John S. Dickson

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How did we get here?

Woodrow Wilson, 1913. Library of Congress.

Last weekend, Princeton University announced they were dropping the name Woodrow Wilson from its school of international affairs and public policy and from one of its colleges.

The President of the University, Christopher L. Eisgruber, noted in his announcement that Wilson displayed a racism that “was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time.”

My initial reaction was skeptical.  Removal of the symbols of the Confederacy – statues and flag – was long overdue. These commemorated people and a breakaway republic that fought against the United States in order to preserve slavery.  Monuments and building names of other prominent Americans without this clear-cut past, like Wilson, have come under closer scrutiny as well.  New York Times columnist Brett Stephens tried to distinguish between historical figures who should not be celebrated from those who had flaws, like all human beings. He drew his line based on whether or not people worked to “establish a more perfect union,” as outlined in the 1776 Declaration of Independence.

The case of Woodrow Wilson seemed less straightforward: professor of political economy, President of Princeton, Governor of New Jersey and two-term President with a progressive and internationalist legacy.

History, though, is written in the present, for the present. It answers the question – how did we get here?  The Wilson of the present is not the man who crafted fourteen principles on which to shape a treaty to end the first world war, not the man whose name is attached to an American foreign policy tradition of globalism and moralism.

Eisgruber calls the current moment in American race relations, and, more broadly, in American society, “a searing present.”  So, we should ask how did this moment become searing?  A resurgence of racism, apologized by and condoned from the top.  On the same day that Princeton announced its decision, the President of the United States posted a video on his Twitter feed of one Florida supporter shouting “Where’s your white hood?” and another calling back “white power.”  It is, therefore, not surprising perhaps that a few days later Trump criticized the Princeton decision to remove the Wilson name.

So, what was Wilson’s legacy on the road to the searing present?  Before he was President, Wilson  wrote in his five-volume History of the American People that ”white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation […] until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan.”

It was his decisions while President, though, that helped steer the country to where are now.  Wilson could have left alone a racially integrated civil service, but he did not.  The civil service had officially been integrated since immediately after the Civil War, but Wilson oversaw the segregation of federal departments shortly after getting sworn in, emphasizing “I would say that I do approve of the segregation that is being attempted in several of the departments.” He cut short a meeting with Black leaders who came to protest these policies. It took 35 years before Harry Truman would issue an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in the federal service.

Less significant except for its high symbolism, Wilson decided to invite D.W. Griffith to the White House to screen his pro-Ku Klux Klan film, Birth of a Nation, the first film of any kind to be shown in the Presidential mansion.  The film used Wilson’s quote on the “great Ku Klux Klan” as one of its intertitles.  Protests and riots ensued, but Wilson claimed innocence in awareness of the film’s intent.

History is not supposed to be counterfactual, but it is not hard to imagine a different course of Jim Crow history in the 20th century had Wilson pursued progressive reforms on civil rights as vigorously as he did with policies as varied as child labor, woman suffrage (albeit belatedly,) national banking and income tax.

While history helps us answer how we got here, it also should help guide us towards where we want to be, and surely that is far away from this searing present. Princeton’s decision is almost an easy one, with tougher choices ahead on policies to address the racism that Black citizens confront on a daily basis.

This first appeared in the Berkshire Eagle, July 3, 2020.

 

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Intersections – Ten Pittsfield Neighborhoods

One of the only computer games I ever played was called Sim City.  This is the game where players build a city by adding residences, businesses, roads, buildings and react to the consequences of each of their moves.  Too many houses results in traffic congestion and resident unrest, quelled only when the player adds roads and public transport or starts building in a new area. Too many roads put a city’s fiscal situation in dire straits, so the player needs to figure out how to attract more businesses that could end up putting a strain on the city’s utilities.  And so on.

This game came to mind during the research and preparation of the exhibit “Intersections, A History of Pittsfield’s Neighborhoods,” on display at the Berkshire Athenaeum in conjunction with the 10 X 10 Upstreet Arts Festival in Pittsfield.  (All ten exhibit panels can be seen in the right column.)

The Lakeside neighborhood

Take the neighborhood called Lakeside, or as some have referred to it, Little Italy.  This covers the area east of Park Square, down Fenn Street all the way to East Street, with the lake in its name being Silver Lake.  When the first buildings sprouted up around Park Square, this area was most likely forested and then turned into farm or grazing land.  The first lots were sold to English, French and African American settlers so they could walk to work in the center of town or to church.  One early resident was Samuel Harrison, a 34-year-old preacher, who paid $50 for a lot on Third Street in 1852, two years after moving to Pittsfield to take up his duties at the Second Congregational Church.  Later, John Crosby bought a home in this neighborhood when he moved to the town to take up his duties as county sheriff in 1868.

