Thursday, July 8, 2021

July 9: The "Ugly Laws"


July 9, 1867, the first  "Ugly Law" was passed by the City of San Francisco as order #783,  “To Prohibit Street Begging, and to Restrain Certain Persons from Appearing in Streets and Public Places”.  The initial primary purpose had more to do with appearance, prohibiting both the activity of street begging and the appearance in public of “certain persons”, however the laws actually prevented those with physical disabilities from coming out in public. 

One of the most famous Ugly Laws came from Chicago 1881 ordinance: “Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares, or public places in the city, shall not therein or thereon expose himself or herself to public view, under the penalty of a fine of $1 to $50 for each offense”.  (About $1100 in today’s dollars.)  If the offending person could not pay, they were sent to the poorhouse.

This may explain the phenomenon of “deformed” persons joining “the freak shows” in a circus.  How coincidental that the height of the commercial success of the “freak show” was during the activity of these Ugly Laws.  The Ugly Laws did not prohibit these people from being seen in public as entertainment ….. they just could not socialize with the public in restaurants, theaters, libraries, etc.  Children and adults with disabilities, even mild ones,  were hidden away or sent to asylums.

While immigrants and newly freed blacks became a big target of these laws, women bore the brunt of the Ugly Laws since “proper femininity” was definitive of how women should be.  “Columbus, Ohio had an ugly ordinance that included prohibitions on “lewd or lascivious behavior,” “indecent, immodest or filthy acts”….”  Women accused of prostitution or even having a child out of wedlock could fall victim to these Ugly Laws, which led to the famous case of Buck vs. Bell in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said “Three generations of imbeciles are enough!” as he sentenced Carrie Buck to involuntary sterilization after she gave birth to a child conceived during a rape.

It was after WW2, when soldiers returned with missing limbs, scars and blindness, that these Ugly Laws began to be challenged, and recognition of the rights of the disabled began to lead the public conversations. But it was not until almost half a century later, on July 26, 1990, that the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed by President Bush.

The last arrest under an Ugly Law was in Omaha Nebraska when a homeless man with multiple scars was arrested.  The judge turned him loose by saying although the law was active and enforceable, there was no clear or legal definition of “ugly”, therefore the defendant did not meet the criteria.

Chicago repealed the last Ugly Law on the books in 1974.


Wednesday, March 3, 2021

ELIZABETH KECKLEY - Seamstress in the White House

 On this date in history - March 4, 1861 - 

Elizabeth Keckley meets Mary Todd Lincoln on the day of Lincoln’s first 
Inauguration and ended up becoming Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker and companion.  Keckley was born a slave, owned by her father. She became a nursemaid to her master’s baby when she was 4 or 5. Her mother, a domestic servant and seamstress, was well liked by the family and was allowed to be taught to read and write. She taught these skills to her daughter Elizabeth.  

The white family had multiple financial problems and Elizabeth’s sewing skills were eventually used to make money for the family and their 17 children.  She offered to give all of her money to her owner in exchange for not hiring out Elizabeth’s aged mother for extra money as they were on the verge of bankruptcy.  Soon other white women were coming to her for their dresses. 

She found supporters who helped her buy her and her only son’s freedom, then moved to Washington DC. where she found it hard to set up a business unless she could find a white person to vouch that she was really free.  A client helped put her in touch with a few influential people, including Varna Davis, the wife of soon-to-be Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  Davis encouraged Elizabeth to come with her to the South “….as a war will soon be upon us.”  Elizabeth declined.  

The Lincolns soon arrived in DC to get ready for Lincoln’s inauguration.  A DC woman needed a dress made for a social meeting she had with the Lincolns,  but Elizabeth turned it down due to the late notice.  The customer told her “I have often heard you say that you would like to work for the ladies of the White House. Well, I have it in my power to obtain you this privilege. I know Mrs. Lincoln well, and you shall make a dress for her provided you finish mine in time to wear at dinner on Sunday.” 

The dress was made and Elizabeth was introduced to Mary Todd Lincoln.  They developed a strong business and personal relationship.  Elizabeth’s only son, George, a Union soldier, was killed in battle about six months before Willie Lincoln died.  Two mothers mourning the death of their sons bonded Elizabeth and Mary Lincoln even closer.  When Lincoln was shot, Mary Lincoln cried out for Elizabeth to be brought to her side for comfort. 

In 1868, Elizabeth wrote a book about her years in the White House, Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, Four Years in the White House, believing it would  help “redeem her own character as well as Mrs. Lincoln’s.”  There had been great controversy about Mrs. Lincoln’s decision to try to sell some of her clothes to raise money and Elizabeth had helped with this project.

“By writing down the story of her enslavement, her intimate conversations with Washington’s elite women, and her relationship with Mary Lincoln, Keckly violated social norms of privacy, race, class, and gender.  Although other formerly enslaved people like Frederick Douglass wrote generally well received memoirs during the same time period…..” , the book by Elizabeth, a black woman, seemed to enrage the public, with some pointing this as a reason black women should not be educated.

