Category Archives: History

Created Equal: Clarence Thomas In His Own Words

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A new Michael Pack documentary on Justice Thomas is being shown in select theaters.

……[T]he film connects Justice Thomas’s roots in a time and place when black Americans were denied the dignity of equal treatment under the law with his eventual embrace of a natural rights and natural law philosophy that he adopted in part through the influence of John Marini and Ken Masugi. Both worked for Justice Thomas in the eighties and are now senior fellows at the Claremont Institute. During most cuts in the film, an image of the Declaration’s lines about all men being created equal runs across the screen.

To Mr. Pack’s credit, however, the movie never descends into a con law lecture. It’s an opportunity to hear the story of an amazing but winding journey from the standpoint of Justice Thomas and, to a lesser extent, his wife Virginia. Mr. Pack recorded thirty hours of interviews, including some recordings of Justice Thomas reading the most beautiful passages from his memoir. Laced through the movie are scenes of a small boat seen from above navigating the maze-like wetlands around Pin Point, Georgia, the site of the Justice’s earliest memories. The movie’s original score by Charlie Barnett is beautiful and often plaintive.

With his brother and their somewhat erratic mother, Justice Thomas spent his first few years in Pin Point, where the poverty experienced by his Gullah family and neighbors was livable and off-set by the tight-knit community. His father abandoned the family when he was two, and his mother was able to survive for a while on hard work. When she moved Clarence and his brother to Savannah after a fire destroyed their home, they found the urban poverty much more unbearable. Justice Thomas recalls the sewage from tenement toilets being flushed out into the yards. Archival photos of the city show the boards that denizens would position from the street to their porches to avoid walking through the waste.

When young Clarence was seven, his mother asked her own parents, Myers and Christine Anderson, to take in her two young boys. While Christine was a comforting figure, Myers was nearly illiterate, but a fiercely independent thinker whose memorization of swaths of the Bible had led him to be a Republican and also convert to Catholicism in the late 1940s. This unbending disciplinarian believed that the curse of the fall relating to working by the sweat of one’s brow was best embraced as a reality. He greeted the boys with a warning: “The damn vacation is over.” It was not an act… more.

From the Pin Point Heritage Museum, Savannah, Georgia:

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Pin Point from Moon River Bridge 2005

Reading a Book

Over the years I have acquired a small library of books that interest me.  Some I’ve read, many I have re-read,  but there are too many I have not read at all.  So I am going to try to not buy [too many] any books for a while and read some that I already have.

I thought about finishing up all the books I have started and not finished first, especially Ron Chernow’s Grant, and Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend by Robertson.  But then I spied a book I gave Dad a couple of years ago.  I doubt he was able to read it, but I think I will read it now.  Compared to the books I just mentioned it is a short story, so I should be able to get one book read in no time.  I hope it is as interesting as I think it will be.  The book:

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Reading Sudden Sea

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I am reading R. A. Scotti’s Sudden Sea: The Great  Hurricane of 1938, lent to me by a friend. It reads like a mystery and I am enjoying it. An early chapter, “A Perfect Day” describes Westerly, Rhode Island,  and a little of its history and local flavor. I have lived in or near Westerly at various times in my life…about 20 years total, so lot of the history, topography and culture is familiar to me, but I was surprised to read this:

The first of Westerly’s natural assets is bluish granite, considered by many to have the finest texture in the world.  (I knew that much).  In the nineteenth century when the Smith Granite Company, Westerly’s first and largest quarry, was buzzing, skilled stonecutters from northern Italy were imported to carve Civil War monuments and gravestones.  Eighty percent of the memorials for both Yankee and Confederate soldiers are built of Westerly blue granite, and the masons who carved them established the roots of an Italian community that remains strong to this day.

