From the beginning of the movie business, American wanted to know about the movies and their stars. Thousands of letters flooded the movie studios and the public relations' departments tried to accommodate that interest. By 1910, the demand for information was out of control. In February, 1911 J. Stuart Blackton, head of Vitagraph Studios, helped to organize Motion Picture Story Magazine which was soon shortened to Motion Picture Magazine, the first movie fan magazine.
Movie fan magazines were filled with stories and photos of the movie stars, informed readers about the new films being introduced, answered questions about how movies were made, provided synopses of current melodramas, offered recipes of the stars, featured the latest Hollywood fashion styles, provided tips on scenario writing, and offered contests with prizes like trips to Hollywood, and tours of the movie studios.
In 1912, Photoplay was introduced and by the early 1920s, more than a dozen such magazines crowded the newsstands with names like Cinema Art, Film Fun, Motion Picture Journal, Movie Weekly, Picture Play, and Screenland. The cover art captured the glamour of the times and featured beautifully detailed renderings of the popular stars of the day. The illustrators were some of the best in their field. By the late 1930s however the illustrated cover art was replaced by photographs which were cheaper to produce.
Most of the movie magazines relied on the movie studios for information and access to stars. The stories that appeared were carefully controlled by the studio's public relations staff. It was a strange marriage between the studios, who needed the support of the magazines, and the magazines, whose existence depended on the success and good will of the industry. The tendency was to create articles that reflected the movies as a hard working business and the stars as professionals. The magazines were filled with stories about actors like tough guy Edward G. Robinson and lover Rudolph Valentino, actresses like Ginger Rogers and Katherine Hepburn, as well as articles about social and moral issues created by the movies.
Beginning in the teens, movie magazine advertising appealed to men and women from all social classes. By the early 1920s, the ads began to focus on young, middle-class men and women who, like today, were viewed by advertisers as having greater disposable incomes.
In 1924 Photoplay promoted itself as the young generation's favorite periodical. By the later 1920s, that demographic had shifted further to focus heavily on women. Soon stars were making forays into the world of commercial advertising. Movie star endorsements of commercial products, considered taboo in the teens and 1920s became an accepted way of selling both stars and products by 1935. The emphasis, in most cases, was on beauty and hygiene products, and cigarettes.
"Photoplay" Magazine for October, 1974, "Streisand's Man Reveals Why They Love So Well" (Object ID: 97.38.44)
The post World War II era produced a more cynical moviegoer whose interests were inclined to scandals and gossip and were no longer satisfied with the carefully crafted stories put out by the studios. Movie magazines changed with the mood of America but it wasn't enough. Increasingly, readers turned to the "scoops" and scandals handed out by "scandal sheets" like Confidential and Hush Hush. Television talk shows reduced the need to simply read about the stars when the information and the stars themselves were beamed directly into America's living room each day. In an attempt to survive, some magazines merged; others broadened their coverage to include music, television and other areas of entertainment. Slowly, the movie magazines vanished from the newsstand, with Photoplay lasting the longest, finally fading away in 1980. The movie magazines didn't really vanish, they just assumed a different form such as People, Premiere, and Soap Opera Digest.
Fuller, Kathryn H. At The Picture Show: Small-Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.
Gelman, Barbara. Photoplay Treasury. New York, Crown Publishing Co., 1972.
Terry Hoover is Chief Archivist at The Henry Ford.
On any given day inside the Pottery Shop in Greenfield Village you’ll find our team of potters and decorators creating a variety of different handmade items, from mugs for Eagle Tavern dining to new-baby birthday plates and even Christmas tree ornaments. But right now in the snow-covered shop our artists are taking on a new challenge that’s all about creativity and exploration instead of out-of-the-box, obvious function.
Senior Manager of Program Operations Tom Varitek issued a challenge to potters Melinda Mercer, Alex Pratt and John Ahearn at the beginning of the year to each create a piece of pottery that best reflected their interpretation of the studio pottery movement. It didn’t have to be functional and it didn’t have to look like something you’d see on the kitchen table inside the Ford Home. There could be revisions and further exploration along the way; it didn’t have to be perfect after the first firing. It just had to reflect who they are as potters.
Studio pottery is work created by artists that isn’t mass produced, either by a large pottery or factory. The pieces can be functional, but tend to lean more toward the artistic, individual expression side of design. Simply put, factories equal function, studios equal art.
