Archive for October, 2015

What America’s Immigrants looked like as they arrived at Ellis Island

Posted on October 28, 2015. Filed under: American history, Immigration, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Yes, we’ve stolen that title from the wonderful Washington Post site showing photos taken by Augustus Sherman at Ellis from 1892-1925. Sherman was the chief registry clerk at the immigration station.

His photos are wonderful because most of them show people dressed in their very best clothing, usually traditional clothes. While immigrants at that time traveled in their regular clothes because they knew the trip in steerage was dirty, they brought their best clothes to put on once they arrived at Ellis Island so that they would seem like presentable people who were a) not poor and b) good citizen material. They dressed to impress, and they had plenty of time to change during the long waiting periods between landing at the dock and being processed.

Adults and children alike were decked out in elaborate clothes. Women must have been sewing for months to create these wonderful ensembles. As the site points out, seeing these people reminds us that America has long been a place where a multitude of cultures mix on the streets, in schools, at work and at play. While immigrants did not wear these magnificent dress pieces every day, they did leave Ellis and make their way in America with them on, and brought them out on special occasions, making America a bottomless reservoir of cultural identity and expression.

It would be great if someone would create a similar archive of 21st-century immigrants. Until then, here are some samples from the Post site:

Ruthenian-woman

A “Ruthenian” woman (today’s Belarus and Ukraine)

Slovak-woman-and-child

A Slovakian woman and her son

Russian-Cossacks

Men from Russia

Algerian-man An Algerian man

Children-from-Lapland

Children from Lapland

Norwegian-woman

A Norwegian woman

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Black Votes Matter… but not in Alabama

Posted on October 21, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Back in June 2013, we posted about the Supreme Court decision that gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act. You can read that here; in this post, we focus on the inevitable evil that is beginning to come of that decision.

Basically, the SC decision removed a restriction that had been placed on states with the worst records of preventing black Americans from voting: that restriction said that if one of those states wanted to change anything about its voting laws, those changes had to be approved by the federal government. This stopped states from passing new laws that kept black Americans from voting.

And now we see the first fruit of removing that restriction: Alabama first made a government-issued ID mandatory for voting, and has now shut down 31 DMV locations—in majority-black counties.

As the report in The Nation says,

The state is shuttering DMV offices in eight of the 10 counties with the highest concentration of black voters. Selma will still have a DMV office but virtually all of the surrounding Black Belt counties will not. “Every single county in which blacks make up more than 75 percent of registered voters will see their driver license office closed,” writes John Archibald of the Birmingham News. “The harm is inflicted disproportionately on voters who happen to be black, and poor, in sparsely populated areas.”

Alabama describes the closings as a cost-saving measure, but the impact has clear racial and political overtones. Writes Archibald:

“Look at the 15 counties that voted for President Barack Obama in the last presidential election. The state just decided to close driver license offices in 53 percent of them.

“Look at the five counties that voted most solidly Democratic? Macon, Greene, Sumter, Lowndes and Bullock counties all had their driver license offices closed.

“Look at the 10 that voted most solidly for Obama? Of those, eight—again all but Dallas and the state capital of Montgomery—had their offices closed.”

This is the very type of voting change–one that disproportionately burdens African-American voters–that would have been challenged under Section 5 of the VRA, which the Supreme Court rendered inoperative. “The voices of our most vulnerable citizens have been silenced by a decision to close 31 license facilities in Alabama. #RestoreTheVOTE,” tweeted Congresswoman Terri Sewell from Selma.

Congresswoman Sewell is calling on the federal Department of Justice to investigate, but what can it do? Its power to suspend any violation of Americans’ constitutional right to vote has been stripped away by the Shelby decision.

As John Archibald (quoted above) says in an op-ed,

It’s not just a civil rights violation. It is not just a public relations nightmare. It is not just an invitation for worldwide scorn and an alarm bell to the Justice Department. It is an affront to the very notion of justice in a nation where one man one vote is as precious as oxygen. It is a slap in the face to all who believe the stuff we teach the kids about how all are created equal.

But Alabama Secy of State John Merrill says there’s no problem:

Secretary of State John Merrill, Alabama’s chief election official, said late Wednesday that the state’s closing of 31 county driver’s license offices won’t leave residents without a place to get the required I.D. card to vote.

…Merrill said state election officials “will issue (photo voter I.D. cards) on our own” at county Board of Registrars offices. “Every county has a Board of Registrars,” he said.

…Merrill said his office will have brought its mobile I.D. van to every county in Alabama by Oct. 31. He said the van will return to counties when requested. “If they can’t go to the board of registrars, we’ll bring a mobile crew down there,” Merrill said.

…One must ask why Alabama should have to use mobile vans to register people when it already had DMVs in place to do so? Mobilizing a fleet of “mobile ID vans” to replace the DMVs you shut down is like breaking your car window so you can tape a plastic garbage bag over it and then vaunt your great “fix”.

