Boston Honors Prickly Poe

Orphan, West Point dropout, critic, poet, novelist, magazine editor and literary innovator, Edgar Allan Poe packed a lot of living into his short 40 years. Tough he spent few of those years in his birthplace of Boston he nonetheless developed a towering disdain for Frogpondians, his nickname for moralizing Bostonians. Now Boston is honoring its prickly native son with a statue erected near the Boston Commons, not far from the home where Poe spent his first three years before the deaths of his young actor parents.

The statue of Poe with a giant raven by his side—sculpted by Stefanie Rocknak—was dedicated on October 5, 2014, and the site is now named Poe Square. Poe’s most well-known poem, “The Raven,” was published in 1845 to rave reviews: “It is despair brooding over wisdom,” one said; another critic wrote that it “fills the ear with a wild and delightful music.” After hearing Poe read “The Raven” at her home in Greenwich Village, schoolteacher and poet Anne C. Lynch wrote that he was “quiet and unaffected, unpretentious, in his manner; and he would not have attracted any particular attention from a stranger, except from his strikingly intellectual head and features, which bore the unmistakable character of genius.”

One of America’s most distinctive literary giants, Poe also penned horror and science fiction stories and in 1841 created the first modern detective tale—The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

FBI Surveillance Records Lost

Left-wing activists and civil rights advocates were well known subjects of surveillance under the FBI’s COINTELPRO programs from 1956-71, but one arm of the effort infiltrated white nationalist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, according to a post by historian Trevor Griffey at the blog Unredacted on the website of the National Security Archive, which is based at George Washington University. The details of that project—as well as the 10 other COINTELPRO programs—have never been fully known, and Griffey now laments that archival neglect has led to the loss of as much as one-third of the materials relating to COINTELPRO surveillance. The relevant documents were held in archives in Moonachie, N.J., and Alexandria, Va., and both sites were flooded during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Griffey not only questions the adequacy of the archiving, but also asks, “Why does the FBI continue to retain millions of pages of historically significant files, many of which are over 50 years old, that have no relevance to its contemporary law enforcement mission? Why have these files not already been transferred to the National Archives?”

A New Look at World War II

HOW AMERICAN SOLDIERS fought in the incredibly challenging and diverse conditions of the European and Pacific fronts is the focus of a new exhibition, “Campaigns of Courage,” opening at the World War II Museum in New Orleans in December. Housed in a new 31,000-square-foot building will be a display, “Road to Berlin,” that explains what came before and after the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. The displays will recreate from an eye-level perspective environments such as the deserts of Tunisia, the hedgerows of Normandy and the forests of Belgium. Trough other displays viewers can experience a bombing run, see a re-creation of Omaha Beach strewn with actual soldiers’ artifacts, or read a soldier’s diary. Another innovative aspect is “The Dog Tag Experience.” Visitors will be issued dog tags containing chips linked to the experiences of 29 different soldiers that can be accessed at kiosks throughout the exhibition. A second component of the “Campaigns of Courage” exhibit, “Road to Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries,” will open in 2015 and highlight evolving strategies and extreme conditions.

Rare All-Black Film From 1913 Found

THE BLOCKBUSTER Birth of a Nation came out in 1913, just as a film featuring premier minstrel performer Bert Williams and an all-black cast was being shot. The untitled film, a romantic comedy depicting middleclass African Americans in Harlem, was never released. Rediscovered several years ago, the restored film— the earliest known surviving feature film with a cast of black actors—had its first public screening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on November 8.

The film is a window on a vital group of Harlem performers who were creating a conventional storyline, not standard minstrels-in-blackface fare. It is also significant for the rare footage of Williams, the Caribbean-born actor whose work in the minstrel shows earned him the highest praise. (W.C. Fields said Williams was one of the funniest men he ever knew.)

The movie showcases the cakewalk, an African-American dance with a prancing step that mocked white society dances. The cakewalk eventually became a fixture in American culture, leading to the idiom “That takes the cake.”

Rights on Paper

WHEN A GROUP of feudal barons met with King John near London in 1215, they drew up a document that not only limited the king’s power but also granted rights to his subjects. Tat piece of paper, known as the Magna Carta, laid the groundwork for the delineation of civil liberties in Western jurisprudence. Today only four copies of the Magna Carta survive, and one is the centerpiece of the Library of Congress exhibit, “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor,” on view through January 15, 2015. An exhibit of a facsimile will also tour the United States.

