02
Sep 14

Back to School: The College Board Desegregates the SATs

It’s September, and school is back in session! In honor of the end of summer and the start of another school year, we’ve asked Jan Bates Wheeler to swing by the blog and tell us the remarkable story of the desegregation of the College Board and its partner, Educational Testing Services.

In 1960, the College Board and its testing partner, Educational Testing Services (ETS), unexpectedly became participants in the movement to desegregate schools. Many southern black students wishing to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) complained that they were treated disrespectfully at the white high schools that administered the tests. Moreover, some were turned away altogether, left with no SAT scores to report to admissions offices. The injustice of this insidious barrier to higher education for the growing number of black students in the South wishing to enroll in college motivated the two organizations. “Standardized testing” meant that all those being tested should receive the same, fair treatment.

Working through the College Board’s newly established Southern Regional Office, the College Board and ETS desegregated SAT centers in the Deep South before the schools themselves integrated. The actual work of negotiating for desegregated testing fell on two College Board employees, Ben Cameron and Ben Gibson, both white southern liberals. For nearly four years, they traveled, separately, around Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, dropping in unannounced at hundreds of high schools to convince white school officials to allow black students into their segregated schools and treat them respectfully. State laws, local customs, and white supremacist organizations dictated otherwise. Consequently, Cameron and Gibson often faced open hostility and sometimes even the possibility of violence toward themselves and anyone whose cooperation they won. Their quiet, persistent strategy, reinforced by a contingency plan hatched with the Department of Defense that established test centers at military bases, eventually succeeded. Significantly, they accomplished most of their work prior to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which accelerated the pace of school desegregation.

Cameron and Gibson’s story, told through their candid reports and records of conversations with individual school officials, offers a unique perspective on school desegregation. Their responsibility placed them in the unusual position of advocating for school desegregation as part of their jobs. Their writings, apparently untouched for nearly fifty years, reveal the dedication required to reach a goal many thought unachievable. The College Board had charged the Southern Regional Office with expanding its programs throughout the South. Insisting on desegregated SAT test centers placed the College Board squarely in opposition to prevailing laws, customs, and attitudes—an unenviable and ill-advised position for any nascent business venture—and added a financial risk to their already daunting task.

In order to minimize the risk to all concerned, Cameron and Gibson pledged not to publicize their efforts in any way. Even years after they completed their work, the two men refused to write about their campaign for fear of compromising the safety of the school officials and military base commanders who had helped them. Their legitimate concern kept this story largely untold until now.

Remarkably, throughout their campaign the two men consistently treated everyone with respect, no matter how offensive some school officials became. At one point, following an unsuccessful meeting with a South Carolina superintendent, Cameron took follow-up telephone calls from the official almost daily for three weeks, patiently “listenin’ ” and talkin’” until he achieved a desegregated center. Cameron and Gibson agreed that they would never leave an adversary “in a bad mood,” no matter what. Their ability to remain civil and even friendly in situations where widely divergent views collided stands in sharp contrast to today’s polarized exchanges. I admire the courage, dedication, patience, and powers of persuasion of Cameron and Gibson. Had they wanted to retreat and wait for school desegregation to solve their testing center problem, their superiors at the College Board would have acquiesced. Instead, the two men persisted.

Having found this “lost” story while looking for material for my dissertation, I felt responsible for sharing it. Besides contributing a minor chapter to an important period of U.S. history, Cameron and Gibson offer valuable lessons through the low-key, personal approach they brought to a difficult situation. As we reflect on important milestones in the Civil Rights movement, we might remember especially its characteristics of persistence, non-violence, and civility, exemplified by the SAT desegregation project, and consider the approach we ourselves might take in pursuing similar injustices.

Jan Bates Wheeler is associate director for Accreditation in the Office of Academic Planning at the University of Georgia, and the author of A Campaign of Quiet Persuasion: How the College Board Desegregated SAT® Test Centers in the Deep South, 1960-1965. This piece appeared for the first time at UGA’s Research Magazine, and it is reused here by permission.


19
Jun 14

Today in History: 19 June 1964

After an 83-day filibuster in the Senate, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the Senate on June 19th of that year. The act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or country of origin, and forbade prejudicial application of voter registration requirements. In his book When Freedom Would Triumph, Robert Mann quotes President Lyndon B. Johnson on his memory of the passage of that historic act: “I knew . . . that to the extent Negroes were free, really free, so was I. And so was my country.”

