May 8, 1942 – Poston Internment Camp for Japanese Opens in Arizona

Throughout American history, some citizens have had more rights and privileges than others.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, fear and prejudice towards the Japanese reached a fever pitch. These attitudes extended to both citizens and non-citizens of Japanese descent living in the United States.

In 1942 Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Under the terms of the Order, approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent living in the US (of whom 70,000 were American citizens) were removed from their homes and placed in internment camps. The US justified its action by claiming that there was a danger of those of Japanese descent spying for the Japanese. However more than two thirds of those interned were American citizens and half of them were children. None had ever shown evidence of disloyalty.

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The internees were transported to one of ten relocation centers in California, Utah, Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, and Wyoming for up to 4 years, without due process of law or any factual basis, in bleak, remote camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Families were crammed into 20- by 25-foot rooms and forced to use communal bathrooms. No razors, scissors, or radios were allowed. Children attended War Relocation Authority schools.

The Poston Internment Camp, located in Yuma County (now in La Paz County) of southwestern Arizona, was the largest (in terms of area) of the ten American concentration camps operated by the War Relocation Authority during World War II.

The site was composed of three separate camps arranged in a chain from north to south at a distance of three miles from each other. The Colorado River was approximately 3 miles to the west, outside of the camp perimeter.

Poston was built on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, over the objections of the Tribal Council, who refused to be a part of doing to others what had been done to their tribe. The U.S. Government, however, had no qualms about abusing two minorities for the price of one.

Frank Mastropolo, writing for ABC News about the documentary, “Passing Poston: An American Story,” explains that Poston was built on the Colorado River Indian Reservation for a specific reason: Japanese detainees were brought to the desolate location to provide free, forced labor for the American government.

As the filmmakers observed:

The Japanese were ordered to build the infrastructure — schools, dams, canals and farms — so the U.S. government could consolidate scattered American Indian tribes from smaller reservations in one place after the war.”

The combined peak population of the Poston camps was over 17,000, made up of internees mostly from Southern California. At the time Poston was the third largest “city” in Arizona. It was built by Del Webb, who would later become famous building Sun City, Arizona and other retirement communities. The Poston facility was named after Charles Debrille Poston, a government engineer who established the Colorado River Reservation in 1865 and planned an irrigation system to serve the needs of the Indian people who would live there.

Living quarters of evacuees of Japanese ancestry at this War Relocation Authority center as seen from the top of water tower facing south west in Poston, Arizona on June 1, 1942. (Photo: National Archives)

A single fence surrounded all three camps, and the site was so remote that authorities considered it unnecessary to build guard towers. The thousands of internees and staff passed through the barbed-wire perimeter at Poston I, which was where the main administration center was located. (Sounds reminiscent of Auschwitz…)

Del Webb housing for rich white people in Florida looks a little more upscale than the barracks for the Japanese in Poston

Mastropolo explains:

In the film, internees describe the backbreaking work they performed to accomplish the task. When the Japanese were released in 1945, the government carried out its plan to settle the camps with American Indian tribes from the Southwest.

Colonists, as the government referred to them, from the Hopi and Navajo tribes, as well as other tribes living along the Colorado River, moved into the barracks built for the Japanese detainees.”

Meanwhile, as Mastropolo asks by way of conclusion:

But was the suffering worth it for America? By the end of the war, only 10 people had been convicted of spying for Japan.

And all of them were white.”

May 1, 1845 – Publication of “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” an Autobiography

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey on approximately February 14, 1818 (he did not know the exact date, but chose this one).

As the Oxford African American Studies Center tells the story:

Despite his situation, Frederick managed to learn to read and write, sometimes by bribing white boys into teaching him in exchange for bits of bread. At the age of about twelve, he acquired a copy of the Columbian Orator, a book of famous speeches that formed the basis for his later skills as an outstanding public lecturer. After he gained basic literacy, Frederick began to reach out to others, assisting his fellow slaves to read and operating a forbidden Sunday school. As he gained more knowledge of the world at large, he could no longer passively submit to a life of slavery. In September 1838, he borrowed the identification papers of a free black sailor and boarded a train for the North. Locating in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he took the name Frederick Douglass, after a character in Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem, ‘The Lady in the Lake.’”

