Category Archives: American History

The Death Recorder

Twenty years later, I can still smell the charged electrical burn of the pile as I walked by it, weeks after the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. The last standing piece of the twin towers, the braided steel facade known as the shroud, rose from the wreckage. NYPD officers were corralling tourists on Lower Broadway, urging them away from what was now a mass grave. As a New Yorker, I understood the pull—the incomprehension at a vast absence where there was once a living, vibrant presence, at one moment a teeming plaza, busy offices stacked up to the sky, the next, a pile of still smoking rubble, a void.

I was on my way to a training for the legal first responders of 9/11: a group of volunteer attorneys mobilized to help the victims’ families negotiate the grim bureaucratic gauntlet such a mass disaster presents. New York had initiated an emergency procedure for recording these unprecedented deaths, since ordinarily the family of a missing person (for that’s what their loved ones were, in the absence of a body) would have to wait three years before asking a court to issue a death certificate. The next of kin would still have to complete the paperwork to prove that their relative—spouse, child, grandchild, parent, grandparent or sibling—had been at the World Trade Center at the time of the attack, but they now had the option of requesting what was known as an expedited death certificate. 

My colleagues and I would be working with the New York City Medical Examiner’s office to provide the legal documentation the families needed to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives: to apply for emergency cash grants, file for social security and insurance benefits, initiate probate proceedings, plan funerals. (There were other sources of assistance available to those without legal next of kin status, such as domestic partners.) The staff of the Medical Examiner’s office would concurrently be working—as they still are, to this day—to identify victims through DNA analysis of remains recovered at the scene. The City of New York set up a Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 on the Hudson River to process these thousands of deaths and assist the families of first responders, office, restaurant and building workers, air crews and passengers. There were booths with representatives from federal, state and local agencies, companies that had employed people killed in the attacks, nonprofit and charitable organizations, trauma counselors, childcare facilities, a canteen, National Guard and New York City police and fire department personnel and, at our booths equipped with computer stations for the legal forms and resources we needed, the lawyers.

Our job was to interview family members so that we could record in affidavit form the information needed to issue an expedited death certificate. Names and birth dates and addresses. Biographical, family and employment details. We had to see the next of kin’s photo ID and proof of their relationship with the missing person, such as a marriage certificate or a child’s birth certificate. All of that paled next to the question that was crucial for stating the basis of their belief that their loved one was in the World Trade Center at the time of its collapse: their last contact with the missing person and the details of that contact. The hurried goodbye as she rushed off to work. The phone call from his office on the 101st floor. It must have felt horribly insensitive, but more often than not the family members displayed grace, fortitude and patience.

One thing was not at issue: the manner of death. All the reported deaths of the 9/11 victims would be classified as homicides.

Working in disaster relief settings like this can be stressful and emotional, if also gratifying. My role was a small one, but such experiences tend to leave vivid impressions. Here are some of mine: 

The community liaison officers of the NYPD, who escorted the family members to our workstations. I ran into one of these cops years later, a compact woman with curly brown hair, a freckled nose and kind eyes. We recognized each other immediately, with the connection of people who have shared the aftermath of conflict. One evening, the officer saw me get up from my chair to trail after one of the family members, a new widow pregnant with her first child, as she made her way down the corridor to the next station. It was the end of my shift, but I felt helpless, wanting to do more for her, for all of them. But there wasn’t any more I could do. ‘Go home,’ the officer would say to me. ‘Get some rest.’ She knew the feeling. We’d be back again the next day, and the day after that.

The American Red Cross mental health counselor who was my partner, on hand to assist family members during the interview if needed. She gave me her Albany chapter Red Cross pin to remember her by. I would later honor that partnership by volunteering with the New York City chapter’s disaster response unit, doing emergency relief work after Superstorm Sandy and the Miracle on the Hudson, the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549. As a Red Cross volunteer, I would also attend memorial ceremonies for the families at Ground Zero when it was a construction site for the rising towers of the new World Trade Center.

What I recall as a surreal bus stop at Pier 94, a waiting area for families who would be ferried to the pile to see the spot where their loved ones drew their last breath. I still wonder if I imagined it.

The mounds of comfort donations. I was given a teddy bear by my Red Cross partner. Someone else was handing out moisturizer and lip balm, surprisingly useful for hours spent reciting legal requirements, eliciting information, apologizing for intruding on precious and private last moments to record the details needed for the death record. For years I kept these items, the smell and tactility of them evoking what memory had elided. 

But most of all, the gentle gratitude of these families faced with unimaginable loss, who only wanted their loved ones’ deaths to mean something so that in the future such tragedies could be prevented, sparing others their bottomless pit of grief.

