The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Are We All Created Equal?

In the introduction to his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk; Essays and Sketches W.E.B. Dubois argued that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” Is that problem still with us today, or do twenty-first-century Americans face a different challenge with respect to race and social justice? This is just one of the intriguing questions we will discuss next Wednesday, 2 April, at the final session of our film & discussion series, “Created Equal.” Facilitated by Joanne Pope Melish, author of Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and "Race" in New England, 1780-1860, this series was made possible through funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

These public programs center on four nationally-acclaimed documentary films that address various aspects of the long Civil Rights movement. (Visit the Created Equal website to learn more about each film, including how to view it online.) Our first event, on 12 February, explored the issue of marriage, and the laws that regulate who can marry whom. In 1958, Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving were married in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, the couple lived in Virginia, where it was technically illegal for them to live as a married couple because Mildred was of African American and Native American descent and Richard was white. The Lovings’ case, which was eventually heard by the Supreme Court of the United States, raised many issues—in the 1950s and in our discussion—about the definition of rights and how the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does (or does not) protect certain rights.

On 12 March, we moved backwards in time to discuss the abolitionist movement using the three-part PBS film The Abolitions. Participants enjoyed debating the methods used by filmmakers to bring this era to life. A fruitful discussion about the film, its intended audience, and “traditional” narratives of American history took up most of the evening. Why, for example, was Frederick Douglass the only back abolitionists mentioned? Here in Boston and New England we recognize the important contributions made by African Americans such as Lewis and Harriet Hayden, and William Cooper Nell.  Participants were distressed to find that these local protagonists were left out of the narrative! We ended the program with this provocative inquiry: were the abolitionists successful?

Our last event will address two important post-Civil War issues. We will watch clips from Slavery by Another Name, which describes the huge system of forced, unpaid labor, mostly affecting Southern black men, that lasted until World War II. We will also view segments of Freedom Riders, a film that celebrates the Freedom Rides of 1961, and the often terrifying conditions faced by black and white volunteers as they attempted to desegregate public spaces in the Deep South. It’s not too late to join us! Contact the Education Department ( to register, or visit our web calendar  to learn more about the program.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 31 March, 2014, 8:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

March draws to a close, finally seeming to trade its lions for lambs. As April arrives we have a slew of programs at the Society this week. So, let us waste no time and get right to it.

Kicking things off on Tuesday, 1 April, stop by at noon for a special author talk with Larry Ruttman who will discuss his book American Jews & America's Game: Voices of a Growing Legacy in Baseball. Ruttman's talk will look at the four main subjects of his work: baseball, American Jewish life in the United States over the last century, American history, and the revealing personal lives of people involved with the game. This talk is free and open to the public.

And on Tuesday evening, beginning at 5:15PM, is the latest in the Early American History Seminar series. In this edition, Jeff Perry of Purdue University presents "From 'Disturbers' to Protectors of the Peace: Baptist Church Discipline and Legalities on the Trans-Appalachian Frontier." In his paper, Perry considers how the instability engendered by the missionary movement and the rise of competing religious sects impacted individual churches' visions of their own authority and their role in regulating their wider communities. In so doing, he speaks to the constantly changing nature of secular and religious authority in the United States. Comment provided by Stephen A. Marini, Wellesley College.  Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP required. Subscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

At noon on Wednesday, 2 April, pack a lunch and come by for a Brown Bag talk. This time, long-term research fellow Chris Cameron, University of North Carolina, Charlotte, presents part of his research for "Liberal Religion and Slavery in America, 1775-1865." His talk explores the disparate ways that liberal ministers engaged with the institution of slavery, whether as pro-slavery thinkers, colonizationists, or radical abolitionists. Cameron also examines the theological underpinnings of liberals' views on slavery, as well as the differences between Unitarian, Universalist, and Transcendentalists' engagement with the institution. This event is free and open to the public.

That evening, beginning at 5:30PM, is a film screening and discussion, part of "Created Equal: America's Civil Rights Struggle," a series made possible through a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, as part of its Bridging Cultures initiative, in partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. "Created Equal: Slavery by Another Name & The Freedom Riders" will feature clips from two films, one based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name, and the other based on Raymond Arsenault's 2007 book Freedom Riders. Both films can be viewed in their entirety at Joanne Pope Melish is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and a visiting scholar in American Studies at Brown University. She is the author of Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860, and she will facilitate the discussion for the evening. Registration for the event is required at no cost. To Reserve: Click here to register online or call the MHS reservations line at 617-646-0560.

