What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Identities

The Once-Enslaved Kentuckian Who Became the ‘Potato King of the World’

After His Emancipation, Junius Groves Walked 500 Miles to Kansas Where He Made a Fortune and Built a Community

by Peter Longo
July 8, 2019

Junius Groves started life as an enslaved person in Kentucky. By the time of his death, he would be celebrated, by those fortunate enough to know his story, as an exemplary builder of community, and as the “Potato King” of Kansas and beyond.

Groves was born in 1859 and emancipated by the Civil War. Around 1880, when he was 19, Groves walked from Kentucky to Kansas City, Kansas, with other former slaves at his side. It was a 500-mile walk that …

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Why America’s First Saint Stopped Trying to Convert Her Neighbors to Catholicism

In the Early 19th Century, Elizabeth Seton Concluded That Proselytizing Undermined Social Harmony

by Catherine O’Donnell
July 1, 2019

Elizabeth Seton, for whom hundreds of Catholic parishes and schools are named, was the first native-born American citizen to be made a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Her 1975 canonization was the result of decades of labor by admirers who sought evidence of Seton’s “heroic virtue”—and miracles. Those admirers, who oversaw Seton’s presentation in Rome, also shaped an enduring story about the society in which Seton, who was born in 1774 and died in 1821, lived.

Emphasizing Seton’s courage …

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How Sicilian Merchants in New Orleans Reinvented America’s Diet

In the 1830s, They Brought Lemons, Commercial Dynamism, and a Willingness to Fight Elites

by Justin Nystrom
June 20, 2019

When I started writing a book exploring the crucial contributions that Sicilians had made to New Orleans food culture, I sat down to talk with fabled restaurateur Salvatore “Joe” Segreto. “You’re not going to do one of those “who killa da chief?” histories, are you?,” was the first question he asked me.

Segreto referred to a familiar catcall heard by Italian kids growing up in New Orleans, forged in the bloody aftermath of the assassination of the city’s police Chief …

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The Flamboyant 19th-Century Creole Aristocrat Who Built New Orleans’ First Suburb

Bernard Marigny Is Famous as a Swashbuckling Gambler, but His Real Estate Developments Shaped the City’s Character

by Scott S. Ellis
May 16, 2019

In the New Orleans pantheon of colorful personalities, Bernard Marigny is one of the caricatures: an arch-Creole with a sword in one hand and deck of cards in the other. His persona was said to be that of “swashbuckling gambler, duelist, and playboy.” High living and careless with money, his best-known but apocryphal trait was lighting his cigars with $100 bills. Less remarked upon, but far more significant, were his roles as real estate developer, politician, and slave holder.

Indeed, …

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The Black Scholar Who Gave Up Her Family to Earn Her Ph.D.

In the Early to Mid-1900s, Historian Marion Thompson Wright Had to Contend With the Prefeminist Rules and Culture of Howard University

by Graham Russell Gao Hodges
April 4, 2019

Marion Thompson Wright is best known as the first female African-American to earn a doctorate in history. Her 1940 dissertation, defended at Teachers College at Columbia University—The Education of Negroes in New Jersey, a history of segregated schools in the North—remains relevant today. Wright had a distinguished academic career at Howard University from 1940 until her death in 1962, serving as book review editor for the Journal of Negro Education and creating the university’s student advising program. In 1953, she …

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The Irish-American Social Club Whose Exploits in Their Homeland Sparked a New Understanding of Citizenship

In 1867, the Fenian Brotherhood Was Caught Running Guns to Ireland, Precipitating a Diplomatic Crisis

by Lucy E. Salyer
March 21, 2019

On October 30, 1867, John Warren, a grocer and newspaper man from Charlestown, Massachusetts, entered the dock at Green Street Courthouse in Dublin, Ireland, to stand trial for treason. The Irish attorney general rose to accuse Warren of leading a wicked international conspiracy to overthrow Queen Victoria’s rule in Ireland.

Warren, described by journalists as “squat” and with thinning auburn hair, didn’t look the part of a dangerous revolutionary. But as a member of the Fenian Brotherhood, a transatlantic organization …

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How Americans Learned to Condemn Drunk Driving

In the 1980s, Liberal Activists and Anti-Drug Conservatives Joined Forces to Override a Libertarian Ethos

by Barron H. Lerner
January 17, 2019

At a traffic safety conference in 1980, a Californian named Candy Lightner delivered her first public speech about a 13-year-old freckle-faced girl who had recently been killed by a drunk driver with several previous convictions.

At the conclusion of her talk, she announced, “That girl was my daughter.”

As Lightner later wrote, the press ran out of the auditorium to call their photographers. “Pandemonium ensued,” she recalled.

Recidivist drunk drivers had killed children—and adults—for decades in the United States, often receiving little …

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Frank Capra Oversimplified the Italian-American Story

In His Life and Career, the Sicilian-Born Director Absorbed His Adopted Country’s Ambivalence Toward Italians

By by Stanislao Pugliese
December 6, 2018

Frank Capra, the director of It’s a Wonderful Life, called the film his favorite, and even screened it for his own family every holiday season. The movie hit close to home in another way: Capra was attempting to represent the story of Italian-Americans like himself, who had a complicated path toward assimilation during the first half of the twentieth century.

Francesco Capra was born in 1897 in Bisaquino, near Palermo, Sicily, the youngest of seven children. (“Capra” means goat in Italian; …

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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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