The Extraordinary Times wishes you all a happy and prosperous new year. Our first Q&A of 2023 is with Dr. Julie D. Turner. Turner holds a doctorate in US History from Miami University of Ohio and has taught for the University of Cincinnati, Xavier University, and Miami University. Her research focuses on early twentieth-century US culture and society, along with the history of design, cities, and technology. She is the author of Best-Laid Plans: The Promises and Pitfalls of the New Deal Greenbelt Towns (University of Cincinnati Press, 2023).
* What inspired you to write about the Greenbelt Towns established under the New Deal's Resettlement Administration in the 1930s?
I went to middle school in Greenhills, in the building that was their original school and community center. I've always had an interest in the past and in design, so the building intrigued me. It was only years later that I started to learn the history of the town, and then I was hooked. Although I didn't live in Greenhills (the school district was shared with a neighboring community), I had a good friend who lived in one of the original homes and it just seemed so different from what I was used to.
For some reason the era of the 1920s-1940s fascinates me, and here was this great story so close to home. My research eventually focused on the entire Greenbelt experiment, not just on Greenhills, but it was that local connection that pulled me in.
As I learned more about the program that built the towns, I found the idea of the federal government paying for, planning, and building entire towns fascinating. It's definitely something I can't imagine happening today. This doesn't show that politicians were generally more willing to experiment back then, but it does illustrate just how desperate they were to find a way out of the economic and human disaster that surrounded them, especially once their constituents demanded action.
* Describe your research process. What source or discovery most excited you?
I started by visiting archives to see what I could find. My first research trip was to Cornell University, which houses the papers of several men who were key figures in the planning. Having no idea how to go about this research, I took my digital camera and just snapped pictures of every document that seemed potentially useful, which was my standard practice from then on, though I got better at organizing and knowing what I wanted to look at as I went along. I also visited the two other towns—Greenbelt, Maryland, and Greendale, Wisconsin—and saw artifacts from the early residents and even stayed in an original apartment in Greenbelt for a week. This introduced a whole new dimension to understanding the towns, the creators, and the families who first moved in. The most enlightening research was the personal interviews I did with some original Greenbelt residents, who were just children in those early years.
The most time-consuming portion of my research was conducted in archives and libraries, especially the National Archives, the Special Collections at the University of Kentucky, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York. For the most part, when just sorting through files of government documents and snapping endless photos of them, the exciting "Eureka" moment doesn't happen often. Still, there were some great finds, particularly in the FDR Library. The papers of Rexford Tugwell, who conceived of and initially headed the program, are held there. Getting to hold in my hands letters and memos to and from Tugwell, to and from FDR, and even between Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband was wonderful. But my favorite find was a letter from a struggling family written to the First Lady asking for help in finding a home. It was so personal and so pained; it was really moving. I tracked down two of the children from that family, and they had no idea their parents had reached out to Mrs. Roosevelt like this. They also never secured a home in any of the Greenbelt towns. But they were so excited to know that this piece of their family history was in the presidential library and they very kindly gave me permission to use their family's story in my book.
* On balance, what is the legacy of the Greenbelt Towns in shaping America?
The Greenbelt program and the towns it created offer a wonderful snapshot of the concerns of the Depression era, the desperation of so many citizens, but also the political animosity of the time. It shows how grand plans just aren't enough in the face of budget constraints and partisan differences. The program set out to build towns to serve as models for future residential growth, but it was a very different model—that of cookie-cutter homes set in often-isolated, sprawling, car-centric suburbs—that eventually prevailed. The Greenbelts show one dream of how the American landscape might have looked, though it was almost certainly an unrealistic dream given how much federal money had to be spent to bring the communities to life and the general resistance to such governmental "interference" in the free market once the worst of the Depression had passed.
The program changed the lives of thousands of families for the better, not just those who moved into the towns, but those who had family members employed building the homes, public buildings, and infrastructure for the communities or working in industries providing materials for the construction. The Greenbelt program, and the New Deal overall, showed what was politically possible, but also highlighted the sharp contrasts in how Americans viewed the role of their government.
Town planners still look at the Greenbelt model as a study in innovative thinking. The towns offered something new, although with many aspects borrowed from previous concepts. Federal funding gave the designers a freedom to experiment that private development rarely, if ever, offers. They could play with ideas and dream big.
Even if economic and political realities limited the possibility of creating more such communities, I can't help but imagine how different the nation would be if it were filled with Greenbelt-like towns rather than the suburbs that dominate so much of the landscape.
* What lessons could today's politicians and urban planners draw from this legacy?
What politicians could learn depends entirely on the attitudes they bring to the topic. Those who believe that the government owes its citizens the basics of a decent life, including decent housing, will see the Greenbelts as a noble and visionary effort. They would likely lament that the project wasn't more successful and wasn't widely used as at least a partial inspiration for future development. Those who believe strongly that it's the responsibility of each individual to work hard and create a more prosperous lifestyle for themselves almost certainly see the Greenbelt program as extreme government overreach. There is no overlap between those two positions, just as there was none in the 1930s.
