Martin Luther King Jr. and the Myth of John Henry by Suet Yuk (Rainie) Au Yeung

The myth of John Henry sacrificing his life to compete with a mechanical drill reminds me of Martin Luther King Jr., who also devoted his life to contribute to the cause of fighting against a powerful social system with racial inequality.

Photo from

It is important to note that historian Scott Nelson discusses the legend of John Henry, a powerful black man who competed against a steam-powered hammer and died after his victory.[1] This myth could be associated with a true story of convicted laborer, who was another John Henry.[2] John Henry was a victim of the black codes when racial discrimination laws in Southern states that targeted newly freed slaves post-Civil War. He was arrested because of “housebreaking and larceny” with a10-year sentence and became a convict laborer who was leased to the C&O Railroad by the Virginia Penitentiary. [3] There is always a gap between history and legend. However, the answer to the question of “who was John Henry” seems less essential, because John Henry already transformed from a man to a myth and became an iconic figure. John Henry was an icon of African American folk hero, who portrayed the courage of a common man to challenge a powerful opponent through sweat and self-sacrifice. King also illustrated this iconic figure, as he demonstrated unyielding persistence and a fighting spirit under racial discrimination that was widespread in the legal system in the American society in 1960s.

Photo from

In the Letter from Birmingham Jail, King emphasized that fighting for racial equality is a battle between all African Americans and the segregated social system in the United States. King believed that it is essential to race against time to lead the African American community fighting the battle against discrimination because “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” [4] Similar to the myth of John Henry in which he seizes every minute and second to compete with a mechanical drill that made him an icon of a courageous man against a machine, King is an icon of a brave man going against the social system as he competes against time unremittingly to challenge racial discrimination that was established in American society for hundreds of years.

Although the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, gave African Americans citizenship and equal protection under the law and the 15th Amendment in 1870 granted Blacks the right to vote, African Americans remained far away from obtaining equality. Southern states established “Jim Crow” laws in the late 19th century, which segregated African Americans from whites in all public facilities.[5] Even though the roots of racism deeply shaped the American society, it did not prevent King from challenging inequality that was established in America since its founding. In Martin Luther King: “Now is the time,” author Angela Herbert demonstrates the struggles of King as a civil rights activist. Not only did King face intense pressure, he was also “arrested 30 times and imprisoned along with a number of students and fellow colleagues as a result of their engagement in non-violent protests.”[6] The oppression faced by King did not stop him from challenging racism; he contributed to unite the African American community through his public speeches and literature work.

Photo from

Like John Henry in the legend, who sacrificed his life and illustrated a heroic fighting spirit, King made powerful speeches that fiercely criticized racial discrimination and his assassination shaped him as an epic martyr who devoted his life to push an important step that catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement against racism. Literary critic Michiko Kakutani emphasizes that King “knew how to read his audience and react to it.” [7] King used the power of words with vivid imagery and strong emotion to give African Americans courage and hope. Today, many children watch the Disney version of John Henry and they might fall into sadness when they see John Henry die after his victory. King’s powerful speeches evoke the same emotions and are able to bring people to tears. King united African Americans and challenged the formidable racism in American society, which made him an iconic hero.

Similar to the myth of John Henry, hammering again and again to compete with a massive machine, King attacked the intensive racism that had deep roots in this country through word by word in his speeches. Even though John Henry and King faced mighty opponents, their indomitable fighting spirit demonstrate an iconic American spirit of struggle in which a victim in predicament could become a hero through persistence and self-sacrifice for a greater cause.


[1] Scott Nelson, “Who Was John Henry? Railroad Construction, Southern Folklore, and the Birth

of Rock and Roll,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas,Vol. 2. No. 2 (2005): 53.

[2] Ibid., 66.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.],” Africana Studies at

University of Pennsylvania, April 16, 1963,, accessed February 14, 2018).

[5] “Civil Rights Movement,” Black History,,, (accessed February 14, 2018).

[6] Angela Herbert, Martin Luther King: “Now is the time”( London: Springer International

Publishing, 2016), 10.

