Portrait of Marie Skłodowska Curie and her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie at work in 1925.
Source: Science Museum Group Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0001759.html (no changes made) / Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Marie Skłodowska Curie and her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie at work in 1925.
Source: Science Museum Group Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0001759.html (no changes made) / Wikimedia Commons
“My doctor told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”
Wilma Rudolph was born in Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee, in 1940, the twentieth of twenty-two children. Suffering from a few illnesses early in life, at the age of five, she contracted polio. To treat the condition, she and her mother would travel around 50 miles to Meharry Medical College in Nashville weekly. In addition, she received massage treatment four times a day from family members at home, and she wore a leg brace.
Wilma recovered by the time she was twelve. Four years later, she was competing in the Olympics in track and field. And four years after that, Wilma was an Olympic champion and known to the world as the fastest woman alive.
“Track and field star Wilma Rudolph” sources: Dutch National Archives, The Hague (no changes made) / Wikimedia Commons.
The hug from John was warm, loving, the kind you’d expect from an affectionate type. He smiled his toothy grin, both soothing and mischievous, and he put his large right hand on my shoulder. I immediately felt at ease, for a moment forgetting the heavy knot which had taken over my stomach.
“You didn’t think I’d let you take this adventure on your own, dear friend?” he said, his jolly spirit bursting at the seams.
I couldn’t help but smile too. “I should have known.”
“You should have. I was insulted you didn’t invite me.”
He was right. I should have known. He was my closest friend, and as friends go, the kind always at one’s side.
John and I met seven years ago when we were two pimple-faced freshman classmates and dorm mates at Harvard. On our first day in the dorm, I approached him to introduce myself, shake his hand. He opened his arms out wide and hugged me. It was clear that we were nothing alike, not similar in personality nor demeanor. John was a rebel, good-looking, a towering, muscular figure of 6’4″, with a messy mop of curly brown hair and a chiseled face, kind eyes that sparkled with joy for life.
But we shared a love for mathematics and literature and for ending slavery and for a good bottle of wine, so we spent much of college together debating the latest social theories. We were like brothers and, for holidays or breaks, would sometimes visit each other’s families. And as the fates would have it, it was on one such vacation, a weekend visit for a birthday, that I met Luise. Luise was his first cousin. She was a year younger than us but just as strong-willed as John. Tall and willowy with long blond hair and deep blue soulful eyes, she was charming and witty, well-read and thoughtful. But it was her laugh that I fell in love with.
I courted her through multiple rejections. “I won’t be a good wife, marriage doesn’t interest me,” she’d say. But love is love, and she had my heart. A year of courting later, she said yes. I’m not sure exactly why she decided to marry me, nor did I give the question much thought. She wanted to, and that was more than enough for me. John was the best man at our wedding.
After college, we moved into homes near each other in Boston. He would often come over to our house, where Luise would, in an irony of her life, pester him about marriage. Many women desired him, but his response to her was always the same, “How can I give my heart to a woman when my love is for books?”
When Luise became pregnant, John was the first friend we told. “You’ll name him John if it’s a boy I assume,” he playfully said. He was almost as excited for our baby as she and I were.
But the months of joy leading up to the birth crashed quickly. Within a few days of delivery, both Luise and the baby were dead.
When Luise and the baby passed, life became stale, a bland surrender to existence on good days, uncontrollable thoughts on bad ones. I quit work; spent the days walking along the Charles River wondering in angst. Winters cold and gloom moved to spring’s charm, but even the new colors of life did little to change the season of my life. Father said to me one day, “feelings can be ephemeral if you give them the chance to be.” I didn’t believe him; every part of me felt this gloom was my life forever.
One warm sunny morning, as I sat on a bench in the Commons, I read in the paper about the gold rush in California. Gold had been discovered in a place called Sutter Mill. People were heading west – some for wealth, some for adventure, some for new beginnings, some for it all. My mind began to wonder, dream even, picturing what a new life in a new town may look like. Thoughts of this new life grew as days passed. Within a few short weeks, I purchased tickets for the passage. Yesterday I told John my plan, thought I was hugging him then goodbye.
