The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

This Week @ MHS

Here is what's on tap at the MHS as we enter a new month:

- Monday, 27 February, 6:00PM : Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War is a new book by Richard Brown of University of Connecticut. This book offers a much-needed exploration of the way revolutionary political ideas penetrated popular thinking and everyday practice. In this talk, Brown discusses how the ideal that "all men are created equal" was tested in struggles over race and ethnicity, religious freedom, gender and social class, voiting rights and citizenship. He shows how high principles fared in criminal trials and divorce cases when minorities, women, and people from different social classes faced judgment. This talk is open to the public and registration is required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members and Fellows). Pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM, followed by the program at 6:00PM. 

- Tuesday, 28 February, 5:15PM : "Vietnamese Political Prisoners and the Politics of Family, 1975-1996" is a seminar featuring Amanda C. Demmer of the University of New Hampshire and is part of the Modern American Society and Culture series. This project dispels the myths that American involvement in Vietnam ended abruptly after the fall of Saigon and that U.S. servicemen listed as prisoner of war/missing in action were the only exception to American disengagement. Arissa Oh of Boston College provides comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

- Wednesday, 1 March, 12:00PM : Bring a lunch and join us for "Ask Carol Lane!: Imaginaries of Safe Travel in the 1950s." As post-war traffic fatalities rose, so did the concern to create safe communities and roads. Some of the work done by organizations involved creating imaginary personas, mostly of women, to perpetuate the rules of safe travel and normalize traffic and travel safety during a period of increased vehicle use, recreational travel, and fatality risk on the roads. This talk examines these personas and their place in the larger safety context of the 1950s. Renee Blackburn of MIT presents this Brown Bag talk which is free and open to the public. 

Thursday, 2 March, 6:00PM : In 2014, the Brookline Historical Society received a tiny photo album with postage stamp-sized photos of 48 Brookline and Boston children. In this presentation titled "A Children's Photo Album," Ken Liss of Boston University Libraries tells the tale of this ablum and the people inside it. This event is open to the public and registration is required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Fellows or Members). Pre-talk reception starts at 5:30PM followed by the speaking program at 6:00PM. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 26 February, 2017, 12:00 AM

The Tree on Boston Common

As we begin to move out of February and, hopefully, leave behind the worst of winter, I’d like to reflect back on a historic Boston storm that had a strong impact both on Boston’s landscape and its mythology. February 15, 1876 was a stormy day at the start of the United States’ centennial year. It was also the last day that one of Boston’s first ‘residents’ would stand in Boston Common. This resident was known as the “Great Elm” (and later, the “Old Elm”) and it was one of the most prominent signifiers of Boston’s place in history, a silent witness to history called upon in many early accounts of the city.

The tree had a fabled history among Bostonians. Nehemiah Adams describes the tree in alternately flowery language: “That tree is to antiquity with us what a pyramid is in Egypt. It is like the pillars of Hercules, bounding the unknown ages which preceded the arrival of the Pilgrims” (Boston Common, 1842) and more bizarre turns of phrase: “vegetable patriarch” (The Boston Common: Or, Rural Walks in Cities). Adams’ assessment of the tree’s ancientness is largely in keeping with other Bostonian’s views. Although it was a long held belief that the tree stood in Boston Common even before the Puritans arrived, it was only when the tree fell and its rings were counted that residents definitively concluded that the tree had existed since at least the 1630s (Boston Common in colonial and provincial days by Mary Farwell Ayer). 

The tree had witnessed a number of types of events over the years, from public hangings and duels during the early days of Boston to local women laundering clothing by the tree and Frog Pond at the end of the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, as Boston grew in size and the Common became more like a large public park, more common activities included people meeting at the Elm Tree or going skating on Frog Pond.

 

This nineteenth century print is one of many prints and artistic renderings that were produced of the tree and features Bostonians enjoying their time near the Great Elm, whether sitting under the tree, playing catch near it, or strolling by it. Although this particular print focuses on an idyllic depiction of the Common, it also reveals the age of the Great Elm, which is missing several branches and is fenced in by an iron gate in this depiction. The gate wasn’t installed until 1854, after a series of storms left the elm badly scarred. Over several hundred years, the tree sustained a number of injuries, including a large cavity that developed in the center of its trunk. When the tree finally did come down in 1876, struck by a strong gust of wind during a storm, Boston citizens rushed to the tree to claim branches and scraps of wood as souvenirs.

