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Thursday, August 31, 2023

August 31, 2023: Contextualizing the March on Washington: Marian, Mahalia, and Odetta

[August 28th marks the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the single most important events in 20th century American history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for and from that event—not including Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic speech, about which I’ve written a good bit already!]

On the 1963 musical performers who dominated headlines, and those we should better remember.

In yesterday’s post I highlighted the interracial makeup of the 1963 March’s leadership, and the same was certainly true of its featured musical performers. Joan Baez sang “We Shall Overcome” and “Oh Freedom”; Bob Dylan joined her for “When the Ship Comes In” and then performed his own “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (a controversial choice for this occasion since the song minimizes the culpability of Medgar Evers’ then-unpunished murderer Byron De La Beckwith); and Peter, Paul, and Mary performed “If I Had a Hammer” as well as Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Folk music was a core element of the Civil Rights Movement as it was every part of American culture and society in the early 1960s; but at the same time I have to agree with actor and radical activist Dick Gregory’s critique of the 1963 musical performances as dominated a bit more than would have been ideal by these popular white artists (perhaps especially since many of their chosen numbers at the March were African American spirituals or folk songs).

They weren’t the only 1963 performers, however, and it’s important not to deepen the problem by focusing on them at the expense of the march’s impressive and inspiring Black artists. One of the most impressive, pioneering and prodigiously talented opera singer Marian Anderson, was actually performing at the Lincoln Memorial for the second time. In 1939, Anderson had the chance to perform in DC’s Constitution Hall but the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to grant permission for her to do so in front of an integrated audience; instead she performed an outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 2nd, in front of an audience of 75,000. I don’t know of any 20th century moment that better captures both the worst and best of America than that one, and better remembering Anderson’s 1963 performance (she sang “He’s Got the Whole in His Hands”) can help us likewise better remember 1939.

Another 1963 performer, Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, was also making a return to this setting, as she had performed at the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom about which I wrote on Tuesday. Her performance of two hymns, “I’ve Been ‘Buked” and “How I Got Over,” was as stirring as every time Jackson took any stage. But perhaps the least well-known of the 1963 March’s three Black women musical artists is the most significant for contextualizing the event’s musical performances overall. Folk legend Odetta Holmes (who performed simply as Odetta) was called by none other than MLK “the Queen of American Folk Music,” and was a vital influence on contemporary artists like Baez and Dylan among others. I don’t mean to take anything away from the talents nor the impacts of white artists like them when I say that the respective lack of attention paid to Odetta, then and since, is due entirely to racism and white supremacy. In a way, the responses to the 1963 March—where the white artists performed a number of Black spirituals and folk songs, no less—frustratingly replicated that trend. But we don’t have to do the same, so I’ll end this post by linking to Odetta’s stirring performance from the 1963 March on Washington.

Last March context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

August 30, 2023: Contextualizing the March on Washington: The Big Six

[August 28th marks the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the single most important events in 20th century American history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for and from that event—not including Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic speech, about which I’ve written a good bit already!]

On a couple inspiring elements of the 1963 March’s leadership, and a frustrating one.

In June 1963, with plans for the August march beginning to take form, the leaders of multiple civil rights organizations came together to form a new one: the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership. Those leaders, who became known as the “Big Six,” included two men I’ve written about a good bit already this week, A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr., and four others: Congress of Racial Equality co-founder and President James Farmer; NAACP President Roy Wilkins; National Urban League Executive Director Whitney Young; and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Chairman John Lewis. The Big Six would eventually bring four white leaders aboard to form a group known as the “Big Ten”: longtime United Automobile Workers President Walter Reuther; National Council of Churches Past President Eugene Carson Blake; National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice Executive Director Mathew Ahmann; and American Jewish Congress President Joachim Prinz.

The presence and contributions of those white leaders illustrate the fundamentally and inspiringly interracial and cross-cultural nature of the 1963 March on every level. But of course we don’t have to look beyond the Big Six to find important inspiration, and in particular I would highlight their genuinely multi-generational identities: Randolph was 74 at the time of the march; Wilkins was about to turn 62; Farmer was 43 and Young 42; King was 34; and Lewis was 23. Naturally the Civil Rights Movement featured leaders and participants from every living generation, but for a group separated by more than 50 years to work together so closely and successfully is still a striking and impressive achievement. As John Lewis later put it, “Somehow, some way, we worked well together. The six of us, plus the four. We became like brothers.” In this long-ago post I mentioned the sociological argument that “diversity within categories far exceeds diversity between categories”; age and generation comprise significant such diverse factors within a category like “African American,” and clearly they didn’t stop this impressive group from achieving big things.

