My Book Review in UVA’s “Essays in History”

For history graduate students, book reviews are a manageable first step toward a publishing career, much the way law students are expected to produce a comment in a legal journal. Book reviews are also a legitimate way to recycle your grad school homework assignments. Bearing both of these trends in mind, I decided to submit a book review to the University of Virginia’s venerable journal, Essays in History. The process was quite educational. While less arduous than the peer review process for a full paper, my book review still went through a multi-stage editing process. The exchange with the editors also afforded me a great opportunity to make contacts at another university.

Here is a link to the finished review of Mark W. Summers’s The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction. I’m proud of it, but the prose is a little clunky in a few spots, so I have something to work on the next time I write a book review!

Reconstruction Comes Alive Through FamilySearch

A publicity photo from Discover Freedmen. Source:

Over the summer, the Washington Post announced that FamilySearch International, one of the world’s major online genealogy firms, will publish 1.5 million images of records for 4 million freed African American slaves. The digitized records, owned by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), comprise Freedmen’s Bureau documents from the end of the Civil War and the start of Reconstruction. FamilySearch’s announcement appropriately came on June 19th, or Juneteenth, the annual celebration in the African American community of emancipation. WaPo noted that June 19, 2015 also marked 150 years since the Union Army declared the slaves of Texas, the last Confederate state, to be free.

The digital humanists at FamilySearch clearly recognize that release this dataset is a major work of digital history. The company has launched a standalone website, Discover Freedmen, to publicize the project. However, the records aren’t accessible on Discover Freedmen. Users still must make a free account on the main FamilySearch website before they begin tracking freedmen.

FamilySearch’s announcement is wonderful for family historians because the FamilySearch site is free to use. African Americans can track their ancestors, and historians can seek the records of freedmen, without paying to use the database or traveling to NARA offices. Of late, there has been controversy because NARA has hired contractors, including and FamilySearch, to digitize family history collections. In exchange for helping NARA, however, Ancestry and its partner, Fold3, place a temporary embargo on the files before they are put online. Additionally, Ancestry and Fold3 charge users to access files. These family history documents can be used for free at NARA offices across the country, but many people don’t have the chance to travel to NARA offices, so they are stuck using Ancestry’s fee-for-service model. By making the Freedmen’s Bureau documents free, FamilySearch sidesteps the NARA/Ancestry brouhaha, decreases the waiting period for people to access the files, and expands public access to NARA resources.

Yet there may be an ulterior motive for FamilySearch’s Discover Freedmen project.

FamilySearch is an official subsidiary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Mormon Church. (If you go on FamilySearch, you can see the extra privileges for LDS Church members, such as free accounts at and other partner websites.) A major tenet of the LDS Church is that Mormons should identify their ancestors and symbolically baptize them through proxy baptisms held at LDS temples. Once a modern Mormon is baptized for the sake of the dead, Mormons believe that those deceased individuals have the opportunity in Heaven to profess their belief in Jesus Christ and ascend to the next level of the afterlife.

Accordingly, FamilySearch reiterates the Church’s policy on family relations – the firm holds “that families are meant to be central to our lives and that family relationships are intended to continue beyond this life.” The proxy baptism policy isn’t publicized on FamilySearch’s homepage, but pages are available with tips on finding ancestors who need temple ordinances (e.g., baptism) and how to request ordinances. Anyone can use FamilySearch, but the site was created initially to serve an LDS mission.

What does Mormon theology have to do with Reconstruction and the Freedmen’s Bureau? I don’t mean to criticize the LDS Church’s humanitarian impulses; FamilySearch provides a genuine public service with its free collections and collaboration with NARA. Nonetheless, the LDS Church has made significant efforts in recent years to recruit African American converts. One cannot help but wonder if the publication of African American genealogy records by a Church corporation is a subtle strategy to introduce black Americans to Mormonism and the good works Mormons can do. In this way, a simple genealogy project – digitizing federal records – becomes a tool for multiracial evangelization.

You can read instructions for accessing FamilySearch’s Freedmen’s Bureau records here.

Cover Photo: A publicity image from Discover Freedmen. Source:

Legislating Freedom

Tangents USA

John Oliver lit up the Internet this weekend with a powerful segment arguing that it is the mandate of the federal government, not the states, to enforce civil rights. A friend of mine slightly dissented, wondering if people do not self-correct their morals over time, thus rendering the need for government action unnecessary.

I disagree: Legislation and judicial rulings in favor of civil rights have been necessary historically because significant portions of the population have always opposed the “next wave” of constitutional extensions.

