Divided Nation: The 1860 U.S. Presidential Election

Introduction

The 1860 U.S. Presidential election was one of the most important and controversial in the country’s history. Characterized by four candidates from a split Democratic Party, a Republican Party making its second presidential run, and an emergent Constitutional Union Party, the election would see undemocratic elements, all the candidates winning electoral college votes, and a culmination of what had become a national quarrel over slavery.

Background

Slavery, which had existed in the U.S. since its earliest days of colonial settlement in the 1600s, had been debated for years, with some states like New York, which initially allowed it, choosing to abolish the practice. But in the South, slavery had become an integral part of the economy and way of life. While there were dissenting voices, the region, in large part, wanted to continue the practice. 

The debate fervor grew in the middle of the 19th century as the U.S. saw important changes that impacted the slavery conversation. Abolitionists were coming together to help enslaved people escape through the Underground Railroad. That led to policy changes like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, putting those who helped also at risk. 

The debate further intensified as America expanded its territories, bringing the question of slavery’s extension into new regions to the forefront of national discourse. As territories and states became part of the nation, one of the central questions was whether or not slavery should be permitted in those regions and who would make that decision: the inhabitants or the federal government. 

Then, one of the most important events leading up to the election occurred in October 1859. An abolitionist by the name of John Brown, who believed that “slavery is a state of war,” led a group of about twenty in a raid on the town of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. They captured influential people and took control of the federal armory and arsenal. But within a day, the rebellion was quelled by U.S. Marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee. 

While John and a number of his men were captured and later executed after being found guilty, the use of violence had a profound effect on the psyche of Southerners, deepening the divide between North and South and heightening tensions. In some places, hostility towards Northerners grew. Some Southerners chose to stop or reduce trade with the North in hopes that Northerners would understand the importance of respecting Southern rights. As one newspaper wrote then, “The Harpers Ferry invasion has advanced the cause of disunion more than any other event that has happened since the formation of the Government.”

All this set the background for the election.

The Candidates & Party Stance on Slavery

Four political parties would nominate candidates for the election. 

  • The Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln, who had not held a political position since serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois from 1847 to 1849, as its candidate. The party took a moderate stance on slavery, opposing its expansion, though some delegates favored its total abolition. 
  • The Democratic Party chose Stephen A. Douglas, a U.S. Senator from Illinois, as their candidate. On the issue of slavery, the party’s stance was for settlers in each territory to decide. This position led to Southern Democrats breaking from the party and holding their own convention. They chose the sitting Vice President, John C. Breckinridge, as their candidate.
  • The final party was new to the political scene. Named the Constitutional Party, it didn’t take much of a stance on slavery, preferring to keep things as they were: “The Union as it is, the Constitution as it is,” they said. Their candidate was John Bell, a former U.S. Secretary of War and, most recently, a U.S. Senator from Tennessee. 

Election

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.” – Abraham Lincoln

Despite the Republican Party’s attempts to adopt a moderate stance on slavery, Southern states perceived Abraham Lincoln, because of quotes such as the one above, as a significant threat to the institution. This led to ten Southern states excluding Abraham from their ballots.

While this was undoubtedly a setback, Abraham had several advantages going into the election. First, there was the split among Democrats. Secondly, the voting population in the North was much greater than in the South. Another advantage for Abraham came from a new organization called the Wide Awakes, which the Republican Party developed. Made up of younger men, the group reached a membership of about 500,000 around the election. Abraham, who followed the tradition of the time of presidential candidates not campaigning, received much benefit from the campaign activities of this group. 

The election saw an unprecedented 81.2% participation rate, the highest in Presidential election history up to that point. The results were as follows:

  • Abraham Lincoln: 39.8% of the popular vote, 18 states, 180 Electoral Votes
  • John Breckinridge: 18.1% of the popular vote, 11 states, 72 Electoral Votes
  • John Bell: 12.6% of the popular vote, 3 states, 39 Electoral Votes
  • Stephen A. Douglas: 29.5% of the popular vote, 1 state, 12 Electoral Votes

Abraham Lincoln was elected on November 6, 1860, and became President on March 4, 1861. Between December 1860 and April 1861, eleven Southern states would secede from the Union. 