Frederick Douglass as a young man

Frederick Douglass as a young man

Within a few years Douglass gained fame as an abolitionist, author, and orator. On this date in history, he published his first memoir detailing his time as a slave. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass consists of eleven chapters, and is considered to be one of the most influential pieces of literature to fuel the abolitionist movement of the early 19th century in the United States. Within four months of publication, five thousand copies were sold; by 1860, almost 30,000 copies were sold.

After publication, Douglass left Lynn, Massachusetts and sailed to England and Ireland for two years in fear of being recaptured by his owner in the United States. While abroad, he gained supporters who paid $710.96 to purchase his emancipation from his legal owner. He also gained insight into the uniquely American character of racism:

Eleven days and a half gone and I have crossed three thousand miles of the perilous deep. Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle [Ireland]. I breathe, and lo! the chattel [slave] becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab—I am seated beside white people—I reach the hotel—I enter the same door—I am shown into the same parlour—I dine at the same table—and no one is offended… I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, ‘We don’t allow niggers in here!

After returning to the U.S. in 1847, Douglass started publishing an abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, from the basement of the Memorial AME Zion Church in Rochester, New York. The North Star’s motto was “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.” The AME Church and North Star vigorously opposed the mostly white American Colonization Society and its proposal to send blacks back to Africa.

Douglass circa 1847–52, around his early 30s

Douglass also traveled throughout the United States and Britain lecturing on civil rights and social justice topics, including women’s suffrage. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Douglass was twice invited to the White House to see President Abraham Lincoln, and then acted as a recruiter for African American troops.

After Lincoln’s assassination, a bronze statue was commissioned featuring President Abraham Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation in his right hand and holding his left hand over the head of a liberated slave kneeling at his feet. It was dedicated in 1876 on the 11th anniversary of Lincoln’s death. Frederick Douglass delivered the keynote address to President Ulysses S. Grant and more than 25,000 people in attendance. After Douglass spoke, he received a standing ovation, as well as a gift from Mary Todd Lincoln of Lincoln’s favorite walking stick.

Frederick Douglass in later life

Frederick Douglass in later life

Following the war, Douglass continued speaking, writing, advising presidents, and encouraging civil rights movements. Douglass died of a heart attack at Cedar Hill on February 20, 1895, having just returned from a rally for women’s suffrage. He was buried in Rochester, NY, where many members of his family still lived.

Douglass’s three autobiographies are still read and respected: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892). His famous speeches make him one of the most quoted men of the nineteenth century.

There are many resources on the life and thought of Frederick Douglass. Lincoln fans can combine the two interests in the book The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics by James Oakes.

April 28, 1993 – Secretary of Defense Les Aspin Issues Directive Allowing Women to Fly Fighter Aircraft in Combat

Leslie Aspin Jr. (1938 – 1995) served as a United States Representative from Wisconsin from 1971 to 1993, and as the United States Secretary of Defense under President Bill Clinton from January 21, 1993 to February 3, 1994.

Aspin had an interest in defense matters, and by 1985 when he became chairman of the Armed Services Committee, he was recognized as a leading defense authority.

Les Aspin, official Department of Defense photo

He was a controversial figure even in his own party however. In 1987 he supported the Reagan administration’s policies on the MX missile and aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. He again broke with many Democrats in January 1991 when he issued a paper supporting the Bush administration’s intention to use military force to drive the Iraqis from Kuwait. The accuracy of his prediction that the United States could win a quick military victory with light casualties added to his reputation as a military expert.

On April 28 1993, this day in history, Aspin announced a revised policy on the assignment of women in the armed forces: The services were to allow women to compete for assignments in combat aircraft; the Navy was to open additional ships to women and draft a proposal for Congress to remove existing legislative barriers to the assignment of women to combat vessels; and the Army and Marine Corps were to look for opportunities for women to serve in such components as field artillery and air defense.

Within three days Major Jackie Parker became the first female fighter pilot when she transferred from the Air Force to the 138th Fighter Squadron, a unit of the 174th Attack Wing of the New York Air Guard.

