In the 19th Century, America’s most popular form of entertainment was the minstrel show, a variety show featuring white men in blackface taking on the mannerisms of the African-American slave. The most popular song to come out of minstrelsy was ‘Dixie,’ written by Dan Emmett in 1859. The song became a national phenomenon in the years prior to the Civil War, becoming the defacto national anthem of the southern confederacy.

Minstrelsy laid the foundation for numerous American entertainments, including ragtime and vaudeville–and ‘Dixie’ never truly went away. Jim Crowe laws–laws themselves named after a blackface character–took hold in the south in the early 20th Century. For generations of white Americans, ‘Dixie’ became a potent symbol of a mythical, idyllic southern past and the poisonous idea of white supremacy. African-Americans learned to hate and fear the song.

During the civil rights era of the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s, African-Americans increasingly protested the song on college campuses, where it had become entrenched as a fight song at many universities. Students risked life and limb to stand against the song and the song was banned by many schools in the 60’s and 70’s.

In recent decades, though, new research has shed light on the origins of the song ‘Dixie.’ Did ‘Dixie’ spring from the mind of Emmett on a cold night in New York or did he learn the tune from the Snowdens, a family of former slaves? The truth about America’s most dangerous song is as complex as America itself.

Sign and Punishment: The Birth of American Football Penalty Signals

American football is a physically taxing, oftentimes brutal game.  Recent years have seen an increased emphasis on protecting players at all levels from the blunt force trauma associated with long-term injuries. Increased precautions written into the rules of the game in recent years have introduced additional infractions to the game.  Much the same thing happened during the early 20th Century.  After the particularly brutal season of 1905, in which at least 18 players were killed and more than 150 severely injured,  President Theodore Roosevelt called on his alma mater Harvard and other leading universities to curtail the violence.  This led to the formation of an intercollegiate conference that became the forerunner of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  It was over the next four years that football began to shed any resemblance to its European ancestors soccer and rugby.  The forward pass was legalized, the first down distance was set at 10 yards, additional referees were added to enforce rules, and hurdling was penalized. Then, as now, experts bemoaned the transition towards a safer game as a death knell for true football.  More damaging to the games long-term popularity, however, was the inability of coaches, players, and fans to keep up with the myriad changes.  As this editorial cartoon from 1910 shows, football rules were becoming increasingly harder to understand. The 1910 season was significant due to several rules put in place to increase forward passing.  While meant to make the game more exciting, there were several complicated limitations to the new passing rules.  Ends, the only eligible receivers, could not catch a pass more than 20 yards beyond the...

The Rise and Fall of Confederate Memorials

It’s been a momentous month in the long, sad history of race relations in the United States.  In the aftermath of the tragic killings of nine black parishoners in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol on Monday. “For those who wish to show their respect for the flag on their private property, no one will stand in your way,” Haley said. “But the Statehouse is different, and the events of the past week call upon all of us to look at this in a different way.” On Thursday, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley ordered four Confederate flags be taken down from a Confederate memorial at his state’s capitol.  Throughout the U.S. South, protests to Confederate memorials seem to be growing louder by the day.  Students at the University of Texas at Austin continue to protest the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on that school’s campus.  Yesterday in Richmond, Virginia’s Hollywood Cemetery, where Jefferson and 28 Confederate generals were laid to rest, Davis’ monument was vandalized. As many of you who follow my blog regularly already know, I’ve spent the past few years working on the documentary Dixie, which chronicles the history of protest surrounding the South’s anthem.  One of the most glaring realizations I came to during filming was that the specter of the Confederacy is still very much alive in modern America–and these battles have been fought generation after generation.  The Lost Cause, the name given to the religion-like devotion displayed by proceeding generations of southerners towards their Confederate ancestors,...

Portsmouth, Ironton, and the Making of Thanksgiving Football

         It’s Thanksgiving time again in the United States, and for millions of Americans Thanksgiving is synonymous with American football. Football on Thanksgiving is almost as old as the holiday itself Princeton and Yale began an annual Thanksgiving Day game in New York City in the 1876, just 13 years after Abraham Lincoln declared the national holiday. America’s top professional league, the National Football League, will feature an entire day of games on Thanksgiving. The afternoon game will feature the Detroit Lions playing host to the Philadelphia Eagles. Detroit has hosted Thanksgiving Day games since their first year in the league in 1934. The seeds of Detroit’s Thanksgiving tradition, however, sprouted in a little field in Portsmouth, Ohio six years earlier.  In the late 1920’s, Portsmouth was a bustling industrial city. The town, which had just over 33,000 residents in 1920, would swell to over 42,000 by the end of the decade. Like many blue-collar towns in Appalachia during that time, Portsmouth fielded a semi-pro football team. Portsmouth had a problem, though—their teams weren’t all that great. Portsmouth’s industrial base dominated the Scioto Valley, but each autumn the teams representing the city failed to defeat the best team from the region—the Ironton Tanks. Ironton, 30 miles down the Ohio River from Portsmouth, was a town of just over 14,000 people in 1920. The Tanks were a powerhouse football team during the 20’s, though, racking up wins against NFL teams and laying claim to the mythical Ohio Valley Championship numerous times. There were few professional teams during that time, and many semi-pro outfits hired the talents of...

The Typography of Slavery

  Printing presses have always fascinated me. I spent a lot of time studying them as a newspaper reporter in my teens and early 20’s. This was in the early 2000’s, and it was a time of transition for print media. Papers were updating equipment and moving on from traditional printing methods towards completely digital technologies. No matter the size or circulation, every paper had one dusty room that housed a large printing press that was growing more obsolete by the day. Once in a while—when I should have been working—I would take some time to look through the old type cases. These were wooden boxes with multiple compartments to store the metal type used to print newspapers. Capital letters were stored in the upper case and small letters in the lower case. This, incidentally, is why we call those letters upper and lowercase. Along with the metal letters used to make newspaper print, there were all kinds of wonderful images hidden in those old drawers. These images carved into metal told a story not only of the newspaper, but of the local community the newspaper covered. The metal type in those boxes contained generic images used for want ads, local columns, national political news, crime briefs—any image the paper might need to draw a reader’s attention to a mass of black text. Lately, I’ve been spending a good portion of my days conducting research on 19th Century U.S. history. Newspapers of that era had little in the way of visual imagery to break up massive amounts of text. One area that did feature unique images were advertisements. The...

Under Construction

We’re in the process of going live on my new home page.  In the months ahead you’ll find weekly historical articles and updates on everything that I’m working on.  Right now, though, we’e still under construction, so pardon any glitches and downright mistakes that are bound to happen as we get this site up and...