THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: DECEMBER 􀏮􀏳􀏮􀏳27, 1831

H.M.S. Beagle Departs England

Bhms-beagle-departs-englandritish naturalist Charles Darwin sets out from Plymouth, England, aboard the HMS Beagle on a five-year surveying expedition of the southern Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Visiting such diverse places as the Galapagos Islands and New Zealand, Darwin acquired an intimate knowledge of the flora, fauna, and geology of many lands. This information proved invaluable in the development of his theory of evolution, first put forth in his groundbreaking scientific work of 1859, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Darwin’s theory argued that organisms gradually evolve through a process he called “natural selection.” In natural selection, organisms with genetic variations that suit their environment tend to propagate more descendants than organisms of the same species that lack the variation, thus influencing the overall genetic makeup of the species. Most scientists quickly embraced the theory that solved so many puzzles of biological science, but orthodox Christians condemned the work as heresy. Controversy over Darwin’s ideas deepened with the publication of The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), in which he presented evidence of man’s evolution from apes.

By the time of Darwin’s death in 1882, his theory of evolution had become generally accepted. In honor of his scientific work, he was buried in Westminster Abbey beside kings, queens, and other illustrious figures from British history. Subsequent developments in genetics and molecular biology led to modifications in accepted evolutionary theory, but Darwin’s ideas remain central to the field.

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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: DECEMBER 20, 1790

First American Cotton Mill

first-american-cotton-mill-slater-pawtuket-rhode-islandOn December 20, 1790, a mill, with water-powered machinery for spinning, roving, and carding cotton, began operating on the banks of the Blackstone River in Pawtuket, Rhode Island. Based on designs of the English inventor Richard Arkwright, the mill was built by Samuel Slater, a recent English immigrant who had apprenticed with Arkwright’s partner, Jebediah Strutt.

Slater had departed Britain in defiance of the British law against the emigration of textile workers (which would result in the loss of their mechanical skills and technical knowledge) and left for America to seek his fortune. Considered a central figure in the birth of the American textile industry, he eventually built several successful cotton mills in New England and established the town of Slatersville, Rhode Island.

Prior to the Civil War, textile manufacture was America’s most important industry. The first American power loom was constructed in 1813 by a group of Boston merchants headed by Francis Cabot Lowell for which the town of Lowell, Massachusetts, was named. Soon, textile mills dotted the rivers of New England transforming the landscape, the economy, and the people. Initially, millwork was performed by daughters of local farmers. In later years, immigration became the source of mill “hands” and entire families labored together in the textile mills of New England.

Conditions in Lowell’s mills were considered exemplary in the 1800s. Nevertheless, by the early twentieth century, Lowell factories saw a number of strikes, including the first successful mass strike that was led by the Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”) in 1912. Lowell factories, well connected to Boston by canal and railroad, provided an early model for subsequent U.S. corporate and entrepreneurial organization.

By the 1920s, the South had eclipsed New England in textile production. The Southern plants in Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas, were located closer to the raw materials—that is, the cotton plantations. The system of family labor continued; child labor was an essential component. Textile worker Fannie Miles remembers her transition from farm to factory at the age of nine:

I was just nine years old when we moved to a cotton mill in Darlington, South Carolina, and I started to work in the mill. I was in a world of strangers. I didn’t know a soul. The first morning I was to start work, I remember coming downstairs feelin’ strange and lonesome-like. My grandfather, who had a long, white beard, grabbed me in his arms and put two one-dollar bills in my hand. He said, “Take these to your mother and tell her to buy you some pretty dresses and make ‘em nice for you to wear in this mill.” I was mighty proud of that. 

“I’m Not Lonesome.” Mrs. Fannie Miles interviewed by Mattie Jones, December 1, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division 


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: DECEMBER 15, 1791

The Bill of Rights Ratified

bill-of-rights-ratifiedAfter the American Revolution, the former colonies created new governments and replaced their colonial charters with new constitutions. Each constitution included a bill of rights. The first state constitution was drafted by George Mason (1725–1792) and adopted by Virginia on June 12, 1776. Known as the Virginia Declaration of Rights, it served as a model for similar bills of rights for other American states, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen adopted in 1789, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Opponents of the Constitution (called “Anti-Federalists”) were shocked that the document did not itself contain a bill of rights, an omission they considered a dangerous defect. Several states in their ratification messages demanded that the Constitution be amended to remedy this flaw. Virginia, for example, asserted that the first U.S. Congress should adopt amendments that assert the rights of the people.