Major Jackie Parker

Her career did not go well, however. She was accused on inappropriate behavior toward her male colleagues and incompetency in the air. She in turn accused other members of her unit of sexual misconduct and gender discrimination. The New York Times reported that after an investigation of charges, two of her former commanding officers at the 174th Tactical Fighter Wing, based in Syracuse, were relieved of duty.

April 25, 1915 – WWI Allied Troops Land in Gallipoli

One of the best-known battles of World War One was the Gallipoli Campaign, which resulted in approximately 250,000 casualties on each side.

Early in the war, Britain assumed that the Ottoman Empire did not pose a significant military threat, and therefore could be ignored until the European portion of the war was finished.  But the war in France quickly ground to a stalemate as both sides erected defensive lines of multiple trenches stretching from Switzerland to the North Sea.  The British could not see a way through without coming from Germany’s rear.  The British Secretary to the War Council, Maurice Hankey, articulated the subsequent British policy that “Germany can perhaps be struck most effectively, and with the most lasting results on the peace of the world through her allies, and particularly through Turkey.”

gallipoli1

Turkey was thought to be particularly vulnerable because its capital and only really large city, Istanbul, lay directly on the Sea of Marmara, an offshoot of the Mediterranean. The British reasoned that if they could get a few of their large battleships into the Sea of Marmara, they could obliterate the city in a few days. British battleships were armed with guns that fired shells 15 inches in diameter and weighed about 2000 pounds each.

A major problem was that the entrance to the Sea of Marmara from the Mediterranean was the 38-mile-long strait, the Dardanelles, which is no more than 4 miles wide and less than one mile wide in spots and which had been heavily mined by the Turks. Moreover, the forbidding heights of the Gallipoli Peninsula overlook the strait. The British battleships could not get through the Dardanelles without removing the mines, and British minesweepers were vulnerable to Turkish artillery fortified on the heights of Gallipoli. Thus it was necessary to mount a land based attack on the Turkish army that was entrenched on the heights.

Winston Churchill, Lord of the Admiralty, tried to argue for a combined attack by the army and navy; a purely naval attack would merely provide the Turkish artillery with an opportunity to make literal the concept of “turkey shoot.” But the War Minister, Lord Kitchener, declined to provide any troops for Churchill’s navy; he felt they were needed in Europe. Thus Churchill was forced to do his best with the navy, and the inevitable disaster ensued.

At dawn on this day in history, April 25, 1915, Allied troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula. General Sir Ian Hamilton, commanding the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, decided to make two landings, placing the British 29th Division at Cape Helles and the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) north of Gaba Tepe in an area later dubbed Anzac Cove. The troops landed on the beaches below the entrenched Turks on the heights, but were never able to scale the cliffs. More than 16,000 Anzacs died trying to break out of the beachhead.

ANZAC charge at Gallipoli

As the UK Imperial War Museum reports:

Trench warfare quickly took hold, mirroring the fighting of the Western Front. Casualties mounted heavily and in the summer heat conditions rapidly deteriorated. Sickness was rampant, food quickly became inedible and there were vast swarms of black corpse flies. In August a new assault was launched north of Anzac Cove. This attack, along with a fresh landing at Suvla Bay, quickly failed and stalemate returned.”

 

A view of ‘V’ Beach, Cape Helles, Gallipoli, taken from SS River Clyde, via UK Imperial War Museum

On November 22, 1915, the British decided to cut their losses and evacuate the troops. Planning moved quickly and efficiently. The evacuation began on December 15, with 36,000 troops withdrawn over the following five nights. The last party left in the early hours of December 20 from Suvla Bay. British and French forces remained at Cape Helles (the rocky headland at the southwesternmost tip of the Gallipoli peninsula), until January 8-9, 1916.

Gallipoli had been a costly failure for the Allies: 44,000 soldiers died trying to wrest the peninsula from the Ottomans. Among the dead were 2779 New Zealanders – about a sixth of those who fought on the peninsula. Victory came at a high price for the Ottoman Empire, which lost 87,000 men during the campaign.

