Every year, many thousands of visitors to Washington DC make their way to the crossing of 8th and F Streets, to an enormous building with many columns. Once it was the US Patent Office Building. Now it’s the Smithsonian American Art Museum. And there, up on the third floor, those visitors might well admire a BIG statue of Egypt’s Cleopatra VII, at the moment when she was dying in the summer of 30 B.C. She was carved in Italy, out of snow-white marble.
When people first saw it in Philadelphia, in 1876, at America’s big 100th birthday party, they were so surprised to discover that the sculptor was a woman! Still more unusual, she was an African American. Her name was Mary Edmonia Lewis.
Her ancestors came from Africa, Haiti, and the Native American Ojibwa (or Chippewa) tribe. She grew up in western New York. With money her big brother made mining for gold out west, talented Edmonia went to Ohio’s Oberlin College, but not for long. Two white girls there lied, saying she tried to poison them, then a bunch of people beat her up. So her brother helped her settle in Boston, where she learned to sculpt. By age 20, Ms. Lewis had her own sculpture studio. She was so successful that she was able to leave racist, Civil War-torn America in 1865, to sculpt and study in Rome. When she heard the glorious news that the war was over and America’s slaves were emancipated, she celebrated by sculpting an African American man and woman, unchained.
In the years after she created her dying Cleopatra, both the artist and her masterpiece were lost to history. But now we know that Ms. Lewis ended her days in England, in 1907. Her Cleopatra wound up in Washington DC.
But there’s a little more to tell.
About the time Ms. Lewis left for Italy, President Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Ball was held, March 6, 1865, at the old Patent Office Building when it was new. Little did he know that, in about five weeks, he’d be mortally wounded over at Ford’s Theatre. Or that the building where he and his wife were dancing would be a treasure house of art, including a dying queen sculpted by a great African American artist.
The multi-talented hands of Cheryl Harness create another winning combination of history, biography, and illustration in George Washington Carver and Science & Invention in America, the inspiring story of a man who rose from slavery to worldwide fame as America’s plant doctor. Cheryl Harness’ lively narrative follows Carver as he pioneers hundreds of new uses for plants and revolutionizes American agriculture. Her vivid illustrations are an invitation to step back in time and become an active participant in this compelling story.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Edmonia's Statues." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 29 May
Kerrie Logan Hollihan
Teaching the Power of Wonder
Often we think of Memorial Day as a day for parades, picnics, and opening swimming pools, but it’s a lot more than a day for celebrating summer’s beginning. In fact, Memorial Day got its start way back during the Civil War, when women from both North and South decorated soldier graves with flowers. This practice spread across the country, and in 1873 New York State was the first to established Memorial Day as a state holiday.
In 1887, the US government made May 30 a Memorial Day holiday for government workers, and most Northern states followed suit. But in the South, this tradition became known as Confederate Memorial Day, which is still celebrated in some of the states that formed the Confederacy during the Civil War. In 1971, Congress declared the fourth Monday in May as Memorial Day, a national holiday.
Well into the 1900s, many called this day “Decoration Day,” and families visited cemeteries to tidy up family graves and plant them with flowers. When American soldiers died during World War I, the celebration evolved from remembering Civil War soldiers to memorialize all our soldiers who fought or died in war. Wherever we are on Memorial Day, we Americans are asked to observe a moment of silence at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, because it is the time when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the national holiday
Across the country this Memorial Day, tiny flags will mark soldier graves, and solemn ceremonies will mark their sacrifice. The US President or Vice President will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. Often “Taps” ring out from bugles in memory of the dead.
Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky.
All is well, safely rest,
God is nigh.
My grandfather, a World War I bugler, played taps for years at a national cemetery in Illinois with Civil War graves of Northern and Confederate soldiers. Grandpa bugled the “echo” from afar as taps was played to close every Memorial Day ceremony.
Grandpa is buried in this cemetery now, and someone else plays taps on Memorial Day. I live far away, but every year I celebrate this day by remembering him. Are there people you think about on Memorial Day?
Kerrie Hollihan's Theodore Roosevelt for Kids brings to life this fascinating man, an American giant whose flaws were there for all the world to see. Twenty-one hands-on activities offer a useful glimpse at Roosevelt’s work and times. Readers will create a Native American toy, explore the effects of erosion, go on a modern big game hunt with a camera, and make felted teddy bears. The text includes a time line, online resources, and reading list for further study. And through it all, readers will appreciate how one man lived a “Bully!” life and made the word his very own.
MLA 8 Citation
Hollihan, Kerrie Logan. "Memorial Day." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25
May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/Memorial-Day.
Nonfiction is the new black
While Cinco de Mayo is not officially a holiday, many U.S. communities celebrate Mexican culture and heritage on May 5 with parades, mariachi music, street festivals, and much more. Most celebrants, though, would probably not be able to tell you what really happened on that date.
After thrusting off centuries of Spanish rule in 1821, Mexico endured several decades of economic and political instability. In 1861, Mexican president Benito Juárez suspended payment of his country’s debts to France, Spain, and Great Britain. The three countries immediately sent warships to Mexico. Juárez negotiated with Spain and Britain and their ships went home. But French emperor Napoleon III saw an opportunity to expand his country’s colonial empire and landed troops at Veracruz. They planned on capturing Mexico City, the capital. The French army at that time was generally regarded as the world’s finest and anticipated little difficulty in reaching its objective.
With the Civil War having just begun, the US government couldn’t divert resources to Mexico. The first target of the invaders was the small town of Puebla de Los Angeles. More than six thousand French troops, supported by cannons, assaulted a ragtag army of inexperienced, ill-equipped Mexican defenders about half that size on May 5, 1862. Somehow the Mexicans overcame their disadvantages and defeated the French.
The following year Napoleon dispatched more than 30,000 soldiers to Mexico. They seized control and installed Austrian archduke Ferdinand Maximilian as emperor of Mexico.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, the US leaned on France to leave Mexico. The final French troops departed two years later. Mexican forces seized Maximilian and executed him.
Today Cinco de Mayo barely causes a ripple in Mexico outside of the province of Puebla. It is not a national holiday so nearly everyone goes to work as usual.
It’s a much bigger deal in the United States, which may be fitting. Some historians believe that if the French had not been defeated at Puebla de Los Angeles and seized Mexico City, Napoleon would have made an alliance with the Confederate States. The Civil War was not going well for the Union at that time and French assistance could well have swung the conflict in the South’s favor. The result would have been two separate nations.
Jim Whiting has written a biography of the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortés. To some people, he was heroic. Even though he was greatly outnumbered, he was able to defeat the Aztec Emperor Montezuma and conquer the Aztec empire centered in modern-day Mexico. To others, including many Mexicans, he was a villain because he destroyed the Aztecs way of life. They believed he was a cruel man. He was also a symbol of Spanish domination. For more information, click here.
Whiting, Jim. "Cinco de Mayo." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 4 May 2018,