Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Puzzling Out the Klan at Smith College


Smith College yearbook, 1907

The women of Smith College, class of 1907, enlisted in all kinds of activities.  Sororities, sports clubs, literary and drama societies . . .   

Also that year – just that one year – 17 of them belonged to a campus chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

The group designed its own yearbook page with an illustration by one of the members, Elizabeth Bishop Ballard.  Like the other women, Elizabeth was born in 1885.  She liked to write poems and had contributed several to the famous children’s monthly, the St. Nicholas Magazine, when she was a little girl.

Located in Northampton, Mass., amidst the Berkshire Mountains, Smith College was founded in 1871 by a young woman named Sophia Smith who had inherited a fortune from her brother.  After much deliberation, she decided to create a women’s college that would have the distinction of not being modeled after a seminary.*

With its faculty of eminent scholars who taught the classics, the Bible, sciences, philosophy, languages, history, and economics, Smith was an unlikely place for the Klan.  Led by a progressive theologian, L. Clark Seelye, the college drew the daughters of privilege from the East Coast, Upper Midwest and Mountain States.  None of the members of Smith’s Klan chapter came from the South.  So what explains the group’s presence?

Smith College entrance, 1907

In the course of American history, the Klan was most active during three periods: during Reconstruction, which ended in 1877; during the 1920s when the organization’s resurgence was largely a reaction to immigration and urbanization; and during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.

One might argue that the Klan became less active between 1890 and 1918, as reflected in a steady decline in the number of lynchings of Southern black men.  However, Jim Crow – the racial apartheid laws which ensured the disenfranchisement, dehumanization and segregation of Southern blacks – was flourishing.  In the South, daily life remained brutal and fraught with terror for nonwhite citizens. 

In the North, racial prejudice was expressed less openly although it permeated daily life.  Many stereotypes originated with the educated white upper class, which popularized the degradation of black people.  Throughout the Progressive Era, books, music, film, and theater ridiculed blacks, on one hand, and romanticized the Old South, on the other.

Mass culture, starting to rear its head during the first decade of the twentieth century, perpetuated racism.

For example, during this time, fashionable reading included a trilogy that sentimentalized the Klan, written by Thomas Dixon, Jr., a North Carolinian novelist.  The third volume, The Traitor, A Story of the Fall of the Invisible Empire, appeared in 1907.  It followed The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905).  The latter would be turned into a popular film, Birth of a Nation, directed by D. W. Griffith.**

Also between 1901 and 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt and his wife arranged White House performances of “coon songs.”  The German diplomat Baron Speck von Sternburg and TR’s Secretary of State, John Hay (once President Lincoln’s private secretary) were among the guests who applauded “You’se Just a Little Nigger, Still Youse Mine, All Mine,” and the like. 



Still, could the lives of the women who joined Smith’s Klan chapter contain clues to its existence on campus?

The group’s president, and probably its founder, was a New Yorker named Millicent Vaughan Lewis.  After graduating from college, she became one of the “Ladies of Grecourt,” the original Smith College Relief Unit that volunteered in the Somme during the summer of 1916.  After returning from Europe, Millicent became active in The Robin’s Nest, a home for convalescing children in suburban New York City.  She died in 1963.  

Millicent Vaughan Lewis, 1907

Ethel Mildred Baine and her husband, Charles, ran a cattle ranch in a small Arizona town called Willcox, which was established in 1880 by the Southern Pacific Railroad.   

Carmen Crittenden Mabie married an engineer, a graduate of West Point who worked for the Federal Government.  The couple died young in 1928, victims of a car accident on Highway 60 outside Encino, N.M.   
   
Lulu Morley Sanborn married a mining engineer, the president of his class at West Point, who had established himself as a reckless though reliable entrepreneur in Argentina, Colombia, and Ecuador.  He died in Brazil in 1958, but Lulu’s trail is cold.  It’s not even clear whether she moved to Latin America with her husband.

Nothing in particular points to why these women embraced the Klan.  I conclude that the brief existence of this campus organization reflected both frivolity and the type of rationalized prejudice toward black Americans that extended to all minority groups, and persists today.

Illustration from Thomas Dixon's
1905 novel, The Clansman

*Before 1871, all women’s colleges in the U.S. had started as female seminaries. 
**In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson screened the film at the White House.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Runaway


 He ran away from this house in a suburb of New York City

The boy took off just after the school year ended, leaving a prim village in the New York City suburbs and heading west.  It was 1925, the crash was four years off, and in his pocket was the not insignificant sum of $40.

Kenneth left a note of explanation for his parents.  He had been up to some mischief, trespassing at the pool of a wealthy neighbor, and he didn’t want to face the humiliation of apology and punishment.  Please leave me alone, he added.