Mrs. Lincoln felt “betrayed by the intimate details” and never spoke to Elizabeth again. Elizabeth’s customers began disappearing and she began training other seamstresses. “In 1892, she accepted a position as the head of Wilberforce University’s Dept of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts.”  She died May 26, 1907, at the age of 89, a t the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

May 7: Indiana Territory

On this date in History ... May 7, 1800:

A bill is passed to divide the Northwest Territory and the Indiana Territory is created. The capital was Vincennes, the oldest settlement in Indiana territory, and William Henry Harrison, who would become the 9th President of the United States, was made governor of the Territory less than a week later.  

After Ohio, Michigan and Illinois were formed (in 1803, 1805, and 1809), various areas in Indiana, particularly those near the Michigan line and in Wayne County, by the Ohio line, wrote to the government protested the distance of Vincennes from the rest of the people which made it difficult to conduct business with travel times so far.  In 1813, the capital was moved to Corydon.  After a few years, complaints about the distance again surfaced. It was decided in 1820 to move the capital to a more central location and in 1821, the city of Indianapolis was founded just for this purpose.

May 6: Chinese Exclusion Act

On this date in History ... May 6, 1882: 

President Arthur signed and approved the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first significant law restricting immigration, that one senator called “the legalization of racial discrimination.” For the first time, Federal law denied entry of an ethnic working group on the premise that it “endangered the good order of certain localities.” It was an absolute ten-year freeze or moratorium for labor immigration from China.  

While only intended to last ten years, the law was intended to last only 10 years, but wasn’t repealed until 1943. The first major Chinese immigration was during the California gold rush that started in 1848. The Chinese population was “tolerated” as long as the gold was plentiful, but when the gold started running low, animosity toward “the foreigners” rose. The Chinese immigrants moved to larger cities, such as San Francisco, and took low paying jobs such as laundry and restaurant work where they were soon blamed for depressed wage levels.  

Chinese who were already in America when this bill passed now had additional requirements.  If they left the country, they had to get new certification to get back in the country, something that was very difficult under the 1882 Act.  

By 1943, the anti-Chinese feeling in America was much subdued and Congress repealed all exclusion Acts, allowing 105 Chinese born immigrants per year and gave foreign-born Chinese who were in America the right to apply for naturalization.

Sources include:


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

May 5: Alan Shepard

On this date in History .... May 5, 1961:  

Alan Shepard becomes the 1st American & the 2nd person in space on a short, 15 minute flight as part of the Mercury Seven astronauts, the first American space program.

In 1971, he became commander of Apollo 14 & the 5th person to walk on the moon. “When reporters asked Shepard what he thought about as he sat atop the Redstone rocket, waiting for liftoff, he replied, ‘The fact that every part of this ship was built by the low bidder.’”    

Ten years later, at the age of 47 and the oldest astronaut at the time, Shepard became the commander of Apollo 14, becoming “the fifth and oldest person to walk on the moon.”  He was the only member of the original Mercury Seven to walk on the moon. While he was on the moon, he hit two golf balls. 

Shepard died of leukemia in 1998 and his wife of 53 yrs died 5 weeks later.

May 4: Ida B. Wells

On this date in History .... May 4, 1884:

Ida B. Wells, a schoolteacher, was sitting in a woman’s railroad car, reading, when the conductor ordered her to move to the “Jim Crow” car. She refused, saying that was a smoking car and she was in the ladies car.  When the conductor grabbed her, she “sunk her teeth” into his arm.  

The 1875 Civil Rights Act had banned discrimination based on race on transportation but in 1883, the Supreme Court declared this act unconstitutional.  The ruling said Congress did not have the power to void discrimination acts by individuals as it did on state action or laws  Private acts of racial discrimination were simply private wrongs that the national government was powerless to correct”.

When she sued the railroad for her treatment, her attorney was paid off by the railroad, so she hired a white attorney and won a $500 settlement.  The judge says she was indeed a lady.  She was a schoolteacher and was “dressed accordingly.”  Her victory was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.  Ms. Wells went on to be a civil rights activist by being a journalist. 

As a journalist, she became aware that the new black middle class was at risk when three of her friends were lynched.  Before this, she had thought such lynchings, while deplorable, were targeted at those in the lower class who may have been involved in activities that merited a kind of punishment.  Her eyes were then opened to see that lynchings were a way to “get rid of negroes who acquired wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized…..”

Sources include: 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

May 3: Mills College Allows Men to Enroll

On this date in History ... May 3, 1990:

Mills College, a women’s college, voted to allow men to enroll as a means to  to help their financial situation.  

The decision resulted in a 2 week strike by students and faculty.  Over 300 students blockaded the administration offices and boycotted classes. Faculty and alumni supported the student movement by offering pay cuts, to teach more classes, to collect more endowment pledges and more alumni donations, showing the administration they could survive their financial needs. 

On May 18, the trustees reversed their decision, becoming the only women's college that reversed its financial decision to become coed because of the will of its students, alumnae, and faculty.