The United States, in the 1880s, had become an industrial power in the world, but factory workers could hardly feed their families. Miners spent long days down in the dangerous dark, digging a wealth of coal out of the earth, yet they were dirt-poor. Farm families were going broke too. They barely had the money to pay rich bankers the interest on loans they took out to buy seeds or to pay what the railroad charged to ship the crops that hadn’t dried up in a drought or got gobbled by hungry grasshoppers. Many a broke homesteader went back east. Lettered on the covers of their wagons: “IN GOD WE TRUSTED. IN KANSAS WE BUSTED!”
Mary E. Lease, a Pennsylvania schoolteacher, went to Kansas, but she stayed there. And she was among the multitudes, who wondered why so many Americans were so poor in a country that was so rich? Where was the money going? Judging from what she read in the papers and heard down at the general store, the money seemed to be in the pockets of men who owned the mines, factories, railroads, and banks. And rather than pay people decent wages, they seemed to be paying politicians to make laws to help them stay rich and get richer. Sound familiar?
In the early 1890s, folks got together and formed their own “People’s (or Populist) Party.” What did they want? Fairness, more government regulations, less silver, and more printed paper money. It wouldn’t be worth as much; but at least there’d be more of it to go around! And right in the middle of this uprising was fiery Mrs. Lease.
At rallies around the Midwest, the South, even at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Mrs. Lease whipped up the crowds, crying out, “We are for humanity against the corporations – for perishing flesh and blood against the money bags!” People called her a “Patrick Henry in petticoats,” after the great Revolutionary War speechmaker. “Wall Street owns the country. When I get through with the silk-hatted easterners, they will know that the Kansas prairies are on fire!”
Oh, they knew it all right, for a while anyway. While it raged, this political tornado blew nine Populists into Congress. But the people’s movement fizzled out in the early 1900s. At least old Mrs. Lease lived to see some populist dreams come true. In the early 1930s, when so many Americans hit bottom, Franklin D. Roosevelt became President. Under FDR’s “New Deal” policies, the people got help from their very own government and the Wall Street banks and businesses were reined for a considerable time. Ah, but they’ve regained much of their former power and Mary E. Lease lies restless in her grave.
The perfect browsing volume for Women's History Month, Cheryl Harness's Rabble Rousers offers short, spirited profiles of twenty women who, like Mary E. Lease, impacted life in America by speaking out against injustice and fighting for social improvements. The folksy, friendly narrative introduces such fascinating figures as Sojourner Truth, abolitionist preacher; Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a Civil War physician; Margaret Sanger, birth control pioneer; and Doris Haddock, a ninety-two-year-old champion of campaign-finance reform. The book spans over two hundred years of American history and includes time lines for such important social movements as abolition, woman suffrage, labor, and civil rights. Readers inspired by these fiery women can use the civil action tips and resources in the back of the book to do some of their own rabble-rousing. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Mary E. Lease: Queen of the Populist Tornado." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 12 Apr. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Nonfiction is the new black
When he was a young man in his mid-twenties, future Roman leader Julius Caesar was voyaging across the Mediterranean Sea. Pirates swarmed over his ship. They took him to their base on tiny Farmakonisi Island, which lies off the coast of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), and held him for ransom.
When he learned how much the pirates were demanding for his release, Caesar laughed. Do you have any idea who I am, he asked. I belong to one of Rome’s most important families. So you can get more money for me—a lot more—almost three times as much. The astonished pirates were only too happy to oblige him.
Keeping a friend and two servants with him on Farmakonisi, Caesar ordered the rest of his traveling party to go to Asia Minor and raise his ransom. While they were doing that, Caesar acted as if he were the ruler of the tiny island, rather than a captive cowering in fright. He ordered the pirates to attend lectures and poetry readings he gave, and prodded those who nodded off as he droned on and on and on. When he wanted to sleep, he ordered the pirates to either speak in whispers or go to another part of the island. He even played games with them. He also told them that when he was released, I promise I will hunt you down and execute you. In the spirit of bonhomie he engendered, the pirates apparently thought he was joking.
He wasn’t. Though outwardly he was friendly with the pirates, he seethed inwardly at the humiliation of being taken prisoner. After the ransom was paid, Caesar sailed to a nearby port. He raised a fleet of ships and scores of armed men. He returned to Farmakonisi, captured the pirates, and reclaimed the ransom money. He threw his former captors into prison. They didn’t stay there long. Caesar crucified them. He did show some mercy. Since crucifixion was a long, lingering death, he cut their throats so they died instantly.
Jim Whiting has written on many subjects. Check out his page on Amazon.com
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "A Man of His Word." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 26 Mar.
Why is Black History Month celebrated in February?
The answer is really quite love-ly.
For Black people enslaved, a birthday was as hard to come by as justice. But, never one to be outdone by the “impossible,” Frederick Bailey wanted a birthday—and a birthday he was going to have. First, he'd have to find out when it was.
