Appomattox and Marian Anderson: Symbolic Irony of History
April 9, 2011

Don't Buy Real Estate From This Man!

Don't Buy Real Estate From This Man!

On This Date in History: Wilmer McLean was a Virginia grocer. He probably did fairly well at his craft. But, he didn’t have much luck when it came to real estate. See, he had a patch of land not too far from the nation’s capital. The first major conflict of the Civil War was known as the Battle of Bull run and it took place on McLean’s land. Not only that, but Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard thought that the McLean house would make a good headquarters, so he comandeered it. The land was ravaged by the warfare and the house took a beating as a Union cannonball came crashing through the kitchen.

Lee's Table Not as Valuable as Grant's

Lee's Table Not as Valuable as Grant's

After the battle, which was also called the Battle of Manassas,  McLean hung on but gave up a year later when the entire episode was repeated during the Second Battle of Bull Run. Following the second episode of his home being turned inside out,  McLean picked up his family and moved to a small town some miles away in an effort to find some peace and quiet from the war.

McLean's Manassas Home No Longer His Castle After Bull Run

After a couple of years, McLean thought he’d made a good move until this date in 1865. See, Generaly Ulysses S. Grant had gotten General Robert E. Lee to abandon Petersburg and Lee’s army was on the run until finally, Lee sent Colonel Charles Marshall to find an appropriate site for a conference between the two army’s commanders near the small town of Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia which was some miles from the old McLean house. The first person that Marshall came upon was none other than Wilmer McLean. McLean first steered the colonel to an abandoned house with no furniture in it. Colonel Marshall quickly dismissed the idea. McLean felt like it was all but inevitable that the war had reached out and grabbed him again so he offered his home.

Parlor In Lower Left Hand Room

Parlor In Lower Left Hand Room

On that afternoon, General Robert E. Lee signed the articles of surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant in the front parlor of the McLean home and effectively ended the Civil War, though some skirmishes would go on for several days. Now, this was a pretty historic occasion and the soldiers on hand knew it. They wanted a piece of history. Union General Edward O.C. Ord gave McLean $40 for the table at which Grant had sat. Another Union General, either Philip Sheridan or George A. Custer, got a good deal by acquiring the table at which Lee sat for just $25. At that point, McLean figured he needed his furniture and brought an end to the impromtu rummage sale. But, less honorable individuals would have none of it. Chairs were broken up, upholstery ripped and the parlor was torn to pieces as if another cannonball had ripped through. Once again, Wilmer McLean had been touched by Civil War history…and his house took a beating. Maybe he should have moved to Texas.

Bear More Valuable Than Jesus?

Bear More Valuable Than Jesus?

The selling of the Grant table for more than the Lee table reminds me of when I lived in Birmingham. I once went into an art store. On some shelves were busts. Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest went for $500. Robert E. Lee and Jesus Christ went for $550. Bear Bryant? He went for $600! Yes indeed, it’s the bible belt and they love Robert E. Lee and Jesus, but you better not schedule a church social when Alabama football has a game!

Who knew the 1 year old girl would later sing for kings

Some 32 years after the close of the Civil War, a little girl was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  By the age of six, this young lady became known in her church as the “baby contralto.”  Recognizing her musical talent, her father bought a piano but was unable to afford lessons so the young budding prodigy simply taught herself.  In her early teens, she began accepting invitations to sing until she finally got the courage to ask for $5 per performance.  Groups were eager to pay.  Around that same time, the Philadelphia Choral Society held a benefit concert that raised $500 so that she might be able to afford voice lessons with a leading contralto of the day.  Following her high school graduation, her principal introduced her to the highly sought after vocal teacher Guiseppe Boghetti and her audition brought the man to tears.