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Impossible Mile: The Roger Bannister Legacy

People said running a mile in under four minutes couldn’t be done. It was impossible. Some even feared that attempting such a feat could prove fatal.

A few men had come close over the years. In 1863, one man ran a downhill mile in 4:02. Though it didn’t count as a record, it was the closest official time to four minutes and remained so until 1944. That year and the following, two men ran the distance on a track in a little over 4 minutes and one second.

But neither could break the barrier. Then came Roger Bannister.

“In Oxford, I had been told, a man without a sport is like a ship without a sail…Of all sports, running seemed to me the only one for which I had any aptitude.” – Roger Bannister

Roger was a medical school student who also ran track. But, he was competitive and believed in the importance of pushing oneself. “The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win,” he would say.

His talent and hard work had already led to great results. Roger had been a champion runner for years, representing the British in the 1952 Olympics, in which he finished in fourth place in the 1,500-meter race. Like the two record holders, Roger had come close to the four-minute barrier but had not been able to break it. But Roger believed that running a sub-four-minute mile was possible, and after changing his workout regiment, set his sights on doing so.

The fateful day was May 6, 1954. For Roger, it began as usual with work in the hospital. Then, he made his way to the track. Despite unfavorable weather conditions, with rain and a significant wind blowing across the track, Roger embarked on his historic run, assisted by Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, two friends and fellow athletes who would serve as pacemakers.

As Chris B. led the first part of the race, Roger was concerned they were not running fast enough. “Faster!” he shouted, his body brimming with pent-up energy from rest and preparation. But Chris B. didn’t change the pace and Roger’s worries began to ease when the time of 57.5 seconds was shouted after the first quarter mile. They were ahead of pace. Chris C. took over midway, maintaining the pace and setting the stage for Roger to unleash his final sprint.

Roger crossed the finish line, his body giving in to the sheer exhaustion of his efforts. The announcer’s voice broke through the silence, confirming what seemed like a dream: 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. He had done it.

Roger wrote about the moment,

“I felt suddenly and gloriously free of the burden of athletic ambition that I had been carrying for years. No words could be invented for such supreme happiness, eclipsing all other feelings. I thought at that moment I could never again reach such a climax of single-mindedness. I felt bewildered and overpowered. I knew it would be some time before I caught up with myself.”

Just a couple of months later, two more athletes ran a sub-four-minute mile. As of June 2022, 1,755 have achieved the feat, with the current world record in the distance set at 3:43.13.

Roger’s running career ended when he retired at the end of 1954. He then dedicated himself to his work as a neurologist and raising a family. In 2018, he passed away at the age of 88.

Notes

Click here to read a story of another champion runner, Thomas Longboat.

The Impossible Mile: Roger Bannister’s Legacy Sources

The Legendary Harlem Hellfighters

Group of smiling Harlem Hellfighters in uniform with service medals, on deck of a ship, exuding camaraderie and pride upon return from WWI.
Some Harlem Hellfighters soldiers upon returning home for World War I.

Officially, they were named the 369th Infantry Regiment, a black American unit during World War I. But as the unit began fighting, the French and German armies both gave this regiment the same nickname. They called them the Harlem Hellfighters.

The U.S. at that time was still ripe with racism and segregation. That, however, didn’t stop tens of thousands of black American men from becoming combat soldiers in the war. The 369th Infantry Regiment first began as a New York National Guard unit, with many of its roughly few thousand members living in Harlem.

As the U.S. began preparing for entry into the war, they federalized this New York National Guard Unit. And that’s how they became the 369th Infantry Regiment. The group was sent to upstate New York for training.