A more pragmatic lesson politicians could possibly take away from this history, if they cared to learn it, is that the low-income housing efforts of the decades following World War II should have borrowed more from the Greenbelt idea. Isolated high-rise housing projects failed miserably, as the planners of the Greenbelts surely would have predicted. Housing means more than providing a roof over a family's head. Decent housing also means safety and green space and areas for children to play. In the end, the Greenbelt towns didn't actually house the neediest of the poor and working class, so it never served as a good model for what we think of as true low-income housing. But the planners and administrators clearly understood that substandard living environments will almost inevitably produce an under-served underclass.
Urban planning students do study the Greenbelts, and possibly someone out there is attempting to find a way to bring this model to life again. The idea of cozy, walkable communities still sounds inviting today—possibly more inviting now because of our current climate crisis and the need to become less dependent on fossil-fuel-guzzling cars. But the reality is that private enterprise builds homes and, by extension, builds communities. The Greenbelt model would be expensive to replicate, so it's hard to imagine that such a plan could be implemented for any but fairly wealthy residents.
Unfortunately, the main lesson for planners has been one that has been learned over and over again: that providing affordable housing in safe, pleasant neighborhoods cannot be done on a tight budget. Private builders don't see a profit in such a plan, and public initiatives require too high a level of government spending to earn the approval of the populace at large. These are the same problems the Greenbelt program was intended to address, but in the end the effort simply proved that an inexpensive solution that provides adequate homes to those most in need remains elusive.
Each month, The Extraordinary Times blog catches up with historians, writers, and leaders on the cultural scene. This week, we catch up with historian Henry C. Binford. Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University, Binford earned his PhD at Harvard in 1973 and is a social historian of 19th century America. He is particularly interested in urbanization and city growth, especially urban sub-communities such as suburbs, industrial areas, and “slums.” Most recently he is the author of From Improvement to City Planning: Spatial Management in Cincinnati from the Early Republic through the Civil War Decade (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2021).
* What distinguishes “improvement” versus “city planning?
I put forward this distinction for two reasons. First, to highlight my focus on the “prehistory” of planning. Commonplace thinking and much of the scholarship about city planning in the United States tilts toward the twentieth century. Planning is seen as beginning in the late nineteenth century in response to sanitary, economic, and social conditions in industrial cities, and then elaborated and professionalized in the Progressive era.
Infant versions of that kind of city planning appear toward the end of my book, but my main interest is in older forms of evaluating and manipulating urban space. Later kinds of American planning inherited features from earlier efforts to “manage” space: heavy reliance on public-private partnerships, a mixture of moral and material goals, and persistent belief that better spaces would produce better people.
My second reason for the improvement/planning distinction is to emphasize the “pastness” of the past. Early nineteenth century Americans thought about urban space in ways unfamiliar to us. In evaluating and manipulating the spaces around them they used criteria linked to the notion of “improvement.” Most US history classes highlight the then widespread enthusiasm for “internal improvements”—roads, canals, and other infrastructure. But for people at the time improvement was a more capacious concept that included education at both individual and community levels, moral redemption, displaying and promoting good behavior, and making land and structures more appealing. It could involve governments, but it more often involved governance by both private and public actors. I propose we cannot fully understand the later emergence of planning without considering its precursors in improvement.
* Why 19th century Cincinnati?
Cincinnati occupied a unique place among American cities. Throughout the first half of the 19th century, it was the largest and most influential urban center away from the seacoast, and the fastest growing city in “the Great American Valley,” or Mississippi-Ohio-Missouri watershed. Established after the Revolution, and thus never occupied or shaped by French, British, Dutch, or Spanish settlers, it was the first completely new big city developed by the independent United States, and it was invested with great expectations. Unlike Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago and other urban settlements to the north, Cincinnati’s history had never been shaped by the great imperial contests over the fur trade; its prospects were thoroughly connected to the political and economic expansion of the new nation.
Cincinnati in the first half of the nineteenth century was what Chicago became in the second: the wonder metropolis of the new West, a magnet for young talent, and a much-watched experiment of the urbanizing new republic. How it dealt with the challenges of growth was a matter of intense interest not only for its residents but for many people on the eastern seaboard and throughout the emerging West.
* Why the underbelly—“slums,” poverty, racial segregation, disease?
When I started work on this project I was interested in the history of the “slum”—a British slang word adopted by Americans. That got me into the larger history of how city residents describe, evaluate, and label space. I was curious about how, when many thousands of people in every city were propertyless, living in rental housing that was unsanitary, crowded, and disreputable, only some of those working-class neighborhoods were cursed with the label “slum.” Such denigration had to do with racial and religious characteristics of the residents, but also with how the despised areas related to more prosperous—“improved”—areas nearby.
* What lessons can leaders and planners draw from urban history?
