What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

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Identities

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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Identities

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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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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Identities

The Sarcastic Civil War Diarist Who Chronicled the Confederacy’s Fall

Raised in Plantation Privilege, Mary Boykin Chesnut Was Unprepared for the Trauma of War and Defeat

By Mary DeCredico
August 6, 2018

“February 18, 1861…. I do not allow myself vain regrets or sad foreboding. This Southern Confederacy must be supported now by calm determination and cool brains. We have risked all, and we must play our best, for the stake is life or death.”

With that entry, Mary Boykin Chesnut began her diary, chronicling the momentous four years that encompassed the American Civil War. Chesnut’s diary is one of the most significant and intimate sources for understanding the Southern Confederacy. Chesnut …

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Ideas

The South Carolina Aristocrat Who Became a Feminist Abolitionist

After Moving to Philadelphia and Joining the Quakers, Angelina Grimké Rededicated Her Life to Fighting for Racial Equality

By Louise W. Knight
July 23, 2018

Angelina Grimké’s future seemed clear the day she entered the world. Born a Southern aristocrat in Charleston, South Carolina in 1805, she was destined to become an enslaver; born female, she was destined to receive little formal education, have no profession, and pursue a life of domestic obscurity. Instead, she broke free. She left the South for Philadelphia in 1829 and by 1837 had become a famous lecturer and published author advocating for the end of slavery and for women’s …

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Ideas

How the Know Nothing Party Turned Nativism into a Political Strategy

In the 1840s and '50s, Secretive Anti-Immigrant Societies Played on National Fears Fed by the Spread of Slavery

By Michael Todd Landis
July 12, 2018

Though the United States is a nation built by immigrants, nativism—the fear of immigrants and the desire to restrict their entry into the country or curtail their rights (or both)—has been a central strain in the national fabric from the beginning. Nativism waxes and wanes with the tides of American culture and politics, with some eras exhibiting more virulent anti-immigrant activism than others.

But few eras have exceeded the 1840s and 1850s, when a ferociously anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, and xenophobic secret …

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Ideas

The Golden State’s Unpopular Pro-Slavery Governor

The First American Executive of California Was a Pioneering Man of the West—and the South

By R. Gregory Nokes
April 19, 2018

Peter Hardeman Burnett had probably the most impressive list of achievements of any leader in the early American West. He served on the supreme court of the Oregon Territory and became the first governor of California.

So why has he been forgotten?

Because sometimes history gets things right. Burnett’s stellar resume could not offset his blatant racism and inept leadership, which have denied him a prominent place in the region’s history.

Burnett is best remembered, if he is remembered at all, for his …

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Places

The “Little Giant” Who Thought That Backing Slavery Would Unite America

Stephen Douglas' Push to Allow Human Chattel in Nebraska Lit a Match to the Civil War

By Graham A. Peck
February 15, 2018

One of the most ambitious attempts to unite America ended up dividing it, and altering it forever.

At the opening of the 33rd Congress on December 5, 1853, Stephen A. Douglas, the short, rotund U.S. Senator from Illinois, planned an ambitious legislative program of national expansion.

“The Little Giant,” as he was known, sought to establish a new territory—Nebraska Territory—fashioned from the immense tract of Indian-occupied land that stretched west to the Rockies from Missouri, and north to Canada. He desired …

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Encounters

How the Forced Removal of the Southeast’s Indians Turned Native Lands into Slave Plantations

"Alabama Fever" Triggered a Takeover by Cotton Planters of America's Oldest Indigenous Region

By Christina Snyder
January 2, 2018

The Old South wasn’t really that old. Plantations appeared in many areas of the Deep South only a few decades before the Civil War.

Before that, the South was Indian country.

The South’s long and rich Indigenous history is unknown to many Americans. But once you look, the signs are everywhere: in Native place names (Alabama, Arkansas, Chattahoochee, Tallahassee, Tennessee); in hundreds of earthen mounds—some half-destroyed, others still towering; and in the Native communities that remain in or near their homelands.

Native …

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Ideas

The Slave Gardener Who Turned the Pecan Into a Cash Crop

A Louisianan Known Only as Antoine Tamed a Wild Tree and Launched an Industry

By Lenny Wells
December 14, 2017

Pecan trees, armored with scaly, gray bark and waving their green leaves in the breeze, grow in neat, uniform rows upon the Southern U.S. landscape and yield more than 300 million pounds of thumb-sized, plump, brown nuts every year. Native to the United States, they’ve become our most successful home-grown tree nut crop. Hazelnuts originated here too, but they come from a shrub, which can be trained into a tree. Almonds come from Asia. Peanuts, which aren’t actually nuts, hail …

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