May 27, 1818 – Birthday of Amelia Jenks Bloomer

On this day in history, Amelia Bloomer was born in Homer, New York.

Amelia Bloomer was an American women’s rights and temperance advocate, who became, however, best-known for her efforts to reform women’s clothing styles.

Bloomer had only a few years of formal education, although at age 17 she became a school teacher. She must have exhibited writing skills, because her husband whom she married at age 22, attorney Dexter Bloomer, encouraged her to write for his New York newspaper, the “Seneca Falls County Courier.”

In 1848, Bloomer attended the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention. The following year, she became editor of the first newspaper for women, “The Lily.” It was published biweekly from 1849 until 1853. Although the newspaper began as a temperance journal, it increasingly extended its mix of contents to include recipes and moralist tracts. Bloomer felt that because women lecturers were considered inappropriate, writing was the best way for women to work for reform.

In her bi-weekly publication The Lily, she wrote:

The costume of women should be suited to her wants and necessities. It should conduce at once to her health, comfort, and usefulness; and, while it should not fail also to conduce to her personal adornment, it should make that end of secondary importance.”

In 1851, New England temperance activist Elizabeth (Libby) Smith Miller started wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankles, like women’s trousers worn in the Middle East and Central Asia, topped by a short dress or skirt and vest. Miller displayed her new clothing to her cousin, temperance activist and suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who found it sensible and becoming, and adopted it immediately. In this garb Stanton visited Bloomer, who began to wear the costume and promote it enthusiastically in her magazine. Articles on the clothing trend were picked up in The New York Tribune. More women wore the fashion which was promptly dubbed The Bloomer Costume or “Bloomers”.

Bloomer remained a suffrage pioneer and writer throughout her life, writing for a wide array of periodicals. Although Bloomer’s work was far less renowned than that of her contemporaries, she made many significant contributions to the women’s movement — her ideas of dress reform and her work in the temperance movement were notable. Moreover, The Lily was a voice for many women reformers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

Among many tributes to her, The Amelia Bloomer Project, part of the Feminist Task Force of the American Library Association’s Social Responsibilities Round Table, creates an annual book list recognizing children’s books with feminist themes published during the award year. You can access their recommendations here.

Book Review of “Blood Done Sign My Name” by Timothy Tyson

This is one of those books that will leave you feeling raw and bruised, but also touched and inspired.

In May, 1970, Henry Marrow, a twenty-three-year-old black veteran living in Oxford, North Carolina, was beaten and killed by three white men after he allegedly said something provocative to a white woman. Timothy Tyson, now a white professor of Afro-American studies but then a ten-year-old boy in Oxford, was profoundly affected by this and other racist incidents of his youth. His memoir gets its name from an old Afro-American gospel song avowing that God’s Lamb had died for blacks too, to write their name in the Book of Life: “Ain’t you glad, ain’t you glad, that the blood done sign my name.”

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Tyson drew his intellectual and emotional inspiration from his father Vernon, one of a long line of Methodist ministers, who had the audacity to claim that all people were God’s children, and that there was no formula for racism in the Bible. The Tysons were kicked out of quite a few parishes for their non-conformity to racist mores.

Tyson makes a number of interesting observations about Southern racism. He contends that the sexual obsessions of white supremacy originated with the practice of white men siring offspring from black female slaves. White men could increase their material worth by this practice. But if white women had offspring from black men, the whole system of bondage would have been threatened. Thus white men played up the sexual threat of black men in order to keep the property system intact. In addition, job scarcity during the Great Depression added another incentive for white males to bruit the threat of black males being around white females.