They aren’t the only such diverse identities, however, and when it came to another the March’s leadership were much less unified. As I highlighted in Monday’s post, Bayard Rustin had been alongside Randolph throughout the decades of civil rights marches on Washington (planned and actual), and continued to play an important role in 1963’s. But both Wilkins and Young objected to Rustin serving as an equal planner (which would have made for a Big Seven, of course); they ostensibly did so because of his ties to controversies like communism and draft resistance, but it seems clear it was Rustin’s homosexuality that was at the heart of the debate. As that hyperlinked article notes, Martin Luther King Jr. would likewise sideline Rustin at times due to concerns over potential responses to his sexuality, so this wasn’t simply about the older generations either. Indeed, the oldest of the Big Six, Randolph, had long worked alongside Rustin without these qualms, so we can’t attribute this attitude to age in any way. It didn’t stop Rustin from working as a crucial strategist and organizer for the 1963 March—but it shouldn’t have been a thing at all, and shouldn’t be absent from our collective memories.

Next March context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

August 29, 2023: Contextualizing the March on Washington: 1957 Prelude

[August 28th marks the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the single most important events in 20th century American history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for and from that event—not including Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic speech, about which I’ve written a good bit already!]

On how a 1957 march directly foreshadowed 1963, and how it differed.

As part of my 2021 MLK Day series I shared a paragraph from my most recent (then forthcoming) book, Of Thee I Sing (2021), where I analyzed King’s 1957 speech “Give Us the Ballot” as an example of critical and active patriotism. That speech was delivered at the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom march on Washington, so check out that post (the first hyperlink above) if you would and then come on back here for more on that 1957 event.

Welcome back! King delivering a potent headlining speech at both the 1957 and 1963 marches wasn’t a coincidence, and it’s not simply a reflection on his incredible oratorical gifts (although yes, that too). The 1957 march built on the planned 1941 one I discussed yesterday (logically enough, as it too was planned by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, although this time the amazing activist and leader Ella Baker played a central role as well), but it even more directly foreshadowed 1963: a gathering of tens of thousands of protesters (the largest civil rights demonstration in American history to that point) at the Lincoln Memorial, featuring both speeches and musical performances, culminating in that powerhouse closing speech from King. Of course the Civil Rights Movement, like any social movement, repeated similar tactics in multiple moments and settings; and as I mentioned yesterday, Randolph and company quickly realized the power of marches on Washington (whether just planned as in 1941 or executed), so it stands to reason they’d keep using that strategy. But it is nonetheless striking how parallel the 1957 and 1963 marches were.

Parallel isn’t identical, however, and I’d highlight two subtle but significant distinctions between the two marches. One was the central role of a politician, Democratic Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (a minister turned representative from Harlem) in both planning the 1957 march and delivering another speech. Like any politician, Powell had to keep politics in mind, and so for example he asked the march’s planners to do what they could to keep from embarrassing President Eisenhower (an understandable but still fraught request). Perhaps in response to that request (although a genuine element of the event to be sure), the 1957 march was framed not as a social protest but as a religious occasion, a “Prayer Pilgrimage” as the official name indicated. Compared to the 1963 march, for example, the musical performances in 1957 leaned more into spirituals and less into contemporary folk music (although 1963 certainly featured spirituals as well, as I’ll discuss later in the week). Both Powell and King were ministers, so this core religious thread was hardly a surprise—but it did reflect a somewhat distinct tone from the 1963 march, and helps us consider another layer to such events and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.

Next March context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Monday, August 28, 2023

August 28, 2023: Contextualizing the March on Washington: 1941 Origins

[August 28th marks the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the single most important events in 20th century American history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for and from that event—not including Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic speech, about which I’ve written a good bit already!]

On two important contexts illustrated by a planned 1941 march.

