Showing posts with label 20th century. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 20th century. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Al Capone Buys My Booze-St. Pierre and Miquelon, and Prohibition

We've spoken before about St. Pierre and Miquelon, the tiny speck of France in the middle of Canada. Known today mostly for its status as a geographical oddity, from 1924-1933, it was a bustling center of trade and the safest harbor for rum runners in the world.

1919 saw the passing of the Volstead Act, which prohibited alcohol in the United States. 1900-1914 saw the passing of prohibition acts in every Canadian Province, and in 1915, Newfoundland, not yet part of Canada, held a referendum that prohibited alcohol as well. This was, as one might imagine, wildly unpopular, especially in the United States. Because of this, "rum runners" started smuggling alcohol into the US, mainly from the Bahamas.

Rum running, especially from the Bahamas, was dangerous. Being caught by the authorities could end in the confiscation of your cargo and being thrown in prison. It was highly lucrative as well, and could result in a weekly profit of tens of thousands of dollars.

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Bill 'the Real' McCoy
One of these rumrunners was Bill "The Real" McCoy. He was one of the first and most successful rumrunners, and it was he who first started rum running off St. Pierre and Miquelon.

It was the early 1920s, and Bill McCoy was having a bad month. One of his two ships had been captured by the US Coast Guard and the other, the Tomoka, was in need of repairs. He had docked in Halifax, but the authorities there weren't about to let him fix his law-skirting vessel unless he dumped his cargo, and McCoy wasn't having that. He was angrily pacing around a hotel lobby when he had the luck to run into a Monsieur Folquet.

Monsieur Folquet was a native of St. Pierre and Miquelon, and not only could he get McCoy's ship fixed, he could also help McCoy expand his business. Unlike their neighbors, St. Pierre and Miquelon, being part of France, was not a "dry" country, and they also hadn't signed the Liquor Treaty of 1924, a joint agreement signed by Canada and the United Kingdom to not allow exports of alcohol to the United States. Importing and exporting alcohol to and from St. Pierre and Miquelon was perfectly legal.

Additionally, St. Pierre and Miquelon would be able to get a wider variety of alcohol than the Bahamas. While Canada was a dry country, Canadian distilleries were still cranking out the goods. Distilling was legal, but selling to a country where Prohibition was the law, including Canada, was not. To export their goods, Canadian distillers had to pay a significant bond certifying that they were not selling to a dry country. To get this bond back, they had to have a valid landing certificate, stamped and signed by a "wet" harbor. This was massively expensive in the Bahamas, which had a significant alcohol import tax. St. Pierre and Miquelon, however, did not have the same hefty taxes as Nassau, and was significantly closer.

McCoy jumped at the chance to partner with Folquet, and before long, they had a thriving, semi-legal rum running business on St. Pierre and Miquelon. The islands experienced an economic boom as more revenue than had ever been seen before rolled into the island. The main industry of the islands had previously been fishing, but with the lucrative import and export business going, most of the fishermen left their boats to work in warehouses, wrapping and re-packing bottles of alcohol for shipping.

One would think that the French government would object to the smuggling that used their overseas territory as a home base, but, on the contrary, they encouraged it. The only legal hurdle McCoy had faced to using St. Pierre and Miquelon as a booze hub had been the laws prohibiting the importation of foreign sugar, molasses, and alcohol to French colonies. A petition to the French government from Folquet saw this law struck from the books. French inspectors who came to the islands reported that the islands needed the rum running trade to prevent financial collapse, and so Paris did nothing and allowed St. Pierre and Miquelon to do its dirty business.
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Modern St. Pierre

For nearly ten years St. Pierre and Miquelon was the epicenter of the bootlegging business. They played host to rum runners and gangsters, and, most notoriously, Al Capone.¹ Capone visited the islands to see where the booze that was making him rich came from. He, reportedly, had the islanders scared stiff. When he joked about robbing the local bank, the police were discreetly called. If Capone noticed the islanders uneasiness, he didn't take offense. When one islander nervously complimented his hat, Capone gave him the hat. That hat is in one of the local museums to this day.

Unfortunately, all good (or bad) things must come to an end, and when the Volstead act was repealed in 1933, the island's economy collapsed almost overnight. There was no longer any need for a middle man, as Canadian companies could ship directly to America. Though discreet rum running operations continued into the mid-1990s, rum running on St. Pierre and Miquelon is, essentially, a dead business.



¹Maybe. Some historians argue that the tale you are about to read is nothing more than island lore.

This article was edited by Mara Kellogg.


Sources
Rumrunners: the Smugglers from St. Pierre and Miquelon and the Burin Peninsula from Prohibition to the Present Day by J. P. Andrieux
St Pierre and Miquelon: the Original Gangster's Paradise
This Tiny French Archipelago Became America's Alcohol Warehouse During Prohibition

Friday, March 1, 2019

Damn, Girl-Mary Walker, Civil War Surgeon

Dr. Mary Walker was a remarkable woman. She was one of the first female doctors in the United States, and served as an army surgeon on the front lines during the Civil War. A dedicated reformer, Mary advocated for universal suffrage, abolition, dress reform, and temperance. She organized a relief system for the wives of wounded soldiers, and wrote two books. She remains, to this day, the only woman to have won the Medal of Honor.

Image result for mary walkerMary was born in Oswego New York on November 26, 1832 to the unusual Alvah and Vesta Walker. (Alvah is the father.) Mary was the youngest of seven children--six girls and one boy. Mary's parents were eccentric for the times. They believed in sharing the work equally, and Alvah could often be found doing household chores. They allowed their daughters to dress however they liked, not forcing them into the restraining corsets and long skirts of the time, which both rightfully believed squished a girl's internal organs. To cap off the unusual Walker family, their home was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Alvah had an interest in medicine, and a sizeable library of medical texts. Alvah and Vesta encouraged Mary to read as many of the medical books as she liked. Both of the Walkers were big believers in education, with Vesta being a school teacher. All of their children were educated through primary school, and all of the daughters went into teaching at one point in their lives.

Mary worked briefly as a teacher, and in 1855 she entered and graduated Syracuse Medical School. Her course at Syracuse was only 39 weeks--three semesters of thirteen weeks each, which seems an almost irresponsible amount of training to give a doctor today, but was standard for the time. Mary chose Syracuse because it admitted women, and because it was known for its non-quackery. In an era where bloodletting and leeches were still common practices, Syracuse focused on more homeopathic remedies, and modern innovations.

After graduation she married her classmate Albert Miller in an unusual ceremony where the bride wore pants, struck the 'obey' clause from her vows, and refused to take her husband's last name. Mary and Albert set up a practice together, and seemed to have been quite successful, with Mary treating the women and children, and Albert the men. Mary began to write about dress reform, and to present medical evidence in favor of this at important conferences. However, in 1859 this all ground to a halt when Mary discovered that Albert had been cheating on her. Mary tossed Albert out, and travelled to Iowa, where it was easier for women to obtain a divorce. Though it took several years, Mary eventually divorced Albert, and began life anew.