When Freedom Would Triumph recalls the most significant and inspiring legislative battle of the twentieth century–the two decades of struggle in the halls of Congress that resulted in civil rights for the descendants of American slaves. Robert Mann’s comprehensive analysis shows how political leaders in Washington–Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, John F. Kennedy, and others–transformed the ardent passion for freedom–the protests, marches, and creative nonviolence of the civil rights movement–into concrete progress for justice. A story of heroism and cowardice, statesmanship and political calculation, vision and blindness, When Freedom Would Triumph, an abridged and updated version of Mann’s The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell, and the Struggle for Civil Rights, is a captivating, thought-provoking reminder of the need for more effective government.

Robert Mann is the author of Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater, and the Ad That Changed American Politics; When Freedom Would Triumph: The Civil Rights Struggle in Congress, 1954–1968; and many other books. He is also a political columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

This summer, LSU Press is “Made in Louisiana”! Through July 4th, read local and you will receive 35% off When Freedom Would Triumph and hundreds of other titles by Louisiana authors. Shop the sale at our website, using offer code 04LALOVE at checkout.


30
May 14

Today in History: The Lincoln Memorial

The dedication of the Lincoln Memorial took place on 30 May 1922, presided over by former president William Taft, with Lincoln’s only surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, in attendance. But not everyone was thrilled about the new memorial and its glorification of the sixteen president.

Graphite sketch of the proposed Memorial by architect Henry Bacon (Library of Congress / Prints and Photographs Division)

In a July editorial following the statue’s dedication, historian and civil rights activist W. E. B. DuBois wrote:

Abraham Lincoln was . . . poorly educated and unusually ugly, awkward, ill-dressed. . . . At the crisis [Civil War] he was big enough to be inconsistent — cruel, merciful; peaceloving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man — a big, inconsistent, brave man.

Frustrating as DuBois found Lincoln’s inadequate devotion to the abolitionist cause, other writers of the time disliked him for just the opposite reason. Lexington writer Mary Scrugham published a substantial article attacking Lincoln in response to the dedication of the Lincoln memorial. Describing Reconstruction as a “hideous crime against white womanhood,” she decried Lincoln’s reelection as illegitimate:

The glory bestowed upon Abraham Lincoln for saving the American Union is a strange paradox, for he did not save the union. The fact is, he came very near to destroying it. . . . A union based on force and a union based on consent are as different as day and night, whether in government or matrimony. Force is force; and the mailed fist is the mailed fist, whether it is raised on the field of Flanders, by the streams of Ireland, or on a “march through Georgia.”

Similarly, Richmond writer Langbourne Williams wrote that the mercilessness and brutality of the Union troops meant that

in the interest of truth, and the honor of the U.S., the Lincoln memorial at Washington should be taken down and converted into some charitable institution.

While most Americans count Abraham Lincoln among the most beloved and admired former presidents, a dedicated minority has long viewed him as not only the worst president in the country’s history, but also as a criminal who defied the Constitution and advanced federal power and the idea of racial equality. Intrigued? Learn more in John McKee Barr’s book Loathing Lincoln, the first ever panoramic study of Lincoln’s critics.

Now through June 6th, you can get 45% off Loathing Lincoln and hundreds of other LSU Press titles, using the offer code 04MILHIS. Shop our military history sale today!


05
May 14

Nazis, Justice, and Postwar Spain

From now until D-Day (June 6th), get 45% off hundreds of military history titles. Learn more here, and remember to visit the blog every Monday of the sale to read guest posts on military history by distinguished LSU Press authors!

Walter Eugen Mosig joined the Criminal Police in Berlin when the Nazis came to power in Germany, being a Party member himself. In 1936, he was sent to Spain by the German police as an observer of the Spanish Civil War, establishing contact with the rebel Nationalist forces led General Franco. In 1942, back in Germany, he transferred to the SS Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), and joined the Foreign Intelligence arm of the Nazi Party, the Sicherhietsdienst (SD). Due to his experience in Spain, now a neutral state under Franco’s dictatorship, he was posted to Madrid in early 1943 as an intelligence agent involved in the hiding of Nazi funds within Spanish companies.