For instance:

  • James Madison pushed for Congress to stay out of religion, when a number of politicians (e.g., Patrick Henry) wanted there to be a national Christian church. See David Sehat’s great legal history, The Myth of American Religious Freedom, for more information on this topic.
  • In 1867-68, the Congressional Radical Republicans passed the 14th and 15th Amendments and the Reconstruction Acts to ensure black political rights, because of…

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Book Review: Where The Bird Sings Best

Tangents USA

I’ve never much cared for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s movies. Jodorowsky’s 1971 Acid Western, El Topo, works fairly well as a story, but I find the meaning behind its symbolism to be very obscure. Conversely, the themes of Jodorowsky’s 1973 gonzo epic, The Holy Mountain, are powerful, yet the film works poorly as a narrative. Every Jodorowsky film is a sensory onslaught filled with harsh music, brilliantly colorful sets and costumes, and copious amounts of sex, nudity, gore, and terrifying violence. They are not for the faint of heart. Finding spiritual truth within them can remain difficult when the images are so transgressive.

The man himself is a marvel. Jodorowsky grew up in Chile, studied and lived in Paris, wrote comics and novels, directed a handful of crazy movies, and generally reigned over esoteric counterculture for the last forty-five years. There is no one else like Alejandro Jodorowsky. There may…

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Article Blurb: “Furiosa, Gazelle, and the Power of Prosthetics”

Megan Kate Nelson, historian and maestro of the Historista blog, has a fun new article about prosthetics, disability, and women. She focuses on the recent number of films – Grindhouse, The Lone Ranger, and this year’s Kingsman: The Secret Service and Mad Max: Fury Road – that have featured strong female characters with prosthetic limbs. Of these four films, Kingsman and Fury Road include female characters – Gazelle and Furiosa, respectively – that are the least sexualized. Furiosa, who has a prosthetic arm, and Gazelle, who has prosthetic legs equipped with sword blades, are the equals of their films’ male characters. Moreover, the women’s injuries are not shown; their disabilities are frankly not disabilities, but rather challenges that they have incorporated into their lives and surpassed. Arguably, Kingsman and Fury Road are two of the most feminist action films in recent years, but Nelson is correct that all four of these movies represent a step forward in cinematic portrayals of handicapped women.

Nelson also touches briefly on the post-Civil War industry of prosthetics, which tried to help injured veterans adjust to civilian life again. In reality, weapons were not built into the false limbs.

The original post unfortunately lacks a “Reblog” option, so the full piece can be read here:

Furiosa, Gazelle, and the Power of Prosthetics

Book Review: The Half Has Never Been Told

Tangents USA

Cover Photo:
Douglas, Aaron. Aspects of Negro Life: An Idyll of the Deep South. Mural. 1934. Oil on Canvas. Source:

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. By Edward E. Baptist. New York: Basic Books, 2014. pp. xxvii, 498. $35.00.

Cornell professor Edward E. Baptist opens his magnificent new work, The Half Has Never Been Told, with the assertion that the historical academy of the early twentieth century was “openly racist” (xvii). Baptist therefore implies that The Half Has Never Been Told is an act of historiographic penance, rectifying the academy’s past sin of whitewashing American slavery. He intends to dispel three longstanding misconceptions about slavery to which most historians have subscribed. First, slavery would have inevitably ended; second, Southern slavery was inefficient and unprofitable, out of step with the North’s industrialized economy; and third, the worst crime of slavery was the…

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Digital Wagons Ho! “Oregon Trail” and Old Software Ride Again

Classic Oregon Trail gameplay. Contributed by Alan Chan (3503) to Moby Games on Jan 16, 2000. Source:

Classic Oregon Trail gameplay. Contributed by Alan Chan (3503) to Moby Games on Jan 16, 2000. Source:

During finals last semester, I came down with a nasty case of the flu. Desperate for distraction, I scoured the Internet for something fun. I read that Internet Archive had recently uploaded an enormous batch of classic computer games. Since I’m a history nerd, I clicked on the link for the Archive’s edition of the original Oregon Trail. I spent much of that day recuperating from the flu while guiding my poor virtual family through dysentery (irony of ironies), starvation, broken limbs, death, and possibly the most disastrous river crossing in digital history. Of my family, patriarch “Orestes” and his daughter “Emmaline” made it to Oregon, but everybody else kicked the bucket. Although I was taken aback by the 8-bit brutality of the game, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and admired the genuine historical content, such as trading, speaking with Native Americans, immigrants, and Mormons on the frontier, and struggling to obtain enough meat on the trail.

