What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Identities

The Black Nurses Who Were Forced to Care for German Prisoners of War

Prohibited From Tending to White GIs, the Women Felt Betrayed by the Country They Sought to Serve

By Alexis Clark
May 14, 2018

On the summer afternoon in 1944 that 23-year-old Elinor Powell walked into the Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Phoenix, it never occurred to her that she would be refused service. She was, after all, an officer in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, serving her country during wartime, and she had grown up in a predominantly white, upwardly mobile Boston suburb that didn’t subject her family to discrimination.

But the waiter who turned Elinor away wasn’t moved by her patriotism. …

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How Jack Benny Revolutionized Radio by Being the Butt of His Own Jokes

The Lovable Schlemiel Forged an Intimate Bond With Audiences While Creating a Template for Situational Comedy

By Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley
May 7, 2018

Of all the 20th century’s great comics and clowns, none did more than Jack Benny to update vaudevillian shtick into a far more intimate and lucrative media form: broadcast radio comedy. Today’s podcasters, and even some strains of stand-up comedy, owe a debt to this mass-communication comic master.

Born Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago, on Valentine’s Day, 1894, Benny was the son of Polish-Lithuanian immigrant parents who dreamed that their child would become a concert violinist. Benny had other ideas. After launching …

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How America Invented ‘Young Adult’ Fiction for a New Kind of Teenager

In the '60s and '70s, Books Like The Outsiders and The Chocolate War Told Stories That Dealt With Complex Emotions and Social Realities

By Michael Cart
May 3, 2018

Like jazz, the Broadway musical, and the foot-long hot dog, young adult literature is an American gift to the world, an innovative, groundbreaking genre that I’ve been following closely for more than 30 years. Targeted at readers 12 to 18 years old, it sprang into being near the end of the turbulent decade of the 1960s—in 1967, to be specific, a year that saw the publication of two seminal novels for young readers: S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Robert …

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The Revolutionary War Couple Who Shed Their British Loyalty—One Letter at a Time

Henry and Lucy Knox Sacrificed Family, Home, and Beliefs to Adopt Their New American Identity

By Phillip Hamilton
April 16, 2018

In late 1783, General Henry Knox, formerly a bookseller from Boston who had become a trusted military subordinate to George Washington, wrote the first draft of an address to be presented to the commander-in-chief by his officers. Their Revolution won, the Continental Army’s leaders wanted to express their heartfelt gratitude to the general, “under whose auspices,” as Knox wrote, “the Army have been led to glory and victory, and America to Freedom and Independence.” Young Knox also urged his comrades …

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How UCLA Helped Break the Color Barrier in College Athletics

Jackie Robinson and Tom Bradley Were Among Sports Stars Who Proved That Integration Made Schools More Competitive

By James W. Johnson
April 12, 2018

The arrival of five athletes, all African American, on the UCLA campus in the late 1930s would prove to be a moment of destiny, not just for college sports but for the United States itself.

These five men could have been called the original Fabulous Five. And that designation was no exaggeration, because they went on to change the cultures of professional athletics, entertainment, the civil rights movement, and politics.

The athletes who played together in the 1939 school year were: …

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Why an American Woman Who Killed Indians Became Memorialized as the First Female Public Statue

Hannah Duston Was Used as a National Symbol of Innocence, Valor, and Patriotism to Justify Westward Expansion

By Barbara Cutter
April 9, 2018

On a small island north of Concord, New Hampshire, stands a 25-foot-tall granite statue of Hannah Duston, an English colonist taken captive by Native Americans in 1697, during King William’s War. Erected in 1874, the statue bears close resemblance to contemporary depictions of Columbia, the popular “goddess of liberty” and female allegorical symbol of the nation, except for what she holds in her hands: in one, a tomahawk; in the other, a fistful of human scalps.

Though she’s all but forgotten …

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The German-American Family Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

In Creating an Icon, Washington Roebling and His Kin Realized Dreams That Europe Never Could Fulfill

By Erica Wagner
April 5, 2018

The Brooklyn Bridge was truly an American project embodying a certain American ideal. And people celebrated that fact from the start.

On May 24, 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge—after 14 years of construction—was opened at last. The mayor of Brooklyn, Seth Low, had declared the day a public holiday in his city; on the New York side, there was a “strong expression of sentiment” in favor of closing the Stock Exchange early. The president of the United States, Chester A. Arthur, along …

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How the U.S. Military Brought Soul Food to the World

After Serving Overseas, Black Servicemen Opened Joints That Dished up Chitlins, Cornbread, and Fried Chicken

By Adrian Miller
April 2, 2018

Soul food ambassadors: probably not who comes to mind when you think of the African Americans who have served overseas in the U.S. armed forces. Yet no other group of people—neither athletes, nor entertainers—are more responsible for spreading the complex flavors of soul food.

As the United States flexed its military muscles during the 20th century, black G.I.s were thrust into contact with epicureans abroad. And so they taught the world about delicacies like American-style barbecue, chitterlings, and fried chicken. …

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How Baseball Got Its Groove Back in the Turbulent 1960s

New Franchises, Colorful Characters, and the Miracle Mets Gave Life to a Sport Grown Stodgy

By Paul Hensler
March 29, 2018

When examining American history of the late 1960s, one is often tempted to gravitate toward the foreign and domestic strife fostered by the war in Vietnam, the ongoing struggle for civil rights, or the frenetic cultural shifts in a country swept up by a tide of youthful rebellion. But we shouldn’t forget baseball, as it endured its own radical transformation during the end of that tumultuous decade.

Disrupted by the reverberations of the Tet Offensive, assassins’ bullets, and race riots, the …

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The Runner Who Helped Irish Americans Lose Their Hyphen

My Ancestor, "Bricklayer Bill" Kennedy, Won the 1917 Boston Marathon Wrapped in the U.S. Flag

By Patrick L. Kennedy
March 26, 2018

When I was a kid, my Dad would take me to Heartbreak Hill, rain or shine, to watch the Boston Marathon. For our family, the race held special meaning, because our “Uncle Bill”—William J. Kennedy, my paternal grandfather’s uncle—had won the event in 1917.

Though he had been dead for eight years by the time I was born, we still cherished the legend of “Bricklayer Bill,” as he was known. The Kennedys had plied the mason’s trade since at least …

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