Now we walked to the ship together, and as we boarded, I wondered when, if ever, I’d see Boston again. If not for John, I may have turned around at that moment. Such adventuring wasn’t me, and the reality sank in as I walked aboard the ship. I felt nauseous standing on the deck. But his courage was contagious. He was laughing jolly, already talking to other travelers. As I stared out now at the only city I had ever called home, I felt at ease for the first time in months.
We arrived in San Francisco about ten pounds lighter, our hair a bit grayer, our faces pale and worn from the nearly six months at sea. We almost died a few times. Well, eight actually, but who was counting. Sometimes from disease, others from hunger, sometimes from inclement weather, and once from a fight. John could always be counted on to stir up a heated argument. His mind and heart abhorred racists; his fists hated them even more. And one night, as we sat around a table playing a friendly game of poker, drinking a friendly bottle of scotch, the conversation tipped scales from the nothings of life to a discussion about slavery.
“Some men are born to be slaves. Aristotle himself said so,” a man remarked.
“Nonsense. No man is born anything but a man. Naked and free,” John shot back.
The man glared at John. His hateful eyes gleamed with the joy of riling up an abolitionist. John threw the first punch, a right hook that landed right on the man’s left cheekbone. He fell immediately, his friends jumping to his defense. But there was to be no more trouble.
“Why do you punch first?” I asked John later that night.
“I shouldn’t. Been better lately. But that smug man deserved it.”
John hated the type of man he punched. He was of wealth, educated, had all the means to help society progress, to help cure ills instead of perpetuating them. And John especially hated any man that said another could be or should be enslaved.
I noticed her immediately. She was tall and slender with long blond hair and intense blue eyes, cheeks that sunk in a bit, and a thin prominent nose. Her face was dirtied, which made her seem more beautiful. She was with three men, but none looked to be her husband. They all worked and mined, barking orders at one another. By the looks of it, they were a family, all siblings who made the trek together.
John noticed me gazing away at her. “Want me to introduce you?” He asked.
“To whom?” I sheepishly replied.
He threw a rock at me.
“After all we’ve been through, you still have the nerve to think I don’t know when a women captures your heart. Those are her brothers. The tall one is Thomas. They’re from South Carolina. An abolitionist family. I met him last week. Good guy.”
“What’s she doing out here?”
“Apparently, she’s the ringleader,” John replied with a smirk. “She was ready to go on her own, so the brothers joined to make sure she’s safe.”
Classic John, knows everyone and at least the cursory details of their life.
“Tonight we’ll go to the saloon and I’ll introduce you there.”
“Samantha, this is my dear friend, George. He thinks you’re beautiful and he might be in love. He’d like to buy you a drink if that’s ok. But go easy on him, he hasn’t spent much time with a woman in a while.”
“Well hello, George. Would you have come over if not for your friend?”
“An honest one. I like that. Let’s go have a drink.”
We ordered drinks and took a table in the corner of the bar.
“So what’d you do in life before coming here?” she asks.
“I was a scientist. How about you? John tells me you’re an abolitionist.”
“Well I was a teacher. But, yes, an abolitionist too. Our house is on the underground railroad. Ma and pop have been helping enslaved folks escape for as long as I can remember.”
“Why did you leave that life to come here?”
“Heart break. The man I was married to decided he was in love or in lust or whatever he wanted to call his doings with someone else. I walked into our home one day and there they were on the bed together. He hadn’t touched me in weeks and I stood there watching him kiss her all over, her moaning and hollering wild. I walked out, went straight to my parents home, told them what happened without the details. Daddy went to get his shotgun. Imagine, a pacifist, we didn’t even have ammo for the one lonely gun in our home. Never seen him so riled up in my life. But I stopped him. Told him there was good reason for this, that we were a family of faith, but that I couldn’t be in that town any more now. I needed to leave. He sent for my brothers, triplets who were just starting to see hair on their face, told them they were to watch over me on whatever adventure I had in my mind. They’re younger, but their protectors, all of them. Now we’re here. And you?”