Kenneth’s father, advertising manager for the American Tobacco Company, offered a $5,000 reward.  His mother was said to be prostrated and in serious condition. 

Stylized portrait of Kenneth's father

Just outside Pittsburgh, an executive with the Hillman Coal and Coke Company picked up the 15-year old hitchhiker, bought him dinner at the local YMCA, and dropped him at the Salvation Army Home nearby.  Later he realized that the boy was Kenneth Penrod, the object of a nationwide search.  The following day, he wrote matter-of-factly to the father on Hillman company letterhead:

“Thursday your son was to leave for Columbus, and on to Chicago.  I did not get the impression that he had informed his parents of the proposed trip.  However, I am sure that you need not worry, as he is able to take of himself and was in good spirits.”

As Kenneth continued his journey, he spent a few days working on a farm in Ohio.  “Yes I can do farm work, chores, and I know how to take care of horses, harrow corn, and do other things about a place.  I got up at sunrise and quit work at dark.  I was to get $3.50 a day,” he would tell a reporter, triumphantly.

Original Lincoln Highway marker
 
Kenneth had hoped to stick to the Lincoln Highway from Philly to Pittsburgh to Chicago and onward.  But he strayed to the small city of Kenton, Ohio, where he got a lift from a truck driver named Carter, who recognized the boy from a newspaper photo and took him to the police in Cleveland, three hours away.  The next night, Kenneth’s father arrived by train to bring his son back to New York. 

There, much would be hashed out. 

When Kenneth was born in Omaha in 1909, his parents had been married a scant year and his father had already launched a career in advertising.  This profession was a very good choice.  As mass culture developed, radio, cars, film, music, and fashion – not to mention the Book-of-the-Month Club – drove modern entertainment and consumption. 

Billboards proliferated along with automobiles during
the first decade of the twentieth century 

In Omaha, the father made his name working for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, where he helped create the market for roadside billboards.  Then he jumped to the tobacco industry, which took the family away from his wife’s Nebraska clan, first to Chicago and then New York.  By that time a daughter, Helen, had come along.  She was six and Kenneth was nine when they arrived in the affluent one square-mile village located a half-hour from Grand Central Terminal.

But Kenneth became deeply unhappy.  He remembered halcyon days in Omaha with aunts, uncles, and cousins all around.  He missed the easy Nebraska summers spent at the family’s country estate at Papillion, a small city with unpaved streets whose name derived from the French word for butterfly, papillon.  French fur traders were among its early settlers. Through it ran the Papio Creek, a tributary of the Missouri River; full of fish and prone to flood.

Unsurprisingly, after the swimming pool incident, Kenneth made his plan to go to Nebraska.

Kenneth in Papillion,
Nebraska (summer 1925)

But now he found himself in New York again, negotiating with his parents.  Finally, the father agreed to let Kenneth and Helen visit his wife’s family for a few weeks.  But something would have to be done about Kenneth’s schooling, he warned, for it seemed that more problems would ensue.

In Papillion, Warner smiled for a local photographer and sat for a newspaper interview.  “It’s great to be out here again – it’s just like coming home,” he said.  “I may even go to high school here in the fall.”

“When a fellow feels like that about a place, you can hardly blame him for making a run for it – now can you?” the reporter wrote.  He noted Kenneth’s blond hair and athletic ability.

Meanwhile, Kenneth’s father made plans for him to attend a boys’ boarding school in New Jersey.  In late August he drove Kenneth to Blairstown.  They talked with the headmaster and walked around the grounds.  After a few hours the father said goodbye to his son.   

One month later, Kenneth developed acute gangrenous appendicitis.  The local surgeon operated on him but he died five days later.

Part of this sad tale took place in a house where we once lived.  I keep wondering which room was Kenneth’s; where he stared out the window toward Nebraska.   


"It's just like coming home"

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Armistice Turns 100



We took these photographs on a cold rainy day at the Somme Battlefields, in June 2016. 

That year marked the centennial of the Battle of the Somme, which actually comprised a series of bloody trench-warfare battles between the British and French armies, and the armies of the German Empire.  

Across nearly five months, three million soldiers fought and more than one million were killed or wounded.  On the first day of the battle, the British suffered 57,470 casualties, of which 19,240 were fatalities.  Most historians agree that neither side won.

As is the case in many World War I cemeteries, more than one thousand of the headstones bear the inscription, A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God

Here are two quotations that I like.

Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected.  Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends. 



Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.**






*Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975).
**Last verse of MCMXIV, by British poet laureate Philip Larkin (1964).

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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The First Lady is upstairs today




Now that the White House has celebrated Halloween, Melania Trump will retreat once more to the second-floor family residence.  Apart from the turkey pardon and Christmas parties, she probably will appear infrequently in public until 2019. 