The second seminar of the week will take place on Thursday, 3 April, and is part of the History of Women and Gender series. Beginning at 5:30PM, "'Talents Committed to Your Care': Reading and Writing Antislavery" explores the historically contingent identities and the material texts that men and women produced in and through their engagement with a remarkably rich transatlantic literary culture. In looking not only at the cultivation of individual identities but also at the establishment of collective ties, it will be measuring the degree to which gender played a foundational role. Mary Kelley, University of Michigan, will present the material while Elizabeth Maddock Dillon of Northeastern University will provide comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP required. Subscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

Finally, on Saturday, 5 April, come by at 10:00AM for The History and Collections of the MHS, a 90-minute tour of the Society's public rooms led by a docent or MHS staff member and touching on the history of the Society, and the art and architecture of building at 1154 Boylston Street. The tour is free and open to the public. No reservation is required for individuals or small groups. Parties of 8 or more should contact the MHS prior to attending a tour. For more information, please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or

Also, do not forget to visit the MHS to see the current exhibition, "Tell It With Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus-Saint Gaudens' Shaw Memorial." This exhibit, organized by the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, D.C., is open to the public Monday-Saturday, 10:00AM-4:00PM, through 23 May.





comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 12:00 PM

"Feat of strength – not of skill": George Preble's Description of Sumo Wrestling in Japan, 1854

"While we were looking at [150-pound sacks of rice] & I was thinking of getting them off to the ships a procession of fifty athletes filed before us," wrote Lt. George Henry Preble of the U.S.S. Macedonia in a journal of his voyage to China and Japan on 24 March 1854. "Without being tall, these men were giants of bone and fat & muscle – weighing from 200 to 400 lbs each. As we had seen nothing of the kind before, we received them with exclamations of surprise. They were entirely naked except that they wore a stout silken girdle or sash about six inches broad about their loins concealing what modesty should not expose. At a given signal each of these "strong men" for that is the English translation of their Japanese name, seized two packages of the rice, and holding them above their heads carried them with apparent ease to a place beyond [Commodore Matthew Perry] and deposited them in another pile ready for embarkation."

George Preble drawing of

Preble's impression of sumo wrestlers, or Japanese "strong men," caught my attention as I was reading the George H. Preble diaries in search of material pertaining to the Treaty of Kanagawa, 31 March 1854. In this display of culture and resources just days before the signing of the treaty, the Japanese gifted the Americans with Imperial presents including rice, brocades, silk, lacquered furniture, and a small box of toys. In return, the Americans set up a working example of miniature railroad engine, car, and working telegraph line. In a rather condescending note, Preble thought that the American gift of The Birds of America by John James Audubon was worth more than all the Japanese gave. In the same tone, he recounted a detailed description of a sumo match:

The Japanese invited us to the rear of the [Treaty House] and introduced again their strong men this time as wrestlers. … two of our naked & fat friends disrobed of their gay aprons entered and squatted down in the center of the circle. Then they rubbed themselves under the arms & thighs, with the loose black earth, … they then planted themselves firmly on their feet with their hands on their hips – next locked arms, and struggled. The one striving to push the other outside the circle. It was a simple endurance of breath, and feat of strength – not of skill. There was no attempt at tripping with the feet, or what we call wrestling. … At first the exhibition was interesting but it soon grew tedious from repetition. I was glad to be summoned from it …

George Preble was a difficult man to impress. Many of his assumptions about Japanese culture stem from his assessment that the Japanese at the time were technologically, politically, and socially 300 years behind the progress of the Western world, especially due to the Japanese emphasis on isolationism. While I generally disagree with Preble's values in his assessment, his description of a sport, which endures in Japan, is enjoyable nonetheless. Today, the rikishi (wrestlers) still wear the keshō-mawashi (apron) and mawashi (loincloth) in the dohyō (circular ring). The match is won by pushing the opponent outside of the circle or forcing the opponent to touch the ground with any part of his or her body other than the feet. George Preble missed the similar culture of discipline and ceremony between the Japanese wrestlers and his sailors in his quick tedium of the event.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Tuesday, 25 March, 2014, 8:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

As spring struggles to take hold we are keeping our fingers crossed and hoping that the potential storm does not interrupt any of the programs on tap this week.

