Review of “The Hemingses of Monticello” by Annette Gordon-Reed

The first thing to understand about this book is that it is not just a story about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, nor is it in fact focused on Jefferson, although he naturally plays a large role in this history. The author took the opportunity provided by Jefferson’s fame and record-keeping to profile a slave family, the Hemingses, because accounts about the lives of slaves in early America are few and far between. As many as 70 members of the Hemings family lived in slavery at Monticello over five generations.

It begins with Elizabeth Hemings, the daughter of an enslaved black mother and a free white father. Elizabeth and her mother came into the ownership of John Wayles when Wayles married Martha Eppes in 1746. After the death of his third wife, John Wayles took his slave Elizabeth Hemings as his mistress, and was the father of six of her children. Sarah (Sally) Hemings was one of their daughters. The mixed-race children of John Wayles were kept in slavery. Virginia had a number of laws to ensure this rule obtained.

White males deciding the fates of everyone else in the Virginia House of Burgesses

The Virginia House of Burgesses was called upon in the late 1600’s to answer the question of “whether children got by an Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or free” on account of challenges to enslaved status by mulattos (people of mixed race). Their response was to turn English law upside down by reaching back to an archaic Roman rule, partus sequitur ventrem (you are what your mother was). That is, Virginia passed laws establishing that the legal status of the mother, not the father, as stipulated in Britain, determined the legal status of the child. The author explains that this change from British law ensured that white masters could retain the value of “increase” when these female slaves gave birth, because as long as the child’s mother was a slave, it wouldn’t matter who the father was. Masters could therefore continue to exploit the popular option of using female slaves for sex without having to worry that this would cause them to lose their “property.” [Other states, particularly in the South, quickly followed suit. Further laws were passed to ensure that even “one drop” of “black blood” made the difference between slavery and freedom. You can read more about the history of the “one drop rule” (and its uniqueness to the U.S.) here.]

Jefferson’s Monticello Estate is in Albemarle County, Virginia

The legal degradation of blacks played a “useful” role in uniting the country as well. The sore point of inequalities of class, initially the cause of greatest tensions in the colonies, was superseded as the prime dividing line for status within the colony when race entered the picture: “Instead, poor whites, encouraged by the policies of the elites, took refuge in their whiteness and the dream that one day they, too, could become slave owners, though only a relative handful could ever hope to amass the land, wealth, and social position of the most prominent member of the Virginia gentry…”. (As historian Keri Leigh Merritt observes: “Throughout American history, the economic elite have used vile forms of racism to perpetuate the current hierarchy — politically, socially and economically. White supremacy is most commonly conceptualized as a way for lower-class whites to feel socially superior to people from other ethnic backgrounds.”)

Before long, “whiteness” came to signify the superiority of one socially and legally defined population over others, while simultaneously inculcating notions that character, intelligence, and other traits were associated with whiteness or non-whiteness. Thomas Jefferson himself contributed to that idea with his Notes on the State of Virginia, a book written by him in 1781, and updated and enlarged in 1782 and 1783. While the book also discussed Virginia’s natural resources and economy, it is remembered today primarily for Jefferson’s observations about slavery, miscegenation, and his beliefs that whites and blacks could not live together in a free society. Jefferson said he thought blacks were inferior to whites in terms of beauty (he cites such “superior” traits in whites as “flowing hair”) and reasoning intelligence. (He observes, for example, “They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.”). But as Gordon-Reed often has cause to point out, the “public” and “rhetorical” Jefferson was quite a different man than the private Jefferson. The author sardonically observes: “White supremacy does not demand deep conviction. Ruthless self interests, not sincere belief, is the signature feature…”