But here, they experienced racism from locals, leading to rising tensions among the soldiers. The U.S. War Department debated on what to do. They had three choices: keep the soldiers in town and deal with the racism, move the soldiers to another U.S. city, but that would send a signal that harassment works, or send the soldiers abroad. The War Department chose the latter option, sending the regiment to France, where they joined the French Army, as the U.S. Army was segregated.

Throughout the war, the Harlem Hellfighters would distinguish themselves on the battlefield with remarkable bravery and endurance, spending more time in combat than any other American unit. No one from the regiment was ever captured, and the group, because of their leader’s perspective, never retreated. But many of the soldiers were killed. The achievements of the regiment earned them the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest military honor, and 171 members of the unit received medals of valor, among other awards.

Along with their might and significance on the battlefield, the Harlem Hellfighters also impacted European music culture through the regiment band led by the legendary James Reese Europe. A virtuoso musician and composer, James and the band are credited with introducing jazz to European audiences, leaving a lasting impact on the music scene. As a reviewer wrote about one performance,

“If I live to be 101, I shall never forget that second night, which was a night of a splendid, flawless full moon. We stood with the regimental staff on the terraced lawn of the chief house in a half-deserted town five miles back from the trenches, and down below us in the main street, the band played plantation airs and hundreds of Negro soldiers joined in and sang the words. Behind the masses of upturned dark faces was a ring of white ones where the remaining natives of the place clustered with their heads wagging in time to the tunes . . . . When they got to “Way Down Upon The Swanee River” I wanted to cry, and when the drum major [Sissle], who had a splendid baritone voice, sang, as an interpolated number, “Joan of Arc,” first in English and then in excellent French, the villagers openly cried; and an elderly peasant, heavily whiskered, with tears of joyous and thankful enthusiasm running down his bearded cheeks, was with difficulty restrained from throwing his arms about the soloist and kissing him.”

Upon the regiment’s return home, W.E.B. DuBois, one of the most prominent advocates for equality at the time, said,

“Make way for democracy. We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America or know the reason why. We return from fighting. We return fighting.”

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Kady Brownell: Defying Gender Norms in the Civil War

Photograph of Kady Brownell in uniform, standing with a rifle and bayonet, circa 1861, representing her service in the Civil War as a vivandière and color bearer.
Kady Brownell, circa 1861

Kady Brownell Snapshot Biography

Born in 1842 in a British Army tent in Kaffraria, South Africa, to a French mother and a Scottish father, Kady Brownell’s early life was marked by the tragic death of her mother. With her father away as part of the British military, Kady was cared for by a local family who would eventually bring her to Providence, Rhode Island​.

In the early 1860s, Kady met and fell in love with Robert Brownell while working as a weaver in a textile mill. The two forged a deep bond, eventually living as husband and wife. However, their lives took a dramatic turn with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Robert enlisted in the 1st Regiment Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry of the Union Army.

Refusing to be separated from her husband, Kady accompanied him into war. At a time when the idea of women in combat was unfathomable to most, she served openly alongside Robert after earning the respect of the soldiers and permission from the regiment’s commander. She transcended traditional roles, transitioning from vivandière—a support position typically available to women—to color bearer, a role steeped in valor, risk, and significance. Color bearers were often responsible for rallying and guiding troops during battle. As often was the case for them, Kady had to take a position at the front of the regiment, very much in harm’s way.

As a soldier, she actively and bravely participated in combat while saving fellow soldiers’ lives. In one situation, she saved the lives of fellow soldiers from friendly fire. As written by one biographer,

“Just as a number of Union regiments were getting into their battle positions on the morning of March 14, members of the 5th Rhode Island came out of a clump of woods from an unexpected direction, giving the appearance that they might be a disguised rebel force preparing to attack. Realizing that a misunderstanding might lead the regiments already in line to open fire, and with no fear for her own safety, tradition has it that Brownell—who had moved to the rear as ordered—ran forward into clear view of those already in place, carrying her regiment’s flag and waving it wildly until the 5th Rhode Island soldiers’ identity became clear to surrounding regiments.”

Kady’s military service was a groundbreaking challenge to the era’s gender barriers, earning her the profound respect of her peers. After the war, in a testament to her service and that respect, Kady became the only woman to receive discharge papers from the Union Army. She was granted a pension and became a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans.

In later years, Kady said in an interview with a reporter about the war,

“The war, with all its legacy of bitterness and hatred is over, and in the hearts of these brave men who lost the day there is nothing but a tender love and trust in us who saved the Union. For myself, I did my duty, under discipline, and with that I am content until it shall please God to call me.”

Kady passed away in 1915 at the age of 72.

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Physicist Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu

“I have always felt that in physics, and probably in other endeavors, too, you must have total commitment. It is not just a job. It is a way of life.” – Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu

Photograph of Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu seated at a desk with experimental equipment, adjusting a control knob. She appears focused on her work, surrounded by papers and electronic panels with dials and cables. Chien-Shiung is wearing a traditional Chinese dress, reflecting her heritage.
Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu Snapshot Biography

Some said that Chien-Shiung Wu was the foremost female physicist and one of the most important physicists, male or female, of her time.

Born in 1912, Chien-Shiung grew up in the small village of Liuhe near Shanghai. In those days, women in China received little, if any, education. But Chien-Shiung wanted to learn. And she was lucky. Her father opened and operated a school, one of the first in the country to allow girls to attend. Their home was also rich in learning and full of books and newspapers.

With a seemingly insatiable desire to learn, Chien-Shiung attended Nanjing Central University, graduating with the highest honors. Then, with luck again coupleing hard work again, her uncle offered to pay for more education. She went to the U.S., as China didn’t offer Ph.D. programs in physics at the time.

Intending to study at the University of Michigan, Chien-Shiung’s first stop in the U.S. was in San Francisco, where the ship she traveled to the U.S. on landed. While in the area, she visited a friend at Berkeley who introduced her to a Chinese graduate student in physics. After a tour of the facilities and an introduction to Ernest Lawrence, a Nobel Laureate in physics at the university, who was so impressed by Chien-Shiung that he offered any additional financial support she needed so that she could join the physics program, Chien-Shiung decided to change her plans. U.C. Berkeley became her new home. And the graduate student who gave Chien-Shiung that tour would become her husband.

“Chien-Shiung was very ambitious. She frequently quoted Madame Curie as her role model. She wanted to excel. I could feel her determination, and was confident that she could accomplish whatever she wanted.” – U.C. Berkeley classmate

Another classmate said, “If the experiment was done by Wu, it must be correct.”

After excelling in her studies, Chien-Shiung received a PhD in physics in 1940. Finding work, however, proved to be a challenge. Berkeley, like all the other top physics programs, didn’t hire women. She was, however, able to stay on as a post-doctoral fellow.

As she began working in her new role, the local newspaper Oakland Tribute wrote a story about her. The story included the following,

“A petite Chinese girl worked side by side with some top US scientists in the laboratory studying nuclear collisions. This girl is the new member of the Berkeley physics research team. Ms. Wu, or more appropriately Dr. Wu, looks as though she might be an actress or an artist or a daughter of wealth in search of Occidental culture. She could be quiet and shy in front of strangers, but very confident and alert in front of physicists and graduate students. China is always on her mind. She was so passionate and excited whenever “China” and “democracy” were referred to, as democracy meant so much in the 1940s. She is preparing to return and contribute to the rebuilding of China.”

Not long after, in 1942, Chien-Shiung was offered a position as an assistant professor at Smith College in Massachusetts. Shortly after, with Ernest Lawrence’s recommendation, she became an Associate Professor of Physics at Princeton University, the first female faculty member in the department’s history. And in 1945, she moved to Columbia University, where she would work for the rest of her career and become the first female tenured physics professor in university history.

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu stands in a laboratory among complex experimental physics apparatus. She is smiling, looking directly at the camera, and dressed in a white lab coat over traditional clothing. The background is filled with an array of scientific equipment including stands, tubes, and wires indicative of mid-20th century experimental physics research.
Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, 1963

Throughout her career, Chien-Shiung would often work twelve hour days, conducting important and significant research on a number of topics that impacted physics and even biology and medicine. She would disprove what people thought to be fact, about which she would we say, “It is the courage to doubt what has long been established, the incessant search for its verification and proof, that pushed the wheel of science forward.” And she would have findings that would bring new knowledge to science. Among the many awards and honors she would receive for her work, Chien-Shiung became the President of the American Physical Society.

Chien-Shiung passed away in 1997.

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“Physicist Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu” Sources:

Barbara Jordan: Voice of Democracy and Justice

Black and white portrait of Barbara Jordan with a confident smile, short curly hair, and wearing pearl earrings. She is dressed in a dark blazer with a white collared shirt underneath.
Barbara Jordan

In the early 1970s, the United States was embroiled in Watergate, a political scandal following a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. This event led to the discovery of multiple abuses of power by President Nixon’s administration and a subsequent cover-up. As the House Judiciary Committee began its impeachment inquiry against President Nixon, Barbara Jordan, a junior committee member, delivered her statement on national television.

Speaking with authority, clarity, and deep respect for the Constitution, she outlined the impeachment process and the constitutional foundation for it. Barbara began by emphasizing the importance of the inquiry, not just for the present but for preserving constitutional democracy for future generations. She made it clear that impeachment was not about partisan politics but about upholding the principles of the Constitution. She stated, “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”

Barbara’s speech became one of the most memorable in American political history and profoundly impacted the nation. It reminded Americans of the importance of the rule of law and the checks and balances embedded in the Constitution. And her eloquence, intelligence, and moral authority brought clarity to a complex issue, earning her widespread admiration from the public and her colleagues in Congress.

Shortly after the speech, Barbara shared why she chose to vote for impeachment,

“Listen, I get goose pimples over the National Anthem and ‘God Bless America.’ I don’t apologize for it. I feel very keenly about the necessity for this country to survive…having as its supreme law a constitution which remains inviolate. I feel this quite strongly.

The long-range hope I have for this country is that it will grow stronger and that everybody can feel that they’re in it, that it really does belong to us. There are many of my constituents who are black and are poor who still do not feel that this country belongs to them, that the deal they have gotten is sour…I want to see the day when we—everybody—can feel like we belong here, that this country has to survive because we have to survive…I’d like to see that happen, but it takes strong, moral leadership from the top.”

For Barbara, who was not yet 40 years old at the time, it was a moment years in the making and marked the beginning of her rise to national fame.

Early Years

Barbara was born in Houston, Texas, on February 21, 1936. She was the youngest of three daughters born to Benjamin, a Baptist minister, and Arlyne, a domestic worker…

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Frida Kahlo on Mastering Painting

“To paint is the most terrific thing that there is, but to do it well is very difficult. It is necessary…to learn the skill very well, to have very strict self-discipline and above all to have love, to feel a great love for painting.”

– Frida Kahlo

1932 black and white photograph of Frida Kahlo with a stern expression, gazing directly into the camera. She has dark hair parted in the middle and slicked back into a bun. Her traditional earrings and multiple necklaces add a decorative touch to her simple yet elegant shawl draped over her shoulders.
Frida Kahlo, 1932

Notes

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Sources

James Reese Europe: A Musical Genius

 

“He was a plain, simply straight gentleman, never realizing his own value. He had a good word to say for everyone, and his money was freely given to those in need.”

A portrait of a James Reese Europe wearing glasses and in American military officer uniform from World War I, looking directly at the camera.
James Reese Europe, 1919

Introduction

The music was called ragtime, and in late 19th and early 20th century America, it soared in popularity, leading to a dance craze in the country. By the late 1910s, the genre was evolving into what we know today as jazz.

One of the most well-known musicians in both was James Reese Europe. He would become a pivotal figure in American music history, with some referring to him as the “King of Jazz,” while one musician said about James, “He was our benefactor and inspiration. Even more, he was the Martin Luther King of music.”

Early Life of James Reese Europe

James was born on February 22, 1880, in Mobile, Alabama, and moved to Washington, D.C., with his family as his father wanted to live in a place with more opportunities for his children. There, he showed early musical talent, which his musician father, who was described as a man who “could play about everything that would emit a sound when properly coaxed,” helped develop. James learned to play the violin and piano and showed a prodigious talent for composition and arrangement.

Career

As James entered adulthood, New York City at the time offered the most opportunities for black Americans in music. “Next season’s bookings show a general rise in salaries,” wrote one journalist in a publication. Such commentaries were the norm. For many black Americans, New York was now the center of music and entertainment.

James left Washington, D.C., to go to New York to earn money and pursue a music career in the early 1900s. But success did not come easily or quickly for him. He auditioned in numerous places as a violin player, and while people raved about his ability, no offers came in. James realized that though the violin was his best and favorite musical instrument to play, it wasn’t in popular demand. In need of money, he decided to audition playing the mandolin instead. Soon, he had consistent work.

As James grew into a central figure in the music scene, he wanted to help black musicians thrive. He wrote,

“I firmly believe that there is a big field for the development of negro music in America. We already have a number of composers of great ability, two of the foremost being Harry Burleigh and Will Marion Cook. … I believe it is in the creation of an entirely new school of music, a school developed from the basic negro rhythm and melodies. The negro is essentially a melodist, and his creation must be in the beautifying and enriching of the melodies which have become his.”

In 1910, he founded the Clef Club, a society for black American musicians in New York City. The Clef Club was a social organization, union, and booking agency providing its members with opportunities to perform in prestigious venues. Under James’ leadership, one of the most notable achievements of the Clef Club Orchestra was their performance at Carnegie Hall in 1912. This event marked the first time a predominantly black American music ensemble performed at the prestigious venue.

Military Service and the Harlem Hellfighters

“If I could, I would not. My country calls me and I must answer; and if I live to come back, I will startle the world with my music.” – James Reese Europe, responding to a friend who asked, “Is there no way you could get out of the army and stay in New York?”

During World War I, James served as a lieutenant in the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” They were a black-American regiment that left the U.S. with about 2,000 men. Only about 800 would return, and about 170 received citations for bravery.

James commanded a machine gun company and led the Harlem Hellfighters band, about which one said, “All Americans swore, and some Frenchmen admitted, was the best military band in the world.” The band’s performances were wildly popular, and played a significant role in spreading the jazz movement internationally.

A black-and-white historical photograph of James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters band performing in a courtyard of a Paris hospital for wounded American soldiers, with onlookers and buildings in the background.
James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters playing in a courtyard of a hospital for wounded American soldiers in Paris, 1918.

Conclusion

James became a pioneer in many respects. He was instrumental in bringing black American music to broader audiences and legitimizing ragtime and early jazz as serious musical forms. His compositions and arrangements blended classical music techniques with the rhythms and styles of black American folk and popular music, creating a unique and compelling sound that was sophisticated and accessible. He also broke racial barriers, laying the groundwork for future generations of musicians.

Unfortunately, James’ life was tragically cut short when he was stabbed to death by a member of his orchestra in 1919.

Notes

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“James Reese Europe: A Musical Genius” Story Sources

Margaret Bourke-White: A Snapshot Biography

Black and white photograph of Margaret Bourke-White smiling, with crossed hands and wearing a suit with a leaf-patterned brooch.
Margaret Bourke-White, 1955

Margaret Bourke-White was “Maggie the Indestructible” to colleagues at Life Magazine. It was a well-earned nickname for the brave photographer.