It seems clear that this is a bold, open blow against civil rights in Alabama, and like attacks on immigrants, these moves tend to spread from state to state; we fear Alabama will not be the last to decide it doesn’t have to let black citizens vote. Keep an eye on your own state, and if you like, protest the Alabama move at #RestoretheVOTE.

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Jefferson-Jackson Day no more?

Posted on October 14, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

The Democratic and Republican Parties each hold annual fundraisers that, while they attract big names—including sitting presidents—go mostly under the public radar. The Republicans have Lincoln Day, and the Democrats have Jefferson-Jackson Day.

Each event is named for founders of each party. Clearly Lincoln was the first Republican president, but it’s harder to claim  that Jefferson was the first Democratic president. His party was called the Democratic-Republican party, but it did not have much in common with the modern Democratic Party, which didn’t really come into being until 1828, when supporters of Andrew Jackson who were enraged over his loss in the 1824 presidential campaign decided to scrap the Democratic-Republican Party and form a new party. It became an increasingly proslavery party during the 1830s and 40s, and was solidly proslavery by 1850.

And that’s the problem with Jefferson-Jackson Day and the J-J dinners held in every state in Spring or Fall: some people (including the NAACP) have begun to question the wisdom of continuing to associate the modern-day Democratic Party with two men who were unapologetic slaveholders, each of whom also did a lot to alienate and destroy American Indian populations. Connecticut, Florida, Iowa and others have already renamed their dinners, and other state Democratic parties are considering it. There has been predictable outrage over this from conservative spokespeople, who see it as political correctness gone wrong, and who urge us to remember that no one is perfect, and that our national history is filled with people who did good things for the nation while holding views that we can no longer accept.

When the “view” you’re holding is proslavery, it’s hard to defend this rationalist point of view. It posits the idea that there was ever a time when people did not know that enslaving human beings was very bad for the enslaved, did not know that it was always done sheerly to make money at any cost, did not understand that it was deliberately designed to destroy the humanity of the enslaved and turn them into animals bred and raised for stock.

There was never a time when slavery was not fully understood as a complete negative. This doesn’t mean there was never a time when people lied to themselves and others by claiming it had its good points, was bad but sadly necessary, was supported by religion, civilization, and tradition, etc. In fact, the present day is one of those times, as slavery is of course still going on unapologetically in many parts of the world and secretly in others.

We think it’s a good idea to rename the Jefferson-Jackson Day and Dinner in every state, and it would be wonderful if each state came up with different people to name them for, people whom we can celebrate without reservation. Each state has them—sometimes people say it’s impossible to find someone from “the past” who was fully honorable, but of course that’s not true. So get busy in your own state and nominate suitable heroes to name the Day and Dinner for!

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McGraw-Hill erases slavery

Posted on October 6, 2015. Filed under: American history, What History is For | Tags: , , |

We don’t often vent about our personal experiences on the HP, but the uproar over McGraw-Hill Education’s hideous disregard for historical fact leads us now to do just that.

Note: we are not saying we worked on this MGHE publication, nor are we naming any specific publisher names.

The textbook company is facing outrage over its 9th-grade geography textbook, which in a section called “Patterns of Immigration” has this text: “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” See one article on how this shame was brought to light by a student named Coby Burren here.

The truly outrageous thing about this is that we are not one bit surprised. This is the inevitable result of the denigration of education content by U.S. education publishers, large and small. Members of the HP have worked as content producers for many different publishers and we know from bitter, bitter experience that content comes absolutely, completely, unashamedly dead last in their priority list. Content accuracy is about as important to education publishers as yesterday’s lunch. It’s all about the delivery system: see our new software, our interactives, our hardware, our this and that way to access… awful, inaccurate, old, recycled content like the bit about African “workers”. (We attended an event last year where higher-ups from big publishers were chatting about what’s new and someone asked the head of a company we won’t name what was new in education content and he replied, We’re rolling out a laptop.)

Most major U.S. history textbooks proudly boast a scholarly “author” on their covers and a team of scholarly “consultants” on their first pages. But textbooks are written by freelance content writers who make around $18/hour. Many publishers subcontract out the many parts of their textbooks to different businesses called development houses, and dev houses subcontract out the work to freelancers. The editors at the dev house get a laundry list of objectives and standards to meet from the publisher. The editors then give the lists and a deadline to the freelancers.

99% of the focus and instruction to freelancers is on how to format the content to fit the shiny new delivery systems. Accuracy of content is not mentioned. Most editors do not know anything about U.S. history. They work on multiple projects and are not subject matter experts (SMEs); they specialize in publishing production: getting content to fit into the new boxes of online and digital delivery. The majority of freelancers are professional writers, not U.S. history SMEs. Freelancers who do know history, like HP members who have freelanced, raise issues with inaccurate text but are often shunted aside by editors who are already working 70 hours a week and weekends (this is no exaggeration) to make sure the delivery system is coming along and have no time or expertise to do QA on the content. it’s not really their fault that things like African “workers” slip through unnoticed.