23 years old looking as good as she sounded

Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, her career exploded.  She performed all over Europe at great stages such as those found in London and Berlin.  When Arturo Toscanini heard her in Salzburg at the Mozarteum international festival, the prestigious conductor told her, “Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years.”  She even performed before the King of both Sweden and Denmark.  By the late 1930’s, she was performing some 70 concerts a year in Europe, Latin America and in the United States, including at Carnegie Hall.  Wherever she went, she was welcomed to great acclaim…that is until she attempted to perform in the capital of the United States of America.  You see, Marian Anderson was one of the greatest contraltos the nation has ever produced but she was rebuffed by some who were not deaf but still could not hear.  Although a bloody Civil War had been fought that was thought to have brought freedom for all, African-Americans were not living on a level playing field in many parts of the country, including the nation’s capital.

Marian Filled the Mall After the Snub for Constitutional Hall

Washington’s Constitutional Hall was the city’s foremost venue but the city was segregated and the hall itself had separate seating based on race.  I bet I know who got the front seats.  Anyway, when Marian’s agent attempted the book the hall, he was told that it was unavailable.  It seems that, in 1935, those who ran the hall created a rule that called for only white performers.  So, while it was supposed the be the greatest venue in the city, the greatest contralto in the nation, if not the world, was not allowed in.  Marian Anderson was good enough for the crowned heads of Europe, but not Constitutional Hall.  How can such a place be considered the best when it won’t allow the best?  The First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt was so incensed that she resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution which just so happened to be the owner of Constitutional Hall.  Musicians protested and much of the public was in an uproar.  I’m not sure if President Roosevelt ever commented but, I’m sure he gave his blessing to Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes when he arranged a free open air concert for Easter Sunday.  On this date in 1939, 74 years to the day after The Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Union forces under the command of Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant, Marian Anderson stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and performed before 75,000 adoring onlookers.  Millions more listened at home on their radios. 

I Bet Old Abe Smiled Over Marian's Shoulder

Relating to her performance, Anderson said that at first, she was reluctant to accept the invitation because she didn’t like a lot of show and that “one could not tell in advance what direction the affair would take. I studied my conscience. …. As I thought further, I could see that my significance as an individual was small in this affair. I had become, whether I like it or not, a symbol, representing my people.”  A few weeks later, Anderson performed at the White House for President Roosevelt the visiting King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain.  Finally, in 1943, at the height of World War II, Marian Anderson performed at Constitutional Hall under the condition that the Daughter’s of the American Revolution suspend their segregationist seating policy.

Marian Anderson at New York's Metropolitan Opera 1955

While history justifiably remembers Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Marian Anderson is largely forgotten.  In a city filled with monuments that elicit great symbolism, I think it is quite fitting to remember the contralto who performed on the steps of the monument, made largely of marble from former Confederate States, to the man remembered for his  leadership in a great struggle the resulted in freedom for African Americans on the day that struggle effectively came to an end.  It’s folly to try and play the “what if” game but I do wonder for a moment that, if Marian Anderson had not performed in 1939, would Dr. King have been able to stand in literally the same spot 25 years later?  Her career flourished and she lived to see great change prior to her death in 1993 at the age of 96.  But, certainly, as her voice was one heard once in a lifetime, her legacy should be etched in the American conscience for eternity as one rarely seen in a nation’s history.


Hoover Dam Is the Name and It Will Never Look the Same
July 7, 2010

This Beautiful View of Hoover Dam Is Gone Forever

View of Hoover Dam from Behind Still Spectacular Even with Bridge

On This Date In History: This is a tale filled with politics so it’s confusing. Back in 1902, Arthur Powell Davis, an engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation, came up with an idea for a dam along the Colorado River at a place called Boulder Canyon.  Herbert Hoover, an engineer by education himself, was Secretary of Commerce in 1921 and he made it a priority to support a high dam at Boulder Canyon. Plans were set for the project to be begun in 1922. Well, there was Congress to contend with and water rights and states rights…lots of politicians. So the project didn’t get started until This Date in 1930. By that time, coincidentally, Herbert Hoover was the 31st President. It was also the beginning of the Great Depression and Hoover wanted to be re-elected. While work started on July 7, the official ceremony commemorating the beginning wasn’t until September when Hoover’s Secretary of the Interior, Ray Wilbur, declared the project would be known as the Hoover Dam. It was appropriate since Hoover had been instrumental over the years in getting the project going. But, Hoover also wanted the project to bear his name to remind people of all the jobs he had created. It didn’t work. Hoover lost badly to Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 election.