[7] Michiko Kakutani , “The Lasting Power of Dr. King’s Dream Speech,” New York Times,

August 27, 2013, (accessed February 14, 2018).

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John Henry: Falsifying Disney’s Version and the Real Deal by Morgan Evans    

The Disney image of history is, more often than not, fictionalized in order to produce a better movie plot. There are several examples of historical figures that were manipulated in to animal-befriending, stunningly beautiful, and missing at least one parent, prince or princess. Pocahontas is an example of a historical figure turned Disney princess with a fictionalized story with talking trees and in reality, helped the settlers a lot less than her Disney princess is portrayed to do.

John Henry’s legend was also modified for the Disney version. For those who may have never heard the legend, John Henry was imprisoned for a crime during the black code era. He was then a steel worker working on a railway that challenged a new machine that was supposedly faster than humans. Henry ultimately defeated the machine by completing more by the day’s end. Due to exhaustion, Henry died after beating the steel machine.

We know from historical context and from the accounts of what actually happened on the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad from 1870-1873, no white men worked on the railway. It was solely black men. In the Disney version, there are men of all different races working on the railroad. This is fictionalized, Henry, along with the other workers were leased from prisons to work for the railroad for cheap labor.

The classic folk song that has been covered by artists like Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Presley, was even changed for the Disney story. There are over four hundred versions of the song, however, they are all held together by the common themes in the song that highlight John Henry’s life like his death and being buried at the White House[1]. Arguably the most famous part about Henry’s legend, the song, could not make the cut for its original content in the Disney cartoon.

The “promised land” is the land that is granted to the individuals in the Disney short film for the workers constructing the railroad. If they finish the project, they will receive this land in exchange. In reality, there was no promised land. With that, there was no bet with the man operating the machine that John had to beat in order to get the land that they were promised in the first place. And after his passing, it was not like in the Disney short that Henry saved the day for all those who outlived him and were able to live on the land and remember the man who made it all possible.

The Disney character is also sketched out to be dramatically large, with a ridiculously unrealistic shoulder to waist ratio. His brawn figure is also falsified from the real recorded prison records of John Henry. The real John Henry was actually only 5’1″[2]. This makes it highly unlikely that he looked at all like the Disney version that makes him look superhuman with god-like strength. As exemplified below when he arm wrestles two other men with ease.

The Disney story makes John Henry as a slave. His steel hammer is even made out of the chains that were used during his enslavement and given as a wedding gift by his wife, Polly Ann. This is completely false. John Henry was not born a free man, but he was imprisoned after being freed from slavery.

What the Disney movie did get right, however, was the death of John Henry. He literally worked himself to death in pursuit of defeating the machine. Although John Henry is the legend that lives, there were hundreds of men that died doing the same thing that he did.  Unlike the Disney short however, legend is that he was buried at the White House, a nearby penitentiary. John Henry lives on, however, through all of his reproductions in movies, song, and books.

[1] Nelson, Scott, Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, (Chicago: Oxford University Press, 2006), 55

[1] Ibid, 65

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“The Swiftest on the Line” by Celeste Joyce

I had never heard of John Henry before this class. As I read the articles about his legend, much of the mythology and language surrounding him was completely new to me. I did find a simple sentiment which resonated with me, and seemed familiar. The longer I read and listened and watched, the more John Henry’s story and song reminded me of a song I have known for a long time.

When I was younger, I got myself a record player. The first record I bought for myself was a Joan Baez album. It featured old folk songs, rendered beautifully in her soprano voice. One song on the album that always stood out to me was “Engine 143.” The song is about a train wreck tragedy, and based upon a real event. After doing the readings for the week I revisited it and researched it. Much to my surprise, one of the first lyrics references the C & O Railroad, the very same company John Henry worked for.

