The Final Straw

The September 11th attacks in 2001 got our school year off to a strange start. There was, of course, the horror, and a lot of unplanned discussion about the Middle East. The course I taught covered Early American History through Reconstruction, and I couldn’t afford to take a lot of time to debrief. Nonetheless, the events of that day provided useful lessons that surfaced later in the year. 

By the following Spring the curriculum arrived to the series of calamities that led to the Civil War. The last compromises crumbled, and blood had spilled at Harpers Ferry. The story then turned to John Brown, God’s Avenging Angel, determined to slay slavery. 

Brown is a complicated figure, believing he had been chosen by the Great Jehovah, to draw the sword of mighty justice.

And a debatable issue offered itself.

The link to Brown and 911 suspect, a French-Moroccan terrorist, Zacarias Moussaoui, centered on jail time. Moussaoui’s trial was underway and came up in class discussion.

John Brown had been captured in Harpers Ferry, after a standoff with Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E Lee. Intending to spark a slave insurrection, Brown and his raiders, including his sons had occupied the Federal arsenal in that river town. But once the military arrived the old man subsequently surrendered. 

As Brown awaited trial in Charles Town Virginia, the Governor, Henry Wise permitted reporters from Northern papers to interview Old Brown. To the press, Brown passionately defended his cause, insisting it was the work of righteousness. Newspaper readers throughout the North responded with support and compassion, gathering disciples for the cause of freedom.

However, in the South, the old man’s name was reviled. Viewed as a criminal below the Mason-Dixon, Brown was vilified as evil incarnate, hell bent on inciting slaves to murder their masters. Military training increased across the South, in preparation to defend their “peculiar institution.”

John Brown’s raid is often seen as one of the final straws, aside from Lincoln’s election the next year, leading to secession and a force of arms.

Prior to of horror of 911, Zacarias Moussaoui was detained in Minnesota. His immigration status apparently had irregularities, and his flight school enrollment tripped some security wires. At his trial, Moussaoui put on a noisy show, acting as his own attorney, and pitching frequent temper tantrums in the courtroom for all to see, including journalists. Initially the accused insisted he was innocent, then later confessed. Quite the circus.

During and following the conviction of the terrorist, Moussaoui demanded the judge permit him access to the press. The French terrorist had his side of the story, and he wanted to air his grievances on a national and international platform.

The judge said no. And Moussaoui today is a lifer, quietly incarcerated at Super Max in Florence, Colorado, and barely a footnote in history.

The significance of this complicated, and controversial comparison? Surely the Civil War would have transpired regardless of Brown; slavery was inconsistent in a nation that professed liberty.

But that fifteen minutes of notoriety can produce real dangerous blowback.  

In light of the events on January 6th, thank the Lord DJT is grounded from social media.

Gail Chumbley is a history educator and author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight. Both titles on Kindle.

Choked Me Up

 In case anyone else is interested, here’s a little editorial piece I wrote about Critical Race Theory for my community. Gail Olson Chumbley, I didn’t expect it to go where it did, but I mean every word of that last part – but I’m sure you already know that because all of us students already do pastedGraphic.png😉

I would like to share something that’s been on my mind a lot lately, and I am hoping that those who are interested can engage in a way that promotes understanding on all sides as well as help dispel concerns. The topic is Critical Race Theory and what it means to have it “taught in schools.”

First, I am a teacher, though not in Kalama school district. I say this because I want to be transparent as well as reassure you that, if you do not agree with what I have to say, I also have no control over what is taught to your children either. I’m just here to chat. I also have my PhD in Educational Leadership and administration license.

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So, what is Critical Race Theory? Well, We need to understand what each of these words means in their original context, which is a widely accepted (non-controversial) area of scholarship, specifically legal scholars and practitioners:

Critical = Ask questions and analyze. It doesn’t mean to criticize, but rather is used in the same sense as teaching “critical thinking skills” and encouraging youth to think for themselves – even if their conclusions are different than our own.

Race = People who receive benefits or disadvantages due to race or ethnicity. This is not limited to black and white and does not villainize anyone. Rather, it’s looking at the factors that race MAY play in the way benefits are distributed through different communities.

Theory = A perspective. It isn’t about whether this is an idea, but rather one way of looking at things. Scholars, experts, and practitioners usually use multiple perspectives (theories) to analyze (critical analysis) certain phenomena. Essentially, theories are a framework for asking questions and understanding phenomena, not a conclusion in and of itself.

So, Critical Race theory, in a sentence, is a perspective for considering history, including the systems such as government and legal systems that were built in the context of our history, in a way that asks “What role might race have played here, and how does that inform issues we face today?” It is an intentional effort to ask those questions and seek out answers based on historical events and research.

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What does this mean for teachers?

For teachers, this is nothing new. Understanding issues of equity is something that is covered in the most basic educator preparation courses, which includes understanding how to help ALL children access equitable learning opportunities regardless of location, income, disability, language, race, gender, orientation, etc. This is a basic and constitutionally guaranteed right (WA state constitution, Article 9, Sections 1 and 2; this is what “without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex” and “general and uniform system of public schools” means). I attended a Nazarene university in a very, very conservative area and we were talking about these issues 10 years ago and continue to do so today. I promise you, this is not a new or left-leaning movement.

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What does this mean for school districts?

While the State can establish general standards, the actual curriculum and practices are determined at the local district level. Curriculum adoption involves the teachers in that subject area getting together with the district office to look at a variety of curricula and analyze which ones best fit their school’s needs. They then make a recommendation to the school board (including their analysis of the curriculum and why they chose it) who then votes on whether or not to approve the recommended curriculum. You, as citizens, get involved in this process by showing up to school boards (and voting for board members in the first place!) and letting them know how you feel about the curriculum. In sum, ALL stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, community members, board members, administration) have a voice and a part to play when it comes to adopting the curriculum. The ultimate decision, though, lies with the school board on whether or not to adopt a particular curriculum.

Of course, then, individual decisions about how to teach the curriculum, including what to focus on, how to focus on it, and what students are asked to do, are largely in control of the teacher. Teachers do have rights in making these decisions, though you are always welcome to voice any concerns. It is ideal to talk to the teacher first, then the principal or counselor if the issue doesn’t get resolved, and you can also contact the district. The district will then follow through with due process to ensure the rights of parents, students, and teachers are all protected.

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What does this mean for students?

Students in classrooms where Critical Race Theory is taught (largely social studies) will learn about history in a way that intentionally includes parts of history that have often been left out. They are NOT told what to think about it by the teacher (or at least shouldn’t be told – that would be grounds for a complaint), but rather would be encouraged to analyze the information and come to their own conclusions. Discourse is an important part of these topics, so they would likely be encouraged to discuss these topics with their peers (and with guidance by their teachers to ensure the class stays productive, on topic, and prevent hostility).

This is a TALL order, especially in classrooms with 30+ opinionated students, so not all teachers will get it right, especially if this is new for them. For many, though, it isn’t – again, I grew up in a conservative area and I feel as though I was exposed to this by my favorite teacher of all time BECAUSE she encouraged us to explore and think for ourselves. She never once told us what to believe, but rather taught us to ask questions, seek out facts to inform our opinions, and then develop and defend our opinions, regardless of what those opinions might have been. My sister and I both had her as a teacher and, 20 years later, we have opposite opinions on just about everything, especially politics. But the one thing we can agree on is that this teacher changed our lives and inspired us both to become teachers ourselves. Countless students across all beliefs and perspectives have named her as their most influential teacher. I truly believe that this type of teaching made us better people as we learned to consider perspectives that may be different from our own, ask questions, and seek out answers that we can defend with solid evidence. Here’s to you Mrs. Chumbley, who students affectionately referred to as “Chumbledore” because she was just that magical for literally generations of students

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Pickaxe To Nerve Agent

Josef Stalin was the embodiment of evil. Moreover, if one figure set the standard for Russian despots, it was Stalin. His reign of domestic brutality and foreign terror set the tone for a long, dangerous Cold War. Czarist Russia had set a particularly high bar for authoritarianism, but Uncle Joe inflicted monstrosities that would make Ivan the Terrible cringe.