The real impetus to growth in this area came from the Robbins and Kellogg Shoe Company that built a four-story factory on Fourth Street and immediately offered employment for up to 450 people.  The company built homes and tenements to house its workers.  Making shoes turned out to be a major draw for early immigrants from Italy who began to take up positions in the company.  They, in turn, pulled relatives and neighbors to the area as vegetable and fruit peddlers.  Another immigrant, Charles Genovese, saw a business opportunity as his neighbors had difficulty securing bank loans so he opened Banc Italia in the front of his residence on Fenn Street.  The influx of Italians then spawned enthusiasm in the community for their own church, and launched a 20-year campaign to build Mt. Carmel.  The first mass was held in 1924 and the church grew to include a parochial school, a parish house and a rectory.  The church held the residents in place, even after the shoe company closed in 1900, but by then, new jobs were available, still in walking distance, in the new Stanley Manufacturing and then General Electric plants.

New lots, houses and then multi-family units, shops and businesses, new arrivals, churches, schools, community centers.  These are the cement that hold together the neighborhoods in the city and propel the transitions through the city’s history.

Several characteristics became apparent during the course of the research.  First, for the most part, the city’s ethnic communities intermingled in these neighborhoods.  Kevin O’Hara, in his wonderful book Lucky Irish Lad, describes Halloween trick or treating in his Wahconah neighborhood, past the homes belonging to the Callahans and Horrigans, on to the Gagliardis, Douillets, Marinaros and Walczyks.

In addition, we were able to find and relay the stories of nationally accomplished residents tucked away in these neighborhoods, including our well-known figures Oliver Wendell Holmes and Herman Melville over on Holmes Road, but also those who should be more well known, such as Carolyn Claiborne Park, a BCC teacher whose book, The Siege, changed the way people view autism or Alfreda Withington, who lived on South Street and was the first female member of the Massachusetts Medical Society.  The acclaimed nature photographer Edwin Hale Lincoln took up duties as a caretaker on Allendale Farm and raised his family there.

Further, we unearthed stories about places that surprised even some current local residents.  I had a hard time finding people who lived near Fort Hill Avenue who knew there had been an actual colonial fort at the road’s intersection with West Street.  Or that there were once 17 billiards parlors in the city.  Or that the site of Walmart and Home Depot was once a thriving lumber yard.

Finally, it also became apparent that the story of transition is not complete.  Evidence of new arrivals still seeking to build new lives in Pittsfield shows up in Spanish-language masses at St. Marks’ Church on West Street or West African stores on Tyler Street.  The long tradition of welcome and recognition of hard-earned livelihoods continues to contribute to the rich mosaic that sets this city apart and offers it a future.

Appeared in Berkshire Eagle.

 

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Turning Points in My Home Town

The intersection at the center of the town, an oval that is still called Park Square. Courtesy of Berkshire County Historical Society

If it’s true that all politics is local, could the same be said about history?  Maybe all history is not exactly local, but it does seem to be the portal through which many of us enter the past, whether it is tracing our genealogy, researching our house, visiting nearby museums, sites or roadside markers.

For me, moving to a new town and exploring its history helped me learn my way around, finding out who streets were named after and poring over old maps to see the evolution of the town as if it were the old computer game SimCity.  Local history became one of my social circles, where I met and interacted with professionals and lay people with similar interests.

There is much that is unique about Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the largest city of Berkshire County, nestled in its rolling hills in the far west of the state.  Beyond the social and the curious, did the history of this place speak to a broader view of national or international events, did it speak to current concerns?

There is much that is unique about any town or city, but delving into Pittsfield’s history reveals evidence of broader national trends and developments, how decisions taken and events played out far away affected people right here at home.  More than that, the history of this place may also speak to broader concerns of the present.

These lessons gradually dawned on me in preparing the exhibit, “Turning Points,” on display at the Berkshire Athenaeum as part of the winter 10×10 Upstreet Arts Festival held every year coinciding with school vacation in February.

