May 28, 1863: The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Marches through Boston

On this day in 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, with 1,007 black soldiers and 37 white officers, paraded in full dress uniform before cheering crowds on the Boston Common. After ceremonies at the State House, they marched to Battery Wharf and boarded steamships for South Carolina.

Seven weeks later, 74 men and their commanding officer, Robert Gould Shaw, were killed in the assault on Fort Wagner.saint-gaudens-54th

On Memorial Day 1897, William James addressed the 60 veterans of the 54th who gathered on the Common for the unveiling of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Memorial to their regiment:

“In these unveiling exercises the duty falls to me of expressing in simple words some of the feelings which have actuated the givers of St. Gaudens’ noble work of bronze, and of briefly recalling the history of Robert Shaw and of his regiment to the memory of this possibly too forgetful generation.

The men who do brave deeds are usually unconscious of their picturesqueness. For two nights previous to the assault upon Fort Wagner, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment had been afoot, making forced marches in the rain; and on the day of the battle the men had had no food since early morning. As they lay there in the evening twilight, hungry and wet, against the cold sands of Morris Island, with the sea-fog drifting over them, their eyes fixed on the huge bulk of the fortress looming darkly three quarters of a mile ahead against the sky, and their hearts beating in expectation of the word that was to bring them to their feet and launch them on their desperate charge, neither officers nor men could have been in any holiday mood of contemplation. Many and different must have been the thoughts that came and went in them during that hour of bodeful reverie ; but however free the flights of fancy of some of them may have been, it is improbable that anyone who lay there had so wild and whirling an imagination as to foresee in prophetic vision this morning of a future May, when we, the people of a richer and more splendid Boston, with mayor and governor, and troops from other States, and every circumstance of ceremony, should meet together to celebrate their conduct on that evening, and do their memory this conspicuous honor.

How, indeed, comes it that out of all the great engagements of the war, engagements in many of which the troops of Massachusetts had borne the most distinguished part, this officer, only a young colonel, this regiment of black men and its maiden battle, — a battle, moreover, which was lost, — should be picked out for such unusual commemoration ?

The historic importance of an event is measured neither by its material magnitude, nor by its immediate success. Thermopylae was a defeat; but to the Greek imagination, Leonidas and his few Spartans stood for the whole worth of Grecian life. Bunker Hill was a defeat; but for our people, the fight over that breastwork has always seemed to show as well as any victory that our forefathers were men of a temper not to be finally overcome. And so here.

The war for our Union, with all the constitutional questions which it settled, and all the military lessons which it gathered in, has throughout its dilatory length but one meaning in the eye of history.
It freed the country from the social plague which until then had made political development impossible in the United States. More and more, as the years pass, does that meaning stand forth as the sole meaning. And nowhere was that meaning better symbolized and embodied than in the constitution of this first Northern negro regiment.”

May 29, 1851: Sojourner Truth addresses the Women’s Rights Convention

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about? That man over there says women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere.Sojourner Truth

Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And arn’t I a woman?

Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And arn’t I woman?

I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And arn’t I a woman?

I have borne thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And aren’t I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [“Intellect,” whispered someone near.] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negro rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, because Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him…. If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!

And now they are asking to do it, the men better let them.

May 27, 1937: Opening of the Golden Gate Bridge

At last the mighty task is done;
Resplendent in the western sungolden-gate-bridge-pedestrian-day-1937
The Bridge looms mountain high;
Its titan piers grip ocean floor,
Its great steel arms link shore with shore,
Its towers pierce the sky.

On its broad decks in rightful pride,
The world in swift parade shall ride,
Throughout all time to be;
Beneath, fleet ships from every port,
Vast landlocked bay, historic fort,
And dwarfing all–the sea.

To north, the Redwood Empire’s gates;
‘To south, a happy playground waits,
in Rapturous appeal;
Here nature, free since time began,
Yields to the restless moods of man,
Accepts his bonds of steel.

