Blast From the Past is a weekly history blog dedicated to the lives of marginalized groups — such as women, racial minorities, people with disabilities and people on the LGBTQ spectrum — on a particular day. The author hopes that readers will not view these dates as a linear timeline of progress; legal and political victories do not always reflect that “things are getting better.” Rather, we should examine these stories as snapshots of peoples’ lives, and place them within the context of their time.
The Free African Society was organized in Philadelphia, four years after the end of the American Revolution. A former slave, Richard Allen, was a circuit preacher in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. During his stay in Philadelphia, he was approached by the minister of St. George’s United Methodist Church to give a sermon to the African Americans who attended. He met Absalom Jones, another African-American clergyman, and they discussed the idea of a new society specifically for the African-American community. The idea blossomed into the Free African Society, whose main goal was to help newly freed blacks adjust to life in the community and find job opportunities.
Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” was first published in London, anonymously. The novel’s love interest Mr. Darcy remains a subject of affection even for modern-day readers, many of whom hope to soften the heart of a handsome boor of their own. The novel received mixed praise: some critics admired the drama and romance, while others felt it was too cultivated and had a fairy-tale quality. Austen was her own worst critic, finding the novel too bright and playful without enough somber notes to balance it out. However, the novel undeniably provides a nuanced and witty examination of social conventions which readers and academics still appreciate today.
Author and activist Julia Ward Howe became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters External. In the mid-1850s, Howe deepened her interest in the abolition movement due to influence from her husband, social activist Samuel Gridley Howe. The couple saw the rising inevitability of war and, in 1861, the Howes and their friends were invited to meet Union troops outside of Washington. However, a sudden Confederate attack interrupted the meeting. On the carriage ride home, the Howes were surrounded by Union troops who joined them in singing popular Army songs. The events inspired Howe to later compose the poem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” set to the tune of the marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Northern soldiers gradually adopted the piece, and it became a staple of Northern marches. After the war, Howe continued to work in women’s rights, sex education and prison reform until her death. She was admitted into the Academy for her influential poetic and lyrical work, as well as her commitment to social justice.
The South–African government refused to give a visa to black tennis player Arthur Ashe to play in the South African Open championships, effectively banning him from participating. The Minister of Sport Frank Waring unabashedly said that Ashe’s negative attitude towards South African apartheid was the primary reason for the ban, and quoted Ashe’s statement that his trip would be “an attempt to put a crack in the racist wall down there.” John Vorster, the South African Prime Minister, even flaunted his rejection of Ashe in hopes of reinforcing the status quo and helping his bid for reelection. Ashe responded by lobbying the governing bodies of tennis and testifying before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee in Washington. “Athletes, especially black athletes, must use every resource at their command to right things that are wrong. … To have a potential to do a lot of good and not exercise this is the worst cowardice, especially in the United States,” he said. Although some protesters supported Ashe, few players publicly disagreed with his statements and tried to separate sports from politics. In 1973, Ashe was finally granted a visa for the South African Open, but he refused to play until seating for his matches was unsegregated. Ashe was the first black male to win Wimbledon. Although Ashe’s decisions faced considerable controversy, only one thing truly mattered to him: “Every day, [a young black teenager] was there when I arrived and he seemed to be there when I left. … He was watchful but shy as he shadowed me around the park. It was as if I exuded some precious, mysterious quality that he wanted to possess,” Ashe wrote in his memoirs. “Tell me something,” Ashe asked. “Why are you following me around?” The boy answered, “You are the first truly free black man I have ever seen.” Statements like these gave Ashe hope in his decision. Although one cannot hope to change the opinion of everyone, sometimes we only need to make a difference to one.