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Mary, wearing her controversial bloomers
costume.
After the First Battle of Bull Run,  Mary decided to join the Union Army Medical Corp. She had nothing tying her down--Albert was long gone, her solo practice was a bust, and she had no children. Mary believed that she had a lot to offer as an army surgeon, so she went to Washington DC to ask for a commision.

Unfortunately, the Union Army wasn't accepting female surgeons, or female anything really. Frustrated, Mary decided not to let a lack of pay stop her from doing what she wanted. She instead started volunteering as a nurse at the Patent Office Hospital, working under Dr. J.N. Green. Sources differ about what happened at this point. Some sources say that Dr. Green desperately need an assistant surgeon, and Mary filled that role. Others say that she did basically everything but surgery--dressing wounds, running errands, and entertaining patients. Whatever she did, Mary impressed Dr. Green so much that he recommend that she be given a commission.

This recommendation was, of course, ignored, and Mary briefly went back to medical school in order to boost her credentials. She graduated from Hygeia Therapeutic College, and started volunteering in hospitals up and down Virginia.

Mary was very outspoken about her opinions on how the war should be run. She published editorials suggesting that, in order to boost flagging enlistment numbers, former criminals could be enlisted, and even offered to serve as their surgeon. This gained the attention of war secretary, Edwin M. Stanton, who was definitely not going to create a regiment of former felons, and definitely didn't appreciate a lady having ideas. He gave Mary a posting, if not a commission or salary, to serve as an assistant surgeon with the 52nd Ohio Regiment in Tennessee.

This was on the front lines, and there Mary faced a bit of difficulty. Wandering around a battlefield in skirts and petticoats was a terrible idea, and Mary had never been fond of dressing in typical Antebellum clothing anyways. In fact, she had been arrested several times for dressing like a man, and was frequently harassed for wearing a bloomer costume. On the front lines, Mary abandoned all pretense of dressing like a woman, instead donning a uniform, and making herself a green sash that denoted her as a member of the medical corp.

Mary caused a bit of trouble with the 52nd with her, then, unconventional medical practices. An opponent of amputation, Mary felt that surgeons often rushed the decision to amputate, and that most wounds would be better treated by homeopathic remedies (like bandages and medicines) then amputation. When the male surgeons wouldn't listen to her, she talked directly to the patients, urging them to refuse amputation.

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In her later years, Mary almost
exclusively wore men's clothing.
Unsurprisingly, Mary faced a great deal of misogyny with the Ohio 52nd. Though her commanding officer, George H. Thomas, didn't care that she was female, the male surgeons cared very much. They didn't believe that she was capable of performing her duties as a surgeon, and even arranged a medical 'review' for her skills, which they then failed her on. Despite this, Mary refused to resign, and her commanding officer did not dismiss her. When the other surgeons refused to give her patients, Mary turned to treating civilians.

Deep in Rebel territory, Mary was treating the wives and children of Confederate soldiers, many of whom were in hiding from the Union army. She is reputed to have taken supplies from Union stores in order to treat the unfortunates displaced by the war. It was during this time in 1864 that she was captured by the Confederacy.

Now, there is some debate as to why Mary was captured. Some sources claim that it was because she was wearing men's clothing while being a Union soldiers, but other sources, including US Government Agencies, claim that it was because she was spying for the Union. In 1865 a federal judge put on the record that Mary had been a spy for General Sherman's army. Despite this record, there's some debate over whether or not Mary was up to espionage. However, this historian would like to posit that, while treating Confederate civilians, Mary would have several excellent opportunities for intelligence gathering.

After being captured, Mary was sent to Castle Thunder Prison in Richmond. Castle Thunder was nicknamed 'the Southern Bastille', and not without reason. While in prison, Mary was treated abysmally. She was given only moldy bread and maggot ridden rice. She contracted bronchitis, lost an unhealthy amount of weight, and had to deal with fleas and bedbugs. Her eyesight was permanently damaged by the gas burning lamps in the prison. She would remain at Castle Thunder for four months.

After being released Mary was celebrated far and wide for her heroics in war, even meeting President Lincoln. Edwin Stanton still denied her request for a commission, but she was given $432.26 in backpay, and was officially put on the US Army payroll. She was dispatched first to a women's military prison, then to an orphanage. When the Civil War ended in 1865 Mary was discharged from the army.

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Mary's habit of wearing a top hat did not endear
her to the rest of the suffragettes.
Even after being discharged, Mary continued to lobby for a commision. President Andrew Johnson was in favor of this promotion, but military officials refused to give Mary a commision, fearing that if they gave one woman a commision, all the women would want commissions. Instead, President Johnson gave Mary the Congressional Medal of Honor, making her the only woman to this day to be awarded the honor.

After being discharged, Mary took up work as an activist and reformer. She had some experience with this, having run a relief society for the mother's of wounded soldiers during her time at the Patent Office Hospital. Unaccompanied women who had come to see their wounded sons or husbands were rarely able to find lodging, and Mary organized a society that arranged places for those women to stay. She also, on several occasions, went over enemy lines to retrieve wounded sons or husbands for distraught women.

Upon realizing that the many nurses who had served during the war had received no pay during the war, or pension after, Mary took up their cause, and by 1872 had browbeat Congress into giving the nurses a pension of $20 a month, despite the fact that she herself would not be successful in getting a pension for another two years.

Mary was also active in the suffrage movement, specifically in the area of dress reform. She was arrested several times before and after the war for wearing men's clothing, and was quite proud of the fact. She gave lectures about the negative health effects of constrictive clothing. Because of this she was quite controversial, and other suffragettes didn't want her associated with the cause.

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Mary's Medal of Honor
Mary also took up her pen, publishing two books, Hit in 1871, and Unmasked: or the Science of Immorality in 1878. Both books argue for equality in a marriage, and for temperance and universal suffrage, but it is in Unmasked where Mary really hits hard. In a book as bitingly relevant today as it was when it was written, Mary puts forth the theory that if women could control their sexual urges, men could too. She argues that marriage should be a contract between social equals, and that just because a couple was married didn't mean they were allowed to rape each other.

In 1874, Mary was finally given a pension of $8.50 a month. However, in 1917, her Medal of Honor was rescinded in an act of congress that took medals away from 911 individuals. The reasoning behind this was that the Medal of Honor could only be earned if the wearer had served in combat, which Mary hadn't. Continuing to wear the medal was a misdemeanor, but when a soldier came for her medal, Mary told him that he could take it over her dead body. She wore her award every day until her death.

In 1880 Alvah Walker passed, leaving Mary his farm. Mary spent the rest of her life there, traveling between New York and Washington DC, lecturing and agitating for change. In 1919 she had a fall on the steps of the US Capitol, and died shortly after.

After her death, her family crusaded tirelessly to have her Medal of Honor restored. In 1977, they were successful, and Mary's medal was officially restored to her by President Jimmy Carter. Today, it is on display in the Pentagon.