Here are the lyrics in full:

Along came the FFV the swiftest on the line

Running o’er the C and O road just twenty minutes behind
Running into Sou’ville headquarters on the line
Receiving their strict orders from a station just behind
Georgie’s mother came to him with a bucket on her arm
Saying my darling son be careful how you run

For many a man has lost his life in trying to make lost time
And if you run your engine right you’ll get there just on time
Up the road he darted against the rocks he crushed

Upside down the engine turned and Georgie’s breast did smash
His head lay against the firebox door the flames are rolling high
I’m proud to be born for an engineer to die on the C&O road

The doctor said to Georgie my darling boy be still

Your life may yet be saved if it is God’s blessed will
Oh no said George that will not do I want to die so free
I want to die for the engine I love one hundred and forty three

The doctor said to Georgie your life cannot be saved
Murdered upon a railroad and laid in a lonesome grave
His face was covered up with blood his eyes they could not see
And the very last words poor Georgie cried was nearer my God to thee[1]


What always surprised me was the tone of the song. I found it to be rather cheery, despite the horrific event it was based upon. The parallels between this song and the story of John Henry are manifold. It addresses the breakneck pace of innovation, and the consequences of trying to keep up with it. Both myths feature a cautioning woman, Georgie’s mother and Henry’s wife[2], whose warnings are not heeded. Like John Henry, Georgie faces a tragic yet virtuous death.[3] And like in John Henry’s story, the railroad company (the very same C & O) is not cast as a villain, although they directly cause the hero’s death by pushing him too far. Perhaps more so in “Engine 143,” C & O- and by extension progress itself- is declared to be a cause worth dying for.

Further research revealed that the “train wreck” song is something of an American icon in itself.[4] One article listed the ways in which the train itself has deeply affected many of our American idioms. Phrases such as sidetracked, derailed, train of thought, hell on wheels, blowing their stack, right/wrong side of the tracks, are all direct references to trains.[5] The article went on to list a multitude of folk songs influenced by trains, including a list of train disasters. Such songs as “Casey’s Song” and “The Wreck of Old ‘97” both deal with train-related tragedies. “Casey’s Song” lyrics in particular sound so similar to “Engine 143” that I thought it was about the same disaster.[6]

These songs reveal American virtues. As we discussed in class, the obsession with progress, hard work, and innovation are especially prevalent. These songs could serve as a warning about progress, greedy corporations, overexertion, etc., but instead they have become a way to enforce these virtues. John Henry is directly compared to a biblical hero,[7] and Georgie meets God at the end of “Engine 143.” These virtues most certainly have a darker side. Perhaps these songs and myths could be used to expose them, and not simply as a motivational story as in Disney’s John Henry.


[2] Disney, “John Henry,” (Walt Disney Animation Studios, 2000).

[3] Scott Nelson, “Who Was John Henry?” (Oxford University Press, 2006).


[5] Stephanie Hall, “The Folklore and Folksong of Trains in America, Part Two” (Library of Congress, 2015).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Scott Nelson, “Who Was John Henry?” (Oxford University Press, 2006).

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Monticello & The Importance of Dissonance at Historical Exhibits by Sean Gibson

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”1 These are the famous words of Thomas Jefferson, one of our esteemed founding fathers. Despite these words proclaiming all men free, Jefferson was a lifelong slave-owner. An exhibit at his plantation Monticello, aptly named Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty, detailed the lives of six slave families that lived there.2 It is important to make it apparent at exhibits related to the revolutionary era, exhibits like Monticello and Independence Mall, that the majority of the founding fathers owned slaves despite their own rebellious fight for freedom.(img source:

If visitors to these parks don’t have their beliefs about the American past challenged, they will leave with an unbalanced view of the men that shaped our country. Many Americans treat the founding fathers as infallible gods who passed down the stone tablets of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Look no farther than the Apotheosis of Washington in the US capitol building, with its absurd rendition of Washington looking down on us from the heavens, as an example of how Americans view the founding fathers. These beliefs about the founding fathers are dangerous, because they feed into the myths of American exceptionalism and moral decay. Excerpts like this one from a National Review article by Dennis Prager about American moral decay,show us what happens when these myths are not combated effectively enough. Historical facts showing a more nuanced story about our founders are somehow an attack on the “beacon of freedom to mankind.”(img source:

To the extent that American history is taught, beginning in high school and often earlier, American history is presented as the history of an immoral nation characterized by slavery, racism, colonialism, imperialism, economic exploitation, and militarism — not of a country that, more than any other, has been the beacon of freedom to mankind, and the country that has spent more treasure and spilled more blood to liberate other peoples than any other nation.3

Any responsible exhibit about the revolutionary period should also discuss the moral failings of our ancestors, if for no other reason then to show us how far we have come and that they were also mere mortals. As Jill Ogline argues in her piece, Creating Dissonance for the Visitor: The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy

It is quite another for a site synonymous with democracy and liberty to acknowledge explicitly the fundamental contradiction at the root of the American Revolution. Yet the admirable and dishonorable in American history are inter-twined—the past is an integrated reality. If slavery is engaged only at Civil War parks and plantation sites, not only is the broad reach of the peculiar institution underestimated, but a highly complex past is artificially divided into neat and mutually exclusive boxes. A historical perspective that denies the interconnection of issues and experiences provides poor preparation for life in a complex and contradictory present.4

Exhibits like Monticello and Independence Mall, and the complex stories they tell us about our own past are crucial to educating Americans, and preparing them for a ‘complex and contradictory present.’ These are the type of exhibits that the Federal Government should strive to create.


1. US Declaration of Independence

2.”Slavery at Jeffersons Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.” National Museum of American History. October 18, 2012. Accessed February 08, 2018.

3.Prager, Dennis. “Americas Accelerating Decay.” National Review. April 07, 2015. Accessed February 08, 2018.

4.Jill Ogline, “‘Creating Dissonance for the Visitor’: The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy.” The Public Historian 26.3 (Summer 2004), 55.

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The Star-Spangled Banner; The Story lives On, by Owen McCue

It’s tough to think of icons comparable to the Liberty Bell. It’s an old bell, which doesn’t work, that somehow continues to attract people year-after-year. OK, I guess there’s a little bit more to it than that, but not many other artifacts have that kind of notoriety without some type of attachment to a famous person or famous event.

While not a perfect example, I do think the Star-Spangled Banner, the actual flag which flew over Fort McHenry, is an American icon with some similarities to the Liberty Bell. Sure, the Battle of Baltimore might have some recognition now, but in reality without the flag and the song becoming the national anthem I can’t imagine it would be very well known. The War of 1812 itself is considered the forgotten war.

Like the Liberty Bell, the Star-Spangled Banner no longer has any practical use. It’s a flag that no longer flies and now has a purely symbolic role. The Star-Spangled Banner’s impact is still felt today. Just turn on any football game on NFL Sunday and you can see a large flag waving on the field, drawing up images of the original Star-Spangled Banner.

For some background on the flag, it was designed by Mary Pickersgill to hang over Fort McHenry for the Battle of Baltimore in 1814, during the War of 1812. Major George Armistead commissioned Pickersgill to make the flag for the battle. If you want to talk being federally endorsed, she was paid by the government to create the flag. The flag was monstrous. The dimensions were originally 30 feet by 42 feet. Francis Scott Key immortalized the flag with his poem, the Defence of Fort McHenry, which later became the country’s national anthem in 1931.

The Liberty Bell and Star-Spangled Banner are both different in the way they are federally endorsed. The city of Philadelphia gave the National Park Service custody of the Liberty Bell in 1948. The Star-Spangled Banner is not directly endorsed by the federal government. Armistead came into possession of the flag after the battle. It was passed down through his family until his grandson gave the flag to the Smithsonian Institute in 1912. However, the Smithsonian is funded by the federal government and the flag is one of the marquee exhibits at the National Museum of American History. It’s pretty clear a lot of time and resources go into it.

Both icons share some similarities in that they both have stories that have become less clear in recent history. There are some skeletons in both icons’ closets. The Liberty Bell is placed at the former spot of the President’s House, where George Washington held slaves. Pickersgill had a 13-year-old indentured servant named Grace Wisher who helped her with the making of the flag.

Obviously these two American icons, aren’t the perfect comparison, but I do think it’s interesting to consider their similarities and differences. Regardless, the U.S. government seems to consider them both an important part in the storytelling of American history.