He’d heard that his father was the slave owner from whom he'd escaped, so he couldn't ask him. His mother, Harriet Bailey, had been sold away from him when he was only five, so he couldn't ask her. But, he could remember stories she'd told him before they’d been separated.
She said he was born on a Maryland plantation in the ‘teens. He chose the mid-teens, 1818, for his birth year. She always called him her “little valentine.” He chose Valentine’s Day for his birth date. With that, Frederick finally had the birthday he'd always wanted: February 14, 1818.
Then . . .
In 1926, Dr. Carter G. Woodson wanted to solve a problem. For centuries, Americans were taught to believe that African Americans had “no history or culture.” Now that is, of course, impossible. Everyone inherits the history and culture of their family elders. But, this horrific idea was used to justify slavery and segregation by making Black people seem less than human.
Dr. Woodson had a better idea: he’d tell the truth. He would research and share the true history of Black people in countries throughout the world over.
To promote his idea, he created Negro History Week (now, Black History Month). He chose February in honor of two birthdays. Born on February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln was the first American president to take action to end slavery. Born on February 14, 1818 Harriet Bailey’s “little Valentine's” became the noted Underground Railroad conductor, abolitionist, and publisher, Frederick Douglass. As a special adviser to President Lincoln, he proposed—and the president wrote and signed—the “Emancipation Proclamation”; ending slavery.
Such is the power of love.
We never know how we will remember what our parents say or what their words will mean to us when we need them most. Frederick's mother—an enslaved woman with so little to give—empowered her son for life with the gift of her enduring love.
For this love-ly reason, February is Black History Month.
Frederick Bailey's mother was sold to a new owner, leaving the 5-year-old behind. This was a common practice in the slavery era.
Abraham Lincoln's successful campaign to end slavery in the United States culminated in the Emancipation Declaration of 1863. Alexander Gardner via Wikimedia Commons
;In 1926, Carter G. Woodson (left) shown here as a young man, pioneered the celebration of "Negro History Week" during the second week in February, to coincide with marking the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (above) and Frederick Douglass (right). Black United Students and Black educators at Kent State University expanded the celebration to become Black History Month on February 1, 1970. Woodson Courtesy of the New River Gorge National River website, National Park Service, Department of the Interior, United States Government; Douglass via Wikimedia Commons.
Janus Adams has produced Steal Away-- a package of a book, an audio and a game about the Underground Railroad. You can learn more about her award-winning series of adventure and travel books, audios and games on her website called Back Pax Kids.
MLA 8 Citation
Adams, Janus. "Title tbd." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 28 Feb. 2018,
Giving Voice to Children in History
In 1843, thirty-one-year-old Charles Dickens had money problems. His wife was expecting their sixth child, he was in debt, and he supported a slew of needy relatives. He was known for long novels that were published in weekly installments, but because time was of the essence, he decided to write a short story (actually a long story by our standards, but short by his) that he could publish quickly.
The British were enamored with the paranormal, so he decided it would be a ghost story. To increase interest, he included THREE ghosts. And to seal the deal, he added a bonus apparition that appeared at the stroke of midnight, dragging its chains from hell. That would get readers’ attention.
He didn’t intend to simply entertain them. He was Charles Dickens, after all, and his writing was also meant to inspire. His family had once been poor, and his quest, as always, was to help the less fortunate. The tale he crafted happened at Christmas, a holiday that in England included charitable giving—the perfect setting for his message that charity must come from the heart, and that it’s never too late for redemption.
From his fertile imagination he conjured up Ebenezer Scrooge, “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” whose refrain to anything distasteful was “Bah, Humbug!” Scrooge represented the self-serving upper classes, while his poorly paid clerk, Bob Cratchit, and his family, including sickly Tiny Tim, represent the deserving poor.
Dickens sent Scrooge on a wild night’s journey, led by the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future. Scrooge visited his childhood and learned why he’d become such a miserable miser, and he saw a grim future awaiting him if he didn’t change his ways. By sunrise Christmas morning he was a new man: his hard heart had melted and he became a good friend to the poor, beginning with the Cratchit family. He resolved to “honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”
To Dickens’ delight, his readers did the same. In example after example, A Christmas Carol inspired the upper classes to be more charitable to the lower classes. And because the book became a bestseller, it eased Dickens’ financial worries.
Dickens’ ghost story remains popular today, reminding us all that it’s never too late to do the right thing, and allowing us to proclaim with Tiny Tim, “God Bless Us, Every One!”
You can learn more about Charles Dickens and his stories in Andrea Warren’s book Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London and on her website.
Andrea Warren is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Warren, Andrea. "Dickens' A Christmas Carol: How a Short Story with a Big Message Helped the Poor." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 12 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/Dickens-a-christmas-carol.