In relation to what came later, the characters in my book might be considered “proto-planners.” Twenty-first century planners operate in vastly different circumstances and with much more sophisticated tools than my Cincinnatians did. Nevertheless, several readers of my book manuscript noted that I was discussing early occurrences of planning conundrums that persist through the decades. As I wrote the book, I kept thinking of [urban activist] Jane Jacobs. Although they could not foresee it, my Cincinnatians were beginning to grapple with some big questions that she and other planning critics raised in the context of mid-twentieth century urban renewal: Who gets to plan? With what goals? Through what means? With what results? At whose expense?
This week, The Extraordinary Times blog caught up with activist, philanthropist, and author Sandra Uwiringiyimana (oo-Wee-Ring-yee-ma-na). Sandra is a co-founder at Jimbere Fund, an organization that aims to revitalize distressed communities and foster peace in Congo by empowering women economically. Sandra was born and raised in Congo, until she was forced to flee due to the ongoing conflicts in 2004. Shortly after fleeing her home, Sandra survived a massacre that claimed 166 lives, including her sister’s. Since her family’s resettlement to New York in 2007, Sandra has fought hard to raise awareness about the Gatumba massacre and call for justice. She has become a voice for women and girls, refugees and immigrants, and forgotten people like her Tribe. Sandra now works to ensure that no Congolese girl ever has to leave home in search of opportunity through the Jimbere Fund. She continues to use her platform to advocate for migrants and refugees all over the world. Sandra’s memoir How Dare the Sun Rise, (Harper Collins) is out now.
Sandra Uwiringiyimana will be talking at 7pm this Thursday, October 27 at Miami University Hamilton campus’s Harry T. Wilks Conference Center: http://miamioh.edu/regionals/rsvp.
* Despite having survived horrible trauma, you describe your childhood as a mostly happy time of life. What are your fondest memories of growing up in Africa?
My fondest memories of growing up in Congo are celebrating holidays with my family. Christmas and New Year were a time of celebration; during this season, my parents would indulge us in new clothes and favorite foods, like chocolate and meats- things we only ate on special occasions. My mother and aunts would make a lot of food, and my extended family, friends, and neighbors would join us in a day filled with food bellies, music, dancing, and laughter.
* What were your first impressions of The United States, after you arrived in Rochester NY as a young refugee?
Growing up, I thought America was a paradise; "land of milk and honey," they would say. I thought America was a utopia where hunger and violence were unheard of and peace and prosperity were abundant. It felt like a completely different world from the one I was living in. However, resettling to America as a young refugee came with many challenges, like language barriers, cultural differences, and even adjusting to the brutal cold. There were also some unexpected challenges, like racism and the systematic oppression of black people. Despite these challenges, my overall impression of America was that it was normal. Once I got past the surface-level dissimilarities, I found that Life in America is like it was back home. People in America also struggle with poverty, illnesses, and conflicts, and they long to feel accepted in society. America is not a magical place like I always visualized it would be; it's just a different place on the same earth.
* How would you compare your education in Africa compared to America?
There's simply no comparing my education in Congo to the one I received in America; it would be unfair and ridiculous to compare the two. First, There's no public school system in Congo. That means every school was privately-owned, and every student had to pay tuition to attend- a fact that made it nearly impossible for most of the kids to attend school. At school, most kids only had one notebook for all of their classes and had to take handwritten notes on everything due to a lack of access to textbooks. At home, we would have to study for exams before it was dark out because many households didn't have electricity. My mother used to stay awake with us during exams to ensure that our lamps wouldn't run out of petrol before we finished studying- something I think is hard for the average American child to comprehend. Of course, the American education system is not perfect, but it is a privilege that we shouldn't take for granted.
* What role has art played in processing your trauma and advocating for other survivors?
Art has always been a big part of my life. From a young age, I enjoyed reciting poems, dancing, and expressing myself creatively, so naturally, it played a vital role in my healing. I started advocacy because I was tired of feeling like people who looked like me didn't matter in the world; I had no idea at the time that I was using art to heal because I didn't know I was sick. It was through advocating for myself and my people that started to realize just how much I had been traumatized by my experiences. I always say that art and activism saved me. Art gave me strength, and activism gave me purpose.
* Can you tell readers a little bit about your current advocacy and future projects?
In 2016 I launched the Jimbere Fund, a grassroots organization that is on a mission to mobilize, prepare, finance, and launch women-led enterprises in rural communities of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Our goal is to revitalize communities and lift people out of poverty by creating jobs and stimulating local economies. I currently sit on the board of directors at Refuge Point, an organization that advances lasting solutions for at-risk refugees and supports the humanitarian community to do the same. I am still passionately advocating for Justice for the Gatumba massacre. It has been 18 years of waiting for justice, and the survivors will not rest until that happens.