From the start, this First Lady has been unusually remote; socially and emotionally unavailable to the American people.  She does not wish to conform to the modern conventions associated with the First Lady, which emerged around 1902 during the Theodore Roosevelt administration.

Edith Roosevelt became the first president’s wife to grant routine press coverage of herself and her children.  Such access increased over time.  During the past three decades, as the media grew and the realm of First Ladies scholarship intensified, historians have drawn ever greater attention to the role of the president’s wife, raising expectations that the women will engage fully with the public.
             
But now, nearly 20 months into the Trump presidency, we must conclude that the First Lady is most interested in engaging with a very small circle of friends and family.  

Historically, she is not alone. For antecedents, look to the dark, rainy first half of the nineteenth century.  One might not recognize the names outright, for the women are obscure. Just like Melania Trump, they were reluctant to leave the second floor of the White House.
             
The women were Margaret Taylor, Abigail Fillmore, and Jane Pierce, three ladies who never wanted their husbands to run for president and definitely didn’t care to move to the capital city that was flourishing at the edge of a swamp.

Margaret Taylor
          
Not everyone regarded the city with dread.  By 1850, notwithstanding the summertime mosquitoes and damp winter chill in the president’s house, Washington, D.C. captivated many a visitor. None other than the vivacious Dolley Madison (wife of the fourth president) made things sparkle. She hosted brilliant salons and encouraged the White House ladies who followed her to step lively.
             
Dolley died in 1849, the year before Margaret Taylor arrived at the executive mansion.  But it mattered not to Margaret, Abigail and Jane, who brushed off society and politics and participated in few White House events.
             
To be sure, they had reasons.
             
Margaret grieved for her daughter, the first wife of Jefferson Davis, who died of malaria while visiting Louisiana during “fever season.”

Jane Pierce
          
Jane mourned the loss of her 11-year old son who died before her eyes in a train accident less than two months before her husband was sworn in as president.
             
Abigail’s health was poor.

In turn, the three women stayed upstairs, read the Bible, and welcomed a few friends to the parlor.  They sent their daughters and nieces downstairs to receive visitors and preside over dinners.
             
The wives of presidents Taylor, Fillmore and Pierce were cast from the antebellum feminine ideal that historians refer to as “the cult of true womanhood,” which was fostered by a patriarchal system. The ideal virtues were piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.

Abigail Fillmore
           
Melania Trump conforms, in part, to the type. Her adventures in modeling took her where no First Lady has gone before, so one might cross off purity. Her manner is largely compliant, however, and she prefers to be at home.
             
And so there exists an odd affinity on the second floor of the White House. 

On one hand, here is a woman who owes her rise to the twenty-first century’s lack of inhibitions.  On the other hand, there are three Victorian ladies dressed in black gowns with stiff lace bodices, bent over their embroidery and asking for smelling salts.   


Antebellum White House


Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Wonderful World of Waldemar Kaempffert

An ambitious writer, Waldemar Kaempffert 

Think fearlessly of Waldemar Kaempffert, one of America’s first and most prolific science writers, striding onto the scene.  His blue eyes are brilliant and his hair prematurely gray. 

In 1919 he scolded the New York Times about the proper usage of the word “blimp”:

The R-34 is a rigid dirigible of the Zeppelin type. It has very little in common with the “blimp.”

Really, how could he help but correct the mistakes that assaulted him at every turn?  Not only was he bright and analytical.  He also held strong opinions about nearly everything:

The existence of canals on Mars,

Psychopathic laboratories in prisons,

the patent rights of inventors who worked for large corporations . . .

Waldemar Bernhard Kaempffert was born ambitious in New York City in 1877, the son of a German immigrant father and a Russian-German mother.  He received honors and awards all through his years in public school on the Upper West Side.

Soon after graduating from City College in 1897, Waldemar joined Scientific American as an assistant editor.  This gave him quite a perch, not to mention prestige.  He went on to earn an LL.B. from NYU while continuing at the magazine.  In 1905 he published his first major article, “The Protective Mimicry of Insects,” in Booklovers Magazine.   

Illustration from Kaempffert's
article about insects

Then he was off and running, covering carbon and Tungsten light, weather forecasting, alternative uses for pneumatic tubes – everything new that emerged through the scientific method or from someone’s crazy imagination.

For Waldemar had arrived at his profession at just at the right moment.  Radioactivity was revealed in 1895.  That led to the discovery of atomic particles.  The microscope lit up ever more infinitesimal lifeforms.  And the First World War would spur major advances in technology and medicine.  Waldemar was among the first Americans to grasp the extent to which German scientists had outpaced the United States and England. 

During the war, Waldemar left Scientific American to become editor of Popular Science Monthly, where he stayed until the mid-twenties when he joined the New York Times.  On the beat, he covered the invention of television and the radiotelephone, and the first transatlantic call between London and New York. 

