10 Things You Should Know About Thomas Jefferson* Before You Tour ‘Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello’

Photo | Shutterstock

Photo | Shutterstock

This week, the National Constitution Center opened the doors to Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello, its six month-long exhibition about Thomas Jefferson. And to my surprise, the organizers didn’t engage in the customary American practice of sweeping slavery under the rug. In fact, they went right at it by including the word “Slavery” in their title and by addressing “the stories of six slave families who ‘lived’ and ‘worked’ at Jefferson’s plantation — the Fossett, Granger, Gillete, Hemings, Hern, and Hubbard families — and their descendants who fought for justice and helped bring to light their ancestors’ lives and values.”

Nice, huh? Well, yes. But only kinda. By that, I mean they didn’t really “live.” Instead, they actually “suffered and survived.” And they didn’t really “work.” Instead, they actually “slaved and toiled.” But let’s not quibble over semantics. Instead, let’s go the to heart of the matter by enlightening you about who — and what — Thomas Jefferson truly was.

Here are 10 things you didn’t know about him:

10 Things You Should Know About Thomas Jefferson* Before You Tour ‘Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello’ »

Philly’s Octavius Catto Was the Hero of America’s First Civil Rights Movement


Octavius Catto | Image courtesy Temple University Press

Tomorrow, Saturday, Feb. 22, is the birthday of a great American who raised his voice against tyranny and oppression and led a people into a new dawn of freedom.

Of course, we’re talking about Octavius V. Catto, one of the unsung heroes of the first Civil Rights Movement — the one that had a civil war in its middle.

He is unsung no more, though, for 2014 is shaping up to be his year. On his birthday, a jubilee of spirituals and praise at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Society Hill, the nation’s oldest historically black church, kicks off a six-month long festival celebrating Catto’s life and legacy organized by the Mann Music Center and culminating in a July concert at the Mann that will feature a new orchestral work, “The Passion of Octavius Catto,” composed by Philadelphia native Uri Caine and performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra.

And this spring, a committee headed by Councilman James Kenney will announce that it has raised the funds needed to erect a statue of Catto outside City Hall. The announcement will mark the successful conclusion of a campaign launched in 2007 with the support of Jack Straw, the retired head of the Abraham Lincoln Foundation at the Union League of Philadelphia, and other prominent citizens.

What accounts for this sudden explosion of interest in Catto? Actually, it’s not sudden — it’s the fruit of seeds planted more than a decade ago by a number of individuals.

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End Black History Month Now

african-american-history-monthA version of this article ran in February, 2012.

Despite being the self-described “Angriest Black Man in America,” I agree with many whites who argue that Black History Month (BHM) should be abolished.

But we agree for totally different reasons.

They want it abolished because they’re either, at best, racially insensitive or, at worst, just plain racist. That’s why they take the emotionally based position that BHM is nothing more than some reverse racism entitlement nonsense that gives credit to a whiny race of shiftless people who have always received much more than they have ever given to America and the colonies.

Furthermore, they claim, BHM is unfair to white ethnics whose ancestors came here through Ellis Island and were subjected to harsh discrimination. But, they contend, instead of complaining, their ancestors simply fought through it, pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, and in just a few generations became educated, successful, and even prosperous members of society, living the American Dream.

Moreover, they say, they never needed no damn English, Italian, German, Polish, or other history month because their superior actions spoke louder than inferior words. Therefore, they opine, BHM should be abolished.

Good conclusion. Bad reasoning.

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Philly Was the First City in America to Have Squirrels


Philadelphia, squirrel pioneer. A paper by Penn’s Etienne Benson investigates the proliferation of squirrels in American cities, and finds that they are in no way indigenous to urban areas. City planners and squirrel enthusiasts introduced them to northeastern cities in the mid-19th century. And Philly, he finds, was likely the first to bring the critters to town.

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Of Course the World’s First Selfie Was Taken in Philadelphia


Philadelphia is a city of many national firsts. First zoo. First computer. First row houses. First stock exchange. First lending library. First volunteer fire squad. First paper mill. First public parks. First Thanksgiving Day parade. First department store (Wanamaker’s). And now, we learn that the world’s first selfie was taken in Philadelphia.* Read more »

The Right Side of History?



We Americans are a fairly history-minded people. No, we don’t always know our history as well as we should—but the history we do know often tends to act as a trump card in our current political debates. Think about it: There are few conversation stoppers quite so effective as: “You’re on the wrong side of history!

This is unfortunate, because that attitude treats history as an inexorable force for good, rather than the product of millions of human choices about how to act, and millions more human choices about how to interpret all of those choices. History isn’t a train that we’re riding to some inevitable destination; it’s something we make together, every day.

Sometimes, we we even make choices that end up looking, well, wrong.

On the face of it, the Harrisburg Patriot & Union made the wrong choice back in 1863. The paper covered President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—now judged one of the most famous orations in the English language, and memorized by generations of schoolchildren—and gave it a thumbs-down.

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Can USA250 Make Philly the Star of America’s 250th Birthday?


I was 13 years old in 1976—not exactly a budding patriot, but a good enough student of American history by that point to understand that the bicentennial of the country was a big deal. And so it was that on the bright and beautiful morning of July 4th, I bounded in from church (it was Sunday) and tore up the stairs to my bedroom in Northeast Philly, changing into my own version of the Stars and Stripes (red shirt, blue shorts, white sneakers) for not just any day, but the day: the nation’s 200th birthday. Read more »

What Can Philly Learn From Kansas City?

Philadelphia was once the biggest, baddest town in North America.

We were once second only to London in size in the English-speaking world. The national capital. The nation’s financier. The biggest port. The center of American publishing. The birthplace of the advertising industry. A pioneer in broadcasting. The home of the nation’s first university, hospital, library… the list goes on and on.

The university, hospital and library are all still around, but just about everything else is gone, long gone. (Save maybe for that broadcasting stuff, thanks to Comcast.) Yet somehow, it seems that whenever there’s a discussion about Philadelphia today, that past weighs heavily on our collective consciousness.

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