—post by Suzanne Solomon

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This Golden Land

Call It Sleep by Henry Roth

Perhaps nowhere is the dream and myth of immigration so potent as in America, the Golden Land, Di Goldene Medine, as it was called by the Eastern European Jews who migrated there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From the beginning, America declared itself a country of immigrants, our national motto E pluribus unum, ‘out of many, one.’ In New York Harbor, those who entered by way of Ellis Island (which would process over twelve million immigrants in its history) were greeted at the end of their arduous journey by the Statue of Liberty:

‘Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’[1]

But as David Schearl experiences in Henry Roth’s 1934 semi-autobiographical novel, Call It Sleep, about a Jewish immigrant family arriving in New York City in 1907, the difficulty of the journey doesn’t end there. Lady Liberty may be welcoming, but she is also forbidding:

And before them, rising on her high pedestal from the scaling swarmy brilliance of sunlit water to the west, Liberty. The spinning disk of the late afternoon sun slanted behind her, and to those on board who gazed, her features were charred with shadow, her depths exhausted, her masses ironed to one single plane. Against the luminous sky the rays of her halo were spikes of darkness roweling the air; shadow flattened the torch she bore to a black cross against flawless light—the blackened hilt of a broken sword.

There may be opportunity in this Golden Land, but there is also the crucible of assimilating in America’s melting pot, of honoring the old customs while adjusting to the new. In the young protagonist’s case, there is the additional trial of forming an identity separate from his beloved mother and violent father, of negotiating the rough, poor environs of New York’s Lower East Side. As a New York Times reviewer put it: ‘Quarrelsome grown‐ups, marauding toughs, experiments in voyeurism and precocious sex, dark tenements with rat‐infested cellars and looming stairways, an overwhelming incident in which David’s father, a milkman, whips two derelicts who have stolen a few bottles of milk, the oppressive comedy of Hebrew school where children cower before and learn to torment an enraged rabbi—all these comprise the outer life of the boy, described by Roth with deliberate and gritty detail.’

It’s the child’s eye view that is so consuming and alive in this book, a tour de force narration from the perspective of eight-year-old David. The author uses a striking multi-lingual technique which replicates (in English) the different languages that signify the boy’s divided world. At home, his parents speak an eloquent and expressive Yiddish; on the street, with its clash of cultures, Roth employs a pungent immigrant patois. His characters and the Schearl’s New York City environs are vividly drawn. This impressionistic journey of a boy trying to make sense of an adult world, of the safety and restraints of tradition, of what happens when the ‘huddled masses’ are pressed together in dire conditions yet manage, somehow, to thrive in a tarnished Golden Land, is unforgettable. As David’s mother says to the rabbi: ‘[A]s for learning what it means to be a Jew, I think he knows how hard that is already.’ 

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Where Call It Sleep creates a world from two years of an immigrant family’s life on a New York City block, Annie Proulx’s sweeping epic Barkskins, published in 2016, spans three centuries and the North American continent, with stops in Europe, Asia and Australia, beginning in New France in 1693. Proulx writes of a different kind of immigrant encounter: that of the natural world with the European settlers who would explore, extract, exploit and ultimately destroy it. These first encounters were not auspicious for the indigenous tribes living and hunting in the vast forests, attuned to and stewards of the trees’ interconnected web of life, nor for the forests themselves, which were uprooted, cut, burned and cleared to satisfy the new inhabitants’ bottomless thirst for land and lumber. 

René Sel and Charles Duquet (later Anglicized as Duke) came to the forests of what is now Canada as indentured laborers (habitants) meant to clear and populate New France. Their new seigneur lays down the settler’s manifesto early on: ‘Men must change this land in order to live in it.’ Sel will marry an indigenous Mi’kmaq woman and raise a métis (mixed blood) family on his land grant. Charles Duquet will become a lumber baron, his descendants the owners and extractors of forests that René Sel’s descendants will log.

The rising and sinking fortunes of each family will mirror the rise of the French and English colonies and the new United States as they consume what they believe to be limitless forests, displacing the indigenous tribes who have no cultural conception of ownership. The tribes will be forced to adapt to the white man’s ways in order to survive. Like Roth, Proulx uses a multilingual technique to convey her characters’ divided worlds, adding liberal spatters of French, Dutch and Mi’kmaq to flavor the narrative. Their lives are often cut short by disease, violence, drowning, fire, and logging accidents. But it’s the forests whose ebbing life is chronicled here that are the living heart of Barkskins. Proulx’s book is a cri de cœur for a dying ecosystem.

–post by Suzanne Solomon


[1] From The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus (1883).

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Riding the Rails in America

Summer! It’s warm out, with the smell of vegetation in the air, and after a year plus of lockdown, people are eager to wander again. But with international travel restrictions still in place, many are finding that local journeys are the way to go. In the United States, with its far-flung highway system, I envision lots of planned road trips, with visits to heritage sites and the beautiful and varied national parks. While I like a good road trip as much as the next person, long days of driving and traffic can turn into a chore, especially if your car breaks down. Such stops can be serendipitous—once, on a drive from the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York to Florida, I spent a lovely couple of unscheduled days in Savannah, Georgia, while waiting on a part for my old, not-so-trusty Isuzu Trooper. But I’ve always thought that for seeing the vast sweep and range of the American landscape, you can’t beat a cross-country rail trip.