The studio pottery movement took hold of America in the early 20th century, most notably in the 1930s and 1940s as large factories began to consistently produce pottery in masses. Artists looked for creative outlets in their work; those opportunities were often found in smaller potteries and studios across the country. Detroit’s Pewabic Pottery is one example of the transition the Arts & Crafts Movement reflected in the early 1900s. As founder Mary Stratton said:
“It is not the aim of the Pottery to become an enlarged, systematized commercial manufactor in competition with others striving in the same way. Its idea has always been to solve progressively the various ceramic problems that arise in hope of working out the results and artistic effects which may happily remain as memorials....or at least stamp this generation as one which brought about a revival of the ceramic arts and prove an inspiration to those who come after us."
Getting a chance to see what the potters have been up to with their challenge assignments so far this winter, my visit to the pottery shop this week was met with smiling faces and enthusiastic displays of their work made so far.
For lead potter Melinda, the assignment has been a great chance to depart from the production pottery the team is responsible for throughout the year. However, its this background in producing goods visitors see across the Village and for sale in our shops that gives the team the confidence to let their creativity lead the development process this time around.
“Doing production work is invaluable,” Melinda said. “It builds your skills so that you can achieve whatever it is you want to make.”
Alex echoed similar sentiments. He feels his production work here at Greenfield Village has strengthened his own skills and gives him a greater understanding and appreciation of well-crafted work, no matter its function.
“I appreciate a really, really nice piece of pottery now,” he said.
When given such a big, open-ended assignment like this, I was curious how the team got started in the research and design process of their pieces. For John, his development process began with a lot of reflection of his craft and the work of artists before him.
“During the Industrial Revolution, things were just made so quickly. Some potters couldn’t keep up,” he said. “With studio work, they could take a step back and think, ‘What’s the purpose? Why should I make it if a machine can do it faster than I can?’ I’m using a piercing motif in my piece; I’m not worried about the function right now, I’m worried about the production. I’m literally piercing into my piece, almost into its soul, and evaluating it to determine what it should be.”
Alex also spent time thinking about artists from the past, especially those working during the 1950s. For his collection of vessels, he’s experimenting with transferring images to them and trying new glazes. One piece could turn into a teapot, another into a coordinating sugar bowl.
“I’m taking my inspiration from the world around me. Colors and lines in the city, colors and lines in the country.”
An appreciation of nature and a longing for Spring were the source of Melinda’s inspiration.
“I looked at seeds, seedpods, nuts and vegetables to explore ways to create an interesting surface. I’m thinking about the texture of the natural world, of water and plants.”
Her colorful sketchbook is a collection of nature-related drawings, from large bowls meant to serve big salads at a dinner party to serving platters that look like peapods for a potluck. She’s even making her own collection of stamps to add texture and pattern to her pieces.
Next to Melinda John is creating as he goes. His tall vessel is covered with perfectly carved holes, both created by hand and, believe it or not, a Dremel rotary tool.
So far, Tom likes what he sees.
“Greenfield Village is all about telling stories with ‘stuff.’ We want to create some new ‘stuff’ to show this transition in form. I wanted to give our potters a chance to express themselves and show off.”
What will Melinda, Alex and John discover next in their work? You’ll have to check back to the blog next month to see how they’re moving along with their pieces as Greenfield Village gets ready for opening day.
Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford and a wannabe potter.
In 1906, the U.S. Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, opening a path to government regulation of unsafe ingredients in ingestible consumer products. Before this, though, manufacturers did a booming business in “patent medicines,” concoctions that purported to cure a variety of ills, from colic to indigestion to sexually transmitted diseases to “female complaints.” They were frequently alcohol-based and contained any number of ingredients (most unadvertised), ranging from the harmless to the toxic. The Henry Ford has a collection of patent medicines from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and we’ve just added a number of these to our online collections, including Dr. Page's Rail Road Pills. Over the upcoming weeks, we’ll also be adding results of chemical analysis of these medicines done in conjunction with the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Detroit, Mercy, in 2009. To get a sneak peek at the results for one of the medicines, check out “Dr. Tutt’s Liver Pills,” and click the “Specifications” tab to find out the contents. Or, see all our digitized patent medicines, along with related advertising and packaging.