Flip through any U.S. history textbook, and broad themes play out in this locale:  early arrival and encounter with Native Americans, taming the frontier, rebellion against colonial authorities, industrial revolution, division over slavery, immigration and labor unrest, economic panics and technological progress, international trade and empire, the arsenal of democracy, postwar global dominance, industrial decline and loss of jobs and population.

Through these developments, these turning points, Pittsfield has adjusted and adapted, evolved and reinvented itself.  The city finds itself in such a phase now, seeking to shape a future that provides opportunity and enhanced quality of life for its residents.

Answering the call of duty as the city turns out to see recruits march off to fight in 1917. Courtesy of Berkshire County Historical Society.

What strikes me about the current moment is that Pittsfield is really not all that different from many post-industrial towns and cities extending across the northeast into the Midwest.  What is different, though, has been in this region’s rejection of a politician like Donald Trump in favor of his opponent.  Trump’s messages of xenophobia, dark pessimism of carnage, and wild promises of jobs returning from overseas fell on fertile ground further west, but not here.

What in Pittsfield’s history accounts for this difference?  History tells us of multiple waves of immigrants coming to this region, instilling an ethnic pride and diversity here that makes us more likely to welcome the newcomers from Latin America and Africa in our midst.  History tells of past economic transformations, from agriculture to manufacturing, from textiles to electrical, plastics and defense industries that may point the way towards openness and experimentation to find the next stage of economic growth.  History tells us that proximity to New York and Boston was important, continuing to today, less as markets for goods produced here, but as a source for visitors who come here seeking cultural and outdoor escapes.

Last summer, I met a young woman visiting Pittsfield from Youngstown, Ohio, and I asked her to compare the differences between these two rust belt cities.  She was quick in her answer: “You have so much here.  We have nothing.”  A harsh statement, but a welcome one of how our home town looks to an outsider.

Read an article on the exhibit in the Berkshire Eagle.

Or you can read the panels right here:  Turning Points, 10×10 Upstreet Arts Festival

 

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The Allure of Mills

What is it about passing an old mill building that pushes me off to some other world?  I pause, take a second look and a third, fourth, and more, drawn in by the features of the bell tower and stairways, the small design additions to the windows, doors and roofs.  Then my gaze wanders, looking for nearby streams and crossings, homes and paths.

Surely, the easy answer to the appeal would be the size and sturdiness of the buildings, made of brick and stone to withstand the pounding of the machinery and the risk of fire.  They don’t tower over the landscape as much as they dominate it.  Aerial views and maps show just how much space they occupy in a neighborhood, easy to pick out and get your bearings, in search of an old house or store.

The simple engineering behind raising such a structure had to be, in fact, anything but simple, especially without the mechanization and materials that go into modern construction.  Add to that the number of mills in Berkshire County which reaches well into the hundreds, and the speed which they went up, or were later added on to and altered to make full use of new equipment.

Curiosity cannot be satisfied.  How did they bring the heavy iron equipment into the mills?  How did people learn to operate the machinery?  How were people hired and what were employers looking for in selecting the operators?  How would they move one processed item completed on the second floor, up to the next stage on the third floor?   How did they find their markets, and get their products to them?

But the wonder of the mill really comes from imagining the stories, of the people who heard the bells, hustled along the paths, made their way to their spots at the machines, stood by them and repeated the same motions for up to twelve hours a day.  I realize that I probably wouldn’t, couldn’t last a week.

Ten years ago, I bought a house in Pittsfield, before I realized that my neighbor was an old mill, that a canal and reservoir that fed water to power the mill ran so close to my windows that I could hear the rushing water at night.  I could likely have heard the mill bell from my window, as did those who inhabited my house 100 years ago, sending them down some path long since grown over to get to work on time.

All this propelled me to put together a book, of historic photos, architectural drawings and maps which give a glimpse into that world.   Enjoy the dream.

 

You can find a copy through Arcadia Publishing.

 

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100 Days…. of Opposition

 

Tax Day Demonstration, Pittsfield MA

Tired of the 100-day review of Donald Trump’s Presidency?  You should be, with one exception.  The drama, ambition and accomplishment in the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency lie not in his record, but in the resistance to this President.

Ever since Franklin Roosevelt pushed through major legislation in his first 100 days in office, newly elected Presidents have had their early record measured against the same 100-day standard.  Donald Trump has called this threshold “ridiculous” and “artificial,” which would probably be an accurate statement except for the fact that he used the same 100-day timetable during his campaign to lay out an action plan portraying his ability to achieve a plan as bold and far-reaching as FDR accomplished.

