Bureaucrats Make History

I guess today is history day. I ended up reading this article, “How Slavery Really Ended in America” accidentally, but by the time I hit the fourth paragraph, or so, I was hooked. It’s a story I didn’t know at all, and it is truly fascinating.

Yet to Fort Monroe’s new commander, the fugitives who turned up at his own front gate seemed like a novel case. The enemy had been deploying them to construct a battery aimed directly at his fort — and no doubt would put them straight back to work if recaptured, with time off only for a sound beating. They had just offered him some highly useful military intelligence. And Virginia, as of 12 or so hours ago, was officially in rebellion against the federal government, having just ratified the secession ordinance passed a month before. Butler had not invited the fugitives in or engineered their escape, but here they were, literally at his doorstep: a conundrum with political and military implications, at the very least. He could not have known — not yet — that his response that day might change the course of the national drama that was then just beginning. Yet it was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that an unanticipated bureaucratic dilemma would force the hand of history…

Whatever Butler’s decision on the three fugitives’ fate, he would have to reach it quickly. He had barely picked up his pen to finally begin that report before an adjutant interrupted with another message: a rebel officer, under flag of truce, had approached the causeway of Fort Monroe. The Virginians wanted their slaves back…

Earthshaking events are sometimes set in motion by small decisions. Perhaps the most famous example was when Rosa Parks boarded a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala. More recently, a Tunisian fruit vendor’s refusal to pay a bribe set off a revolution that continues to sweep across the Arab world. But in some ways, the moment most like the flight of fugitive slaves to Fort Monroe came two decades ago, when a minor East German bureaucratic foul-up loosed a tide of liberation across half of Europe. On the evening of Nov. 9, 1989, a tumultuous throng of people pressed against the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie, in response to an erroneous announcement that the ban on travel to the West would be lifted immediately. The captain in charge of the befuddled East German border guards dialed and redialed headquarters to find some higher-up who could give him definitive orders. None could. He put the phone down and stood still for a moment, pondering. “Perhaps he came to his own decision,” Michael Meyer of Newsweek would write. “Whatever the case, at 11:17 p.m. precisely, he shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, ‘Why not?’ . . . ‘Alles auf!’ he ordered. ‘Open ’em up,’ and the gates swung wide.”

The Iron Curtain did not unravel at that moment, but that night the possibility of cautious, incremental change ceased to exist, if it had ever really existed at all. The wall fell because of those thousands of pressing bodies, and because of that border guard’s shrug.

In the very first months of the Civil War — after Baker, Mallory and Townsend breached their own wall, and Butler shrugged — slavery’s iron curtain began falling all across the South. Lincoln’s secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay, in their biography of the president, would say of the three slaves’ escape, “Out of this incident seems to have grown one of the most sudden and important revolutions in popular thought which took place during the whole war.”

The rest is equally interesting.


Free History Event For Students

News of this very cool event arrived via an email from Jackie Kirley (retired History):

To friends in academic settings:  note students attend Free.

On Thursday, April 7th the Working Women’s History Project will host an event  commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the fire that changed America.

On March 25, 1911, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City took the lives of 146 workers unable to escape the fire.  Many jumped from the 9th floor; others died piled up in front of a locked door.  Almost all were immigrants.

Public outrage and grief at this horrific tragedy led to new work and safety regulations and general acceptance of collective bargaining.  Workers had struck clothing factories two years earlier to protest terrible working conditions and low pay, but to no avail at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. This tragedy brought reform.

Tickets are $25 ( $30 at the door).  They can be purchased online at www.wwhpchicago.org or by mail using the accompanying flyer.

Students attend FREE but must register by email to:  jackie@wwhpchgo.org and bring a current ID with them.

The event includes

  • a light buffet with wine
  • an original play on the Triangle Fire told from the perspectives of an attorney, one deceased young woman, one survivor – woman, a family member of victim, and the factory owner.
  • a historian who authored a book on the Triangle Fire, an OSHA compliance officer, the Midwestern VP of the American Society of Safety Engineers, and the Executive Director of Jobs with Justice who will examine changes in work safety regulations, manufacturing in a global economy, and the organizing of workers.

It is noteworthy that today America is revisiting the debate about worker rights. Come and join the discussion in the Question & Answer period following the panel.


Jackie Kirley       Information at jackie@wwhpchicago.org or 773.667.4690

History Education Status Report

It looks ugly out there. Don’t assume background historical knowledge.

“I think they learn information by itself, in isolation,” Frazer said of his students. “But putting the big picture together is not happening.”…

High school students’ lack of a historical knowledge base can partially be explained by the decrease in class time spent on social studies at the elementary level. History is not an area that requires testing under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, so it often gets shortchanged, teachers said.

“In a lot of districts, social studies and science have been removed from the curriculum, per se, because of math and language arts testing,” said Gayla Hammer of South Elementary School in Lander, Wyoming.

And don’t forget how important history is for learning about and understanding the world...