The concept of a march on Washington to push the government toward certain actions is a longstanding one in American history, going back at least to examples like “Coxey’s Army” in 1894 and the Bonus Army in 1932. The latter in particular seems to have been one inspiration for labor leader A. Philip Randolph and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin’s developing early 1941 plans for a march on Washington to protest the Franklin Roosevelt administration’s segregation and discrimination in wartime hiring practices. Randolph and NAACP leader Walter White had met with Roosevelt in September 1940 to argue for integrating all levels of the armed forces and war efforts but had gotten nowhere, with the White House issuing a statement that “The policy of the War Department is not to intermingle colored and white enlisted personnel.” So in January Randolph proposed the concept (with the formal name of the March on Washington Movement) of a collective march on Washington to put pressure on the administration, and he began working with Rustin to plan the logistics for an early July march which they hoped would bring at least 100,000 protesters to DC.

Just a week before the march’s scheduled date President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, establishing a federal Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) that both desegregated wartime industries specifically and prohibited discrimination in federal vocational and training programs more broadly. Perhaps Roosevelt was genuinely convinced that this was the right step, or perhaps he was fearful of the bad press that a sizeable protest would generate just as the US was ramping up its war efforts; Randolph seems to have feared the latter, as he maintained the March on Washington Movement throughout the war to keep the pressure on. And in any case, these March on Washington contexts remind us of the consistent racial segregation that plagued the Roosevelt Administration’s signature (and in many ways progressive) programs like the New Deal. Whoever was in the White House, civil rights leaders knew that they had to push and pressure to achieve any and all steps toward equality and justice, and Randolph and Rustin revealed that a march on Washington could be one important tool in that arsenal.

The central roles and relationship between those two men in these 1941 events likewise illustrates another important context for the 1963 march and Civil Rights Movement histories overall: the interconnections between labor and civil rights. As I highlighted in this post, far too often the American labor movement has featured white supremacist forces in defining roles; that trend unquestionably played a role in Randolph’s and others’ formation of a 1920s labor union specifically for Black workers. As I hope this whole weeklong series will indicate, there are many layers to the 1963 March that we need to better remember, but very high on the list has to be its full name: the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I’ve often seen Martin Luther King Jr.’s turn in the late 1960s toward economic and labor issues described as a shift in priorities, but in truth the entire Civil Rights Movement was founded on a recognition that those issues were interconnected with—not the sole emphasis by any means, but an integral component of—ideals like freedom, equality, and justice. Just one more reason to remember the aborted but essential 1941 March on Washington.

Next March context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Saturday, August 26, 2023

August 26-27, 2023: Cville Places: The Public Schools

[For this year’s installment of my annual Charlottesville series—following the boys and my annual trip to my childhood home, natch—I’ve focused on a handful of representative places around town. Leading up to this tribute to the public schools that nurtured this AmericanStudier!]

First, here are some of the many prior posts in which I’ve paid tribute to my amazing Charlottesville public school teachers:

These multiple posts on my single favorite teacher (and without question the most evocatively and pitch-perfectly named), Proal Heartwell;

This one on the iconic figure who taught me to swim in the public schools, William Byers;

This one on an 8th grade English teacher and a high school Math teacher who both helped me become the teacher I am today;

And this one on a bunch of other inspiring Cville public schools teachers with whom I was fortunate enough to work along the way .

In that last hyperlinked post, I wrote about attacks on public schools and especially public school teachers. That was from 2011, and let’s just say that the attacks have not exactly decreased in the 12 years since. There are lots of ways to resist and challenge those attacks, but I believe one of the strongest is for those of us who are the products of public schools, who work in public schools, whose children attend public schools, who are supporters of and advocates for public schools in every way to raise our voices, share our stories, express our eternal gratitude to what these spaces have meant to and for us. So I knew I couldn’t conclude a series on Cville places without saying clearly and proudly that I love the Charlottesville public schools!

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Defining places—from your hometowns or anywhere else—you’d highlight?

Friday, August 25, 2023

August 25, 2023: Cville Places: The Paramount Theater

[For this year’s installment of my annual Charlottesville series—following the boys and my annual trip to my childhood home, natch—I’ll focus on a handful of representative places around town. Leading up to a tribute to the public schools that nurtured this AmericanStudier!]

On three telling details about the city’s most historic movie theater.

