What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Identities

There Is a Real Bedford Falls—It’s My Upstate New York Town

An Uncanny Physical Resemblance and a Frank Capra Visit Connect Seneca Falls to His Holiday Classic

By Frances T. Barbieri
December 6, 2018

Bedford Falls, the town that is the real star of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, is a fictional place. But it closely resembles a real town.

I live there.

The evidence is strong, if circumstantial, that Seneca Falls, New York—where I’m executive director of the historical society—provided the basis for Bedford Falls. Our town and Frank Capra’s mythical town share geography, appearance, and stories in ways that are uncanny, and reveal how thin the line can be between matter and myth.

Both …

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The Voodoo Priestess Whose Celebrity Foretold America’s Future

Marie Laveau, the Self-Invented New Orleans Prophetess, Blurred the Sacred and Profane While Presiding Over a Multiracial Following 

By Adrian Shirk
November 28, 2018

Any tourist who rolls into New Orleans’s French Quarter eventually finds themselves standing before a Bourbon Street botanica called Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo. It’s a small shop, and the front window is cluttered with the materials of a spirit altar: candy, bones, saint figurines, jewelry, sugar skulls, and a small porcelain statuette of the woman in blue herself, wearing her signature orange tignon: Marie Laveau.

Wander inside the shop, and you’ll find every surface packed with totems, oils, potions, pendants, …

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The Women Who Built Mayo Clinic

After a Tornado Wrecked a Minnesota Town, Franciscan Nuns and Physicians, Anesthesiologists and Social Workers Helped Create a Pathbreaking Medical Center

By Virginia Wright-Peterson
November 26, 2018

Several years ago, a few colleagues and I discovered a well-kept secret about Mayo Clinic, where we all worked.

We had decided to create a Jeopardy game for Women’s History Month based on women who were involved in the early years of the physician’s practice that evolved into our internationally renowned academic medical center. I offered to visit the clinic’s historical archive, expecting to glean a few little-known facts about the handful of women who were staples of the organization’s 150-year-old …

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The Many Conflicting Identities of the Statue of Liberty

Eastern and Western, Feminine and Masculine, Motherly Yet Ready for War, the Sculpture Holds a Multitude of Meanings

By Francesca Lidia Viano
November 5, 2018

The Statue of Liberty’s creator, the Alsatian artist Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, grew up in a world apart from the “huddled masses” who arrived in the New World, sailing toward her beacon. Born in 1834, into a rich and prestigious family in Colmar in northeastern France, his ancestors were doctors, pharmacists and bureaucrats who never felt the need to leave their homeland in search of opportunity. And yet he managed to capture something ineffable about the America he visited in 1871, which—along …

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How African American Spirituals Moved From Cotton Fields to Concert Halls

After the Civil War, Touring Groups of Black College Singers Popularized Slavery-Era Songs, Giving Rise to a New Musical Genre

By Sandra Jean Graham
October 29, 2018

“Swing low, sweet chariot….” These words are familiar to many Americans, who might sing them in worship, in Sunday school, around campfires, in school, and in community choruses. But the black singers responsible for introducing this song, and hundreds of other slave spirituals, to white America after the Civil War remain underrecognized almost 150 years later.

Spirituals are sacred songs composed anonymously by black Americans. Before the Civil War they were sung in the privacy of black spaces—the brush arbor, the …

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Why Major League Baseball Tried to Rein In Babe Ruth

The Sultan of Swat Saved a Discredited Game, But the Sport's Establishment Sought to Tame Its Headstrong Superstar

By Edmund F. Wehrle
October 22, 2018

Babe Ruth was baseball’s greatest hero. So why did the national pastime’s establishment turn against him?

The answer lies in the untold story of Ruth’s challenge to the authorities ruling baseball—a story that defies deeply held American myths about upward mobility and classless democracy.

Today, Ruth is most remembered as the benchmark for excellence. To be known as “the Babe Ruth of…” is to say that you are the dominant figure in some enterprise.

It also connotes popularity. As a baseball …

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The Savvy Press Agent Who Invented Buffalo Bill

"Arizona John" Burke Perfected the Art of Hype That Converted a Bison Hunter Into a Symbol of National Character

By Joe Dobrow
October 18, 2018

To appreciate the wonder and luster of a star in the sky, one must look off to its side—“averted vision,” it is called.

So it was in the late 19th century with the rising star of republics—the United States—and with the man who, more than any other, came to epitomize our nation’s drive, character, promotional flair, and obsession with celebrity: William F. Cody.

In the second half of the century, Cody, also known as “Buffalo Bill,” achieved a measure of renown in …

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The Black Freedom Colonies of Appalachia Where Former Slaves ‘Could Speak Their Minds’

Though Their Stories Are Still Overlooked, African Americans in Mountain Communities Like Liberia, South Carolina Are Emerging From History

By John M. Coggeshall
October 4, 2018

Beneath the brush on the sloping hillside facing the Blue Ridge Mountains in upper Pickens County, South Carolina, lay a hand-carved soapstone tombstone bearing a simple inscription: Chanie Kimp/Died/Aug. 6, 1884/Age 60 ye. Near that grave is another, marked by a white metal funeral home marker, with a barely legible card: James Kemp/Died July 19, 1938. These graves and dozens of others like them, just rediscovered in 2007, lie in the old cemetery of Soapstone Baptist Church, founded by newly …

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The Notorious, Mixed-Race New Orleans Madam Who Turned Her Identity Into a Brand

By Repackaging the Myths of the Tragic Octoroon and the Self-Made Woman, Lulu White Crafted a Persona That Haunts Beyoncé's "Formation"

By Emily Epstein Landau
October 1, 2018

In 2016, music and pop-culture idol Beyoncé released the album Lemonade to rapturous reviews. As a historian of New Orleans, I was especially intrigued by the video for one of the songs on the album, “Formation.” The video includes iconic images of the city: Katrina flood waters and post-flood graffiti; “second-lines”; marching bands; crawfish eating; and even a dancing “Mardi Gras Indian.” As we move through various neighborhoods, we visit a church service, a St. Charles Avenue mansion, and, in …

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Why the Enigmatic ‘Turks’ of South Carolina Still Struggle to Belong in America

For Generations, a Mysterious Ethnic Group Was Shunned, but New Research Sheds Light on Its Revolutionary War Origins

By Glen Browder and Terri Ann Ognibene
September 24, 2018

Sumter County is located in South Carolina’s midlands, about an hour and a half from the Atlantic coastline in one direction and from the Blue Ridge Mountains in the other. Named after General Thomas Sumter, the “Fighting Gamecock” of Revolutionary War fame, it’s a place like many in the historic Black Belt, the stretch of former slave-holding plantations that extends from Texas to Delaware. Sumter County has also been the traditional home to an intriguing community of dark-skinned people known …

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