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What Grandaddy Taught Me About Race in America

By | July 13, 2017

I lived most of my childhood convinced that my grandfather, Calvin Muldrow, was Superman. On summer evenings, I’d perch atop his knee as we sat on the creaky back porch of his red brick house in North Little Rock. He’d weave elaborate tall tales about his magical excursions gliding over the jungle canopies of Sierra Leone, or wrestling boa constrictors, or floating aloft past my …

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Was Wounded Knee a Battle for Religious Freedom?

By | July 6, 2017

The Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 appears in many history textbooks as the “end of the Indian Wars” and a signal moment in the closing of the Western frontier. The atrocity had many causes, but its immediate one was the U.S. government’s effort to ban a religion: the Ghost Dance, a new Indian faith that had swept Western reservations over the previous year.
The history …

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How Charleston Celebrated Its Last July 4 Before the Civil War

By | June 29, 2017

In the cooling evening air, Charleston, South Carolina’s notable citizens filed into Hibernian Hall on Meeting Street for the traditional banquet to close their July 4th festivities. The year was 1860, and the host, as always, was the ’76 Association, a society formed by elite Charlestonians in 1810 to pay homage to the Declaration of Independence.
The guest of honor was one of the city’s …

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How Lafayette Became America’s “Favorite Fighting Frenchman”

By | June 22, 2017

If you live in the United States, you’ve probably come across a county, city, street, park, school, shop, or restaurant named for Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), the most beloved French hero of the American Revolution. In New York City, my home town, I’ve spotted three different Lafayette Avenues, one Lafayette Street, a Lafayette playground, and four public sculptures of the Marquis. Although …

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The North Carolina Trucker Who Brought the World to America in a Box

By | June 15, 2017

On April 26, 1956, a crane lifted 58 aluminum truck bodies onto the deck of an aging tanker ship moored in Newark, New Jersey. Five days later, the Ideal-X sailed into Houston, Texas, where waiting trucks collected the containers for delivery to local factories and warehouses. From that modest beginning, the shipping container would become such a familiar part of the landscape that Americans would …

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With Crocheting Needles, My Sicilian Immigrant Grandmother Wove a New Life In America

By | June 8, 2017

The winter rains had subsided for the moment, but the coastal night air remained chilly and damp. My rent-controlled apartment, with its lack of insulation, mirrored the outside evening temperature, as I sat at my desk struggling to meet a self-imposed deadline. Shoes aren’t allowed in my home, not even for me, and with porous window seals in this old building and its wooden floors, …

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For the Female Phone Operators of World War I, a Woman’s Place Was on the Front Lines

By | June 1, 2017

In 1917, U.S. Secretary of War Newton Baker disliked the idea of female workers on Army bases so intensely that he didn’t even want to build toilets for them. They might tarry. Females did not belong in the Army, Baker thought, though the more forward-thinking U.S. Navy already had welcomed women into its ranks to replace men in landlubber assignments.
Many adventurous and patriotic young women …

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When Pac-Man Started a National “Media Panic”

By | May 25, 2017

In the early 1980s, spurred by the incredible popularity of Atari, Space Invaders and Pac-Man, everyone seemed to be talking about video games, if not obsessively playing them. A 1982 cover of Time magazine screamed “GRONK! FLASH! ZAP! Video Games are Blitzing the World!” If you turned on the radio that year you’d likely hear “Pac-Man Fever,” a Top 40 hit by Buckner & Garcia. …

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How Irish American Athletes Slugged Their Way to Respectability

By | May 19, 2017

In his 1888 book The Ethics of Boxing and Manly Sport, a high-minded treatise on the ennobling effect of sports, the journalist, poet, and Irish exile John Boyle O’Reilly wrote that “there is no branch of athletics in which Irishmen, or the sons of Irishmen, do not hold first place in all the world.” The boast was closer to true than many would realize. By …

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Civil War General Oliver Otis Howard Was a Crusader for Ex-Slaves—and a Scourge of Native Americans

By | May 12, 2017

When God first visited him in 1857, Oliver Otis Howard was a lonely army lieutenant battling clouds of mosquitoes in a backwater posting that he described as a “field for self-denial”: Tampa, Florida. Howard had spent his life swimming against powerful tides. Ten when his father died, he had to leave his family in Leeds, Maine, and move in with relatives. Through constant study, he …

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