Ogline, Jill. “”Creating Dissonance for the Visitor”: The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy.” The Public Historian26, no. 3 (Summer 2004): 49-58.

“The Liberty Bell.” National Parks Service.

“Star-Spangled Banner and the War of 1812.” Smithsonian Institution.

Daly, Michael. “The Slave Owner Who Stitched the Original Star-Spangled Banner.” The Daily Beast. September 18, 2016.

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“In God We Trust”: Four Little Words or One Big Assumption? – by Morgan O’Donnell

Source: Huffington Post

You may recognize the phrase “In God We Trust” if you’ve ever taken the time to examine a coin or the back of that crumpled up bill in your pocket. Those four words are printed on all U.S. currency and they serve as our official national motto, but there is also a deeper story behind their rise to icon status.

The Liberty Bell has long been surrounded by origin myths and stories, such as George Lippard’s fabricated account of how it first rang on July 4, 1776 to celebrate the Declaration of Independence [1], which started its reputation as a beacon of American liberty. Unlike the Bell, however, the national motto of “In God We Trust” has a clear and factual beginning to its story. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, during the Civil War era there was a significant increase in religious conviction among Americans, many of whom wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase and called for some federal recognition of God on U.S. currency in light of the ongoing division and destruction of the war. [2]

In 1863 Secretary Chase and the Mint at Philadelphia (yet another Philadelphia connection among icons!), came up with the designs for new one-cent, two-cent, and three-cent coins and created the saying “In God We Trust,” and the next year Congress passed a Coinage Act that allowed the phrase to appear on the two-cent coin. [3] Subsequent acts were passed and by 1909 it was printed on all minted U.S. coins. Interestingly enough, “In God We Trust” was the national motto until 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a Joint Resolution that declared it so. It first appeared on paper money in 1957 and it was added to the currency production process. And from 1966 on, every coin and every printed federal reserve note has had the motto printed on it. [4]

Source: CoinHELP!

I chose to compare the Liberty Bell and “In God We Trust” because although they may be different in physical nature and separated by almost a century of history, both have been (and one still is) the subject of controversy about their respective values of freedom and faith. The presentation of the Liberty Bell as a symbol of American independence has been questioned and subverted many times throughout history, starting with Bostonians and New Yorkers who appropriated it as an emblem of the abolitionist movement in the 1830s and 1840s. They spoke out against the irony of the Liberty Bell promoting freedom for all while there was still a significant enslaved population in Philadelphia and across America. [5]

A similar conflict arose surrounding plans for a new pavilion and visitors’ center for the Liberty Bell at Independence National Historical Park in the early 2000s that placed the site adjacent to the former President’s House, where George and Martha Washington kept slaves. [6] [footnote Titus] As Jill Ogline Titus writes, the battle between INHP and many different city groups and historians to recognize the slave quarters and include interpretive material at the Liberty Bell Center would fundamentally change the experience for visitors. “When viewing it will require visitors to cross the foundations of rooms in which enslaved Africans waited upon white revolutionaries, interpreters of the Liberty Bell will have the opportunity to transcend the object and interpret something much bigger.” [7] [footnote Titus]

This internal conflict about the true nature of an American icon is also applicable to “In God We Trust”; for strong believers in the separation of church and state and atheist activists, the inclusion of God in the national motto is a problem. Eisenhower, who successfully lobbied for the inclusion of God in the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, stated that it was reaffirming “the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future.” [8] Since then, those who feel otherwise have tried to make their voices heard, from filing court cases arguing that the motto places Christians above atheists or other religions to protesting the use of the motto on local sheriff and police vehicles in communities across the United States. [9] In the cases of the Liberty Bell and the national motto, one might ask: What are the implications of the federal government endorsing an icon without properly acknowledging that some groups of Americans are excluded from its meaning and its protections? “In God We Trust” falls under the increasingly fractured line that separates religion and government in this country. Maybe it’s time to take a second look at this American icon.

Source: Patheos


1. Nash, Gary B. The Liberty Bell, 40. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.


2. “History of ‘In God We Trust’.” U.S. Department of the Treasury. March 8, 2011.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Nash, 35-39.