McKinley Thompson Jr., an African American industrial designer, was born and raised in New York City. He knew the road he wanted to travel in life one day in October 1934. He was returning home from school in Queens when he spotted a silver-grey Chrysler DeSoto Airflow (like this 1934 model in our collections) pulling up to a traffic signal. Mr. Thompson, then just a young boy of 12, was about a half a block away. Reliving the moment for The Henry Ford in an oral history interview in 2001, Mr. Thompson recalled many of the details: “There were patchy clouds in the sky, and it just so happened that the clouds opened up for the sunshine to come through. It lit that car up like a searchlight.” He began running towards it, but the light turned green. Though the car drove off before he could get a closer look, the impact had been made. “I was never so impressed with anything in all my life. I knew [then] that that’s what I wanted to do in life—I want[ed] to be an automobile designer.” At the time, there hadn’t been a single African American car stylist.
By 1953, Mr. Thompson was a war veteran with a family and a career as an engineering layout coordinator for the Army Signal Corps. He had reached his thirtieth birthday and could have easily settled into a comfortable existence. But he still wanted to be an automobile designer—a life goal he never lost sight of. He decided to enter a contest sponsored by Motor Trend magazine, with four winners each receiving an Art Center College of Design scholarship. His turbine car, which would incorporate reinforced plastic (an unusual choice of material at the time), won him a scholarship. He started at the Art Center in Los Angeles that same year, and was the first African American enrolled in their prestigious Transportation Design department. After graduating in 1956, he interviewed for an automotive design position with just one automaker: Ford Motor Company. He got the job.
Mr. Thompson didn’t just land the position he had dreamed of since the day that shining car caught his eye; he made history by becoming the first African American automobile designer.
He started at Ford’s Advanced Studio, where designers worked free from creative restrictions. On his first day, he was told by the Vice President of Ford Design, George Walker, “You can go as far as your talent will take you.” Mr. Thompson’s early design work included the Light Cab Forward truck, and he contributed sketches for the Mustang and the futuristic Gyron concept car. He also envisioned a forward-thinking project that had the potential to change the world.
In 1965, Mr. Thompson took his innovative idea to Ford: an all-terrain vehicle for the Third World that would have economic and social consequences. He understood that rising countries needed good transportation, and that a vehicle had to satisfy the needs of the population. He knew that like the Model T, his car should be relatively easy to build and maintain, and that production costs must be kept to a bare minimum. But Mr. Thompson’s vision extended beyond this vehicle. He anticipated his auto plants—located in the developing nations that would use car—bringing jobs, better roads and eventual economic independence to host countries. He believed automobile manufacturing would “help develop the economy as it did in the United States.”
The name he chose for the automobile that would make this grand plan possible was “the Warrior.” The car was actually intended to be the first in a series of vehicles, including a half-ton pickup truck, a six-passenger bus (an early version of the minivan), as well as boats and containers (buoys, pontoons, etc.). They would be constructed using a strong space age plastic material produced by Uniroyal called Royalex.
Though Ford was very supportive, the company ultimately passed on the project in 1967. Mr. Thompson still believed the car could succeed, and he recruited friends to invest in or assist with developing the vehicle for the African market. One of those friends and investors was Wally Triplett, who had broken a barrier of his own in 1949 as the first African American to play in the National Football League (for the Detroit Lions).
Mr. Thompson rented a garage on Detroit’s west side and went about building the Warrior. Still working at Ford during the day, he spent at least six hours a night—plus weekends—on the vehicle. “My family was very good about that. My wife knew how badly I wanted to do this,” he recalled. Mr. Triplett assisted, and was the only other individual involved in its construction.
The prototype was modeled on the Renault R-10, a small four-door sedan. Indeed, the Warrior’s chassis came directly from a disassembled R-10. Base mechanical components, including the engine, were also incorporated. Renault already had a distribution system overseas, providing a ready-made parts supplier for Mr. Thompson’s customers. Mr. Thompson and Mr. Triplett designed and built the tools to form the sections of the body, which were then sent off to Uniroyal, who molded the Royalex plastic.
While major work on the Warrior was complete by 1969, it’s likely that modifications were made to the vehicle through the mid-1970s while continued attempts were made to turn the vision into reality.
The partners talked of building the car in Detroit themselves, but were denied a bank loan; Mr. Triplett believes race played a role. African nations were courted, but instability on the continent derailed those opportunities. As for Ford Motor Company, the automaker—like others—didn’t believe the car would sell in large enough numbers to warrant the investment. Mr. Thompson eventually stopped looking for funding, closing up shop on the Warrior in 1979. Still, he kept in touch with his project’s supporters, in the event something came up, but alas, “nothing ever came of it.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Thompson never lost faith in the Warrior, and kept the car as a leisure vehicle. He took it off-road in Northern Michigan’s sand dunes, and drove the car on family vacations. He even used it for running errands, usually attracting a fair amount of attention. Though the Warrior was never mass-produced, Mr. Thompson’s many years of driving the prototype proved it was a sound vehicle. The car got a respectable 35-40 miles per gallon on the highway and 25-27 in the city. Maximum speed was 75-80 mph. The Warrior is now a part of The Henry Ford collection.
The Warrior project was ahead of its time in design and philosophy. The use of plastic, so common today, was revolutionary at the time. Mr. Thompson’s larger economic prophecy was partially fulfilled in 1995 when the URI, an all-terrain vehicle designed for African topography, was manufactured in the small town of Witvlei, Namibia. The URI plant became Witvlei’s largest employer, providing economic stability to the area.
After retiring, Mr. Thompson put together a traveling exhibit of the history of the African American designers at Ford. He wanted to show African American kids that his dream job was a career option for them, too. He traveled with the exhibit, standing next to it at malls and museums, happily fielding questions from curious visitors.
Sadly, Mr. Thompson suffered from Parkinson’s disease later in life. McKinley Thompson Jr. passed away in 2006 at the age of 83.
McKinley Thompson, undated. (Photograph courtesy of Terry Keefe.)
“I regret I wasn’t able to get it going,” he lamented to The Henry Ford regarding the Warrior, a project in which he had invested so much work and faith. But he was quick to add that “God has blessed a certain number of people in the world with talent and ability and I’ve always felt that those people that have that blessing—creativity and imagination—owe it to the rest of the population to make life as good as it can be. It was rewarding to me to know that I was trying to make that kind of an effort. I felt good about that.”
Bart Bealmear is a research support specialist in the Archives & Library at The Henry Ford.
Learn more about the Warrior automobile, McKinley Thompson, and Wally Triplett with these sources:
Archives materials available in the BFRC Reading Room:
Oral History Interview with McKinley W. Thompson Regarding the 1974 Warrior Concept Car (2001.162.2)
Wally Triplett Collection (2004.40.0). Includes the photograph album, “White Paper to Wheels” and an oral history with Mr. Triplett (2004.40.1)
“Design Pioneers: Vanguards of Progress, Part II,” Isdesignet, September 1996. Archives Vertical File, African-American Workers – Inventions
Ice harvesters guide rafts of cut ice through a channel, probably on Lake St. Clair, Michigan, circa 1905 (THF110292)
It’s been a cold winter at The Henry Ford. Record low temperatures have closed schools and businesses, lengthened commutes, and hardened lakes and ponds across southeast Michigan. Though some schoolchildren, ice skaters, snowmobilers, and ice fishermen may rejoice, it’s difficult to imagine braving these frigid conditions daily as part of a job. But until the 1920s, the nation depended on men who did just that, year after year, to harvest the ice essential to the American way of life.
By 1830, foods that required refrigeration were staples of American diets. For decades, rural communities in colder regions of the country had harvested ice to keep certain foods from spoiling during the summer months. But as American cities swelled in the nineteenth century, so did the demand for fresh meat, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, and even beer. Before long, the local, small-scale ice harvest grew into a major industry. Wherever ice on a pond, canal, lake, or reservoir was thick enough, companies deployed teams of men, horses, and machines to harvest it for distribution across the United States.
Some of the ice harvesters worked as farmers or fishermen in warmer months; some were imported from nearby cities to work the ice fields. Whatever their makeup, when ice harvesting crews gathered in January and February, they faced a complex and sometimes dangerous challenge. First, the ice had to be scraped clear of snow and, when the surface was too rough to be cut, planed smooth. Workers bored holes to measure the thickness of the ice, and then used a marker or groover to etch a grid of rectangles across the ice field. Next, an ice plow followed these lines, cutting about two-thirds of the way into the ice. If the ice was going to be used locally, the rectangular blocks of ice – called “cakes” – were chipped off and loaded onto wagons or sleighs for direct delivery. Otherwise, harvesters broke off large sections of the grooved ice field using saws and other hand tools. Workers guided these rafts of ice through a channel, where men broke the sheets into individual cakes and fed them up an elevator conveyor into an ice house. There, workers arranged the ice cakes into layers for storage and later delivery. If the ice house was located along the railway – and many were – blocks of ice could be loaded directly into refrigerated rail cars.
Tools of the harvest, illustrated in Joseph C. Jones, Jr.’s America’s Icemen (find this book and more at the Benson Ford Research Center).