Waldemar would write thousands of articles on scientific topics as well as several books.

He did have a break from journalism.  In 1928 he was called to Chicago where the businessman and philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald, planned to create a science museum inside the last remaining building of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition.  During a trip to Munich in 1911, the multimillionaire had been deeply impressed by the Deutsches Museum, which was -- still is -- the world's largest museum devoted to science and technology.

 Museum of Science and Industry, 1930s

In need of major repairs, the exposition building was located in Jackson Park in the Hyde Park neighborhood along Lake Michigan.  Ultimately it would be recast in limestone, thus keeping its Beaux Arts exterior. 

Rosenwald charged Waldemar with designing exhibitions and assembling the curatorial staff.  The mission of the new museum – like the one in Munich – would be to demonstrate how science and technology transform culture and society.  

By 1930, Waldemar’s wife Carolyn, a concert pianist, had joined him in Chicago and the couple moved into an apartment hotel just a few blocks from the museum.  But something went wrong; not quite a scandal but certain irregularities that led the board of directors to push Waldemar out.  In 1931 he headed back east to ask the Times editors to give him back his job, and they agreed. 

Carolyn died a few years later.  

 In his later years
Until his own death in 1956, Waldemar remained busy writing several stories each week. In his obituary, the Times quoted Waldemar himself, who often said that his function was “to make science so clear that the scientists could understand it.”

A childless widower, Waldemar bequeathed more than $25,000 to Memorial Hospital for cancer research.*  He left $5,000 to Dr. Elizabeth Baker, a social scientist at Columbia University who studied the effect of technology on jobs.  He left $2,500 to Marie Mossoba Berlinghoff, his assistant of nearly 25 years. 

The remainder went to a stage actress named Sophie Wilds, who seems to have pursued a Bohemian life from her little brick house in Greenwich Village!


*Now Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Manhattan Storm

A sense of foreboding nationwide

*Photo taken last night

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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Lending Firelight in Montana



We went to Montana to visit friends.  They live in a hillside house that overlooks Flathead Lake.  There’s a dock made of weathered wood that reaches east toward the morning sun.  The light dances like diamonds on the glacial water. 

We faced the smoke-shrouded mountains from a spot so small that it is merely a Census Designated Place (CDP).  In the distance on Wild Horse Island, bighorn sheep and mule deer ambled around with the occasional brown bear, although we couldn’t see them. 

The property has been in the family for several generations.  Therefore, a great-great grandmother who taught at the local school must certainly have run into Frank Bird Linderman, who came to the territory in 1885 from Elyria, Ohio, at the age of 16.  Working as a trapper, in search of adventure, he was one of millions to whom the West beckoned as the American century loomed on the horizon.

Married in Missoula in 1893, the father of three children, Frank went on to be an assayer, furniture salesman, journalist, sculptor, and politician.  But it was the culture and history of Montana’s Native Americans that became his passion.



By 1917, when Frank built a cottage for his family on Flathead Lake, he had already published his first book, Indian Why Stories: Sparks from War Eagle’s Lodge-Fire. 

“Why the Chipmunk’s Back is Striped,” he explained in one story; “Why the Mountain-Lion is Long and Lean,” “Why Indians Whip the Buffalo Berries from the Bushes,” and much more. 

Western artist Charles Russell, widely admired for his paintings of cowboys and Indians, was Frank’s good friend and illustrated his books. 

The Flathead, Kootenai, Chippewa, Blackfeet, Cree and Crow – Frank interviewed members of the tribes using sign language and interpreters.  The legends he learned appeared in Bunch-Grass and Blue Joint (1921), Plenty-Coups, Chief of the Crows (1930) and his other books. 


Frank Bird Linderman, the Chippewa medicine man Big-rock,
and the artist Charles M. Russell in Montana
(1916)

Frank wanted to “write of the old days as they were, so men would appreciate and not forget,

to lend firelight,

to tell and not cheat in the telling.”

His affinity with Flathead Lake, which is bordered by mountains on the west and east, prompted him to tell his daughter:

“I know every inch of that country on both sides of the ranges.  I have camped in every place on the shore of the lake when Manitou was king.”

Who was Manitou? 

Among Native Americans, Manitou is a Great Spirit, a life force, the creator.  Manitou also refers to the things that are most valued in life.  

Manitou is a celebration of wonderful occurrences.  It is a rite of passage.  It is stumbling across a huckleberry bush on the way up the mountain, or the glint of a rainbow trout in the Flathead River.




*Linderman was not alone in his desire to document the lives of Native Americans.  The photographer and ethnographer Edward S. Curtis launched his North American Project around 1900, ultimately producing 40,000 photographs of 80 tribes, 10,000 wax recordings, and the 20-volume book, The North American Indian.

**Frank Linderman died in California in 1938 after years of poor health.

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