The country was in a very different place in 1933, well into its third year of economic crisis, following the stock market crash in October 1929.  Unemployment levels moved from 4 million people in 1930 to 15 million by the time Roosevelt took office.  Thousands of banks had failed and industrial production had fallen by half.  The crisis demanded action, and demanded it on a fast timetable.

Roosevelt delivered in a way that re-shaped the nature of how Americans view government, addressing through emergency legislation and executive action all aspects of relief, recovery and reform needed to reverse the direction of the economy.  It was the nature of the crisis that dictated the unprecedented nature of FDR’s first 100 days.

That’s why this 100-day standard makes little sense.  Trump, despite his rhetoric indicating he inherited a mess, actually took over the reins of an economy in recovery, certainly better than the one his predecessor inherited in 2009.

What has been more akin to FDR’s dramatic first 100 days in 2017 has been the unprecedented nature of the opposition to Trump.

First, there are the protests.  They started before Trump took the oath of office and then swelled in the first 24 hours of his Presidency.  There were other demonstrations greeting newly inaugurated Presidents, from the 5000 women who marched before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration demanding the right to vote, to the anti-war protesters at both Nixon inaugurals and the thousands who marched to express their opposition to the election of George W. Bush in 2001.

What was different this time was the size of the demonstrations, not only in Washington DC, but around the nation and in cities in other countries.  Everyone but Trump and his inner circle acknowledge that the women’s march on the day after the inauguration surpassed the crowd attending his inauguration.  Another difference is that the protests continue, against Trump’s efforts to ban Muslims from entry into the U.S., to build a wall on the southern border, to repeal health care, to refuse to release his taxes, to disregard the science of climate change.

Second, despite the control of both the executive and legislative branch by Trump’s party, the opposition has been surprisingly successful in derailing the pledges that the Republicans ran on, most notably the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.  Funding for the border wall is a non-starter, tax reform has been reduced to a public relations one-page set of principles, and there’s no sign of a massive infrastructure program.  Republican party unity did help ensure that all of Trump’s nominees for Cabinet, except for the two who withdrew, were able to pass through the Senate, which also confirmed his nominee for the Supreme Court position, left vacant for over a year when the Republicans refused to grant a hearing for President Obama’s selection.

A third unprecedented focus of the opposition has been the speed with which courts have responded to requests to halt President Trump’s executive orders.  Both of Trump’s executive orders to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. have been thrown out, as has his administration’s threat to withhold federal funding from cities refusing to deputize their local police forces as deportation officers.   One organization – Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, CREW – has filed a lawsuit alleging Trump’s conflicts of interests violate the Constitution and another, American Civil Liberties Union is preparing a second such suit.

Fourth, the reaction to Trump from beyond the borders has been an unprecedented rejection of what he is trying to impose here and abroad.  Not only do people outside the U.S. in the numbers of millions continue to join the protests, but voters in the Netherlands rejected the candidate who looked like Trump, and French voters will likely follow suit, worried about what they are seeing on this side of the Atlantic.  Far from acting as a global superpower, the U.S. is on the receiving end of lectures from world leaders like Theresa May and Angela Merkel on Russia, Justin Trudeau on trade and Xi Jinping on North Korea, all viewing perhaps Trump’s self-proclaimed penchant for unpredictability and flexibility as euphemisms for incompetence and lack of strategy.

Fifth, despite obstacles from the White House and certain Republicans, investigations within the Department of Justice and Congress were launched to look into the role played by the Russian government in helping Donald Trump get elected.  The implications for American democracy of any connection between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian government in that effort necessitates a patient and thorough investigation and compilation of the facts.

Finally, a new, invigorated civic and political activism has sprung up to unprecedented levels.  Across the country, citizens are mobilizing to make their voices heard through town hall meetings where members of Congress are seeing attendance rise tenfold since January 20.  The volume of phone calls to Congress are setting records, reaching 1.5 million calls to the Senate alone.  Ad hoc groups have formed to partner voting districts across the red-blue political divide, to address redistricting that favors Republican candidates, to refuse to shop at businesses owned by or supporting the President and his family, to join voter registration drives.

When FDR set the standard for 100 days of accomplishment by an incoming President, he did so in the face of an acute crisis.  The crisis facing the country now is not any external mess, but is all that the new President stands for.  Addressing that crisis through a sustained opposition has been the real story of the first 100 days.

 

This article originally appeared in History News Network and The Berkshire Eagle.

 

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