Category Archives: History

Columbus Day

You could easily miss that today is Columbus Day. Weirdest national holiday ever.

This summer I spent some time trying to teach Yeshumnesh a little American history. I think the greatest thing we learned is that I’m not a very good teacher. But we started off by going back to Columbus and I quickly realized how Euro-centric history is. I kept finding myself using words like “discovered” and “new world” and the rest, which is just bizarre considering all the indigenous people who had been living in this “new world” for centuries.

At the same time you can’t just discount the “discovery,” because it had tremendous implications for everyone. It meant tremendous opportunity and change for the European powers as they squabbled over a new-to-them corner of the world. And it meant genocide, slavery and destruction for the indigenous people who were quickly overwhelmed.

Much of that history is whitewashed when we talk about it and Columbus still gets the credit for “discovering the new world.” My favorite example is a timeline of the history of agriculture in the Americas that begins with Columbus.

I had a little trouble balancing all these issues as I tried to explain the backstory of American history. And in the end we have a holiday for a man who enslaved and brutalized native peoples. I get marking such a dramatic phase shift in history, but I wonder if focusing on the lone man is the best approach.

Operation Moses: Rescuing Ethiopian Jews

I’ve been reading a lot of Ethiopia-themed books lately (I was pleasantly surprised at how well stocked our library was for kids’ books), as I’m trying to thoroughly embrace our family’s new heritage. One of the books I came across is called The Return by Sonia Levitin and it tells the incredible story of Operation Moses.

Operation Moses was a covert evacuation of Ethiopian Jews (also known as Beta Israel) in 1984. Facing religious persecution and famine in Ethiopia under the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, some 13,000 Jews escaped Ethiopia on foot and made for Sudan. Israel then airlifted the refugees to safety with the secret cooperation of the Sudanese government. It’s estimated that 4,000 died on the way trek to Sudan and another 1,000 were left behind when operation became public and other Arab nations pressured Sudan to stop the secret evacuations.

Many of those left behind in Sudan were later brought to Israel as part of the U.S.-lead follow-up mission, Operation Joshua, in 1985.

The situation didn’t change until 1991 and the Ethiopian revolution when Israel took advantage of the political instability to evacuate the remaining Ethiopian Jews as part of Operation Solomon. More than 14,000 were evacuated in a 36-hour period on 34 different flights. Today there are still several thousand Ethiopian Jews remaining in Ethiopia.

It’s an incredible story and bit of history you don’t really hear about. The Return tells the story from the perspective of a teenage girl who evacuates Ethiopia. The book gives a pretty detailed portrayal of the life of a rural Ethiopian Jew. You actually don’t get much of sense of what was actually happening with Operation Moses until the very end, which for me just prompted more research (and I’d love to do more beyond Wikipedia and a few random articles).

It’s another layer to the incredible history and people of Ethiopia.

When Marian Anderson Sang

Marian Anderson in front of the Lincoln Memorial
Marian Anderson performing at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.

I love that my wife is a kindergarten teacher. It means we have a vast collection of good children’s books—so many that I haven’t read a lot of them.

So today when Lexi pulled When Marian Sang off the shelf for her pre-naptime book, I was reading it for the first time. It’s beautifully illustrated and tells the story of black singer Marian Anderson and her struggles in the segregated, pre-civil rights America. I’d never heard of Marian Anderson before, but her tremendous voice was respected around the world.

In 1939 Howard University brought Marian to Washington, D.C., to perform. They tried to book Constitution Hall, but the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.), who ran the hall, refused to allow Marian to perform because she was black. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the D.A.R. over the incident.

Marian eventually performed on Easter Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial to a mixed-race crowd of 75,000 and a radio audience in the millions.

In 1943 the D.A.R. invited Marian to perform at Constitution Hall in support of the war effort. She agreed on the condition that the seating be mixed (as opposed to an all-white crowd or only allowing blacks to sit in the balcony). The D.A.R. agreed and it was the first time in the history of Constitution Hall that blacks and whites sat together.

I got choked up a few times reading the story and could barely keep it together. The injustice and cruelty of America’s history of racism is just stupid. I don’t have a better word for it.

At the point in the story when Marian isn’t allowed to apply to a music school—”We don’t take colored,” she’s told—there’s a picture of Marian’s mother comforting her. Lexi and I had this exchange:

“What’s wrong with her?” Lexi asked, pointing to the picture.

“She’s sad,” I said.

“Why is she sad?”

“They wouldn’t let her go to school because of the color of her skin.” My voice was already wavering, trying to hold it together.

“That’s not fair!” Like most kids, Lexi exclaims this over the most mundane things (no dessert, bed time, etc.), but she had real anger this time.

“No, it’s not fair,” I said, shaking my head and biting my lip to keep from sobbing.

Knowing her experience makes the words of the spirituals she sang all the more poignant: “Oh, nobody knows the trouble I see, nobody knows my sorrow…”

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Yesterday was Yom HaShoah, a day of remembrance for the Holocaust of World War II. It’s a day I knew nothing about until a friend’s Twitter post and my sister-in-law’s blog entry. It’s a somber day in Israel and a siren sounds twice during the day bringing everything to a halt for two minutes of silence. People even stop their cars and get out.

