- Historic Sites
I Wish I’d Known
A high school history project brings forth responses from an extraordinary variety of people
February/March 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 1
When I went to high school in Alabama, there was little to no interest in teaching about African-American historical figures. The person who was discussed more than anyone else was Booker T. Washington, because he founded Tuskegee Institute. The people I wish I had been taught more about in high school were Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. I used them both as models for my Pathways to Freedom program. They both exemplified a Godly spirit, self-determination, and a willingness to make any sacrifice necessary to free African-Americans from slavery.
I’m gratified—and a little intimidated—that you’d address your history-project question to me. It’s a big responsibility.
In truth, I’ve been studying history all my life, and as a journalist I’ve been privileged to watch a good deal of history in the making. The need to reflect on the past, to learn from it and try to understand it, never stops (and I quite honestly couldn’t do my job if I weren’t able to bring some historical perspective to bear in my reporting). It’s impossible to single out only one important figure from the past. I have a collection of favorites to whom I return again and again; but the roster is always changing, and I’m always finding new historical figures from whom I can learn, from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Louis Armstrong to Neil Armstrong, from Mary Cassatt to Corazon Aquino. As a native Texan, however, I do find myself drawn quite often to Sam Houston.
Here’s wishing you and your class all the best in your studies, and here’s looking forward to the day when you make a little history yourselves.
Attorney General of the United States
The person I would like to have learned more about in history class is John Marshall. He had a profound effect on the history of this nation, and I do not think this is sufficiently emphasized.
Emilio Aguinaldo was the leader of the Philippine Insurrection after the Spanish-American War, a fight that led to America’s first imperialist atrocities not on native soil. He was a flawed and complicated leader, and I think history is the chronicle of flawed human beings.
Sojourner Truth saw there was a job to do, reaching all folks, and with little training and no money she set out to do it, never expecting any fame or fortune but determined to speak out. Her speech “Aren’t I a woman?” at the Women’s Rights Convention will go down in history.
Emma Goldman had the courage to live a life far outside the boundaries of “femininity,” class lines, sexual mores, or national identities. She was a whole person who insisted on her right to it all—from political action to humor, dancing to the life of the mind, equity to sexuality. If I had known such a woman existed, it would have saved me many, many years.
The more I learn about the Founding Fathers, the more convinced I am that it is critical to understand their thinking in order to fully appreciate the country we have become.
My choice: Theodore Roosevelt, who was President of the United States from 1901 to 1909. It is Roosevelt’s strength of character—and what a person can accomplish through sheer strength of character—that fascinates me about Roosevelt today.
Granted, he was born rich, but he was also born weak, thin, puny, sickly, and nearsighted and grew up with a squeaky little voice—which is to say, he was a prime candidate for what currently, my children tell me, is known as advanced dorkiness. Through sheer determination he turned himself into a powerful physical specimen, a rugged outdoorsman, and a swashbuckling cavalry officer, the hero of the famous charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.
Opinions will differ as to whether Roosevelt’s policies as President were good or bad. But no one will dispute the fact that he showed how to lift the spirits and confidence of an entire people through the force of his character and the excitement he brought to the pursuit of high ideals.
Sojourner Truth. No question about it. I think our lives paralleled, only in different centuries. She’s a mentor for me. Her life was a bridge to my own. I can’t read enough about her.