Congress heard the demands and responded accordingly. On June 8, 1789, James Madison presented an initial list of amendments to Congress. In September 1789, a modified list of 12 amendments was submitted to the states; 10 of them, which became the Bill of Rights, were ratified on December 15, 1791. The Bill of Rights secures many fundamental rights such as the freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, the free exercise of religion, the right to bear arms, and the right to a jury trial in certain cases.

Watkins, William J., Jr. “Constitution and Bill of Rights.” America in World History: First Encounters to the Present. Ed. Susan Crean and Tom Lansford. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference, 2013. 76-80. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: DECEMBER 7, 1941

Attack at Pearl Harbor

attack-on-pearl-harborUnder veteran commander Chuichi Nagumo (1887–1944), the Japanese task force dropped anchor 200 miles (320 kilometers) north of Pearl Harbor at about 6 AM Hawaiian time on December 7. For the next hour and 15 minutes, the Japanese carriers launched a total of 360 planes in three waves, all converging on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where Pearl Harbor is located. At the U.S. naval base, sailors were enjoying a quiet Sunday morning. Although the United States had broken the Japanese diplomatic code and knew an attack was likely imminent, no extreme precautions had been taken to protect the base. Radar was a relatively new technology at the time, and few of the Americans on radar duty that morning knew how to properly interpret the various blips that began appearing on their screens.

There were 96 ships of all types in port on December 7, including all U.S. Pacific fleet battleships. The battleships, anchored together along what was called Battleship Row, would be the primary targets for the Japanese air crews. Other Japanese planes were assigned to attack nearby Wheeler Army Air Field to prevent U.S. planes from launching a counterattack. At Wheeler, the U.S. aircraft had been parked closely together, wingtip to wingtip, to make them easier to guard against possible saboteurs. Unfortunately, this formation also made the planes an easy target for the attacking Japanese.

The first bombs began falling at 7:55 AM local time. After the initial shock and confusion, U.S. sailors and Marines began to return fire with anti-aircraft guns aboard ships and on shore. At the airfield, most of the U.S. planes were quickly destroyed on the ground. However, 12 pilots of the 15th Pursuit Group managed to get airborne and engage the Japanese attackers.

By 10 AM the attack was over. The number of American casualties on the ground and in the harbor was shocking. The Japanese sank or severely damaged eighteen ships, including all eight battleships anchored on Battleship Row, three cruisers, and three destroyers. At Wheeler Air Field, 161 U.S. planes were destroyed and another 102 were significantly damaged. More than 3,500 Americans, including soldiers, sailors, Marines, and civilians, were killed or wounded. Japanese losses, by contrast, were light. Almost 30 planes were shot down or crashed, killing 55aviators. The Japanese also lost five midget submarines.

It was a decisive victory for the Japanese navy, but it was not enough to make Americans sue for peace, as Yamamoto had hoped. Fortunately for the Americans, all four of the Pacific fleet aircraft carriers were at sea on December 7 and escaped destruction. In addition, the Japanese had failed to destroy the oil supplies and repair facilities at Pearl Harbor, leaving the United States with just enough strength to strike back.

“Japan Launches a Surprise Attack on Pearl Harbor: December 7, 1941.” Global Events: Milestone Events Throughout History. Ed. Jennifer Stock. Vol. 6: North America. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2014. World History in Context. Web.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: DECEMBER 1, 1955

Rosa Parks Arrested

rosa-parks-arrestedOn December 1, 1955, Rosa Louise Parks (1913–2005) refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus for a white passenger. This act of defiance against Jim Crow segregation sparked the Montgomery bus boycott—often heralded as the beginning of the modern Civil Rights movement—a nonviolent economic boycott of Montgomery’s bus system by the black community that successfully ended racial segregation on the city’s public transit. For her courage and actions, Parks is widely considered the mother of the Civil Rights movement.