 

The tree was repurposed in a number of other ways by inventive residents, including creating veneered pictures of the tree made out of wood from the elm itself and growing a root of “The Old Elm” around a china dish cover. Part of the tree was also used to make a chair for the Boston Public Library (Boston Common: a diary of notable events, incidents, and neighboring occurrences by Samuel Barber). One of these keepsakes belongs to MHS’s own collection, a pair of “Old Elm earrings,” made by Benjamin F. Knowlton. The earrings are shaped like tiny liberty bells and are made out of elm wood, with tiny gold clappers, and red, white, and blue striped ribbon attached to the top of each earring.

From the days of Puritan society, when Boston Common was still a cow pasture, to the Revolution and into the nineteenth century, the Great Elm was a marker of time for Boston for many years. If you are interested in the Great Elm, or the history of Boston Common, please consider visiting the library to learn more! 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 24 February, 2017, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

The MHS is CLOSED on Monday, 20 February, for Presidents' Day. 

Despite the holiday-shortened week, there is quite a bit of activity at the Society. Here's is what we have the calendar for the final full week of February:

- POSTPONED : "Harvest for War: Fruits, Nuts, Imperialism, and Gas Mask Manufacture in the United States During World War I," originally scheduled for Tuesday, 21 February, is postponed to Tuesday, 9 May, 5:15PM. 

- Wednesday, 22 February to Thursday, 23 February : "Women in the Ear of the American Revolution" is a two-day teacher workshop open to K-12 educators. Participants will explore the daily lives of revolutionary women, including those who served as soldiers and secret agents, or followed the army as cooks and laundresses. The program fee includes a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts. Please email education@masshist.org or call 617-646-0557 for more information or to register.

- Wednesday, 22 February, 12:00PM : Stop by at lunchtime for a Brown Bag talk with Emily C. Burns of Auburn University. Her talk, "Constructing American Belatedness: The Archives of American Artists in Late Nineteenth-Century Paris" culls archival materials to understand how American culture collectively became defined through internatioanl mobility as belated and innocent. This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Wednesday, 22 February, 6:00PM : "MIT: History and Architecture," is a public talk with Douglass Shand-Tucci, author of the recently published MIT: The Campus Guide. This talk focuses on the way MIT and Harvard, now universally ranked among the top five seats of higher learning in the world, reflected Boston 19th century Unitarian tradtion and framed its Brahmin Ascendancy. Registration is required for this program with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Fellows or Members). Pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM followed by the speaking program at 6:00PM. 

- Thursday, 23 February, 5:30PM : Please join us for a conversation with the authors of two important new books in the history of sexuality. "Sexuality of History, History of Sexuality" is part of the History of Women and Gender seminar series.  This wide-ranging discussion, with Sue Lanser of Brandeis  University and Jim Downs of Connecticut College, will explore the relationship between lesbian and gay male histories, literary and historical methods, representation and political mobilization of people and communities. Jen Manion of Amherst College moderates the discussion. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers. Please note that there are no precirculated essays for this session. This program takes place at Radcliffe, Fay House, Sheerr Room, 10 Garden St. in Cambridge.

- Saturday, 25 February, 9:00AM : "Abraham Lincoln & Emancipation" is a teacher workshop open to K-12 educators. MHS staff and participants will use primary sources from the Society's collection to discuss and debate Lincoln's grounds for opposing slavery and his thoughts on colonization, abolition, and gradual emancipation. The group will be joined by Kevin M. Levin, author of Civil War Memory. Registration is required with a fee of $25. Please email education@masshist.org or call 617-646-0557 for more information or to register. This workshop was originally scheduled for Saturday, 11 February.

