Short version: For anyone who cares about unequal opportunities in the new economy, what’s happening in Fresno deserves serious attention.
The strong continuity through Bitwise’s short, intense history has been its founders’ awareness that they were teaching technical skills, and promoting new businesses, for more than purely business-related purposes. Almost everyone in the tech business talks-the-talk about the info-age bringing benefits to all. In my view Bitwise has come much closer than most to walking-the-walk.
Since 2013 it has trained more than a thousand developers in Fresno. Deb and I have seen these classes and talked with students, many of them from agricultural or non-college backgrounds, and have written about their stories of new opportunities. It has fostered or attracted some 200 tech companies to its startup spaces. It runs three business operations: the coding school called Geekwise Academy; its real estate operations, which now include some 200,000 square feet of workspace; and a custom software business called Shift3 Technologies, which hires Geekwise graduates and others for commercial projects.
Today Bitwise is announcing a serious next step. It has received $27 million in “Series A” (startup) funding to expand its operations to other “cities like Fresno” across the country. The funding is led by Kapor Capital, founded by Mitch Kapor and Frieda Kapor Klein and based in Oakland, and the New Voices Fund, based in New York. The company says that the funding represents “one of the largest Series A ever raised by a Latinx female-led company.” Irma Olguin comes from a family of Central Valley field laborers and has often stressed that she would like her own against-the-odds rise to tech-company leadership to become a less exceptional tale.
“There is a lot of my life story tied up in what Bitwise is, and does,” she told me this week, when I spoke with her and Soberal about the new funding. “It’s tied up with the idea that the son or daughter of a migrant farm worker could have this opportunity in the industry that is so transformative in our times.”
“Some people have had opportunities by accident, and others do not,” she said. “We need to make those opportunities less a matter of chance and serendipity, and more a matter of deliberately creating opportunities and exposing young people to different possibilities for their lives.”
What will Bitwise do with the money? Soberal said that the company, which will still be headquartered in Fresno, had identified a loose category of other “underdog cities”—places like Fresno where people had talent and potential but lacked opportunity. “We have a number of criteria, but the most important one is where we think we can make an impact,” he told me. Bitwise has already expanded programs to Bakersfield, 100 miles south in the Central Valley. Similar places, he said, might include Stockton (also in the Central Valley), El Paso on the U.S.-Mexican border, Knoxville in Appalachia.
Olguin said that the relevant traits were places “that have the population density to support a technology industry, where there might have been a dying industry that has left people needing to up-skill or re-skill themselves, and where there are obviously marginalized groups of people who may not have been invited into the tech industry.”
I asked Olguin and Soberal what they had learned, through Bitwise’s successes and setbacks, in the four years since Deb and I first met them.
“One of the things we’ve learned is about the need to focus on non-technical barriers to entry in the tech world, beyond simple technical skills,” Olguin said. “We probably underestimated that at the beginning. There is a whole system of opportunity you need to build in places like Fresno or Bakersfield, and if you’re not conscious about every one of the steps, you can’t assume that someone else will take care of it.”
Why does this expansion matter, I asked Soberal and Olguin? She said, “I don’t think there is any better way to spend our time than to contribute to the success of people who haven’t been invited to the most exciting part of the economy.”
When I asked the same question of Mitch Kapor, he responded this way, by email:
Bitwise is the most successful model we’ve seen for creating tech-related jobs in what Jake and Irma call underdog cities. They’ve proven this in Fresno and are we are going to help them spread it to other cities. These are jobs for local residents in local businesses and institutions. The follow-on effects of further job creation are also significant.
It’s the best way we’ve seen to create an inclusive economy in which gains from tech don’t simply go to enrich the 1% or those who are already far ahead.
Good luck to them all. And here is a video, from four years ago, that conveys what I think of as the spirit of Bitwise, Fresno, and “underdog cities” as a whole.
Previously in this series: why the ups and downs of economic history have left the southern Virginia town of Danville with a genuine problem (what to do after its big mills closed), but also a significant advantage (the physical infrastructure that those old tobacco and textile sites left behind, much of it quite beautiful.)
Years ago, on the first reporting visit that my wife, Deb, and I made to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I mentioned that the city seemed strangely “over-retailed” for a place of its size. That is, it had a super-abundance of malls, professional offices, restaurants, and other facilities. Why? As we learned, these reflected Sioux Falls’s emergence as the service-and-retail center not just for its own population but for the broad surrounding area.
In a similar way, Danville can now seem strangely “over-warehoused,” with more century-old large, stately brick structures than you would expect for a town of some 40,000 people. The buildings sprang up in Danville because it was so prosperous a trading and manufacturing center from the late 1800s onward. And they survived largely because the city became so economically troubled that no one could afford to tear them down.
Now many of them are being revived, reoccupied, and put to new use, as previewed here. The center of the activity is the “River District,” on the southern bank of the Dan River near the Main Street bridge. Decades ago, this was a center of tobacco trading and the textile business. One of the enormous factory buildings for Dan River Mills, known as the “White Mill” and abandoned for years, sits not far away.
“If you were here ten years ago, it would have been obvious that we were a mill town without a mill,” Rick Barker, a Danville native and entrepreneur who is now a downtown developer of historic properties, told me this month. “Now we’re becoming something else.”
What is that something? The purpose of this dispatch is to give a few illustrations of a city in the middle of becoming, and some brief background on work that’s been done and work that remains.
1) How it started. “I think where things really got going was when we finally tore down the Downtowner,” Karl Stauber told me early this month.
For the past dozen years, Stauber has been head of the Danville Regional Foundation, or DRF, which was founded in 2005 with the $200 million proceeds from the sale of a regional hospital to a private health-care firm and has been a major force in educational, cultural, and architectural development in the area ever since. (A year ago, Stauber announced that he would step down as the foundation’s CEO this summer; a DRF official named Clark Casteel will succeed him. For the record, we first learned about Danville, and talked with Stauber and Lori Merricks of the DRF, last year during a book-tour event and regional-development conference that their foundation sponsored. These new accounts are based on our recent return to Danville for a reporting trip. )
The Downtowner, a standard “mid-century modern” motel, had long been an eyesore and blight-generator right in the center of Danville. Ever since it went out of business in the 1980s, city renovation plans had started with proposals to knock it down. Yes, this might seem at odds with efforts to preserve the 19th-century shops and warehouses in the vicinity. But to oversimplify: most people believed that the old buildings had timeless-classic potential, and the Downtowner did not. Take a look, below, and judge for yourself.
In 2012, the city government, the regional foundation, and other organizations were finally able to act. “That really was a turning point,” Stauber told me. “The blighted structure symbolized what was holding us back. It represented the idea that nothing we tried would ever work. And we finally did away with it.” He went on to list other buildings, including a very popular downtown Y built with a view of the Dan River (described by Deb Fallows here), that, by contrast, “symbolized what was possible.”
Around the time demolition crews began taking apart the Downtowner, only about 400 people worked or lived in downtown buildings in the vicinity. This area had been informally known as the tobacco warehouse district; about the time of the demolition, the city started referring to it as the River District. “Within five years [of the renovation effort], that number went to 4,000,” Stauber told me. “It’s right around 6,000 people in the River District now.”
Rick Barker, the entrepreneur and property developer, offered a complementary measurement. “There’s about five million square feet of building inventory in the River District,” he told me. “Back when the River District project began, probably four million square feet was entirely vacant, or under-utilized. There’s less than two million feet left now. So half the work has been done.”
Hard economic and demographic indications — occupancy rates, office openings, retail and entertainment sites—obviously are crucial to judging any downtown area’s prospects. “But I keep thinking of the less-scientific measures,” Stauber told me. His foundation’s office is in a restored brick building that once housed tobacco operations, a block from a downtown plaza and fountain. “Ten years ago, you’d hear people say that they would only come downtown to pay parking tickets or get someone out of jail,” he said. But high school proms had happened on the weekend before our visit, and students by the hundreds came to the fountain to have their prom pictures taken. “That tells you something about what people perceive as the cool place to be.”
It would be obvious to any visitor that downtown Danville still has a long way to go. But it’s obvious to us how much further it has gone already than many other places we’ve seen.
2) How it is financed. This will be old news to anyone involved in commercial real estate. But for us, visits to recovering (or decaying) downtowns have been an ongoing education in the role of tax policy as a prime mover in starting or changing urban trends. (For instance, see this previous report by our colleague John Tierney on Allentown, Pennsylvania.)
Specifically in Danville, the tax policies that matter have been from two states, and the federal government. The states are Virginia, which offers builders a 25% tax credit for construction costs on historic-preservation projects like those in Danville — and neighboring North Carolina, which also had such a program but cut it back substantially five years ago. Both state credits come on top of a 20% federal tax credit for preservation projects, and in effect they dramatically reduced the capital costs for developers interested in restoring warehouses, abandoned factories, old shops, etc. (Do such tax preferences amount to “picking winners”? Sure. But in a tax regime that includes provisions like the carried-interest deduction for hedge-fund managers, I’ll defend the public benefits of this preference any time.)
The Virginia program fostered renewal efforts like those in Danville (and Roanoke and Lynchburg and Charlottesville and elsewhere). The cuts in the North Carolina program (though later partly reversed) enticed developers like those who had transformed tobacco and textile works in Durham and Winston-Salem to look out of state. Virginia was right next door.
Lower construction costs obviously mean that developers can charge tenants lower rent, which in turn lets buildings be occupied more quickly, which in turn adds customers and vitality to the downtown.
3) A test case: Craghead Street. “Coming to Danville now, it’s probably hard for you to imagine what this street used to look like,” the designer and developer Rick Barker, told me at his office in the 500 block of Craghead Street, in the River District.
“I can tell you that just five years ago, there were not two people in this city who wanted this building that we’re sitting in right now, or anything in the block.” The building we were sitting in, which Barker has turned into his office headquarters and is shown in a night shot below, now has a stylish exterior and especially interior hipness that would seem at home in any major city in North America or Europe. That office is on one end of the 500 block of Craghead Street; the shops and buildings along the entire block are part of a renovation effort, driven significantly by historic-preservation tax credits, that Barker’s company has underway.
“This street was named for Doctor Craghead, who was one of Danville’s first city council members,” Barker told me. “Five years ago we said that we wanted to make sure that people stopped calling it Crackhead Street. Our goal was to take the least desirable commercial block in the Dan River District, and make it the most desirable business address in the city. And we are on the way.”
At the other end of that block of Craghead, a restaurant called Mucho has opened up. A promotional video from the opening, which you can see below (or here), shows some of the reaction from both black and white patrons, in a city whose population is about 50-50 black and white.
How much further will the downtown renewal go? As always, it depends. But the distance traveled already is much greater than we would have guessed before we visited.
I’m mentioning it again this weekend, after Deb’s and my own sons have shown themselves to be wonderful fathers, both as a holiday-themed observance and because a document I linked to in the original post has vanished from its online home.
That document was a brief commencement speech I gave in 2008 at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. Ursinus is the small private college my dad had attended briefly during World War II, before heading off to medical school and service as a Navy doctor. With the passing years, the link I posted from the Ursinus site has gone the way of a great many links and become a 404.
I recently found a copy of the speech, and for cloud-archive purposes I post it again here. I still believe what I said those many years ago.
Happy upcoming Father’s Day to our two sons and to all other relevant honorees!
This was what I told graduates from the Ursinus class of 2008, and pretty much what I would still say now. (I would change that era’s noun “IMs” to the current “texts,” but otherwise could leave most of the language intact.) The “President Strassburger” I mention in the opening line was John Strassburger, a wonderful man and the illustrious president of Ursinus, who sadly died two years later, of cancer, at age 68.
Commencement Address, Ursinus College, May 17, 2008
James M. Fallows
President Strassburger; honored guests; deans and faculty members; family and supporters; and above all members of the Ursinus College class of 2008 – congratulations. You’ve all worked, waited, and -- in your different ways -- sacrificed to make this day a reality. Speaking as the parent of two recent college graduates, I ask members of the Class please to turn and wave your recognition, and love, and thanks to the parents and other supporters who have stood behind you and are feeling boundless pride, and bittersweetness at seeing the adults you’ve become, and relief of several kinds at the step you’re taking now.
I’ve just done the first part of my job, in helping you notice this wonderful sunny day.
I’m about to do the second part, which is to be brief. Two days ago, I was in China, where I’ve lived for two years and was involved in news of the disastrous earthquake. Two days from now, I’ll be on my way back to Beijing. The reason I’m here today is a connection between your college and my family that stretches back 65 years. I’d like to tell that story and then say why I think it matters for you who are graduating today.
In the summer of 1943, 65 years ago, James A. Fallows, my father, had just graduated from Jenkintown High School, not far from here. He was 18 years old – in fact, tomorrow will be his 83rd birthday, and I’ll join him in California to tell him about this event – and his country was at war. His older brother Bob was already in the Army. My dad’s main choices were to become a military pilot or a military doctor. The placement tests said Doctor, and so he came to Collegeville as an Ursinus pre-med student and Navy cadet, under the V-12 program.
His time here was rich, as yours probably has been. He was on the football and wrestling teams. He acted in plays. He sang in the Messiah chorus – impressive, since he can’t sing – and went to crack-of-dawn military drills when the bugle played Reveille on the campus. It was a different time.
The football team was successful, though they cheated, in a low-tech, pre-video way. He was a lineman, both offense and defense. He would wear a blue stocking on his right leg, and red on his left – and the man on either side of him on the line would do the reverse. The result was that linemen on the other team would look down and be puzzled, seeing a pair of blue or red legs that seemed to belong to two different people. When the ball was hiked, torsos and legs seemed to move in confusing directions. It helped Ursinus win, especially against academically less gifted teams. He liked it here.
But my dad’s time here, if rich, was brief. After two years at Ursinus, he had finished enough pre-med courses to qualify, by competitive exam, for Harvard Medical School, where he enrolled at age 20. He went from there to be a Navy doctor, then a small-town doctor, husband for more than 55 years to his childhood sweetheart from Jenkintown, father to four children, pillar of the small community in California where he raised his family. The finest man I know.
But because of the rushed wartime schedule, unlike today’s members of the class of ’08, my father never graduated from Ursinus. Until three years ago when the college, in a gesture that meant a tremendous amount to people now in their 80s, awarded its V-12 students their diplomas. I had hoped my dad could join us today, which he can’t – but I know that as you get your diplomas, he’ll be looking at his, mounted on his living room wall.
I tell you this because I’m a proud son, as sons and daughters should be – but also because his time in Collegeville, compared with yours, helps me introduce three ideas I’d like to mention briefly. They have to do with the times you’ll live in and the traits you’ll show, and I think of them as: challenge; curiosity; and character.
We hear almost too often about the challenges that shaped my father’s generation – the grandparents of today’s graduates. They grew up during the Depression, the then they fought a long world war and cold war. As if that weren’t enough, then they had to raise the Baby Boomers, my own unpopular generation. Their times were tough – for instance, the life expectancy for an American man born in 1925, like my father, was only into his mid 50s—twenty years less than for someone born in 1986, like most of you.
Because of the way this “greatest generation” – your grandparents, my parents – met it challenges, we honor them, but I think we sometimes misunderstand what challenge can mean. We’re tempted to think that it takes extreme challenge to bring out the greatness in people – Pearl Harbor, 9/11 - and, correspondingly, that when times do really get tough people will automatically rise to their best.
I’m not sure about either assumption. Sometimes people and societies don’t in fact rise to meet their biggest tests – I fear our nation’s overall response to the challenges of 9/11 will be seen, in history, as falling into this category– and sometimes the real test of greatness in people and generations is coping with challenges that don’t take the obvious Pearl Harbor form.
This, I think is your generation’s chance for greatness. You already know some of the huge array of problem which, if they’re going to be solved at all, will require your minds and commitment and talent and self-sacrifice. Perhaps number one is preserving the global environment, and its range of species, and its climate system – every day in China I see reasons why that’s crucial and difficult. Every day in China I also see a billion-plus people struggling to condense a century of economic development into a few years. I don’t think they’re struggling to “take American jobs” or "threaten America’s place in the world” – they have too many problems of their own, as we’re reminded by the devastation there just this week. But they are changing your world.
I’m actually optimistic about your America’s prospects in dealing with China– and with India, and with the Middle East, and with questions of global harmony and domestic equality –as long as we newly embrace rather than stifle the traditional American virtues of openness, equality, innovation, and opportunity. And as long as you recognize the challenge to serve – not in the V-12 but in your era’s ways. Perhaps in the military, as a teacher, as a parent, as an entrepreneur, as volunteer. Sixty-five years from now, many of you will be back here, and you’ll want to hear that you were a greatest generation too.
Second, curiosity. My dad always knew that he had been pulled out of Ursinus too soon. And that was a huge advantage. Having missed half of his normal college education, he gave himself ten educations in the ensuing years. He taught himself Greek, and then Hebrew, and polished up his Latin – and there were more. He became a painter, and sculptor, with his work in shows. He taught himself to sail, and play the piano, and to become a cowboy and head of local mounted police. He took up computers in his 50s and became a local webmaster. Now, at 83, he’s wondering whether to switch to the Mac.
He went overboard, because that’s who he is – but his is an extreme example of what a great college education should do for everyone. You’ve had a vastly better education than he had here, because you’ve had it in full and because Ursinus itself has is now so justly celebrated for the excellence of its life-changing undergraduate approach. You’ve shared an intellectual bond from Gilgamesh onward. But these years will have been wasted, Gilgamesh and all, if they’re not the beginning of a process of curiosity-driven self education that lasts the rest of your lives.
You can use your upcoming reunions as a handy benchmark. At each five-year interval – your 5th reunion, your 50th –be prepared to tell your classmates about the new thing you’ve recently learned. Guitar; Arabic; the tango; whatever. Here’s another benchmark: by the time of your 10th reunion, please spend at least one year overseas. There is no better way to learn about your own country than to see it from afar.
Third, character: Your parents know what I have learned from seeing my own children grow: that a lot of what we are as people, we are from the start. But we’re pushed to be the best versions of our inborn possibilities by parents in the beginning, then by teachers and mentors, and in the long run by ourselves.
Probably because he was so busy rushing through Ursinus, my dad – like another practical-minded Philadelphian, Benjamin Franklin – always emphasized that our character is the accumulation of things we actually do each day. In the end, we are our habits, so it’s worth developing good ones.
Some are obvious. Seriously, don’t smoke! Or, type IMs while you drive. Get in the habit of sports and exercise – by your tenth reunion, you’ll know who has and hasn’t. Get in the habit of being happy. We all have problems, which we can’t control; what we can control is how we look at them. Get in the habit of being excited. It’s a big world, with no excuse for being bored. It’s fun to have feuds and enemies – I’ve had my share– but break the habit of nursing grudges. Here’s a tip: always write angry letters to your enemies. Never mail them. Remember that anything hostile you say about people will get back to them. Especially if it’s in email.
Money: you’re going to have enough of it. Use the privilege of this education to know that you’re not going to starve, so you might as well spend your life doing something you love and are proud of. By your 20th reunion, and even more your 50th, you’ll see that satisfaction in work and family is scarcer – and far more rewarding – than the money race can ever be. Some people will always be better off than you, so don’t waste time envying them. Instead think of those you admire – and construct your own personal Mt. Rushmore, seeing what traits you can emulate.
Take every chance to tell your spouse, when you have one, and your children that you love them. When in doubt, phone your mom.
One final habit: Whenever you have the chance to deliver a sincere compliment, be sure to do it. My father is proud to be from Ursinus; I am proud of you; and we all are proud of you new graduates. These are sincere compliments, every one. Make the most of this wonderful day. #
Factory towns face problems when the factories shut down. Everyone has heard versions of that story—involving steel and auto plants in the Midwest, sawmills in the Northwest, coal mines in Appalachia or copper mines in the Southwest, other facilities in other towns.
On a recent visit to Southside Virginia—the part of the state bordering North Carolina, and far from the tech-and-government-driven boom of the D.C. suburbs in northern Virginia and the military-based economy of Norfolk and the Tidewater—we were reminded of the problems cities had even when those factories were up and running. We also learned about the way they are trying to apply the mixed blessings of a lost manufacturing heritage as they figure out their next act.
Our visit was centered in the city of Danville, which Deb Fallows wrote about here. Danville is the major city within Pittsylvania County, which is geographically one of the largest in the state. The city’s population is about 40,000, split roughly 50-50 black and white. In its day, it was one of the richest places in the Piedmont area, and a major center of first the tobacco and then the textile industries. Danville was also, for a one-week period in April 1865, the final capital city of the Confederacy—with implications down to the present, as we’ll explore in upcoming dispatches.
Now textiles have disappeared almost entirely, and tobacco hangs on in much-reduced form. (These days, the main tobacco-business force is JTI, or Japan Tobacco International, which has bought brands like Natural American Spirit and Benson & Hedges, and has expanded its warehouse and processing facilities in Danville.) While Virginia’s population has boomed—roughly 4 million in the 1960 census, 6 million in 1990, 8 million in 2010, and rising—Danville’s is a little smaller now than it was in the 1960s. This part of southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina has endured the simultaneous collapse of the three industries that were the mainstays of its many small towns: tobacco, textiles, and furniture making. Danville’s comparative good fortune is that it didn’t have as many furniture factories to lose as some neighboring places did.
And yet: Danville is now benefiting from another aspect of its battered industrial heritage, which it is beginning to turn into an important city asset. How? Please read on.
Tobacco got going in this region because of a combination of soil and slavery. The soil in central-southern Virginia is part of a belt reaching through North Carolina and Kentucky that is exceptionally favorable for tobacco. (The same territory also favors hemp, which is becoming the basis of another new industry. Stay tuned for more on that, too.) Before the Civil War, it was the home of large tobacco plantations and correspondingly large slave populations.
A fascinating map at Danville’s Museum of Fine Arts and History correlates Virginia’s county-by-county black population in the early 1860s with levels of support by the white population for joining the Confederacy. (It’s different from the map shown above but based on similar data.) The rugged Appalachian west of the state, including what later peeled off to become West Virginia, had very few plantations, low black populations, and also less support for secession. The tobacco heartland around Danville had more plantations, with more slaves, and (among the whites) stronger secessionist views.
After the Civil War, the tobacco industry remained, having shifted from a slave basis to sharecropping and low-wage labor. Auction houses, warehouses, and processing facilities for tobacco transformed the city’s downtown. Many of them were huge brick structures on the streets near the Dan River. An academic history of the area’s economic evolution, Danville, Virginia: And the Coming of the Modern South, by Michael Swanson, details the way that the tobacco industry shaped the physical and economic contours of the region through the 1800s—and how the textile industry, drawn down from New England by the search for lower wages (and hydropower along southern rivers), shaped them after that.
The Danville area, while retaining its tobacco business, also become one of the most important textile centers in the country. An operation eventually known as the Dan River Mills was by the mid-20th century one of the largest textile mills anywhere.
A central theme of Swanson’s book is how rough life within a mill town could be, for people other than owners and managers. Swanson refers to W. J. Cash’s famous coruscation of southern mill culture in his book The Mind of the South, published just before World War II. Part of Cash’s description is so floridly overdone that I won’t quote it in full. (It’s no surprise that as a young man Cash wrote for H. L. Mencken’s usually florid The American Mercury.) Here is a comparatively restrained sample:
The working conditions in the Southern cotton mills were extremely unfavorable. Men and women and children were cooped up for most of their waking lives in the gray light of glazed windows, and in rooms which were never effectively ventilated, since cotton yarns will break in the slightest draft—in rooms which, because of the use of artificial humidification, were hardly less than perpetual steam baths.
The harvest was soon at hand. By 1900 the cotton-mill worker was a pretty distinct physical type in the South; a type in some respects perhaps inferior to even that of the old poor white, which in general had been his to begin with. A dead-white skin, a sunken chest, and stooping shoulders were the earmarks of the breed …
The women were characteristically stringy-haired and limp of breast at twenty, and shrunken hags at thirty or forty. And the incidence of tuberculosis, of insanity and epilepsy, and, above all, of pellagra, the curious vitamin-deficiency disease which is nearly peculiar to the South, was increasing.
The mills’ influence was wide-ranging and profound. Businesses in the area discouraged higher education and brought in workers straight out of public schools. They effectively separated the region’s work force by race—mainly blacks as tobacco workers, whites in the mills—which reduced possibilities for labor cooperation, while reinforcing segregation. Nonetheless, greater Danville was the scene of repeated labor-related and racial strife for half a century after the Civil War, through the Reconstruction era and the beginning of labor organization.
Then, during the civil-rights era of the 1960s, it was again a battleground. Despite the Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 decreeing an end to “separate but equal” segregated schools, public education and most other aspects of Danville’s life were rigidly segregated into the 1960s. After civil-rights protests and brutal police response in the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. said that three places where he would focus his efforts would be Montgomery and Birmingham, in Alabama, and Danville.
The main civil-rights confrontation in Danville, on June 10, 1963, was known as “Bloody Monday,” when police used fire hoses and billy clubs against demonstrators. A local grand jury also indicted many of the demonstrators under a pre–Civil War–era law, passed in response to the John Brown abolitionist raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, that made it a crime to incite “the colored population to acts of violence or war against the white population.”
Just this past week—yes, I mean in June 2019, or 56 years after the original Bloody Monday event—Danville’s police chief, Scott Booth, offered a public “heartfelt apology” to the city’s African American community. He did so at an event honoring Apostle Lawrence G. Campbell Sr., a prominent civil-rights and religious leader, who with his wife had been beaten during the 1963 protests. Campbell has recently published a memoir, 1963: A Turning Point in Civil Rights. In it, he points out how inflexibly segregated the city was in his youth, and the aspects that have changed now: a black mayor, a black superintendent of schools, black members of the city council, and overall a city that “is totally integrated, and blacks are very much a part of its growth.” Like other parts of America, Campbell writes, Danville still exists in “two communities, black and white,” especially in religious organizations. But “it’s come a long way” from 1963, he said at this week’s event with Chief Booth.
Why go through this difficult history? On general principles, because it’s true, and because the background of 19th- and 20th-century strife has shaped the social, economic, and physical realities of the town confronting its 21st-century future. Also, I think it’s worth remembering that an imagined golden age in which households depended on big-factory jobs had its severe drawbacks, too.
But in specific, this background is significant in Danville because it helps explain a highly noticeable aspect of modern Danville’s possibilities: the abundance of historic downtown structures, legacies of the tobacco and textile age, that have outlived their original economic function but give the city new prospects today.
“We actually have more antique architecture than downtown Charlotte or downtown Atlanta”— even though those cities are vastly larger, Rick Barker, of Danville, told me last week. Barker, who is now in his 50s, grew up in the area, worked in sales and packaging design for years, but over the past decade has become one of the leading entrepreneurs behind a revival of former tobacco and textile buildings in what is now called Danville’s River District.
“In the 1970s and 1980s, it was popular in lots of places to tear down antique buildings for surface-level parking,” Barker said. “Well, in the ’70s and ’80s, Danville was still a mill town. We had a mill that was thriving, with thousands of employees.”
Then, through the 1990s and early 2000s, the rest of the state took off in a way that left Danville and Southside behind. “At one point we led the state because we had an agricultural-based economy,” Barker told me. “Now, with the booms in northern Virginia, and the Tidewater, and Richmond, we’ve been left out as a mill town in an ag region. And that mattered because [during the recent economic crisis] there was no reason to tear the buildings down. By that point, we didn’t need parking for anything.”
So during one destructive wave of downtown demolitions, Danville didn’t want to tear down buildings, because they were still profitable. And during the second wave, it couldn’t afford to, because it had so many other problems.
“What we tended to do was just cover them up—just put aluminum on top of an antique facade and say it looks ‘modern,’” Barker told me. “Now it turns out that the aluminum was a pretty good protective cover.”
Starting about 10 years ago, Barker and others in Danville began peeling back the facades. The next installment will describe what they’ve found, how they’re paying for it, where they’re aiming, and what this effort might mean for the future of the town.
During our years of reporting for Our Towns, I’ve visited YMCAs all across the country. My quest began as a way to keep fit while traveling. I bought day passes to swim in Burlington, Vermont; Columbus, Mississippi; Redlands, California; Allentown, Pennsylvania; Duluth, Minnesota; and Wichita, Kansas.
If I couldn’t find a Y, I would swim at a local public pool, like in Holland, Michigan; Greenville, South Carolina; Dodge City, Kansas; Winters, California; and Bend, Oregon. As a last resort, I turned to nature, jumping into the Snake River in Clarkston, Washington; Lake Champlain in Vermont; Lake Erie in Erie, Pennsylvania; Lake Michigan in Holland, Michigan; the freezing Atlantic in Portland, Maine; and the also-freezing Pacific along the West Coast.
Recently I added another venue to my list: the YMCA of Danville, in the so-called Southside of Virginia, bordering North Carolina. Danville, once a thriving tobacco and textile town, has placed a big bet on its Y as more than a fun and healthy place to work out, or swim, or play basketball. It is an anchor institution for restoring the spirit and pride of Danville.
The YMCA is a natural for this role, with its 135-year history in Danville and now a brand-spanking-new, $15 million, 50,000-square-foot facility on the Dan River. Spurred on by an initial gift from the private Danville Regional Foundation, which was followed by millions more from other foundations, institutions, and individuals in town, the new Y opened in 2014. The building is a beautiful, award-winning design of brick, glass, and exposed beams, with natural light and social space. It became the first development facing the river in more than 100 years, and in homage to that history, the Y also shows off reclaimed wood from the old textile mill that once stood on its spot.
The hotel where my husband, Jim, and I were staying was just a mile upriver from the Y. The woman at reception told me that the best way to get there was to “walk down Riverside Drive to Biscuitville, cross at the light, and go straight to the Riverwalk Trail. That leads to the Y.” So I did just that. Biscuitville was hopping; cars were lined up at the drive-through to pick up morning biscuits. The bike shares were lined up next to the Riverwalk. I meandered along the path, under the lush, overgrown foliage, past a few bridges, the wildlife markers, the local sculpture, and on to the Y.
Sarah Folmar, the CEO of the Y, showed me around. We toured the rooms for yoga, Zumba, Pilates, and aerobics; the gym, which can accommodate basketball or volleyball or the trending pickleball; a walking track; and an expansive fitness center, where exercisers on treadmills may be distracted by views of the rushing Dan River. There’s a massage room, a fancy machine to measure and record blood pressure, and another to measure weight and body fat. Some 2,500 square feet of physical therapy and rehab space is leased by the Danville Regional Medical Center (which is now part of Sovah Health).
In the social space at the entry, featuring an 18-by-18-foot glass donor wall that you can’t miss, several older men sat with coffee and newspapers, shooting the breeze. The child-care center, which was funded by the Hughes Memorial Foundation, offers after-school care and summer programs. A separate “child watch” room gives up to two hours of free child care for exercising parents, included in the $65 family fee. Those rooms were buzzing, as school had just ended for the year. The Y also offers after-school child care at four different elementary schools around the county, where Y staff uses the facilities of the school, and children can stay put. Of course, I noticed the six-lane pool, quietly hoping for my chance to swim later in the morning.
To Danville, the Y is more than its stunning physical plant. In a town where you see the occasional remnant of self-advertising as “the last capital of the Confederacy” (somewhat of a stretch, as Jefferson Davis hunkered down in Danville for just the single final week before the end of the Civil War), the Y serves a membership today that reflects Danville’s nearly half-white and half-African-American population. The 100 or so people I saw on my morning at the Y were mixed in about the same proportion.
We’re a “community within a community,” Sarah Folmar said. “When so much going on in the world is negative, even in the city of Danville, inside these four walls, everything changes. It is a positive place.”
We made our tour slowly, as Folmar greeted what seemed to me about half the members by name, inquiring about family and how they’re feeling. And they greeted back. A 93-year-old man was resting on the exercise equipment; two young women, who call themselves the River City Belles, were recording a live Facebook feed about healthy eating.
I also met, by name, every one of the staff who was present that morning. Several were discussing ideas from the professional training sessions they had recently attended. Staff interviews are thorough, and the retention rate is high. A telling question in the interview process is a self-rating on a scale of 1 to 10 of smile-ability. “Anything less than a 10,” reports Folmar, “and it’s not the place for them.” She added, as an afterthought, “A hundred is even better!”
Each of the 2,700 Ys in the U.S. has its own personal stamp. They all belong to the 175-year-old national organization, which offers various resources like help with strategic planning, big-picture marketing, and training in exchange for membership dues. The Y in Danville also belongs to the Virginia Alliance of YMCAs, which advises on state-relevant initiatives, like diabetes prevention and water safety. Beyond that, each local Y is independent and autonomous, with its own fiscal and governing responsibilities, but free to be the “heartbeat of the community,” as Folmar describes the Y in Danville.
The stamp of the YMCA (for Young Men’s Christian Association, of course) in Danville showed a stronger Christian element than I saw in most other Ys that I visited. It makes sense; Danville is a churchgoing town. The question that Danvillians are likely to ask of newcomers, several residents told me, is not “Where are you from?” or “What do you do?” but “Do you have a church yet?” Folmar reported that one of the most popular merchandise items at the Y is a T-shirt with a Bible verse printed on it. And a fishbowl in the workout space, which would likely be filled with mints or candies at other Ys, was filled here with strips of paper containing Bible verses. I had seen one other so filled, in northeastern Mississippi.
I found in Danville, as I had in most other towns, that the Ys and public sports complexes were my second-favorite spots—runner-up to the public libraries—to reveal the culture and mood of a town and to rub shoulders (literally) with folks I otherwise would be unlikely to meet. The Ys also shared the democratic nature of public libraries, where OPEN TO ALL, as is carved in granite above the Columbus, Ohio, main library door, refers to every single person, including the homeless, at no cost. The last two words of the Danville YMCA mission statement, “for all,” echo “open to all.” Folmar points out in full disclosure, “We are a membership organization.” But she explained that the Y offers reduced-fee memberships; last year, the Y gave away more than $135,000 in scholarships, and its goal is for no one to be turned away because of financial hardship.
By one measure, the new Y is a roaring success. Before it opened, Y membership in Danville was 2,300. Today, just five years later, it is 9,000. By another measure, there is still serious work to do. The latest Regional Report Card, including 2016 health data from Danville, commissioned by the Danville Regional Foundation, shows a lot of work still left to do. Compared with Virginia as a whole, the adult obesity rate, adult smoking, diabetes, and physical inactivity in Danville are all higher.
About an hour and a half later, our tour concluded, and Folmar asked if I would like to swim. Yes. The water-aerobics class had ended, and I shared the six-lane pool with just a few other swimmers. Folmar’s final gesture: As I traveled light and had forgotten a towel, she lent me her own.
Yesterday, Deb Fallows and I sent an email to various loyal readers of The Atlantic. You can see what was in that message in the “Continue Reading” section of this post.
In response, I got this message, from a longtime reader in Oregon:
I would like to see someone “package” or “productize,” both recipes for solutions, and recipes for non-solutions, which you and Deborah Fallows uncover. I would like to see actionable social entrepreneurship kits and trainings made available.
Reporting is necessary, but not sufficient. Not in our present circumstances.
I don’t expect you and Ms. Fallows have the personal capacity to add such an initiative to your own plans and activities. But I suspect there are people and organizations that can do so. I would like to see you task one or more people to identify, contact and encourage such people and organizations to “package” or “productize” such social entrepreneurship solutions.
If what works cannot be reproduced, then reporting is reduced to the wistful.
Personally, I don’t have the stomach to read, listen to, or watch “what might have been,” or what can or even is happening, but only under optimum conditions. We are not living in a time of optimum conditions. We cannot simply plant and grow in any type of soil. The soil must support what we hope to harvest.
I seek no response here. Your work over the next year or two will be your response.
This is a fair, and important, observation. And it is in line with our intentions, and the themes we intend to explore.
Deb and I realize that we don’t personally have the background, capacity, or skill to be the “productizers” ourselves. But one of our ambitions is to connect people who do have those abilities.
Here is the message that went out to a number of Atlantic readers this week.
Starting six years ago, in the summer of 2013, my wife—Deborah Fallows—and I began visiting smaller-town America, traveling in our single-engine four-seat propeller plane, for a series of web posts, videos, magazine articles, and radio reports in what was called the “American Futures” series. Last year we published a nationally best-selling book from the project, called Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, and now we’re working with HBO on a documentary of the same name. It will appear about a year from now, around the time of the national political conventions, toward the goal of offering a different conception of America’s political possibilities than those likely to dominate cable news.
Now we are beginning a new round of extended on-scene reporting, following up on the successes and challenges of some of the places we’ve already visited, and expanding our coverage to new regions and towns. In an introductory post for this series, I set out some of the places we’ll be visiting and themes we will be exploring this year. These will range broadly, over: economics and business questions; urban architecture and the arts; the reinvention of schools and libraries; the expansion of broadband and technological opportunities to rural America; ways to help local journalism survive as a business, and to encourage national journalism to take small-town America more seriously; and whether solutions being devised at the local level could percolate up to improve national-level politics.
We have already done some initial reports. For instance: from Indiana, about a radical new approach to public school not previously mentioned in the national press; and also from Indiana, about the second (and third, and 10th) lives of factory buildings and shopping malls that outlive their original economic function; and from Mississippi, about a small-town daily that has retained its economic and civic role (and an even smaller daily that was crucially influential in the outlook of the famed journalist David Halberstam); and from all around the country, about the emerging role of public libraries as America’s “second responders,” filling social and economic gaps in a quietly heroic way.
Soon we will be traveling again, by small airplane, to Appalachian North Carolina and Kentucky; and to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas; and to industrial areas of Wisconsin, from Racine to Eau Claire; and to inland areas from Oklahoma to Nebraska to Nevada; and beyond.
Here’s a difference between the world of national politics and that of public problem-solving at the local and regional levels. Four or five years ago, I would have had no idea of this. Now I notice it practically every day.
In national politics, terms like partnership or collaboration are hard to utter with a straight face, or a non-sinking heart. At best, they can seem boring or (damning with faint praise) “worthy.” At worst, they seem like euphemisms for sweetheart deals or favor-trading.
In Washington I can feel the attention draining from the room whenever someone mentions “public-private partnerships”—or if Deb and I discuss some new cooperative project we’ve seen for advanced-manufacturing training in the South, or the reuse of abandoned buildings in the Midwest. The narcotizing effect is like that of the term infrastructure, back before “Infrastructure Week” became a bitterly joked-about term in Washington.
Yet in so many communities we’ve visited, everything about these collaborative efforts—finding the partners, dividing the labor, sharing the blame and credit, sustaining the relationship—has seemed not simply important but actually interesting.
Consider this analogy: Anyone studying World War II knows that part of the story is the titanic drama of the battlefield. But another important part is the elaborate backstairs strategy of collaboration and coalition building. This involved: how Churchill dealt with FDR, how both of them dealt with Stalin, how the U.S. government worked with private industrialists to turn Depression-racked America into the “arsenal of democracy,” how Eisenhower and Montgomery and Patton and MacArthur worked with and against one another, and so on.
Similarly: The movie Lincoln and the book Team of Rivals were built on the drama of Lincoln holding a political coalition together so that Union forces could advance on the battlefield.
Today’s local-level partnerships obviously lack the world-historical immediacy of these wartime struggles. But the link between process and result is similar: people paying attention to the mechanics of how they work together, to increase the chance of reaching their goal. And the stakes can be very high: reducing the human toll of opioids or homelessness; expanding opportunities for people the modern economy has left behind; improving schools and policing practices; and on down the list.
Let’s take this back to Mississippi. This post is a an update on a project in the Golden Triangle of the state—the ambitiously industrializing northeastern region including Columbus, West Point, and Starkville—which exemplifies a commitment to collaboration that other regions could usefully study.
The physical symbol of the collaborative effort there is a new building that is opening this summer, in the industrial zone adjoining the Golden Triangle Regional Airport. The official name for the structure, which we saw in nearly completed form on a visit to Mississippi earlier this month, is the Center for Manufacturing Technology Excellence, or CMTE, 2.0. It is informally known as the “Communiversity,” and the name suggests the scale of its ambition. (For background on ambitions for the Communiversity back in 2014, see this report. For more on the highly creative community college from which it arose, see this.)
The term communiversity—a university, in a community—is familiar in higher education. But generally it refers to community-enrichment or -engagement efforts, as opposed to formal degree-granting programs. For instance, the communiversity at the University of Missouri at Kansas City was founded on the belief “that a community is strengthened when its members have avenues through which they can share their skills and ideas with others.” It offers some 850 noncredit, volunteer-taught courses. The one at the University of Cincinnati has a similar approach. Princeton University and the City of Princeton are sponsors of a Communiversity ArtsFest there.
The Mississippi Communiversity is something different. It is a new physical home for a program that has been gaining momentum over the past decade, and that offers academically structured, industrially aligned for-credit classes. Its name reflects the simultaneous involvement of all these groups in organizing it, funding it, and now guiding its operations:
Together, these organizations provided funding for the $42.5 million center. (The money came mainly from state bonds approved by the Mississippi legislature, for about $18 million; commitments from the three counties, totaling $13.5 million; and support from the federal Appalachian Regional Commission, for $10.5 million.)
The major manufacturers that have come to the area have played a role in various forms, including contracting with EMCC to train potential employees. The EMCC vice president for workforce and community development, Raj Shaunak, told me this week that over the past 15 years, EMCC has trained about 25,000 people—“and about 12,000 of them are currently employed in advanced manufacturing in the Golden Triangle area.” (For instance: The local advanced-technology steelworks run by Steel Dynamics employs about 750 people, according to Shaunak. A new Yokohama tire factory employs about 650.) These companies “are our partners in every sense,” Shaunak said.
Shaunak also singled out the role of a former Mississippi State president, Malcolm Portera, in catalyzing the successful cooperative effort in the area. Portera had been the head of the University of Alabama when the Tuscaloosa area attracted a new auto factory from BMW and an electronics factory from JVC. “When he came to Mississippi, he worked with everyone—state, local, federal—to showcase our local capabilities,” Shaunak said. “And he was visionary in saying we needed to build the original Center for Manufacturing Technology Excellence at EMCC. When manufacturing was declining, in the U.S. and in Mississippi, he said, ‘We can make it in America again.’” To me, the part of this story worth underlining is the head of a research university going out of his way to boost a community college.
What will happen room by room within the Communiversity will be familiar to those who have seen career-technical training sites around the country, or advanced-manufacturing start-up centers. (For those who haven’t been to such places, here are tworeports from Louisville a few years ago that give some idea, and another from San Bernardino.) In short: Students at different stages of life are trained both in specific technical skills that can lead to immediate employment and in the longer-term “learning how to learn” skills that prepare them to adjust more easily to the jobs in demand 10 or 20 years from now.
A helicopter chassis, like the one above, will prepare students for work at the adjoining Airbus helicopter factory, or for aerospace-related jobs elsewhere. Ranks of advanced-machine tools, like the ones shown below, prepare students for advanced-manufacturing jobs.
My point for now is not the details of what the Communiversity’s first class of students and entrepreneurs will be doing when it starts working there this summer. It is instead about the breadth of the collaborative effort that makes this institution possible—and the implications of programs like this.
“I think many of us are worried that the American economy is doing half of its job,” Jan Rivkin, of the Harvard Business School, said after an HBS team visited the Communiversity site in the fall of 2017. He added:
“[The economy] is benefitting large companies and those who work for and invest in them, but it is not supporting working middle-class Americans. Rural communities are really struggling.
Yet here in the Golden Triangle, we see something very different going on: a community that is coming together to create broadly shared prosperity and great manufacturing jobs. We came here to learn. We came here to see what is going on that is special, and to figure out what we might apply to other settings in other communities.”
Might this all sound merely “worthy”? I give you the closing thoughts of Shaunak. “This is a way we can give people in a distressed area new family-sustaining opportunities,” he told me this week. “This is a way to help them realize their American dream.”
Here are a few stories I found intriguing from the past week’s newspapers, on the unfolding complexities of the much-discussed “rural-urban divide.”
1) The first is by Andrew Van Dam, in The Washington Post, on the fundamental reasons for rural decline. Here’s the way his story was presented in the print version of the Post, in the Sunday business section:
Just about every discussion of the political, economic, opportunity, and other gaps between rural and urban America starts from the premise that life outside the big cities really is doomed. On the basis of the headline, this story would seem to be offering yet more reasons rural prospects are so dark.
But if you read the story, you’re in for a surprise. A “spoiler alert” clue about the contents is suggested by the headline on the same story online. This headline contains two additional words, in parentheses. Here is the twist those words add:
(To be 100 percent clear, I’m using the contrast in headlines to underscore the complexities in the piece, not to give the Post grief of any sort.)
As Van Dam clearly lays out in the story, among the many burdens on rural America is a bureaucratic and definitional one. To oversimplify: Whenever a non–major-metro area starts developing or prospering, for that very reason it stops being classified as rural.
That is: On top of the many real challenges rural communities face, their situation looks even bleaker than it is, because of the steady reclassification of successful smaller towns and rural areas as being no longer rural.
Here is Van Dam’s explanation:
The contest between rural and urban America is rigged. Official definitions are regularly updated in such a way that rural counties are continually losing their most successful places to urbanization [as officially classified]. When a rural county grows, it transmutes into an urban one …
Imagine how unfair a sport would seem if one team automatically drafted the other’s best players the moment they showed any promise. That’s essentially what happens when we measure rural areas as whatever’s left over after anywhere that hits a certain population level is considered metropolitan. It distorts how we see rural America. It skews our view of everything from presidential politics to suicide to deaths caused by alcohol …
It makes rural areas look poorer, whiter, older and more prone to alcohol-related death or suicide than under broader definitions. Statistics such as these affect everything from Medicare reimbursement to the larger perception that the nation’s breadbasket is also a basket case.
The story and the reports it refers to are all worth your attention. Another of the important implications: that most people who think they are living in small-town or rural settings are officially classified as being in “metro” regions. As Van Dam says:
About 6 in 10 U.S. adults who consider themselves “rural” live in an area classified as metropolitan by standards similar to those used above, according to a Washington Post–Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in 2017. And 3 in 4 of the adults who say they live in a “small town”? They’re also in a metro area.
Very much worth reading. Congrats to Van Dam and the Post.
2) The second story is by Eduardo Porter and Guilbert Gates, from TheNew York Times, about a shift in migration patterns. In the same “show the evidence” spirit, here is the headline for their story (which was the same in print and online versions, as far as I can tell):
The reinforcement is the idea that for certain very top-level, sought-after, professional-and-technical talents, the economic rewards in white-hot centers from New York to San Francisco exceed what they could find anyplace else.
The complication is that for most other people, the rewards across the country have evened out—so that the “Let’s move to the big city and get a new start” impulse is weaker than at many other times in U.S. history.
This is partly because automation has removed so many accountant-and-clerk-type jobs from the biggest cities. It is partly because real-estate prices have jacked up the price of simply existing in Seattle, New York, the SF Bay ArEA, etc. It’s partly because of a dispersal of activities elsewhere—which is one of the big themes that Deb and I have chronicled.
Whatever the balance of forces, the evidence Porter and Gates present is interesting, nuanced, and different from what you’ve heard in most political speeches and segments on the news.
3) The third is an American Enterprise Institute report, which finds that the “amenities” of local life—parks, restaurants, walkable shopping, libraries—make a major difference in how happy, trusting, and engaged people are. As the report, by Ryan Streeter and Daniel Cox, found (and as they elaborated in a post for The Atlantic last week), people who live near parks, libraries, etc.:
are more content with their neighborhood, more trusting of others, and less lonely regardless of whether they live in large cities, suburbs, or small cities or towns.
This may seem ordinary and obvious, but it caught my eye for several reasons:
It’s an extension of the AEI survey work I wrote about earlier this year, showing that most Americans felt better about their local communities than they did about the trends in national life.
It underscores the absolutely crucial point that civic character is not something that merely exists, like eye color or the day’s temperature, but instead is one of many traits that can be intentionally improved and cultivated.
In that, it’s related to a wonderful new book by my friend Eric Liu, the head of Citizen University in Seattle. The book is called Become America, and it’s a collection of 19 short “civic sermons” about ways to foster a more rather than less engaged public life. More on this, and its relationship to the most important essay in America’s public life, later on.
(What was that essay? Stay tuned. The hint is that it was published 109 years ago, and while its author was an Atlantic contributor, it did not first appear in these pages.)
Next up in this space: another report from Mississippi.
Everyone knows about first responders. I’ve come to think of libraries as playing a crucial role as “second responders.”
In Ferguson, Missouri, the public library stayed open when the schools were closed after the riots, to offer the kids a safe place and even classes taught by volunteers. After the hurricanes in Houston, some library websites were immediately up and running, announcing that they were open for business. After Hurricane Sandy, some libraries in New Jersey became places of refuge. And in the Queens Library’s Far Rockaway branch, which didn’t have heat or light, the librarians set up shop in the parking lot to continue children’s story hours “to give them a sense of normalcy,” says Christian Zabriskie, who was a Queens librarian then. “Story time at the end of the world” he called it. In Orlando, after the nightclub shootings, the library hosted an art gallery for those who made art as a way to express and share their reactions. After the Thomas Fire, the Santa Barbara Public Library invited the public to share their stories and lessons, to help heal and prepare for the future.