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson in 1786 by Mather Brown

In fact in private, Jefferson had a long-standing relationship (38 years) with a mixed-race woman, Sally Hemings, who was, as noted above, Elizabeth Hemings’s daughter by a white father. (Elizabeth Hemings and her children arrived at Monticello around 1774 as part of Jefferson’s inheritance from his father-in-law, John Wayles.) Sally (a nickname for Sarah), bore seven children by Jefferson, four of whom survived to adulthood, over the course of their liaison. Since Elizabeth herself was half white, Sally was one-fourth white, and by all accounts quite a beauty, “in spite of” (or because of) her part-black ancestry. Sally was also the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles. When Martha married Jefferson, John Wayles had already died, and the whole Hemings family had moved with Martha to Monticello. Jefferson and Martha had two daughters that survived, and Sally became their ladies’ maid. Portentously, when Jefferson went overseas to serve as United States ambassador to pre-revolutionary France, he wanted his daughters to follow him, and Sally came along as a companion. But Jefferson’s daughters went away to attend a boarding school outside of Paris. Sally, then around 14, and Jefferson, in his early forties, began a sexual affair. [While this sounds egregious to us, “the age of consent in eighteenth-century Virginia was ten.”] By the time Jefferson was ready to return to the U.S., Sally was pregnant.

Site of Hotel d’Langeac, Jefferson’s residence in Paris.

The author explains how it was that Sally forwent the opportunity of freedom she could have had by staying in France. Rather, she opted (if that word even applies to a slave who was a young, impressionable, and inexperienced girl, not to mention one who was pregnant) to come back to Virginia with Jefferson, having apparently extracted a promise from him that their children would be freed when they came of age. [The author suggests that because Jefferson was both self-indulgent, ambitious, and anxious to make his mark on America without any mark on his reputation, Sally had a bit of “power” over Jefferson at that point since an affair with a slave would have sullied his image in America.] And note: the only promise she could apparently get was not that their children be freed immediately, but only at the age of 21. Sally herself could not be freed since “interbreeding” between whites and free blacks was illegal but having sex with a “slave” was not, and it seems Jefferson wanted to continue their “arrangement.” [As the author observes, as long as white men did not try to elevate slaves and the children they had with them to the “status” of white people or bestow upon them the privileges of whites, they were left alone to do with their “property” as they pleased.] But again, allegedly, Jefferson agreed to treat Sally well.

Thomas Jefferson in 1791 at 49 by Charles Willson Peale

The book is about more than Sally, however, and the author also goes into great detail about the other Hemings of Monticello, including the children Sally had with Jefferson, three of whom, being only one-eighth black, could apparently pass for white. While Jefferson was meticulous in recording even the smallest detail about most things and most slaves, including most Hemingses, his records are also notable for their omissions. The legacy-conscious Jefferson left out any information about Sally. When he had cause to refer to their children, it was only obliquely with no names, a markedly different practice than he used otherwise. His documentation of the minutiae of his life except as noted above allows us to know a great deal about the rest of this slave family.

There is no way to know whether the alleged affection and loyalty shown by slaves to Jefferson was genuine, but both his presence and his absence had serious consequences for them. As long as he lived, he endeavored to keep the Hemingses together and in a somewhat privileged position (vis-a-vis other slaves) at Monticello. But within six months of his death on July 4, 1826, the contents of Monticello and 130 slaves, including Hemingses, were auctioned off.


The slaves themselves had no control over who was sold, who purchased them, or where they went and for what purposes. Family members were separated to the great heartache of those affected. This included the Hern family. David Hern Sr. performed a multitude of tasks during his 50 years at Monticello.  He was a skilled woodworker and wheelwright. His son, David Hern Jr., was a wagoner who made regular solo trips to transport goods between Monticello and Washington during Jefferson’s presidency. Nevertheless, after Jefferson’s death, David Hern and his 34 surviving children and grandchildren were sold. Similarly, Joseph Fossett and his wife Edith served as the blacksmith and head cook at Monticello, respectively. Jefferson freed Joseph Fossett in his will, but Edith and seven of their children were sold.

This fact reminds us of an important point stressed throughout the book by the author. In spite of Jefferson’s relative “laxness” regarding his slaves, they were never totally free in any sense, because they were at all times living in a slave society under a regime of white supremacy. Thus “slavery was more than just the relationship between an individual master and an individual slave. The entire white community was involved in maintaining the institution and the racial rules that grew up around it…. ”

An Overseer Doing His Duty, Near Fredericksburg by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1796.