- Saturday, 25 February, 1:00PM : "Begin at the Beginning: Mapping New England - a visual story." Join MHS librarian Peter Drummey in investigating the world of early New England maps: how they were created; what they included and what they omitted; the images their creators choose and the messages they conveyed. Were early maps designed to encourage emigrants, or aids to navigation? Did they chart colonial-Native American conflict or paint an idyllic garden scene? Find out how these non-textual artifacts communicated the world of 17th-century New England. Registration is required at no cost. Please RSVP 

NOTE: This meeting is a discussion, not a lecture. Come prepared to examine maps, raise questions, and make your points! No expertise required, just a willingness to engage with primary material, talk to fellow attendees, and enjoy yourself.

- Saturday, 25 February, 10:00AM-4:00PM : This is your last chance to view our current exhibition, Turning Points in American History, which ends on 2/25

There is no public tour this week.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 19 February, 2017, 12:00 AM

Working with Google to Showcase MHS Content about U. S. Presidents

Selections from MHS’s two most important collections, the Adams Family Papers and the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, are now part of the Google Arts & Culture website. This website is administered by the Google Cultural Institute, a non-profit initiative founded in 2011 that partners with cultural organizations to “bring the world’s cultural heritage online.” [Read more about the Google Cultural Institute here: https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/about/partners/.]

When MHS was approached by a coordinator of the Google Cultural Institute in the late summer and asked to contribute content about U.S. Presidents for the American Democracy Project, MHS staff realized there were many benefits of having our collections showcased within the Google Arts & Culture web delivery system.  Highlights of the Society's extraordinary Adams and Jefferson manuscript collections are now available to users who browse and search the content Google is hosting from about 1,200 significant museums, archives, and cultural organizations.

MHS's main website has thousands of presentations of documents from our Adams and Jefferson materials, and the first challenge was to figure out what specifically to contribute to Google's recent project.  The Google content management system features items as single digitized images and online exhibitions featuring those digital items.  Given limited production time to assemble the online content, we decided to focus our efforts on creating two online exhibitions--"The Private Jefferson" and “From Diplomats to Presidents: John Adams and John Quincy Adams”.

For "The Private Jefferson" online exhibition, Laura Wulf, Production Specialist, worked from the publication, The Private Jefferson: Perspectives from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the companion to the recent MHS exhibition.  It features selected letters written by Jefferson, pages from manuscript volumes, architectural drawings and sketches, published documents, and engravings.

Neal Millikan, Digital Projects Editor, and Amanda Norton, Digital Projects Editor (with input from their colleagues within the Adams Papers department) crafted an informative narrative for the exhibition “From Diplomats to Presidents: John Adams and John Quincy Adams.” This exhibition presents key documents and quotations about the extensive careers in public service of John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams.

The MHS digital team (Laura Wulf, Peter Steinberg, and I) assembled all the digital components (images and associated metadata), loaded them into the Google web delivery system, and used the exhibition editor tool to assemble the online exhibitions.

Please explore the exhibitions and MHS's online content within the Google Arts & Culture website, and the entire Google American Democracy project.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 17 February, 2017, 12:00 AM

“We...Intend to Make Things Lively”: Boston’s Black Voters in 1884

The MHS just acquired a fascinating document related to political activism by Boston’s black voters during the 1884 presidential election. This election, only the fourth presidential contest in which black (male) voters could take part, pitted Democrats Grover Cleveland and Thomas A. Hendricks against Republicans James G. Blaine and John A. Logan. Most African Americans supported the Republican Party, and “Blaine and Logan Clubs” had sprung up in many American cities, including Boston.

 

On 20 Sep. 1884, a committee consisting of three Boston men sent this letter to the Republican National Committee on behalf of the “colored voters of the 3d. Congressional district” of Massachusetts. They requested information on the candidates, particularly Democratic vice presidential nominee Hendricks. The letter reads, in part:

We hope you will be able to forward a good stock of Hendrick’s [sic] public record so that every colored man in the Commonwealth may know all about the Democratic candidate for the Vice-Presidency. […] We have formed a Blaine & Logan Club and intend to make things lively for Messrs. Cleveland & Hendricks on the 4th day of next November.