6. Titus, Jill Ogline. “‘Creating Dissonance for the Visitor’: The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy.” The Public Historian 26, no. 3 (2004): 49-58. doi:10.2307/3379448.


7. Ibid.

8. Hallowell, Billy. “Here’s the deep history behind ‘In God We Trust’.” Deseret News. August 02, 2016.


9. Ibid.

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Washington Monument by Lena-Marie Lannutti

The Washington Monument is an iconic symbol of the resonance of the Founding Fathers in our modern era. Like the Liberty Bell, it has a federal distinction (besides the fact that it is located in the nation’s capital). It also has a unique history, and has developed its share of stories over time. The monument also has some flaws, that are not as obvious as a crack in the center of the Liberty Bell.

The National Parks Service remarks that the Monument, “…serving as an awe-inspiring reminder of George Washington’s greatness. The monument, like the man, stands in no one’s shadow.” [1] Originally the Monument was meant to be grandeur than it is now. Construction for the Monument began in 1848, funding for the Monument mainly originated from charitable donations, as this project was not federally funded.[2] The architect was Robert Mills, who’s originally plan was, “…called for a 600-foot Egyptian-style obelisk ringed by thirty 100-foot columns.”[3] Due to among other things, a lack of funding, only the obelisk remains as part of Mill’s vision. So, the Washington monument is the only American icon that remains unfinished. Like the Liberty Bell’s crack, it has a unique feature (or lack of one in this case) that sets it apart from everyday objects.

Figure 1: Original Design for the Monument [4]

Public reaction to the Washington Monument was mixed during its construction, especially in the 1850s, when the Know Nothing Party took over the board for the Monument’s construction [5] This was a nativist group, who were Anti-Catholic to the point where they destroyed Pope Pius IX commemorative stone the Vatican sent for the Monument [6] Construction was halted in the 1860s, as the Civil War became the biggest issue in the Capitol. The Monument was halfway finished at this time, and Mark Twain noted, “It has the aspect of a factory chimney with the top broken off,” [7] Also during the Civil War the land around the monument itself, “…were used as a cattle pen for the Union Army. There was also a slaughterhouse behind the monument.”[8] Only after the nation itself had healed could construction on the Monument resume, this phase was federally funded as signed by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1876[9]

The Washington Monument like the Liberty Bell has connections to the early foundations of American democracy. The Monument especially is a visual connection to the Father of our country. Jill Ogline Titus remarks that Americans connection with the Liberty Bell, “…but as a bridge to an imagined historical moment in which public officials were idealistic, politicians virtuous, and citizens optimistic about the future”[10] The same could be said for the Washington Monument itself, as a symbol of the mythologized aspect of our collective memory of George Washington. The Liberty Bell has had to grapple with the complex nature of George Washington, as both the American Cincinnatus and a perpetuator of slavery in America Waldstreicher contends that opposition for slavery was attached to “But it did so only after giving Americans the cultural tools of denial…to resist an attack on the institution”[11]. This can explain the disconnect between the representation of Washington in the monument and the reality of his personal contradictions to liberty. Even with this complex legacy the Washington Monument still remains an American icon, and a national landmark.

Figure 1: The Washington Monument[12]

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This Land Was Your Land, But Now It’s My Land: The Grand Canyon as an Icon by Emily Grimaldi

This Land Was Your Land, But Now It’s My Land: The Grand Canyon as an Icon

The Liberty Bell, as discussed by Gary Nash, represents freedom, independence, and the founding of a country. However, Nash also exposes the dark past of the Liberty Bell, as it was believed to be a representation of freedom, but not for the slaves living in America. The bell was said to ring for liberty, but millions of Americans were still oppressed.

Though its crack is significantly larger, the Grand Canyon National Park shares both the good and bad histories of the Liberty Bell. The Grand Canyon represents wonder, freedom, and the adventurous spirit of the United States. Often called “The Great Unknown”, the Grand Canyon was a literal blank spot on the map until Joseph Christmas Ives sailed up the Colorado River in search of a trade route to the West. The mapping and “discovery” of the canyon is an example of the adventurous spirit of Americans and the beauty of exploration.

Prior to this discovery and exploration of the canyon, the U.S. government began to acquire western lands through public domain. Along the way, Congress and various presidents created treaties with American Indians that resulted in small reservations and in some cases, relocation. Several decades later, following Ives’ exploration, most Navajos were removed from their reservation near the Grand Canyon, and relocated to a smaller area in New Mexico. War was waged between various native groups and the U.S. military for several years, but eventually the U.S. won and was able to acquire the reservations surrounding the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon National Park was established in 1919, thus officially making the native lands  federal property. Not until 1975 with the passage of the Grand Canyon Enlargement Act were some natives able to gain back a tiny piece of their ancestral land.

This story of the founding of the Grand Canyon National Park through the removal of Native Americans is comparable to the history of the Liberty Bell and slavery. The Grand Canyon and Liberty Bell represent wonder, freedom, and liberty, but not for everyone in America. Native Americans are unable to enjoy the meaning of the Grand Canyon because to them it meant losing their lands and being oppressed. Slaves were not represented by the Liberty Bell because it existed in a time where they were not free to enjoy what it represents.


With all this information in mind, some may still find it difficult to liken these American icons to such dark beginnings. It is important not to overshadow these origins with what these icons mean to America today. We must acknowledge the complicated histories of the Liberty Bell and the Grand Canyon in order to better understand how they serve American society today.




Nash, Gary B. The Liberty Bell. Yale University Press, 2010.

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Mount Rushmore by Alyssa Deguzman

Just as the Liberty Bell is important to American history, Mount Rushmore does not fall too far back behind. From the year 1927 to 1941, it would take 14 years to create such a memorial so colossal and so vast.¹ On these large mountains were carved faces of four U.S. presidents who helped develop this country into what it is today. These people represented America’s history, and were the men of their eras during presidency. Meaning, that they contributed so much to this history that it is almost impossible not to know what they stand for. Mount Rushmore displays the four founding father of the country: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. These faces are recognizable to the public and tell the story of the birth, growth, development, and preservation of this country.³

Both the Liberty Bell and Mount Rushmore share the fact that they both represent freedom. In Gary Nash’s Liberty Bell, he states that, “Perhaps only the face of George Washington could rival the Liberty Bell as a design motif, and in both cases freedom-America’s gift to the world-was the point to be made.” During the time of these presidents, they became icons to the country due to their desire to create a land full of equality, democracy, and freedom.Mount Rushmore continues to grow as a, “symbol of freedom and hope for people from all cultures and backgrounds.”³ The Liberty Bell and Mount Rushmore are the same because even though they are just a mountain and a bell, they express the hardships America has gone through in order to make it a great country.

Mount Rushmore holds a sense of uniqueness because unlike the Liberty Bell, it was forged purely from nature on the mountains in the Black Hills. Its creation symbolizes the dedication of the four hundred people who worked on the memorial had for their country, and how they used their pride to create something so great. Building the memorial was dangerous as well, as ninety percent of the mountain was carved using dynamite.¹ This shows, that despite the dangers of building this memorial, it was still sought through in order to show America, and the world, that these four men uphold our values. It serves to unite us as a country and remind us that since we are all American, we have the same “founding fathers.” Meaning, we all have a basic idea of American ideals and what these men would have wanted for us, and the country.

¹Charles D’Emery, “Carving History” last modified September 2, 2017.

²Gary B. Nash, The Liberty Bell (Yale University Press, 2010), 34.

³Gutzon Borglum. “History and Culture” last modified April 19, 2017.