This week The Extraordinary Times caught up with Catherine Grace Katz, author of The Daughters of Yalta. Katz is a writer and historian from Chicago, with degrees in history from Harvard and Cambridge. In conjunction with her historical passion, she is currently pursuing her JD degree at Harvard Law School. Her book, The Daughters of Yalta shines a light on three remarkable women—Sarah Churchill, Anna Roosevelt, and Kathleen Harriman—the daughters of Winston Churchill, FDR, and US Ambassador to Moscow Averell Harriman, respectively. In her remarkable story of fathers and daughters whose relationships were tested and strengthened by history, Katz explores the fateful 1945 Yalta conference in present-day Ukraine, where the endgame of World War II was plotted, and the seeds of the Cold War were sown.
The Daughters of Yalta is this year’s Hamilton, Ohio “One City, One Book” public reading selection. Catherine Grace Katz will be speaking at the Parrish Auditorium of Miami University’s Hamilton Campus on Thursday October 20 at 7pm. This is a free public event, cosponsored by the Michael J. Colligan History Project and “One City, One Book.” A book-signing and reception to follow. All are welcome but RSVP encouraged online: miamioh.edu/regionals/rsvp
* What inspired you to write The Daughters of Yalta?
This journey was really one where coincidences all aligned in ways I never could have imagined. I had studied Churchill in a small way for both my undergrad thesis and graduate dissertation, but thought I was done with history in a formal sense after finishing my MPhil. I went to New York to work in finance like every other recent graduate, and lo and behold, in the lobby of my office was a wonderful bookstore called Chartwell Booksellers—named for Winston Churchill's country home—which specializes in books by and about Churchill. It was fate. Through the owner of the bookstore, I met a group called the International Churchill Society, as well as members of the Churchill family. Right around that time, the Churchill Archives in Cambridge (UK) were opening the papers of Sarah Churchill for the first time and the International Churchill Society asked if I would be interested in writing an article about them. I said yes, thinking it would just be a fun way to stay engaged with history and do a bit of writing—meanwhile I was applying to law school. As soon as I started reading Sarah's papers, I was absolutely fascinated by her wartime experience and the fact that Sarah Churchill, Kathy Harriman, and Anna Roosevelt had all served as their fathers' aides at Yalta. I knew there was a story there just waiting to be told. The rest, as they say, was history!
* Why did the allies choose Yalta as the site of their conference?
There's that great Churchill quip where he said something along the lines of, "We couldn't have found a worse place for the conference if we had spent ten years looking for one." Yalta was really the least bad of terrible options. Stalin was paranoid about security and refused to leave his own borders. He was also afraid of flying. Practically, he knew he held more cards than did FDR and Churchill at that point, so they realized if they were going to meet in person, they would have to go to him. The Crimea and the Black Sea were about the most western locations that were accessible, and after scouting a few options, Yalta was deemed to have the least run-down accommodations and was the most easily accessed. However, they recognized they would have to fly there, rather than arrive by ship, as the Black Sea was mined. So, by process of elimination, Yalta was it!
* Can you briefly describe the process of researching and writing your book?
Archival research is a treasure hunt, you never know what you're going to find! It can be both frustrating and exhilarating, and you have to let the sources guide the story. I was able to read the letters and diaries of the daughters, as well as those of a number of other Yalta Conference participants. The families of the three women were incredibly gracious, allowing me to read their papers, and all three families sat for interviews with me. I will always be so grateful for that. I also had the opportunity to interview people like Lady Jane Williams, Churchill's secretary, who is one of the last people alive today to have worked with Churchill. So, between reading about Yalta in the daughters' own words as the action was unfolding and being able to call upon the memories of people still alive today who knew and loved these figures more than anyone, it made a story about grand, high stakes geopolitics something that was deeply personal and familiar.
* Which of the daughters--if any--did you most identify with, and why?
Though I was the same age as Kathy Harriman (27) when I started working on the book and almost the same age as Sarah Churchill (I was 29, she was 30) when it was published, and I think being that age certainly helped me better understand them, their outlook, their relationships, and their roles at Yalta, I was very cognizant of not writing myself into the story by identifying with one or all of them. Instead, I think one of my friends put it really well. She said she thinks there's a part of each of the daughters in each of us. We like to think of ourselves as Kathy, we aspire to be Sarah, but in our hearts, we all know we have a lot of Anna. At any point in our lives, we may identify with one of the daughters more than the others, but I think their experiences really speak to people because there is something about each of them that resonates with us—even those of us who aren't the daughter of a president or prime minister.
* Do you see any strong parallels or connections between the setting of your book in the Crimea and today's battleground of Ukraine?
Absolutely. When I started writing this, I thought a lot about Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea and how more than 75 years after Yalta, we continue to get it wrong when dealing with Russia. History shapes Russia's outlook on the world, particularly on what it considers its vulnerable western flank—the flatlands of Poland and Ukraine—the pathway of invasion from Napoleon to Hitler. This has created a deep regional paranoia, one shared by the Tsars, Stalin, and Putin today. There are so many parallels between Poland in 1945 and Ukraine today, even beyond the physical battleground and setting of the Yalta Conference, particularly things like the discovery of mass graves. From FDR to recent presidents, there has been a tendency to think about the relationship between the president and the Russian or Soviet leader as one that could be better if only there could be a leader-to-leader personal breakthrough, and this thinking has let us down again and again. We need to learn from history, especially Yalta, to better understand where the American or Western democratic outlook on things like deterring acts of aggression do not line up with the Russian outlook and shift our mindset to reevaluate the kinds of pressure that would actually induce Russia to alter its behavior.
* What projects or challenges are next on your horizon?
The first project is finishing law school! I am in my third and final year at Harvard Law School, and going forward, I would love to find a way to bring history and law together, not only in telling stories about the past, but also as tools to think about how we can best tackle long standing, complex problems facing our world today. I am also excited to develop Daughters of Yalta in other mediums, including for the screen, and of course dive into my next book (so long as I pass the bar!).
This week, The Extraordinary Times ventures into space, as we catch up with Dean Regas, the Astronomer for the Cincinnati Observatory since 2000. A renowned educator, author, national popularizer of astronomy and an expert in observational astronomy, from 2010-2019 Dean was co-host of the PBS program Star Gazers. He is the author of five books including "Facts From Space!" and "100 Things to See in the Night Sky". A Contributing Editor to Sky and Telescope Magazine and a contributor to Astronomy Magazine, Dean won the 2008 “Out-of-this-World” Award for astronomy education. He has written over 160 astronomy articles for the Cincinnati Enquirer, blogged for the Huffington Post and is regularly featured on television and radio. Dean is a frequent guest on National Public Radio’s Science Friday with Ira Flatow and NPR's Here & Now. He also hosts an astronomy podcast with Anna Hehman called "Looking Up!"
At the Cincinnati Observatory, he has developed his skills as a dynamic writer and public speaker who brings the complicated field of astronomy down to Earth for students of all ages.
Dean's newest book, "How to Teach Grown-Ups about Pluto" came out in May.
* Growing up, what fired your passion for astronomy?
I didn't really get into astronomy until I was an adult. It was as a part-time Naturalist working for the Cincinnati Parks that I gave my first planetarium show. When the lights went out and the stars hit the ceiling, that was the moment—that was when I knew this was the job for me. I never had the chance to look through a telescope when I was a kid and I feel that I definitely missed out. I want to give that experience to everyone—seeing the craters of the Moon or the rings of Saturn through a telescope is just so powerful. For some it may even be life-changing.
* As a popular science educator, how much time do you spend on the road, or writing books and articles on astronomy?
I give about 100 talks around Cincinnati each year. But over the past few years I have been touring around the country speaking at observatories, science centers, national parks, and more. So, I'm on the road about one month out of every year and love meeting new people and sharing my passion for astronomy education. I have written six books including a book for kids (and adults) called How To Teach Grown-Ups About Pluto. I think that my approach to the subject is really unique. In fact, I think people are expecting a stuffy lecture or brainy book, but I keep it simple, talk down to Earth, and add a lot of humor. My favorite comments from audience members that I hear so often are, "wow, I wasn't expecting to be entertained," "That was the best astronomy talk I've ever seen," and "you don't talk like an astronomer. You sound more like a game show host." I love what I do and it shows!
* Tell readers a little about the Cincinnati Observatory and its unique history ...
I have been working at the Cincinnati Observatory since 2000 and it is such an honor to be a part of such an historic institution. Every day I can use this gorgeous 16-foot long telescope made of mahogany and brass that saw its first light in 1845. It is the oldest operating professional telescope open to the public in the country. And it's right here in the middle of an historic neighborhood, five miles from downtown Cincinnati. When you turn the corner onto our street, there is this silver-domed brick and columned building looking like something out of storybook. It's an amazing place to work and I want everyone to visit. Tell them Dean sent you.
* What has been the public impact of NASA's James Webb Telescope and its amazing new images, and how are they inspiring a new appreciation of our universe?
I'm really excited about the public's reaction to the Webb Telescope's journey and images. It's a true celebration of science and engineering to make such a thing, send it one million miles from Earth, and deliver these amazing pictures of outer space. The detail on the swirling galaxies, the nebulas, and the stars beyond measure have really inspired a lot of people. It is helping make space even cooler and accessible to all.
On the evening of July 12, Reading Historical Society welcomed a special guest at the local public library. Flossie Harper McKinney—who also goes by “Christine”—was born in 1926. Back then, as host Dale Farmer remarked, Calvin Coolidge was in the White House, DeFord Bailey became the first black musician on the Grand Ole Opry, and Greta Garbo captivated American audiences in her debut film Torrent.
Christine McKinney—born in Rockcastle County, Kentucky, but now residing in West Chester Township, Ohio—is a lively woman whose energy belies her ninety-something years. Her family memoir The Harpers of Pongo Ridge was recently republished, recounting her childhood and kinsfolk in the Bluegrass State. Originally composed in 1989, the book inspired independent filmmaker Farmer—whose own Kentucky family McKinney described —as source material for his 2019 movie The Mountain Minor. Like the memorable characters in that film, McKinney and her late husband Ivan participated in the Appalachian Great Migration to southwestern Ohio. They settled in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Reading. There they raised four children and operated a Shell service station and car maintenance business for many years.
Following a brief introduction, McKinney regaled the audience with tales of her rural Appalachian upbringing. Her stories were humorous, sometimes riotously funny, though occasionally quite tough to reflect on. She conveyed a world long since vanished—a world of few modern conveniences, where indoor plumbing, the motor car, soft drinks, and electrical appliances were luxuries unknown to most folks. The family kept pigs and turkeys, but while meat was enjoyed in the form of bacon and sausages, “hams were sold and some kept for the relatives when they came to visit.” McKinney’s colorful father, Christopher Columbus McKinney (“Lummy”), eventually purchased a radio, “a wonderful thing that played music and talked.” Though Lummy enjoyed the latest music, he never lived to enjoy television—“this show and tell thing”—and “would never have believed Elvis.”
It was happy world overall, though shaded by hardship and occasional trauma. McKinney’s earliest memory, for example, arose when she was four years old. Having wandered off into the snow against her mother’s cautioning, she got home up bedraggled and soaking wet. “I held up my petticoat over the blaze,” she recalled, trying to dry out her clothes over the hearth. Although her mother got back to her in time, McKinney was “burnt all over,” when her dress caught fire. She was lucky to survive.
Despite her traumatic early experience, McKinney’s childhood was mostly carefree and happy. Even still, many of her escapades might offend the cautious standards of modern childhood. These included plying a fat toad with her father’s booze until “it got to bouncing off the tree.” McKinney and her siblings “played round with that toad all afternoon.” On another occasion, she went to purchase some chewing tobacco for her father, but she and her brother wound up sampling it on the way home. “We chewed and we chewed. One of us tried to get up, but these rubber legs wouldn’t work.”
All these stories and more are reflected in McKinney’s book. As she recalled, when asked about her “typical day”: there was “no such thing.”
Misadventures to one side, McKinney grew up to be a smart, thoughtful woman. She always valued learning, though education was hard to come by. School was a four-mile round trip on foot, with no transportation. She voluntarily repeated eighth grade, and “wouldn’t quit going to school.” Eventually, aided by a sympathetic principal, she transferred to Mount Vernon High School. At that time, high school education was no foregone conclusion, and college education was a virtual pipe dream. At Mount Vernon, she met her future husband Ivan, marrying in 11th grade. “They wouldn’t let you come to school after you got married,” McKinney noted. But she and Ivan enjoyed a long, happy marriage, moving to Cincinnati and raising their family. McKinney’s four children benefited from parental values of hard work and self-reliance. Each of them “grew up pumping gas and checking oil” in the family auto business. And McKinney at last is reaping the recognition she deserves thanks to her book, which placed Pongo Ridge firmly on the map. Perhaps the greatest recognition came last year, when at age 95 McKinney was at last presented with a diploma from Mount Vernon High School. To mark the occasion, her Kentucky alma mater celebrated “Flossie Day” in her honor. And quite rightly so. McKinney’s wonderful story has so much to teach us, a living thread to a vanished world.
This week I caught up with Kari Gunter-Seymour, Appalachian author and Poet Laureate of Ohio. Kari is the editor of a new anthology of Ohio Appalachian poets, "I Thought I heard a Cardinal Sing," which celebrates the diversity of Ohio's Appalachian culture. She will be joining several other poets on Thursday October 6 at 7pm for a special reading at the Wilks Conference Center (Miami Hamilton Campus), sponsored by Miami University Appalachian Studies and accompanied by live music.
Click below to hear the interview recorded with Kari (on Youtube)!
This week, The Extraordinary Times had the pleasure of catching up with Greg Hand. Proprietor of the “Cincinnati Curiosities” blog, Hand retired from the University of Cincinnati as associate vice president for public relations. Before his employment by the university, Hand was editor of the Western Hills Press in suburban Cincinnati. During his time at UC, he co-authored three books about the university with UC archivist Kevin Grace. In addition to his blog, Hand contributes regularly to Cincinnati Magazine and the WCPO-TV “Cincy Lifestyles” show. With Molly Wellmann and Kent Meloy, Hand presents history chats in bars and saloons through a program called “Stand-Up History.”
* What do you remember most fondly about your 36 years working at the University of Cincinnati?
It is an ongoing joy to run into students—now alumni—I met over the years. Their creativity and energy continue to give me hope for the future. I also recall some fascinating chats with faculty. Just sitting in their offices or laboratories was like getting my own private graduate seminar. I learned so much about Antarctic lichens and Pleistocene rivers and hypersonic engines and a plethora of interesting topics.
* Your blog Cincinnati Curiosities celebrates “the weird soul of the Queen City.” What inspired this fascination?
While I was running the public relations office, I worked with the university’s archivist to produce a few books about the university. While researching those books, I kept bumping into bizarre factoids about Cincinnati and threw all that material into a file, not knowing what I might do with it. There was a girl named Arachne Death and an archeologist who found a privy filled with cat skeletons in the West End and a heavyweight boxing champ who trashed a local bordello—that sort of thing. When I retired, I started a blog and began posting items from my “bizarre” file. I thought it might keep me busy for a couple of months. It’s now eight years later and I’m still uncovering new material.
The fascination with Cincinnati’s weird past derives from a thesis I have developed in my research. I believe Cincinnati works very hard to maintain a specific reputation as a bland, somewhat conservative, definitely safe place that has always had Skyline Chili, Graeter’s Ice Cream, Procter & Gamble and the Reds. In reality, this was a raucous, dynamic, frontier town often run by corrupt politicians and supporting charlatans, mountebanks and scoundrels. I want folks to remember that aspect of our history.
* What made Cincinnati weird, historically?
At one time, Cincinnati was among the 10 largest cities in the United States—and this was back when Brooklyn counted as a separate city! We were big, growing constantly and placed at the gateway to the West. Immigrants from all over the world and from all over the United States landed here looking for fame and, mostly, fortune. They all brought their own brand of weirdness, from Caribbean voodoo to European witchcraft and eschatological religious cults. Throw in a measure of shysters, quacks and grifters and you get a most entertaining metropolis.
* Is Cincinnati as weird today as in days gone by?
There are few folks who have the insight to evaluate their own time period. I am old enough to have survived the Sixties twice (insert rimshot here). I used to listen to students wistfully nostalgic for the days of hippies and incense and psychedelia that happened 30 years before they were born. I am certain that one day, their children will be yearning for the good old days of the Twenty-Aughts or the Twenty-Teens. In other words, if you look for it, you can still find some home-grown weirdness in the Queen City.
* What is your favorite Cincinnati story highlighted in your blog?
The story I keep returning to is the role of prostitution in Cincinnati from the early 1800s up to 1920. The sense I get is that a network of brothels run by some quite successful and politically connected madams created a significant woman-led segment of the local economy. At a time when women were brutally confined to a very few approved roles, the city’s “houses” offered sanctuary, support, medical care, and opportunity denied by “polite” society. The insights provided by studying this community expose all sorts of moral, ethical, and legal structures supporting a patriarchy based on openly accepted hypocrisy and misogyny. The whole system was demolished by progressive movements around World War I and resulted in the pimp-run exploitation by organized crime we see today. While hardly an ideal environment, the brothels were often the only option open to women cast off by their families and communities.
* What are you working on now?
I’m in the process of final edits for a book titled, by amazing coincidence, “Cincinnati Curiosities,” to be published by the History Press. It will be out this autumn sometime. I have also discovered—I monitor my readership closely—that the folks who follow my blog love lists, so I am researching lists of curious facts about Cincinnati Chili, lost bridges of Cincinnati, the Cincinnati subway, and a few others.
This week, The Extraordinary Times catches up with Haley Knuth, whose graduate research on race and journalism in pre-Civil War Cincinnati recently featured in Miami University’s public stories web page. A recent graduate of Miami’s History Master’s program (as of May 14) Haley’s research focused on antebellum history and Black history. She credits her time at Miami University, and the opportunity the History Department has provided, in enabling her to pursue her interests in museum content creation. Her Master’s Thesis Project, an exhibition entitled “Who Controls the Narrative? Newspapers and Cincinnati’s Anti-Black Riots of 1829, 1836, and 1841” is currently on display at Cincinnati’s Harriet Beecher Stowe House (the exhibit will be open through June 12 of this summer). When not pursuing history, Haley enjoys hiking in Hueston Woods, baking cakes or bread, knitting, or reading novels and nonfiction.
* What story did you set out to tell in your exhibit, "Who Controls the Narrative"?
I wanted to explore the experiences of the victims of the anti-Black riots that took place in Cincinnati in the antebellum period. Unfortunately, I discovered that I wasn’t able to find first-person accounts from Black victims of the riots (apart from two survivors, John Mercer Langston and John Malvin). This is partially why I pivoted to discussing the newspapers and their impact on the riots.
* What inspired you to produce a thesis exhibit for your Master's degree, rather than the more traditional written thesis?
I’ve always wanted to pursue a career in museum curation, and I thought that making an exhibit would be a great opportunity to get a feel for what it’s like putting together an exhibit for the public. I also thought it would be a good chance to meet some of the people who work in the museum industry in Cincinnati.
* What person, story, or event most surprised you in researching this project?
