The Hamlet Fire, 1991

Bryant Simon

Bryant Simon

 

 

 

A deadly fire raced through the Imperial Food Products factory in Hamlet, North Carolina on the morning of September 3, 1991. As the fire raged, employees found themselves trapped behind chain-locked exits, which led to the deaths of 25 people. The fire was big news. I was living in Philadelphia at the time and I can remember news reports and descriptions of desperate people frantically trying to escape.

Historian Bryan Simon was in a doctoral program at the University of North Carolina in 1991 and he often drove through Hamlet on his way to visit the research archives at the University of South Carolina. Birthplace of  jazz great John Coltrane, prize-winning reporter Tom Wicker, and former Philadelphia Eagles Pro Bowl wide receiver (and current Eagles radio color commentator) Mike Quick, Hamlet had been a prosperous railroad junction through the first half of the 20th century until the railroads went into decline. By the 1980s, the city government and its inhabitants were desperate to bring new businesses to town. It was during this time that a Pennsylvania company processing chicken parts into chicken tenders moved to Hamlet.

Bryant Simon’s most recent book, The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives (The New Press, 2017), as the subtitle indicates, is about much more than a tragic fire. Instead, Simon uses Hamlet as a microcosm to examine the larger economic and political forces that have transformed the United States. Where policy makers were once focused on creating an economy that produced high manufacturing wages, starting in the 1970s they increasingly turned their attention to an economic model of low wages and cheap products. The fire at Imperial Food Products are part of this story.

I spoke to Bryant Simon on January 23, 2018.

—Fred Rowland

So you’re writing a dissertation, Part 2

So, the Religion Graduate Student (RGS) has had about seven months to dig into the archival materials of the Nationwide Women’s Program at the American Friends Service Committee. In addition to reading through the corpus of newsletters from the Nationwide Women’s Program, RGS spent much of the summer studying the secondary literature including a number of scholarly works that she plans to model in her writing.

Conscious of her physical and psychological health, RGS’s weekly routine includes running, biking, yoga, and meditation. Despite this level of physical activity, some anxiety creeped in and butterflies fluttered as she looked up at the road in front of her. As she began writing she had to “conjure up all the powers of the universe” just to punch out a few words on the keyboard.

One thing RGS thinks a lot about is identifying a unifying strand that runs through her story. A good story is not sufficient for a dissertation. On top of the story she has to tease out its meaning within the larger context of religious and women’s studies. That’s the challenge she faces and there is no clear road map. She has got to draw her own.

My first interview with RGS was on February 19, 2010. This second interview took place on September 10, 2010. Listen to what RGS has to say on her progress so far.

(Listen to previous interview: Part 1

—Fred Rowland

The Priest and the Prophetess, Part 2

Professor Terr Rey

Professor Terry Rey

 

In the second part of my interview with Professor Terry Rey on his new book, The Priest and the Prophetess: Abbe Ouviere, Romaine Riviere, and the Revolutionary Atlantic World, we leave Haiti and the Haitian Revolution behind. Romaine la Prophetess has disappeared and will soon perish in the flames of the revolution. That terrible conflict will continue alongside its European cousin, the French Revolution, until the early years of the next century. A hemisphere away, an exhausted Felix Alexander Pascalis Ouviere washes up on Philadelphia’s shores, having survived an attack on the British brig Catherine by a French privateer in Delaware Bay. Among his few possessions is a letter of introduction addressed to George Washington. Soon Dr. Pascalis will be treating yellow fever victims in that miasmic summer of 1793 in the company of such luminaries as Benjamin Rush. Abbe Ouviere is nowhere to be found.

Here is part two of my interview with Professor Rey. We spoke on September 25, 2017.

—Fred Rowland

The Priest and the Prophetess, Part 1

Professor Terry Rey

Professor Terry Rey

 

 

Temple Religion professor Terry Rey is the author The Priest and the Prophetess: Abbe Ouviere, Romaine Riviere, and the Revolutionary Atlantic World. In The Priest and the Prophetess he tells unlikely story about Abbe Ouviere, a politically astute, shapeshifting French priest, and Romaine Riviere, a religiously-inspired, cross-dressing, slave-owning Black military leader, whose lives briefly intersected in the chaotic early days of the Haitian Revolution at the latter’s coffee plantation turned mountain redoubt. Their encounter spanned a few days in which they celebrated the Catholic mass and concluded a military agreement. The fates of Abbe Ouviere, later known as Doctor Pascalis, and Romaine Riviere, whose nom de guerre was Romaine la Prophetess, turned out very differently. While Romaine was soon lost to history, the Abbe made his way to Philadelphia where he launched his medical career by caring for the sick during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic.