(At the same time, as the author also shows, “The profanity of slavery does not define the entirety of lives of enslaved people.”)

Sally Hemings was 53 at the time Jefferson died. It was thought her disposition was made in oral requests by Jefferson, still loathe to mention her specifically in any document. Jefferson’s daughter Martha, who possibly had a great resentment for Sally ever since Jefferson took her as his “concubine,” granted Sally her “time” 8 years after Jefferson’s death. This was a way to grant freedom without formal emancipation, which would force the person to leave the state. (Martha did however permit Sally to leave Monticello after Jefferson died to go live with their sons in Charlottesville.]. Why did Martha wait 8 years? It is unclear. Thomas Jefferson did free all of Sally Hemings’s children: Beverly and Harriet were allowed to leave Monticello in 1822; Madison and Eston were released in Jefferson’s 1826 will.

Martha Jefferson Randolph

The Monticello website reports:

“[Sally’s] son Madison told a newspaperman in 1873 that ‘shortly after’ Jefferson’s death he and his brother Eston, who both had been freed in Jefferson’s will, took their mother to live in Charlottesville with them. Sally Hemings had not been freed in the will, yet she appeared with Madison Hemings as a free person of color in a special census in 1833 (and the census of 1830 also suggests she was considered free). In a superseded will of 1834, Jefferson’s daughter Martha Randolph wrote that ‘to Betsy Hemmings, Sally & Wormley I wish my children to give their time. If liberated they would be obliged to leave the state of Virginia.’ This was probably a written reinforcement of a previous verbal arrangement. If it was made at Jefferson’s recommendation before his death, no document has been found to confirm it.”

While, as stated previously, this book was not meant to be primarily about Jefferson, we get an excellent look at the man behind the legend from this story. As Roger Wilkins wrote in Jefferson’s Pillow: “He was a dizzying mixture of searing brilliance and infuriating self-indulgence, of idealism and base racism, of soaring patriotism and myopic self-involvement. He was America writ small.”

Ironically, however, Annette Gordon-Reed paints Jefferson in rather a more positive light than other recent historians. While she mentions that he didn’t like to lose on any issue, she also emphasizes how much he disliked conflict, almost suggesting he would “give in” rather than have disagreement be a part of his life. She thereby downplays his consistent record of using often vicious tactics by operating sub rosa through lackeys to destroy the careers and lives of anyone and everyone who disagreed with him. One could see him using every aspect of this trait to bend Sally to his will.

The author wants to confer agency on Sally, but the entire time she was his mistress, she did, after all, continue to serve as his slave, in addition to being pregnant almost continuously when he was in town. She moreover was relegated to a hidden room in Monticello, while Jefferson’s daughter served as the mistress of the estate.

Discussion: The Hemings and Jefferson family trees are a bit hard to follow, through no fault of the author’s. It seems there were a limited number of names in use by these intertwined families (in part because naming each other in honor of other family members was practiced). Besides having the same names, they had nicknames which bore no logical relationships to the names themselves. Access to charts detailing, for example, which Martha was which, is helpful. The hard copy of the book has a chart, and you can see a small portion of one below.

Evaluation:This is an excellent and detailed recounting of the complex nature and legacy of someone who was not only a seminal figure in the history of America, but the author of the founding credo “All men are created equal.” It explores the interrelationships between the man who wrote this, and the slaves he owned. It is also a story of slave family in greater detail than we often have access to; a story that has so many elements of tragedy, even while revealing occasional moments of triumph and joy.

Students of American history should not avoid this book because of its length. I found it consistently engaging and full of riveting details about the early years of America that are critical to understanding what our country was then, and what it has become.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover by W. W. Norton & Company, 2008

Note: Literary Awards

Pulitzer Prize for History (2009)
National Book Award for Non-Fiction (2008)
Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (2009)
George Washington Book Prize (2009)
Frederick Douglass Book Prize (2009)
SHEAR Book Prize
Frank L. and Harriet C. Owsley Award (2009)

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

This very long book was narrated admirably by Karen White, whose soothing and mellifluous voice still managed to convey outrage at the story she read. It was a pleasure to listen to her.