Mosig stayed in Spain with the war’s end, to avoid the sure arrest he would have suffered in Germany occupied by the United States and its Allies, due to his membership in the SS. Soon enough he was offered a position within the Spanish intelligence community that he had worked so closely with during the war. Because of his wartime work, and especially because a leading Nazi was now employed by the Spanish Government, both the United States and the United Kingdom asked for Mosig’s arrest and repatriation to occupied Germany. Given a heads-up by his Spanish associates that he was in trouble, Mosig abandoned his post and went into hiding. Eventually Mosig was arrested by Spanish officials who came to realize that the US considered him one of the most important Nazis still in Spain. He was repatriated to occupied Germany in August 1946, where he was placed in the US-run Civilian Internment Camp 76 in Hohenasperg, Germany. From there he was transferred to the US internment camp in Ludwigsburg. During a movement of prisoners from this camp in October 1947, Mosig escaped. Within a week he was back in Madrid. He remained in Spain for another year and then in 1948 he immigrated to Cordoba, Argentina.

Mosig’s story is one that I write about in my book Hunting Nazis in Franco’s Spain. It is remarkable in many respects. His story shows how integrated Nazism was across Europe, including in officially neutral states like Spain that were really quite pro-German. It also shows the extent to which the United States after World War II sought to rid the continent of Nazism. Finally, it shows how that effort, although extensive, most often didn’t produce the result of trial and imprisonment that many of us think of when we think of justice. Certainly we all recognize that many Nazis with criminal pasts, whether technically war criminals or not, got off. Yet the American ambition to denazify Europe, which extended outside of occupied Germany itself, is often overlooked. Looking at it within the locale of post-war Spain—a country under dictatorial rule, with a government that had worked closely with Nazi Germany and one that had been flooded with Nazi money and Nazi agents during the war—opens up numerous questions about what justice meant in Europe after the Second World War. I think reflecting on the hunt is just as worthwhile as considering the results.

DAVID A. MESSENGER is associate professor of history at the University of Wyoming and the author of Hunting Nazis in Franco’s Spain.


28
Apr 14

A Cautionary Tale: France and World War I

From now until D-Day (June 6th), get 45% off hundreds of military history titles. Learn more here, and remember to visit the blog every Monday of the sale to read guest posts on military history by distinguished LSU Press authors!

As we approach the centennial of World War I, it’s hard not to wonder how Europeans could have entered into such a bloodbath. In hindsight, the lessons from nineteenth-century conflicts seem clear: long-range artillery destroys offensive élan, and prolonged war causes social instability and even revolution. Why would any country go to war, and stay with it once it became clear that it wouldn’t be over by Christmas?

But the lessons learned from earlier conflicts were not always the ones that we might think. France after the Franco-Prussian War provides a case in point. When France went to war with Prussia and its German allies in 1870, it had no clear war aims, no systematic plan for mobilization, and no allies. It was unprepared for war. A series of demoralizing defeats led to the battle of Sedan, in which French Emperor Napoleon III and his army were captured. And the war didn’t end there: the government that took Napoleon III’s place decided to continue the fight, which dragged on for four more months. In the end, Prussia and its allies unified into the German Empire, France lost Alsace and much of Lorraine, and Paris underwent the Commune and its bloody repression.

The link that is often drawn between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I is that of revenge: the traumatized French were eager to inflict vengeance and win back their lost territories. But revenge—or revanchisme—motivated only a small minority of nationalists. Much more potent was the belief that a nation and its citizens could and should prepare in advance for a future conflict.

Starting in the 1880s, after the initial trauma of the “terrible year” had started to heal, many French citizens started to believe that the blame for the loss lay not just with politicians and generals, but also with themselves. So they got organized. They believed that all citizens, especially young males, needed to join together to hone their bodies, gather bandages, and unify their wills toward a French victory in a yet-unknown future war. Young men joined clubs where they trained in gymnastics and riflery. Red Cross organizations mushroomed around the country, urging women and men to learn how to dress wounds. Commemorative ceremonies at war memorials became politicized, nationalistic spectacles aimed at motivating the next generation of soldiers.

This willingness to prepare for war in times of peace did not necessarily indicate a desire for a war of revenge. Instead, it reflected a drive for self-preservation and devotion to the French nation. By 1914, French citizens had created a civil society capable of mobilizing civilians for war.

As it turned out, however, French citizens could not have imagined the intensity and the duration of the war that they faced in 1914. How well did the minimally trained Red Cross volunteers fare when confronted with 329,000 French deaths in just the first two months of war? How could the tumbling skills learned in gymnastics prepare soldiers for the Battle of the Marne?