“Heart break too, but different. I was happily married. My wife and I met through John. She was his cousin. We met at a birthday while John and I were freshman in college. I’d go out to visit her as often as she would let me. She was in college at the time too. We’d study together, she was much smarter than I. Understood everything from math to literature to Latin. Whenever I had a question she always had an answer. Much of what I accomplished in school was because she helped me. Even the first time I kissed her she had to help me. She was my best friend. When she became pregnant I thought life was perfect. She and I, our families and friends nearby, work I loved, and a child on the way. Then she died. Passed away while giving birth. Baby died as well. I spent months mulling around in sorrow, no understanding of how to make life better, not even certain I wanted to. One day I was reading about gold miners heading west. Figured why not. So packed some belongings and came here.”
“And what about John?”
“He joined without telling me he was going to. Was at the boat dock with a ticket when I arrived.”
They didn’t tell us that mining for gold was a profession of patience. I suppose we should have known. But venturing west was never about the gold for John, nor I. Two weeks into mining and the time came for us to talk about our new California life.
“This mining for gold isn’t for us, is it?” I asked him.
“I don’t think so,” he said with a smile.
We both enjoyed being out. For me, this was cleaning my soul, for John, a chance to experience a new kind of wild life. But neither of us craved nor needed money, and after months at sea, weeks in California, we both yearned for bits of our old life. We decided to make our way back to San Francisco, rent a home, and take some time to our joys. He missed books, and I missed chemistry. We wanted to explore the city, see what a new growing center was like, see if there were ways for us to contribute. Maybe all of our readings of social and political theory could be of use in this newfound place.
We rented a small home near the bay, with pristine water views, close to restaurants and happenings. Books were hard to come by, so with time, John decided to open a bookstore. I started a chemistry lab. We bought a two-floor building; he took the first floor for the store, I took the second.
Samantha would come to visit occasionally, and I’d head up to the mines for a few days at a time as well. She had few expectations for how our relationship should be. And without family or friends on either side, there was little pressure for us to do anything but enjoy time together. We explored the city, the views that seemed never-ending. A year later, we married. John was once again my best man.
“You can always give something, even if it is only kindness.”
– Anne Frank
Sources: Portrait taken in 1940 / Anne Frank House (https://www.annefrank.org/en/) / Wikimedia Commons
My father insisted we walk the one gravel road to town. He wanted us to have one more feel of the light brown soil, one more smell of the deep green bushes along both sides of the trail, to feel the crisp winter air on our skin.
Our walk took us past the small red brick building that was our church, where we would spend every Sunday morning. We walked past trails that led into the dense forest. Ones that I’d run through with my friends hundreds of times. We walked past memories of life. For this road was the only one which we had ever actually traveled.
Once we got to town, I went over to the water fountain for a drink. Father taught me to use the one with the label, “colored only.” But even without the label, I knew which one was for me. My water fountain was a small bowl, once white, now covered with spots of brown rust. Rustic, you could say if you wanted to make yourself feel better.
It was a stark contrast to the water fountain for white people. Theirs was much bigger, solid, and rectangular, with a shiny silver casing and the proud label of Westinghouse patched onto the front. The water fountain was a great metaphor for life in the south. Just like white folks, we had access to water. But their experience was separate from ours, easier to use, and more pleasant.
In town, we boarded the bus that would take us to Jackson, the start of our train ride north. We took our seats in the back of the bus and settled in. My mother at the window, my father next to the aisle, the two of them holding hands, and me on my father’s lap.
I looked up at my mother and watched her stare out of the bus window with a solemn yet dreamy gaze. My mother, only twenty-four years old but with wrinkles and grey hairs already beginning to show, standing in height taller than average and always proud, athletic thin, with a reserved smile, and at this moment, wearing her finest and only pearl necklace, just staring out into the vast planes of the Mississippi countryside.
