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On this day in 1906, Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri and christened Freda Josephine McDonald by her mother, Carrie McDonald.  Homeless at the age of 12, she was discovered dancing on a street corner three years later and recruited to join the St. Louis Chorus.  She is perhaps best remembered for her performances at the Folies Bergères in Paris throughout the 1920s where she danced in her iconic banana skirt and often appeared on stage with her pet cheetah, Chiquita.  Through the 1930s, she rose to fame as a singer, dancer, and actress.  In 1937 she became a French citizen, and as World War II progressed, she shifted her focus toward supporting the underground resistance movement.  After the war, she often returned to the United States where she was active in the American Civil Right Movement, speaking at the 1963 March on Washington and famously refusing to perform before segregated audiences.

Josephine Baker with the Nobel Prize winning political scientist, Ralph J. Bunche, ca. 1960. Image courtesy of the UCLA Special Collections via Calisphere, the Online Archive of California.

You can find more primary sources about activists and entertainers of the twentieth century through Opening History.

Judgment of Paris

On May 24, 1976, the “Judgment of Paris” helped catapult California wine to international fame. In a blind tasting that compared a selection of California wines to French wines, a group of mostly French experts gave the California Chateau Montelena chardonnay and the Stag’s Leap cabernet sauvignon the highest scores. While many of the judges expressed surprise and outrage over the results, and some have questioned the contest’s scoring methods, this single event was hugely important for the California vintners who had struggled to market their wine.

While this event marked a turning point in the recognition of California wine, the state’s industry has actually existed since the 19th century. Opening History offers many collections documenting this long history, including the Anaheim Public Library Photograph Collection  and the California Historical Society Digital Archive.

A view of Stag's Leap Manor, the vineyard that produced one of the first-place winners of the Judgment of Paris.

On this day in 1934, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were ambushed by six policemen in rural Louisiana.  The couple led the infamous Barrow Gang, notable for robbing banks, stores, and gas stations across several states.  Over the course of two years, the gang killed nine police officers and several civilians, and they were labeled as public enemies.

Wanted poster for the Barrow Gang. Image courtesy of the Dallas Municipal Archives via Texas Heritage Online.

Their story gained national attention in 1933 when the gang escaped the police after a stand off at their hideout in Joplin, Missouri.  In their hurry to flee the scene, the gang left nearly all their possessions behind, and the police discovered a camera with several roles of undeveloped film and poetry by Parker.  The photographs depicted members of the gang posing in front of their car, often with firearms and cigars.

Photograph of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker standing together behind their car.  Image courtesy of the Dallas Municipal Archives via Texas Heritage Online.

Public fascination with the couple shortly turned to outrage after Barrow orchestrated a jailbreak in January 1934 followed by a series of murders in Texas and Oklahoma.  After the jailbreak, Captain Frank Hamer, a former Texas Ranger, organized a posse of policemen who began tracking the outlaws’ movements through the winter and spring of that year.  When it became clear that the group would soon visit one of the gang’s family members in Louisiana, the officers prepared an ambush.  They concealed themselves in the bushes along a rural road, and began firing as soon as Clyde’s Ford V8 approached.  They fired some 130 rounds at the car, killing both Bonnie and Clyde without offering a chance to surrender.

Officers inspect Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker’s bullet-riddled V8 Ford at the police impound after removing the couple’s bodies. Dallas County Sheriff Smoot Schmid is at left, hatless. Image courtesy of the Dallas Municipal Archives via Texas Heritage Online.

For more primary source materials related to Bonnie and Clyde, visit the Barrow Gang Collection at Texas Heritage Online.  You can also find out more about the public enemies of the Great Depression era through Opening History.

Freedom Riders

Throughout the month of May in 1961, groups of civil right activists, known collectively as the Freedom Riders, boarded interstate buses traveling through the southern United States.  Three separate United States Supreme Court decisions —  Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946), Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company (1955) and  Boynton v. Virginia (1960) — had ruled segregation illegal on interstate buses and in the waiting rooms and restaurants that served those buses, allowing interstate travelers to disregard local laws upholding racial segregation.  The Freedom Riders sought to exercise their rights by testing the new federal law but were attacked by violent mobs and arrested by police willing to uphold local Jim Crow laws.