Frank Didn't Think Herb Deserved a Dam Named For Hiim

Frank Didn't Think Herb Deserved a Dam Named For Hiim

As the project was getting started, it was determined that geologically it was better suited down the river in Black Canyon. Nevertheless, it was still called the Boulder Canyon Project and on May 8, 1933, Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, father of the current Democrat politicial figure and lobbyist Harold M. Ickes) declared that the name of the project would no longer be known as Hoover Dam, but instead Boulder Dam.  Ickes claimed that Wilbur was wrong in naming the dam for President Hoover.  

Construction of the Hoover Dam Was a Monumental Task But Perhaps Not as Difficult as Settling on a Name

FDR had been in office for a few months and I suppose that erasing any mention of Hoover perhaps was high on the priority list of helping the US to be fearless against “fear itself.”   Then again, maybe the former Teddy Roosevelt “Bull Moose”  Republican Ickes simply did not like Hoover.  Ickes claimed that the legislationfor the project had been approved during the Coolidge administration and therefore linking it to Hoover was no good.  It did not seem to matter to Ickes that the original sight had been changed from Boulder Canyon to  Black Canyon.   Even though Ickes did some token work to allow African American laborers to live in Boulder City, NV, I doubt that “Black Dam” would have been acceptable, though “Black Canyon Dam” may have passed muster.  But, Ickes explained that   “The name Boulder Dam is a fine, rugged, and individual name. The men who pioneered this project knew it by this name.”   Today, the Department of the Interior says that the name was never officially changed from Hoover Dam.   I guess Mr. Ickes overstepped his authority.

Wouldn't a Bridge Spoil a Beautiful View of a Magnificent Structure?

Nevertheless,  I suppose  that even though it supposedly wasn’t officially called Boulder Dam,  in 1947, President Harry Truman  found it necessary to sign a resolution of the Congress changing the name back to Hoover Dam….but the town built for all of the workers is still Boulder City. When I was a kid we stayed in a motel in Boulder City that looked like it was from the set of National Lampoon’s Vacation. Christie Brinkley didn’t show up though.  Here’s a link to all sorts of stuff about Hoover Dam including a bunch of photos from the 1930’s. Notice that it is called the Boulder Dam Project..AKA Hoover Dam. There are some things of which some people will not let go, Congressional resolution and Presidential signature or not!  The photos show just how majestic and beautiful the dam really is but now that has changed. 

Artist's Vision of What the Completed Bridge Will Look Like

The traffic over  the bridge I suppose just got too congested because they went and built a new bridge to bypass the dam and they built it right in front of the huge structure.  That’s progress for you and necessity but the image of the dam with the Hoover Dam Bypass is just is not the same anymore.   Nevertheless, the bridge is pretty cool and is supposedly on schedule for a fall 2010 opening.  The bridge will be called the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge in honor of a popular Nevada Governor Mike O’Callaghan and NFL star and war hero Pat Tillman who died tragically in Afghanistan.  People in Las Vegas are happy because it will shorten the drive to Phoenix and make it more safe.  And while it is extremely appropriate to name it in the honor of Pat Tillman, I still wish they would have put it somewhere else.  But again, that’s progress.  I suppose that there were people who think that the dam itself, which was a sign of progress, spoiled the natural beauty of Black Canyon.

Weather Bottom Line:  The heat will continue for another couple of days but by Friday, a frontal boundary will be sagging our way.  While it is not entirely clear exactly how much rain we will get, the front’s approach will give us the most substantial risk for rain in several days.  The front will move through and bring some relief but don’t look for a repeat of the nice weather we had late last week with the last front.  It will be drier and highs over the weekend will be in the upper 80’s and overnight lows in the upper 60’s.  Perhaps more significantly is that this front may represent at least a short term change in the long wave pattern such that the ridge that has been dominating the east limiting rain and elevating temperatures may be broken down.  That should allow for a better chance for scattered showers than we have seen and the edge removed from the excessive heat.  It’s still going to be hot…just maybe not quite as hot and humid as it has been.