In part one of this interview, Professor Rey tells the story of Abbe Ouviere and Romaine Riviere at the start of the Haitian Revolution. In part two, we will follow the Abbe as he sheds his priestly past to become Doctor Pascalis of Philadelphia and New York.

Terry Rey and I spoke on September 25, 2017.

—Fred Rowland

The Virgin Mary in 19th Century American Culture

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In contemporary American culture the Virgin Mary is associated with Catholic devotion and worship. Because of this, it should come as a surprise to many readers that the mother of Jesus was a general cultural icon in the latter half of nineteenth century Christian America. Temple professor Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez details this history in her new book, The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth Century American Culture (Temple / Amazon). Images and references to Mary proliferated in popular magazines and on the walls of modest and fashionable homes, appealing to both Protestant and Catholic audiences. The Civil War, industrial revolution, and westward expansion transformed the United States. The rise of major urban centers like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis drew in rural migrants and immigrants, unsettling religious, gender, and social norms. In these early years of mass society when the old agrarian ways were slipping away, the focus on the Virgin Mary offered a safe and familiar way of talking about and negotiating new female roles in this changing social landscape. Professor Alvarez traces the career of Mary from the declaration of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854 through its fiftieth anniversary in 1904.

I spoke with Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez about her new book on November 7, 2016.

 

Vikings Visit Minnesota in 1362

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Well, not really, but that’s a story that had significant purchase in early 20th century Minnesota. In 1898 a Swedish immigrant discovered a buried stone with runic letters and the date 1362. The archaic Scandinavian script described a fishing party that returned to its camp to find “10 men red with blood and dead.”

8 Swedes and 22 Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland westward. We had our camp by two rocky islets one day’s journey north of this stone. We were out fishing one day. When we came home we found 10 men with blood and dead. AVM, save us from evil. We have 10 men by the sea to look after our ships, 14 days’ journey from this island. Year: 1362. [Translation by Erik Wahlgren, The Kensington Stone: A Mystery Solved]

The news of the apparent visitation of fourteenth century Scandinavians to the great state of Minnesota was enthusiastically received by their latter day heirs. With so many immigrants entering the United States, it was reassuring to learn that these norsemen had staked a claim to the United States more than 100 years before Columbus. Better yet, they had baptized the soil with their own blood, consecrating it as holy ground.

As the authenticity of the “Kensington Rune Stone” came under question, supporters dismissed much of the evidence produced by pointy-headed academics in their ivory towers. Though the scientific consensus has clearly declared the stone a fake, books are still written “proving” its authenticity. In Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America, historian and religion scholar David Krueger investigates the century-long story arc of this cultural artifact. He explores the passion for the Rune Stone among Scandinavian and, later, Catholics, who were intent on establishing their rightful place in the American community.

Beyond the history of the Rune Stone itself, Krueger’s work provides valuable insights on the history of immigrant communities and the ways they seek to blend their ancestral histories into a new and imagined cultural landscape. Readers will find the themes of Myths of the Rune Stone illuminating in this time of increased tension and inflammatory rhetoric surrounding immigration.

I spoke with David Krueger on November 9, 2016, the morning after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency.

(For suggestions for how to use the book in a class setting, visit the book website at https://mythsoftherunestone.com/2015/12/15/using-myths-of-the-rune-stone-in-the-classroom/.)

—Fred Rowland

Metropolitan Jews

LilaBerman

 

In Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit (University of Chicago Press, 2015), History Professor Lila Berman analyzes the Jewish sense of place in Detroit during the twentieth century, first in neighborhoods such as Hastings Street, Dexter-Davison, and Bagley and then in the wider metropolitan area. In the first half century, Jews settled near the Detroit River and then gradually moved north and west. While there was little Jewish presence in the booming auto industry, Jews opened small business establishments, became involved in real estate, and pursued educational opportunities as the community developed vibrant religious and civic institutions.