As The History Channel online observes:

The invasion had been scuttled by incompetence and hesitancy by military commanders, but, fairly or unfairly, Churchill was the scapegoat. The Gallipoli disaster threw the government into crisis, and the Liberal prime minister was forced to bring the opposition Conservatives into a coalition government. As part of their agreement to share power, the Conservatives wanted Churchill, a renegade politician who had bolted their party a decade earlier, out from the Admiralty. In May 1915, Churchill was demoted to an obscure cabinet post.”

Historian Warren Dockter noted in the UK Telegraph:

. . . it is worth remembering that Churchill was only the primary architect of the naval aspects of the operation. The beach landing strategy came from Lord Kitchener and Ian Hamilton. There were strategic benefits elsewhere from keeping the Ottoman Army occupied at Gallipoli. For instance, the Turks were never able to mount a successful attack on the Suez Canal. More importantly, there were long-term benefits as well. The campaign highlighted the weaknesses of inter-service and international cooperation in 1915, teaching Churchill and others valuable lessons in time for the Second World War.

Of course, some of the blame must be laid at Churchill’s feet, and Churchill realised that. He accepted his fate and left government to command a battalion on the Western Front. The experience tested his character and his judgment, but ultimately made him a better leader.”

April 22, 1864 – Congress Passed an Act Allowing “In God We Trust” to be Engraved on U.S. Coins

As a Treasury Department website reports, during the Civil War, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase received many appeals from devout persons throughout the country to “recognize the Deity on United States coins.” As one petitioner argued, “You are probably a Christian. What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation?”

Heaven forfend!

As a result, in a letter dated November 20, 1861, Secretary Chase instructed James Pollock, Director of the Mint at Philadelphia, to prepare a motto:

Dear Sir: No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins.

You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition.”

In December 1863, the Director of the Mint submitted designs for new one-cent coin, two-cent coin, and three-cent coin to Secretary Chase for approval. He proposed that upon the designs either OUR COUNTRY; OUR GOD or GOD, OUR TRUST should appear as a motto on the coins. In a letter to the Mint Director on December 9, 1863, Secretary Chase responded that he thought the words should read “IN GOD WE TRUST.”

Congress passed legislation allowing for the change on this day in history.

“IN GOD WE TRUST” first appeared on the 1864 two-cent coin.

You can read the text of the act here.

Later, Congress passed additional coinage acts to expand the coverage of the first.

April 18, 2018 – Swaziland King Renames Country “The Kingdom of eSwatini”

eSwatini, formerly known as Swaziland, is a landlocked country in Southern Africa, bordered by Mozambique to its northeast and South Africa to its north, west, and south. At only 120 miles north to south and 81 miles east to west, eswatini is one of the smallest countries in Africa.

The Swazis established their kingdom in the mid-18th century. The present boundaries were drawn up in 1881 in the midst of the “Scramble for Africa.”

(As Wikipedia explains, the Scramble for Africa, also called the Partition of Africa or the Conquest of Africa, was the invasion, occupation, division, and colonisation of African territory by European powers during the short period between 1881 and 1914. In 1870, only 10 percent of Africa was under formal European control; by 1914 this had increased to almost 90 percent of the continent, with only Ethiopia (Abyssinia) and Liberia remaining independent, and the latter was a former United States colony. You can read more about the harmful effects of this partitioning in our post about the 1885 “General Act of the Conference at Berlin on the Disposition of African States,” here.)

Swaziland became a British protectorate after the Second Boer War (October 1899 – May 1902), fought between the British Empire and two independent Boer states, the South African Republic (Republic of Transvaal) and the Orange Free State, after the discovery of diamonds and gold in the Boer states. (The official excuse for going to war was British opposition to slavery in Boer lands, but the British hadn’t cared much until all that wealth was discovered.)

Eswatini is part of the Southern African Customs Union (green)

After the Second Boer War, the kingdom, under the name of Swaziland, was a British protectorate from 1903 until it regained its independence on September 6, 1968, In April 2018, the official name was changed from Kingdom of Swaziland to Kingdom of eSwatini, mirroring the name commonly used in Swazi.