A group of Freedom Riders visiting with civil rights leader John LeFlore in Mobile, Alabama, 1961. Image courtesy of the University of South Alabama via Alabama Mosaic.

In Alabama, members of the Klu Klux Klan conspired with local police to end the Freedom Rides, and on May 14, 1961 Klansmen firebombed the first bus to arrive in the town of Anniston, Alabama and beat the riders mercilessly as they escaped from the bus.  Later, the injured riders were refused care at a local hospital because hospital staff feared the mob that has congregated outside.  Despite the severe brutality of these attacks, the Freedom Riders insisted on pushing forward and efforts continued throughout the month.  At the time, their actions were deemed disruptive and unpatriotic by much of the general public and even by the Department of Justice; however, by the end of the year, the Interstate Commerce Commission was fully compliant with the Supreme Court’s rulings, and the Freedom Riders served as an inspiration for many of the direct action initiatives that would soon follow.

You can learn more about the civil rights movement through Opening History, which includes such collections as the Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive and the Civil Rights Digital Library among others.

On May 8, 1886, John S. Pemberton sold a new, non-alcoholic carbonated beverage called Coca-Cola for the first time.  Intended as a patent medicine, the recipe was a modified version of Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, which had been banned earlier in the year when the counties of Atlanta and Fulton in Georgia passed temperance laws.  The  new beverage was marketed to veterans of the American Civil War and women who suffered from nervous conditions, and it was believed to treat the effects of morphine withdraw, depression, anxiety, headaches, and stomach upset.

Coca-Cola advertisements outside Temple Pharmacy. Image courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society Research Center.

Pemberton’s bookkeeper, Frank Mason Robinson, named the beverage and designed its famous logo.  He is also credited with launching an unprecedented advertising campaign that included distributing coupons redeemable for a free Coke and posting promotional banners and signs throughout Atlanta.

Coca-Cola for sale at the Idaho Beverage Store. Image courtesy of the Idaho State Historical Society.

The sheer number of collections in Opening History that include images of Coca-Cola and related advertisements is a testament to the brand’s privileged, iconic status in American history. No longer relegated to pharmacy soda fountains or perceived as a restorative medicine, Coca-Cola is now distributed internationally and is the most widely consumed soft drink in the world.

On May 3, 1903, Harry Lillis Crosby was born to Harry Lincoln and Catherine Helen Crosby in Tacoma, Washington, the fourth of seven children. At the age of six, he earned the nickname “Bingo from Bingville.”  Shortened to “Bing,” the name stayed with him throughout his career.  Crosby performed with several bands throughout the 1920s and made his radio debut in 1931. Within a year he had performed in 10 of the top 50 songs on the radio. Throughout the 1940s his acting career proved as successful as his musical career, and today he is widely regarded as one of the most popular and successful performers of the twentieth century.  Crosby continued to perform until his death at the age of 74 in 1977.

Bing Crosby with Phil Harris and Bob Littler listening to record player, Seattle, 1956. Image courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry via King County Snapshots.

You can find primary source documents relating to Bing Crosby and the history of film and radio broadcasting at Opening History.

The Double Helix

On April 25, 1953, Francis Crick and James D. Watson described the double helix structure of DNA for the first time in an article entitled “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid”.

Francis Crick and James Watson, walking along the Backs, Cambridge, England in 1953. Image courtesy of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

The article was published in a volume of the scientific journal Nature, and it remains one of the most important publications in the fields of biology and genetics in the twentieth century.  The photograph below depicts a later model demonstrating the double helix structure, in which genetic instructions are stored and passed down from generation to generation.

Original DNA Demonstration Model from Watson's 1968 book "The Double Helix". Image courtesy of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Through Opening History you can discover many primary source documents from the history of science.  For more information about Crick and Watson’s work in molecular biology and genetics, check out Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s James D. Watson Collection.