At mid-century, Detroit began experiencing many of the convulsions that would shake other eastern and midwestern cities. The auto industry, which had built Detroit, began shifting its operations outside the city. White flight accompanied de-industrialization as federally subsidized mortgage loans financed new suburban housing developments from which African Americans were excluded. Detroit began losing popuation while the percentage of African Americans increased and the tax base shrank. For those Jews who remained, there were intense struggles over race, politics, employment, and housing.

Many Jews joined other white ethnics leaving Detroit. As the Jewish community became more established outside the city limits, what were the considerations with regards to synagogues, religious and civic organizations, and homes and businesses left behind? And how did the Jewish community respond to the struggles over politics, employment, and housing? Lila Berman tells the story of the Jewish community and its sense of place as it grew from small city neighborhoods to the wider Detroit metropolitan area.

I spoke to Lila Berman on March 28, 2016.

—Fred Rowland

Death in the Shape of a Young Girl

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Professor Patricia Melzer is the author of a new book titled Death in the Shape of a Young Girl: Women’s Poltical Violence in the Red Army Faction (New York University Press, 2015). By focusing her study on the Red Army Faction (RAF), a West German terrorist group which had many female members, including leaders, Melzer complicates our contemporary understanding of feminism and violence. The RAF committed acts of assassination, bombings, bank robberies, and kidnappings from 1970 to the early 1990s in order to challenge what it saw as the West German state’s support of capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy.

While contemporary feminism is closely linked to positions of nonviolence, this was less the case at the founding of the Red Army Faction, where patriarchy shared responsibility with economic and political structures for women’s oppression. As feminism narrowed its focus to patriarchal violence – especially the personal physical abuse of men against women – the nurturing role of women and the importance of nonviolent political resistance became more essential to feminism’s understanding of itself.

Melzer also analyzes the ways German media portrayed the lives and acts of these terrorists through a gendered lens that was very often inaccurate and misleading. This placed the contemporaneous German feminist movement in the delicate position of trying to respond to the misrepresentation of female RAF members while distancing itself from their terrorist acts.

Juxtaposing feminism and violence in the Red Army Faction offers valuable insights on the nature of the modern women’s movement. I spoke to Patricia Melzer on April 4, 2016.

—Fred Rowland

 

Saving Faith At the Dawn of the 20th Century

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Living in the early 21st century, it might seem a little hard to believe that a century ago liberal Protestantism was the dominant voice of religion in the United States. Of course in a land so vast there were a lot of voices and opinions concerning religion. But in the urban power centers liberal Protestantism had the ears of politicians and business elites.

At this same time there were centrifugal forces weakening liberal Protestantism’s institutional grasp. As people poured into growing industrial cities from the countryside and overseas, they were greeted by secular clubs, cultural events, and entertainments that loosened the grip of the church. With so many inhabitants of different races, ethnicities, religions, beliefs, and practices, doubts about specific doctrines and creeds grew. The growing authority of science offered alternative explanations for a whole range of natural and metaphysical phenomena.

In Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age (Cornell University Press, 2015), historian David Mislin explores how liberal Protestantism responded to the pressures of skepticism, doubt, and pluralism. In reaching out to Catholics and Jews of like mind, liberal Protestant leaders were haltingly moving toward what would in the post-World War II world become Judeo-Christian America.

I spoke with David Mislin on January 20, 2016 about his new book.

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—Fred Rowland

Making Medical Knowledge

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Miriam Solomon is interested in the scientific and social processes which come together to create medical knowledge. Patients come in all shapes and sizes and their socioeconomic backgrounds vary widely. Basic sciences and clinical practices produce vast amounts of data that are evaluated and interpreted. Often the data are contradictory. Millions of articles, reports, and conference proceedings are published. Pharmaceutical companies experiment and test drugs with an eye to the marketplace. How do doctors come to consensus on the best diagnoses and treatments?

In Making Medical Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 2015) Miriam Solomon addresses this question. She explains how consensus conferences and evidence-based, translational, and narrative medicine promote differing methodologies and organizational schemas for coming to consensus on medical problems. After analyzing the advantages and limitations of each, she recommends a “developing, untidy, methodological pluralism” for “making medical knowledge.”

Miriam Solomon is a professor of Philosophy at Temple University with research interests in philosophy of science, philosophy of medicine, epistemology, gender and science, and bioethics. I spoke to her on December 17, 2015.

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—Fred Rowland