But while Margaret seemed to photograph everything and everywhere and did so with a fearless attitude, the work came with rigors and emotional challenges. “Sometimes I come away from what I have been photographing sick at heart, with the faces of people in pain etched as sharply in my mind as on my negatives. But I go back because I feel it is my place to take such pictures. To discover and disclose is essential, and that’s what stirs me when I look through the camera,” Margaret once said to a colleague.

For Margaret, hard work, doing what was right, and overcoming fear were all values instilled by her parents growing up. She would say, “Learning to do things fearlessly was considered important by both my parents. Mother had begun when I was quite tiny to help me over my childish terrors, devising simple little games to teach me not to be afraid of the dark, encouraging me to enjoy being alone instead of dreading it, as so many children and some adults do.”

The hard work example she would see in her father. “Father was the personification of the absent-minded inventor. I ate with him in restaurants where he left his meal untouched and drew sketches on the tablecloth. At home he sat silent in his big chair, his thoughts traveling, I suppose, through some intricate mesh of gears and camshafts. If someone spoke he did not hear. His ink rollers and pressure cylinders traveled with him even into his dreams. Mother, who understood him very well (but suffered through his silence: I can still hear her plaintive, I can still hear her plaintive, ‘If only Father would talk more.’), kept pad and pencil always by his bedside for those moments when he would wake for an instant, jot down some arcs and swirls, and fall back asleep. On Sundays, only his back was visible as he stooped over his drawing board.”

Her work as a photographer came into Margaret’s life a bit by chance. While attending the University of Michigan, she took a position as a photographer for the student yearbook. Her work there was highly praised. Shortly after, she told a professor, “I should like to be a news photographer-reporter and a good one.”

After graduating college, Margaret opened a small studio. She took on jobs photographing steel mills, a joy she credited to her father, saying, “I was sure my feeling of at-homeness with machinery was something I had absorbed as a youngster on those shining occasions when he had taken me through factories. My love for industrial form and pattern was his unconscious gift.”

Despite facing skepticism about her ability to withstand the harsh conditions of a steel mill due to her gender and the technical challenges of photographing in an environment with intense heat and light conditions that were not conducive to the black-and-white film of the era, Margaret demonstrated remarkable tenacity and ingenuity. She solved the problem of capturing the beauty of the steel-making process by using magnesium flares to produce white light, which allowed her to take some of the most iconic steel factory photographs of that time.

Margaret became known for her work photographing steel mills. And her photographs would also open the door to what would become a workplace for the rest of her career.

“HAVE JUST SEEN YOUR STEEL PHOTOGRAPHS. CAN YOU COME TO NEW YORK WITHIN WEEK AT OUR EXPENSE.” – Telegram from Henry Luce, which he signed, HENRY R. LUCE, TIME, THE WEEKLY NEWS MAGAZINE

Photographs were not yet an essential part of magazines. Henry Luce wanted to change that. He aimed to create a magazine in which, as Margaret wrote in her autobiography, “pictures and words should be conscious partners.” Henry invited Margaret to join the new magazine he was starting, Fortune.

“I feel as if the world has been opened up and I hold all the keys,” Margaret said upon arriving home from meeting Henry and hearing his vision. She accepted his offer and, in 1929, became the first foreign correspondent for Fortune magazine.

This position catapulted her into a groundbreaking role: she was the first Western photographer allowed into the Soviet Union, capturing the industrialization under Joseph Stalin in the early 1930s. For Margaret, the experience was typical of one of her guiding life philosophies. As she would write, “Nothing attracts me like a closed door. I cannot let my camera rest until I have pried it open, and I wanted to be first.”