Improved ice harvesting and storage techniques revolutionized American businesses and diets. For the first time, meatpackers, dairies, and produce growers could ship their products across great distances. Brewers could regulate the temperature of their facilities to produce beer year-round. And restaurant owners, shopkeepers, and home cooks could keep a variety of fresh ingredients on-hand.
This refrigerated rail car was built and operated by Fruit Growers Express, who maintained a nationwide network of icing stations to keep onboard produce fresh during long-distance shipping (THF68309)
Natural ice allowed brewers to keep their ingredients and breweries cool enough to produce beer throughout the summer (THF210591)
Ice in the top compartment of this home refrigerator helped preserve perishable food below (THF81022)
Natural ice harvesting, storage, and shipping processes become more efficient as innovative entrepreneurs and workers improvised new tools, machinery and systems. Eventually, the invention of the artificial ice machine would put ice harvesting companies out of business. Today, mechanical refrigeration has all but replaced natural ice—in our kitchens, at shops and restaurants, and on ships, trains, and trucks. We can expect fresh food and cool beverages year-round. But machines didn’t shape those expectations. Americans grew dependent on refrigeration because of the nationwide network of natural ice distribution made possible through the hard work of ice harvesters.
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
The collections of The Henry Ford contain hundreds of hats and headgear, most of which are not on public display. We’ve just added a number of hats to our digital collections, including this sailor hat, dating from the late 19th or early 20th century. View over 160 hats and related objects on our collections website.
Our collections include Presidential artifacts and memorabilia, from George Washington to Barack Obama, but Henry Ford actually met several Presidents of the United States himself. In honor of Presidents' Day, here are snapshots of those encounters.
President William Howard Taft spoke to the Detroit Board of Commerce in 1910. Taft also visited Henry Ford’s office at the new Highland Park plant, which opened that year (THF96601).
Henry Ford rode with President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson during a visit to the Highland Park Plant. Wilson encouraged Henry to run for the United States Senate in 1918 (THF113675).
President Warren Harding joined Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone (“the Vagabonds”) on a camping trip in Maryland in 1921 (THF105486).
Henry Ford and the Vagabonds visited President Calvin Coolidge's farm in Vermont in 1924. Coolidge presented Henry with a bucket used in collecting maple syrup (THF108551).
President Herbert Hoover visited Greenfield Village with Henry Ford and Thomas Edison for Light’s Golden Jubilee, the 50th anniversary of Edison’s incandescent light and the dedication of the Edison Institute, in 1929 – just days before the stock market crash (THF98981).
President Franklin Roosevelt toured the Willow Run Plant with Henry Ford and production manager Charles Sorensen in 1942, as B-24 bomber production began. They rode around the factory in the Presidential limousine, the "Sunshine Special," which was also used by President Harry Truman (THF93105).
Jim Orr, Image Services Specialist at The Henry Ford, and Mr. Ford have met a combined total of six United States Presidents.
Love Tokens in the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries
As we celebrate Valentine’s Day, many of us eagerly anticipate tokens of affection from our loved ones. These may take the form of a simple Valentine card, flowers or perhaps, chocolates. The luckier among us may receive something more expensive and lasting, such as a piece of jewelry. Jewelry presented as an expression of love has a long historical precedent and is well represented in the collections of The Henry Ford.
The most fascinating form of jewelry created as a love token started as what we would describe as a “fad” in the late 18th century. Today we might consider these disembodied eye portraits as bizarre or jarring. But they get at the heart of the very private nature of the intensity of feelings between two people, by means of an individualized portrait of a beloved’s eye. The idea was that a sweetheart would be reminded of their lover’s watchfulness. Throughout human history eyes have always symbolized mirrors to the soul. They are as intimate a token as two people could find.
The story begins with British royalty. In 1784, George, the Prince of Wales, son of George III, later to become the Prince Regent, eventually George IV, became enamored of a young Catholic widow, Maria Fitzherbert, whom he was forbidden to marry, both by law and by his father. Against her wishes, he pursued her. Recognizing the impossibility of the match, she fled to France for a year, believing that her absence would lessen the Prince’s amorous feelings. To the contrary, the Prince became more infatuated and more determined to marry Mrs. Fitzherbert. At the end of the year he sent her a marriage proposal. Instead of including a ring, he sent a miniature portrait of his eye. Apparently, she was so taken with his gift that she immediately returned and married the Prince in a secret ceremony, late in 1785. Shortly after the marriage, Maria commissioned the same miniature artist to paint a portrait of her eye for her new husband. This created a fashion among British aristocrats for eye portraiture. Of course, when King George III discovered the illegal marriage, he immediately annulled it. Thus, the eye portraits became even more important as symbols of intimacy and perhaps, forbidden love. As a coda to the story, although forced to marry another, George remained in contact with Maria for the rest of his life. It is said that George is buried with Maria’s eye portrait.
