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Constitutional Convention, Oregon Trail, Bleeding Kansas, and More
The second half of the month of May is no-less interesting than the first. Some of the most important events in our nation’s history occur during the second half. Readers will learn about the event that created our country’s most upstanding legal document, Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham Jail, and the start of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Read on to discover many more events!
May 18, 1933
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Tennessee Valley Authority Act. Headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee, the TVA was tasked with providing electricity and economic relief to the Tennessee Valley, an area heavily affected by the Civil War and the Great Depression. One of the TVA’s greatest projects was the construction of Fontana Dam in western North Carolina, which began in 1942. The dam, though controversial at the outset of its construction, provided electricity to the region and produced jobs for the war measure. It is currently the largest dam east of the Mississippi River.
May 19, 1963
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is published. In April 1963, the turning point of the Civil Rights Movement occurred in Birmingham, Alabama. Though the Birmingham Campaign resulted in success, Dr. King was arrested and jailed for 11 days. During this time, he wrote his famous letter hoping to draw attention to the Civil Rights Movement by citing biblical examples.
Likewise, he drew upon the “legality vs. morality” issue. He did so by stating, “We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian Freedom Fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’” This letter is also where Dr. King formed his famous phrase, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
May 20, 1775
The city of Charlotte, North Carolina reportedly becomes the first in the American Colonies to declare independence from Britain. During the American Revolution, General Cornwallis referred to the Mecklenburg area as a “Hornet’s Nest of Rebellion.” A document known as the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was claimed to have been drafted.
The first known copy to have been published, however, did not officially appear until 1819, leading some to question the document’s authenticity. Regardless, the document has the date of May 20, 1775, and on May 31, the Mecklenburg Resolves were issued. May 20, 1775 is displayed on the North Carolina state flag, and the state continues to hold the title, “First in Freedom.”
Lewis and Clark, and The Wagon Trains
May 21, 1881
The American Red Cross is established by Clara Barton in Washington, DC. During the Franco-Prussian War, Barton traveled to Europe and began working with the International Red Cross. This gave her the idea to establish a similar organization on American soil.
When John D. Rockefeller and a few others donated to her cause, the national headquarters was opened in Washington, DC. Frederick Douglass offered his personal support and advice to Barton. Today, the ARC provides services to the Armed Forces and Disaster Response.
May 22, 1804
The Lewis and Clark Expedition begins. Departing from Camp Dubois, Illinois, the Corps of Discovery was tasked with finding a route to the Pacific through the newly-acquired Louisiana Territory. The duo was charged as well with establishing trade with Native tribes.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would travel through the area encompassed by present-day Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, and Oregon. Upon their departure, the land was so untamed that President Thomas Jefferson expected them to find Woolly Mammoths. In 2019, it was decided that Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania should be considered the starting location for the expedition.
May 22, 1843
The first major wagon train sets out on the Oregon Trail. With many settlers departing from Independence, Missouri, others began from starting points in Iowa or Nebraska. The trail stretched over 2,000 miles, and today, wagon ruts can still be seen in certain locations.
For most travelers, the journey would lead to the Willamette Valley in western Oregon. Others would branch off in Wyoming or Idaho and head for California. The Oregon Trail’s use came to an end around 1869, when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed.
May 23, 1900
William Harvey Carney is awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Fort Wagner, South Carolina. Born a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, Carney escaped to Massachusetts through the Underground Railroad, where he reunited with his father. In 1863, he joined the 54th Massachusetts as a sergeant. During the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, Carney was wounded, but when the Colorguard fell, he retrieved the flag. Upon returning to his line, he stated, “Boys, I only did my duty. The old flag never touched the ground!”
May 24, 1856
The Pottawatomie Massacre begins. Following the Sacking of Lawrence, Kansas by pro-slavery forces, militant abolitionist John Brown led anti-slavery forces to Pottawatomie Creek. On the night of May 24th and into the early morning hours of the 25th, Brown’s men killed five pro-slavery settlers.
The massacre was part of a larger conflict known as Bleeding Kansas, during which anti-slavery Jayhawks and pro-slavery Border Ruffians fought violently to establish Kansas as either a free or slave territory. The conflict gained John Brown notoriety in the east, and just three years later, he attempted an armed revolt at Harpers Ferry, in what is now West Virginia. Bleeding Kansas contributed greatly to the outbreak of the Civil War.
May 25, 1787
The Constitutional Convention convenes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The delegates who participated included George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin, among many others. Their original goal at the outset of the convention was to revise the Articles of Confederation.
As time passed, however, the many flaws within the Articles were realized, and a new constitution was created, with Hamilton and Madison being the primary architects. The convention ended on September 17 of that year. Upon leaving the convention, Benjamin Franklin was approached by a townsperson. When asked what the delegates had created in there, he responded with, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
May 28, 1754
The French and Indian War begins with the Battle of Jumonville Glen. Fought in an area within present-day Pennsylvania, George Washington led a small force of continental militia and Mingo warriors against French-Canadian troops. The battle ended in a victory for Washington’s forces.
The French and Indian War was the first major conflict fought on American soil. It was also fought in many other locations across the globe, where it was known as the Seven Years’ War. Due to the heavy cost of the war, the conflict inadvertently led to the American Revolution.
May 29, 1917
John F. Kennedy is born in Brookline, Massachusetts. After serving in the Pacific Theater during World War II and earning the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, he served in the US House of Representatives from 1947-1953. He then served as a US Senator from 1953-1960. A member of the Democratic Party, Kennedy served as president from 1961-1963, during which time he faced some of the highest tension of the Cold War.
Events causing this tension included the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Berlin Crisis, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Several years later, his body was relocated to Arlington National Cemetery. May we never forget his timeless words: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
May 30, 1922
The Lincoln Memorial is dedicated in Washington DC. The memorial was designed by Daniel Chester French, architected by Henry Bacon, and carved by the Piccirilli brothers. Inside are two of Lincoln’s most famous speeches: the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address. The site has also been the location of many other famous speeches, including Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.” President Warren G. Harding spoke at the dedication, as did former president William H. Taft.
This article is the conclusion of the “Monthly Historical Recap” series. For the past year, we have reviewed the days of the year, by month, according to the unique events encompassed within them. Many of the events have been monumental in their own amazing way, while others have been horrible stains on our memory. Some of these, including the massacres at Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, My Lai, and Kent State are definitely not events that we want to cover. Nonetheless, they must be reviewed and remembered, regardless of how difficult they may be to discuss. I have greatly enjoyed creating this series for you, and I hope you will join me in the near-future for additional series.