Sources
Amazing Women of the Civil War: Fascinating True Stories of Women Who Made a Difference by Webb Garrison
Women of the Blue and Grey by Marianne Monson
Mary Walker-National Parks Service
Meet Dr. Mary Walker--the Only Female Medal of Honor Recipient
Dr. Mary E. Walker
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker
Dr. Mary Walker and the Medal of Honor
Mary Walker-Biography
Mary Edwards Walker
Mary Edwards Walker: Doctor American Civil War Women

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Gilbert Baker and the Rainbow Flag

You may have never heard the name Gilbert Baker, but you've definitely seen his work. Baker was fashion designer, drag queen, and the creative genius behind the rainbow flag.

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An original design pride flag, including hot pink and turquoise.
San Francisco of the 1970s was a haven for LGBT people of every stripe. With the groundbreaking election of Harvey Milk in 1977, the Gay Rights Movement was gaining momentum. As more and more legislation to protect LGBT people was introduced, and as more and more legislation to oppress LGBT people was being fought, the need for a unifying symbol of the greater Gay Rights Movement was needed.

Previous to 1978 the pink triangle had been used as the symbol for the movement. The pink triangle was introduced in the 1930s as an identifying mark for gay men in Nazi concentration camps.¹ Activists in the 1970s attempted to reclaim the symbol, but the pink triangle still held (and still holds) negative connotations, and memories of pain.

Enter Gilbert Baker, drag queen and sewing machine wiz. He was asked by Milk and other members of the San Francisco LGBT community to create a better symbol for the movement. In a moment of inspiration, Baker decided on a rainbow--a cross cultural symbol of hope.

Creating the first flag was an enormous undertaking. Gilbert had to hand dye the individual strips of cotton, filling several metal trash cans with dye, and soaking the fabric at the local gay community center. Baker recruited several friends to help with the dyeing process, and his flag made its debut at the 1978 Gay Liberation Parade.

The rainbow flag commonly used today has six stripes--on for every color of the rainbow excluding indigo. Baker's original flag had eight colors--hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue, purple. The hot pink was dropped from the flag a few months after its inception. After Harvey Milk's assassination in November of 1978 demand for rainbow flags was high, and there was a shortage of hot pink fabric. The turquoise was dropped in 1979 in order to make the flag more symmetrical.

Each color in the flag has an assigned meaning. The meanings assigned to the original eight colors are:
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Gilbert with his flag after its acquisition by the Museum of
Modern Art in 2015.

  • Hot pink for sex
  • Red for life
  • Orange for healing
  • Yellow for sunlight
  • Green for nature
  • Turquoise for magic
  • Blue for serenity
  • Purple for spirit
The modern flag has kept many of the same meanings, with only the meaning of blue changed from serenity to harmony.

Today, Baker's original flag resides in the Museum of Modern Art, and replicas of his flag fly in all countries of the world, creating a common symbol for a diverse, worldwide community.



¹Unfun fact: Lesbians put into concentration camps were given a black triangle, as Hitler refused to acknowledge that lesbianism might exist. These ladies were, instead, labeled as 'anti-social', or as living a way contrary to the norms of society.


Sources
When We Rise by Cleve Jones
Gilbert Baker Official Website
Gilbert Baker Biography

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Bass Reeves, the Fiercest Lawman in the Old West

Widely considered to be the inspiration behind the fictional Lone Ranger, Bass¹ Reeves lived a larger than life existence of adventure hunting criminals in the old west. One of the first African-American Federal Marshals, Reeves caught more than 3,000 outlaws, all without sustaining a single gunshot wound, or being able to read.

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Bass Reeves, sporting a truly epic
moustache.
Born in 1838, Bass spent the first few years of his life enslaved in the newly minted state of Arkansas. He and his family were owned by William Reeves, a wealthy farmer and popular southern politician. William Reeves eventually decided to relocate to Texas, and Bass was assigned to be a valet to Reeves' son, George. When George went off to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War in 1861, Bass went with him.

Bass' time serving with the Confederacy was brief. Though dates are unsure, it is generally agreed upon that in some point between 1861 and 1862 Bass escaped after an altercation with his master during a card game. From Texas, Bass fled to Indian Country, the land that would later become the state of Oklahoma.

While in Indian Country, Bass became friendly with members of the Seminole, Cherokee, and Creek Nations, learning their languages, tracking techniques, and fighting for the Union with them.

Bass was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and when the war ended in 1865 he married, bought a farm in Arkansas, and proceeded to have ten children. Bass was a successful farmer, but he was more well known for his skill with languages and knowledge of Indian Country. In 1875 he was made a deputy US Marshal, and charged with the responsibility of cleaning up Indian Country.

Indian Country at the time was a pretty lawless place. Because it wasn't under the authority of any state government criminals could only be prosecuted by the federal government, and could only be chased down by federal authorities. While tribes were allowed to organize their own law enforcement, they only had jurisdiction over Native Americans, leaving white and black criminals the responsibility of the harrassed and understaffed US Marshals.

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Isaac Parker, the 'Hanging Judge'. Parker earned
this epitaph from the many criminals he sentenced
to the noose during his vigorous efforts to rid the
West of crime.
In May of 1875 Isaac Parker, later known as 'the hanging judge' was put in charge of a portion of the west that included Indian Country. He authorized the hire of some 200 deputies, and Bass Reeves was one of the top picks. From there he set out on a more than 30 year career that would see him become one of most famous lawmen of the Old West.

Life as a U.S. Marshal was busy. Bass would spend weeks away from his family, hunting down outlaws. When he finally caught his man, Bass would return to the courthouse at Fort Smith. He would spend a few days with his family back in Arkansas, then head back out.

Bass was at something of a disadvantage when it came to crook catching, because, as a former slave, he had never been taught to read. Because of this, he had to have warrants read to him. Bass would memorize the contents of several warrants before heading out on a manhunt. These manhunts could last months, giving Bass ample time to forget the contents of the warrants, but Bass was a sharp cookie. Despite the fact that he had to rely on his memory, he never brought back the wrong man.

There were times when Bass even used his illiteracy to his benefit. It was well known that Bass couldn't read, and there were several instances of Bass being captured by outlaws, and asking them to read him a letter from his wife before they shot him. Bass would take advantage of their moment of distraction to draw a gun on them, and take them in.

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Bass Reeves
Bass was bold and imposing, standing at 6'2, but he was also a master of disguise. A famous story recounts how he disguised himself as a bum, dressing himself in rags and a hat riddled with bullet holes. He came up to a homestead belonging to the mother of two outlaws Bass was hunting. He spun a sad story about how he was being hunted by the marshals, and how they had shot the hat right off his head. Sympathetic, the woman let Bass into her home, and suggested that he should team up with her two sons. Bass agreed, and when the two outlaws came home Bass agreed to join them. However, when everyone was asleep Bass handcuffed the two brothers together. When they woke up the next morning they were angry, but Bass still managed to haul them back to Fort Smith, despite being pursued by the men's irate mother.