1)      The Golden Age: Charlottesville’s Paramount Theater opened on the day before Thanksgiving in November 1931. It was designed by the Chicago architects Rapp & Rapp, who were the architects behind the entire Paramount chain of theaters (including the most famous one in Times Square), and so it was located squarely in the traditions of that iconic period in cinematic and Hollywood history. But to honor Thomas Jefferson and Monticello, C.W. and George Rapp gave this Paramount Theater a level of opulence far beyond their norm, including brass chandeliers, painted tapestries, an octagonal auditorium, and the justly famous Greek façade. Such luxuries might seem ironic in a building that opened two years into the Great Depression, and they certainly reflect image rather than reality (as the next paragraph will illustrate even more clearly). But a beautiful building is a beautiful building, and the Paramount was and remains one of Cville’s most beautiful buildings.

2)      A Segregated Space: If such details made the Paramount stand apart from the rest of Charlottesville’s landscape, however, in one crucial way it was precisely the same as everywhere else in 1930s (and 40s, and 50s) Cville: it was racially segregated. African American audience members had to enter the theater by a separate door (on an entirely different street from the front entrance) and sit in the balcony. The theater’s official website notes that Rapp & Rapp gave this segregated entrance “a level of decoration and elegance sized for the smaller scale,” making “the design of the Third Street Entrance complementary to—not divorced from—that of the building as a whole.” Maybe that’s true—these 21st century pictures seem to capture some sense of that, at least—and I suppose is a space is going to be segregated (as virtually all of them were in 1930s Charlottesville and Virginia), at least each part of it can still be attractive. But at the same time, who the fuck cares what the “Colored” entrance of a theater looked like, y’know?

3)      Preservation and Performance: So in both the best and the worst ways, the Paramount Theater was an iconic slice of Charlottesville history throughout the mid-20th century. Although the growth in alternative theaters and entertainment options forced the theater to close in 1974, the city’s and late 20th century’s interests in historic preservation led to immediate and sustained efforts to save the building from demolition and restore it to some level of operation. Thirty years after that closure the preservationists finally and fully succeeded, with the Paramount reopening as a working theater in 2004; it took another decade for the famous sign to be restored, but it was illuminated again in 2015. Yet while the theater has hosted numerous performances since that reopening, it is itself enacting a different kind of performance, as there is (to my knowledge) no recognition on site of the segregated entrance and seating, of that fraught layer to the Paramount’s and community’s histories. As with so much Cville collective memory, then, there’s more work to be done.

Tribute post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Defining places—from your hometowns or anywhere else—you’d highlight?

Thursday, August 24, 2023

August 24, 2023: Cville Places: The Jefferson School

[For this year’s installment of my annual Charlottesville series—following the boys and my annual trip to my childhood home, natch—I’ll focus on a handful of representative places around town. Leading up to a tribute to the public schools that nurtured this AmericanStudier!]

On what a historic educational place can tell us about three distinct 20th century eras.

1)      The 1920s: As I’ve written about at length both in this space and elsewhere, it was in the 1920s that Charlottesville erected its infamous white supremacist statues, one of many illustrations of how the second Ku Klux Klan and all it represented had most definitely come to town (or more exactly had been there all along). But the ‘20s were also the era of the Harlem Renaissance, of the continuing legacies of the Great Migration (which meant not only movement between regions but also the search for opportunities and freedoms all over the country), and overall of an African American community willing and able to stand up for its communal rights and needs. And in Charlottesville, members of that community successfully petitioned the City Council in 1926 to create a high school for Black students, who previously had had no educational option beyond 8th grade in town. That school, the product of the best of Cville (and America) in an era too often defined by the worst, was the Jefferson School.

2)      The 1940s: It took some time for the school to become a full community of its own (although even a bare bones high school was a vast improvement to be sure), but by the 1940s it was as thriving and vibrant a community as any high school could be. It had a Dramatics Club with over 100 members, a music department with a full band (that performed in 1941 at tomorrow’s focal place, the Paramount Theater) and a trio of choral ensembles, multiple sports teams that traveled the state (with the band traveling with the football team), and its own newspaper The Jeffersonian that included not only writers and editors but advertising and circulation managers. It also of course had a high school yearbook, Crimson and Black, and I believe that yearbook’s 1944 dedication reflects just how much this (by which I mean both the school and the African American community) was both an inspiring community in its own right and a powerful part of the era’s American landscape: “To the boys of Jefferson High School who have willingly answered the call of our country and who are serving in the armed forces to bring to our land once more a lasting peace.”