If you really argue that something is wrong, it’s like hitting the stop button on a car assembly line. Everything has to grind to a halt and you will not be hired by that dev house again.

Now back to MGHE in specific. In its alleged “apology”, MGHE said this:

“We believe we can do better,” it continues. “To communicate these facts more clearly, we will update this caption to describe the arrival of African slaves in the U.S. as a forced migration and emphasize that their work was done as slave labor.”

We “believe” we can do better? Not “we will do better”, “we must do better”, “this is unacceptable”, “this is completely at odds with our dedication to educating Americans”?

And then the double-triple speak of “to communicate these facts more clearly”: what facts? The “fact” that Africans “emigrated” to the Americas to “work”? We will “update this caption”??

This is about more than updating a caption. There needs to be an entire overhaul of how education content is produced in this country. Maybe it’s impossible to envision a day when education content is written by subject matter experts who are decently paid and respected, and content is thoroughly vetted for accuracy, but, as MGHE so weakly says “we believe we can do better.”

So look forward to many, many, many more errors and outright crimes in textbooks for as long as the system honors bells and whistles for delivery and dishonors what is being delivered.

PS—We went to the McGraw-Hill Education website and looked under Press Releases for their official apology letter; not there. No mention of the incident anywhere, in fact. There was a press release from August that was being highlighted at the top of the page about how “old school” textbooks are out and digital learning is in.

Hardly big news in today’s world, but it is yet another sign that delivery systems are the focus and content is just the dumb, unimportant chatter that is delivered. MGHE’s self-description is telling:

McGraw-Hill Education is a learning science company that delivers personalized learning experiences that help students, parents, educators and professionals improve results.

MGHE delivers “experiences”, not content; it makes things happen on a screen, and that’s the most important thing. If what it makes happen is telling people that enslaved Africans were “workers”, so be it.

More people need to a) read the textbooks their children or others in their lives are reading and b) make a roar to end all roars when they find errors. Coby did!

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The Salem witch trials are not part of the history of witchcraft

Posted on October 5, 2015. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , |

We admit to a bit of hyperbole in that title, but we’re just amplifying the message sent by Diane Purkiss in her August 2015 review of the new Penguin Book of Witches (edited by Katherine Howe).

Her review article is called “We need more types of witches”, and in it Purkiss points out and criticizes the overwhelming fixation historians and average Americans alike have with the Salem witch trials in 1692 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony:

The Penguin Book of Witches disappoints. A better title for this volume might be “The Penguin Book of Witches in the American Colonies”, or even “The Penguin Book of Massachusetts Witches”. As its editor Katherine Howe admits, the English materials she selects are chosen as “antecedent”–her word–to the Salem trials, which are the sole witchcraft trials covered in detail in this slender collection.

The effect is to reinforce the already disproportionate place of Salem in the popular imagination. The Salem trials were very late; they occurred in 1692, while the peak decade for executions in the Anglophone world was in the last decade of the reign of Elizabeth I. Historians estimate that 30,000 witches died in the witchcraft persecutions [in Europe], of whom just twenty died at Salem. …In truth, Salem was in many respects profoundly unusual.

So far so good. We do take issue with Purkiss’ description of the causes of the witch trials:

The monocultural hardline Calvinism of the colonies, the lack of older and once powerful cultures as an anxiety-provoking substrate, the absence of the usual special interest groups, and the vicious hierarchy of the Calvinist churches all militate against using Salem as a representative case of witch-hunting. Yet that is how it is used, both here and elsewhere.

There was no “vicious hierarchy” in Massachusetts churches, which were not Calvinist in the first place (they were Congregational/Independent); Purkiss references the “extreme Calvinism that had led to the establishment of the colonies in the first place”. We assume she means Massachusetts and the Connecticut colonies. But the English reformers who went to New England were not “extreme Calvinists”; they had already worked out unique compromises with Calvinism before they ever left England, during the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I, and his son Charles I. That was in 1630—by 1692, even the original Congregationalist platform had been pretty thoroughly undermined and partially demolished by the loss of Massachusetts’ political independence and the resulting influx of non-Congregational populations, as well as the growing Baptist movement in the 1670s, before the loss of the charter.

We go into this timeline in more depth in our article on Stacy Schiff’s new and wildly inaccurate piece of historical fiction The Witches of Salem. It’s a shame that even people making excellent points about the Salem trials don’t know the history well, but we do want to focus here on the many things Purkiss gets right. She points out the ridiculous fantasy that is The Crucible, and laments its hold on both the popular and scholarly imagination. And Purkiss points out that Matthew Hopkins, who took advantage of social turmoil and fear during the English Civil War to execute 300-500 women as witches in just two years, is never mentioned in the current Penguin anthology, and seems to be completely lost to history, while the people involved in the deaths of just 20 men and women in Salem continue to live in infamy.

If you’re interested in the history of human belief in witches, it’s best to study that entire history, not just one incident that has likely become famous simply because it was the only incident of witch-mania in all American/U.S. history. The anomaly always fascinates, but we can’t let it obscure the history.

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