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Douglass as Self-Made Man by Suet Yuk (Rainie) Au Yeung

In the speech Self-Made Men,Frederick Douglass gives his definition of a self-made man. Douglass rejects the idea of a self-made man by claiming that “properly speaking, there are in the world no such men as self-made men.”[1] He believes that “no generation of men can be independent of the preceding generation.”[2] Despite the fact that Douglass himself does not believe in the term of “self-made man,” the personal history of Douglass indeed illustrates what means to be a self-made man. Similar to Benjamin Franklin, Douglass is a self-made man who demonstrates his life as a journey in which he creates his own character out of nothingness. (Figure 1. Frederick Douglass (Photo from ))

Born into slavery and without the care of parents, Douglass is the only person who determines his own identity. In the Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass, James Matlack points out that “most autobiographies open with a birth date and a description of the author’s parentage. Douglass can supply neither.”[3] As Douglass mentionin his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass begins his story from slavery and never knew who his father was.[4] Douglass saw his mother only a few times in the middle of the night. When he was seven, his mother died, and he describes it as making him feel like it was the death of a stranger.[5]Douglass’s childhood and background make his identity and future as a piece of unknown blank paper. Douglass, “must forge his own character and sense of himself.”[6] He is the only person who is able to change his own fate.

Like Franklin, who was an indentured slave to his brother and suffered “harsh and tyrannical treatment”[7] working in his brother’s printing press that is described by David Waldstreicher in Runaway America, Douglass was beaten by his master Mr. Covey, who gave him “a very severe whipping,” which cut his back causing the blood to run, and raising ridges on his flesh.[8] Although they were living under oppression, Franklin and Douglass both highly valued education. They used all kinds of methods to create opportunities for self-improvement. In The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth, John Swansburg highlights that Franklin saved his money and invested them in books to “feed his hungry mind.”[9] In similar ways, Douglass demonstrates there is no limitation that can prevent him from obtaining knowledge.

When Douglass was eight years old in Baltimore, he began to learn his A B C’s (alphabet) from Mrs. Auld. [10] However, this opportunity was prohibited by her husband, who claimed that “a nigger should know nothing but to obey his master — to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.”[11] Even though Douglass was denied obtaining an education, he did not allow the condition to limit himself. Over the next seven years, Douglass used any possible resources that he was able to find to educate himself. “He stole bread and traded it for bits of knowledge from white street urchins. He picked up letters of the alphabet from marks on timbers in the shipyard. He practiced his handwriting between the lines of young Thomas Auld’s discarded copy books.”[12]Douglass’s determination and hard work made it possible for him, a person born into slavery, to learn how to read and write. Later in Douglass’s life, his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave became a bestseller. He also founded the North Star, which became “one of the leading abolitionist newspapers of its time.”[13]Through self-education, not only did Douglass learn how to read and write, he also became an influential writer, which illustrates what it means to be a self-made man. (Figure 2. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (Photo from

Knowledge is wealth, Douglass is a self-made man who created paths for himself to successfully become a “wealthy man.” Similar to Franklin, a son of a candle maker who later became a world-famous scientist, “an influential patriot and diplomat, and, not least, a wealthy man of business,”[14] Douglass changed his fate from a slave to a powerful abolitionist, an excellent orator, a bestselling author, and a famous newspaper publisher. Both Franklin and Douglass created opportunities for themselves beyond their limitations, which truly makes them self-made men and iconic figures in the United States.

[1] Frederick Douglass, “‘Self-Made Men.’ Address before the Students of the Indian Industrial School at Carlisle, PA,” Frederick Douglass Heritage The Official Website. Speech, 1872. (Accessed February 01, 2018). (here after: Douglass, Self-Made Men).

[2] Ibid.

[3] James Matlack, “The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass,” Phylon (1960- ) 40, no. 1 (1979): 21.

[4] Frederick Douglass, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself: Electronic Edition.” 1818-1895. (Accessed February 01, 2018). (here after: Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Matlack, “The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass,” 21.

[7] David Waldstreicher, Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, slavery, and the American Revolution ( New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 3-4.

[8] Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

[9] John Swansburg, “The Self-Made Man: The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.” September 29, 2014, 6.

[10] Matlack, “The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass,” 21.

[11] Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

[12] Matlack, “The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass,” 22.

[13] “The North Star.” The North Star (Educational Materials: African American Odyssey). December 9, 1998. (Accessed February 01, 2018).

[14] Swansburg, “The Self-Made Man,” 7.

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