The author is so engaging that I was almost unaware that she was slowly explaining weather patterns and how and why hurricanes form.  And sometimes she throws in a little philosophy.  For instance:

The official gauge of a hurricane’s destructive force is the Saffir-Simpson Damage Potential Scale.  Storms are measured according to sustained wind speed, storm surge height, and barometric pressure and classified on a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being “catastrophic.”  Only one Category 5 storm had ever reached the continental United States–Labor Day 1935.  The Labor Day hurricane had been a tightly coiled tropical cyclone–small, swift, and singularly nasty.  The Hurricane of 1938 was shaping up to be a big, sprawling mother storm–some five hundred miles in diameter, as big as the state of Ohio.

       Although Galileo proved long ago that man is not the center of the universe, we  tend to take weather personally.  If it rains, it is raining on our parade.  If it shines, it is shining for our benefit.  Most days we go along blithely unconcerned that directly over our heads is a vast, never static sea of gases that we can’t control and only partially understand.  That gaseous ocean is immense and mysterious, yet we largely ignore it until weather as formidable as an extreme hurricane strikes and we face a force infinitely mightier and more savage than ourselves.

It is a fascinating read.

Vladimir Bukovsky: A Dissadent’s Dissadent

The June 3, 2019 edition of the magazine National Review is all “Against Socialism.”  Jay Nordlinger has an article in it, “Bukovsky’s Judgment”  about Vladimir Bukovsky, a Soviet dissident, and the book he wrote, Judgement in Moscow.  It is fascinating to me.

Nordlinger:

    All Soviet dissidents are legendary, to one degree or another.  Vladimir Bukovsky is especially so.  He is held in awe by people whom the rest of us hold in awe.  I’m speaking of his fellow dissidents.  He is a dissident’s dissident, so to speak.
    A book of his, which originally appeared in 1995, is now being published in English for the first time.  On his back patio, amid chirping birds, I talk with him about this and many other subjects.
    Bukovsky was born in 1942 and quickly opposed the system: the system into which he had been born.  He was kicked out of Moscow State University when he was 19.  He had criticized the Komsomol, the Young Communist League.
    “Do you think you were just born this way?” I ask him.  Born to take risks, born to land in trouble? “Yeah,” says Bukovsky.  “There’s nothing you can do about it.  I would feel uncomfortable if I tried to hide what I believe.  It’s against my nature.”
…..He spent twelve years in the Gulag: prisons, labor camps, and sadistic psychiatric hospitals.  I ask, “Did you ever think you would not survive?” “Oh, yeah,” he answers.  “It was the dominant idea…..most of my friends were killed.”
Bukovsky was released in 1976, exchanged at the Zurich airport for Luis Corvalan, the head of the Chilean Communist Party.
…But for now: What about this book, newly in English?
    Go back to 1991—when the new Russian president, Yeltsin, banned the Soviet Communist Party.  The Party sued, and Yeltsin’s government asked Bukovsky to serve as an expert witness at trial.  He agreed, on one condition: that he would have access to the archives—the archives of the Central Committee, the beating, black heart of the Party.  He got it.
    Off he went to Russia, armed with a laptop, a scanner, and other equipment.  By day he combed through the archives, finding eye-popping material, and by night he copied this material, surreptitiously.  He knew he had to work fast.  He figured the archives would not be open for long, to him or anybody else.  “I had a very limited window,” he says today.
    The trial turned out to be a dud, not a Nuremberg-like reckoning, which Bukovsky and many others had hoped for.  But Bukovsky had the documents in the West….He put them in a book, along with his comments on them.  He called the book “Judgment in Moscow.”…Its subtitle is “Soviet Crimes and Western Complicity.”
I will read the book.  Most likely I will buy it.

