Wednesday Wonders: 10/20/20

October 20 is a surprisingly eventful day. Here are four things that happened on this date in history, some good, some bad, some ugly.

I found a bunch of things that have happened on October 20, some good some bad, and there were too many to decide which to focus on — so here’s a sampler of the best and worst the day has to offer.

Dancin’

I’m going to start with a bright spot. On this day in 1914, Fayard Nicholas was born. One half of the dancing duo the Nicholas Brothers, along with his brother Harold. They started out performing in the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, New York, eventually appearing in a number of feature films.

They combined tap-dancing with more athletic moves, and if you watch the clip below, I’m sure you’ll be able to see their influence on all the actually talented TikTok dancers doing their moves now.

I was fortunate enough to have known Fayard and his wife Katherine near the end of their lives, and he was an incredibly warm and gracious person. And yes, even in his 90s, he could still hoof it.

Bailing out Bonaparte

Meanwhile, 111 years before Fayard was born in Alabama, the U.S. greatly expanded because Napoleon needed money, and so the Louisiana purchase was ratified by the U.S. Senate (back when they actually got things done) on October 20, 1803, increasing the territory of the U.S. by 828,000 square miles. The cost was $15 million dollars, or $262.3 million adjusted for inflation.

Of course, it all depends on POV. While the USA called it the Louisiana Purchase, the French referred to it as the Vente de la Louisiane, meaning the Louisiana Sale.

On top of that, though, the French didn’t actually control all of the territory they sold to the U.S. A lot of it was under native control, so it was just another example of white, European fuckery. France basically sold the U.S. the right to go screw the natives without any French interference without really having those rights in the first place.

Quelle surprise.

The new territory, however, would push Manifest Destiny forward and begin the great rush to the west, and also enable Andrew Jackson to be a genocidal, racist asshole, leading to his election as the 7th president.

Creating an architectural icon

On a brighter note, 170 years after this land deal was ratified, on October 20, 1973, the Sydney Opera House was officially opened, sixteen years after the original design won a contest in 1957.

There are actually multiple venues within the Opera House itself, comprising a concert hall, a theatre designed for live show, opera, and ballet, and a theatre, cinema, and library, which were later replaced with three live theatres, the smallest one presenting work in the round, and referred to as Drama Theatre, the Playhouse and the Studio.

Incidentally, it cost far more than the Louisiana Purchase — $102 million at the time, $604 million adjusted for inflation.

But what Australia really got for its money was an instant icon, and a man-made symbol that immediately identifies the country to the rest of the world. When anyone anywhere sees the building, they can’t help but immediately think “Australia.”

It’s pretty similar to the Statue of Liberty and the Hollywood Sign; the Elizabeth Tower (since 2012, and often incorrectly called Big Ben), the Tower Bridge, or perhaps the London Eye or Stonehenge; the Little Mermaid; the Eiffel Tower; the Brandenburg Gate; Burj Khalifa; St. Basil’s Cathedral; the Great Wall or Forbidden City; or the Moai of Rapa Nui, aka those big stone heads.

I’m hoping that you got every single country not mentioned by name in the above. That was the power of the creation of the Sydney Opera House.

Athletes being a-holes

But I have to end this piece on a downer, which happened 70 years ago, on October 20, 1951. Dubbed the Johnny Bright Incident, it was a blatant racist hate crime committed in public, during a college football game at what was then Oklahoma A&M (later Oklahoma State University, or OSU.)

Bright was a halfback and quarterback for Drake University, a Heisman Trophy candidate. He was also the first Black footballer to play on Lewis Field, Oklahoma A&M’s home field, in 1949, without incident.

However, in 1951, Oklahoma A&M players decided to target Bright, with the players egged on by both the student newspaper and local press.

Once the game started, Oklahoma A&M player Wilbanks Smith intentionally knocked Bright unconscious 3 times in the first seven minutes, his final attack breaking Bright’s jaw and, although Bright completed a 61-yard touchdown pass despite it, his injuries put him out of the game.

Two photographers, John Robinson and Don Ultang, having heard about the threats against Bright, were on the scene and ready, focusing their cameras on the quarterback and capturing a sequence of images proving that Smith had dealt the jaw-breaking blow well after Bright had handed off the ball. They rushed their photos to Des Moines, Iowa to be published, ultimately winning a Pulitzer for their efforts.

Oklahoma A&M tried to cover up the incident for years, and Smith himself did such mental gymnastics that he actually tried to describe himself as helping the Civil Rights movement, saying that his act was, “a tool [those] organizations used, and it was very effective.”

Smith died in 2020. OSU did not apologize to Drake University for the incident until 2005.

Bright was only 53 when he died in 1983 due to a massive heart attack during surgery for an old knee injury. Smith was 89, once again proving that only the good die young.

Well, mostly. Fayard Nicholas was one of the good ones, and he died very old — albeit still too soon.

Image source: Mfield, Matthew Field, http://www.photography.mattfield.com, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

DNA crisis continued: The bigger picture

Yes, I’m still having a bit of a crisis over the DNA results until things get resolved. It’s not just the being told that my half-brother and I are “not closely related” part. At the same time, I had a huge part of my presumed heritage shift.

As I’ve mentioned before, the test said that I’m a lot more Irish than I thought I was. I knew that I was at least half via my mother, but now that number is over sixty percent. Meanwhile, there’s no German, English, Welsh, Scottish, or French to be found despite presumed genealogical records.

Instead, I have a ton of Scandinavian and some Italian and Basque.

