Book review: Our Family Dreams: The Fletchers’ Adventures in Nineteenth Century America

Often the names of streets, parks, and neighborhoods point to the history of a city. Fletcher is one such name. In exploring the local history of Indianapolis, I routinely encountered the name Fletcher.

I learned about the Fletcher family plot in Crown Hill Cemetery and heard stories during tours. I drove down Fletcher Avenue and found myself wandering Fletcher Place when I trekked the cultural trail. I discovered a stunning portrait of Louisa Fletcher, a descendant (granddaughter?) of Calvin Fletcher, who moved to Indianapolis in the early 1800s, at the IMA. Booth Tarkington, a playwright buried in Crown Hill and with a theatre named after him, was married to Louisa. Calvin’s diary is an early historical source of sorts of Indianapolis. Wherever I turn I seem to encounter the Fletchers.

Somewhere, I do not remember where, I learned about Our Family Dreams, an account of the Fletcher clan. I was immediately intrigued.

The book is a delight and a disappointment. A disappointment because it focuses on only the 19th century. I was left wanting more and wondering about the clan in the 20th century. (Louisa doesn’t appear in its pages.) A delight because it is a deep dive into the two Fletcher brothers (Elijah and Calvin) and along the way provides insights in 18th and 19th century life, the political and cultural realities of the country, and early Indianapolis.

Smith starts his story with the patriarch of the family, Jesse Sr., who moved to Vermont to start a farm. His life was consumed with hard work, but he never really got out of the shadow of debt. Despite (or perhaps because of) his poverty, he recognized the value of education, even for girls. Several of his children were educated, either through his direct financial support or from the support of older siblings who were educated and out in the world seeking success.

The focus on Elijah and Calvin provides a fascinating insight into different cultural areas in the US before, during, and after the Civil War. The Fletchers in Vermont were an anti-slavery family. When Elijah left home to seek his way in the world, he was headed to Raleigh for a teaching assignment but stopped short in Virginia, where he took to the southern way of life.

Calvin, in contrast, headed west, eventually ending up in the new city of Indianapolis, which was located in a nominally anti-slavery state. (Indiana’s status can be debated; the legislature was dominated by pro-slavery Democrats and Hoosiers along the banks of the Ohio River often sympathized and sided with pro-slavery sentiment. However, Indiana sent one the largest numbers of soldiers to fight in the Union Army and was constitutionally anti-slavery. See blog posts that mention slavery in Indiana.)

The two brothers stayed in close contact over the decades, each residing over family dynasties of a sort. Elijah quickly became a plantation owner in his own right. Calvin was a lawyer, farmer, landowner, and pillar of the community. Whereas Elijah supported and condoned the owning of slaves, Calvin in his legal capacities helped some slaves brought to Indiana attain their freedom. (According to Indiana law, when slaves were brought to the state for residency—as opposed to transiting through the state to another destination—they automatically gained their freedom. At least in theory according to the law. Reality was a different matter.)

Snippets in the stories about Calvin resonate with history that I have encountered in my explorations of Indiana. In Ohio, Calvin lived with and studied law with a lawyer, reminiscent of the tales I heard about how men studied law in Madison on the Ohio River. As a young lawyer, he rode the circuit in Ohio and Indiana.

His household, once he was established as a pillar of society, consisted not just of family but of servants. And he took in widows and orphans for periods of time. Although I hadn’t encountered other historical figures in my travels who housed random widows and orphans in their own home, it was not uncommon for wealthy men to establish special houses for widows where their basic needs were met.

The story about how Calvin ended up marrying his first wife was enlightening. He realized he needed a helpmate through life but was torn about who it should be. He approached the task of getting a wife more as a rational choice rather than a matter of the heart. He was clearly concerned about status—a wife could improve one’s status or hurt it. He was originally drawn to a student of his but she was from a poor, ignorant family. She would not raise his status, but she could be a project, a person for him to educate and mold. His dilemma seems strange from a 21st century perspective. Frankly, with his attitudes, he seems like a condescending jerk.

As someone in the early years of Indiana, he was, to my chagrin, a land speculator, even owning land as far away as northwest Indiana (Michigan City). (My disappointment is that he was part of land speculation in Indiana that stole land from the native Americans and sold the land for a tidy profit.)

He was anti-slavery but racist. He supported the liberation of slaves and their rights but like Lincoln, believed that once freed, they should return to Africa. He kept out of debates in the 1844 presidential election but refused to support the anti-slavery Quaker ticket. He thought, perhaps rightly, that the Quaker ticket would only succeed in splitting the other tickets. (Neither other ticket was ideal: Whig Clay from pro-slavery Kentucky or Democratic pro-slavery Polk.) He also employed former slaves on his farm.

Indiana was settled with lots of Germans and was populated with numerous breweries. German societies such as the Athenaeum in Indianapolis that celebrated culture and education were common, but at least in Calvin’s day, the Germans he encountered seemed not to be of this class. He viewed Germans as ignorant and backwards and thus looked down on them.

Calvin was involved in the nascent banking industry as a banking president. The early banking industry, as I learned in my explorations, was anything but above board. Banks were meant for the wealthy elite, not the common folk. Often they went belly up and were dens of corruption. Calvin though is portrayed as an above-board kind of guy. I wonder more about his role in the early banking industry in Indiana.

He was an enthusiastic supporter of what he described as internal improvements (what we now refer to as infrastructure projects.) He actually visited the Erie Canal in New York and thought that canals would be better than railroads. (Railroads would only last a couple decades, he thought. He must have realized the error of his judgement; he was at one point on a railroad board.) As with banking, I wondered what his involved in the doomed canal projects in Indiana was. Indiana’s ill-fated attempt to build canals throughout the state ended in failure and the state’s bankruptcy.

Smith mentions in passing the Panic of 1837 and how it contributed to a depression that lasted until 1843. Again, the early financial history of Indiana—and Calvin’s role in it—would be fascinating to learn. My impression is that the state bankruptcy due to the flawed investment in canals led to the panic and ensuing depression, but I am not at all certain that the banking industry didn’t contribute to it as well.

Calvin watched politics and society become more and more divided in the 1840s. He was a staunch abolitionist but not everyone (or most people?) in Indiana shared his views. The protestant churches started to split into northern and southern branches around this time period.

He was friends with Henry Ward Beecher, a Presbyterian minister who preached against slavery. (The Presbyterian Church split into northern and southern branches over the issue of slavery in 1861.) Henry is incidentally the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote the anti-slavery treatise Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Calvin was not only an abolitionist, but he was active in temperance and education reform movements, the latter a topic dear to the Fletcher family in general. In the 1830s Horace Mann initiated educational reforms in Indiana. In 1852, Indiana finally established free education. (See blog posts about education in early Indiana.)

Through Calvin’s correspondences with his brother Elijah, we get a glimpse into the political and social realities of the decades leading up to the Civil War. Calvin feared that annexing Texas, which wanted to allow slavery, would lead to war in Mexico and upset the balance of slave vs. non-slave states. He ruminates on John Brown and his attack at Harper’s Ferry. His son Elijah, now a preacher in a church in New Albany in southern Indiana, recounts the pro-Confederate sympathies of his congregation. (Many Hoosier families along the Ohio River were split, with fathers supporting one side and sons the other. Despite this, pro-Confederate sentiments weren’t sufficient to support a Confederate raid into Indiana.)

The pro-Union governor Oliver Morton turned to wealthy businessmen and community leaders to help gather troops, supplies, and funds for the Civil War. One person that Morton turned to was Calvin, whom he enlisted to gather munitions.

Although in his 60s, Calvin traveled to Canada to gather munition for the cause. Given his advanced age (he died at 68), Calvin tried to avoid being further pressed into service. When Morton wanted him to travel with him to Terre Haute, he sent his son Miles in his place. On that trip, Miles was tragically killed by a passing train.

Calvin mentions the train that stopped in Indy on its way to taking the newly elected Abraham Lincoln to Washington DC. Given Lincoln’s status as saint in modern times and their (later?) shared abolitionist view, I expected Calvin to be pro-Lincoln. If anything, Calvin seemed lukewarm about Lincoln. He actually met Lincoln briefly at the White House, but the meeting did not leave him with a great impression either of Lincoln or his administration (!). (Interesting, brother Elijah met Jefferson at Monticello and was less than impressed by him.) When Lincoln’s funeral train stopped in Indy on April 30, Calvin and his wife did pay their respects as Lincoln laid in the Indiana statehouse.

The stories of his children are equally fascinating as the history he lived through. Although he attempted to instill deep morals in his children and prized education, on the whole his children did not turn out as expected. Those from whom he expected great things seemed to disappoint but those who seemed disappointing turned out quite well.

On the whole, his sons wanted to distinguish themselves in battle during the Civil War rather than stay and help with the family business. Calvin rarely mentions his daughters. Maria married Cyrus Hines (who served in the Civil War and post-war practiced law with Benjamin Harrison). After Maria died in childbirth, her sister Lucy married Cyrus—a marriage that Calvin disapproved of.

His son Billy, originally a disappointment, distinguished himself after being captured during the Civil War. He used his medical training to help anyone he could during confinement. Following the war, he became a respected pillar of society, setting up different institutions in Indianapolis.

Calvin also found himself trying to right the ways of errant siblings and nephews, which he wasn’t always successful in doing. His brother’s daughter Indiana pleaded with him to obtain a pass to the north for her. (She was located on her late father’s plantations during the war.) Understandable given his role helping Morton and the side he took in the Civil War, he mainly stayed silent, never satisfying her request. He and his branch of the family had chosen the Union. Elijah and his branch had chosen slavery and the Confederacy.

In all the book is a fascinating look into different political, societal, and historical elements of the US—all through the prism of the Calvin and Elijah Fletcher families. Much that is mentioned weaves with histories and customs that I learned elsewhere. The book did raise other questions and left me wanting to learn more about the Fletcher family and their role in Indiana and American history.

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Movie review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

The documentary Won’t you Be My Neighbor? covers the TV career of Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers devoted himself to the early education and development of children. He was a staple in the lives of young children for several decades.

The documentary starts with Fred Rogers dipping into the new medium of television with The Children’s Corner, a program run out of Pittsburgh. Rogers was dismayed at what TV offered children—slap stick comedy and pies in faces. Instead, he wanted to explore how television could be used to enrich children’s lives. During these early days, he developed the various puppets and their personas that would live on in the future children programming that he did.

On the side, Rogers attended seminary but sought the world of children as his mission area. After several years, he started the program he is best known for and that informs the title of the documentary: Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The neighborhood was depicted as a safe place and Mr. Rogers as a welcoming adult. (The title of the documentary comes from a line in the opening song to the show.)

In the era in which the show aired, children were still to be seen and not heard. They were treated as non-entities, non-beings with no feelings or thoughts of their own. Rogers rejected that view. He treated each child as important. He talked to them directly and he listened. Mr. Rogers was everything that adults weren’t. He was patient. He spoke slowly. He explained things. He waited for children to ask all sorts of questions. And then he answered them.

He realized that children take in everything around them. When the world ignored children in times of tragedy, he reached out to them. He knew they were affected by events and needed to be talked to, listened to, and reassured.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood started around the time that Robert Kennedy was assassinated. It was understandably a time that rocked the nation, but children were left out, trying to make sense of what happened on their own. Instead, Mr. Rogers, through the use of his puppet Daniel Striped Tiger asked drew them into the conversation. Daniel asked about the meaning of assassination. An actor on the show took his question and feelings seriously. Daniel was allowed to talk about the feelings he had—and told that he could talk or ask questions at any time. This was kind, caring reassurance for kids who felt that something terrible had happened but they didn’t understand or knew how to process it.

