Monday, August 28, 2017

Birth of a Nation

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation (1915) played an important role in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1910s and 20s. Based off of the 1905 novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, the film portrayed the Klan, not as the anti-Black terrorist organization that it was, but as the valiant defenders of the Reconstruction-era South. It was seen by over 4 million people in its initial run and approximately 200 million more before World War II thanks subsequent re-releases in 1921, 1922 and 1930. At this same time, the Klan expanded from practically nothing in 1915 to 4 million members at its peak in the mid-1920s.

Even at the time, people recognized that the racially charged film posed a threat to Blacks. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) tried to organize a national boycott out of fear the film would be dangerous. And it was. Not only were Klan recruiters operating just outside the in some towns, in Lafayette, Indiana a white man murdered a black teenager after seeing the movie and there were reports of assaults by gangs of armed white men in other cities. Blacks and their allies organized mass demonstrations against the film in Boston and Philadelphia. The film was banned in Ohio, Colorado, and twelve mid-Western cities on the grounds that it was too inflammatory.

Lyceum Theatre

There was a movement in Elmira to ban the movie here. It was scheduled to open at the Lyceum Theatre on evening of January 3, 1916. On the evening of January 2nd, a group of concerned Black citizens met at the Temperance Hall on Dickinson Street to organize a protest. Like the national NAACP, they were appalled both by the film’s depiction of blacks and its capacity to incite inter-racial conflict.  After some discussion, they formed a committee to draft and present the following petition to the mayor calling for the film to be banned in the city:  

“We, the colored citizens of the city of Elmira, N.Y., protest against the D.W. Griffith photoplay…known as The Birth of a Nation on the grounds that it will embitter and disorganize society, because it has reactionary effects on the political life of the community.  Because it is a travesty on history – a breeder of racial antipathy, magnifying the fault of the colored race, while glorifying the lawlessness of the whites.   Because the producer seems to have followed the principal of gathering together the most vicious and grotesque individuals he could find among the colored people and showing them as representatives of the entire race.  Because it is shown to humiliate and embarrass the blacks and misrepresent a cause to northern whites.  Last but not least, it is contrary to our Lord and Savior, who said “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The committee represented a wide cross section of Elmira’s Black community.  It was chaired by Peter White, a pressman for the Elmira Advertiser newspaper.  From the wealthier end of the spectrum it included Rev. William Coffey, the pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Zion Church, and small business owners Don Cameron (barber) and Walter F. Steward (housepainter).  Other members included James Armstrong, an unskilled laborer; Guy Powell, a railroad porter; and Joseph Thompson, a chauffeur. They hired white attorney Michael O’Connor to help them present their case to Mayor Harry N. Hoffman. 

James Armstrong, unskilled laborer and activist
On January 3rd, every paper in the city ran the petition.  Mayor Hoffman arranged for a special review of the film by City officials in order to evaluate the film.  After careful review, Mayor Hoffman decided to allow the Lyceum to show the film, but demanded that several particularly offensive scenes be cut, including the attempted rape of a white girl by a man in black face.  During the ensuing lawsuit brought by the theater, the attorneys for the city successfully argued the mayor’s right to censor such a morally dangerous film. 
 An unknown number of Chemung County residents saw the film, but it was probably a lot. It ran twice a day for a week and the local trolley lines offered discounted rides to out-of-town movie goers. The reviews in local newspapers were mixed. The Elmira Herald said that the Blacks had just cause to be upset, but warned viewers not to take the movie too seriously. The Elmira Star-Gazette described it as “the most stupendous motion picture spectacle ever attempted,” but conceded the faults of Blacks may have been exaggerated. Only the Elmira Advertiser was unequivocal in its condemnation saying: “as a great spectacular production this photoplay is a success.  As a historical representation of the times and period it is supposed to depict, it is worse than a failure: it is rank libel.”
Program for the Birth of a Nation, shown at Lyceum Theatre, week of January 3, 1916

Monday, August 21, 2017

Breaking the Law on Two Wheels

by Erin Doane, Curator

In 1900, Elmira police made 1,438 arrests. The top three criminal offenses for which people were arrested were intoxication, vagrancy, and violating bicycle ordinance. 107 people were arrested for violating bicycle ordinances. That’s almost 7 percent of all arrests in the city that year. 1900 was the first and only time that bicycle-related criminal activities broke into the top three. So, why was that?

