All posts tagged: history

Recovered songs, recovered stories

Folk songs often bring us to the intersection of place, history, and memory. In certain cases, digging into those songs gives us a chance to recover the true stories, long-hidden, from our past, bringing a reckoning with the history that did happen and a reimagining for our collective future. Recently, The Bitter Southerner posted a thoughtful article which examines how the popular folk tune Swannanoa Tunnel was taken from the wrongfully convicted black community in Western North Carolina. Forced to build the railroad tunnel as convict labor during the Jim Crow era, those convicts originally wrote the tune in the “hammer song” tradition of John Henry. Somebody Died, Babe: A Musical Cover-up of Racism, Violence, and Greed shows how the song was reshaped and romanticized into an English-based folk tune in the 1920s – 1960s to appeal to white audiences. As the site notes, “Beneath the popular folk song…and beneath the railroad tracks that run through Western North Carolina, is a story of blood, greed, and obfuscation. As our nation reckons with systematic racial violence, …

Let’s stop celebrating a past that never existed. Instead, let’s understand and honor the one that did.

I first stood at Jamestown as a history-enthralled 11-year-old. The picture of the 17th century ruin of the church tower, abutted to the 1907 Memorial Church, is seared in my mind. I also remember the water lapping at the nearby shore, serving as a reminder that the people at Jamestown had the most tenuous of toeholds on this continent in those early years. While I didn’t know it at the time, the narratives of life in early 17th century Virginia — told by the guides, the plaques that lined the walls of the 1907 church, and the books I devoured — were incomplete and sometimes egregiously false. White Christian Europeans were the focus. If they were mentioned at all, Native Americans, along with the enslaved African Americans who began arriving against their will at Jamestown in 1619, were small, dependent actors; impediments, if you will, to the greater story of the colonists and settlers and the shaping of what it meant to be an “American.” Those Europeans were not home. They were the outsiders. Yet …

The struggle between tyranny and freedom

America faces great challenges in 2020. It is even tempting to call these times unprecedented, but they are not. Harry Truman, of course, made this point in very plain language: “It was the same with those old birds in Greece and Rome as it is now. . . . The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.” As Samuel W. Rushay, Jr. wrote about Truman’s understanding of history and the threats to democracy in the 1940s, “(H)is understanding of history provided him with a wider perspective on communism, whose assault on democracy was, in the words of historian Elizabeth Edwards Spalding, the ‘current form of a timeless struggle on earth’ between the forces of tyranny and freedom.” We have seen that struggle between tyranny and freedom over and over again here in America. I was reminded of that feature of American life during my summer break, as I read of one particular moment in that struggle as told in Edward Achorn’s fascinating new book Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous …

COVID-19 Claims the Life of the Last Surviving Monuments Woman

Motoko Fujishiro Huthwaite had — by any account — an amazing life. Born in Boston on August 24, 1927 to Japanese citizens, her father was a prominent dentist and professor at Harvard. As noted on the Monuments Men Foundation website: “The family was befriended by Langdon Warner, the legendary scholar of Asian art and future Monuments Man in Japan following the end of World War II. The Fujishiro household became the center of the Japanese community in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Japanese students, professors, and scholars from the many universities surrounding Boston would flock to parties expertly hosted by Motoko’s mother.” She and her mother and brother were forced to relocate to Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, while her father was arrested for espionage and put into an internment camp. He later returned to Tokyo a broken man. Motoko survived the war and became one of 27 women who worked for the Arts and Monuments Commission — popularly known as the Monuments Men. After the war, she reinstated her United States citizenship, lived in …