Published unabridged on 25 CDs (approximately 31 and 1/2 listening hours) by Tantor Media, 2008


Review of “Here I Stand” by Paul Robeson

Here I Stand, by Paul Robeson, was first published in 1958, and reissued in 1971 and 1988. It sets out his thoughts about the pressing issues of race in the 1950’s, and about the accusations that had been made against him.

Paul Robeson, one of the greatest intellects and talents of modern times, was born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey to a father who was an escaped slave and who later became a Presbyterian minister. At seventeen, Robeson was given a scholarship to Rutgers University (called Rutgers College at that time), where he received an unprecedented twelve major letters in sports in four years and was also his class valedictorian. After graduating he went on to Columbia University Law School, and, in the early 1920s, took a job with a New York law firm. No white secretary would assist a black man, however, so he turned to the performing arts, a field in which blacks were more accepted. He attained international fame as an actor and singer, and traveled the world performing benefits for causes of social justice (he spoke fifteen languages).

Paul Robeson, a 1919 Rutgers graduate and distinguished student, in his yearbook photo. Photo: Rutgers University

In 1950, Robeson attempted to renew his passport so that he could travel abroad to fulfill contracts for singing and acting performances. The State Department insisted that Robeson sign an affidavit declaring that he was not a member of the Communist Party and that he was loyal to the United States. Robeson refused and filed suit in federal court. In August 1955, a federal judge ruled that the State Department was within its legal rights to refuse Robeson a passport.

Robeson was then denied the opportunity to earn his own living as hundreds of white-owned venues refused him the right to perform. (His salary plummeted from over $100,000 a year to less than $6,000 a year and remained at that level for nearly a decade.) Robeson was never charged with any illegal activity, and never arrested. What, you may well ask, was his crime?


The crime Paul Robeson committed was to expose the hypocrisy of U.S. policies at home and abroad about the treatment of blacks by its people and its government. He spoke out forthrightly and without apology about the persistence of Jim Crow in the 1950’s. How, he asked, can we insist on freedom abroad if we do not grant freedom in our own country? He also defended the vision of racial equality he saw in socialist societies. He opposed U.S. military forays as “imperialistic” and opined that it was “unthinkable” for American Negroes to “go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations.” (my emphasis)

Robeson (along with others) were blackballed for similar sentiments, and even the “newspaper of record” – The New York Times – refused to print Robeson’s side of the issue. Therefore, he decided to write a book outlining his positions and why he was now a persona non grata in the United States.

Here I Stand touches on many aspects of inequality affecting blacks in 1958. Two of the points he makes in this slim volume stand out.

Robeson writes about the resistance by southerners in Congress to giving up Jim Crow (as evidenced most saliently by Mississippi Senator James Eastland who remarked ten days after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation: “Let me make this clear! The South will retain segregation!”). He notes that friends of Negroes, both black and white, urged “gradualism” – waiting “until the hearts of those who persecute us has softened – until Jim Crow dies of old age.” Robeson roars back at them:

. . . the idea itself is but another form of race discrimination: in no other area of our society are lawbreakers granted an indefinite time to comply with the provisions of law. There is nothing in the 14th and 15th Amendments, the legal guarantees of our full citizenship rights, which says that the Constitution is to be enforced “gradually” where Negroes are concerned. . . . The viewpoint that progress must be slow is rooted in the idea that democratic rights, as far as Negroes are concerned, are not inalienable and self-evident as they are for white Americans. Any improvement of our status as second-class citizens is seen as a matter of charity and tolerance. The Negro must rely upon the good will of those in places of power and hope that friendly persuasion can somehow and some day make blind prejudice see the light.”

Paul Robeson in Oakland, September 1942 (Credit: National Archives)

There’s another line of thought in Robeson’s book I found particularly noteworthy. Robeson spent time in Africa, studying culture and languages, the richness of which proved to be a great surprise to him. For example, he wrote, “It is astonishing and to me, fascinating to find a flexibility and subtlety in a language like Swahili, sufficient to convey the teachings of Confucius, for example … these qualities and attainments of Negro languages are entirely unknown to the general public of the Western world and, astonishingly enough, even to Negroes themselves.”

