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Harriet Tubman becomes the first African American woman to appear on a U.S. postage stamp

October 30, 2019 in History

By Editors

Antislavery crusader and Civil War veteran Harriet Tubman becomes the first African American woman to appear on a U.S. postage stamp, the first in the Post Office’s Black Heritage Series. Tubman’s appearance on stamps was emblematic both of the progress made in recognizing African Americans’ contributions to American history and of the ongoing effort to put abolitionists on equal footing with slaveowners in the nation’s historical canon.

Tubman was a singular figure of the abolition movement, a slave who escaped captivity in Maryland and made at least 19 trips back to free more slaves. Tubman is estimated to have helped several hundred slaves find freedom in Canada via the Underground Railroad and is said to have “never lost a passenger.” During the Civil War, she freed 700 more when she led Union forces on a raid on Combahee Ferry in South Carolina. In her later life, though she had little money of her own, Tubman worked to house and feed the poor and became an important figure in the fight for women’s suffrage. Despite these extraordinary efforts, which earned her the epithet “the Moses of her people,” Tubman did not receive a pension for her services in the war until 1889 and died with little to her name.

READ MORE: 6 Strategies Harriet Tubman and Others Used to Escape Along the Underground Railroad

Her deeds were not forgotten, however, and in the wake of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements there was a push to recognize overlooked figures like Tubman. Her inclusion in the Black Heritage Series put her alongside figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Booker T. Washington and Jackie Robinson and spread her image around the country. In 2016, following years of calls from activists, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that Tubman’s face would replace that of President Andrew Jackson, a slaveowner and avowed white supremacist, on the twenty-dollar bill. The following year, however, Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, cancelled the switch, saying, “We’ve got a lot more important issues to focus on.” In response, a grassroots movement began to stamp Tubman’s image over that of Jackson.

READ MORE: Harriet Tubman: 8 Facts About the Daring Abolitionist

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Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini calls on Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie, author of "The Satanic Verses"

October 30, 2019 in History

By Editors

Salman Rushdie likely understood he would cause a controversy when he published a novel titled The Satanic Verses. The book mocked or at least contained mocking references to the Prophet Muhammad and other aspects of Islam, in addition to and a character clearly based on the Supreme Leader of Iran. On February 14, 1989, that Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued just about the strongest response possible, calling on “all brave Muslims” to kill Rushdie and his publishers.

Although many of the most controversial things said about Islam and Muhammad in the book come from the mouths of disreputable or comic characters, it was undeniably critical and insulting. The title refers to passages said to have been removed from the Qur’an in which the Prophet spoke the words of Satan instead of God, and many were particularly incensed by the depiction of a brothel where the prostitutes shared the names of Muhammad’s wives. Khomeini, who had suddenly deposed a U.S.-backed monarch a decade before, was the leader of a group of clerics who had turned Iran into a theocracy. As such, he was perhaps the most prominent Shi’a authority in the world. Muslims around the world had already condemned The Satanic Verses—it was publicly burnt in Bolton, UK, sparked a deadly riot in Pakistan and was banned entirely in multiple Muslim countries—but Khomeini’s fatwa brought the controversy to new heights.

Booksellers the world over, including many Barnes & Noble stores in the United States, refused to sell The Satanic Verses for fear of retribution. Many that did sell it were bombed. Free speech advocates and anti-religious figures vociferously defended Rushdie, but many Muslim leaders and even moderate Muslim cultural figures outright condemned him or at least stated he had gone too far. Rushdie apologized both to the Ayatollah and to Muslims around the world in 1989 and 1990, but protests and violence continued. The novel’s Japanese translator was stabbed to death in 1991, while its Italian translator was critically wounded by an assailant. Rushdie later said he regretted apologizing.

A fatwa is a judgement issued by a religious scholar and can only be repealed by that same scholar, meaning that the fatwa against Rushdie could never be taken back after the Ayatollah’s death in June of 1989. In 1998, the Iranian government declared it would neither “support nor hinder” Rushdie’s assassination, and private groups inside Iran and …read more


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6 Strategies Harriet Tubman and Others Used to Escape Along the Underground Railroad

October 30, 2019 in History

By Jesse Greenspan

From elaborate disguises to communicating in code to fighting back, enslaved people found multiple paths to freedom.

