In 1963, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., President Lyndon Johnson awarded singer Marian Anderson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a president can give to a civilian (someone not in the military). He explained why this African American musician was being honored: “Artist and citizen, she has ennobled her race and her country, while her voice has enthralled the world.”
Twenty-four years earlier, however, some in Washington weren’t interested in honoring her but instead treated her unfairly. By then, she had given wonderful concerts of classical music in Europe and the United States, including at the White House. But in 1939, when a local university tried to have her perform at Constitution Hall, Washington’s concert hall, the managers of Constitution Hall wouldn’t let her, just because of the color of her skin.
Eleanor Roosevelt, President Franklin Roosevelt’s wife, was upset by this example of discrimination against African Americans and arranged for Marian Anderson to perform that spring at the Lincoln Memorial. More than 75,000 people filled the area in front of the memorial to hear Marian Anderson sing. Thousands more around the country listened on radio to a live broadcast of the performance. She started by singing “America,” then sang some classical pieces, and ended with spirituals, including “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Newspapers and magazines wrote rave reviews, which let thousands more people learn about the dignified and courageous way she had triumphed over discrimination. Four years later, in 1943, she was at last invited to perform at Constitution Hall.
Did this end unfair treatment for this singer? Not exactly. In 1953, Marian Anderson was again denied permission to perform at a concert hall, this time by the Lyric Theater in Baltimore, Maryland. Luckily, this city’s music- and freedom-loving citizens came to her defense. Some wrote letters to newspapers complaining about “this insult to a great American singer.” Others threatened never to go to that concert hall again. Hundreds complained directly to the Lyric’s managers. Finally, Maryland’s commission on interracial relations persuaded the Lyric’s owners to let Marion Anderson perform there on January 8, 1954. The hall was filled to overflowing with her enthusiastic fans.
Ten years later, racial discrimination in concert halls finally became illegal. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin at any place that serves the public, including concert halls, theaters, stadiums, restaurants, hotels, and anywhere else.
Source notes for this Minute may be found be clicking here.
Amy Nathan is the author of Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement, which tells about many little-known and yet important stories in civil rights history, including the story of Marian Anderson being the first African American to perform at Baltimore’s Lyric Theater in January 1954, and also the story about the merry-go-round that’s located not far from where Marian Anderson gave her famous 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Victory." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 27 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
What do the words on this list have in common?
Hint: They describe an amusement park attraction that goes round and round.
As you probably guessed, they’re names people have used for a ride you may call a merry-go-round or carousel. No matter their names, these rides have roots in the days of knights in shining armor.
Nearly a thousand years ago, European knights traveled to the Middle East to fight in the Crusades. They saw Turkish and Arabian fighters training in an unusual way: galloping on horseback in a circle while tossing balls to each other, to become more skilled horsemen. European knights named this a “carosella,” an old Spanish word for “little war.” When they returned home, they began having “carosella” contests as part of their tournaments. The French called these contests “carrousels.”
By the 1600s, carrousel contests changed to having knights use a long lance to spear a metal ring dangling from a tree or post overhead. In the late 1600s, some young French knights began using pretend carrousels to practice ring-spearing. Wooden horses or small chariots—arranged in a circle—were raised up in the air, attached by strong chains to wooden bars jutting out near the top of a tall pole in the center of the circle. Men on the ground (or a real horse) would pull the wooden horses so they would circle around the pole, as riders practiced spearing rings dangling from above.
By the 1700s, rides like this started being built just for fun, not as knight training. They became popular in Europe and really took off in the United States in the late 1800s when newly invented steam engines began powering them. These engines provided much more power than a worker or horse could. So bigger carousels with more wooden animals could be built. No longer suspended in midair, the animals were attached to round wooden platforms.
Most merry-go-rounds today are powered by electricity, not steam engines. Many carousel animals created now are made of aluminum or fiberglass, but some are still carved from wood. Of the more than 350 carousels operating in the U.S., more than 200 are old-time classics with wooden animals. A few carousels even let riders try to snag an overhead ring as they circle round and round.
Click here for a listing of carousels in the U.S. today.
Sources for this article may be found on the author's website
Amy Nathan is the author of Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round into the Civil Rights Movement, which tells the surprising civil rights history behind one of the classic wooden merry-go-rounds that still offer rides every day—the Carousel on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Knight Time Fun." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 18 May 2018,
When musicians play a lively tune, they often find themselves spontaneously tapping their toes and moving about to the pulsing beat. But when Ellen Ochoa played her flute at work one day in 1993, she couldn’t be spontaneous at all. If she hadn’t made careful plans, she could have been blown about the room, just by playing one long note on her flute. That’s because she was an astronaut working on the U.S. Space Shuttle as it circled Earth more than a hundred miles out in space.
Gravity is so weak far out in space that astronauts—and any of their gear that isn’t fastened down—will float about inside a space craft. Blowing air into her flute could have created enough force to actually send Ochoa zipping about the space shuttle cabin. So, to keep herself in place as she played, she had to slip her feet into strong loops attached to the floor.
Dr. Ochoa, now the director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, was the first U.S. astronaut to bring a flute on a space mission, but she wasn’t the first to make music in space. Nearly thirty years earlier, in December 1965, two astronauts onboard the Gemini 6 space craft played a musical joke on mission control officials down on Earth. Those astronauts—Walter M. Schirra, Jr., and Thomas P. Stafford—told mission control that they saw an unusual object near their spaceship, a satellite perhaps, moving from North to South. They said they would try to pick up some sound from this mysterious object. Then they used the harmonica and bells they had secretly brought with them on that December mission to surprise folks listening down below by playing “Jingle Bells.”