What he discovered was that Western colonizers of Africa had a vested interest in portraying Africans as uncultured savages – an image that persists even today! – to justify their rape and plunder of the rich natural resources of this great continent. (For a horrifying account of what the Belgians did in the Congo in their rubber-extraction mania, a great source is King Leopold’s Ghost – see our review here). And in fact, after generations of exploitation, the great potential that Africa exhibited when seen by Robeson may not exist any longer. But it was there, and it was denied, and it was largely eradicated.

He ends this gem of a book with a poem by Chilean Pablo Neruda, a prayer for all people:

“Let us think of the entire earth
And pound the table with love.
I don’t want blood again
To saturate bread, beans, music:
I wish they would come with me:
The miner, the little girl,
The lawyer, the seaman,
The doll-maker,
To go to a movie and come out
To drink the reddest wine . . .
I came here to sing
And for you to sing with me.

From Pablo Neruda’s “Let the Rail-Splitter Awake”

Robeson was taught by his father two important precepts on which he based his life: loyalty to one’s convictions, and the pursuit of personal integrity (which was inseparable for him from the idea of maximum human fulfillment). He lived out these precepts to the best of his ability, and in fact is still admired long past his death in 1976. Paul Robeson is an American hero.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Othello Associates, 1958, and reissued many times since

August 12, 1862 – Birth of Julius Rosenwald, Who Helped Build Over 5,300 Schools for Blacks in the South

Julius Rosenwald, born on this date in history, is probably best-known for his role in the Sears, Roebuck and Company. Rosenwald never finished high school but rose to become the president of Sears from 1908 to 1922, and chairman of its Board of Directors until his death in 1932. But more important was his philanthropy. Joining forces with African-American communities in the Jim Crow South, he helped to build over 5,300 schools for blacks during the early part of the 20th century.

Julius Rosenwald

Rosenwald was born in Springfield, Illinois to a Jewish immigrant couple from Germany. According to filmmaker Aviva Kempner, who made a documentary about his life, he was heavily influenced by the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, whose home was across the street.

Rosenwald had heard about clothiers who had begun to manufacture clothing according to standardized sizes from data collected during the American Civil War, and in 1884, he and his brother started a clothing business. By 1895 they were able to buy half of Sears, Roebuck & Co. Through the innovation of a catalog, the company grew exponentially and in 1906 it became one of the first companies to be traded publicly.

After the 1906 financial reorganization of Sears, Rosenwald became friends with Goldman Sachs’s senior partner, Paul J. Sachs, who often stayed with Rosenwald during his many trips to Chicago. Both agreed on the seriousness of the plight of African Americans in the country. In Rosenwald’s words, written in 1911: “The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution which they have suffered and still suffer.” Sachs introduced Rosenwald to two prominent educators and proponents of African-American education, William H. Baldwin and Booker T. Washington.

Booker T. Washington

Washington asked Rosenwald to serve on the Board of Directors of the Tuskegee Institute in 1912, and he accepted, holding the position for the remainder of his life. He also endowed the Institute to allow Washington more time managing the Institute rather than fundraising.

In 1912, for his 50th birthday, Rosenwald gave numerous gifts to favorite causes, including $25,000 to Tuskegee Institute. Washington used all but $2800, and asked Rosenwald’s permission to use that money as a pilot project in school building for rural blacks.

A grant of $300 each went to help build six schools in central Alabama. Every school was built with matching funds from the local community.

In 1914, Rosenwald gave an additional $30,000 for another 100 rural Alabama schools, followed by funds for 200 more schools in 1916, opening the project to other states. By 1932, and one in four rural black schools in the state was a Rosenwald.

In 1917, he set up the Rosenwald Fund for “the well-being of mankind.” Part of its mission was to administer the school program. The Fund contributed more than $4 million in matching funds to the construction of more than 5,000 schools, shops, and teachers’ homes in the South. These schools became informally known as “Rosenwald Schools.” In all, there were eventually 405 Rosenwald Schools in Alabama, 639 in Mississippi, 442 in Louisiana and 127 in Florida.