As the BBC reported:

The monarch announced the official change in a stadium during celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Swazi independence.

The celebrations also marked the king’s 50th birthday.

The new name, eSwatini, means “land of the Swazis”. The change was unexpected, but King Mswati has been referring to Swaziland for years as eSwatini.

It was the name the king used when he addressed the UN general assembly in 2017 and at the state opening of the country’s parliament in 2014.”

The government is an absolute monarchy, ruled by King Mswati III since 1986. King Mswati III currently has 15 wives; his predecessor had 125. Perhaps relatedly, eSwatini has the world’s highest prevalence rate for HIV/Aids.

April 14, 1816 – Slavery Rebellion in Barbados

According to “The Sugar Trade in the West Indies and Brazil Between 1492 and 1700” by Mark Johnston, the first commercial production of sugar in the new world began in Brazil in 1550. The sugar industry advanced rapidly with the importation of slaves from equatorial Africa, financed by the Dutch East India Company. But in 1660 sugar production began to shift to Barbados and other West Indies islands. An English settler in Barbados, John Drax, acquired a great deal of land, equipment from the Dutch, and slave laborers from Africa. In the space of twenty years, Barbados became a major supplier for Europe, and by the mid-1650s, sugar production had largely supplanted tobacco and all other crops as the dominant economic activity of the island. By 1660, Barbados generated more trade than all the other English colonies combined.

[For an exploration of the complex reasons why the sugar trade switched from Brazil to the West Indies, you can read a detailed and interesting analysis by Matthew Edel, “The Brazilian Sugar Cycle of the Seventeenth Century and the Rise of West Indian Competition” in Caribbean Studies 9, no. 1 (1969): 24-44 online here. He notes that the war between Spain and the Netherlands, common trends in economic cycles, and cultural developments all played a role.]

As sugar developed into the main commercial enterprise, Barbados was divided into large plantation estates.

A BBC history of slavery in Barbados reports that as the sugar industry grew, slaves were imported in large numbers from Africa, especially from what is today the country of Ghana. They estimate that from 1627 to 1807, when Britain abolished the slave trade (but not slavery itself), some 387,000 Africans were shipped to the island against their will, in overcrowded, unsanitary ships, which made the Middle Passage a synonym for barbaric horror. Moreover, as they point out, the high mortality rate among slaves working on the sugar plantations necessitated a constant input of fresh slaves in order to maintain a work force.

By 1700, there were 15,000 free whites and 50,000 enslaved blacks. To ensure the imbalance didn’t threaten the plantocracy, black or slave codes were implemented in 1661, 1676, 1682, and 1688. In response to these codes, several slave rebellions were attempted or planned during this time, but none succeeded.

On Easter Sunday, April 14, 1816, some 20,000 slaves from over 70 plantations rose up in the largest major slave rebellion in the island’s history. Three days later it was put down by the local militia and British imperial troops stationed on the island. The uprising was later called “Bussa’s Rebellion” after the slave leader Bussa. One hundred and twenty slaves died in combat or were immediately executed, and another 144 were brought to trial and executed. The remaining rebels were shipped off the island.

Statue of Bussa in Bridgetown, Barbados

The New York Times noted that The “Bussa Rebellion” prompted the British authorities to build six signal stations on the island’s high points where officers could detect slave revolts and warn other lookouts. One of the stations, Gun Hill in the Parish of St. George, has been restored by the Barbados National Trust, and offers visitors panoramic views to the south and east, plus an exhibition on the semaphore system used for signaling any threat from land or sea.

In 1826, the Barbados legislature passed the Consolidated Slave Law, which simultaneously granted concessions to the slaves while providing reassurances to the slave owners.

Slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire 18 years later, in 1834. In Barbados and the rest of the British West Indian colonies, full emancipation from slavery was preceded by an apprenticeship period that lasted four years.