A bicycle gang? No, just the Kanawehola Bicycle Club at Fitch's Bridge in the 1890s.
The years around the turn of the 20th century are seen as the golden age of bicycling. The earliest bicycles first appeared in the early 19th century but bicycling as a craze really takes off after the invention of the safety bicycle in the 1880s. The safety bicycle was an alternative to the penny-farthing which had one giant front wheel and a smaller rear wheel. The safety bicycle was, as its name implies, safer, so more people took up riding as a hobby and as a means of transportation.

Penny-farthing bicycle
"Elmira" model D lady's bicycle made by the Elmira Clipper Chilled Plow Company, c. 1890s
By the 1890s, the city of Elmira had detailed bicycle ordinances in place regulating where and when cyclists could ride their vehicles. Rules that kept cyclists from riding on sidewalks without permits or riding at night without lanterns were made for the sake of public safety. Bicycling can be a dangerous activity for both riders and those who happen to get in their way. On July 17, 1897, the Elmira Star-Gazette reported on two wheelmen, as cyclists were also called, colliding with each other at 10 o’clock at night while riding on the cinder path in front of the table factory in Elmira Heights. One of the men suffered from a fractured cheekbone and a blackened eye while the other was knocked unconscious. Neither bicycle had a lamp.

Brass bicycle lamp
Many of the complaints about bicyclists came from residents in the vicinity of Eldridge Park. The park was a very popular destination for cyclists. It was in the evenings at the end of a concert or play that had been held in the park that problems arose. Cyclists would speed away on the sidewalks, weaving through pedestrians as they went. Several accidents were reported in which pedestrians were run down. People also complained that cyclists used the roads surrounding the park as race courses for their own entertainment.

Pedestrians and bicyclists in Eldridge Park, 1890s
In 1899, the city began to crack down on those violating the ordinances. In July, two Elmira police officers, H.B. Murray and F.A. Gitchell, were tasked with helping with the crack-down. They were assigned bicycles of their own and, being good riders, were easily able to run down all guilty parties. Within just two days the pair arrested seven people for riding on the sidewalk without either permits or lamps. Those arrested were brought to city hall. They were not held in jail but their wheels were kept as security. After appearing before the city Recorder the next day, they paid the $1 fine and their bicycles were returned to them. It’s interesting to note that a bicycle license, which would have kept the riders from being arrested in the first place, cost $1, the same amount as the fine.

Elmira Star-Gazette, July 13, 1899
In October, 1899, the city’s common council passed a new set of bicycle ordinances. They appear to be only slightly different from the previous ordinances. Cyclists were prohibited from riding on sidewalks unless the street was not paved or macadamized. In that case, they would need to purchase sidewalk permits at the cost of 50 cents. Cyclists were required to have lights on their bicycle which could plainly be seen two hundred feet ahead if they were riding between sunset and sunrise. They were also required to carry a bell or whistle to alert pedestrians when they were riding on sidewalks. A bicycling speed limit of 6 miles an hour was also enacted. Any violation of the ordinances was punishable by a fine of not less than five dollars or, in absence of payment, imprisonment in the Chemung County jail for a term not exceeding five days. All money collected from the sales of permits and fines would go toward paving streets in the city. The Kelly-Keefe Co. offered a printed summary of the new ordinances on a neat card that could be picked up at their shoe store on Water Street.

Elmira bicycle permit, 1900
The common council promised strict enforcement of the new bicycle ordinances and they delivered on that promise. The Star-Gazette reported on dozens of arrests for violations from the fall of 1899 through the new year. For some, though, enough was still not being done. Enforcing and strengthening the city’s bicycle ordinances became a pet project of Alderman Eugene Barnes who represented the city’s 11th Ward. Barnes was an engineer with the Northern Central Railroad who lived on South Main Street. In July 1900, he reported to the common council that a woman bicyclist had run into him and he demanded that a speed limit be set for bicycles. He was told that the ordinances passed some eight months earlier did set a limit and he countered that it had never been enforced. At the next meeting, Barnes introduced a resolution to have the police enforce the bicycle ordinances more strictly. That evening, the police received orders to take all wheelmen into custody who violated the ordinance.