The popularity of eye portraits extended beyond the shores of the British Isles. In France, they took on political connotations and were said to function as discreet symbols for meetings of revolutionaries. Few eye portraits were made for Americans – they were associated with the hated British monarchy in the decades following the Revolution. Today, scholars estimate that there are no more than 1,000 of these tiny pins extant.
This eye portrait, when magnified, appears to be a male. The carelessly drooping hair of the eyebrow appears to be a characteristic associated with a man. A lady would have presented herself in a much more genteel manner. We will never know the identity of this person. That is the essential enigma of the piece – and of eye portraits in general.
The Henry Ford jewelry collection holds a number of other, less obvious love tokens. Roughly contemporaneous with the eye portrait, these tokens were likely shared between lovers while alive, and after the death of one likely served as a memorial pin. This oval pin portrays a young lady carrying a wreath, a symbol of eternity, to an altar with the inscription “To Love.” On the altar are two cups, perhaps loving cups. Above, two birds hold a loosely knotted ribbon or string binding them together. Perhaps the most telling element of the piece is the inscription on the back reading “My love is true to none but you.”
The imagery on these pins also seems to relate to love tokens, visually suggesting that “my heart burns for you.” They are painted in different styles; the image at the left is much more finished. The image at the right has the inscription “Sincerity” on the altar.
In the centuries before the development of modern medicine, death came quickly and often. Because of this fact, the line between tokens of affection and mourning pieces became blurred. In most cases, love tokens hold signs and symbols legible only to the couple. We will never fully understand the meaning of these pieces. Unlike mourning jewelry, they do not give us names, initials or dates of the deceased.
Moving somewhat forward in time, snake motifs were popular with Victorians and are often seen on bracelets. Like wreaths, the snake was a symbol for eternity. The fact that this piece holds a plaited snippet of human hair indicates that it may have served as a memorial. The red cut stone, perhaps a garnet, was a favorite of the Victorians in both mourning and non-mourning jewelry. Consequently, it is likely that the piece was produced as gift and continued as a memorial piece.
In all, The Henry Ford’s jewelry collection holds some remarkable tokens of affection, most notably the eye portrait, but also several enigmatic pieces of the early 19th century.
Courage is a word we hear a lot. Sometimes it feels appropriate – when a newscaster talks about a soldier departing for a tour of duty or a first responder enduring personal risk to help others. Sometimes it seems overblown – like a sports announcer describing a coach’s call at the end of a game. Its usage has become so commonplace; in fact, it’s a word that can be easy to ignore.
On Monday, February 3, I was among the 400 people who heard Jessica Buchanan tell her story at the second annual National Day of Courage at The Henry Ford – an event to commemorate the extraordinary courage of the civil rights icon, Rosa Parks. Jessica was a young aid worker teaching children in Somalia how to avoid the dangers of land mines and unexploded munitions when she and a co-worker were kidnapped and held in captivity for 93 days. Their ordeal ended in January 2012 when they were rescued by the brave men of the U.S. Navy, Seal Team 6.
Without question, Jessica’s survival and rescue were acts of courage. Her strength and resiliency kept her alive then and keeps her moving forward now. But to me, her tale of courage began long before her kidnapping.
From all accounts, Jessica was a bright, capable young woman. Fresh out of college, she could have chosen a career in any field she wanted. She chose to commit her time and her talents to helping improve the lives of people half a world away. Working first in Kenya and then in Somalia, Jessica put herself in danger to make the world a little bit safer for others.
Nelson Mandela once said that “courage isn’t the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” Jessica Buchanan knew the risk she was taking when she chose to work in war-torn Africa. She wasn’t naïve or fearless. But she went anyway. And she almost paid the ultimate price.
When asked by a student at Monday’s event, Jessica said she’d still go again, even knowing what she knows now. Her belief in making a difference in this world is that strong. Her willingness to sacrifice for that belief has not wavered.
To me, that’s the real courage in this story – standing strong in your conviction to do the right thing, even if it means sacrificing your own comfort and safety for the greater good. I don’t know of a better way to honor the conviction and sacrifice of Rosa Parks than in remembering a similarly selfless act of courage by another young woman nearly 50 years later.
Matthew J. Wesaw is Executive Director Michigan Department of Civil Rights.