Yet these organizations shaped the Great War because they created a society in which war could be more readily accepted, not only in 1914, but again and again over the course of the next four years. Historian Jean-Jacques Becker asks, “Why were the French so ready to make sacrifices in 1914 when they had been so unprepared for them in the past?” One answer is that they had been emotionally and socially preparing for that sacrifice for decades. French organizations didn’t cause World War I, but they provide a cautionary tale: democracy and a robust civil society do not in themselves prevent war. In France one hundred years ago, they helped to sustain it.

Rachel Chrastil is Associate Professor of History at Xavier University and author of Organizing for War: France, 1870–1914.


21
Apr 14

The Civil War Battles for Chattanooga

From now until D-Day (June 6th), get 45% off hundreds of military history titles. Learn more here, and remember to visit the blog every Monday of the sale to read guest posts on military history by distinguished LSU Press authors!

In 1889 an uneasy reunion took place in the fields and forest near a fabled creek in North Georgia: a gathering between Union and Confederate veterans who had slaughtered each other in staggering numbers at that spot little more than twenty-five years earlier. Willing to set differences and loathing aside (albeit briefly), they convened for a barbecue and picnic – the first of many meetings at the old Chickamauga battlefield – to work toward establishing America’s first congressionally-preserved memorial battleground. It was the first of many meetings at the old Chickamauga battlefield, which in 1895 would became part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

The park, which encompassed several battlefields along the Georgia-Tennessee border, had been the site of some of the most important military turning points of the Civil War. Union and Confederate eyewitnesses to the 1862 and 1863 battles for Chattanooga had seen some of the best and worst of military skill, bravery, and bloodletting: A Yankee route and rebel stampede that resulted in two of the most humiliating retreats for either side in the entire war; heroic charges and forlorn stands, as well as tactical skill and strategic failure by Union and Confederate generals; and perhaps most memorable of all, the terrible carnage that was followed by a series of nearly bloodless victories and defeats. Indeed, the Chickamauga-Chattanooga battles played out almost as though scripted for a Greek tragedy.

The importance of what each side stood to gain and lose at Chattanooga in 1862 and 1863 cannot be overstated. Positioned along the border of the Upper South and Deep South, the city, remote as it was, served as the transportation nexus of the entire Confederacy. Railroads radiated out in four directions, connecting to points in Middle Tennessee, Georgia, the Mississippi Valley, and the Confederate seat of government in Virginia. Whoever controlled Chattanooga would be able to run (or block) supplies and reinforcements to almost any corner of the Confederacy.

Of perhaps even greater importance was the city’s role as a transportation gateway betwixt the nearly insurmountable Appalachian and Cumberland mountain ranges. To the south, beyond Chattanooga’s rugged passageway, lay the Military-Industrial Heartland of the Confederacy, a region that manufactured every material requirement needed for the South to sustain its rebellion. Without the machine shops, armories, arsenals, clothing depots, and gunpowder works in Georgia and eastern Alabama, the South’s long-term military survival was unthinkable.

Neither the Richmond nor the Washington government spared any expenditure of blood or treasure in the struggle to seize and hold Chattanooga. Elements from no fewer than six Union and Confederate armies participated in these campaigns. The 1863 battle of Chickamauga marked the largest clash fought west of the Appalachian Mountains in North America, and the bloodiest 48 hours of the entire war. Chickamauga proved to be the most complete Confederate victory ever won in the war’s western theater. This rebel triumph, however, was almost entirely undone several weeks later, following a series of relatively bloodless Federal victories surrounding Chattanooga. Retreating from the gates of the city that winter, Confederate survivors realized that their hold over the very heart of the western theater was quickly slipping from their grasp.

The consequences of Chattanooga’s loss proved so staggering that one of the Confederate army’s high-ranking commanders, Major General Patrick Cleburne, actually implored his colleagues to pursue a program of incorporating slaves into the South’s military service. The notion was vehemently denounced by nearly everyone who heard it, and rebel forces throughout the western Confederacy continued to trek along on a sixteen-month fighting retreat that only ended with the final surrender of the Army of Tennessee near Durham Station, North Carolina.