Despite the horrors of slavery, it was no easy decision to flee. Escaping often involved leaving behind family and heading into the complete unknown, where harsh weather and lack of food might await.

Then there was the constant threat of capture. So-called slave catchers and their dogs roamed both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, nabbing runaways—and sometimes free blacks like Solomon Northup—and transporting them back to the plantation, where they would be whipped, beaten, branded or killed.

Yet those willing to brave the risks did have one main ally: the Underground Railroad, a vast, loosely organized network of constantly-changing routes that guided slaves to freedom.

All told, in the decades preceding the Civil War, up to 100,000 slaves escaped. Some went to Mexico or Spanish-controlled Florida or hid out in the wilderness. Most, though, traveled to the Northern free states or Canada.

Harriet Tubman, circa 1860s.

1: Getting Help

No matter how courageous or clever, few slaves threw off their shackles without at least some outside help. Assistance could be as slight as clandestine tips, passed by word of mouth, on how to get away and who to trust. The luckiest, however, followed so-called “conductors,” such as Harriet Tubman, who, after escaping slavery in 1849, devoted herself fully to the Underground Railroad.

In about 13 trips back to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where she had been brutally mistreated as an enslaved child, Tubman rescued some 70 people, mostly family and friends. Like her fellow conductors, Tubman cultivated a network of collaborators, including so-called “stationmasters,” who stashed her charges in barns and other safe houses along the way.

Tubman knew the Maryland landscape inside and out, generally following the North Star or rivers that snaked north. She knew which authorities were susceptible to bribes. And she knew how to communicate—and gather intelligence—without being caught.

She would, for example, sing certain songs, or mimic an owl, to signify when it was time to escape or when it was too dangerous to come out of hiding. She also mailed coded letters and sent along messengers.

2: Timing

Over the years, Tubman developed certain extra strategies for keeping her pursuers at arm’s length. For one, she usually operated in winter, when longer nights allowed her to cover more ground. She also preferred …read more


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8 Creepy Halloween Tales & Traditions

October 30, 2019 in History

By Editors

Halloween’s focus on horror and make believe has spawned creepy legends, ghost stories—and hoaxes.

On Halloween, people shed reality for a day and mark the holiday with costumes, decorations and parties. Creepy legends and characters have evolved based on real, terrifying events. And a Halloween tradition of confronting the dead has led to legions of ghost stories—and hoaxes.

Read about Halloween traditions and legends below:

A Fear of Vampires Spawned by Consumption

Illustration of a family member dying from consumption in the 19th century.

During the 19th century, the spread of tuberculosis, or consumption, claimed the lives of entire families in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont and other parts of New England.

Before physicians were able to explain how infectious diseases were spread, hopeless villagers believed that some of those who perished from consumption preyed upon their living family members. This spurred a grim practice of digging up the dead and burning their internal organs.

Read more about the 19th-century exhumations here.

Why Haunted Houses Opened During the Great Depression

Halloween night mischief inspired communities to open haunted houses during the Great Depression.

In the period leading up to the Great Depression, Halloween had become a time when young men could blow off steam—and cause mischief. Sometimes they went too far. In 1933, parents were outraged when hundreds of teenage boys flipped over cars, sawed off telephone poles and engaged in other acts of vandalism across the country. People began to refer to that year’s holiday as “Black Halloween,” similarly to the way they referred to the stock market crash four years earlier as “Black Tuesday.

Rather than banning the holiday, as some demanded, many communities began organizing Halloween activities—and haunted houses—to keep restless would-be pranksters occupied.

Read more about Great Depression-era Halloween pranks here.

Jack-o-Lanterns and the Legend of ‘Stingy Jack’

The original Jack-o-lanterns were carved out of turnips.

An Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack” is believed to have led to the tradition of carving scary faces into gourds. According to the legend, Jack tricks the Devil into paying for his drink and then traps him in the form of a coin. The Devil eventually takes revenge and Stingy Jack ends up roaming Earth for eternity without a place in heaven or hell. Jack does, however, have a lighted coal, which he places inside a carved turnip, creating the original Jack-o-lantern.

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