Rosa Louise McCauley was born on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama, to James and Leona McCauley. After James and Leona separated, Leona moved with her children, Rosa and Sylvester, to Pine Level, Alabama, a town on the outskirts of Montgomery where they lived with Leona’s parents. By the age of 11, Rosa attended the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, and a few years later, she attended the laboratory school at Alabama State Teacher’s College for Negroes in Montgomery. Family illnesses forced Rosa to abandon her education to support her family.

While living in Montgomery, 18-year-old Rosa met Raymond Parks, a barber. The self-educated Parks had been one of the charter members of Montgomery’s NAACP and had been actively involved in supporting the Scottsboro Boys’ defense in the early 1930s. Parks’s courage, at a time when black activism was extremely dangerous, deeply impressed Rosa. They were married on December 18, 1932, in Pine Level. Historian and Parks’s biographer Douglas Brinkley has noted that her husband was a significant factor in her radicalization during the Great Depression, as he would discuss the NAACP an its strategies for encouraging African American suffrage and integration with Parks. Encouraged by her husband, Rosa Parks returned to school and earned her high school diploma in 1933.

Until World War II, Parks had not been involved in the black civil rights struggle. This changed after she took a job at Maxwell Field in Montgomery in 1941. By 1943, all military bases, Maxwell Field included, had been desegregated. Unlike Montgomery’s city buses, she rode integrated trolleys on base and her experience at desegregated Maxwell prompted her to join the Montgomery NAACP. At her first meeting, Parks was elected secretary of the organization. In this capacity, she helped lead a voter registration drive, although white registrars worked diligently to keep African Americans off the voter rolls. It took until April 1945 for Parks to finally be registered to vote.

After the war, Parks continued as secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, but she also worked as a housekeeper and seamstress, most notably for the liberal white activists Clifford and Virginia Durr. In July 1955, Virginia Durr arranged for Parks to attend a two-week session on racial desegregation at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. The experience at Highlander, and her exposure to individuals such as civil rights pioneer Septima Clark, strengthened her desire to work for civil rights.

Just months after her return from Highlander, on the evening of December 1, 1955, Parks violated segregation laws by refusing to give her seat to a white passenger on a city bus. Parks initially had been seated in the first row of the black section, but as more whites boarded the bus, the color line moved farther back. When this occurred, African Americans were expected to relinquish their seats to make room for the white passengers. Parks refused. The bus driver, James F. Blake, called the police and had Parks arrested. As she recounted in her autobiography, she was not physically tired. A few days later, Parks was found guilty of disorderly conduct and violating a Montgomery ordinance and fined $10, plus $4 in court costs.

In response to Parks’s arrest, E. D. Nixon and Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College, met to discuss a boycott of the bus system by Montgomery’s African Americans. At a subsequent mass meeting, Martin Luther King Jr., the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was chosen to lead the effort. The entire African American community supported the Montgomery bus boycott, refusing to ride the city’s buses for 381 days, placing a tremendous financial strain on the bus company. On May 11, 1956, a federal court decision in Browder v. Gayle ruled Alabama’s bus segregation laws unconstitutional, upheld by the United States Supreme Court on November 13, 1956. The boycott came to an end on December 20, 1956, after the city passed a desegregation ordinance for the city’s buses. Whereas the boycott propelled King into national prominence as the leader of the Civil Rights movement, Rosa Parks’s courageous refusal to give in to the inequities of the Jim Crow system made her a symbolic figure whose inspiration reached well beyond the borders of the United States.

Although Parks was a symbol of the Civil Rights movement and an inspiration to millions because of her courage and quiet dignity, official recognition of her contributions to American history came late in her life. On September 9, 1996, President William J. Clinton presented her with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to a civilian. A few years later, on May 3, 1999, she received a Congressional Gold Medal. Time magazine also recognized her as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Rosa Parks died on October 24, 2005, in Detroit at the age of 92. In striking contrast to her notoriety as one of the most detested figures in the United States after the boycott, Rosa Park became the first woman in American history to lie in state in the United States Capitol. It is estimated that 50,000 people paid their respects to the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Puckett, Dan J. “Parks, Rosa.” Encyclopedia of African American History. Ed. Leslie M. Alexander and Walter C. Rucker. Vol. 3. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010. 955-957. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web.


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