In 1969, Mr. Rogers ended up in a Senate hearing concerning funding for PBS. PBS was about to get its funding slashed and no one who had appeared in front of the Senate was able to convince the panel to do otherwise. The documentary shows Mr. Rogers patiently talking to the Senator in charge of the funding who listened and credited Mr. Rogers with earning PBS $20 million that day. The funding for PBS was saved, thanks to Mr. Rogers patient explanations and listening.

The neighborhood was a safe place for children and in some ways a progressive place. During times of segregation, the neighborhood had a black police officer who would stop to visit with Mr. Rogers. On one occasion, they cooled off their feet in a children’s swimming pool, sharing a towel to dry them with Mr. Rogers helping dry the policeman’s feet—a nod to Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. This scene was a direct response to the attempts and pushbacks to integrate swimming pools.

All was not completely rosy. Mr. Rogers was not always as progressive as I would have liked. The documentary recounts how he warned this same actor, who was seen at a gay bar, that he could never go to a gay bar again and continue to work on the show. The reason: sponsors would pull out. In the late sixties/seventies, the US was not prepared for openly gay actors—and neither sadly was Mr. Rogers.

Mr. Rogers tried to take his philosophy of building relationships through communication and listening to an adult audience. He took a hiatus from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to record 20 episodes of Old Friends…New Friends. But the show did not take off. I never heard of this program and would love to see it.

It is sad to think that Mr. Rogers’ approach with children that met universal needs of acceptance was not something that adults responded to. Perhaps adults are too used to a hectic fast-paced world to be able to slow down to Mr. Rogers’ speed. Mr. Rogers did not talk or move at a mile a minute. He realized the power of slowness and even silence, how it allows for listening, understanding, and mindfulness of life.

He returned to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with themed episodes. He was distraught by the way children were tricked by advertising and marketing—child died trying to fly like Superman does. Mr. Rogers started by discussing superheroes and then make believe, conflict, death, divorce—any issue that affects children where they need to be heard and need to understand what is happening.

He came back again after 9/11, unsure what message to bring, but if the nation needed words from anyone, it was Mr. Rogers. He was the one who listened and reassured us when we were kids. Now we are adults but our world was rocked in ways we hadn’t experienced before.

The documentary stresses how Mr. Rogers was the same on screen or off. He was the real McCoy—a genuine caring individual who took the time to listen to everyone he met. By example, he showed us all how to interact with each other and how to act in what may be uncomfortable situations. He touched so many lives. The documentary includes interviews of his two sons and his wife. As one son mentioned, it was hard having the second Christ as a father.

The little things made me smile. I loved Mr. Rogers using his puppets to interact with groups of kids. Daniel Striped Tiger in particular was his alter ego and allowed him to reach out further to kids than he could as himself. Daniel gave the kids love and acceptance and they gave him love back. (It would have been awesome to hug Daniel Striped Tiger!)

I also loved learning about the significance of 143. Mr. Rogers was an avid swimmer and would weigh himself after each swim, smiling when he saw 143 on the scale (his consistent weight for most of his life). Why would 143 cause delight? As Daniel Striped Tiger explained, 1 is the number of letters in I, 4 the number of letters in the word love, and 3 the number of letters in you: I love you. His weight was God’s or the universe’s way of saying I love you to Mr. Rogers.

I hated hearing about how he came under attack in later years. His message that all have value, all are special, was perverted. Critics blamed him for creating generations of adults that feel entitled. But his message wasn’t that people were special and therefore entitled. His message was that everyone had inherent value just because they are themselves, a very Christian message.

I hated too his feeling of being overwhelmed by 9/11 and not knowing how to calm the world. It was painful to see him film his last episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (good thing I was long past childhood when that happened in 2000). And of course, it was hard dealing with his death in 2003.