In 1936, Henry Luce invited Margaret to work for Life Magazine, a new photograph-focused publication he was starting. It was here that Margaret’s transition from photographing machines to people happened during an assignment photographing the impact of the mid-1930s drought from the Dust Bowl in the U.S. She wrote about the experience,

“I had never seen people caught helplessly like this in total tragedy. They had no defense. They had no plan.”

And,

“Suddenly it was the people who counted. Here in the Dakotas with these farmers, I saw everything in a new light. How could I tell it all in pictures? Here were faces engraved with the very paralysis of despair. These were faces I could not pass by.”

This newfound interest in photographing people became an essential part of her work shortly after when she took on assignments during World War II, in a role that also made her the first female war correspondent and the first woman allowed to work in combat zones. Here, her powerful images from the front lines, including the liberation of German concentration camps, brought the realities of war into the public eye like never before.

These images, however, were emotionally difficult for Margaret to take. She wrote about the experience,

“People often ask me how it is possible to photograph such atrocities. I have to work with a veil over my mind. In photographing the murder camps, the protective veil was so tightly drawn that I hardly knew what I had taken until I saw prints of my own photographs. It was as though I was seeing these horrors for the first time. I believe many correspondents worked in the same self-imposed stupor. One has to, or it is impossible to stand it.

Difficult as these things may be to report or to photograph, it is something we war correspondents must do. We are in a privileged and sometimes unhappy position. We see a great deal of the world. Our obligation is to pass it on to others.”

She would continue photographing from conflict zones for many years after, taking the same fearless approach and philosophy.

At 49 years old, Margaret was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She kept the information a secret out of fear it would impact assignments that she might be given. Instead, Margaret began to exercise more and wake up earlier to give herself more time to get to places.

In hindsight, Margaret wrote that she wished she told people. “I found that many of my friends knew all about it – in some cases they knew more than I. They were distressed most by not knowing how to help me. I was surrounded by a wall of loving silence which no one dared to break through,” she wrote.

Margaret continued working for nearly two decades until retiring from Life Magazine in 1969. She passed away two years later.

Note:

Read a snapshot biography of Susanna Madora Salter, who became the first female mayor in the United States when she was elected in Argonia, Kansas, in 1887.

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Dr. Albert Sabin’s Polio Vaccine Legacy

“A lot of people insisted that I should patent the vaccine, but I didn’t want to do that. It’s my gift to all the world’s children.” – Dr. Albert Sabin

Black and white portrait of Dr. Albert Sabin in his elderly years, with white hair, glasses, a mustache, and wearing a suit with a tie and a lapel pin.
Dr. Albert Sabin

Polio terrified Americans and many worldwide in the mid-20th century as it ravaged society, often impacting young children in debilitating ways. In one of the worst years in the U.S., 1952 saw about 60,000 children infected, 21,000 paralyzed, and over 3,000 passed away.

Then came a vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. It was the first effective one, turning a feared global epidemic into a preventable disease. However, it had drawbacks, particularly in requiring the vaccine to be administered via injection, which could be logistically challenging.

Dr. Albert Sabin, who had been researching polio for nearly three decades, devised a solution to the problem. He introduced a vaccine that used a weakened form of the poliovirus and could be taken orally, on a sugar lump for children in particular. This made it easier to distribute and administer, especially in areas with limited medical infrastructure. It became the backbone of global polio eradication efforts, particularly in the developing world.

For Albert, an immigrant to the U.S. from Russia (Poland today), this achievement was arguably his most important as a researcher on viruses and viral diseases. He continued his research while taking on other social causes, including inequality and hunger. About the latter, Albert would say,

“Unfortunately, nations are not guided by love and reason. Consequently we must find a common enemy. That enemy is poverty, disease, and despair.…Just like this nation learned 100 years ago that it cannot survive half free and half slave, the world must now realize that we cannot survive one-third fed and two-thirds starved.”

Albert passed away at the age of 86 in 1993.

Notes

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Click here to read a snapshot biography of Dr. Jonas Salk.

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