonderful co-workers, and made a decent salary that was based on my additional qualifications, even if they weren’t related. And my other skills didn’t wither and die, either. Nearly all of my tasked involved an aspect of problem solving that relied on finding and interpreting evidence, which was second nature to me. The transition from non-profit to for-profit did jar me from time to time, but ultimately it was in my benefit to experience both cultures.

4. I practiced assertiveness on a daily basis.

Much like academia, banks are full of hierarchies. You have private bankers, personal bankers, corporate bankers, treasurers, forex bankers, retail bankers, not to mention the scores of bankers working behind the scenes. I was a behind-the-scener, and my job was to fix or call attention to problematic high value transactions. Most of these problems involved the human error of a client’s personal banker or manager. Many of my colleagues were grateful that I provided them a nudge to discretely but quickly fix a mistake, but others put forward aggressive challenges to my authority.  I made decisions and stood by them on a daily basis, almost in real time. Now, speaking up in a seminar or interjecting a point during a meeting isn’t such a big deal.

5. I experienced the beauty of clocking out.

For almost eight years, I lived in a world that expected me to work until the work was done.  You can’t visit a site devoted to higher education culture and not see an article about academic work loads featured prominently on the front page. Instead, working outside the academy gave me a work-life that ended at 5pm, or compensated me via overtime when the day was longer. I actually have few complaints about my current workload, but a better work-life balance was something I was grateful to experience.

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