After Russia withdrew from WWI, through a series of moves, the Bolsheviks, headed by Vladimir Lenin prevailed in gripping the reins of power. Through the aid of Leon Trotsky, a brilliant intellectual, and Josef Stalin a seasoned street fighter, the Bolsheviks founded a peoples state, loosely framed around the teachings of Marx.

During the next few years The US provided relief to the starving of Europe from Great Britain to Vladivostok. But aid made no difference to Lenin. In 1919 the Comintern was established in Moscow, professing the aim of Communist takeover of the world.

In 1924 Lenin died, and a fresh struggle for power ensued. When the snow storm settled Stalin was in command and Trotsky exiled.* Conditions in Stalin’s USSR flowed a crimson red. The Kremlin’s secret police cracked down on the people, through arrests, murders, and spying. By 1934 the NKVD began a purge that included the liquidation of middle class Ukrainian farmers resulting in the deaths of millions.

And those policies were domestic.

At the same time, spying took center stage in Stalin’s foreign policy. English and American assets were turned including left-leaning Americans disillusioned by the Depression, and England’s Cambridge Five, headed by Kim Philby. Philby held a high clearance in British intelligence. The use of such double agents allowed Stalin to essentially shoot fish in a barrel.

Atomic weaponry literally mushroomed on the scene, raising the stakes in East West relations. America lost it’s mind in the Red Scare, and Soviet agents burrowed deeper undercover.

That was then. But it is also now. Excluding reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev, Russian leadership emulates the tone set by Josef Stalin. Infiltrating the National Rifle Association, political misinformation, cyber hacking, and buying off scoundrels with generous loans, Vladimir Putin is an apt pupil of old Uncle Joe.

On January 6, 2021 as white supremacists broke past Capitol barriers, vandalizing and assaulting law enforcement, the winner of that moment was Vladimir Putin. Destabilizing America has been the object of the struggle since the Russian Revolution. 

Dear GOP, you are indeed Putin’s puppets.  

*Trotsky was murdered in August, 1940. An operative bludgeoned him to death outside Mexico City with a pickaxe. Putin critic, Alexei Navalny is currently in a Russian jail, weakened by a nerve agent that was meant to silence him.

Gail Chumbley is an author, and history educator. Her two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” are both available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

A Rare Topic

Watching a news host and guest discuss the topic of America’s Reconstruction era, my ears perked up, so rare is this topic presented. 

First of all, Reconstruction was the difficult period following the Civil War. The battles had ended, and the victorious president dead at the hands of an assassin. A new Battle Royale between Congress and the new President, Andrew Johnson, erupted over who would direct the aftermath. 

The thrust of the cable conversation centered on how important this time period remains, and that schools need to teach it. Much like Flo in the insurance ads, I started yelling at the television that I did cover that period, dammit. We all did in my department.

President Lincoln, before his death, had considered the role of newly freed persons as a moral imperative. Subsequent to the Emancipation, he had pushed for passage of the 13th Amendment, as dramatized in the film, “Lincoln.” Throughout the last months of the war Lincoln had revealed his vision of Reconstruction. Based on the 1860 election records, when 10 percent in the rebellious states swore a loyalty oath, each state could reform their constitutions recognizing the abolition of slavery. President Lincoln believed he possessed the power to pardon, and he would make full use of that Constitutional power. 

Legally speaking, President Lincoln viewed secession as an attempt to leave the Union, and that attempt had failed. The Chief Executive would pardon the ring leaders, and move on to rebuild the nation. But his political opponents, the Radical Republicans, under the leadership of Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, and Senator Charles Sumner, saw the situation differently. 

For these abolitionists punishment was the order of the day. The 1864 Wade-Davis Bill mandated 50% + of 1860 rosters take that loyalty oath. To Stevens, Sumner and the like, these Rebel states had committed political suicide. Only after that majority swore the oath, including recognition of the 13th Amendment, would Congress consider readmitting each, as if new states. 

A political fight was brewing as to which branch held the reins to mend the nation, and deal with the lot of Freedmen.

The short answer is Lincoln’s death derailed any compromise. The Radicals held the day, and Southern whites would suffer. And Andrew Johnson was no match for an angry, determined Congress. In 1867 Federal forces occupied the South in political districts. Soon after, the Legislative Branch attempted to impeach the hapless new president. 

Though the 14th Amendment guaranteed citizenship to the newly freed, and the 15th guaranteed the vote, northern opinion drifted into apathy. Enforcing the rights of Freedmen lost popularity, and dropped from the headlines.

The Old South reasserted traditional apartheid rules.

The cost for the newly freed? Desperate people wandered back to the old master. With no protection, lynching became common as domestic terrorists spread fear. Rights of citizenship went unenforced, with sharecropping and the crop lien system replacing legal bondage. 

Perpetual debt chained workers to the land as effectively as if slavery remained legal. 

Poll taxes, vagrancy laws, and literacy tests tyrannized the newly freed, as did threats of violence from the Klan, and the Knights of the White Camelia.

In 1876, Republican Rutherford B Hayes barely won the presidency in a tight election. His campaign officials cut a deal with three Southern electoral delegations. Florida, (of course) South Carolina, and Louisiana. These states agreed to direct their electors to vote Republican, and in return the Hayes people promised to withdraw the bluecoats. Free Blacks were abandoned.

All in all, the promise of liberty lay in ashes.

When the moment arrived for equal justice, the cause died due to lack of interest.

The cable host and his guest were right.

Gail Chumbley is a history educator and author of the two-part memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Bloody Shirt

Principled soldiers of conscience, the victorious army knew they had served well, defending the Constitution to the last full measure.

May of 1865 witnessed Washington’s Grand Review of the Union Army. Smartly uniformed soldiers filed past crowds, in a river of Union blue. The guns had silenced a mere month earlier at Appomattox, Virginia; the Republic preserved.

A brilliant sun glinted off polished bayonets, and the parade route decorated with miles of silk banners, tattered company colors and patriotic bunting. Rejoicing greeted the passing soldiers in shouts and fluttering handkerchiefs. Flower petals rained down in a fragrant carpet of gratitude. 

The bloody war finally, truly, had ended. 

One year later, near Springfield, Illinois, a group of veterans established a fraternal association, the Grand Army of the Republic. The idea caught fire nationally as other veterans founded their own local chapters; a place men could remember, share, and grieve for lost friends. Soon these war horses got busy extending their service to those they had defended.

First, survivors lent aid to disabled fellow veterans, assistance to widows and their dependents, and orphan homes. Soon preserving battle sites added to the group’s outreach. Before long members began seeking electoral office to further serve the nation.

A story has it General Benjamin Butler, now a Congressman, grew extremely agitated while speechifying, and produced a torn, and bloody shirt he claimed came from the battlefield. Soon the practice of “waving the bloody shirt,” invoking war credentials, became customary for candidates. The saying “vote the way you shot,” launched the careers of numerous politicians. 

Presidents from Ulysses Grant, (1868-1876) through William McKinley (1896-1901) had faced the rebels on the battlefield.*

War memorials and monuments mushroomed, funded with GAR donations. Reunions, benevolent societies, veterans homes, and hospitals kept local chapters busy. In fact, much of GAR efforts were eventually assumed by the Federal Government, particularly pensions for those who had served.

Over time survivors of the Civil War dwindled in number. However, the organization soldiered on until 1956 when it finally faded. Loosely related, though more a coincidence, our last five star general was serving as president when the GAR closed its doors. President Dwight David Eisenhower, who kept a farm in Gettysburg, happened to occupy the White House.

This brotherhood, this Grand Army of the Republic, rose to defend our democracy in the mid-19th Century. This model of valor, and sacrifice shaped the character of the military for years to come. 

But one truth is quite clear, no officer ever advocated for a coup, and there was not one sucker or loser in their ranks.

In 2021 we can do no less.

*Chester Arthur served in the New York Militia, Grover Cleveland did not serve.

Gail Chumbley is a history educator, author and playwright. Her two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” are both available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com