April 12, 1777 – American Statesman Henry Clay is born

Henry Clay, born on this day in history, was an American attorney and statesman who represented Kentucky in both the Senate and House. He was the seventh House Speaker and the ninth Secretary of State. He ran for president in the 1824, 1832, and 1844 elections. For his role in defusing sectional crises, he earned the appellation of the “Great Compromiser” and was part of the “Great Triumvirate.” (The Great Triumvirate refers to three statesmen who dominated American politics for much of the first half of the 19th century: Henry Clay of Kentucky, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina.) All three were extremely active in politics, served at various times as Secretary of State and served together in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.)

Portrait by Matthew Harris Jouett, 1818

Portrait by Matthew Harris Jouett, 1818

Henry Clay is still known by many Americans today because of his influence on Abraham Lincoln, who said of Clay: “I worshiped him as a teacher and leader.” Indeed, Lincoln not only emulated Clay’s devotion to the idea of Union in theory, but also in its specifics: he tried to push through many of the programs advocated by Clay, including the “American System” – internal improvements consisting of a network of roads, bridges, and canals linking every state and territory. Clay thought such an investment not only made good economic sense; it would also help bind the nation together. Trade between different regions of the country, as well as the movement of populations among them would create interdependency, and help cement the disparate sectors into a true Union.

Unfortunately, the South was opposed to the American System proposal. As the author writes:

“By restricting the extent and ease of transportation, planters could keep blacks and poor whites in their thrall indefinitely. The American System threatened the future of slavery and the wealth of the southern oligarchy by opening the South to transportation, commerce, education, ideas, competition, and emancipation.”

It also would open the way to better escape routes for slaves.

It should be noted that Clay himself owned slaves, although he helped establish and became president in 1816 of the American Colonization Society, a group that wanted to establish a colony for free American blacks in Africa. The group founded Monrovia, a city in present-day Liberia, for that purpose. [Lincoln was similarly in favor throughout most of his life of colonization for slaves.] Clay decried slavery as “a great evil,” but thought that universal emancipation would produce “civil war, carnage, conflagration, devastation . . .” [Clay thought the war would be between the two races, rather than between the whites of the North and the South.]

Henry Clay Later in Life

Clay was elected to the post of Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives on November 4, 1811. The seventh Speaker in the nation’s history, he was the youngest man, and the only freshman ever to hold the office. The author calls him “the greatest Speaker of the House of Representatives in American history.”

Clay had the misfortune to have an implacable enemy in the form of the very powerful Andrew Jackson, who came to revile Clay for, inter alia, denying him (as Jackson saw it) his rightful prize as U.S. President in the election of 1824. With the vote split, Clay directed his supporters to vote for John Quincy Adams. When Adams won the election, Adams offered Clay the position of Secretary of State. Both men denied any quid pro quo, and indeed, Adams had plenty of reason to want Clay in this position in any event. But the Jackson forces took vicious aim at both men, calling the appointment a “corrupt bargain” that denied the office to the man who truly deserved it, i.e., Jackson. Jackson’s adherents never let the nation forget it, and Clay was thus repeatedly stymied in his own attempts to become U.S. President.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Nevertheless, Clay’s contributions to the nation were not minimal. Time after time he exercised his influence over Congress to forge compromises between the Northern and Southern factions, always in the name of Union. When he died, on July 29, 1852, the editor of the Washington D.C. newspaper “National Intelligencer” wrote: “He knew no North; he knew no South. He knew nothing but his country.”

Lincoln exclaimed upon learning of Clay’s death: “Alas! Who can realize that Henry Clay is dead! Who can realize, that the workings of that mighty mind have ceased . . . that freedom’s champion – the champion of a civilized world . . . has indeed fallen.”

April 10, 1919 – Assassination of Emiliano Zapata, Leader of Peasant Rebels in Mexico

On this day in history, Emiliano Zapata, an iconic figure in Mexico, was killed in an ambush.

Zapata was born on August 8, 1879 in the rural Mexican village of Anenecuilco, Morelos. Zapata’s family were mestizos, Mexicans of Nahua and Spanish ancestry.