Thank God for Mr. Rogers and the gifts he shared with the world. He knew that everyone longs to be loved. And he set out to teach children to love themselves and their community. We are richer for Mr. Rogers. We could use him right about now.

Book review: Lies My Teacher Told Me

Lies My Teacher Told Me was a fascinating read. The author sets out to examine twelve school textbooks for their accuracy, completeness, and use in school settings and then write about different ways that the history in these textbooks and ones like them have failed us.

History in a school setting is often uninspiring, incomplete, and in some cases flat out wrong. It should, according to Loewen, invite questions and debates. It should encourage students to think about the past and how the past relates to their lives or informs the current situation. History should be an excellent way to develop the critical thinking skills that engaged citizens need. Instead, history is taught in a way to develop allegiance and blind patriotism—as if one cannot be patriot and also critical of or question the actions of one’s government.

All of these points are well taken. I don’t remember particularly liking history or social studies in school, but I didn’t particularly hate it. However, as an adult, I love history because of the very things that Loewen mentions—the sense of perspective it gives, an understanding of current events, and the development of critical thinking skills.

Throughout the book, Loewen shows time and time again the lies we were told about history and then explains the damage and consequences that resulted from these lies. It is all a bit disheartening. He unpacks the erroneous history about several events or subjects: hero-making, Columbus, Thanksgiving, Native Americans, the invisibility of racism AND anti-racism, the myth of opportunity, the federal government always on the side of good, the lack of recent history, and the myth of progress.

I enjoyed learning from the examples that Loewen provides about how we were misled and mistaught in school. I had no idea about Helen Keller’s adult life. I merely kind of thought (without questioning it) that her life ended in a figurative sense after Ann Sullivan taught her how to interact with the world. Instead, I learned about her rich life as a social activist for class rights and women’s rights.

And President Wilson, whom I suspected was not the squeaky-clean hero that he is portrayed to be, turned out to have been quite the racist and military interventionist. By learning about his actions in the early 20th century, I can see more clearly see the antecedents of the path the US went down in race relations. I can also see the roots of chaos in Latin America—all thanks to the wars we engaged in and the democratic governments we overthrew. By seeing the past, I see the consequences of these actions in the present.

Such knowledge is invaluable. How the US acts affects the future. Why aren’t our early 20th century actions in Iran taken into account when dealing with Iran today? We have collective amnesia or more aptly, we are all collectively ignorant of the fact that we created the Iran that we vehemently oppose today.

As Loewen works through the history that we were taught and unpacks misconceptions, he describes several archetypes. One is hero-fication. Individuals must be presented in a good light as defined by current norms. No blemishes. No complexity. Ignore the slave ownership of founding fathers or their contradictory statements on the issue.

Another archetype or assumption is the arch of progress. Loewen unveils this lie and the blame it causes. If everything is getting better and better, but they aren’t for you, then you are the problem. Those reaping the benefits of so-called progress see it as the result of their abilities. Those not reaping the benefits blame themselves.

Besides the blame heaped on those not in the privileged position, this myth of progress also encourages passivity. There is no impetus to change anything. No need to fight or condemn racist conditions. After all, things are better than they were and will continue to get better. Only we know from history that isn’t the case. After the progress made for blacks during Reconstruction, a dark period descended on the country and gains that blacks made were lost.

Another myth is one that insists that more education leads to tolerance. In fact, Loewen unveils this lie through information on who backed the Vietnam War at the time and who we think backed the Vietnam War, as well as our rationalism about our current interpretation. It is fascinating though disturbing work to unveil unseen myths and assumptions. Education is a socializing tool. The more educated you are, the more you tend to support the system. (There was a reason why re-education was/is used in the USSR and China. They knew that education can lead to allegiance to the state and the status quo.)

Couple allegiance with the myth that the state only does good and you have a populace that will support anything the state does, including wars. Loewen mentions that the college-educated tend to be Republican and the uneducated Democrat, though I wonder what he would make of our current climate where everything seems to be upside down and nothing in politics operates as normal.