While the comprehensive rail network that once crisscrossed the country has largely given way to highways, there are still long haul, regional and freight railroads in use. For summer travel, what I have in mind are the heritage versions of the classic passenger train journeys widely taken before commercial air travel became the default. Even the names evoke a romantic era of train travel: the Lakeshore Limited from New York to Chicago, the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco, the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Los Angeles. Riding from the East Coast to the West, you can experience the Great Lakes, the midwestern plains with their sweeping vistas, the Mississippi River that winds through eight states, stunning mountain ranges like the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas and the canyons and deserts of the American west.

But riding the rails isn’t only about nostalgia and dramatic scenery. You’re also taking a ride into American history. The transcontinental railroad was first conceived in 1845 and received federal backing in a bill signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. It was designed as a kind of corporate competition for land grants and dollars, with one railroad starting the tracks eastward from Sacramento, California, and the other built westward from the Missouri River, racing to meet in the middle. The railroad’s completion was commemorated by a 17.6-karat golden spike linking the Central Pacific and Union Pacific tracks, driven into the ground on May 10, 1869. 

While the railroad brought benefits to businesses, communities and travellers alike, it wasn’t built without sacrifice. The work was backbreaking and dangerous for workers, including enslaved and free black people, as well as immigrant Chinese laborers, toiling in brutal conditions for little or no pay. Native Americans opposed (sometimes violently) its passage through tribal land.

The railroad was also a site of civil rights and labor history. Black men traditionally worked as Pullman porters, attending to train passengers on sleeper cars from boarding to detrainment. The jobs provided a stable source of employment, but the wages were low, the conditions discriminatory and the hours long. The porters endured racism from riders and exploitation by managers. In 1925, they famously banded together to form the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, led by A. Philip Randolph and Milton P. Webster, to organise for better working conditions, finally achieving union recognition in 1935 and a contract two years later.

The rails were also a lifestyle for itinerant workers, called hobos, during periods of widespread unemployment, such as the Great Depression, and later, a footloose escape from the harsh realities of the wage grind. The slang term ‘hobo’ first came into use in American English circa 1890. 

Women are often omitted from accounts of railroad history, although they also worked and travelled on trains, even hopping the freights, facing discrimination, the threat of violence and exploitation along the way.

The rail network was conscripted into service by the US military during both world wars, used to transport troops, goods and equipment from coast to coast.

It’s easy to see why the riding the rails inspired singers from Arlo Guthrie to Johnny Cash: 

Feel the wheels rumblin’ ‘neath the floor

And the sons of Pullman porters

And the sons of engineers

Ride their fathers’ magic carpets made of steel

Mothers with their babes asleep

Are rockin’ to the gentle beat

And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel

(from City of New Orleans by Steve Goodman) 

— post by Suzanne Solomon

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Pride Month at the American Library: ‘Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II’ by Allan Bérubé

The American military has come a long way since the days of dishonorable discharges of gay service members and the discriminatory policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. In early June, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III spoke at an event celebrating Pride Month at the Pentagon. Secretary Austin praised those LGBTQ+ service members who ‘fought for our country even when our country wouldn’t fight for them. Even as some were forced to hide who they were… or to hang up their uniforms.’ 

In the 1940s, as recruitment and conscription for the war reached record numbers, homosexuality was regarded by the US military as a mental illness, disqualifying gay men and women for service. Prior to and during the war, the commission of ‘homosexual acts’ was considered a crime for which service members could be court-martialed. In the 1980s, the Department of Defense instituted an enlistment ban, which was modified by 1994’s ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy, in which ‘service members would not be asked about their sexual orientation, but would be discharged for disclosing it’, according to a Department of Defense-affiliated website for members of the military.

Coming Out Under Fire: the History of Gay Men and Women in World War II, author Alan Bérubé’s account of the gay troops of the ‘Greatest Generation’, was first published in 1990. Bérubé, a community historian, began collecting the accounts that would lead to his book in the 1970s, and the book became an invaluable resource for activists and lawmakers alike. A 20th anniversary edition was published in 2010, still highly relevant to the debates taking place around military exclusion policies.

Coming Out Under Fire is far from a grim account of unrelenting prejudice. Through extensive research in government records, archives, personal collections and interviews, Bérubé looks at the US military’s efforts to screen out, discharge, manage and, finally, recognize and appreciate the contributions of its gay service members. He also relates his interviewees’ moving personal stories of discovery, conflict, loss and love. Many of Bérubé’s subjects found supporters and allies in the brotherhood and sisterhood of the armed forces during the war. In addition to the barriers and challenges they faced, which for some included the double bar of racial discrimination, Bérubé recounts their experiences of the conflict’s toll, along with the victory celebrations and the simple but significant act of survival. 

Years of activism by gay service members, along with their allies, from challenging and reforming the US military’s discriminatory and punitive policies to the courageous and proud statement of refusing to deny their sexual identity while under fire, finally led to the repeal of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ in 2011, allowing openly gay men and women to serve; the extension of spousal and family benefits to gay and bisexual service members in 2013; and the 2021 removal of the ban on transgender troops. However, as Secretary Austin said in his speech, there is still more progress to be made, including addressing sexual assault and harassment in the force and creating ‘a safe and supportive workplace for everyone–free from discrimination, harassment, and fear.’ 

–post by Suzanne Solomon

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