3)      1958: I need to be very, very clear, however: even the most vibrant segregated school was still a segregated school, still a particularly striking embodiment of Jim Crow’s discrimination against young African Americans. Clearly Charlottesville’s African American community felt the same, as in September 1958, in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education and Little Rock, a number of Jefferson School students and their families applied to white-only schools (high schools and elementary schools) across the city. As I’ve written about at length, the Charlottesville schools literally shut down, closed to all students, rather than admit these African American students, one of the nation’s most extreme examples of massive resistance. They remained closed for a year, but the writing was on the wall, both for segregated education in the city and thus (happily, but nonetheless) for the Jefferson School. But it has remained standing, used occasionally as a substitute school in the city and always as a historic site, one featuring for example placards that commemorate “The Triumph of the Charlottesville Twelve” (the first dozen students who pushed for integration). One more vital and inspiring memory housed in the Jefferson School.

Last Cville place tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Defining places—from your hometowns or anywhere else—you’d highlight?

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

August 23, 2023: Cville Places: Vinegar Hill

[For this year’s installment of my annual Charlottesville series—following the boys and my annual trip to my childhood home, natch—I’ll focus on a handful of representative places around town. Leading up to a tribute to the public schools that nurtured this AmericanStudier!]

I said most everything I wanted to say about the compelling histories, tragic and horrific destruction, and enduring legacies of Charlottesville’s Vinegar Hill neighborhood in this Saturday Evening Post Considering History column. But it’s far too significant and representative of a Cville place not to include in this week’s series, so please check out that column if you would!

Next Cville place tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Defining places—from your hometowns or anywhere else—you’d highlight?

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

August 22, 2023: Cville Places: Fry’s Spring

[For this year’s installment of my annual Charlottesville series—following the boys and my annual trip to my childhood home, natch—I’ll focus on a handful of representative places around town. Leading up to a tribute to the public schools that nurtured this AmericanStudier!]

On four exemplary stages of one of Charlottesville’s most enduring sites.

Fry’s Spring earned its name through one of the area’s early 19th century blue-bloods. James Francis Fry, grandson of Joshua Fry (one of the two men who patented Albemarle County in the mid-18th century), received 300 acres of land in the area from his father-in-law, the equally prominent local Nelson Barksdale, in 1839. Fry built the estate Azalea Hall on the site but also discovered a nearby spring, which he christened Fry’s Spring and which by mid-century had become well-known throughout the region. This was the era in which President Buchanan maintained a “Summer White House” at Pennsylvania’s Bedford Springs, and Fry’s Spring offered those further south their own such escape.

By the end of the century, the spring had changed hands and become part of a far more elaborate resort community, one connected to the nearby Jefferson Park Hotel. This was the height of the Gilded Age, an era defined both by conspicuous consumption and by the rise of marketing and advertising to appeal to those wealthiest Americans, and the Hotel offered it all: access to waters advertised as “the third most powerful of their kind in the world”; an on-site menagerie known as Wonderland; and two different train lines (a small “dummy-line” and a larger steam locomotive) to bring visitors to the site. Resorts and spas were no longer simply for first families and presidents—they were part of a network of sites linked to the upper stratum of Gilded Age America, such as Newport’s mansions, Lenox’s Ventfort Hall, and many others.

The Hotel burned down in 1910 (with salvaged wood being used to construct nearby homes, including one in which a certain AmericanStudier grew up!), and the land was sold to a trolley company that focused on adding to the Wonderland amusements. Among other ways in which Wonderland was developed in this era, the company added the city’s first moving picture shows. This was the period in which this new form of entertainment was sweeping the nation, but to my mind the movies signaled more than just a new technology—they represented, along with the rise of professional sports and the popularity of places like Coney Island, Revere Beach, and other so-called “trolley parks,” a democratization of leisure, a broadening of sites like Fry’s Spring to include more than Virginia blue bloods or the nation’s upper classes.