Launched midst a thousand hopes and fears,
Damned by a thousand hostile sneers,
Yet ne’er its course was stayed,
But ask of those who met the foe
Who stood alone when faith was low,
Ask them the price they paid.

Ask of the steel, each strut and wire,
Ask of the searching, purging fire,
That marked their natal hour;
Ask of the mind, the hand, the heart,
Ask of each single, stalwart part,
What gave it force and power.

An Honored cause and nobly fought
And that which they so bravely wrought,
Now glorifies their deed,
No selfish urge shall stain its life,
Nor envy, greed, intrigue, nor strife,
Nor false, ignoble creed.

High overhead its lights shall gleam,
Far, far below life’s restless stream,
Unceasingly shall flow;
For this was spun its lithe fine form,
To fear not war, nor time, nor storm,
For Fate had meant it so.

– Joseph P. Strauss, Chief Engineer, Golden Gate Bridge

May 26, 1805: Meriwether Lewis first sights the Rocky Mountains

Capt. Clark walked on shore this morning and ascended to the summit of the river hills. He informed me on his return that he had seen mountains on both sides of the river running nearly parallel with it and at no great distance… He also saw in the course of his walk, some elk, several herds of the big-horn, and the large hare; the latter is common to every part of this open country.  Scarcely any timber to be seen except the few scattering pine and spruce which crown the IMG_0195high hills, or in some instances grow along their sides. In the after part of the day I also walked out and ascended the river hills which I found sufficiently fatiguing.  On arriving to the summit of one of the highest points in the neighborhood I thought myself well repaid for any labor; as from this point I beheld the Rocky Mountains for the first time…

These points of the Rocky Mountains were covered with snow and the sun shone on it in such manner as to give me the most plain and satisfactory view. While I viewed these mountains I felt a secret pleasure in finding myself so near the head of the heretofore conceived boundless Missouri; but when I reflected on the difficulties which this snowy barrier would most probably throw in my way to the Pacific, and the sufferings and hardships of myself and party in them, it in some measure counterbalanced the joy I had felt in the first moments in which I gazed on them; but as I have always held it a crime to anticipate evils I will believe it a good comfortable road until I am compelled to believe differently.
Saw a few Elk & bighorns at a distance. On my return to the river I passed a  creek about 20 yards wide – near its entrance it had a handsome little stream of running water;  in this creek I saw several  soft-shelled Turtles which were the first that have been seen this season…

On the Starboard shore I killed a fat buffalo which was very acceptable to us at this moment; the party came up to me late in the evening and encamped for the night on the larboard side. It was after dark before we finished butchering the buffalo, and on my return to camp I trod within five inches of a rattle snake but being in motion I passed before he could probably put himself in a striking attitude and fortunately escaped his bite…

May 25, 1882: “Decoration Day”

Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest
On this Field of the Grounded Arms,SPS War Statue
Where foes no more molest,
Nor sentry’s shot alarms!

Ye have slept on the ground before,
And started to your feet
At the cannon’s sudden roar,
Or the drum’s redoubling beat.

But in this camp of Death
No sound your slumber breaks;
Here is no fevered breath,
No wound that bleeds and aches.

All is repose and peace,
Untrampled lies the sod;
The shouts of battle cease,
It is the Truce of God!

Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!
The thoughts of men shall be
As sentinels to keep
Your rest from danger free.

Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

May 22, 1856: The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner

On the afternoon of May 22, Charles Sumner was sitting at his desk in the almost empty chamber of the United States Senate, attaching his postal frank to copies of his “Crime Against Kansas” speech which he had delivered two days prior.

Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina, approached him. “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.”

If Preston Brooks had believed Charles Sumner to be a gentleman, he might have challenged him to a duel.  Instead, he sumnerchose a light gutta-percha cane of the type used to discipline unruly dogs.

As Sumner began to stand up, Brooks slammed his metal-topped cane onto the Massachusetts senator’s head. Brooks struck again and again; Sumner pulled himself up and lurched blindly about the chamber, futilely attempting to protect himself. Blinded by his own blood, Sumner staggered up the aisle and collapsed.

