Hello again, History Mate.
If you’re in the Philly area, please drop by my next author talk, which is Wednesday, May 17, at 6:30 p.m., at the Narberth Bookshop, 221 Haverford Ave. in lovely Narberth. I’ll be talking about Embattled Freedom and signing copies. Following that appearance are special talks to a Community College of Philadelphia class and to middle schoolers at my alma mater, Abington Heights in Clarks Summit. Then I’ll be giving public readings at the Library Express bookstore in Scranton’s Steamtown Mall (June 2, 6 p.m.) and at the G.A.R. Museum in Scranton (June 17, noon). Come if you can!
Meanwhile, here are two fresh history nuggets for your pleasure:
Risking “Rough Treatment.” In 1863, a Maryland slave owner barged into Camp William Penn, the newly formed boot camp for black Union soldiers outside Philadelphia, demanding the return of a recruit he said had been one of his slaves. He was taking his life into his own hands. The camp was filled with runaways and freeborn blacks swollen with pride and toting weapons of war. Knowing the man “would have met with rough treatment” from the troops, the camp’s white commander spurned his demand and sent him away, angry but in one piece. I heard about the showdown at one of my talks and wondered how I’d missed it in my research into the 3rd and 22nd black regiments. Turns out it involved another regiment, the 6th. The defiant white commander was a familiar figure to me, however. As I write in the book, Major Louis Wagner was a champion of equal rights and black troops. “When they put on the uniform,” he said proudly of his recruits, “they feel they are men.”
“The Rainbow Tribe.” You’ve probably heard of Josephine Baker, the African American performer who was the toast of Paris in the 1920s. Though known for her risque acts, there was much more to her story. I learned that on a recent visit to her hilltop chateau in central France. During World War II Baker helped the French Resistance by harboring a radio station in the chateau, and by carrying messages for the resistance in North Africa — written in invisible ink on her sheet music! In the 1950s, unable to bear children, she adopted a dozen children of different nationalities and raised them as a multiracial family, her “Rainbow Tribe.” Though criticized for putting the youngsters on display for tourists, she saw her project as an expression of collective harmony. Baker was an activist determined to surmount her segregated childhood in St. Louis. On a U.S. tour, she demanded to perform before integrated audiences. Martin Luther King was one of her idols. The chateau featured a smiling photo of her at the 1963 March on Washington, wearing a blouse pinned with medals from her adopted country of France. Hers was a full, poignant life worthy of a movie. Why hasn’t one been made yet?
Josephine Baker and her Rainbow children.