First up, on Tuesday, 25 March, is "Boston's Chinatowns and Recent Senior Migration," the next edition of our Immigration and Urban History Seminar series. Presented by Nicole Newendorp of Harvard University, the discussion centers on the life ways and services available to low-income, primarily non-English speaking Chinese seniors who live in Boston's downtown Chinatown and Quincy, a satellite Chinatown in the suburbs. In so doing, it re-focuses attention away from the traditional question of defining Chinatown through residential space to the problem of defining community more generally for a heterogeneous group of migrants with a rich diversity of life experiences. Wing-Kai To of Bridgewater State University will provide comment and the talk begins at 5:15PM. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP required. Subscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

Then, on Thursday, 27 March, there is a special event for new Members and Fellows of the Society."New Faces & New Acquisitions" begins at 5:30PM and is a unique opportunity for new Fellows and Members to learn more about and view a selection of the Society's most recent acquisitions, including letters from a stunning collection of Adams and Cranch family correspondence and items from the Civil War archives of Capt. Luis F. Emilio of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. There will also be a reception and the chance to view the current exhibition, Tell It With Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial. Registration is required at no cost. Please call 617-646-0560 or register online by clicking here. For more information about becoming a Member, click here.

Finally, on Saturday, 29 March, there will be no public tour. Instead, beginning at 12:00PM is a special public program: "Tell It With Pride." Visitors are invited to enjoy an afternoon program of exhibition tours and special talks at the MHS related to the Tell It With Pride exhibition currently on display. The afternoon will feature a presentation from the men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment Company A, time to view the exhibition and to converse with the men of the 54th Regiment, and two lectures. The first lecture, starting at 2:00PM, is from author Kathryn Greenthal and titled "Augusts Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial: Its Context and Its Creation." The second lecture, starting at 3:00PM, is "Consecration and Monument: Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment," presented by Henry Duffy, Curator of Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, NH. This program is presented in partnership with the Friends of the Public Garden. To Reserve: Click here to register online or call the MHS reservations line at 617-646-0560. Please register if you plan to attend ANY part of this program (even if you can not join us for the entire afternoon).


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 12:00 PM

"He cannot degrade her": Louisa Catherine Adams on Women’s Natural Equality

While Abigail Adams is often cast into the role of proto-feminist based on her famous "Remember the Ladies" letter to John Adams in March 1776, Louisa Catherine Adams also expressed strong feelings about the natural equality of women, particularly in regards to their intellectual capacity, which were grounded in her understanding of Scripture and Christianity.

In a letter to the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Sarah Grimké in 1838, Louisa wrote:

When God breathed the breath of life into the nostrils of the creatures of his hand, that breath was an emanation of his own nature! I would modestly enquire how in the simple act of inspiring this vitality into the body of Eve, that unchanging and immutable principle, should take a different form in the spiritual existence of the two human beings, who we are told inhabited Paradise!!!

Ere these bodies received the vital inspiration, they were a mere transcript of death; and liable to corruption, but on the instant the divine inspiration was inhaled, these clods became animated in the perfection of human loveliness, so equal in mind, and in the joys of immortality, but the woman so exquisite in her beauty, that Man next to his God even then worshipped at her shrine! and we no where see an evidence of inferiority in the female; but only the sensitive tenderness of Adam, who in the excess of his love spared her from those toils to which he would not expose her beauty. . . .

The Bible repeatedly asserts, “that a virtuous Woman is above all price”; and this was the result of Solomons wisdom— and it was through the Medium of a Woman, in the emblematic purity of her innocence and loveliness, as this being above all price; that the Messiah came into the world to call Sinners to repentance, and to redeem our degenerate race from Sin and death—

Man may subvert woman for his own purposes. He cannot degrade her in the sight of God, so long as she acts up to those great duties, which her Nature and her Constitution enforce; and which enjoins the highest virtues that combine society, in the relations of daughter, Wife, and Mother: from whence originate all the great characteristics which enoble man from the Cradle to the tomb—

This topic would be a recurring one in Louisa’s writings, both in her diaries and letters, in the last twenty-years of her life, and perhaps inspired her to record her “Narrative of a Journey from Russia to France,” which she prefaced:

It may perhaps at some future day serve to recal the memory of one, who was—and show that many undertakings which appear very difficult and arduous to my Sex, are by no means so trying as imagination forever depicts them— And that energy and discretion, follow the necessity of their exertion, to protect the fancied weakness of feminine imbecility.

Louisa Catherine Adams diary

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 19 March, 2014, 1:00 AM

older posts