An online article in “Next Avenue” reports that Rosenwald used the same strategy to build YMCAs for blacks in Chicago and other cities. These facilities provided necessarily lodging in cities with hotels only serving whites. Rosenwald gave $25,000 to any YMCA in the country that could raise an additional $75,000, and he managed to get whites and blacks to work together to do it.

Rosenwald also awarded fellowship grants to a great many African-American intellectuals and artists, including Marian Anderson, James Baldwin, Ralph Bunche, W. E. B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston.

The Washington Post, reviewing Kempner’s film, observed:

Often consisting of just two or three classrooms, the schools were the heart of their communities, cradles of pride built on land often donated by black farmers. The schools were the children’s world, and all they knew of learning. As writer and poet Angelou . . . says in the film: ‘I thought my school was grand.’”

Over the course of his life, Rosenwald and his fund donated over $70 million to public schools, colleges and universities, museums, Jewish charities and African-American institutions.

The list of prominent alumni and educators who attended the Rosenwald Schools include the ancestors of U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Tony Award winning playwright George Wolfe, poet Maya Angelou, poet Rita Dove, U.S. Representative John Lewis, Anita Hill and Pulitzer Prize winner Eugene Robinson.

Rosenwald died at his home in the Ravinia section of Highland Park, Illinois, on January 6, 1932, at the age of 69.

In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the Rosenwald schools “a National Treasure,” placing them on the most endangered historic places list. The trust launched the Rosenwald Schools Initiative to help communities restore the buildings into historic cultural sites.

August 6, 1675 – Russian Czar Alexis Banned Foreign Haircuts

Peter Alekseevich Romanov, more commonly known as “Peter the Great” was born in or near Moscow on Thursday May 30, 1672. While Peter is revered for opening up windows to the West, his father, Alexis, was not quite so open. According to Lindsey Hughes, the late Professor of Russian History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London and author of Russia in the Age of Peter the Great (Yale University Press, 2000):

. . . foreigners were still in Russia on sufferance, tolerated as a necessary evil. The building of the new Foreign Quarter in 1652 was actually an attempt to concentrate foreigners and their churches in a restricted locality, away from the city centre, where they had lived previously.”

Alexis I of Russia, and father of Peter the Great


Russians were still clearly differentiated from Western Europeans by their dress, although a number were tempted by Polish influence to don Western fashions in private.”

To keep distinctions clear, Tsar Alexis decreed on this day in history:

Courtiers are forbidden to adopt foreign, German, and other customs, to cut the hair on their heads and to wear robes, tunics and hats of foreign design, and they are to forbid their servants to do so.”

As Professor Hughes explains, the “courtiers” to whom this edict was directed formed the upper echelons of Russia’s service class. They were sometimes loosely referred to as “boyars” and were roughly the equivalent of the Western aristocracy. They enjoyed the “privilege” of attending and advising the tsar, who wanted to see no foreign influences in his midst.

Alexis had reason to worry about foreign influence. With the First Northern War (1654-60), Russia entered the wider sphere of international relations. Moreover, historically, Russia felt keenly the desire for unimpeded access to the Black Sea, which meant continuing interactions with the West by both diplomatic and military initiatives.

Peter the Great

When Peter first became Tsar, he did not have much interest in ruling, and the forces of conservatism and anti-foreign initiatives continued to prevail. As Hughes reports however:

. . . . Despite the Church’s dire warnings about the dangers of contamination by heretics, Peter himself was spending more and more time in the company of foreigners. . . . “

During 1697 and 1698 Peter travelled around Europe in disguise to learn about Europe firsthand. Fascinated with the foreign customs he encountered, he returned to Russia and implemented aspects of European culture into his own country.

Peter the Great biographer Robert K. Massie wrote that at a reception thrown in Peter’s honor following his return from Europe, “Peter suddenly produced a long, sharp barber’s razor and with his own hands began shaving off their beards. [They] “were forced, one by one, to submit until every boyar present was beardless and none could laugh and point a shocked finger at the others.” (p. 234)

Peter the great shaves a beard. Painting by Dimitry Belyukin, 1985

Massie continued: “The scene was remarkable: at a stroke the political, military and social leaders of Russia were bodily transformed.”

