What It Means to Be American
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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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Ideas

The Union Army Regiment That Survived Andersonville

Defeated and Humbled in Battle, the 16th Connecticut Volunteers Gained a Measure of Redemption by Enduring a Year in a Brutal Confederate Stockade

By Lesley J. Gordon
November 1, 2018

More than 40 years after the Civil War ended, machinist George Q. Whitney, formerly a private in the 16th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, helped to dedicate a monument to his state’s prisoners of war. The statue, nicknamed “Andersonville Boy,” was a duplicate; the original had been erected at the site of the former Confederate prison in Andersonville, Georgia in October 1907. Whitney told a crowd assembled in Hartford that, “many of you know nothing of the Men whom I represent, so …

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Places

The South Carolina Monument That Symbolizes Clashing Memories of Slavery

In Charleston, Blacks and Whites Have Viewed the Bronze Likeness of Racist Ideologue John C. Calhoun From Radically Different Angles

By Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle
September 6, 2018

In the center of Charleston, South Carolina, in a verdant green space that plays host to farmers markets, festivals, and sunbathing undergraduates, stands a monument of John C. Calhoun, the antebellum South Carolina statesman who famously called Southern slavery “a positive good.” His bronze likeness rises over 100 feet in the air, squaring off against its symbolic rivals, including the copper-shingled steeple of Emanuel A.M.E. Church, where a white supremacist brutally gunned down nine African-American parishioners in 2015.

In one sense, …

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Places

The Weathered Tobacco Barns and Oyster Shucking Houses of St. Mary’s

In Maryland's Mother County, the Past Endures Amid Rapid Change

By Merideth Taylor
August 30, 2018

In 1634, 27 years after English colonists landed at Jamestown, a group of entrepreneurs and adventurers led by Leonard Calvert, son of the 1st Lord Baltimore, sailed forth on the ships Ark and Dove to establish the Maryland colony.

They named their new capital St. Mary’s City to honor the Virgin Mary. Catholics like the Calverts had experienced religious persecution in England, and soon they issued a proclamation extending freedom of worship to all (Trinitarian) Christians. This then-radical announcement established the …

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Encounters

Inside the Coney Island ‘Freak Show’

Why Were Early-20th-Century Americans So Enthralled by Human Zoos?

Igorrotes, Claire Prentice, freak show, Coney Island

By Claire Prentice
December 19, 2014

A day trip to Coney Island, once the largest amusement park in the United States, led me to the photograph. In the black-and-white image, a group of tribesmen, women, and children squats around a campfire. They’re barefoot and dressed in G-strings and tribal blankets. Several are looking at the camera and laughing. One man is pointing. Another is holding up a rock, as if he is about to throw it.

The photo could have been torn straight from the pages of …

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