The next stage of that democratization of leisure and of Fry’s Spring began soon thereafter, and has continued into this AmericanStudier’s life and the 21st century. Local businessman J. Russell Dettor bought the site in 1920 and built a swimming pool, which he opened in 1921 as Fry’s Spring Beach Club. The century since has seen plenty more history and evolution, including those related to segregation that I detailed in this essay for the Activist History Review, but they’ve all been connected to the Beach Club. The Beach Club where I kept the beach ball up and swam laps and played tennis throughout my youth, and where I just took my boys for the next stage of their own Charlottesville histories and stories. Their lips got a lot bluer than their blood, and the only water they tried was heavily chlorinated, but the story of Fry’s Spring continues into the 21st century nonetheless.

Next Cville place tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Defining places—from your hometowns or anywhere else—you’d highlight?

Monday, August 21, 2023

August 21, 2023: Cville Places: Barracks Road

[For this year’s installment of my annual Charlottesville series—following the boys and my annual trip to my childhood home, natch—I’ll focus on a handful of representative places around town. Leading up to a tribute to the public schools that nurtured this AmericanStudier!]

On the elided but still evocative histories all around us.

In this long-ago post AmericanStudying cities to which I’ve had the chance to travel, I mentioned how impressed I was by the presence and intimacy of Rome’s histories, the way in which you could turn any corner and find yourself confronted by the Colosseum, the Forum, or any number of less famous but equally historic sites. To my mind, that element contrasts noticeably with our tendency in America to separate the historic sites from the present cities around them, to demarcate their existence as an area to be visited (or, saliently, to which to take tourists and other visitors to our city, but probably not venture ourselves) but not a part of the place’s ongoing life and identity. Such separations and demarcations are far better than not remembering or maintaining the histories at all, of course—and that has been an option in America far too often, so I’m always happier to see the maintained sites in whatever form—but it nonetheless makes it easier to treat the past as a foreign country, rather than as integral to and interconnected with ours.

Moreover, there are reminders of those histories all around us, if we know where and how to look for them. Throughout my life I have frequented the area of Charlottesville known as Barracks Road: the shopping center was home to the Shoney’s (aka Bob’s Big Boy) that was a favorite childhood restaurant, the Baskin Robbins that was a favorite dessert site, and the toy store that was, well, just a favorite spot, as well as to the Barnes & Noble where I worked for eight months between college and grad school; Barracks Road itself was close enough to my high school that my bus and car routes often included it, and a longtime high school girlfriend lived just off the road; and so on. Yet I had virtually no sense of the history comprised by that name: that a group of more than 3000 British and German prisoners of war were housed at a site along the road for nearly two years during the Revolutionary War (after the Continental Army’s 1777 victory at the Battle of Saratoga), in what came to be known as the Albemarle Barracks (the site itself is just outside of the city limits, in Albemarle County). Like the name, the shopping center’s sign obliquely gestures at that history, featuring a Revolutionary-era horseman.

So the reminders, like the “Indian Names” on the landscape about which Lydia Sigourney wrote so beautifully, remain. On the one hand, those slight echoes might make the overall elision of the past more frustrating: Barracks Road was for a time one of the South’s most significant Revolutionary War sites, and now I would wager that most Charlottesville residents know it solely (as I did for all those years) for the shopping center. But on the other hand, the echoes represent a continued presence, indeed an illustration of the influence the past has in creating the present—and as such as they also offer an opportunity to begin to connect with and learn about those histories, as long as we recognize and follow their clues. Which is to say, Sigourney was wrong to mourn the vanishing past in her poem, not only because Native Americans didn’t vanish (although that too to be sure), but also because the past never goes anywhere. It’s always there, quietly but crucially constituting our world, waiting to be discovered and better understood.

Next Cville place tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Defining places—from your hometowns or anywhere else—you’d highlight?

Saturday, August 19, 2023

August 19-20, 2023: Birthday Bests: 2022-2023

[On August 15th, this AmericanStudier celebrated his 46th birthday. So as I do each year, I’ve featured a series sharing some of my favorite posts from each year on the blog, leading up to this new post with 46 favorites from the last year. And as ever, you couldn’t give me a better present than to say hi and tell me a bit about what brings you to the blog, what you’ve found or enjoyed here, your own AmericanStudies thoughts, or anything else!]