In addition, and further defying the early legacy of his father, he issued an edict in 1698 that decreed that all Russians except the clergy and the peasants must shave. (As more beardless foreign merchants and engineers came to Moscow in the mid-17th Century, Tsar Alexis relaxed his previous rule a bit, declaring that Russians could shave if they wished. Massie, p. 235) Eventually Peter also relented a bit, allowing those who wanted beards to keep them if they paid a tax, graduated by class. They were given a small medallion to wear around their necks that declared TAX PAID.

As for Peter, he continued to bring his razor with him to any ceremony, and as Massie recounts “those who arrived with beards departed without them.” (p. 235)

More westernizing changes followed, including a decision to follow the Julian calendar then in use in England. Unfortunately, England soon adopted the Gregorian calendar, but Russia refused to make a second change until 1918.

Nevertheless, as Mario Sosa, writing for St. Mary’s University, observed of Peter:

He played a crucial role in westernizing Russia by changing its economy, government, culture, and religious affairs . . . By doing all of this, Russia was able to expand and become one of the most powerful countries in the eastern hemisphere.”

August 4, 1944 – Anne Frank Was Captured

Recently uncovered documents show that Otto Frank repeatedly sought help to get to the United States prior to the capture of the family by the Nazis, but to no avail; the U.S. would not grant a visa.

On this sad date in 1944, 15-year-old Anne Frank was discovered by the Nazi police hiding in a tiny attic room above her father Otto’s factory in Amsterdam, Holland. She and her family and four others were living in a secret annex concealed behind a moveable bookcase.


In the annex, Anne started to write regularly in a diary that she had been given for her 13th birthday. Early on, she observed the weekly trainloads of Jews taken from the city:

“We assume that most of them are being murdered. The English radio says they’re being gassed. Perhaps that’s the quickest way to die.”

And in fact, more than 100,000 Dutch Jews – 70 percent of the community – were deported to concentration camps in Germany. Most were gassed upon arrival.

Anne and the others had been in hiding for 25 months. No one knows for sure who betrayed them to the Nazis, but it is believed to have been a former business associate of Otto’s.

[New research suggests that the German Security Service may not have been looking for hidden Jews when they found Anne and the seven others hiding with her. Rather, they might have been investigating other activities at the office and simply stumbled across the hidden families by chance, according to historians at the Anne Frank House, the museum in Amsterdam dedicated to preserving the “Secret Annex” where Frank, her sister, her parents and four other Jews spent more than two years in hiding.]

After their capture, Anne and her sister Margot were taken to the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. In March, 1945, both girls succumbed to typhus, just a few weeks before the camp was liberated by the British Army.

Miep Gies, one of Otto’s employees who helped the Franks, found Anne’s diary on the day of the arrest and secreted it for the remainder of the war.

Miep Gies, who worked as Otto Frank’s secretary at Opekta, his trading company in gelling agents for making jam.

Miep Gies, who worked as Otto Frank’s secretary at Opekta, his trading company in gelling agents for making jam.

Otto managed to survive the war, and upon his return to Amsterdam, Miep gave him the diary. In her diary, Otto read that Anne had planned – after the war – to publish a book about the time she spent in the Secret Annex. She had even edited and rewritten a large portion of her original diary. Initially, Otto Frank was uncertain what to do but he finally decided to fulfill his daughter’s wish.

Otto Frank, the only one to survive the concentration camps, died in 1980. Anne’s diary, now translated into over 30 languages, still lives on.


She is perhaps most well-known for one of her last entries, less than three weeks before her capture:

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

August 3, 1958 – U.S. Nuclear-Powered Sub Makes First Undersea Voyage to the Geographic North Pole

In July of 1951, Congress authorized construction of the world’s first nuclear powered submarine. After nearly 18 months of construction, the USS Nautilus was launched on January 21, 1954. Eight months later, on September 30, 1954, the Nautilus became the first commissioned nuclear powered ship in the United States Navy.