A Migrant Group of Sabbatarians

 

 

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I have a wonderful book of piano solos which are simplified versions of classic hymns and music.  I just played through “The Palms” which I used to love hearing (and singing) at Easter time in the Ashaway, RI church where I spent most of my growing up years.  Thinking about the choir there, I remembered Mr. Crandall who sang with us in the earlier years.  I think he was Dr. Albert Crandall, but I am not sure.  So I looked him up on-line.  Nothing looked related to him so I added “Seventh Day Baptist” and up popped a nice article mentioning Crandalls, some of whom I am pretty sure were his relatives.  So, especially for my Seventh Day Baptist family and friends, here is a link to the brief article in a 2011 American Ancestors magazine. From the beginning of it:

Do you have relatives from Salem, West Virginia? What about Janesville, Wisconsin; Denver, Colorado; Piscataway, New Jersey; Berlin or Alfred, New York; or Woodbridgetown, Pennsylvania? These disparate places were all home to migrant groups of Sabbatarians, or Seventh Day Baptists (hereafter SDB), many of whom can be traced back to Rhode Island families of the late seventeenth century.This article will briefly summarize the history of Seventh Day Baptists in the United States, explain how they differed from other religious groups, and describe the relevant genealogical records.

My own family has ties to Salem, West Virginia, and all the way back to those early Seventh Day Baptists in America.

 

Baroness Orczy’s “Scarlet Pimpernel”

 

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A few years ago my friend enticed me to see the 1934 movie, The Scarlet Pimpernel.  I loved it and have seen it at least twice since.  This week I found a used copy of Baroness Orczy’s book of the same title, from which the movie was adapted.  This particular edition includes an introduction and notes by Sarah Juliette Sasson, which, alone was worth buying the book.  From the jacket:

Sarah Juliette Sasson earned a PhD in French and comparative literature from Columbia University, and is a lecturer there in the Department of French and Romance Philology.  She is the managing editor of the Romantic Review, a journal dedicated to Romance literatures.
Prior to Sasson’s introduction is a three page section titled “The World of Baroness Orczy and The Scarlet Pimpernel.”  It begins:
1865  Baroness Emmuska Magdalena Rosalia Maria Josefa Barbara Orczy is born in Tarna-Ors, Hungary, on September 23 to a noble family.  Her father, Baron Felix Orczy, is an accomplished conductor and composer.  Rudyard Kipling is born.  U.S. president Abraham Lincoln is assassinated.
1867  Francis Joseph I is crowned king of Hungary in Budapest, following the creation of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy.  Romeo et Juliette, an opera by Charles Gounod, debuts in Paris.
1868  During a party celebrating the fifth birthday of Emma’s sister, Madeleine, peasants set fire to the family estate, protesting the introduction of mechanized farming equipment.  The family moves to Budapest, where Baron Orczy, at the urging and recommendation of the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, accepts a post as administrator of the National Theater.  Das Rheingold, an opera by family friend Richard Wagner, debuts in Munich.
1871  Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass is published.
Among other notable people mentioned in this timetable are: Thomas Edison, Franz Kafka, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack the Ripper, Vincent Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, T.S. Eliot, and the Wright brothers.
Baronness Orczy wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel in five weeks in 1901.  Two years later she and her husband collaborated on a stage version which was produced at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham, England.  She went on to write several stories and books that featured the Scarlet Pimpernel.  She also wrote a couple of series of detective stories.  One, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard featured the first female crime solver.
The timeline ends:
1947  Baroness Orczy publishes her autobiography, Links in the Chain of Life. She dies on November 12 in London.
I’d like to read that book too.

Homecoming

I have a small collection of first hand remembrances of survivors of the Holocaust related to World War II and the Nazi Regime.  I want to know as many of them as I can, even though it is only through reading their accounts.  I just finished reading the most recent addition to my collection, All But My Life.  I love this book, partly because the author is not just telling her own story, but is impelled to give witness to the lives of those she knew who didn’t survive, also including those Germans who were kind.

It was written by a woman who was a pre-teen when she and her family were “relocated” by the Nazis.  It is one of the best such books I’ve read and I think ranks up there with The Diary of Anne Frank.  It was a devastating, and yet hopeful read.  I recommend it.