General Emiliano Zapata, posing in Cuernavaca in 1911, with a rifle and sword, and a ceremonial sash across his chest. (Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico City. Archivo Fotográfico Díaz, Delgado y García)

After Porfirio Díaz came to the presidency of Mexico by a coup in 1876, the Mexican social and economic system was dominated by large estate holders who controlled much of the land and squeezed the holdings of independent communities. The concentration of hacienda lands was facilitated by three nineteenth-century land reforms: the Lerdo Law of 1856, the 1883 Mexican Executive Decree on Colonization, and the 1894 Law for the Occupation and Alienation of Vacant Lands.

The Lerdo Law, or Ley Lerdo in Spanish, is the common name for the Confiscation of Law and Urban Ruins of the Civil and Religious Corporations of Mexico. The Lerdo Law provided for the confiscation of the lands held by the Catholic Church and civil corporations and their sale to private individuals. It was expected to stimulate the market and generate government revenue through sales tax. However, the lack of capital among the lower classes meant that the main purchasers were large landowners or foreign investors, further concentrating land ownership.

The 1883 decree transferred responsibility for dividing vacant and national lands to be put up for sale. Land survey companies were granted up to one-third of the lands they surveyed. The rest was sold to foreign and Mexican settlers.

The 1894 law removed the limit of how many acres could be sold in each parcel.

The only individuals who could afford the state’s prices were the wealthy hacendados. As a result, a privileged minority controlled most of Mexico’s land. Thus:

Together these laws resulted in extensive disenfranchisement of numerous indigenous communities, who were stripped of their territories when their lands were identified as vacant and eligible for colonization.” (Carlos G. Vélez-Ibañez and Josiah Heyman, The U.S. – Mexico Transborder Region: Cultural Dynamics and Historical Interactions, 2017, p. 291.

Many peasants were subsequently forced into debt peonage on the haciendas. Díaz’s cronies were given offices around the country that allowed them to enforce changes in land tenure favoring the progressive concentration of land into the hands of fewer and wealthier landowners.

Community members in Anenecuilco, including Zapata, sought redress against land seizures. In 1892, a delegation had an audience with Díaz; Díaz had them arrested and Zapata was conscripted into the Federal Army.

Porfirio Díaz

The flawed 1910 elections were a major reason for the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Porfirio Díaz was being threatened by the candidacy of Francisco I. Madero. Zapata, seeing an opportunity to promote land reform in Mexico, raised an army of peasants in the southern state of Morelos under the slogan “Land and Liberty.”

Madero overthrew Díaz in May 1911 at the Battle of Ciudad Juárez. Under Madero, some new land reforms were carried out and elections were to be ensured. However, Zapata was dissatisfied with Madero’s stance on land reform, a measure which Madero did not really believe in. Zapata was unable, despite repeated efforts, to make him understand the importance of the issue or to get him to act on it.

As the history of Zapata on The Thought Company recounts:

When Madero’s promises failed to come to fruition, Zapata took to the field against his onetime ally. In November 1911 he wrote his famous Plan of Ayala, which declared Madero a traitor, named Pascual Orozco head of the Revolution, and outlined a plan for true land reform. Zapata fought federal forces in the south and near Mexico City. Before he could overthrow Madero, General Victoriano Huerta beat him to it in February 1913, ordering Madero arrested and executed.”

Before Huerta could act against him, Zapata joined with three other revolutionaries to oppose Huerta. Together with these men – Pancho Villa, Venustiano Carranza, and Alvaro Obregón – the “Big Four” succeeded in driving out Huerta.

Venustiano Carranza

Then, the four turned on each other. In early 1916, Carranza sent his most ruthless general, Pablo González, to track Zapata down and get rid of him. On April 10, 1919, Zapata was double-crossed, ambushed and killed by Colonel Jesús Guajardo, one of González’ officers who had pretended to want to switch sides.

The History Channel online observes that Zapata’s influence has endured long after his death, and his agrarian reform movement, known as zapatismo, remains important to many Mexicans today.

In addition, since 1994, a movement calling itself the Zapatista Army of National Liberation or EZLN has been active in the Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico. These “Zapatistas” have declared war against the Mexican state, mainly using the strategy of civil resistance. The group sees itself as heirs to Emiliano Zapata; nearly all EZLN villages contain murals with images of Zapata, as well as other revolutionaries.