I’d never played O.T. before. By the time I was old enough for video games (circa 1999-2000), the heyday of O.T. had passed. A few of my fellow third graders talked about the game (likely one of the sequel versions), but most kids weren’t playing O.T. anymore. Rather, Millennial children were turning to the Nintendo Game Boy, the PlayStation 1, and SEGA Dreamcast for gaming experiences. The video game console eclipsed computer games, at least in the New York State world of third grade socializing.

A.V. Club ran a great piece by Marah Eakin in 2013 on the history of Oregon Trail. According to Eakin, the project began in 1971 and evolved from a board game to Teletype to a full (albeit primitive) video game by MECC for the Apple II. This version of Oregon Trail reached iconic status among elementary and middle school students in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Sequels to O.T. introduced better graphics but retained the episodic structure of the original game. The series still occupies its own pop culture niche today. An entire Wikia page is devoted to the history of O.T. Not long ago, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released an iOS app of O.T., revealing that the game has appeal outside of the nostalgia market.

Internet Archive’s preservation of older generation of video games, down to the goofy old computer animation and glyph-like text, certainly carries nostalgic value. But the project also carries unique implications for the history profession, namely the importance of archiving born-digital sources and outdated computing technology. Vint Cerf, pioneering Internet scientist and now the Chief Internet Evangelist for Google, recently spoke to the BBC about the importance and difficulty of preserving old operating systems, programs, and files, which may no longer be readable or functional on the latest computer systems. In the BBC article, Cerf uses the phrase “digital vellum” to describe old digital products that are archived for posterity. Carnegie Mellon University’s Olive Archive project is a major contributor to this historical computing initiative, turning outdated systems into executable content. Similarly, Internet Archive now has old software available to download.

It’s worth noting that both Internet Archive and Olive Archive added Oregon Trail to their first collections of digital vellum. Internet Archive has gone a step farther and added 1992’s Oregon Trail Deluxe, too. The expertise to do this archival work may be scientific, but knowledge of the humanities clearly is a factor in selecting what gets saved.

A new specialized form of archival work blending computer science, electrical engineering, and history is necessary to do the work of Cerf, Internet Archive, and Olive Archive. The preservation not just of video games, but also websites, computers, operating systems, and old programming languages has the potential to remove disciplinary barriers between social science, applied science, and the humanities. This historical computer science will require extensive academic and technical training, so I would not be surprised if we see universities launch digital archivist degree programs over the next decade.

But back to Oregon Trail! I conducted a thoroughly non-social-scientific test by Facebooking my older cousins and asking what they thought of O.T. The responses were enthusiastic across the board – the game conjured fond memories of childhood. The idea of video game ethnography intrigued me, so I reached out to Villanova’s history graduate student community. Several M.A. candidates shared their reflections on the original O.T. and its sequels.

“I believe, though I may be mistaken, that the recently remastered one is O.T. 1 – a game I never played.  Now, if we are to speak of Oregon Trail 3, boy did I spend ages playing that game.  One of my favourite parts of the game was reading the tally of my game at the end, especially the various diseases that members of my travelling party died from.  That and killing thousands of pounds of bison and bears but only carrying 300 rubbish pounds back to my starving wagon-mates.  It really puts the near-extinction of large mammals in North America into context.” – Sian Webb

“I mostly associate the gaming experience with indoor recesses when I was around 6 or 7.  My school didn’t have many computers, so there would always be a few kids crowded around a screen helping to make decisions for the game while other kids manned the different computers.  Occasionally, whoever had the computer also felt generous and let someone else do the hunting.” – Shane Sprandio

“I remember playing Oregon Trail in computer class in middle school, but since we were not allowed to save after each class period, I never, never actually made it to Oregon. I can only imagine how failing to achieve this childhood right of passage will scar my life. Anyway, I think one of the benefits of the game is to make players think about the challenges pioneers faced in starting a new life on the frontier. It is a foreign concept to us to have to plan for what you will need months from now, knowing that once you leave town there will be no other way to get it.

Plus it is probably the only time that dysentery will ever affect our lives.” – Mike Johnson

“For me, Oregon Trail represents one of my greatest childhood memories, not because it allowed me a brief respite from math class, but because it marked the first time I experienced playing a video game alongside others. I recall hearing students angrily yelling at the game as their last family member died of dysentery, while others miraculously finished the game and held that moment as one of their greatest accomplishments.  These moments with other people are what made this game special.” – James Schmitt