From the book:

Once as I passed the shredder I thought I saw Mama’s coat.  I turned away, praying, then forced myself to look again.  It was just a black coat.  It could have been anybody’s–hundreds of people word black coats.

And as always when in despair, I started to think of my homecoming.  I placed and replaced details upon details, playing with the fragments of my dreams.  Who would come home first?  I always wished that I should come last– walk into the house to find them all there.  At times, I thought I would reach home late at night.  The house would be dark.  I would not wake them.  I would go to the garden and wait.  I would watch the sun rise.  Then I would approach the house. Mama would be wearing her flowered housecoat.  No, she wouldn’t–we had given it away for a pound of margarine and a loaf of bread.  Well, anyway, breakfast would be on the table.  Arthur wouldn’t be there and Mama would say to me, “Go wake up Arthur, you know he never gets down in time.”

    I would run up the stairs.  My brother’s hair would be tousled, as it always was in the morning.  “Arthur,” I would whisper.  He would mutter something and turn over and pretend to go back to sleep.  Then, realizing I had come back, he would sit up with wide-open  eyes, stretching out his arms.  It would be as it had always been, from the time when I had brought him my book of fairy tales to read.  He had read them to me for years before I learned to read.  And we would come downstairs together, holding hands as we had done when we were small, so I should not stumble.  We would come down, and Papa and Mama would be holding hands too.  We would approach Papa for benediction, as we had done as children.  We both would have to bow, for we had gotten so tall.  And Papa would kiss the Bible even as his father had before him when he returned from Siberia.  And Papa would speak the words of Jacob: “I had not thought to see your face again, but God….”

 

 

Reading about the Reformation

 

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On this 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation I want to finish reading Alister McGrath’s book Reformation Thought: An Introduction. When I started reading, a few months ago, I immediately realized that what I thought I knew about that time and the purposes and processes of the Reformation was paltry at best. I anticipate enjoying the book, and coming away with a better understanding because I’ve read several books by McGrath. He is a good writer. I trust him to be knowledgeable about anything he commits to writing, and as accurate, easy to understand, and truthful as possible.
From the chapter titled Introduction:

…..The sad state of the church in the early sixteenth century was simply a symptom of a more radical disease—a deviation from the distinctive ideas of the Christian faith, a loss of intellectual identity, a failure to grasp what Christianity really was. Christianity could not be reformed without an understanding of what Christianity was actually meant to be…. [T]he obvious decline of the late Renaissance church was the latest stage in a gradual process which had been going on since about the theological renaissance of the twelfth century—the corruption of Christian doctrine and ethics.

Confronting corruption of Christian doctrine and ethics is an ongoing, and always contemporary battle. Reformation (in the perfect tense) is central to Christianity, both on a personal and corporate level.

 

A Cathedral: Serious Business

I’ve been enjoying a DVD series of lectures titled The Cathedral, which I borrowed from the library.  I wish I had seen it years ago before my visits to  Paris, Germany and Prague.   Professor William R. Cook, from the State University of New York at Geneseo, who lectures, is enthusiastic and very knowledgeable about theology as well as medieval history and cathedrals.  The format, thirty minute lectures on a focused topic, is easy to follow, and augmented by many photographs. Today I watched the episode on the stained glass windows at Notre Dame de Chartes.  Here is a picture of part of the window (made in the 12th century) depicting the Passion of Christ.

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Professor Cook:

  “Why are these windows beautiful?  The main reason is because they’ll attract people to learn from the stories.  And their souls are at stake.  This is very serious business.  We’re in a cathedral.  We’re not in a museum.  We’re not in an art gallery.  And we always need to remember these stories are what these windows are all about.”

Around the year 2000 a German friend took me to see several Romanesque and Baroque churches in and near Munich and Augsburg.  I remember how disappointed I was that the focus was solely on the antiquity and style of the buildings.