I was curious about this “opposition research” targeting Hendricks. Thomas Andrews Hendricks (1819-1885) of Indiana certainly had a substantial public record. By 1884, he’d served in multiple elected offices, including state congressman, U.S. representative, U.S. senator, and governor. He’d even run for vice president once before, on a ticket with Samuel Tilden in 1876, but they lost to Rutherford B. Hayes. So, what specific grievances did black voters have against Hendricks? To answer that question, I found two terrific resources in the MHS stacks, both printed in Boston in 1884.

The first is a book called The Life and Public Services of Grover Cleveland, by Frederick E.  Goodrich, which includes an appended biography of Hendricks. Goodrich was an enthusiastic Democrat, and his biography is unabashedly partisan. He describes the Democrats as the true heirs to the Founding Fathers and calls the Republicans “demoralized” and “thoroughly corrupt.” Hendricks himself sounds almost mythical: “His honesty was above suspicion, his integrity was never questioned, nor his motives impugned. He won the respect of all his colleagues and retained the confidence and support of his constituents.”

Goodrich wrote in generalities and didn’t have much to say about Hendricks’ specific votes related to slavery or African American civil rights. He did explain, in one passage, Hendricks’ support for the Fugitive Slave Act:

It has been objected to him lately, that he was in favor of the Fugitive Slave Law; but so was the majority of his party, which at that time recognized that slavery was a legal institution in the Southern States, and which upheld the right of the slave-owners to claim their property wherever they found it. It is too late in the day now to rake up the anti-slavery record of any man, because many of our foremost and most honored public men since the war were, prior to that event, defenders, or at least apologists of slavery.

The second resource I found at the MHS was a speech by W. R. Holloway delivered on 2 Aug. 1884 and published in pamphlet form as A Bad Record: Hendricks as a Public Man. William Robeson Holloway (1836-1911), a staunch Republican and brother-in-law of Gov. Oliver P. Morton, had held various political appointments in Indiana. He was a full-throated anti-Hendricks man and didn’t mince his words, characterizing Hendricks like this:

Shown to have been the Friend and Apologist of Slavery, a Copperhead of the worst type.—An Intense Negro Hater, as well as a Defender of Treason, a Constant Sympathizer with the Rebellion.—The Champion of Traitors, and always a Bogus Reformer, an Insincere Demagogue, and an Uncertain Leader.—Not a Redeeming Feature to be found in the Public Career of the Choice of the Democracy for Vice-President.

Hendricks did, in fact, oppose all three Reconstruction Amendments to the U.S. Constitution: the Thirteenth (abolishing slavery), Fourteenth (extending citizenship, due process, equal protection, etc.), and Fifteenth (granting suffrage to black men). In his speech, Holloway also described how the Democrat “sustained and defended the Dred-Scott decision,” “denounced the Emancipation Proclamation,” and opposed the military service of African Americans, arguing that black soldiers lacked the courage to serve alongside whites. He accused Hendricks of opportunism, hypocrisy, and cowardice. Here’s more:

He has been consistent in his opposition to the negroes, and while in the Senate, voted uniformly against the colored race, against emancipation in the District of Columbia, against their civil and political rights in that District, and against their right to ride on the street-cars in the city of Washington; opposed their employment as soldiers, and after they were enlisted and had gallantly perilled their lives on the field of battle, he voted on more than one occasion to deny them equal compensation with white soldiers in the same service.

It’s no wonder the “colored voters of the 3d. Congressional district” were determined to “make things lively”! Massachusetts’ 14 electoral votes went to the Republican nominee, James G. Blaine, but despite the party’s best efforts, Grover Cleveland won the election by a narrow margin. Thomas A. Hendricks died one year later on 25 Nov. 1885, and the vice presidency remained vacant for the rest of Cleveland’s term.

I hoped to find out more about the three men who sent the letter, A. P. Jones, W. D. Johnson, and Jas. H. Wolff, but could only definitively identify the third man. The remarkable story of James Harris Wolff (1847-1913) probably deserves a blog post of its own. He served in the Navy during the Civil War and became a prominent black attorney who argued civil rights cases for African Americans. In 1910, he was the first black person to deliver the official Fourth of July oration in Boston.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 15 February, 2017, 12:00 AM

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