A hundred and fifty years later, despite the epic sweep of these events, they rank among the most often overlooked and most widely misunderstood campaigns of the American Civil War. Gateway to the Confederacy brings together a team of historians to offer fresh perspectives on the Chickamauga-Chattanooga campaigns, overturning decades of controversy and misconception that have trailed in the bloody wake of these battles. The book’s ten new essays, from among the most preeminent Civil War scholars working today, provide new understandings of the armies, tactics, common soldiers, politicians and commanders that governed the various battles, marches and sieges waged for Chattanooga, Tennessee and its mountain gateway into the Lower South. Each essay breaks new ground and sheds new light on aspects of these events long in need of reappraisal.


Professor Stephen Innes, the great American historian to whom this book is dedicated, taught his students that the study of history is best pursued through “a colloquy, or conversation with the past.” There is no better place to have that conversation than with the monuments at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Now under the protection of the National Park Service, this park remains the largest preserved battleground in America at more than 9000 acres, and it is among the most densely monumented battlefields anywhere in the world. Almost all of these monuments were left behind by the Civil War generation, as a way of speaking to us from across time. The monuments tell us who these men were, what they did, and where they left behind slain comrades. Above all, they implore us not to forget the human cost of the war itself.

Evan C. Jones is the co-editor, along with Wiley Sword, of the forthcoming collection Gateway to the Confederacy: New Perspectives on the Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns, 1862-1863 (more information here).


01
Jul 13

Andrew Burstein on the Southern Biography series

Andrew Burstein

As the New York-reared editor of the Southern Biography series, I didn’t see anything odd or unusual about including John U. Monro on our list of titles. “Just how is the dean of Harvard College a suitable subject for southern biography?” you ask.

Allow me to respond a bit indirectly:

Most people focus on the South’s distinctiveness–and not often in a good way.  But the region is also a crazy quilt of bustling cultures, and the site of dynamic interactions.  Its history knows the power of human commitment beyond the well-known pain of war and stereotypical forms of religious fervor.  So let us question what it is that makes folks assume the South can only be told according to a traditional storyline.

John Monro’s roots in New England extended back to the seventeenth century, but the roots he planted in Alabama and Mississippi felt just as deep to him.  He was at Harvard in the 1930s, and served on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise in World War II, where he was the damage control officer in a kamikaze attack in the spring of 1945.  Not expecting to survive the war, he resolved after V-J Day to make a difference in the world in tribute to his fallen comrades.

So when he was Harvard’s dean, he didn’t just wallow in whatever power he held.  When the president of historically black Miles College, near Birmingham, Alabama, challenged him to do more than wax eloquently about equality as a part of educational theory, he responded.  Miles students and faculty alike were “foot-soldiers” in Martin Luther King’s Birmingham campaign.  Monro went to Birmingham.

Near the end of his Harvard deanship, he became embroiled in the Timothy Leary (“Tune in, turn on, drop out”) drug controversy, plus Vietnam-era draft resistance.  All of a sudden, Monro took the bold step of exiting the Ivy League to become a foot-soldier at Miles, teaching nothing more dignified (or romantic) than freshman English.  He was hailed as a pioneer and hero for his dramatic decision.  The New York Times, Time magazine, The Nation, and others told his story.

The author of this exceptional biography, Toni-Lee Capossela, writes: “Monro had always looked with skepticism on the layers of privilege and comfort which Harvard’s members were swaddled.”  In one of the more memorable quotes from her book, Monro charges: “Once you start orienting your life around the expectations of pay, family, neighborhood, swimming pools, status, you’re done.”

Monro didn’t think of himself as any kind of hero.  In fact, he felt lucky.  While teaching freshmen at Miles, he told a reporter: “The kids have an old-fashioned idea about college, which I find charming.  They are not cynical.  They believe the college can do something for them.”  So, Monro came south “naked,” a learner.  He came south, and he stayed.

Good historical writing does more than feed an existing consensus–anybody can to that.  No, what makes history and biography really come alive is that which highlights unexpected moves and tells us why they should matter to us.  By telling this unconventional life story without dressing it in “heroic” garb, Professor Emerita Toni-Lee Caposella has done much to carry on the distinction for which the Southern Biography series has been long known.


13
May 13

Segregated Soldiers Uses Southern University to Depict How Higher Education and Military Programs Advanced Civil Rights

In Segregated Soldiers, Marcus S. Cox investigates military training programs at historically black colleges and universities, and demonstrates their importance to the struggle for civil rights. Examining African Americans’ attitudes toward service in the armed forces, Cox focuses on the ways in which black higher education and Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs worked together to advance full citizenship rights for African Americans. Educators at black colleges supported military training as early as the late nineteenth century in hopes of improving the social, economic, and political state of black citizens. Their attitudes reflected the long-held belief of many African Americans who viewed military service as a path to equal rights.