After unpacking the lies we were taught, Loewen discusses why history is taught like this and proposes ways it should be taught. In brief, the answers about why are money and ideology, and the how is engaging students in projects to show how the past affects their lives now. Unlike other subjects, history is treated as subjective. We all have different perspectives on events and do not want our children to be taught potentially opposing views. As a nation that doesn’t foster debate, we do not want to foster debate in the classroom or teach our children to think. If they are to think, it is to think how we think, whether how we think is correct about an historical event or not, whether we think critically or not.

Without a critical understanding of the past, we cannot understand where we are and we cannot move forward to propose solutions to societal ills. We miss out on seeing the causes of racism and then cannot begin to recognize racism among us, let alone address it. The same can be said about social class and poverty. Or marginalized groups. Without critically examining the past and knowing what the past really is, we miss out on understanding the present and remedying long festering situations. Things do not get better with ignorance or misunderstanding (or even time). Instead, they get worse through perpetuation.

Loewen taught me about some of the mishistory I knew and some history that I didn’t know about. He also challenged me to question what I read, what I am told, and what I am taught. He proposes that students ask questions about sources of information:

  • Why was the source written or spoken? Contextualize it by placing it in the social structure and the agenda of the speaker or writer.
  • Whose viewpoint is presented? What interests does it serve? What viewpoints are omitted?
  • Is the account believable? Are there contradictions?
  • Is the account backed up by other sources? How is one supposed to feel about the America that has been presented? Look at the choice of words and images used.

I would propose, especial in the age of fake news, that these sorts of questions and this sort of critical thinking is what we should apply to all aspects of information, historical or current. I would also add that we should ask ourselves: what assumptions does this interpretation of events make? What assumptions am I making? Fish rarely realize the water they swim in. To see the water we swim in is to see reality. To see the assumptions that we and society make helps strip away interpretations so we can better understand and effect change when needed.

Loewen’s work on historical education came out of his time teaching in Mississippi. He was shocked to hear the erroneous views his students had about Reconstruction and how harmful these beliefs were to them. As a means of social control and white supremacy over blacks, Reconstruction had been reinvented as a time when blacks were in power throughout the south, made a mess out of it, and whites had to step back in to fix things. None of this is true but if this is the narrative you are told as a black American, what does this do to your beliefs about black Americans, their abilities, and yourself? In reaction, Loewen wrote a history textbook. He had to sue the state to get it on the state’s list of approved textbooks.

I bet Mississippi: Conflict and Change would make a fascinating read and follow-up after Lies My Teacher Told Me.

Asking questions

Quote

“Once you have learned how to ask questions—relevant and appropriate and substantial questions—you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.” ~ Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity

I tend to ask lots of questions in an effort to understand things. But I’ve discovered that a cohort of people really, really dislike being asked questions (and the people who ask them). Happily, there is another cohort of people who really, really like being asked questions and sharing their knowledge. I’d prefer to live in a world populated by the latter folks.

Leora Brown School

I meandered through the Corydon streets looking for a small school building. I found it on a hill with the St. Joseph cemetery in front and the Cedar Hill cemetery (est. 1808) across the road.

The building was the site of the 1891 elementary and secondary school for African Americans in Corydon. The school, originally called the Corydon Colored School, graduated its first class on May 14, 1892. In 1925, high school students were integrated in Corydon, followed by grade school students in 1950. (Why the heck did it take so long to integrated the younger students?)

I am a bit unsure of the building’s history following 1950. In 1987, the building was renamed for Leora Brown, who taught there from 1924 to 1950. In 1993, it was rehabilitated and apparently used as a meeting house/event center.

When I saw it, it seemed somewhat abandoned. Vegetation around the building was overgrown. Peering into the windows, the building looked a bit in disarray with folding tables and odds and ends scattered inside. But it was incredible to see a piece of Indiana history—one of the oldest African-American schools still standing in the state.