Tyson’s experiences in the South convinced him that whites would not give up their power and privilege unless forced to do so. He points out many examples of how the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not mean anything on the local level until the advent of widespread violence. White community leaders thought that endless biracial committee meetings and a few basketball nets would appease blacks who still, in the eighties, could still not patronize the same establishments as did whites. But Tyson avers, “the indisputable fact was that whites in Oxford did not even consider altering the racial caste system until rocks began to fly and buildings began to burn.” He challenges “the self-congratulatory popular account” that holds that “Dr. King called on the nation to fully accept its own creed, and the walls came a-tumbling down.” The only disadvantage to this story, he claims, is that it bears no resemblance to what actually happened.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tyson charges that the legacy of white supremacy remains lethal, from the poverty and deficiencies of infrastructure, education, and health care received by blacks to the images of blacks in the media that negatively affect perceptions of both blacks and whites. With so much history of atrocity simply erased in the South (Tyson found that even his own story of Henry Marrow’s murder had pages torn out from it in the public library), the result is that blacks live with the memories, but whites don’t even know about them. And this history is not distant, he reminds us. The boyhood friend who told him “Daddy and Roger and ‘em shot ‘em a nigger” is barely middle-aged. Tyson feels it is impossible to transcend that history without confronting it. Blacks need to create a new sense of self, and whites need to recognize that, as Dr. King wrote, we are “caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Tyson’s history of vicious white racism in the South, from beheading blacks who tried to escape slavery, to the killing of a terrified, pleading boy who had the temerity to look at a white woman, will make you weep. And yet, if we are ever to walk a mile in a black man’s shoes, as Tim’s father used to advocate as a mind exercise, we must read such histories, and share them, and struggle to overcome their perfidious repercussions. Or as Robert Kennedy asked, “suppose God is black? What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?”

Rating: 5/5

Published in hardback by Crown Books, 2004; in paperback by Broadway Books, 2005

May 23, 1788 – South Carolina Joins the Union As the 8th State

On this day in history, South Carolina ratified the U.S. Constitution, becoming the eighth state to enter the American Union. The original colony, named Carolina after King Charles I, had been divided in 1710 into South Carolina and North Carolina.

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Slave owners had more control over the state government of South Carolina than of any other state, and in 1820, the legislature ended personal manumissions, requiring all slaveholders to gain individual permission from the legislature before freeing even family members.

Also in the 1820s, South Carolinian John C. Calhoun developed the theory of nullification, by which a state could reject any federal law it considered to be a violation of its rights.

Still, it wasn’t enough. South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860, the first of the Southern states to do so. Basically, South Carolina was incensed over the threat to the institution of slavery, according to its Declaration of Secession:

…the non-slaveholding States … have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of Slavery; they have permitted the open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”

You can read the entire Declaration by South Carolina here.

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After the end of the Civil War and the brief period of Reconstruction in which the North tried to enforce black rights, South Carolina once again renewed the effort to strip blacks of their freedom. The federal Civil Rights laws of the 1960s finally but only theoretically ended segregation and protected the voting rights of African Americans. South Carolina is among the group of states attempting to take advantage of the Supreme Court decision striking down the Voting Rights Act.

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Among the famous citizens hailing from South Carolina, one of the best known political figures is Strom Thurmond, who, in 1954, became the first US senator elected by write-in vote. Thurmond famously opposed civil rights for African Americans, stating in 1948:

… all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.”

In opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957, he conducted the longest filibuster ever by a lone senator, at 24 hours and 18 minutes in length, nonstop. In the 1960s, he opposed the civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 to end segregation and enforce the constitutional rights of African-American citizens, including suffrage.

Six months after Thurmond died in 2003, his mixed-race, grown daughter Essie Mae Washington-Williams revealed that he was her father.

Sen. Strom Thurmond, Republican from South Carolina

Sen. Strom Thurmond, Republican from South Carolina

May 21, 1969 – Warren E. Burger Nominated As Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

On this day in history, President Richard Nixon nominated Warren Burger to be the 15th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Nixon was hoping to turn back the “activist tide” of the Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren. Burger was known as a Nixon supporter, a critic of Chief Justice Warren, and an advocate of a strict constructionist reading of the Constitution. Nevertheless, such a philosophy did not always coincide with conservative interests, as when Burger led the court in the unanimous decision United States v. Nixon (418 U.S. 683, 1974), holding (in the matter resulting from the Watergate scandal) that no person, not even the president of the United States, can be completely above the law, nor use executive privilege as an excuse to withhold evidence that is “demonstrably relevant in a criminal trial.”