My father, on the other hand, had his standard ear-to-ear wide smile on his face. A large man, 6’7, with broad shoulders, a chiseled clean-shaven face, soft, gentle eyes, long thin fingers that came useful at one point in life in his baseball career, as he was a great baseball player people would always tell me. One of the best pitchers in our parts, maybe the whole country. But when I was born, money became more important. So baseball was put aside.
That day he wore his only suit with his only white dress shirt and his only skinny black tie, with his only pair of shiny black shoes. It didn’t matter to him that the gravel road would make them dirty, and by the time we got into the bus, the shoes looked true to their old, worn-out self. What mattered to him was walking out of the house looking his finest.
I looked outside to a city going through change. Cars were not common in my parts of town. Here though, they were everywhere. And with the rise of cars came the construction of roads. Country dirt was going out of fashion, replaced by concrete. I watched cars drive by and looked at the smiling faces of the people inside. What problems were they dealing with, I wondered. What troubles burdened their lives. These thoughts didn’t last long. As the bus began to move, I dozed off, drooling on my father’s chest.
Note: “Sweet Harlem” is a historical fiction short story. The story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.
“Little can be done under the spirit of fear,” Florence Nightingale would say.
More than just words, though, she lived this mantra.
Born in Florence, Italy, while her family traveled there from England in 1820, she found life purpose while in her teens. It was a “divine calling.” She wanted to care for others, specifically as a nurse. But growing up within the strict social codes of upper-class England, her desires were challenging to pursue. While she was well educated, marriage and motherhood was the expectation, and nursing was a profession for the poor and unskilled at the time. For years, Florence put aside her goals out of respect for the worries of her family. But by her mid-20s, she rejected marriage and began training to become a nurse.
As a nurse, Florence showed much care to patients and pushed for essential changes. Affectionately nicknamed “The Lady with the Lamp,” by wounded and sick soldiers in her care during the Crimean War, she was known for walking hallways late into the evenings checking on patients. And in a time when hospitals were known as places that people just went to die, she, along with nurses under her training, worked to improve cleanliness, sanitation, quality of food, and comfort. All of these changes helped reduce the death rate of patients from forty percent to two.
After the war, Florence opened a school for training nurses, who would work all over the world. And she wrote many articles and guides and would do much to bring better care for patients while elevating the importance of nursing as a profession.
Looking back on her life, Florence said, “I attribute my success to this – I never gave or took any excuse.”
“Nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale” sources: https://www.uab.edu/reynolds/nightingale/life / https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Nightingale / Florence Nightingale’s autobiographical notes: A critical edition of BL Add. 45844 (England) by Heather Kelly (https://scholars.wlu.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1125&context=etd) / U.S. National Library of Medicine Digital Collections (https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/catalog/nlm:nlmuid-101424616-img)
Portrait of Hattie Tom, an Apache Native American, 1899.
Sources: photograph taken by Frank A. Rinehart / Boston Public Library – https://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/4100762609 (no changes made)
Harriet Tubman was around twelve years old, enslaved, when a fellow enslaved man attempted to run away. After being found and brought back, Harriet and a few others were instructed to help tie him up to be whipped. She refused, and when the man attempted to run again, she blocked the doorway to help him escape. An overseer threw a two-pound weight at the man but hit Harriet instead, fracturing her skull. Throughout her life, she suffered from severe headaches and narcolepsy from this incident.
A petite woman of only about five feet, Harriet was strong-willed and courageous, and as she grew older, she became determined to escape to the North. Upon learning in 1849 that she would be sold, Harriet, now in her mid-20s, decided the time was right. One night, she, along with two of her brothers, ran away. Her brothers soon turned back, and for the rest of her journey, Harriet was alone without friends. She walked at night, hid during the day, didn’t know who to trust, where to eat, at times she had shelter, often she slept outside on the ground overlooked by the stars. After about ninety miles of travel, she crossed into the North to freedom.
Reflecting about making it into the North, she said, “I looked at my hands, to see if I was de same person now I was free. Dere was such a glory over everything, de sun came like gold trou de trees, and over de fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”
Soon after her escape, Harriet went back into the South to help some family members to escape. After getting them North, she went back to the South to help more family members. Then she went to help others. Harriet would make many trips over the years, rescuing approximately seventy people. Of the experience, she would say, “I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say — I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
If you enjoyed “A snapshot biography of Harriet Tubman”, please consider supporting Historical Snapshots with a contribution. To contribute, please visit our Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/historicalsnapshots. Your support is much appreciated.
“A snapshot biography of Harriet Tubman” Sources: http://www.harriet-tubman.org / Women of Achievement by Benjamin Brawley, 1919, Woman’s American Baptist Home Mission Society / Portrait of Harriet taken circa 1868 by Benjamin F. Powelson / Wikimedia Commons / https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Harriet_Tubman / Women’s Words : The Columbia Book of Quotations by Women (1996) by Mary Biggs, p. 2
Portrait of a Union Army soldier, U.S. Civil War, 1865.
Sources: City Point, Virginia. African American soldier guarding U.S. Model12-pdr. Napoleon. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2018670840/>. / https://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/blogdivided/2010/04/26/usct-slideshow/
“It’s a desert! Why would we move to the desert?” Baruch asked, his words tangled in worries.
“Because that is the land of our people, it’s our home,” his wife, Chaya, replied.
“No, New York is our home. I was born here, my parents were born here. They live down the street. My sister lives two doors down. You were born here. Your parents live less than a mile away. This is home.”
“I understand, Baruch, I know you want to stay in New York,” she said gently, putting her hand on his leg. “But please think about us moving. I want to, I have wanted to for years now. If we don’t like living there, we can move back.”
“And my job, what will happen?”
“Baruch, you’re one of the best journalists in New York, maybe even in the country. You’ll have no problem finding work if we have to return. And maybe in Palestine, you’ll be able to start a newspaper.”
Chaya always made sense. She had an instinct for the right argument at the right time. Baruch deeply admired and loved her dearly. They met as kids in sixth grade. She was firm in her beliefs then too. That year a teacher made a snide, anti-Semitic remark in class. Chaya gathered the students and told the administration no one would attend class until the teacher apologized. The students made signs and for two days protested in front of the school. The teacher apologized. Her Jewish immigrant parents were too proud to be furious.
Jewish in identity, Zionist in spirit, tough yet gentle, and intellectual in personality, she was intolerant to racism. She punched the last man who made an anti-Semitic remark towards her. The one before fared worse, as she kicked him where no man wants to be kicked. But most battles were verbal. Well read, she understood the history, understood the present, and had a gift for being right about events in the future. She had a mathematician’s mind for logic, a writer’s eloquence with a comedian’s wit.
Baruch knew before their marriage of her desire to move. Zionism was her calling, had been since her mid-teens. She read all the books, attended every talk in New York, donated any extra funds they had. This was going to be her life’s work. Baruch was different. He loved New York, loved the opera, the ballet, even the skyscrapers starting to dot the city. With family and friends and libraries all around, he was at peace. New York was home. And he was proud of being an American, proud that this country had opened her doors to his family. His grandparents had come in the 1880s looking for a tolerant place to settle. Life wasn’t perfect in the U.S., but much better than what they experienced living in Russia.
“Where will we live?”
“On a Kibbutz outside of Tel Aviv. Just imagine, out in the countryside working the land, growing crops to feed the people, being part of building the community.”
His ability to keep Chaya settled in New York had withered over the years. He wasn’t surprised nor upset. But the thought of a move still frightened him. The war had just ended, life was beginning to look normal again. The city was thriving, coming to life, and being in their early twenties, Baruch wanted to experience the time. Yet as he looked at the matters of life, he understood that being caring to Chaya was to at least make the move. Maybe they wouldn’t stay for the rest of life, but they needed to try. He knew this in his heart and his mind.
Doing his best to muster his courage, a positive outlook, he said to Chaya, “Let’s do it.”