April 7, 1915 – Birth Date of Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, opens with the line:

“Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married; he was 18, she was 16 and I was three.”

Billie was born in Philadelphia on April 7, 1915 as Eleanora Fagan, the daughter of Clarence Holiday, a musician, and Sadie Fagan. Her father left soon after her birth and Sadie and Eleanora moved to Baltimore. Sadie worked long hours, and wasn’t home much. Billie was raped by the time she was ten (for which she was sent to a house of truancy). At age 12, she was working alongside her mother in prostitution. By age 14, she determined she could have a better life, and began to sing. She changed her name to Billie after the movie star Billie Dove, and used her father’s last name.

In 1933 the young producer and aspiring impresario John Hammond heard her sing in Harlem and convinced Benny Goodman to make a record with her. She was eighteen years old.

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In the mid-1930s Louis Armstrong’s manager took on Holiday as a client, and she started to get more work and greater exposure. Before long, she joined the Count Basie Orchestra. Life on the road was not easy for Holiday however, as she was unused to the racism of the Jim Crow South. At one point she was encouraged by club owners to wear dark makeup so that Southern white audiences would not think she was a white woman singing with black musicians. By 1938 Holiday was no longer singing with the Basie Orchestra; she said she left because she was not paid enough.

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When the white bandleader Artie Shaw heard that Holiday had left Basie, he offered her a job. She became one of the first black artists to join an all-white band. She traveled with Shaw throughout the country, but again, the constant racial insults on the road were too hard for her to endure.

Although Holiday was a star by 1939, her personal life was not as successful. She had brief affairs with Goodman and Shaw, with Basie’s guitarist Freddie Green, and with the tenor saxophonist Ben Webster.

Billie Holiday and Lester Young

Billie Holiday and Lester Young

Perhaps the most important male relationship she enjoyed during these years, though, was her platonic friendship with the tenor saxophonist Lester Young. The two became close both during and after their days together in Basie’s band. Young was Holiday’s musical soul mate. He was renowned for his lyrical improvisations, and together the two achieved a rare musical intimacy. Young gave Billie Holiday her nickname, Lady Day, and she dubbed him Prez, the president of the tenor saxophone, a nickname that also stuck.

The second stage of Holiday’s career began in 1939 with her appearances at a Greenwich Village hangout frequented by an interracial audience of intellectuals, bohemians, and jazz fans. It was here that she first sang “Strange Fruit.” Written and set to music by Lewis Allen, the song was a stark, metaphorical portrayal of southern lynchings of blacks, sung by Holiday at a dramatic, funereal tempo. Many critics consider her rendition of “Strange Fruit” (1939) to be one of the most powerful, understated commentaries on prejudice committed to music.

Billie Holiday in 1943

Billie Holiday in 1943

Holiday had smoked marijuana regularly since her teenage years, and she now began to use harder drugs. In the spring of 1947 she entered a clinic to kick her heroin habit, but federal agents arrested her on narcotics charges soon thereafter. She spent almost a year in a federal reformatory, and she was back on heroin shortly after her release.

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When not taking heroin, her drinking became heavier, and her voice steadily deteriorated. She gave her last performance on 25 May 1959 at the Phoenix Theater in New York City.

Holiday collapsed on Memorial Day 1959 and fell into a coma, ravaged by liver problems and cardiac failure. She died from cirrhosis of the liver on July 17, 1959. In the final years of her life, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with $0.70 in the bank and $750 (a tabloid fee) on her person.

Billie Holiday, recording studio, N.Y.C. 1959. (c) The Milton J. Hinton Photgraphic Collection

Billie Holiday, recording studio, N.Y.C. 1959. (c) The Milton J. Hinton Photgraphic Collection

Holiday had a small voice with a range of only about an octave, but she could transform a song, inflecting words and pitches to give them her own meaning and emotional content. She was a minimalist, singing only the notes that counted and infusing songs with new and deeper meanings. She had a relaxed sense of swing; she stretched rhythms and sang around, behind, and ahead of the beat. She considered herself a musician collaborating with other musicians, and she phrased and improvised like a horn player.

You can see her sing “Strange Fruit” in this video: