Know Your History: Octavius Catto

I’ll admit. I was not familiar with the story of Octavius Catto – black activist after the Civil War – until I came across his story in an unexpected place: MLB historian John Thorn’s terrific book Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game.

Catto was very much a renaissance man. Catto was an educator of boys in Philadelphia. He was an abolitionist, who helped fight for the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, securing voting rights for blacks. (Note of remembrance: women still had not attained suffrage at this time.) But of all the things he loved, perhaps his “rose bud” moment as he died, he loved baseball. He was an accomplished ball player who ran the Pythian Base Ball Club of Philadelphia. They even had an undefeated season in 1867.

His sudden demise is a tragic one. On election day 1871, the first time that Catto would be able to exercise his right to vote, he got word of voter intimidation voters coming from the Democrats – especially amongst the Irishmen of the city. Wanting to protect himself, he left his school and went to Freedman Bank, withdrew $20, then continued on to a pawn shop, where he purchased a hand gun. As he was walking through the streets, gun in his pocket, an Irishman named Frank Kelly recognized him, brushed passed him, turned around and shot him in the back. Catto fell to the ground, but as he tried to get up and escape, Kelly approached and shot him dead in broad daylight, amongst many witnesses.

Kelly was put on trial and acquitted by an all-white jury.

I’m fascinated by this tragic tale for a variety of reasons. I have already written a play about the incident and I’m looking to do some more creative writing surrounding it as I think it has much to say to us today. It’s going to involve some fantasy. Maybe you didn’t see that twist coming! Stay-tuned for more about this remarkable ballplayer.

His courage and ballplaying skills were largely forgotten to history, except that a statue of Catto was erected in Philadelphia in 2017. A man who earned the right to vote but never got to exercise it. A man who loved the game of baseball, but never again suited up to play.

Who are the other lost heroes of the American past? I’m sure they are longing to have their stories told as well.

Public Domain

Know Your History: World’s First Commercial Oil Well

In 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania, Edwin Drake struck oil, captured it, and established the first commercial oil well in the world. Drake’s well. Here it is in August of 2020:

Western Pennsylvania became the oil capital of the world for the next decade. The oil rush was on. Scores of wells dotted the aptly named Oil Creek area between Titusville, Oil City (see a theme here), and the expanded region. Some folks struck it rich fast. Others were not so lucky. Kerosene had been discovered only a few years earlier in 1853. This made oil a suddenly valued commodity. Through the processing of oil, kerosene could be used to light the big cities of the nation, and that it did for the next forty plus years until electricity took over.

It wasn’t long, however, until substantial oil reserves were discovered in Texas and elsewhere which dwarfed the nascent Pennsylvania industry. Pennsylvania didn’t last as the world’s greatest producer, but it did have a lasting effect on the oil industry and the region. Many towns were forever affected by the industry. (Oil City, Petrolia, Petroleum Center) Didn’t you ever wonder why there were so many Pennsylvania-centric brands of oil: Pennzoil, Quaker State, Kendall, etc…

In an interesting twist of fate, Pennsylvania has once again become a major player in the fossil fuel industry through the prolific fracking done over the past ten years to extract natural gas from the massive Marcellus Shale. Yep, Titusville is right in the middle of it.

Here’s a modern-day railroad bridge over Oil Creek a few miles south of Titusville. (I snapped this one on my bike ride at the fantastic Oil Creek Bike Trail.)

Drake’s Well and Museum can be visited (in non-Covid years) through the spring-fall months as part of Pennsylvania’s Oil Creek State Park.

FUN FACT: Did you know that the by-product of making kerosene is this obscure little product called gasoline? Oh, you heard of it. In the past, gasoline was thrown away. It was deemed too combustible and dangerous to be used. However, once the internal combustion engine was invented, it was gasoline which became king and kerosene became more a second thought.



Bernie Tells a Whopper About China

Oh, I try to stay clear of politics these days. You know, yeah.

But sometimes, someone makes such an outrageous claim that I can’t help myself from chiming in. This post is courtesy of Bernie Sanders, who said the following in an interview recently on CNN:

“China is an authoritarian country … but can anyone deny, I mean the facts are clear, that they have taken more people out of poverty than any country in history. Why you criticize when I say that — that’s the truth. So that is the fact. End of discussion.”

First, the fact. Yes, China has taken more people out of poverty than any country in history.

Second, the non-fact. End of discussion. Nope. Not in a million years. Not until Bernie answers this one question: How did China relieve its destitution and poverty?

Answer: capitalism

So you see, Bernie has just disproved the over-arching thesis of everything he says about economics. He is crediting authoritarianism (and socialism??) for China’s growth. Major whooper alert.

Here are the other facts that Bernie has eschewed.

During the years that socialist command economics were under full-force in China, how many people were brought out of poverty? That’s the wrong question. How many people died because of their oppressive policies. Uncountable.

From Mao’s take-over in 1949 until the wakening years after his death thirty years later, China was severely impoverished. GDP per capita was among the lowest in the world. They were isolated from the world economy. The great famine of 1958-1961 killed millions. Their army was in tatters. When they attacked northern Vietnam in January of 1979 (hey, weren’t the Vietnamese their socialist comrades!), they were embarrassingly rebuffed by their southern neighbors who were actually poorer than they were!

So what happened? What changed? How is it that the impoverished China of the early 1980s has grown into an economic powerhouse?

I have to say it again: capitalism.

Economic reforms loosened the strings on individual achievements which were muzzled under the socialist command economy. And while the authoritative communist regime continued their hold onto power with a death grip (think Tienanmen Square 1989), the new economic freedoms allowed unprecedented growth and unprecedented foreign investment.  In other words, capitalism started doing its thing.

Let me leave you with an example from Vietnam, who following China’s lead, also implemented market reforms in the 1980s that began to raise the Vietnamese out of poverty as well.

In 1984, there was famine in parts of Vietnam. Their lush farm lands couldn’t even feed their own people. They had to import low-quality grains from places like Bulgaria. I’ve had many Vietnamese families tell me about those years living under a socialist command economy. The common Vietnamese word they use is “kho” – meaning miserable. And then the market reforms hit. The government began allowing farmers to exceed their government quotas of rice in order to sell the excess or plant other cash crops. What happened when farmers began to have incentive to grow more knowing that they would actually benefit from it? Production soared. Within a few short years of allowing people to pursue their own personal interests, Vietnam went from not being able to feed their own people to being one of the largest rice exporters in the world.

The transformation was remarkable. And yes, it all happened under an authoritarian communist regime.

But it’s not the regime that gets the credit, it’s the individuals (and also government entities) who took a risk to invest money, to solicit investment, to plant extra, to think big, to dream for a better life for their families. There was profit to be had by the people. And they did it. They used the mighty tool called capitalism, even within a tightly controlled economy, to better their lives.

So let’s make this very clear: socialism didn’t build China’s wealth. Not by a long shot.  Socialism doesn’t pull anyone out of poverty. It just holds back growth potential. Imagine where China would be today if Mao allowed entrepreneurship back as early as 1949?

So, Bernie, your China example is just disproving your point about capitalism.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. China has been experiencing their own brand of this for the past thirty years, no thanks to socialism.

Thirty Years from Tienanmen Square

June 4, 2019 marks the thirty year anniversary of a dark day in Chinese history – what is known in the west as The Tienanmen Square Massacre.

I remember this day very well. I had just graduated from college a month before. I had just gotten married a week after college graduation. We were in Chicago for a friend’s wedding, and I remember waking up on Saturday morning and watching the broadcast of the Chinese military, under orders from Premier Deng Xiaoping, starting a methodical and violent clearing of the pro-democracy protests which had been going on in the square for some time.

Tienanmen Square is one of the largest city squares in the world. On one end is the Forbidden City, the former home of the emperor, now adorned with the iconic picture of communist leader Mao Zedong. Mao’s massive portrait looks out over the square and keeps a close watch on his own mausoleum on the opposite side of the square where the preserved body of Mao continues to be proudly displayed in a rather grim and solemn granite structure.

Chinese university students had been occupying the square, demanding a fifth modernization to go with Deng Xiaoping’s emphasis on science & technology, agriculture, industry, and defense.  Deng’s leadership had brought China out of the darkness of the cultural revolution which had decimated the Chinese economy and had proven how backward the Chinese regime had become. The cultural revolution ended with Mao’s death in 1976, but its lingering effects had worn down a weary culture. Deng’s modernizations were a welcome shift, but with modernization came new attitudes and desires for more than just economic relief. The students in the square were seeking that fifth modernization: political freedom. They even erected their own version of Lady Liberty to stand in stark contrast to the staunch communist eyes in Mao’s portrait.

The Chinese government could only take so much political embarrassment and bad international press, and on June 4, they moved in to squash the demonstrations. It was brutal. Hundreds died. Perhaps more. No one really knows. Many were arrested and the air of freedom which hung in the optimistic spring of 1989 was violently halted. I watched it all on TV as I readied myself to go the wedding. Little did I know that I’d be standing in the middle of that square just three years from that day.

I traveled to China for the first time in the summer of 1992. I was to teach at an English camp for Chinese English teachers in Dalian. On our way through Beijing, we got to see all the sites including the Great Wall and, of course, the square that was still very much in my memory. Before we arrived in China, we were instructed very clearly not to mention anything about what happened in 1989. Don’t bring it up. Don’t have an opinion. Pretend it didn’t happen.

On the particular day I visited the square, it was a far cry from the images on the TV. There were some vendors and some tourists. Modest lines waited to visit the body of Mao and others queued up in front of Mao’s portrait to tour the Forbidden City. I spent an entire summer in China and heard nothing whatsoever about this historical event. But it wasn’t hard to imagine what many were feeling underneath their skin.

Authority may destroy the movement of freedom, for a time, but it can’t change the thoughts we have within. And who doesn’t want freedom? Who doesn’t want to be able to focus on “the pursuit of happiness?”  Even the great Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh understood this. If you visit his mausoleum in Hanoi, you’ll see etched across the granite facade one sentence: “Khong co gi qui hon, dap lap, tu do” – There’s nothing as precious as independence and freedom.

China is a generation removed from the incident of Tienanmen Square, but I can’t help but think the underlying desire of true political freedom hasn’t change one bit.


Embarrassing Quotes from History: Herbert Hoover

If ever a politician promised the moon but could only deliver a malaria and crocodile infested swamp, it was Herbert Hoover. Here’s what he said about American prosperity:

“We in America are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before.”

Though you can’t really blame him. No one saw or predicted what was happening in the 1920s even though the signs (in hindsight) were everywhere. Farming suffered great losses in the 20s after the boom of the war years. By 1929, manufacturing of steel had plummeted, the automobile market was shrinking, people were over-tapped with crushing consumer debt, and the stock market was artificially inflated.

These were the heady days of the stock market, long before the SEC cracked down on illegal practices. Crooked pools were used to drive up stock prices and then quickly sell, making a fortune while leaving others with pennies. Buying on margin allowed the average Joe to purchase stock with as little as 10% down, foolishly thinking (both the stockbroker and the investor) that future revenue would be more than enough to pay off the remaining 90%. Companies ended up with a public value far greater than their private output could match.

And so when the stock market crashed in October 1929, no one knew what hit them, or knew what to do next.

Hoover was content to let the free market sort things out, and while the economy slowly started to come around, it was too slow to have tangible impact on the lives of many ordinary Americans who lost their savings and their jobs. The 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff, meant to protect American farmers, inadvertently closed off foreign markets to US goods, thus slowing down the economy to a crawl.

Thousands of banks became insolvent. Companies went under. People, who in the 20s purchased whatever product they wanted on credit, had to worry about their next meals. Hoover’s actions were cumbersome and slow, leaving many without hope and opening the door for Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be elected president in 1932.

The New Deal was coming. Hope was around the corner. Unfortunately, neither Hope nor the New Deal ended the depression, but it gave tangible help where the country needed it the most.

At another time in history, Hoover might have been a great president, but he ultimately said too much and did too little.

Know Your History: Jeannette Rankin

A curious event happened in November 1916. A women was voted into the United States House of Representatives without the aid of one single woman vote. Jeannette Rankin became the first ever congresswoman at the time when women had yet to achieve the right to vote. It’s quite extraordinary, actually. Every once in a while, men step it up and do the right thing!

Rankin served out her two year term as a pacifist who voted against U.S. entry into World War I. She also fought tirelessly for woman’s suffrage, and was instrumental in helping to pass the 19th amendment which finally afforded women with the right they deserve.

Rankin ended up serving again for Montana after she was re-elected for office in 1940, again defending her pacifist views by being the only person in Congress to vote against entry into WWII after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Regardless of whether you agree with her politics or not, she is to be admired and commended on being a trail-blazer. Can you imagine all the nonsense in Congress that she must have had to deal with? Rankin should be remembered as one of the most influential American women of the 20th century.

Know Your History: Progressives vs. Progressives (Part I)

One of the more enlightening assignments my US History students complete each year is the one where half the class researches the progressive movement of the early 20th century and the other half researches the progressive movement of the early 21st century. It’s true. No two progressives of two different time periods are the same. Progressivism in itself keeps looking for more targets. Now whether this is a good or bad thing is certainly at the heart of the cultural struggle happening now in America. Whichever side you land on in either era, a lot is going on and there are many myriad of ideologies to ponder and discuss. Everyone is welcome to make up their own mind as to the merit of any one of these ideals, but let me present a short summary of their findings.

Protecting Social Welfare – early 20th century vs. Protecting Social Welfare of the 21st

The progressives fought tirelessly for fair working conditions, better labor laws. This also included putting elections back into the hands of the people, passing the 17th amendment by having the general population elect senators instead of the state legislatures. It also included provisions for recall elections and ballot initiatives.

Protecting social welfare of the 21st century takes the ideas of a century ago and puts them on steroids. The progressive push of this era is for $15 an hour minimum wage, universal healthcare (progressives are of course not satisfied with Obamacare) and pushing America away from the its historical model of equality of opportunity and pushing it towards the more European model of equality of outcome.

Promoting Economic Reform (20th) vs. Income Redistribution (21st)

The progressives of the 20th century targeted the robber barons, the Morgans and the Rockefellers, passing anti-trust legislation and eventually having the backbone to use it and bring down many of the great monopolies which had flourished for decades. This enabled the smaller guys to compete in business, and led to a new type of businessman such as Henry Ford, who pushed for higher wages for workers and products for the masses.

On the flip side, the income redistributionists of the 21st century aims at making a democratic socialistic society where the rich are taxed greatly (one example: proposal of taxing 90% after $3.5 million) and the tax money is used for government run programs for education, healthcare, and a myriad of other options. The modern day progressives also push for massive environmental programs such as cap and trade which penalize the most highly industrialized nations through strict emissions guidelines. Critics of these types of programs say they are misguided attempts to punish the “neocolonial tendencies” of many western nations.

In part two, we’ll look at the final two categories:

  • Promoting Moral Improvement  vs. Secular Progressivism
  • Foster Efficiency vs. Regulatory Bureaucracy

Know Your History: Rockefeller Breaks Up & Gets Richer

In 1912, after decades of pummeling the competition with unfair business practices and intimidation, the oil titan, John D. Rockefeller, sat and listened as a federal court dismantled his empire right in front of his eyes. Buoyed by the Sherman Anti-Trust act of a few years earlier, the government was finally ready to take on the undisputed champion of the Gilded Age. Rockefeller had risen from poverty to build the Standard Oil Company. By age 33, he had crushed the competition, creating an oil trust that cornered the market on 90% of the oil used in the United States.

Standard Oil innovated the market through standardizing the making of kerosene which lit the country. Rockefeller made a product that was assured to be safe, building a brand that the public could trust. He also innovated how oil was transported by building an extensive pipeline which could by-pass his usage of the railroads, insuring him more profit. As electricity eventually overtook the use of kerosene for lighting American cities, Rockefeller then supplied the country with the gasoline to power the horseless carriage. He, along with Carnegie and JP Morgan sat at the head of the Robber Barons table.

But as Teddy Roosevelt’s progressiveness seeped into the consciousness of the nation, Rockefeller’s days as the chairman of the largest monopoly ever created were numbered. When the verdict was reached, Standard Oil had to be broken up into thirty-five different companies. The empire of Rockefeller was finished. The era of the Robber Barons came to an end. Included in those thirty-five new corporations were the well-known oil companies, Exxon, Mobil, and Chevron.

In an ironic twist, however, Rockefeller, who ended up having shares in all thirty-five of those companies, ended up actually making more money. His diversified holdings easily made him the richest man who ever lived, amassing a staggering worth of more than 600 billion dollars in today’s currency – about 10 times that of Bill Gates.

Who knows? Perhaps he would have broken it up sooner if he would have known the windfall awaiting him.

History: Booker T. Washington’s “Up from Slavery”

Booker T. Washington’s autobiography “Up from Slavery” is the classic look at post-slavery, post-Civil War America that is both instructive, surprising, and insightful for our modern society. Washington was a young boy when he received his freedom after the war, and he had the insatiable desire for learning. He would let nothing stop him, no matter the distance he had to travel, no matter the work he had to do, no matter the task that needed to be accomplished. He was a learner in every possible sense, setting aside any animosity that he might have had for the people and system which once oppressed his own people in the cruelest of ways. His story is one that still needs to be told. I require several chapters of it in my US History class, and I wish others would too. Here’s a quite remarkable excerpt from chapter 1, which expresses how slavery affected everyone, not just the slaves. In a day and age when labor and hard work seem to be devalued, this excerpt is very instructive.

“Ever since I have been old enough to think for myself, I have entertained the idea that, notwithstanding the cruel wrongs inflicted upon us, the black man got nearly as much out of slavery as the white man did. The hurtful influences of the institution were not by any means confined to the Negro. This was fully illustrated by the life upon our own plantation. The whole machinery of slavery was so constructed as to cause labour, as a rule, to be looked upon as a badge of degradation, of inferiority. Hence labour was something that both races on the slave plantation sought to escape. The slave system on our place, in a large measure, took the spirit of self-reliance and self-help out of the white people. My old master had many boys and girls, but not one, so far as I know, ever mastered a single trade or special line of productive industry. The girls were not taught to cook, sew, or to take care of the house. All of this was left to the slaves. The slaves, of course, had little personal interest in the life of the plantation, and their ignorance prevented them from learning how to do things in the most improved and thorough manner. As a result of the system, fences were out of repair, gates were hanging half off the hinges, doors creaked, window-panes were out, plastering had fallen but was not replaced, weeds grew in the yard. As a rule, there was food for whites and blacks, but inside the house, and on the dining room table, there was wanting that delicacy and refinement of touch and finish which can make a home the most convenient, comfortable, and attractive place in the world. Withal there was a waste of food and other materials which was sad. When freedom came, the slaves were almost as well fitted to begin life anew as the master, except in the matter of book-learning and ownership of property. The slave owner and his sons had mastered no special industry. They unconsciously had imbibed the feeling that manual labour was not the proper thing for them. On the other hand, the slaves, in many cases, had mastered some handicraft, and none were ashamed, and few unwilling, to labour.”


Know Your History: Americans Helping the Viet-Minh in 1945

On July 16, 1945 a group of American OSS officers (Office of Strategic Services – the precursor to the CIA) parachuted into the Viet-Minh HQ in Tan Trao, Tonkin. (Tonkin was the name for northern Vietnam during the French colonial period.) This small group of officers were charged with helping to train the Vietnamese to fight against the Japanese, who had taken control of French Indochina during WWII.

The Viet-Minh was headed by communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. The goal of the Viet-Minh was to be on the correct side of victory at the conclusion of WWII. They anticipated correctly that the Allies would eventually win in the Pacific Theater, and they tried to be as helpful as possible to the Allies by providing intelligence to their command headquarters in southern China. Ho Chi Minh even helped walk a rescued American pilot, who was shot down, back to safety to China. The trust that was built up led to the OSS parachuting into Tan Trao to help train their troops.

The goodwill found between the Americans and Vietnamese in the summer of 1945 would never be that close again for the next two generations. By August, President Truman had thrown his support behind the French’s pre-war claim on Vietnam, thus casting aside the Viet-Minh patriots who declared their independence during a mass rally in Hanoi on September 2, 1945.

By December 1946 Ho Chi Minh’s forces realized that the French would never relinquish control over Indochina, and they declared a war of resistance against their colonial masters of nearly 80 years. The French-Indochina War lasted until 1954 when the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, bringing about an end to their colonial reign in Asia. Ironically, the Americans were the ones who bankrolled the French during the war, even though the French were fighting against the same soldiers that the Americans had trained in 1945.

Author’s Note: My third novel set to release in July 2014 is deeply wrapped around these exciting events! It’s called The Reach of the Banyan Tree. Tan Trao is famous for the massive banyan tree that sits in the middle of where the Viet-Minh trained that summer.