Justice Warren E. Burger

Justice Warren E. Burger

Justice Burger retired on September 26, 1986, in part to lead the campaign to mark the 1987 bicentennial of the United States Constitution. He had served longer than any other Chief Justice appointed in the 20th century.

He did not hide from the limelight thereafter however. Most notably, during an interview by Charlayne Hunter-Gault on “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” (PBS Television Broadcast, December 16, 1991), Justice Burger was asked how he thought the Bill of Rights could be better. He responded:

If I were writing the Bill of Rights now there wouldn’t be any such thing as the Second Amendment, that a well regulated militia being necessary for the defense of the state, that people (have the) right to bear arms. This has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud – I repeat the word fraud – on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my life time.”

As legal scholar Cass Sunstein reported reported, Justice Burger further declared in a speech in 1992: ” . . . the Second Amendment doesn’t guarantee the right to have firearms at all.” In his view, the purpose of the Second Amendment was “to ensure that the ‘state armies’–‘the militia’–would be maintained for the defense of the state. “

Sunstein adds that far from making a reckless statement, “Burger meant to describe what he saw as a clear consensus within the culture of informed lawyers and judges–a conclusion that was so widely taken for granted that it seemed to him to be a fact, and not an opinion at all.”

Alas, times have changed. As law professor Mark Tushnet wrote in 2007 (Out of Range, Oxford University Press), the new dispute over the Second Amendment can be understood as part of the “culture wars” now dividing the country. The pro gun-rights movement is trying to use the imprimatur of the Constitution to bolster its position, and has achieved enormous success, even within the courts.

But the use of the Second Amendment can certainly be seen as a stretch, as Burger maintained. Sunstein writes:

. . . to explore the original understanding of the Second Amendment is to enter an altogether different nation, whose central preoccupations were not at all like our own. In the founding era, many people were fearful of a standing army, and that fear was closely entangled with their support for the right to keep and bear arms . . . as a way of protecting state militias and thus checking the national government.”

Sunstein observes that state militias no longer serve anything like their old role:

As some of the founders hoped and others feared, national defense is undertaken by a professional military, which is the equivalent of a standing army. And if the national government is really determined to oppress us, we won’t be much helped by pistols and rifles.”

“The individual right to have guns,” writes Sunstein … “is best taken as a contemporary creation and a reflection of current fears, not as a reading of the civic-centered founding debates.”

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We may hear more from Burger on the subject after 2026, when his papers, donated to the College of William and Mary, will be open to the public. In the meantime, we are assured of hearing more about the ways in which the Second Amendment “guarantees” the right to obtain the means to wreak havoc and death on one’s fellow citizens.

May 19, 1897 – Oscar Wilde Released From Prison

On this day in history, the Irish author and poet Oscar Wilde was released from jail after serving two years of hard labor. Wilde was the author of such important works as “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1890) and “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895).

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

Wilde had been arrested for “gross indecency” under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Wilde pleaded not guilty, but on May 25, 1895 was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to the maximum allowed: two years of hard labour.

Wilde was imprisoned first in Pentonville Prison and then Wandsworth Prison in London. Inmates followed a regimen of “hard labour, hard fare and a hard bed,” which wore very harshly on Wilde. His health declined sharply, and in November he collapsed during chapel from illness and hunger. His right ear drum was ruptured in the fall, an injury that later contributed to his death.