Libraries step in to fill gaps and offer help when normal channels are inaccessible. Pima County, Arizona, pays for a team of nurses to come to the library to help with medical questions for those who can’t or won’t go to a hospital, clinic, or doctor. In Charleston, West Virginia, librarians told me that they have launched searches for people to research health issues or concerns. In some libraries, librarians have Narcan training. In Bend, Oregon, a social worker has helped prepare the librarians to work with people who came in with sensitive, personal questions, such as how to meet their rent and mortgage payments.
Others report that they have helped people figure out how to have a dignified funeral when they have no money for one. In Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County, among the hardest-hit areas of the entire country during the 2008–2009 financial collapse, the leaders of the public-library system found ways to stretch and reprogram their budget to ensure that their system would stay open seven days a week during the crisis, because they knew their citizens would need its resources to cope with job loss, house foreclosures, and more.
Carved in the granite above the doorway of the imposing flagship Carnegie Library in Columbus, Ohio, are the words Open to All. I have seen homeless people line up waiting for the doors to open so they can spend the day inside comfortably and safely.
In my hometown of Washington, D.C., I trudged to our local library during an extreme cold-weather episode a year or two ago and read a handwritten sign saying that the library was closed because of the cold, and pointing to the emergency shelters that were open instead. Librarians have told me that they’ve heard from homeless people about one of the important reasons they go to libraries: These are the only places where they are treated with respect. Librarians also told me about the various rules and regulations they impose about noise, sleeping, eating, “bathing” in restrooms, disruptive behavior, and storage of belongings. They say that occasionally people are placed on “sabbatical” from the libraries for infringements and are sometimes referred to public places where they can take showers. None have reported serious incidents to me, which suggests that respect is mutual.
The most serious of these examples are testament to the trust that citizens place in their libraries and librarians. The Pew Research Center reports that 78 percent of people say libraries help them to find information they can trust. Librarians are nothing if not discreet. I have asked librarians about their users looking at pornography on the public computers. They demur, kind of, and say that they don’t look at what people are doing on the computers, and others say that they only step in when someone complains.
Zabriskie, who now works in Yonkers, points to the complexity of being a librarian these days. “Amidst glory days of librarianship,” he says, “there can be trauma. If every day’s work were just reading to toddlers, great. But sometimes those kids are homeless.”
“Sometimes librarians are Batman,” Zabriskie says. “Sometimes they are ghosts in the machine. We have to resist hardening the space.”
If these are the libraries acting as second responders, there are also plenty of cases where they respond as providers of second chances.
The Los Angeles Public Library offers a chance to earn a high-school degree for those who missed out the first time around. Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Librarian John Szabo hand out diplomas. The most popular volunteer opportunity at the Smiley Library in Redlands, California, is for adults to teach other adults how to read and write. Public libraries across the country offer a variety of paths to help people find new economic opportunity, with job and interview support and digital skills training.
And listen for how often you hear adults credit the public library as the place that spirited them away in their youth from anger or sadness or boredom at home. Many libraries make themselves appealing to schoolchildren of any age as a safe, warm place to do homework or just hang out when they can’t or won’t go home. I have seen and heard variations on this theme that range from the library being the only place the kids could go, to the library being the cool place where teenagers would hang out. I heard these comments from the desert communities of Arizona to the small towns of California to the urban centers of the Midwest and East Coast.
There are libraries in prisons, for those who can’t go out, and books delivered to prisons when inmates request them. Library books are delivered to remote schools in Kanawha County, West Virginia, for teachers who don’t have access to materials. Extending that metaphor of the library coming to the people, I have seen pop-up libraries in parks in Wichita, Kansas. There is a summer program around Minneapolis lakes to lend books in watertight containers from a library raft to boaters. And there is a library in the big shopping mall in Ontario, California, opportunistically placed for presumably reluctant shoppers who accompany enthusiastic shoppers.
Welcome to the new realities of public libraries and librarians.
Last month we wrote about the surprising partnership in Angola, Indiana between a city-redevelopment movement, which has brought new life and activity to a historic small-city downtown, and the adjoining Trine University, which has had an extremely high success rate in placing its graduates in jobs or advanced-degree programs.
Over the past two decades, smaller private universities across the country, especially those far from major cities, have struggled to attract students and keep their doors open. But as detailed here, in those two decades Trine has quadrupled its enrollment, and it claims that graduates leave with an average student-debt burden of less than $30,000.
“There are good things and bad things about a reputation as an engineering school,” the president of Trine, Earl Brooks told me, when I spoke with him in Angola last month. “The good thing is the job-placement rate. The bad thing is people thinking you’re only about engineering.”
Want proof that Trine is not just about engineering? And that a cannily analytical approach to possibilities can pay off in many realms? Please read on:
Justin Cohn of The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne, Indiana, the nearest large city to Trine, has a story with the headline “Trine softball’s epic trick play,” and Trine’s news service has more detailed reports here. As you’ll see, the play took careful planning, elaborate choreography, dramatic aplomb, and—for the last out in a playoff game—daring and guts.
We’ll follow the Thunder as they move on to the next round, against Illinois Wesleyan. (For how the game looked from the Geneseo perspective, including a reflection on what was still the best-ever season in the school’s history, see this post-game interview. )
To spell out what is happening here: In the final inning, SUNY Geneseo was down by two, with two outs, but with runners on first and second. After a pitch, the Trine pitcher got the ball back from the catcher—and then whirled and appeared to be trying to pick off the runner at second.
The pitcher put everything into that fast throw toward second base—and then the rest of the Trine team acted for all the world as if she’d badly mis-thrown the ball. Two infielders valiantly dived into the dirt, as if trying to stop the ball before the runners could advance. Outfielders frantically ran up, as if trying to get the ball back into the infield before SUNY could tighten the score.
But of course the pitcher had merely mimed the throw, and was hiding the ball in her glove the whole time. The contortions of the infielders and outfielders were all an act. The act convinced the SUNY runner, who saw an opening to score—and as she moved on from second, the pitcher ambled over to tag her out and end the game.
Sympathies to the Knights, and good luck to the Thunder!
In 1981, the writer David Halberstam published a memoir in Esquire magazine, with the headline “Starting Out to be a Famous Reporter.”
At the time Halberstam was well-known enough that the story’s title would have seemed both mildly self-mocking and accurately descriptive. He’d come to national prominence while still in his 20s through skeptical and award-winning New York Times reporting from Vietnam. His book about the making of the Vietnam War catastrophe, The Best and the Brightest, which was published in 1972, was hugely influential and popularized a phrase that has endured nearly 50 years later. (Although I have seen enough recent misuses of the phrase “best and the brightest” to need to point out that Halberstam was using it derisively. It was the impeccably credentialed smart guys around John F. Kennedy, and then Lyndon Johnson, who took the nation to disaster in Vietnam.)
Every few years after that, Halberstam turned out a thick, usually best-selling book. For instance, The Powers That Be, about the rise of the journalistic establishment in the 20th century (parts of which ran in The Atlantic), or The Breaks of the Game, about pro basketball. He kept going at full speed, into his early 70s, until his shocking death in a car crash 12 years ago, while being driven by a graduate student after a university event at UC Berkeley.
David Halberstam had been a model to me, and a generous and forgiving mentor over the years, as I noted when hearing the news of his death. I first met him in the late 1960s, when I was editor in chief of the college newspaper and a group of conservative alums were trying to wrest control of the paper from our “irresponsible” student hands. Halberstam and the late J. Antony Lukas led an alumni counter-movement that held them off. As I noted many decades later, when Halberstam died:
He had his excesses—he was strapping and big, “an honest six-three” I think he wrote in one of his books about sports—and with his deep, dramatic, sometimes self-dramatizing voice he could look and sound like a clean-shaven Old Testament God. He was aware of and liked the effect, I think.
But he had a very, very big heart, and with The Best and the Brightest he changed our business. I still remember the day when, as a graduate student in England, I got my sea-mail copy of Harper’s with Halberstam’s long story “The Programming of Robert McNamara” on the cover. I read it all, standing at the mail box, and I thought: This is what journalism is for. (I also thought: Aren’t magazines great! And: I belong back in America.)
One of the tales I’d heard from David Halberstam over the years was about his very first reporting job out of college. This was the one he described in his 1981 Esquire piece: as 21-year-old cub reporter for the smallest daily in Mississippi, the DailyTimes Leader of West Point.
Why this tiny paper? Halberstam says in the piece that as soon as he graduated he planned to go to Jackson, Mississippi, and work with a civil-rights minded editor named Tom Karsell, at a paper there. The two had met in Halberstam’s last year in college, when Karsell was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and Halberstam was managing editor of the student paper, the Crimson. But by the time Halberstam got to Mississippi, Karsell couldn’t offer him a job. What next?
On the fourth day, as humiliating visions of returning to Cambridge in the old Chevy mounted, Karsell called. There was an opening on the paper in West Point, the Daily Times Leader. West Point was a small town, and the paper’s circulation was around 4,000. I would be the one reporter on the staff. He gave me the name of the Times Leader’s editor, a man named Henry Harris, and his phone number; Harris was expecting my call.
… I was terrified by the idea of going to a small town in a state like this, where I knew no one. I thought for a long time of how alien it would be; then I remembered how I had told all my friends I was going to spend the year working for a small paper in the South, and this, God knew, whatever else, was a small paper in the South.
He also recorded his encounter with his new management, specifically Beulah Harris, co-founder of the paper and mother of the then-editor:
She often came in on Saturday afternoon to look around, to make sure that everything was in order, and, if nothing else, to wash the floors of the newsroom … She was a small, heavily powdered woman; she was fearfully hardworking and equally devoted to her Baptist faith. “You’re David, aren’t you?” she asked.
I said I was.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to learn your last name,” she announced.
I said that was all right.
Then she smiled and said, “The Lord Jesus Christ sent you here.” I, descendant of many centuries of illustrious rabbis, a line only recently broken by two or three generations of American renegades, looked at her in stunned surprise. “Of course He did,” she said. “Why else would you be here?” I could not argue, and with that, we became friends.
I never visited West Point while David Halberstam was alive, but over the past five years I have been there many times. Mainly this has been to write about business changes in the city and the surrounding “Golden Triangle” area of Mississippi, which also includes Columbus and Starkville. The big modern blow to West Point happened a dozen years ago, when the city’s dominant employer, a major meat-packing plant run by Sara Lee, closed for good. This removed 1,200 jobs from a city whose population was roughly 12,000. The big modern hope has been the arrival of Yokohama Tire, whose decision to come to West Point I wrote about here, and whose subsequent news I’ll discuss another time.
But recently Deb and I were back again, and while walking through downtown West Point I did a double-take when I saw the office of … TheDaily Times Leader! It was in a different, smaller location from the one Halberstam had described in his memoir. But I thought: I have to go inside and ask.
What I planned to ask was whether this particular journalist had left any mark on the city or the newspaper, comparable to the mark he said the place had left on him. Very few reporters leave much of a mark anyplace. But maybe it would be different for an alum who had become so prominent? After all, in San Bernardino, California, I’d seen a wall-of-fame honoring the local boy who had grown up to become composer of the Flintstones song. (He was Hoyt Curtin.) Maybe the author of The Best and the Brightest and The Fifties would qualify, for the little paper where he got his start?
The young woman in charge of the Daily Times Leader office didn’t recognize Halberstam’s name. (In fairness, her grandparents had probably not yet been born when he was working there.) But she immediately invited me back into the bound-volumes room, and said I could look through newspapers of that era. She opened a closet door, I stepped in, and I entered a surreal transport-through-time.
I started out looking for David Halberstam’s byline, in papers from 1955 and 1956. I quickly realized I wasn’t likely to find it, since none of the stories had bylines. I didn’t even find a masthead listing the paper’s staff.
Later on I learned why: According to this piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, by William Browning, the DailyTimes Leader’s editor of that era believed in giving a byline for a reporter’s first story in the paper, but not after that. You didn’t want to foster a cult-of-personality among the writers. According to Browning, Halberstam’s first and only byline was about a sudden cricket infestation in town, and I didn’t happen to see that one.
I also had an instant immersion in how different small-town papers were in those days. Cable news didn’t exist; evening news programs on network TV were only 15 minutes long; and “national” papers like like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal had practically no presence beyond the East Coast.
So the front pages of this tiny regional paper were full of world and national news—for instance, speculation on whether then-President Dwight Eisenhower would recover well enough from a heart attack to seek a second term.
Through these same front pages, there were also signs of the strains that apparently cut short Halberstam’s time at the paper. The Daily Times Leader, in Halberstam’s telling, was a paper that didn’t want to be distracted or disrupted by a concentration on the civil rights struggles then nascent in the South. The Emmett Till murder trial was then underway in Tallahatchie County, 100 miles to the northwest. Halberstam wrote in Esquire:
I was aware in some primal way that something important was happening over in Tallahatchie County, that Mississippi, which did not seem joined politically to the rest of the nation, was now being joined to it journalistically.
So I subscribed to all the papers that sent staff reporters to cover the case, hoping to do a piece on their coverage for The Reporter. Twice on weekends I drove over to look at the scene and watch the reporters at work, mighty gods of the East descended upon this miserable little stretch of swampland.
Note the “miserable little stretch,” for later reference. Here is how the Daily Times Leader covered the Till trial while it was underway:
And how it handled one sheriff’s claim during the trial:
It’s a very different time now, for Mississippi (as we have reported) and for the Daily Times Leader. Here is the front page during our visit last week. Among the differences: All the stories are local. Not only do they have bylines, but they’re all from the same person, Steve Rogers. And the main display photo at the bottom is of the Little Miss Clay County pageant, whose contestants are black.
Steve Rogers was out covering a story during our visit, and I called him later to ask about the current situation—and David Halberstam’s time there. “I asked some people in their 80s, and they said, Yeah, maybe they remembered someone who had gone on to the Tennessean,” he told me. “It’s been a long time.”
Rogers grew up in Alabama; went off to college at Yale; worked in politics and media across the country for decades; and has now returned to write most of what is in the Daily Times Leader.
I asked him how the Daily Times Leader itself should be considered. Could it be thought of as a (relative) success, as I argued that the family-owned Commercial Dispatch in nearby Columbus, Mississippi, is—for now?
“We’ve got 4,000 subscribers,” he said—the same number as during David Halberstam’s time. “That’s a lot in a county of 20,000 people. It’s still the smallest daily in the state. But a community this size, continuing to support a paper of this size—that’s something.” For the record, the Daily Times Leader, which has had its share of dramas, has a sister publication in nearby (and larger, and growing) Starkville, Mississippi, and is part of the Horizon group of publications, based in Illinois, which has had dramas of its own. Rogers said, “With the competing options out there, I think the paper has done very well.”
Decades ago, David Halberstam talked about the “miserable little stretch” of Mississippi in which he observed the Emmett Till trial in 1955.
Fifty years after that trial, when giving a commencement address at the University of Mississippi (as reported by Jon Friedman in the Columbia Journalism Review), here is how he described his time in the state:
What is important is that I did not learn the things I expected to learn, the things I thought I was going to be paid to learn—I learned instead other, more enduring things that have lasted me the rest of my life ….
I learned that people from other parts of the country are not any more stereotypical than I was, that human complexity always confounded you, and that the most dangerous thing in the world is to underestimate the intelligence and decency of other people. And finally, perhaps most important of all, I learned about the nobility of ordinary people.
David Halberstam spoke those words at age 71, not 21 as he had been in his Daily Times Leader days. He had continued to learn, and question, and reconsider through those 50 years—another useful example, in these times.
Last week I wrote about what Jim and I had seen on another visit to the (exceptional) Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS), a public, residential two-year school for juniors and seniors. We’ve been reporting on the school over the past five years. In the latest dispatch, I described the way a committed English teacher at MSMS, Thomas Easterling, was “teaching students to think” through a rigorous analysis of the novel Dirty Work, by the renowned Mississippi writer Larry Brown.
In response, Paul J. Camp, a physics professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, writes to challenge the idea that a school like MSMS—a public high school, but one that chooses its students from around the state—can meaningfully claim to be “teaching them to think.” (And, to be clear, this was my claim—not MSMS’s.)
Here are selections from Paul Camp’s long letter, followed by Thomas Easterling’s shorter response.
Paul Camp writes:
I thought you and your observations of this school were interesting, but it is a bit of a stretch to say that it demonstrates “how to teach students to think.”
I’ve contended for years that a large part of the success of private schools and magnet schools lies in the ability to cherry pick their students. [DF note: As you’ll see below, Thomas Easterling challenges the “cherry pick” characterization.] They arrive already able to think, and the function of the school is less to teach a new skill than it is to refine a preexisting skill.
When I was a research scientist at Georgia Tech, I worked in a cognitive science program that was involved in middle school science education. We were in both affluent suburban schools and poor urban ones. The suburban students were ready to go and had teachers knowledgeable enough in physics to be able to help them focus on the right phenomena.
The urban schools had teachers teaching out of subject area—a biologist and a reading teacher in a physical science class. Their content understanding was little beyond that of their students.
Nevertheless, the project based curriculum we developed was able to engage those children as well, and to at least improve their ability to design and conduct controlled variable experiments. We had kids fresh out of juvenile detention who were engaged in the projects. I’ll never forget one little girl who, in an interview, remarked: “It’s the first thing I ever made that worked.” That tells me a few things about her. She’s tried to make things to solve problems in her life in the past, which means she has the interests of an engineer. And what she finds valuable about the experience we provided is the design process that enables creating a thing that actually solves a problem.
My wife is retiring this month from teaching in Title 1 schools for over a decade. These are schools that have a >70% mobility rate. Their families move from one apartment move-in special to another. They have no stability in their lives, no permanent circle of friends, no community resources for enrichment activities. They have a disturbingly high incidence of developmental and behavioral disorders. One kid on the autism spectrum insists on talking to his friends all through class. Another sits with his head in the closet. A kindergartner didn’t even know her own name ….
And yet, you still find exceptional kids here. I do career day there every year, and I’ve also done some things with their talented and gifted classes. I remember doing an optics activity with them that was supposed to begin with them doing some informal observations using various types of lenses. Everyone except her just spent the time goofing off. She actually had a good observation of an image changing from upside down to right side up as she moved the lens closer to an object. When she tried to explain it to the rest of the class, they ignored her. That child has a nascent “ability to think” but I question if it is going to be able to develop in that environment.
At Georgia Tech, we found that loose and open ended activities only work with high SES students who have teachers that understand the target content… For lower SES schools, we found the need for a highly structured, predictable cycle of activities that reflected the actual professional practices of scientists and engineers.
The first group kind of knows how things are supposed to proceed, similar to the MSMS students. The second needs a more explicit road map to help them understand how what they are currently doing fits into an overall strategy and what should come next….
I once interviewed at the Maine School for Math and Science which I venture to guess is similar to, if not above, the Mississippi school. Those kids were the equivalent of upper division college students. Calculus well beyond the introductory level was in their rear view mirror. They were writing Python programs to simulate problems in quantum theory.
But their classes were essentially self directed. There was little to no overt instruction unless they ran into a problem. They knew what they were doing and where it should go next. They already knew how to think.
I ended up, for family reasons, taking a position at Georgia Gwinnett College. This is a very different population. The mission of the college is to expand the pool of students capable of succeeding in college.
My physics courses are usually majority minority, first generation college students, many first generation Americans, juggling jobs and family responsibilities with academic needs. They are, by and large, disciplined and intent on succeeding, but the open approach of the Maine school just would not work for them. I know. I tried it.
Though they have the requisite discipline, they do not have the requisite cognitive abilities to systematically seek out information relevant to their goals, sort through good from bad information, and use it to achieve a personally meaningful goal.
In other words, they do NOT know how to think, at least not how to think like a physicist. Which brings me back around to the idea of contrastive sets.
Some students will succeed no matter what environment you put them in.These students are the bread and butter of institutions like Georgia Tech and MIT, and they come from places like these magnet schools…. Looking at what you can do with that caliber of student leads to lessons that simply do not transfer to a more general population.
If your goal is to figure out how to teach students to think, it would be quite a bit more instructive to pair this school with a more mainstream school and one that serves an underprivileged population. That enables you to identify practices that are unique to the cherry picked population they are able to work with, and what practices actually do lead to an improved ability to think, however you define that, with more normal students. In fact, what would be really interesting would be to go to the elementary and middle schools that the MSMS students come from and see what went on there that allowed them to become what they are...
OK, I’m long winded. The TLDR version is: you’ve got some very nice observations of what happens at schools like MSMS, but you don’t really know what those observations mean if you only look at schools that serve a cognitively elite population. I guess I should have put that at the top. 8-)
Now, here is Thomas Easterling’s reply:
First, I’d like to thank Paul Camp and his wife for teaching students who get sent to the ranks of the forgotten all too often—bright students whose familial circumstances eat away at them until we see their problems instead of their potential.
Some MSMS students fall into that category as well: “cognitively elite” students who are underserved by their current schools. Between 20% and 25% of our students have qualified for fee waivers since the Mississippi legislature required us to start charging for room and board. About 35% of our accepted applicants classify themselves as belonging to a minority.
Regardless of income or ethnicity, MSMS works hard to empower students to make their dreams come true. Some of the ways we do that can be measured: about 10% of our seniors quality as National Merit Finalists; ACT composite scores have gone up 4.7 points from admission to graduation since 2012; roughly 60% of our graduates earn at least a 30 on the ACT, though only 20% enter with such a score. Data shows that our students grow as thinkers once they arrive on campus.
Of course, we also have anecdotal evidence that our classes teach students how to think. This is particularly true in the arts and humanities.
However cognitively elite a teenager might be, that student won’t necessarily read critically or write well without instruction and practice. (One of our MIT-bound seniors recently told me that my English class was the hardest he had taken here. How do you give a correct answer in a class where being right isn’t enough—you’ve also got to convince others that you’re right? he asked.)
In fact, one could plausibly argue that the greatest benefits to attending MSMS involve exchanging ideas with people from every walk of life in Mississippi. From programming robots to learning about paradigm shifts, our students take what we do in the classroom to their residence halls and then to the wider world.
We proudly describe ourselves as the most diverse city block in the state of Mississippi. Our students come from every walk of life: Asians whose parents came to America with little money and less English; solidly middle-class soccer players; kids who qualify for free and reduced meals; trust-fund babies; African Americans; whites; Hispanics; straight; gay; Democrat; Republican; blissfully undecided. All of them receive the same opportunity for excellence at our school.
Thomas G. Easterling III
The Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science
Five years ago, the flight vanished into the Indian Ocean. Officials on land know more about why than they dare to say.
1. The Disappearance
At 12:42 a.m. on the quiet, moonlit night of March 8, 2014, a Boeing 777-200ER operated by Malaysia Airlines took off from Kuala Lumpur and turned toward Beijing, climbing to its assigned cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. The designator for Malaysia Airlines is MH. The flight number was 370. Fariq Hamid, the first officer, was flying the airplane. He was 27 years old. This was a training flight for him, the last one; he would soon be fully certified. His trainer was the pilot in command, a man named Zaharie Ahmad Shah, who at 53 was one of the most senior captains at Malaysia Airlines. In Malaysian style, he was known by his first name, Zaharie. He was married and had three adult children. He lived in a gated development. He owned two houses. In his first house he had installed an elaborate Microsoft flight simulator.
These words came from an elderly woman sitting behind me on a late-night flight from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. The plane was dark and quiet. A man I assumed to be her husband murmured almost inaudibly in response, something to the effect of “I wish I was dead.”
I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but couldn’t help it. I listened with morbid fascination, forming an image of the man in my head as they talked. I imagined someone who had worked hard all his life in relative obscurity, someone with unfulfilled dreams—perhaps of the degree he never attained, the career he never pursued, the company he never started.
Small schools across the United States are facing budget shortfalls and low enrollment—leading some to shut down in the middle of students’ higher-education experience.
Updated at 12:07 p.m. on June 19, 2019
Like most other colleges across the country, Newbury College, a small, private liberal-arts school in Brookline, Massachusetts, held classes through the end of this past spring semester and then bid farewell to cap-and-gown-wearing seniors. But unlike almost every other college, those classes, and that farewell, were the school’s last: Newbury officially ceased operations at the end of May.
One of the first sources to publicly confirm the long-rumored closure was the president’s blog, where the news was shared last December. “It is with a heavy heart,” the school’s president, Joseph Chillo, wrote, “that I announce our intention to commence the closing of Newbury College, this institution we love so dearly.”
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
Clyde Ross was born in 1923, the seventh of 13 children, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the home of the blues. Ross’s parents owned and farmed a 40-acre tract of land, flush with cows, hogs, and mules. Ross’s mother would drive to Clarksdale to do her shopping in a horse and buggy, in which she invested all the pride one might place in a Cadillac. The family owned another horse, with a red coat, which they gave to Clyde. The Ross family wanted for little, save that which all black families in the Deep South then desperately desired—the protection of the law.
In the 1920s, Jim Crow Mississippi was, in all facets of society, a kleptocracy. The majority of the people in the state were perpetually robbed of the vote—a hijacking engineered through the trickery of the poll tax and the muscle of the lynch mob. Between 1882 and 1968, more black people were lynched in Mississippi than in any other state.
The first time someone commented on what I was eating at work, I was a teenager at my first job, manning the front desk at the local courthouse’s law library. On the way out one day, a regular visitor interrupted my fistful of cashews to tell me he loved watching me eat—I did it with such relish. Before I could think of a response, he left.
At 18, I was already well aware of the frequency with which grown men say bizarre things to teenage girls, but what stuck with me was the fact that someone who wasn’t a parent or close friend noticed when and what I ate. It was like realizing I had been looking into a two-way mirror all along, and the food police were on the other side. What had people seen me do before I knew I was being watched?
“The question really is not whether we’ll be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.”
Five years ago, the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates published “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic, a cover story that would reinvigorate national discussion over debts owed for slavery and discrimination against black Americans. Today, on Juneteenth, he is testifying at a House hearing on H.R. 40, a bill that would establish a commission to study reparations. It’s the first such hearing in more than a decade.
Below, the full text of his opening statement as delivered:
Yesterday, when asked about reparations, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a familiar reply: America should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago, since none of us currently alive are responsible. This rebuttal proffers a strange theory of governance, that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations. But well into this century, the United States was still paying out pensions to the heirs of Civil War soldiers. We honor treaties that date back some 200 years, despite no one being alive who signed those treaties. Many of us would love to be taxed for the things we are solely and individually responsible for. But we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach. It would seem ridiculous to dispute invocations of the Founders, or the Greatest Generation, on the basis of a lack of membership in either group. We recognize our lineage as a generational trust, as inheritance, and the real dilemma posed by reparations is just that: a dilemma of inheritance. It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery.
Evolution might have played a trick on women’s immune systems.
About 65 million years ago, shortly after the time of the dinosaurs, a new critter popped up on the evolutionary scene. This “scampering animal,” as researchers described it, was likely small, ate bugs, and had a furry tail. It looked, according to artistic renderings, like an especially aggressive New York City rat. And it had a placenta, an organ that grows deep into the maternal body in order to nourish the fetus during pregnancy.
The rodentlike thing would become the common ancestor of the world’s placental mammals, with descendants that include whales, bats, dogs, and humans, among many other species. And today, the placenta might hold the key to one of the most enduring mysteries in human medicine: Why do women suffer much higher rates of autoimmune disease than men do?
Americans who oppose reparations care more about responding to political expediency than about the emergency of inequality.
On December 1, 1862—a month before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation—President Abraham Lincoln wrote to Congress. He was not yet the Great Emancipator. Instead, he proposed to become the Great Compensator.
Lincoln proposed a Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: the most expansive and expensive slavery reparations plan ever put forth by a U.S. president. “Every State wherein slavery now exists shall abolish the same therein at any time or times before” January 1, 1900, and slaveholders “shall receive compensation from the United States” for emancipating the enslaved.
Lincoln stressed to his fellow citizens that “we cannot escape history.” Pursuing gradual emancipation, and compensating the enslavers for their lost labor and wealth—and not the enslaved for their lost labor and wealth—would repair a broken America once and for all. “Other means may succeed,” he said in closing; “this could not fail.”
The debate over reparations highlights the dual purpose of the holiday: celebrating emancipation but also demanding accountability for historical and present wrongs.
In 2019, Juneteenth will be celebrated as emancipation was in the old days: with calls for reparations. As the country marks 154 years since news of the end of slavery belatedly came to Texas, the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the subject of reparations for black Americans. It is a watershed moment in the larger debate over American policy and memory with regard to an enduring sin.
The hearing marks a return to the early black-American celebrations and jubilees, which were staged even as formerly enslaved people beseeched the Freedmen’s Bureau or the Union Army for land. And that’s for good reason. Juneteenth has always had a contradiction at its core: It is a second Independence Day braided together with reminders of ongoing oppression. Its spread from Texas to the rest of the United States accelerated in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., as a sort of home-going for King and other victims of white-supremacist violence, fusing sorrow and jubilation.
A historian of fatherhood wonders whether the rapid embrace of consumer DNA testing will be seen as a positive development in the future.
When Nara Milanich wrote Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father—a history of the scientific, legal, and social conceptions of fatherhood in Western civilization—she wasn’t expecting that her publicity tour would be full of interviewers asking her whether she’s done 23andMe. And, all told, she’s not that into that question.
Of course people ask. The direct-to-consumer DNA testing kits are the latest and trendiest technological development with relevance to her subject matter. But given the history she’s just written about how sensitive, fraught, and complicated the subject of biological provenance is, Milanich is particularly attuned to how the question of whether someone has done 23andMe could be an intensely invasive one. People are asking whether she’s spent $99 and sent in a swabbed sample of her saliva in order to find out whether the family she’s always understood to be her family is genetically related to her or not. The next time it happens, Milanich told me as we sat in her office in the history department of Barnard College, “I’ve decided I’m going to turn it back on them and say, Have you?”