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Bass found himself abruptly out of a job. Marshal duties were taken over by the new state government, who did not allow African Americans to serve. Bass joined the Muskogee Police Department, and spent two years as a beat cop. Legend says that there was never a single crime on his beat.

In 1909 Bass was diagnosed with Bright's Disease. He died a few months later in  January of 1910. 

Bass was one of the most effective lawmen of the time. He caught over 3,000 criminals, and it is notable that of that number, he only ever had to shoot fourteen of them. He is widely considered to be the inspiration behind the popular cartoon character, the Lone Ranger, though this has never been confirmed. Either way, Bass remains an Old West legend.


¹Pronounced with a short 'a', like the fish, not with a long 'a' like the musical instrument.


Sources

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Statue of Liberty Was a Completely Useless Lighthouse for Sixteen Years

A gift from the French government to assure the United States that they were, in fact, still friends, the Statue of Liberty was never meant to be a lighthouse. Still, for the first sixteen years of its American life, Liberty Enlightening the People served as a lighthouse, 'helping' to guide sailors into the New York Harbor. Or something like that.

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Statue of Liberty Lighthouse, 1890.
As mentioned, the statue wasn't supposed to be a lighthouse, but when the idea was posed to Frederic Bartholdi, the statue's designer, he seized on the idea with enthusiasm. A statue that not only held a torch, but held a torch that lit up and literally guided people to safety was pretty cool, and everyone else agreed, especially when it was proposed that the statue would be illuminated by the newfangled electric light.

The Statue of Liberty was the first lighthouse in the United States to be lit with electricity, with all other lighthouses running off old fashioned kerosene lamps. However, Bartholdi's original design didn't include any convenient places to shine lights out of, save for the lady's tiara. Bartholdi and his engineers (noted among them, Gustav Eiffel) set to finding a creative solution, or two.

Bartholdi's first idea was to install flood lights along the ledges of the torch. This would cast a bright light out to sea, illuminating the way for passing vessels. This idea, however, worked too well, and was rejected because it was feared that the light would blind sailors, and cause shipwrecks. Instead, windows were cut into the torch, and electric lights were placed inside, lighting the torch from within.

The lights were initially powered by a steam electricity plant and dynamo generator at no cost to the United States government. While the United States were thrilled to have a cool statue, they weren't too keen on paying for the lighting costs. Part of the illumination agreement was that the power plant and first week of illumination would be donated by the American Electric Light Manufacturing Company. The statue was lit up on November 1, 1886. A week later, it was dark again.

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Statue of Liberty today
Soon after going dark, President Grover Cleveland made the Statue of Liberty the problem of the Lighthouse Board. The Lighthouse Board weren't too happy with this assignment, given that the statue was expensive, difficult to light, and did no actual good as a navigational aid. There was no amplifying lense in the torch, which meant that the light was very weak. Proponents of the lighthouse claimed that the light could be seen for 24 miles out to sea. In reality, the light didn't make the 8 miles to Manhattan.¹

The first and only lighthouse keeper, Albert E. Littlefield, was hired in December of 1886. Littlefield was chosen because of his expertise with electricity, and under his care the lights kept shining for sixteen years. Though he made improvements that made the lighthouse less expensive, the Statue of Liberty was still a huge drain on Lighthouse Board resources, and it ceased to serve as a lighthouse on March 1, 1902.



¹For those who aren't lighthouse aficionados, a good lighthouse can be seen 30-40 miles away


Sources
Statue of Liberty Lighthouse
Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty, NY

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Bir Tawil Trapezoid--the Geographic, the Adorable, and the Imperialistic

On the border between Egypt and Sudan there are two small areas of land that remain in dispute--the Hala'ib Triangle, and the Bir Tawil Trapezoid. Hala'ib borders the Red Sea, and both countries have been laying claim to it since the 1950s. The Bir Tawil Trapezoid, on the other hand, is a mostly desolate wasteland, and both countries, well...they don't not claim it, but they certainly don't claim it either.

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A scenic stretch of Bir Tawil
Like many of the geographic struggles in Africa, this one dates back to colonial times when both Egypt and Sudan were a part of the British Empire. In 1899, while separating the areas into two distinct administrative districts the border between Sudan and Egypt was drawn at the 22nd parallel. Unfortunately, this border seperated two nomadic tribal groups--the Ababda and the Bisharin--from large sections of their traditional homelands. The Ababda, who's traditional grazing ground includes Bir Tawil, were deemed to have more in common culturally with the Egyptians, and the Bisharin, who sometimes occupy Hala'ib, were deemed to be more Sudanese. Consequently, in 1902 the border was redrawn, and Bir Tawil was incorporated into Egypt, while Hala'ib went to the Sudanese.

Flash forward to 1956, and Sudan has finally kicked their colonial overlords to the curb. Egypt, who had show the English the door in 1922, stood by the 1899 border--straight along the 22nd parallel. This hadn't been a point of friction until Sudan gained independence, and adopted the 1902 border--allotting Bir Tawil to Egypt, and granting themselves Hala'ib.

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Bir Tawil is circled in red.
What follows has been a relatively bloodless game of North African chicken. While neither country would say no to Bir Tawil, claiming Bir Tawil would mean giving up any claim to Hala'ib, which is a much more attractive plot of land. Hala'ib not only has access to the Red Sea, but it also is rich in resources, with substantial manganese deposits. Egypt was eager to start exporting manganese, and it was the Sudanese government allowing a Canadian oil company to do exploration in the triangle that kicked this whole dispute off.

There have been no armed conflicts over the triangle, though Egyptian troops were sent into the region in 1958 after Sudan attempted to hold elections, and remain there to this day. The Sudanese withdrew their troops in 2000, and the area has been under de facto Egyptian control ever since.

All of this leaves Bir Tawil mostly unadministered. It's easy to see why neither government wants to claim the trapezoid--there's little but rocks and desert. As mentioned, the Ababda graze their animals there part of the year, but there are no permanent residents. Bir Tawil has been largely regarded as a no man's land since the 1960s.

There are, however, several individuals who have claimed Bir Tawil, and attempted to create their own sovereign nation. Most famously was Jeremiah Heaton, an American farmer who wanted to make his daughter's dream of becoming a princess a reality. In 2014 he made the treacherous journey through the Egyptian desert to Bir Tawil, and planted a homemade flag in the grounded. He renamed the area North Sudan, and declared himself king, and his daughter a princess.

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Heaton, his daughter, Emily, and their flag.
Once he returned home to Virginia he didn't relinquish his claims. He set about trying to get his territory recognized officially as a country, with the goal of establishing experimental agricultural centers that would research the most effective farming methods for the food unstable region. However, as Sealand could attest, gaining recognition for a new country is no easy feat, no matter how noble the cause.

Not only is Heaton battling with Egypt and Sudan over the area, he's also fighting against an American journalist, an Indian, two Russians, and a whole host of other people who saw Bir Tawil on a map, and decided to make their own country. Every few years another claimant pops up, but none of the claimants actually live in the area.

