April 2013

Shine Bright Like Oscar Wilde

You know who is just too fabulous for Washington. D.C. to handle? Oscar Wilde. This fellow caused quite a stir when he visited in the January of 1882 as part of a lecture tour on the “Philosophy of Aestheticism”.

The general theory of ‘aestheticism’ seemed to be living in beauty, and Oscar Wilde practiced what he preached; half of any article about him was devoted to his devilish style. Newspaper reporters practically fawned over him, and we’re not going to blame them.

Portrait of Lead Belly, National Press Club, Washington, D.C., between 1938 and 1948 (Photo: William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress)

Impressions of Washington: Lead Belly's "Bourgeois Blues"

Huddie William Ledbetter (January 20, 1888 – December 6, 1949), better known as Lead Belly, was a legendary folk and blues musician known for his virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar, powerful vocals and the huge catalog of folk standards he introduced. Inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, artists from Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin to Nirvana and the White Stripes have covered his songs and recognized his musical influence.

Somewhat less remembered, even locally, is Lead Belly's "Bourgeois Blues," a song written about his first visit to Washington, D.C. in 1937 — an incisive indictment of the city's racial segregation conveyed in 3 minutes of rippling 12-string blues.

We Will Never Die Pageant, 1943

In an age before e-news, social media, and cellphones, one pageant helped bring the truth about the tragedy unfolding in Hitler’s Europe to the nation’s attention.

Seventy years after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, hundreds of members of Congress, and several Supreme Court Justices convened in Constitution Hall to learn of the atrocities being committed in Europe, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington will mark the anniversary of that pageant, entitled We Will Never Die – a Mass Memorial to the Two Million Dead of Europe.

This is why we can't have nice things. (Painting by Tom Freeman. Source: The White House Historical Association.)

Impressions of Washington: By the Light of the White House being Engulfed in Flames

Washington, D.C. has had many visitors since it’s inception, but it cannot be said that everyone was a huge fan. Actually, in 1814, there were quite a number of people who were a bit upset with the Capitol. You might have heard of them… The British?

Yes, on August 24, 1814, the British attacked and burned Washington, D.C. One of their number, George Robert Gleig, apparently found enough time whilst attacking the city at night in the middle of a hurricane to take in the sights and form some opinions.

Happy Emancipation Day, DC!

We all learned in history class that Abraham Lincoln freed slaves in Confederate states by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. But did you know that until April 16, 1862, slavery was still legal and widely practiced in Washington, DC? Today DC celebrates Emancipation Day, marking the passage of the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act that legally freed all slaves owned in DC.

The Pearl Incident

1848 was a busy year for the residents of Washington, D.C. The Washington monument was under construction and Congress was hotly debating the question of slavery in the new territories.  Closer to home, most white Washingtonians favored slavery though many had objections to actual slave-trading taking place in the capital. D.C.’s large free black population, which contained a great many marriages between enslaved and free, sought freedom for those who didn’t yet posses it, and were spurred by an increasing number of abolitionists flocking to the city.

To put it mildly, Washington was a tense place in April 1848, and it was about to get even moreso. Enter the Pearl.

When Jackie Played Here

When you go see the new Jackie Robinson film, 42, it’s safe to assume there won’t be any scenes of Robinson’s Dodgers playing the Senators in Washington. That’s because it never happened, aside from maybe an exhibition game. The teams were in different leagues, so only a World Series would have had them square off. And, anyone who knows anything about baseball (or has seen Damn Yankees) knows the Senators were not exactly World Series material in the 1940s and 1950s.

But what you may not know is that Robinson actually did play in D.C. before he became a Dodger and it was a pretty big deal.

Assassin's Cranium

Lewis Powell, the would-be assassin of Secretary of State William H. Seward, was prone to goof-ups. You might even say he had the tendency to lose his head.

As you know from our previous post, Powell was one of the co-conspirators in the Lincoln assassination plot. After his bloody rampage in the Seward home, Powell was tried and hanged along with three other conspirators on July 7, 1865. That should have been the end of the story, but it took over one hundred years for Powell's tale to come to an end.