Lincoln Logs Come Home

THE MAKER of the children’s building set has brought production back to the United States, according to the Portland Press Herald. The sets had been milled in China, along with other products made by K’NEX, under a license from Hasbro Toys. Pride Manufacturing in Portland, Maine, convinced the company to reestablish domestic production. Painting and packaging will be done in Pennsylvania.

Lincoln Logs were dreamed up in 1916 while John Wright, a son of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, was working with his father on the construction of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. The toy design was influenced by the hotel’s earthquake-proof, interlocking beams. Plans for making Uncle Tom’s cabin and Abraham Lincoln’s cabin were included in the original set.

The Great American Land Grab

FOR A SWEEPING depiction of the impact of European colonization on Native Americans, take a look at the interactive map created by Claudio Saunt and Stephen Berry, both historians at the University of Georgia and both involved with the university’s Center for Virtual History. The two have produced a timeline documenting the loss of 1.5 billion acres of ancestral tribal lands and the crowding of hundreds of tribes onto tiny reservations over the period from 1776 to 1887. The project, called “Invasion of America: How the United States Took Over One-Eighth of the World” at invasionofamerica.ehistory.org, allows viewers to interact with the map, choosing a period, tribe or place to see what was lost by whom and when. By the 1880s, most tribes occupied just pinpoints of land. The data are based on maps produced by the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1899.

Claudio Saunt, author of the highly regarded West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776, is also working on a project, IndianNation (indiannation.org), that will comprise Facebook pages for each of the 237,000 tribal members counted in the 1900 census (down from some 8 million at the time of European contact in the 1540s). His goal is to draw collaborators to help fill in family histories. The site includes a map of current Native American communities with population counts.

Remembering the Newly Freed People

PHOTOGRAPHS of slaves in the United States are rare, and photos in which slaves are identified by name are far rarer. So the discovery of a photo of Selina Gray, the slave at Arlington House entrusted with safeguarding the belongings of Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary—including artifacts Mary Lee inherited from George Washington’s estate—during the Union occupation, is a boon for the new interpretive effort underway at the Virginia site. The photo—only the second known of Mary Lee’s head housekeeper—was spotted by a National Park Service volunteer on eBay and purchased for $700 from a seller in England.

Selina Gray was one of some 60 slaves at Arlington, and after being freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, Gray and her family moved to a plot of land nearby and made a living selling produce.

Another chapter in the transition to freedom was remembered with a ceremony on August 28, 2014, at a cemetery for escaped slaves and freed people in Alexandria, Va. Some 1,800 unmarked graves had been forgotten and eventually paved over. But efforts over the past two decades have finally borne fruit in restoring the site. Stones now delineate each grave, and a bronze marker names those buried there.

FDR on Global Disease Threats, 1940

ON OCTOBER 31, 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave a speech addressing the importance of public health at the dedication of a new building in Bethesda, Md., for the National Institute of Health. Researchers recently came across rare footage of that speech, which was never widely circulated, and the president’s remarks—delivered in the long lead up to U.S. entry into World War II—still ring true today: “We are less than a day by plane from the jungle type yellow fever of South America, less than two days from the sleeping sickness of Africa, less than three days from cholera and bubonic plague. . . . Disease disregards state lines as well as national lines,” he said. “The ramparts we watch must be civilian in addition to being military.”

The dedication honored the fourth donation of land to the National Institute of Health by Mrs. Luke I. Wilson. Now named the National Institutes of Health, the agency comprises 27 research institutes and centers. It originated as the Marine Hospital Service, created in 1798 to care for sick and disabled seamen. In 1873 the Marine Hospital Service became the first career service for civilian federal employees.

Save the Bison

REPRESENTATIVES from 11 Native American tribes in Montana and Canada’s First Nations in Alberta signed a bison treaty on September 23 that included an appeal for their members to work with researchers and conservationists to preserve and restore the prairie. The treaty, signed at the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, is the first between the tribes since the 1800s.

1934 Drought: Worst Ever

A NASA PAPER in Geophysical Letters examining the evidence for droughts in North America from the years 1000 to 2005 pinpointed the drought of 1934—which extended over more than 70 percent of the United States—as the worst in that time period. The study looked at tree-ring evidence as well as modern records and concluded that the 1934 drought was 30 percent more severe than the next worse drought in 1850. An unusually situated high-pressure system, along with poor land management practices that helped create precipitation reducing dust storms, were cited as critical factors.

 

Originally published in the February 2015 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.