Probably learning the truly racist origins of the Cincinnati Enquirer. The first editors, brothers John and Charles Brough, not only were pro-slavery, they frequently opined that the abolitionists were at fault for the dwindling business prospects in Cincinnati in the late 1830s and early 1840s (never mind that Chicago and other Western cities were becoming more relevant and vying with Cincinnati for business prospects). And of course, they portrayed the events of 1841 as the fault of the abolitionists and the Black Cincinnatians who were trying to defend their homes and businesses. And John Brough went on to be Governor of Ohio in 1864!
* Do you see more differences or similarities between the role of the newspaper press in nineteenth century Cincinnati and today's media landscape?
Probably more similarities. I think that whether it be nineteenth-century newspapers or the twenty-four-hour news cycle and social media landscape today, media is the place where people go to try to influence others to think the way they do themselves. But oftentimes (especially when the people controlling the news all look the same way and come from the same background) the public only gets told one story. And just one story can be a very dangerous thing, especially when the person holding the pen (symbolic or otherwise) knows the position of power they are in and abuses it.
* What do you plan to do next after your Master's degree?
I’ve recently accepted a position as a Guest Services Specialist at the National Underground Railroad and Freedom Center in Cincinnati! I’m very excited to start working, the Freedom Center works to teach the public suppressed narratives, just like the history of the race riots in antebellum Cincinnati I worked to uncover in my thesis. It’s the type of work about which I am most passionate.
In his Autobiography, penned in his seventies, Benjamin Franklin conceded: “There is perhaps no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself … Even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”
Despite being older than Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Company by a generation, Ben Franklin is the most modern of America’s founders. He was also one of the few revolutionary leaders from humble roots—Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Paine being the other exceptions. The son of a Bostonian soap maker, Franklin took huge pride in his rise as a printer-journalist, scientist, diplomat, and statesman. What he lacked in humility he made up for in self-awareness. He recalled as a young man making “a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues.” Ranging from temperance to frugality, from industry to moderation, Franklin kept a running tally of these virtues, marking off, “by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.” Humility revealed itself the most consistent of his failings. This exercise in self-accountability, Franklin wryly called the “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.”
Franklin was infuriating; he was vain—but he was often disarmingly witty. Fixing himself up in the Philadelphia publishing business, young Franklin rose to fame under the pseudonym of Richard Saunders, peppering his Poor Richard’s Almanack with the sort of folksy aphorisms that made these inexpensive volumes runaway bestsellers:
“Fish and visitors stink in three days.” “God heals, and the doctor takes the fees.” “The greatest monarch upon the proudest throne, is obliged to sit upon his own arse.”
“One of Franklin’s greatest inventions,” opines biographer Walter Isaacson in the new two-part PBS documentary, “is that American style of homespun humor—somebody whose pricking at the pretensions of the elite.” This “cracker barrel sensibility,” Isaacson insists, laid the foundations for subsequent American humorists such as Mark Twain and Will Rogers. Combined with Franklin’s business and political acumen, not to mention his scientific genius, such sensibility made Franklin America’s first modern celebrity—the first cultural hero whose fame spanned the Atlantic.
Ken Burns seems destined to tell the story of Benjamin Franklin. Like the Sage of Philadelphia—but behind the lens rather than in the public eye—Burns has blazed his unique sensibility on public understanding of America’s history.
All the Burns hallmarks are present: the sonorous narrator (Peter Coyote); the stirring music; the slow panning, zooming camera angles; the constellation of actors, historians, and biographers. Franklin himself is voiced by the Broadway actor Mandy Patinkin with gravelly dignity. Knowing the identity of the actor, however, made me half-expect to hear Franklin break into song at every unexpected turn. Other parts are voiced by Hollywood stars including Liam Neeson and Paul Giamatti, the latter reprising his role as the testy John Adams from the 2008 HBO miniseries of the same name. The gallery of historical talking heads is similarly first-class, featuring such luminaries as Isaacson, Gordon S. Wood, Joseph Ellis, Joyce Chaplin, H.W. Brands, and the late, great Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn in one of his last public appearances.
Viewers expecting a home run won’t be too disappointed. In truth, Benjamin Franklin is not the best Ken Burns documentary, but it seems churlish to gripe when the standard is so consistently high. Burns’s masterpieces—from The Civil War to more recent treatments of the Vietnam War and of Country Music—spin familiar strands into a rich tapestry of American history. They work best on an epic scale. Clocking in at four hours, Benjamin Franklin is certainly thorough, but lacks the panoramic qualities of Burn’s longer work, rooted in the experiences of ordinary American men and women. Reportedly, Burns is at work on a new multi-part retelling of the American Revolution, scheduled for release in 2025 and the 250th anniversary of the War of Independence. In this case, Benjamin Franklin may be only a foretaste of this bigger project, but fans of Burns’s unmistakable style will still enjoy this fresh look at an American icon.
Currently, Benjamin Franklin is free to stream online at pbs.org (no annoying ads; no subscription required): https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/benjamin-franklin/
Matthew Smith, PhD (History). Public Programs at Miami University Regionals. Historian of Appalachia, the Ohio Valley, & the early American republic.