Youth History Uncovered
Hoose Shines a Light on America's Secrete Past
We Were There, Too!: Young People in U.S. History by Phillip Hoose (2001). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN: 0374382522.
When American schools, and even most history books, omit the contributions of children and teenagers, they leave the false impression that youth have done nothing but look on as adults shaped our world. Phillip Hoose is on a mission to fix that.
In his prize-winning biography of Claudette Colvin, Hoose shows us that old Rosa Parks didn't do anything that a teenager didn't do first. His earlier book We Were There, Too! examines all of American history, introducing us to dozens of youths who have been wrongly kept out of our history books.
Fighting for Independence
All across America, 8th graders are told about the Boston Massacre, which enraged many of our founders to war against the British Empire. Hoose reveals that children and teenagers played a central role in this event.
In 1770, about 150 Boston children — patriots — protested a shop that continued to trade with the British. When tempers flared in this confrontation, the shopkeeper shot and killed 11-year-old Christopher Seider. In response to Seider's death, protesters of all ages came two weeks later, confronting British soldiers — Red Coats. The Red Coats' response to this protest would go down as "The Boston Massacre."
Abigail and Rebecca Bates lived in a lighthouse in Scituate, Massachusetts. The town was captured by the British in June of 1814, and the Bates's, along with all their neighbors, lived under British occupation until later that summer when a regiment of American soldiers chased the British out. Once the town seemed secure, the American soldiers moved along, but they left the Bates family a few muskets in case trouble returned.
In September, trouble returned. Another ship full of Red Coats appeared in Scituate Harbor. The British invaders climbed into their rowboats and headed toward the shore. The girls knew they had to do something.
Isolated in the lighthouse, alone with their little brother, they decided using the muskets would be futile; they might kill one or two Red Coats, but they would soon be overwhelmed by Red Coats who would now be enraged. So quick-thinking Rebecca convinced her sister to join her in using the other gifts the American Army had left them — two trinkets the girls had enjoyed playing with: a fife and a drum. The girls now played "Yankee Doodle," the anthem of the American army, hoping to trick the Red Coats into believing American soldiers were present and were sounding a call to arms.
When the Red Coats heard, they turned their boats around so fast a soldier fell overboard. The British ship fired a futile shot at the lighthouse, then fled.
Two teenagers had successfully defended the town without firing a shot.
Americans all know, of course, the story of Betsy Ross sewing the first American flag. The story is bogus. Historians do not know who really made the first American flag. But as Hoose reveals, historians do know the names of the five women who made the most important American flag, the one that inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem, the humungous star-spangled banner that weathered rain and a torrent of British bombs and rockets to lift the morale of Americans at Fort McHenry. Three of those five women were teenagers.
Johnny Clem A.K.A. Johnny Shiloh
One year later, in the battle of Chicamauga, Georgia, Johnny Shiloh was blind in a fog of gun smoke and he stumbled behind enemy lines. When a Confederate spotted him and attempted a capture, Johnny blasted him with a shotgun, then played dead until nightfall, and finally snuck back to the Union side.
Famous in his own time, Johnny Shiloh and his acts of courage are today ignored by middle-aged historians.
But among the Civil War events still publicized by historians are the horrors of the Andersonville POW camp, where captured Union soldiers were tortured and starved by their Confederate captors. As Hoose reveals, the public first learned about these horrors from a teenager.
Union soldier Billy Bates was 14 when he was captured and sent to Andersonville. When the commandant of the camp learned Bates was trying to dig an escape tunnel, he ordered Bates hung by his thumbs. "[My] flesh was cut to the bone by my weight," Bates later wrote.
For the next two years, Bates was slowly starved as were all the prisoners. Bates weighed less than 60 pounds when, at the age of 16, he finally escaped. Bates made it to the Union lines and was then sent to Washington, D.C., where, as the first successful escapee, he personally related his experiences to President Lincoln.
Later, America frowned on allowing soldiers as young as Bates or Clem. Nevertheless, during World War II, 12-year-old Calvin Graham joined the U.S. Navy by forging documents to make himself seem older. He earned a Bronze Star and other medals before his true age was discovered. A suspicious officer ordered him home to have his true age investigated.
When Graham returned to the United States, unfortunately, officials got the story wrong and thought he was a sailor pretending to be underaged so he could get out of military service. They arrested this young patriot for desertion and stripped him of his medals. He spent three months in jail before they finally got the story straightened out. Graham was released from jail and from the Navy, but he was denied an honorable discharge, denied veteran's benefits, and denied the return of his medals.
Shaking Up Society
Hoose rightly recognizes that wars are not the only parts of our history worth examining. Young people's contributions in times of peace have been even more important.
Hoose tells the story of Phillis Wheatley, a slave in colonial America, who was 12 when she wrote her first poems. They were not only published, they were so good they brought suspicion and controversy. Many people insisted no black, let alone a slave, could have written such poetry, while our earliest abolitionists cited these poems as proof that blacks were fit for better roles in life.
The Labor Movement, too, was boosted by youth. In 1899, prepubescent "newsies" (boys who stood on street corners selling newspapers) organized a strike that resulted in the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers losing 2/3rds of their sales. The corporate giants finally buckled and offered the boys a more profitable deal.
In 1836, a cotton mill was shut down when 1,500 workers went on strike. Nearly all the employees were women and children (selected because they could be had for lower wages). Among the strike-leaders was 11-year-old Harriet Hanson. The cotton mill was so eager to get Hanson out of their hair, they kicked her and her mother out of the company-owned boardinghouse. Homeless and jobless, Harriet Hanson never broke. She went on to become a leading abolitionist and suffragist.
Hoose shows us the Women's Suffrage movement through the eyes of Edna Purtell, a teenager who marched in Washington D.C., went to jail, and endured the famous hunger strike depicted in Iron Jawed Angels. Hoose shows us the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of Carolyn McKinstry, a 14-year-old who had to sneak around her parents to take part in the Birmingham protests. (After McKinstry was arrested by Bull Conner's thuggish police, her parents grounded her.) Hoose covers American history as thoroughly as any textbook, and shows us that every major event involved youth as much as it involved adults.
Mary Beth Tinker and John Tinker
While filled with fascinating information, this book aimed at young readers also has one big drawback: Hoose displays a frequent tendency to talk down to the reader. The chapter on Bill Gates, for example, tells us the 12-year-old Gates liked to spend his nights hanging out with friends, "ordering out for pizza, reading books about computers, and typing instructions called programs to make the computers do what they wanted." Wow! So THAT'S what a "program" is!
Such annoyances, however, are a small price to pay for the wealth of information this book offers readers.
Anyone who cares about youth, and anyone who cares about American history, should read We Were There, Too!