Which brings us to the people who actually inhabit Bir Tawil--the Ababda people. The Ababda have inhabited southern Egypt, northern Sudan, and parts of Ethiopia since at least Ptolemaic times, possibly earlier. Though they don't live in Bir Tawil year round, the area is an important part of their yearly migration. Amusing and heartwarming as it might be for random foreigners to claim this no man's land, it must be conceded that the trapezoid isn't a no-man's-land, at least not entirely. This brings into the contentious age old question about land ownership between nomadic and settled societies, and how much land nomadic cultures can lay claim to.

However, as far as international land disputes go, Bir Tawil is undoubtedly the most light hearted. No blood has been spilled over the region, there's not even a real occupying force. Sure, there's some random flags scattered over the 2,060 square kilometers in the trapezoid, but that's an eyesore that can be dealt with. Besides, it made one seven year old girl a very happy princess.


Sources
Virginia Man's Claim on African Land is Unlikely to Pass Test
Welcome to the Land No Country Wants
Bir Tawil
A History of Bir Tawil
Bir Tawil: The Land No Country Wants
The Halayeb Triangle

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Dangerous Ground-The Spratly Islands

Located between Vietnam and the Philippines, the Spratly Islands have no native population, yet the area is one of the most disputed regions in the world, with six countries claiming all or part of the archipelago. Largely barren, the islands, many of which are not above water all of the time, cannot sustain human life. Yet, the rich untapped potential of oil and natural gas reserves under the reefs, and their strategic maritime position has made the Spratly Island a point of contention in East Asia since the 1950s.

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Aerial view of an atoll in the archipelago.
The first verified 'discovery' of the Spratly Islands was in 1843 when British whaling captain Richard Spratly spotted a large island. He named it after himself, as one does, and the name was eventually applied to the entire island group. Though this was the era of the British Empire, and the British were well known for claiming any piece of land that stood still, Spratly sailed on, and the English did not attempt to claim the islands. The islands were mostly left alone until the Japanese built an army base on the largest island during WWII.

The Spratly Islands are comprised of various bits of land that sometimes are, and sometimes aren't above water. There are more than 100 of these reefs, shoals, atolls, and islets, with Spratly Island itself being the largest. Though there is no indigenous population, approximately 45 of the islands are occupied by military presence from one of the six countries that lay claim to the area.

While there is sparse vegetation and very little wildlife, there is a huge reserve of untapped natural gas and oil under the reefs. These resources are very useful to the rapidly developing nations that claim the area, especially to China, who uses about 12% of the world's oil--second only to the United States in world usage.

In addition to gas and oil, the Spratly Islands are also rich in fish and other sea life--a major component of the southeast Asian diet. Being able to fish in those waters is very important to the livelihood of the people closest to the area, and having control of those waters lends an enormous economic advantage.

However, fish rights aren't the only thing that makes the Spratly Islands strategic. Their location in the South China sea not only makes them an excellent military outpost to launch attacks in Southeast Asia, but it also lends control of one of the largest shipping routes in the world. Any cargo boat that sails to Asia has to go through the South China Sea, and whoever controls the Spratly Islands exerts significant influence over trade in the region.

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Map of the islands and the claims exerted over them.
The Spratlys are claimed by six nations--China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. While the Spratlys are closest to Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, Taiwan retains the longest military presence, and China is the most militant about populating the area, going as far as to build artificial islands to station military forces on.

Delving into the basis of territorial claims on the Spratlys, many countries share similar justifications for why the Spratlys should belong to them. The claims separate into about three camps, with all of them boiling down to the same reasoning that five year olds use to fight over toys. These claims are: I had it first, I have it now, and But it's close to me.

  • I had it first.
China, Taiwan, and Vietnam all use this argument. All three countries have produced documents that 'prove' the existence of Chinese¹ and Vietnamese people living on the Spratlys hundreds of years ago. The Chinese produced records stating that Han people had settled the area in the 1600s, and the Vietnamese produced records showing that the Spratlys had been a part of several ancient Vietnamese kingdoms. However, this historical evidence is shaky at best, and due to a lack of continuous occupation of the region, an important factor in claiming sovereignty over an area, has not been accepted as grounds for a valid claim by the United Nations.
  • I have it now.
While nowhere near one of the greatest military conflicts in the late twentieth century, armed conflict, and taking island features by force has been one way of securing possession of the archipelago. There have been armed skirmishes between China and Vietnam in 1974 and 1988, and between China and the Philippines in 2012. Following, and in between these skirmishes the Chinese government has established airfields and military bases on various island features. They have also gone as far as to include the Spratlys on their official maps, and give them an official place in the Hainan Province.

Taiwan has had a physical occupying force in the islands since the end of WWII, with only a brief interruption. They occupy Itu Abu, the largest island in the archipelago, and have been administering it peacefully for decades.

Malaysia, likewise, has physical garrisons on the islands, and claims twelve islands that are located on its continental shelf. Malaysia, however, is the newest claimant to the game, not taking possession of any of the islands until the 1980s.

All of these countries are operating under the idea that continuous occupation=ownership. It's the same idea that led Canada to abandon 92 in the High Arctic. It is, by far, a much stronger claim than historical precedence or international law, given that possession is 9/10ths of the law.
  • But it's close to me.
Part of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that a nation may claim up to 200 nautical miles away from their land as an exclusive economic zone. This is the law upon which Brunei hangs its claim, and a law that Malaysia and the Philippines both utilize. It is worth noting that in all three of these cases the country in question isn't claiming the entire archipelago, just a few islands, or, in the case of Brunei, a single reef. 
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A Chinese Military Base 

All of these countries make strong claims to certain features of the Spratly Islands, and peace would certainly be conceivable if China, Taiwan, and Vietnam weren't attempting to claim the entire archipelago. As it stands, the Spratly Islands is the epicenter of a cold and sporadic conflict. None of the claimant countries make an active effort to maintain the claims on the region, and Malaysian and Filipino fishermen make use of the waters surrounding the archipelago. It seems unlikely that any resolution between the six countries will be reached soon, and so the Spratly Islands remain a volatile, and dangerous region.



¹The Taiwanese have been lumped in with the Chinese here, as Taiwan was administratively a part of mainland China until 1949. The Taiwanese historical claims are the same as the Chinese historical claims.


Sources
The Spratly Islands Dispute: International Law, Conflicting Claims, and Alternative Frameworks
For Dispute Resolution by Robin Gonzalez
Why is the South China Sea Contentious?
The South China Sea: the Spratly Islands Disputes
Making Sense of the South China Sea Dispute
Spratly Islands
Spratly Islands: Reefs, Shoals, Atolls, and Islets

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Harvey Milk

Along with Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, Harvey Milk is one of the most iconic and influential American LGBT leaders. Politically active from 1973-1978, Milk was one of the first openly gay political leaders, and pushed for both political and community reforms in San Francisco and California.