Brooks continued beating the motionless Sumner until the cane broke. Bleeding profusely, Sumner was carried away while Brooks walked calmly out of the chamber, without being detained by the stunned onlookers.

Sumner had crossed the line. It wasn’t his abolitionist stance that prompted the assault. It wasn’t just his characterization of Stephen Douglas as a “noise-some, squat, and nameless animal . . . not a proper model for an American senator.” Even more, it was his verbal assault on a man of chivalry, South Carolina senator Andrew Butler, whom he charged with taking “a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean,” added Sumner, “the harlot, Slavery.”

Representative Preston Brooks was Butler’s South Carolina kinsman. He later said that he intended to challenge Sumner to a duel, and consulted with a fellow South Carolina Representative, Laurence M. Keitt, on dueling etiquette. Keitt told him that dueling was for gentlemen of equal social standing, and that Sumner was no better than a drunkard, due to the coarse language he had used during his speech. Since Sumner was no gentleman, it would be more appropriate to beat him with his cane.

Sumner never really recovered from the attack, and he became an increasingly bitter martyr for the abolitionists in the North. An attempt was made to expel Brooks from the House of Representatives, but it failed. He resigned only to be quickly re-elected by his supportive constituency, but he died before he could take office again.

Less than five years later, South Carolina seceded and the shelling of Fort Sumter ushered in the Civil War.

May 21, 1602: Bartholomew Gosnold Discovers Martha’s Vineyard

The one-and-twentieth, we went coasting from Gilbert’s Point to the supposed isles, in ten, nine, eight, seven, and six fathoms, close aboard the shore, and that depth lieth a league off. A little from the supposed isles, appeared unto us an opening, with which we stood, judging it to be the end of that which Captain Gosnold descried from Cape Cod, and as he thought to extend some thirty or more miles in length, and finding there but three fathoms a league off, we omitted to make further discovery of the same, calling it Shoal Hope.Martha's_Vineyard

From this opening the main lieth south-west, which coasting along we saw a disinhabited island, which so afterward appeared unto us: we bore with it, and named it Martha’s Vineyard; from Shoal Hope it is eight leagues in circuit, the island is five miles, and hath 41 degrees and one quarter of latitude.

The place most pleasant; for the two-and-twentieth, we went ashore, and found it full of wood, vines, gooseberry bushes, whortleberries, raspberries, eglantines, &c. Here we had cranes, stearnes, shoulers, geese, and divers other beards which there at that time upon the cliffs being sandy with some rocky stones, did breed and had young. In this place we saw deer: here we rode in eight fathoms near the shore which we took great store of cod,—as before at Cape Cod, but much better.

May 20, 1932: Amelia Earhart Flies Solo across the Atlantic

“Flying may not be all plain sailing, but the fun of it is worth the price.”

“Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”Earhart

“One of my favorite phobias is that girls, especially those whose tastes aren’t routine, often don’t get a fair break… It has come down through the generations, an inheritance of age-old customs, which produced the corollary that women are bred to timidity.”

“Preparation, I have often said, is rightly two-thirds of any venture.”

“Women must pay for everything…. They do get more glory than men for comparable feats. But, also, women get more notoriety when they crash.”

“In my life, I had come to realize that, when things were going very well, indeed, it was just the time to anticipate trouble. And, conversely, I learned from pleasant experience that at the most despairing crisis, when all looked sour beyond words, some delightful “break” was apt to lurk just around the corner.”

“Adventure is worthwhile in itself.”

“Never do things others can do and will do, if there are things others cannot do or will not do.”

“The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life and the procedure. The process is its own reward.”

“The more one does and sees and feels, the more one is able to do, and the more genuine may be one’s appreciation of fundamental things like home, and love, and understanding companionship.”

May 19, 1780: The Dark Day of New England

In mid-morning the sky over New England became enveloped in darkness. The darkness was so complete that candles were required to see. The unnatural gloom may have been caused by smoke from forest fires, but at the time, many feared “the Day of Judgment is come.”