In recent years, other astronauts have brought musical instruments on space missions to help lift their spirits, especially those who spend many months on the International Space Station. Like Dr. Ochoa, these astronaut musicians have to make adjustments, such as using a bungee cord to attach an electronic piano keyboard to a pianist’s leg.
Some astronauts have composed music in space, including Canadian Chris Hadfield. On May 6, 2013, he sang the song he wrote—called “I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing)”—in a live TV broadcast from the space station as thousands of Canadian schoolchildren sang along with him down on Earth. Click here for a recording of that space-to-Earth performance
Learning to play an instrument can be fun and, at times, frustrating. Amy Nathan's lively book helps young people cope with the difficulties involved in learning a new instrument and remaining dedicated to playing and practicing. Teens from renowned music programs - including the Juilliard School's Pre-College Program and Boston University's Tanglewood Institute - join pro musicians in offering practical answers to questions from what instrument to play to where the musical road may lead. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Music That's Out of This World." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 11 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Stories About Regular Folks Doing Remarkable Things
I learned about the Caterpillar Club when I interviewed some flying WASPs—not the kind that buzz around on tiny wings. These WASPs were airplane pilots, the first women to fly for the United States military. They served during World War II: the Women Airforce Service Pilots (or WASP, for short).
The Caterpillar Club they told me about was named for silkworm caterpillars that helped save pilots’ lives. If a plane developed engine trouble in midair, pilots could float to safety by using a parachute made from silk, a lightweight cloth that silkworm caterpillars help create. These caterpillars use a spit-like substance in their mouths to spin a long silk thread that they wrap around themselves, forming a cocoon that they live in for several weeks until they become moths. Those long silk threads can then be unwound from the cocoons and woven together to make silk cloth.
About twenty years before World War II, a parachute company started the Caterpillar Club for people whose lives were saved by using a parachute to escape from a disabled plane. People could write to the company about their parachute rescue, pay a membership fee, and the company would send them a little caterpillar pin.
However, the WASP pilots I spoke with said that some pilots liked to feel they were part of the Caterpillar Club even if it wasn’t an aircraft’s fault that led them to use a parachute. During World War II, pilots—both men and women—trained to fly military aircraft for the Army in small open planes. The planes didn’t have a roof. If a nervous pilot-in-training forgot to buckle the seat belt and the plane tipped over, the pilot could fall out! Fortunately, they always wore a parachute. Landing safely—thanks to the parachute—not only let them feel part of the Caterpillar Club, but also helped the students remember to never, ever forget to buckle up again.
However, by World War II, many parachutes used by U.S. pilots weren’t made of silk. The silk-producing areas of the world were controlled then by Japan, which the U.S. was fighting in this war. Because U.S. companies could no longer get silk cloth, they began making parachutes from a new material scientists had just invented—nylon. Most parachutes are made of nylon today. Even so, the Caterpillar Club lives on.
Click here for source notes on this article.
If you are interested in finding out more about the WASPs, Amy Nathan has written a book on the subject. Through firsthand accounts, she tells how these early pilots they test-flew newly repaired aircraft, dragged banners behind their planes so male trainees could practice shooting moving targets with live ammunition (!), and ferried all kinds of aircraft from factories to military bases.
Yankee Doodle Gals will give you a new look at World War II and show you just how dramatically society has changed since then. Click here for more information.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Caterpillars to the Rescue." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 20
Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
The song “We Shall Overcome” was an important part of the civil rights movement of the 1960's. It gave hope and courage to thousands of blacks and whites who protested peacefully against unfair treatment of African Americans. The song is easy to sing, but its words carry a powerful message. Here’s its main verse:
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome some day,
Oh, deep in my heart I do believe
We shall overcome some day.
Often protestors faced hostile crowds, were arrested, or even beaten up when they took part in nonviolent demonstrations that called for all Americans—no matter their skin color—to have the same right to vote and be treated fairly in restaurants, stores, businesses, schools, buses, trains—and even amusement parks.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a main leader of the civil rights movement, urged demonstrators not to fight back, no matter how badly they were treated. This song helped them do that. Holding hands and joining their voices in “We Shall Overcome” during demonstrations—or in jail—helped them feel they weren’t alone and that despite the danger, their efforts would lead to a better America.
The protests did indeed lead to new laws being passed. The 1964 Civil Rights Law makes it illegal for any business that serves the public to discriminate against people because of race, religion, gender, or national origin. The 1965 Voting Rights Law outlaws rules that make it hard for blacks to vote.
News about these nonviolent protestors—and their song—spread around the world. Before long, people protesting for fair treatment in other countries began singing “We Shall Overcome” in their own languages. It has been sung by demonstrators in such varied countries as India, Czechoslovakia, Romania, China, and Britain.
While I was doing research for a book on civil rights, a man told me how the song helped him when he was surrounded by a hostile mob that hurled insults (and some rocks) during a 1963 demonstration at an amusement park that refused to let in blacks. When police arrived to arrest the protestors (not the stone thrower), the demonstrators held hands and sang the song as they walked through the mob to the police van. Their voices were shaky as they sang the verse “We are not afraid,” because they were very afraid, but the song gave them the courage to keep going.
Click here for source notes on this article.
Amy Nathan is the author of Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round into the Civil Rights Movement, which tells the tale of the nearly ten years of protests that were needed to finally end segregation at an amusement park, placing the story of the park—and its merry-go-round—within the context of the civil rights movement as a whole. For more information on the book, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "'We Shall Overcome': The Power of a Song." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 23 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
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