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Harvey Milk
Milk was born May 22, 1930 to Minerva and William Milk in Woodmere, New York. Though he knew he was gay from a young age, he stayed quiet about it until adulthood. He was a popular, well liked athlete in high school, and participated in school operas.

Harvey attended New York State College for Teachers, graduating in 1951, and moving on to attend Officer Candidate School after enlisting in the US Navy. He was subsequently stationed in San Diego, serving as a diving instructor on the U.S.S. Kittiwake. He achieved the rank of junior lieutenant before his discharge in 1955.

There is some debate about the nature of Milk's discharge. Milk stated that he was dishonorably discharged after being questioned about his sexuality, but the U.S. Navy records reflect that Milk was honorably discharged. It is difficult to ascertain which party is telling the truth, as both parties have a reasonable reason to lie--Milk to give depth to his political agenda, the Navy to avoid the embarrassment of having mistreated a man who would later become an international hero. It is worth noting, however, that Milk's discharge was during the height of the Lavender Scare, which gives credence to his story.

After leaving the military Milk worked as a high school teacher for a few years before going to work as a financial analyst. Milk enjoyed a stable career in finance until 1970 when he left to become a production assistant for Broadway musicals. Milk's credits include Jesus Christ Superstar, and Hair.


Milk in front of Castro Camera, 1973
In 1972 Harvey moved to San Francisco with his lover, and opened a camera shop in the Castro district, and area of San Francisco known for it's LGBT population and liberal politics.

Milk soon became a staple of Castro political life. His store--Castro Camera--was a gathering place for LGBT people. In 1973, shortly after moving to the Castro Milk declared his candidacy for City Supervisor, spurred on by a heavy tax on small businesses and the Watergate Scandal. Though he lost the campaign he gained recognition as a popular politician, and began to gather more political support.

Supporting small businesses as well as LGBT rights would become a focus of Milk's for the next few years. In 1974 he founded the Castro Street Fair--an event devoted to bringing commercial activity to the Castro. He worked with local businesses to revitalize the Castro Village Association, and convinced local bars to stop selling certain brands of beer during a Teamster's Strike, in exchange for the teamsters hiring more gay and lesbian drivers.

Milk ran again and lost in 1975. By this time he was the leader of the Castro gay community, fondly known as 'The Mayor of Castro Street'. His civic activities brought him to the notice of mayor George Moscone, who appointed him to the city permit's appeals board. Harvey served in this position for a few weeks before leaving to run for California State Assembly, a race he would end up losing.

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The Castro lies in the heart of San Francisco
Realizing that he needed to rely on his voter base in the Castro, Milk worked with Anne Kronenberg, and George Moscone to revise the city laws so that supervisors would be elected by the people in their specific district, rather than the city as a whole. The passing of this amendment meant that when Harvey ran for city supervisor again in 1977, he won easily.

Harvey's election was met with joy from liberals, and angry grumbles from conservatives. Once in office, Milk proved a dedication to serving all the minority groups of San Francisco, not just the LGBT community. He established free daycare services for working mothers, and had abandoned military facilities converted into low cost housing. He reformed the tax code to benefit small businesses, and worked on measures protecting LGBT people from discrimination in housing and employment.

Though he was universally loved in the Castro, and generally admired across the United States, Milk received death threats almost daily. Unfortunately on November 27, 1978, Dan White--a former colleague of Harvey's--carried through on that threat, assassinating both Milk and Mayor Mascone.

Today, Milk is remembered as a legendary activist, and a great politician. Though he was only in office for a short time, he was able to pass a great deal of reforms which still benefit the people of California today.

On a wider scale, Milk is an inspiration for LGBT people around the world. His belief that homosexuals needed to come out of the closet to fight for greater rights and understanding has inspired LGBT people around the world to speak out, and follow in his example.


Sources
Harvey Milk-Activist (1930-1978)
Harvey Milk
Harvey Milk, American Politician and Activist
Harvey Milk Biography
The Official Harvey Milk Biography

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Indus Valley Civilization-The Secrets of Two Cities

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Called 'The Priest King' this iconic
Harappan statue was found in
Mohenjo Daro
Existing several hundred years after the Varna Culture, and home of one of the worlds first major urban center, the Indus River Valley Civilization, or Harappa Civilization, was almost forgotten to history until the early 20th century. Contemporaries with Egypt and Sumer, the Harappa civilization has some of the earliest and finest examples of urban planning, writing, and a standardized system of weights and measures. Unlike their neighbors, they didn't pursue conquest, or build large monuments. This, along with the fact that scholars have yet to decipher the Harappa system of writing means that unfortunately very little is known about this great civilization.

Harappa was rediscovered (by a white person) in 1826 CE by British Army deserter, James Lewis. Lewis was wandering the Punjab region of the then British India in search of ancient artifacts, and, presumably, in avoidance or people who would take him back to the army. At the time Lewis, and the archaeologists who later followed him, assumed that the city dated to around the era of Alexander the Great. However, later discoveries of artistic seals identical to ones found in Sumer would prove that the Harappa civilization is much, much older.

Beginning somewhere around 2500 BCE, and ending about a millennium later, the mysterious Harappa Civilization left little behind except their enigmatic cities. Because the Harappan script has yet to be deciphered, information on the Harappans has to be gleaned from the remains of their cities.

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Ruins at Harappa
There are two major sites associated with the Harappa civilization--Mohenjo Daro in Sindh Pakistan, and Harappa itself, in Sahiwal. These cities are laid out in similar fashions, and artifacts found have confirmed that these two cities were most likely part of the same civilization, if not quite the same country. It is widely speculated that, much like in Greece, Harappa and Mohenjo Daro were each sovereign city states participating in a wider culture. There is clear evidence of communication between the two, and it seems likely that they shared common laws and customs. Many archaeologists speculate that, of the two, Mohenjo Daro was the 'capital city', but this is, as of now, conjecture.

Harappan cities are laid out on a grid system, with streets aligning with the cardinal directions (north, east, south, west.) These streets were paved, and there were separate residential and commercial streets. In addition to planned streets, there was also a general sewer system, which was connected with every home.  In general, most houses had latrines and a bathing facility. Additionally, houses were located nearly public wells and fountains so that citizens had access to fresh water.

An interesting feature of Harappan cities is the uniformity of their building materials. Buildings were made of mud bricks covered in plaster. Brick size seems to have been standardized across the Harappan civilization, as bricks in Mohenjo Daro are the same size as the bricks in Harappa, and all bricks in the city are the same size.  Additionally, the durability of these bricks have led to them being constantly reused in new building projects. At the time of Harappa's rediscovery most of the bricks had been stripped away from the city to build the Lahore Railroad. It is a testement to the Harappans' skill that over 100 miles (161 kilometers) of railroad was paved using those bricks.

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The 'Great Bath' in Mohenjo Daro. Though little is known
about Harappan religion, it is speculated that bathing was
an important religious ritual.
Based on archaeological findings, the Harappa Civilization seems to have been a somewhat egalitarian society. Residences, by and large, contain the same levels of luxary, and there is no indication of any sort of monarchy. It is speculated that the Harappans were governed by elected rulers.