     ‘T was on a May-day of the far old yeardark day
Seventeen hundred eighty, that there fell
Over the bloom and sweet life of the Spring,
Over the fresh earth and the heaven of noon,
A horror of great darkness, like the night
In day of which the Norland sagas tell, —
The Twilight of the Gods. The low-hung sky
Was black with ominous clouds, save where its rim
Was fringed with a dull glow, like that which climbs
The crater’s sides from the red hell below.
Birds ceased to sing, and all the barn-yard fowls
Roosted; the cattle at the pasture bars
Lowed, and looked homeward; bats on leathern wings
Flitted abroad; the sounds of labor died;
Men prayed, and women wept; all ears grew sharp
To hear the doom-blast of the trumpet shatter
The black sky, that the dreadful face of Christ
Might look from the rent clouds, not as he looked
A loving guest at Bethany, but stern
As Justice and inexorable Law.
Meanwhile in the old State House, dim as ghosts,
Sat the lawgivers of Connecticut,
Trembling beneath their legislative robes.
“It is the Lord’s Great Day! Let us adjourn,”
Some said; and then, as if with one accord,
All eyes were turned to Abraham Davenport.
He rose, slow cleaving with his steady voice
The intolerable hush. “This well may be
The Day of Judgment which the world awaits;
But be it so or not, I only know
My present duty, and my Lord’s command
To occupy till He come. So at the post
Where He hath set me in His providence,
I choose, for one, to meet Him face to face, —
No faithless servant frightened from my task,
But ready when the Lord of the harvest calls;
And therefore, with all reverence, I would say,
Let God do His work, we will see to ours.
Bring in the candles.” And they brought them in.

– John Greenleaf Whittier

May 18, 1896: Plessy v. Ferguson Upholds Jim Crow

Homer Plessy wasn’t really a BLACK man. His light skin reflected the fact that his grandfather Germain Plessy was a white Frenchman, born in Bordeaux. Homère Patrice Plessy could best be described as a Creole, that peculiar half-French caste ubiquitous to the bayou country of Louisiana. He had only an eighth part African blood (qualifying him as an Octoroon) and he was light skinned enough to easily pass as white.

At age thirty, Homer Plessy had a career as a shoemaker and a commitment to fight for civil rights. He joined the PlessyComité des Citoyens, a group of African Americans, whites, and Creoles which vigorously opposed Louisiana’s segregation laws. Homer didn’t have great gifts of oratory or legal skills, but his one attribute of being sufficiently light skinned to pass for white helped him challenge the “Separate Car Act” which New Orleans had recently enacted segregating public transportation.

On June 7, 1892, Plessy bought a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad running from New Orleans to Covington, and took a seat in the “whites-only” passenger car. When the conductor came to collect his ticket, Plessy informed him that he was only 7/8 white and that he refused to sit in the “blacks-only” car. Plessy was immediately arrested and put into the Orleans Parish jail.

Plessy’s case came before Judge John Howard Ferguson. The Comité’s lawyer, Albion W. Tourgée argued that Plessy’s civil rights had been violated, as granted by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Judge Ferguson denied this argument and ruled that Louisiana, under state law, had the power to regulate railroad business within its borders.
The Louisiana State Supreme Court affirmed Ferguson’s ruling and refused to grant a rehearing, but it did allow a petition for writ of error. This petition was accepted by the United States Supreme Court and four years later, in April 1896, arguments for Plessy v. Ferguson were heard.

Tourgée argued that the state of Louisiana had violated both the Thirteenth Amendment that granted freedom to the slaves, and the Fourteenth Amendment that stated, “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, and property, without due process of law.”

On May 18th, Justice Henry Billings Brown delivered the majority opinion in favor of the State of Louisiana:
  “The object of the Fourteenth Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based on color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to the either. … If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of voluntary consent of the individuals.”

The lone dissenting vote was cast by Justice John Marshall Harlan:
    “In view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.”

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