Here they are, 46 favorite posts from my 13th year of AmericanStudying:

1)      August 22: Virginia Profs: Alan Feldstein: For my annual Cville series (the next of which starts when these bday posts conclude), I focused on inspiring UVa professors, starting with an impressive one from the Civil Rights era.

2)      September 5: APUSH Studying: Mrs. Frankel: It was fun to reflect on my own AP US History experiences as my older son began his, and especially to think about one of my favorite teachers of all time.

3)      September 10: Michael Walters’ Guest Post: Chaos, Order, and Progress in the First North American Nation: By far my favorite thing about this year’s bday best is that it includes the most Guest Posts ever, starting with this excellent one from Michael Walters.

4)      September 17-18: War is Hella Funny: M*A*S*H: For the 50th anniversary of the TV show’s pilot, I learned a lot about the novel and film as well as that iconic show.

5)      September 24-25: Faulkner at 125: Digital Yoknapatawpha: I couldn’t end a series for Faulkner’s 125th birthday without paying tribute to my Dad Steve Railton’s third and most impressive digital humanities project.

6)      September 28: Asian American Leaders: Patsy Mink: On the 20th anniversary of Patsy Mink’s passing, I really enjoyed the chance to learn more about just how impressive and influential her political career was.

7)      October 1-2: Kelly Marino’s Guest Post: The “American Queen”: “Sweetheart” Bracelets, Jewelry Trends, and the World Wars: The next of those many great Guest Posts featured Kelly Marino on all we can learn from material culture.

8)      October 3: Bad Presidents: James Buchanan: My bad presidents series ended where you’d expect, but it also allowed me to think through some of the worst of his predecessors, starting with a very competitive entrant in the category.

9)      October 8-9: Anita Siraki’s Guest Post on Interview with the Vampire: The awesome Guest Posts rolled on with Anita Siraki on a new TV adaptation of Anne Rice.

10)   October 11: RunningStudying: The Boston Marathon: Despite living in the Boston area for the majority of my 46 years, I still had a lot to learn about its iconic road race.

11)   October 15-16: RunningStudying: Aidan Railton’s Guest Post on Strava: All the year’s Guest Posts were fantastic, but nothing can top sharing my older son’s writing for the first time!

12)   October 18: HUAC Histories: The Blacklist: One of my favorite things to do on the blog is take a subject I and we know a bit about and add a ton more detail and context, which I felt I was able to do throughout this series on HUAC and McCarthyism.

13)   October 28: PBS People: Bob Ross: But another favorite thing is to blog about topics I never imagined I’d be writing about, and the peaceful painter Bob Ross is high on that list.

14)   November 5-6: Anya Jabour’s Guest Post on Legionnaire’s Disease: The next excellent Guest Post, Anya Jabour contextualizing a very challenging medical crisis.

15)   November 12-13: 12 Years of AmericanStudying: My Reflections: The best part of my annual anniversary series is the chance to reflect on all that this blog and you all have meant to me.

16)   November 17: Public Art: The Harriet Wilson Statue: There’s so much amazing public art in New England, and one of my favorite is Southern New Hampshire’s tribute to Harriet Wilson.

17)   November 19-20: Lily Hart’s Guest Post on Voices of the River: It’s especially cool to share Guest Posts from folks who reached out to me, and that was the case with Lily Hart and this post on a vital new journal and project.

18)   November 25: Thanks-givings: Young Voters: My Thanksgiving posts this year were short but sweet, and none sweeter nor more significant than my tribute to the youthful voters who saved the 2022 election and just might save us all.

19)   December 7: Constitutional Contexts: Delaware: For the 235th anniversary of Delaware’s historic ratification of the Constitution, it was fun to contextualize that crucial moment.

20)   December 19-25: A Defining Wish: For this year’s wish for the AmericanStudies Elves, I focused on a defining hope for both the blog and America.

21)   December 28: 2022 in Review: Hot Girl Music: I’d be lying if I said I ever expected to blog about Nicki Minaj and Lizzo—but that’s one of many reasons why I keep doing this!

22)   January 5: 2023 Anniversaries: 1923 and Hollywood: Did you know that the Hollywood sign and Disney Studios debuted in the same year?

23)   January 7-8: Einav Rabinovitch-Fox’s Guest Post on Senatorial Fashion: The next compelling Guest Post featured fashion historian Einav Rabinovitch-Fox on John Fetterman’s suit.