The disappearance of the Harappa Civilization as traditionally been attributed to an invasion from Aryan peoples. (No, not those aryans). For many years it was believed that the Aryans had wiped out the Harappa Civilization when they conquered India. However, recent discoveries have called this theory into question. The lack of evidence of mass slaughter, and the genetic continuity between remains from Harappans and the modern people of Punjab and Sindh suggest that the Aryans may have arrived after the Harrapans had left. It is now hypothesized that shifting climate and overcrowding caused the Harrapans to leave their cities, and disperse to other settlements in the region, abandoning Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. This theory is hardly satisfactory, and undoubtedly continuing research will see this theory modified within the next decade.


Sources
Indus Valley Civilization
Indus River Valley Civilizations
Indus Civilization
Early Civilization in the Indus Valley
The Ancient Indus Civilization
Harappa: An Overview of Harappan Architecture and Town Planning
Harappa
The Harappan Civilization
The Lost City of Mohenjo Daro
Mohenjo Daro
Mohenjo Daro and Harappa

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Varna Gold

At the height of communism, proof of a pre-historic class stratified society was found behind the Iron Curtain. An ancient cemetery was found in the Bulgarian city of Varna when digging trenches for the electrical foundation of a new cannery. Much like the discovery of Kennewick Man in 1996, the discovery of what would come to be known as the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis would completely reshape our understanding of prehistoric society. Unlike the discovery of Kennewick Man, archaeologists found something shinier, more telling, and worth far more money than bones--gold. 138 pounds (63 kg) of gold to be exact.

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Gold animal ornament found at Varna. This would most
likely be sewn onto clothing.
In October of 1972 Raycho Marinov found a dirty bracelet in the bucket of his excavator. He was digging in West Varna, where it wasn't too uncommon to find historical artifacts. Farmers frequently dug up copper coins in their fields, so Raycho didn't think too much of it. He gathered up the bracelet, as well as a few other pieces of jewelry he found lying in the area, and put them in a shoebox with his boots. He forgot about the box for a couple of weeks before giving the gold to his old teacher, and curator of the local history museum, Dimitar Zlatarski. Zlatarski, recognizing the value of the pieces, called in experts from the Varna Archaeological Museum.

Upon examination, it turned out that what Marinov had found was far more valuable than the copper coins found in nearby fields. The jewelry dated back to the Copper Age, and Marinov's find was the biggest find of Copper Age artifacts at the time.

A full fledged excavation began almost immediately. Though it had been months since Marinov found the original pieces of jewelry, the dig site remained mostly intact. Archaeologists descended on the site in droves, and a near constant dig was in progress from 1972 to 1991.

This clay head, adorned with gold, was found in one
of the 'ceremonial graves'. These clay figurines were
most likely buried for religious purposes.
What archaeologists found in Varna was a vast graveyard belonging to the long vanished Varna Culture, a Copper Age society living in Eastern Europe long before the invasion of Indo-Europeans. Hundreds of graves littered the landscape, buried under years of debris.

Much like many other societies, the people of the Varna Culture buried their dead with funerey goods--presumably to help the deceased in the afterlife. These grave goods gave insight into the dress and customs of the Varna Culture. The quality of (or lack thereof) of the goods proved that the Varna Culture had a system of social classes, making them one of the first cultures in the world to do so.

The evidence of some sort of class structure became evident when archaeologists opened what is now called Grave 43. It contained the bones of a man positively dripping in gold. The man wore bracelets, necklaces, rings, and carried a scepter. Gold disks, presumably once sewn to his long disintegrated clothing, surrounded him, as well as a gold sheathe for his penis. Though the archaeologists had found that some graves were nicer than others, they hadn't found a grave with such riches.

The fact that the skeleton was a male was particularly interesting to the archaeologists, because it challenged the contemporary theory that prehistoric Europe was a matriarchal society, and didn't become a patriarchal society until the invasion of the Indo-Europeans. Grave 43 was the first instance of a man who had been buried with a large amount of precious grave goods. Though some archaeologists suggest that this man could have lived during a period of transition, Grave 43 still leaves more questions than it answers.
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The contents of Grave 43

Actual humans weren't the only ones to be buried with tons of gold. Several graves full of gold and clay heads were also excavated. It is speculated that these are 'ceremonial graves', and that the gold jewelry is an offering for the deities represented by the clay heads.

Unfortunately, about 30% of the dig site remains unexplored. Excavation stopped in 1991 due to a lack of funds, and archaeologists have been unable to raise the money to begin again. Much of the discovered gold resides at the Varna Archaeology Museum, and the gold frequently tours museums across Europe.

The find at Varna represents a major piece of the puzzle that is pre-historic European society. Though these discoveries raise many more questions than they answer, the provide valuable insight into the wealth of the society, the size of the Varna Culture, and into their religious beliefs and practices.


Sources
Varna Man and the Wealthiest Grave of the 5th Millennium BC
The Oldest Gold Treasure in the World
Mystery of the Varna Gold

Friday, May 25, 2018

Damn, Girl-Ella Baker-The Woman Behind the Civil Rights Movement

Activist Ella Josephine Baker was born on December 13, 1903. Dying exactly 83 years later, Ella would live through both world wars, the great depression,and the civil rights movement. She is best known for her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. While she isn't as well known as visible leaders like Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker was one of the major driving forces behind the movement. While everyone else gave speeches, Ella traveled around the country, registering voters and organizing protests.

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Ella Baker
Growing up in Norfolk Virginia, Ella was heavily influenced by her grandmother, a former slave. Her grandmother would tell Ella stories about the injustices of slavery, the most famous being the time she was severely whipped for refusing to marry a man her master had picked out for her. In her early years Ella developed both a strong sense of self, as well as an outrage about the discrimination she and other African Americans faced.

In 1930, Ella started off her career in activism by joining the Young Negros¹ Cooperative League (YNCL). The purpose of YNCL was the provide shared resources for young African Americans. The organization had a strong emphasis on gender equality, as well as anti-capitalism. She soon became national director of the organization.

Around 1940 Ella began a leadership career with the NAACP. She began as a field secretary, and later served as a Director of Branches from 1943-1946. In this role, Ella worked heavily on voter registration in African American communities. She traveled across the country registering voters, and coordinating directly with local chapters. She trained activists (including Rosa Parks), and recruited members. She is widely acknowledged to have done a great deal of the hard, nitty-gritty work for the NAACP.

Ella had to step down from her leadership role in 1946 in order to move to New York and raise her orphaned niece. She joined the NAACP chapter in New York, and remained heavily involved with working to end social injustices. In 1952 she was elected president of her chapter, the first woman to ever be elected president of an NAACP chapter. As president, she worked to end school segregation, and build unity between chapters of the NAACP.

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Ella speaking at a protest
With the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1958, Ella moved to Atlanta to serve as it's director. The SCLC is heavily associated with Dr. Martin Luther King, who served as the public face of the organization. Behind the scenes, Ella was calling the shots. She chose the issues the SCLC would focus on, planned protests, and trained other activists.

Unfortunately, within the SCLC Ella encountered a great deal of misogyny. Relations between her and Dr. King were tense, as he, along with the other male members of SCLC, weren't too keen on taking direction from a woman. Ella resigned in 1960 to found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. (SNCC)
SNCC was inspired by the sit-ins at the Greensboro Lunch Counters, and focused on organizing passive resistance protests. She also lead drives to register voters, and helped form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party--an alternative to the Democrat Party--which supported civil rights for African Americans.

Ella continued her work until her death in 1986. Though she is not well known today, her influence lives on. She played a major part in enfranchising African American voters, and planning the protests that helped end the Jim Crow Laws. Today the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights  carries on her work of ensuring equal rights for people of all races.



¹This word, while not acceptable in a modern context, was more or less acceptable in Ella's time period.


Sources
Who Was Ella Baker
Ella Baker--Civil Rights Activist
Ella Baker--American Activist
Meet Ella Baker

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Armenian Genocide

What came to be called the Armenian Genocide was the product of rising Turkic Nationalism, the gradual decline of the Ottoman Empire, and the outbreak of WWI. In the eight years between 1915 and 1923 the Ottoman Empire wiped out 1.5 million Armenians, completely annihilating the Armenian population in Anatolia. The Ottomans seized traditional Armenian homelands, and pressed tens of thousands of women and children into slavery, forcibly converting them to Islam and making them assimilate. To this day the Armenian population in Anatolia, and Armenia itself, is woefully small, and there are more Armenians in diaspora than there are in their traditional homelands. These horrors remain completely unrecognized by the Turkish government.

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The Armenian populace in the Ottoman Empire. This is where
the Armenians were centralized at the time. Historic Armenia
Extend further into the neareast. Armenians at the time were
spread across the eastern part of the Empire, as well as the border
with Russia
We've talked about the Ottoman empire a few times before in the context of its remarkable Sultanas. However, life had gone significantly downhill after the Sultanate of Women, and around the turn of the century the Ottoman Empire was facing a significant financial crisis, as well as political disputes with Russia. The Sultan at the time, Sultan Abdul Hamid, was a despotic autocrat who had ill-fatedly aligned himself with Imperial Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.

In 1908 the Ottoman Empire was changed forever when a group called 'The Young Turks' forcibly took power from Sultan Abdul Hamid and placing him under arrest. From this group sprang the 'Committee for Union and Progress' (CUP). Almost immediately, CUP instituted a constitution, taking away the Sultan's absolute power.

At the beginning, the Armenian population had high hopes for the CUP administration. Under previous administrations Armenians had been second class citizens, due to the fact that they were Christian. They were not allowed to participate in government, and had to pay additional taxes. Additionally, the law did not provide them with protection or civil rights. In the late 1890s Armenians had begun agitating for basic civil rights, and Abdul had had a massive Pogrom carried out. The Armenians hoped for more rights under the CUP regime.

Unfortunately, CUP wasn't interested in asserting universal rights to all people groups, they were only interested in giving rights to the Turkic peoples of the Empire. They wanted to ethnically cleanse the nation to make a wholly Turkic state. When WWI erupted, they were given the perfect excuse. Not only did the Ottomans gleefully follow their allies, Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, into battle, they also declared holy war on all Christians (excepting their allies of course.).

One of the biggest problems for Armenians, as mentioned above, was that they were Christian, and did not subscribe to the state cult. This made the CUP suspicious, and they feared that the Armenians would side with Christian Russia, and take up arms against the Empire from within the Empire.

Given that the Armenian homeland straddled the border between the Ottoman and Russian Empires, the idea that the Armenians would side with their enemies wasn't completely crazy. Russian Armenians had significantly more rights than Ottoman Armenians, and should the Russians devour the Ottoman Empire, Armenians would be granted more civil rights and protections under the law. Though the Armenians in Russia had experienced oppression under Czar Alexander II and Czar Nicholas II, things were looking up for them. In 1905 a minor revolution among the Armenians and Azeri spurred the Russian government to make serious change. Life as a Russian Armenian was significantly better than life as an Ottoman Armenian. The CUP's fears were additionally fanned by the fact that Russian Armenians had been smuggling arms into the Ottoman Empire since the 1880s, and Russian Armenian nationalists encouraged their Ottoman brothers to rise up against the Ottoman Empire in favor of an Armenian state.

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Turkish soldiers standing over the skulls of a massacred
village of Armenians
Despite their initial suspicion of the Armenians, the Ottomans were worried about their prospects in the upcoming war. They attempted to recruit the Dashnaktsutyun--the Russian Armenian nationalist group--to fight against the Russian Empire, but the Dashnaktsutyun rebuffed him, saying that Armenians would fight for the country in which they resided. Despite this, after a major loss at the Battle of Sarikamis, the CUP decided that the Armenians on the eastern border were colluding against them. They quietly had all Armenian soldiers executed, and began performing killing raids on villages.

Shortly after, Ottoman forces began deporting Armenians from border villages. They forced Armenians to march thousands of miles into the Syrian desert, depriving them of food or water. People who stopped to rest were killed, and any Armenian who exhibited any sign of fighting back was immediately slaughtered. Between the blistering heat, lack of rest, and deprivation of food and water, hundreds of thousands of Armenians died along the way. Furthermore, many Armenians were killed by members of the 'Special Organization', gangs of freed convicts tasked with killing Armenians en route to Syria. They were also at risk of murder from Circassians as well as the Turkish soldiers escorting them.

By the time they arrived in Syria there was nothing waiting for them. The remaining Armenians were left to die of exposure and starvation. By the end of WWI the Armenian population, previously more than 2 million, had been reduced to 388,000.

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Armenian woman bent over her dead child near the Syrian border
The Armenian Genocide still haunts Armenians and Turks today. All Armenian cultural structures and artifacts on the Ottoman side of the Armenian homeland were destroyed. Libraries were sacked, depriving Armenians of precious knowledge about their history and culture. The Armenians remaining in Turkey were forced to assimilate, stripped of their religion, culture, and identity. Armenians were scattered around the globe. Today, out of the 11,000,000 Armenians living, only 3,000,000 of them live in Armenia itself.

It is important to note that Armenians weren't the only minority group targeted by the Ottomans at this time period. Assyrians and Greeks were also massacred. The genocide of these people, along with the genocide of the Armenians is still vigorously denied by Turkish authorities today. The Turkish government maintains that the killings of Armenians was unfortunate product of war, and not a systematized effort to wipe out an entire people group. Furthermore, may of Turkey's allies, such as the United States, United Kingdom, and Israel, do not recognized the genocide either.


Sources
Armenian Genocide
The Armenian Genocide
The Armenian Genocide (1915-16) Overview
The Armenian Genocide
Armenian Genocide