On the morning of January 17, 1955, the first commanding officer ordered all lines cast off and signaled the memorable and historic message, “Underway On Nuclear Power.” Over the next several years, Nautilus shattered all submerged speed and distance records.

USS Nautilus

The vessel was the first submarine to complete a submerged transit of the North Pole on this day in history. As the online site of the USS Nautilus museum in Groton, Connecticut recounts:

On July 23, 1958, NAUTILUS departed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii under top secret orders to conduct “Operation Sunshine”, the first crossing of the North Pole by a ship. At 11:15 pm on August 3, 1958, NAUTILUS’ second Commanding Officer, Commander William R. Anderson, announced to his crew, “For the world, our country, and the Navy – the North Pole.” With 116 men aboard, NAUTILUS had accomplished the “impossible”, reaching the geographic North Pole – 90 degrees North.”

The Nautilus was decommissioned in 1980 after a 25-year career that included traveling more than a half-million miles. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982. The submarine has been preserved as a museum ship at the Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, Connecticut, where the vessel receives around 250,000 visitors per year.

August 1, 1944 – Philadelphia White Transit Workers Strike Over Promotion of Black Workers

During World War II, the Philadelphia Transit Company (PTC) was one of the largest transit systems in the country, serving approximately 2,500,000 passengers per day.

In July 1944, the War Manpower Commission ruled that the PTC had to align their hiring practices with policies of the United States Employment Service, which had a strict nondiscrimination policy. On July 27, 1944, the PTC finally began compliance by proposing the promotion of eight whole African American employees (from among a workforce of 11,000) to the position of motormen (i.e., trolley car drivers). In spite of the small number involved, the very idea of blacks having these jobs enraged the white PTC workers. They gathered on company property and decided to strike if any African Americans were promoted. They knew that they had leverage because Philadelphia was the country’s third largest war production city; many of those involved in war industries relied on public transportation to get to their jobs.

White employees of the PTC rally during the strike (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

As a Temple University online exhibit about the strike reports:

Strikers refused to go to work, and all scheduled transportation runs were at a standstill. By the end of August 1, the first day of the strike, 300,000 war workers who relied on the Philadelphia Transit Company had not been able get to work, and war production was seriously diminished.”

Negotiations remained at a stalemate for three days. Even though the strike was racially motivated, the implications for war production made it a federal matter. President Franklin Roosevelt, under the power of the Smith-Connally Act (50 U.S.C. App. 1501 et seq.) sent federal troops to Philadelphia to seize control of the PTC.

(Ironically, Roosevelt had vetoed the Smith-Conally Act when it was passed by Congress. Also called the War Labor Disputes Act, the bill required unions to give formal notice of intention to strike, to observe a 30-day cooling-off period, and to secure majority support for the strike from the rank-and-file membership. Most importantly, it also gave the president the power to seize war plants and to impose penalties for illegal work stoppages. The act expired in June 1947.)

On Saturday, August 5, 5,000 heavily armed troops marched into the city and set up encampments. The soldiers protected PTC employees who still wished to work and to operate the transit cars. The strikers continued to object to black promotions. Blacks countered that if they could fight in the war and drive tanks, they could and should be able to drive trolley cars.

There was some sporadic violence, but “due to local and state government actions to close liquor stores and increase the police presence in the city, and work by the NAACP and other black organizations in the city, peace generally prevailed.” It also became clear that public opinion was against the strike, viewing it as unpatriotic.

The strike ended on Monday, August 7, 1944. The eight new black motormen returned to work on August 9 to begin their training. Federal troops remained in Philadelphia policing the street cars until August 17, when they finally returned control to the PTC and withdrew from the city.

Soldiers putting sign on trolley indicating an end to the strike | Photo: Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities

Temple University describes the aftermath of the strike and the federal response:

By September 1944, seven of the new black motormen were driving PTC trolleys. By the following month, the number of black employees working as motormen had doubled. Black employees in skilled positions steadily increased over the following years.”

Thomas E. Allen, a black employee of the PTC, receiving instruction as a trolley operator