24)   January 14-15: Five Years of Considering History: Two Tributes and a Request: I enjoyed the chance to look back on my first five years writing for the Saturday Evening Post, culminating in this tribute to my editor, a loyal reader, and you all!

25)   January 24: AbortionStudying: Sarah Grosvenor: I don’t normally feature two posts from the same series, but in this case the pairing of one 18th century historical figure...

26)   January 26: AbortionStudying: Dirty Dancing: … and one late 20th century romantic film reflects the breadth I’m really trying for on the blog. 

27)   January 30: Travel Stories: Around the World in Eighty Days: On the 150th anniversary of Jules Verne’s novel, it was fun to think about three American figures who inspired or tried out the travel feat.

28)   February 11-12: Football (and Sports) Studiers: After Guest Posts, my second favorite thing to share on the blog is tributes to fellow AmericanStudiers—like this list of folks doing great work in Sports Studies.

29)   February 16: Songs I Love: “The Barka-Darling River”: Discovering an amazing new album from an all-time favorite band was one of the best parts of 2022, so I was glad to share one of those songs in my Valentine’s series.

30)   February 18-19: Hettie Williams’ Guest Post on Black Writers & AIDS: Returning Guest Posters are a particular delight, and so I was very glad to share another from Hettie Williams.

31)   February 25-26: Crowd-sourced Non-favorites: My favorite crowd-sourced post of the year didn’t disappoint, with lots of righteous airing of grievances.

32)   March 1: Temperance Milestones: Three Reformers: Yes, the anti-masturbation inventor of the Graham Cracker stands out, but all three of these 19th century temperance reformers are compelling subjects.

33)   March 8: American Cars: Rebel Without a Cause: I don’t get to stretch my close reading muscles too often in this case, but I always love when I do, as was the case here with the iconic “chicken run” scene from the James Dean film.

34)   March 17: Wild West Stories: True Grit: And the close readings continued with an in-depth examination of Charles Portis’ excellent 1968 novel.

35)   March 25-26: Bruce in 2023: Getting to see Springsteen in concert with my sons was a life highlight, and the fact that the whole show was about aging and memory, loss and persistence, the past and the future? So much better still.

36)   April 15-16: Remembering Reconstruction: Kidada Williams’ I Saw Death Coming: Another favorite thing is to get to highlight scholarly books, and one of the best of the year to date is Kidada Williams’ history of Reconstruction.

37)   April 17: Soap Opera Studying: 1930s Origins: If you’re like me, you probably haven’t heard of any of these five pioneering women—so read the post and rectify the situation!

38)   May 5: Hemispheric Histories: The Panama Canal: There have been conversations and efforts toward a waterway through Panama for nearly 200 years, and I enjoyed tracing that history through three treaties.

39)   May 19: Watergate Figures: Jill Wine-Volner: This post on one of Watergate’s most prominent investigators was already a favorite, and then she generously shared and responded it to Twitter and took it to the next level.

40)   May 27-28: Barrett Beatrice Jackson’s Guest Post on Norman Rockwell, Robert Butler, and Her Grandfather: The last of the Guest Posts in this list was this fun one from Barrett Beatrice Jackson—make sure to propose your own to keep the series going!

41)   June 6: Environmental Activisms: Mardy Murie: There are countless impressive and inspiring Americans to learn about, including the “Grandmother of the Conservation Movement.”

42)   June 12: Women in War: The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act: We definitely need to better remember Truman’s 1948 racial integration of the US Armed Forces—but we likewise have to add this vital gender integration law from the same year.

43)   June 29: Germany and America: The German American Bund: A series inspired by Kennedy’s inspiring Berlin speech turned to one of the most horrific & telling moments in American history, the February 1939 Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden.

44)   July 17: Seneca Falls Studying: Quaker Communities: It was really fun to learn more about the Seneca Falls Convention--& its very surprising origins in particular—for this 175th anniversary series.

45)   July 26: Korean War Studying: Films: Did you know that more than 20 Korean War films were released between 1951 and 1953? Here are three that help us see how that cultural genre evolved.

46)   August 4: SiblingStudying: The Eaton Sisters: No American siblings inspired me more than Edith Maude & Winifred Eaton.

Annual Cville series starts Monday,


PS. You know what to do!