Bicyclist in Eldridge Park posing near the American Girl Statue, 1899
From July 10, when the resolution for stricter enforcement was passed, through August 21, 98 people were arrested on charges of violating the ordinances. Despite all these arrests, some cyclists insisted upon continuously defying the ordinances. Trouble-makers Laverne Allen and Miss Grace Wood appear twice in the local newspaper for their crimes. In April 1900, the pair was arrested at 9 o’clock in the evening for riding on the sidewalks without a lamp. When they appeared before the Recorder the following day, Allen argued that they were not guilty. He said that he thought the sun set at 9 o’clock and that bicyclists were not required to carry lamps until some time after the sun set. The court did not agree with his argument as the sun actually set closer to 8 o’clock and found the pair guilty. Allen paid the fines for both himself and Miss Wood. Three months later, Allen and Wood were arrested again for disobeying the bicycle ordinances. This time, their bicycles were confiscated.

Kanawehola Bicycle Club in front of the Elmira Reformatory, July 4, 1895
The popularity of bicycles started dropping off after 1900. As cars became more popular through the 1910s and 1920s, bicycles became seen more as recreational vehicles and children’s toys. Perhaps that is why reports of arrest for violations of the city’s bicycle ordinances rarely appear in local newspapers after 1914.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Interview with the Mammoth

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

Have you met our sixth staff member yet? The small, fuzzy, prehistoric, supposed-to-be-extinct one? I’m talking about our museum mascot, Mark the Mammoth. You can often see him at the museum or check out his exploits on his Twitter page:

Mark the Mammoth, the star of the show
While the human staff here at the museum like to think we’re cool (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary), we’ve got nothing on Mark. Mark has an international fan base. He helps us spread the word about Chemung County history near and far. He has been featured in articles and conference presentations, starred in music videos, has participated in an international mammoth exchange, and more. From his Twitter account, he shares items from the museum’s collections, glimpses into daily life at the museum, and some extinction humor thrown in for good measure.

Mark with his pal Mortimer the Mammoth of the Hull Museums on Mark's international mammoth exchange to Hull, England. There are multiple mammoths and mastodons on Twitter.
At the risk of increasing his already over-inflated ego, I’ve asked Mark to take some time from his busy schedule to sit down for this interview.

The staff competes in an annual Mark the Mammoth Halloween costume contest. This is curator Erin's 2014 Marie Antoinette masterpiece (which wasn't even the winner that year!).
Kelli: Thanks for agreeing to this interview Mark. I know that you have a pretty packed Tweeting schedule to attend to.

Mark: Thanks for the invitation.

K: Let’s start with the basics. Why are you here as the mascot of the Chemung County Historical Society?

M: Over 10,000 years ago, my kind roamed this area. Of course, there weren’t any of you humans here and things were a lot icier, but this has long been my home. Then extinction happened. As we died off, our bones fossilized and were found thousands of years later by some rather confused humans. This area was named “Chemung,” meaning “land of the big horn.” We’d call them tusks now, but horn works, I guess. Most of our visitors don’t realize this county is named after mammoths. I blow a lot of minds with that fact.

K: Your Twitter bio says that you “beat extinction.” Could you describe that process?

M: The scientists are still examining how that happened. Basically, I somehow shrunk down, allowing my body to survive on far fewer resources than a full-sized mammoth. People think I’m a stuffed animal, but they are mistaken. I am an actual, miniature mammoth. A modern scientific marvel, if I do say so myself.

K: That is certainly fascinating. I see that you are named after important local figure, Mark Twain.

M: Since I’m thousands of years older than him, I prefer to think that he was named after me.

K: Ok, sure. What do you see as your main role at the museum?

M: I like to think that I put a friendly, approachable face on the museum. Even though I know that my human colleagues aren’t scary and intimidating (most of the time), I know that a lot of people feel that museums aren’t for them or that they wouldn’t be welcome. We want everyone, of all ages, to feel like they are welcome to come visit us. Who wouldn’t feel welcomed looking at my adorable, fuzzy face? And for people around the world, my Twitter account is a way to spread the word about our fascinating local history to people who probably will never get a chance to visit Chemung County.

K: You are pretty adorable. Is there anything you would like to do more of at the museum?

M: I’d like to do more educational programming about mammoths and mastodons here in our local history. We already do some, and I might be biased, but I think we could do more! Our mammoth tusk is the literal centerpiece of our Bank Gallery and it’s definitely something that wows our visitors. 
Our "big horn"
K: Thank you for your time, Mark. Is there anything else you’d like to share before we go?

M: Just that people should check out my Twitter account. You can see what I’m posting even if you don’t have an account yourself. Find it here: There are also lots of other fantastic museum mascots out there to follow. Just ask me if you want recommendations!