Richard B. Haldane, the Liberal MP and reformer, got him transferred in November to Reading Gaol, 30 miles west of London. Haldane eventually also was able to procure for Wilde access to books and writing materials. Between January and March 1897 Wilde wrote a 50,000-word letter to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, which he was not allowed to send, but was permitted to take with him upon release. When he got out, he gave the manuscript to another lover, Robert Ross and it was eventually partially published as De Profundis in 1905. It was not completely published until 1962.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

Wilde was released on this day in history, and left England for the continent, to spend his last three years in impoverished exile. He wrote two long letters to the British newspaper, “The Daily Chronicle,” describing the brutal conditions of English prisons and advocating penal reform.

Wilde reunited with both Ross and Douglas, but his wife Constance refused to meet with him or to let him see their sons.

Wilde’s final address was a dingy hotel in Paris where he suffered from poverty, depression, and a sense of hopelessness. Wilde died of cerebral meningitis on November 30, 1900 with Ross at his bedside. Wilde’s physicians reported that the condition stemmed from an old suppuration of the right ear, which he had sustained in prison.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

In 1954, on the centenary of Wilde’s birth, when a plaque was erected by the London County Council on him former home, Wilde’s old friend the playwright Laurence Housman (and sibling of poet A.E. Housman) wrote:

His unhappy fate has done the world a signal service in defeating the blind obscurantists; he has made people think. Far more people of intelligence think differently today because of him. And when his Ballad of Reading Gaol, he not only gave the world a beautiful poem, but a much needed lesson in good will, pity, pardon and understanding of the down-and-out.”

May 17, 1954 – The U.S. Supreme Court Decides Brown v. Board of Education

On May 17, 1954 the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Brown v. Board of Education (347 U.S. 483), declaring state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional.

Even sixty years later, according to the Economic Policy Bureau, residential segregation, private school vouchers, and other methods are still employed to get around the ruling of the Courts.

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May 14, 1772 – Lord Mansfield in England Rules Slavery Unsupported by Common Law

On this day in history, Lord Mansfield of the King’s Bench in England issued a ruling in the case of Somerset v. Stewart (98 ER 499, 1772) finding that slavery was unsupported by the common law in England and Wales.

James Somerset, a slave, was purchased by Charles Stewart, an English customs officer, when Stewart was in Boston. Stewart brought Somerset with him when he returned to England in 1769, but Somerset escaped. Stewart had him recaptured and imprisoned on a ship that was sailing for Jamaica, directing that Somerset be sold for labor upon his arrival.

Somerset’s three godparents from his baptism as a Christian in England made an application before the Court of King’s Bench for a writ of habeas corpus. The ship’s captain complied, and the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield, ordered a hearing for the following January. As arguments were being prepared, the case attracted a good deal of attention in the press, and money was donated to advocates on both sides. Granville Sharp, an abolitionist layman who continually sought test cases against the legal justifications for slavery, was Somerset’s main backer.

Granville Sharp, famous English abolitionist

Granville Sharp, famous English abolitionist

During the case, five advocates appeared for Somerset, speaking at three hearings between February and May. Somerset’s advocates argued that while colonial laws might permit slavery, neither the common law of England nor any law made by Parliament recognized the existence of slavery. They also invoked contract law to argue that English contract law did not allow for any person to enslave himself, nor could any contract be binding without the person’s consent.

The two lawyers for Charles Stewart maintained that the sanctity of property was paramount and that it would be dangerous to free all the black people in England, who numbered at the time approximately 15,000.

After much deliberation, Lord Mansfield decreed:

The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law [statute], which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”

While Lord Mansfield narrowly limited his judgment to the issue of whether a person, regardless of being a slave, could be removed from England against his will, his pronouncement on the place of slavery in common law and natural law (versus positive law) marked a significant milestone in the campaign to abolish slavery throughout the world.

Despite the ruling, escaped slaves continued to be recaptured in England, and slaves continued to be bought and sold in the British Isles. Slavery continued in various parts of the British Empire until it was abolished by the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act.

Chief Justice William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield

Chief Justice William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield

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