Cox begins his narrative in the decades following the Civil War, when the movement to educate blacks became an essential element in the effort to offer equality to all African Americans. Using Southern University—one of the largest African American institutions of higher learning during the post–World War II era—as a case study, Cox shows how blacks’ interest in military training and service continued to rise steadily throughout the 1950s. Even in the 1960s and early 1970s, despite the growing unpopularity of the Vietnam War, the rise of black nationalism, and an expanding economy that offered African Americans enhanced economic opportunities, support for the military persisted among blacks because many believed that service in the armed forces represented the best way to advance themselves in a society in which racial discrimination flourished.

Unlike recent scholarship on historically black colleges and universities, Cox’s study moves beyond institutional histories to provide a detailed examination of broader social, political, and economic issues, and demonstrates why military training programs remained a vital part of the schools’ missions.

Marcus S. Cox is an associate professor of history at The Citadel Military College of South Carolina. Raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he earned a bachelor’s in marketing and a master’s in history from Southern University, a doctorate in African American history from Northwestern University, and a master’s in business administration from The Citadel.

May 13, 2013
264 pages / 5.5 x 8.5
978-0-8071-5176-1
Cloth $42.95, ebook available


13
May 13

The Politics of Faith during the Civil War Reveals Political Motivations of Religious Leaders during the Civil War

“A thoughtful, deeply researched, and impressive history of the place of religion in nineteenth-century America.”—Aaron Sheehan-Dean, author of Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia

In The Politics of Faith during the Civil War, Timothy L. Wesley examines the engagement of both northern and southern preachers in politics during the American Civil War. Controversial ministers risked ostracism within the local community, censure from church leaders, and arrests by provost marshals or local police. In contested areas of the Upper Confederacy and border Union, ministers occasionally faced deadly violence for what they said or would not say from their pulpits.

The generation that fought the Civil War lived in arguably the most sacralized culture in the history of the United States. The participation of church members in the public arena meant that ministers wielded great authority. Wesley outlines the scope of that influence and considers, conversely, the feared outcomes of its abuse. The reticence of otherwise loyal ministers to bring politics into the pulpit often grew not out of partisan concerns but out of doctrinal, historical, and local factors.

The Politics of Faith during the Civil War sheds new light on the political motivations of home front clergymen during wartime, revealing how and why the Civil War stands as the nation’s first concerted campaign to check the ministry’s freedom of religious expression.

Timothy L. Wesley teaches history at Pennsylvania State University, where he is a fellow with the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center.

May 13, 2013
288 pages, 6 x 9
978-0-8071-5000-9
Cloth $45.00, ebook available


15
Feb 13

The Discovery of King Richard III’s Skeletal Remains

“Such stuff as dreams are made on.” Shakespeare via Prospero said it best, though its modern interpretation may not be exactly what Shakespeare intended. To find the skeletal remains of King Richard III only two feet below the surface of the earth in a modern parking lot in Leicester, England, really is a dream come true for archaeologists and biological anthropologists in Britain. Vilified by Shakespeare in his play and alleged to have exterminated his two young nephews, Richard III was only thirty-two when he was killed in the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485, ending the Wars of the Roses. He was the last English king to be felled in battle. History records that he was buried in an unmarked grave in the Greyfriars church by a small group of faithful supporters. The church was demolished in the 1530s as part of Henry VIII’s suppression of monasteries, and ultimately a parking lot was built on the site. An amazing job of interpreting old maps and sleuthing—with the assistance, of course, of twenty-first-century technology and know-how—aided in his discovery in 2012 and his positive identification in February 2013.

For forensic anthropologists like me, the identification includes multiple levels of interest. First, British researchers state that dramatic perimortem trauma (at or near the time of death) to the base of the king’s skull appeared to be the result of one blow—which in all probability quickly killed him—with a halberd, a medieval weapon composed of a razor-sharp iron ax blade topped with a spike and mounted on a wooden pole. Now that’s a weapon! Other injuries to his skeleton, particularly those to his buttocks region, may substantiate the legend that he was thrown across a horse after death and paraded through the village, where his body may have been further damaged by locals.

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