Like much of family history, Holocaust stories are important to share and remember. These stories (Holocaust and otherwise) provide a vital infusion of humanity and connection into what could otherwise be distant history. These stories are not so distant history, even if they happened hundreds of years ago. We’re still connected to them and they had an impact on our DNA.

Here’s a brief excerpt of my sister-in-law’s story:

All of the able bodied Jews were used as slave labor in various capacities, while the old, sickly, and the children were left behind in the ghetto. One day my grandparents and oldest uncle returned from their day of “work” to find that those they had left behind in the ghetto had been slaughtered. Their bodies were left in the streets. My great grandparents were amongst the dead, as well as my uncle, who had been decapitated. He was three years old. My grandfather realized that he needed to escape the ghetto or die. He somehow managed to get himself, my grandmother, and my teenage uncle out of the ghetto. They spent the next few years in the woods of Poland with Partisans. The fought the Nazis by sabotaging bridges and trains.

It’s worth reading the rest of her post (though I disagree with her political conclusions).

The Radical Words of Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.Last week I talked a bit about Martin Luther King Jr. being a radical. Today it seems appropriate to look at some of his radical words.

On love vs. hate:

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

On nonviolence:

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” (Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 1964)

Continue reading The Radical Words of Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. the Radical

Martin Luther King Jr.I’ve been reading The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House lately (can you guess why?) and have been fascinated by the perspective of history. Specifically Martin Luther King Jr.

Admittedly, my understanding of current history (say, the last 60 years) is weak at best. I blame my education when the textbooks crammed anything after World War II into a miniature chapter at the end of the book that we never covered. Of course that was a long time ago and any further lack of education is my own fault. I know the basics of the 1960s and 1970s, but I’m usually lacking context and an understanding of how events relate.

Martin Luther King Jr. is a prime example. I never realized what a radical he was.

Continue reading Martin Luther King Jr. the Radical

Did Martin Luther King Jr. Finally End the Civil War?

PRI’s The World has a fascinating series of stories on how wars end. The series is looking at past wars to give insight into how the Iraq war might end. Yesterday’s story covered the end of the Civil War and the failure of Reconstruction.

What’s so interesting is the assertion that the Civil War didn’t end at Appomattox. The battle continued, though it wasn’t always a military battle (though people still died):

Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations says it helps him understand how it’s possible to win the war, capture the capital but still lose the peace. He notes the North won the big military contest between 1861 and 1865, but that didn’t end the struggle. And over time, Biddle points out, Southern resistance paid off. In 1877 President Rutherford Hayes withdrew Northern troops from the South.

“And the South proceeds to essentially run out the Northern installed governments of the remaining Southern states, institutes what amounted to white one-party rule, removed blacks from voter rolls throughout the South and established a system of segregation, and that system remains to a significant degree all the way up until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.”

Biddle says if you look at in political terms, it’s possible to construct an argument that the South actually won the war.

That’s quite a claim, but it’s interesting to consider. If the Civil War was fought to bring freedom to blacks, you could argue that freedom wasn’t fully achieved until Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. How’s that for a long view of the conflict? Never thought I’d consider MLK a Civil War hero. That’s probably taking it a bit far, but it’s interesting to consider and is a strong counter to the myth that the Civil War ended amicably at Appomattox.

11 Years to Walk on the Moon

On October 4, 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik, the first man-made object to orbit Earth. Not content with second place, the United States quickly rallied to achieve their own interstellar milestones. On July 29, 1958—50 years ago today—President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act into law, creating NASA. On July 20, 1969—almost exactly 11 years later—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.

It took a mere 11 years to go from first satellite to the first steps on the moon. That’s incredible progress in an incredibly short time. A little more than a decade and you can walk on the moon. (via

Twitter, Moving, History & Art

Blogging has definitely slowed lately. I blame Twitter—I’ve been enjoying its strength as a place to make temporary, pithy comments that don’t require much time or thought investment. Maybe that says something about how valuable/worthless my Twitter posts are, though I do try to avoid the Twitter equivalent of the cat blog and at least keep my tweets entertaining. Not sure if I’m accomplishing that, though 191 people don’t seem to be too bored.

Our big Memorial Day weekend was spent helping my brother’s family move. This is a borderline psychotic admission, but I think moving is kind of fun. Yes, it’s incredibly stressful (for those moving). But it’s an interesting opportunity to cram all your stuff into the back of a truck and redistribute it into a new space. It always makes me realize how much crap I own and wonder if I really need all that crap (and hopefully I spent enough time minimizing the crap before the move). All that said crap also makes me realize how unorganized I am, and how stuff I thought I needed so dearly I really don’t need. There’s plenty of stuff I haven’t touched since moving into our current home a little over a year ago, and that helps me let go a little bit.

Continue reading Twitter, Moving, History & Art

The 1930s were in Color!

The Library of Congress has released loads of photos on Flickr. My favorite is this set of color photos from the 1930s and 1940s. I’ve seen very little if any color photography from that era. It all looks like it was shot 20 years later than it was.

It’s curious to me how film quality affects our perception of time periods. I always pictured the pre-1960 world as black and white, then a sort of off-kilter Technicolor world before film started to look more “normal” in the 1980s. Oddly enough, I always pictured the pre-photographic world as the random illustrations and paintings that appeared in textbooks.

It’s also interesting seeing all the horses and wagons. For whatever reason I always imagined the automobile being ubiquitous after 1920 or so.