Let me put this in context for my non-American readers. One of those things about us that mystifies visitors from other countries is how we answer the question, “What are you?”

Ask someone from Britain that, and they’ll either say British or declare themselves to be English, Welsh, Scottish, etc. Same thing if you ask somebody in pretty much any other country. The country is the answer.

But ask an American, and the answer you’ll get will basically be a list of where their ancestors came from for as many generations as they know. We can’t help it. More than almost anywhere else, we are an immigrant nation, and as each new immigrant group arrived, its members found themselves and formed their own communities until they spread out and assimilated while frequently still preserving their own cultures — and this country is all the stronger for that latter part.

My mother’s immigrant Irish ancestors, for example, wound up predominantly in upstate New York and rural Pennsylvania, largely because the land and climate reminded them of home. My family’s original locales were Schenectady and Binghamton in New York, and the general Scranton area in Pennsylvania. But I don’t have to tell fans of the American version of The Office where that is.

And while I do have records showing that my father’s ancestors on his paternal grandfather’s side came here by boat from Germany in the 1880s and those on his paternal grandmother’s side got here from England a week after the Pilgrims (more or less), and while at least the German bunch followed the typical immigrant pattern for their group, still — nary a drop of German or English blood.

Which is very strange, because both sides of my dad’s family followed the typical German pattern, particularly the ones who arrived before the Civil War. That pattern was to settle in a big city on the East Coast, frequently in Massachusetts, then be lured west in order to increase a territory’s population to the point that it could become a state with the ultimate goal being to declare it an abolitionist state, aka “no slavery here.”

One of my great-great grandfathers came west in exactly that way, becoming one of the founding residents of Kansas, as well one of the founders of his home county and, ultimately, mayor of his adopted home town.

He also happens to be the one ancestor whose genealogy I can trace back the farthest, to the late 15th century on many branches. And the disturbing part about that is how utterly British his roots were — both English and Welsh.

Or so I thought.

But maybe that’s exactly the point. My ancestors may have come from a country while they weren’t necessarily originally from there. It only takes one marriage with a male local to bury a family name, after all.

Look at it this way. Let’s say a couple moves from Japan to America. A few generations later, one of their daughters marries the grandson of immigrants from Brazil and takes his name. The two of them eventually move to France.

A couple of generations later, a descendant of theirs, who only knows that their ancestors came from America, does the DNA test, expecting to maybe find Native American or mostly European ancestry. Instead, they come up as Japanese, Brazilian, and maybe a couple of other things.

I think that might be the same effect going on here, and a reminder that humans have always been immigrants. In my case, the Scandinavians were the Vikings, and they’d been adventuring far and wide since at least the 10th Century. Hell, they may have even been the first Europeans to visit America.

Okay, I do know that “Viking” was more of an occupation and not a distinct group of people, and that Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians all partook of the job from time to time but that it was not really their identity. However, like sailors and soldiers throughout history, it was a profession that brought people in it into contact with other cultures in distant lands, and sometimes they stayed.

This was certainly the case in the British Isles, to the extent that for a while, the King of the Britons was actually Danish. Sure, they called the first one Canute, but that’s just an Anglicization of the name Knut.

Side note: When a Dane pronounces that name, it can get awkward fast, because if they introduce themselves, it can sound exactly like they’re saying, “Hi, I’m nude.” Then again, since Scandinavians are notoriously sexy, that’s not such a bad intro after all.

Anyway, the Vikings had a very advanced and complex culture, bringing people and products from far-off lands back to Scandinavia and then to Europe. It’s not hard to believe at all that at some point some Norwegians, Danes, or Swedes made their way down into Europe, and thence to England, Wales, and Germany.

But… they may have also maintained their own communities for generations, just as my early immigrant ancestors to the U.S. did. Hell, it really wasn’t until my generation that my mother’s side of the family started to branch out and marry people who were not Irish Catholic. My mom was one of the first, although it’s still not all that common among them.

However, this may be exactly how I managed to have ancestors who came from certain countries but who were actually not natives of those countries and didn’t mix enough with the locals to have an impression left on them.

Still… I’d really love to know how an Italian and a Basque managed to sneak in there somewhere around the time of my fifth great grandparents and plant their flag, as it were.

Is it weird to have the total rug-yank that tells me, “Hey, you aren’t what you thought you were but, on the other hand, you’re kind of this much cooler thing?” Oh yeah. Very challenging and confusing. I mean, I thought I was supposed to be this brooding, gothic Teuton with no sense of humor mixed with a tight-assed and very class-conscious white person crossed with another bunch of white people who were totally erased by the aforementioned bunch of white people. (Hint: The word we’re looking for for the latter group is the Welsh.)

But, instead, it turns out I’m descended from Sexy Scandinavians — and no one can honestly say that they’ve ever met an ugly Norwegian, Dane, or Swede.

So I can live with that combo. Two thirds short and bandy-legged bullshit artists who love to drink, talk, joke, and fight, and one third tall, strong, ambitious, and tough-assed bastards with great hair who nonetheless could moonlight as supermodels when they’re not conquering other lands through sheer force of personality.

Not a bad trade-off, I suppose. Still, it would be nice to get to the truth, so the next step for my half-brother and I will be to have them run the Y-DNA tests on both of our samples. This is the one that will look specifically at the genes we inherited from our fathers and will tell us definitively whether we have the same one.

Of course, the version we want to run is a bit pricey right now, so we’re hoping it goes on sale for Father’s Day, meaning that this saga will have another chapter. To be continued.

Image source: Wolfmann, (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons.