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  • Writer's pictureLuella Schmidt

1866: A Lesson in Staying Hopeful

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

This story is adapted from a Twitter thread I posted on August 9, 2021 in honor of National Book Lovers Day. I've been reading a historical fiction series on the civil war years and it is so rich with detail, you can really imagine you're living those years alongside the characters. I love when fiction leads me to researching actual events to learn more. Pure bliss!

In 1866, the civil war had just ended. President Johnson, who replaced the assassinated Lincoln, resisted Republican efforts to help the newly freed slaves.

Southern cities were filled with resentment, humiliation at losing the war, and fear of the newly freed slaves.

The Memphis Massacre erupted on June 1 & lasted for 3 days. 42 Black Americans were murdered. Black schools & churches burned. Many were raped. Many were beaten bad enough to ensure they would never be able to earn a living again. Only a few weeks later, another massacre erupted in New Orleans. Several dozen Blacks were murdered & more than 100 injured.

Disgust at these events led to Republicans getting more control in the Federal government, enough to override presidential vetoes & get Reconstruction moving, including requiring states to ratify the 14th amendment in order to join the union again.

Simultaneously, in New York City, there was a cholera outbreak. NYC population had exploded to 1.2 million, with about 40% being Irish immigrants fleeing famine & persecution. Tenement housing was overflowing, think of an apt built for 15, holding 200.

There weren’t any sewer systems & many American doctors still believed cholera killed people because they were “unclean” or in some way inferior. Bloodletting was still a treatment.

NYC had been studying though, and they were better prepared for this outbreak. A huge survey had been conducted of 29 “Sanitary Districts” with the goal of getting to better living conditions to prevent disease & keep NYC as an American beacon of business, culture, & life.

Still, 1137 people died and it took until 1901 before a robust bill would pass to cover tenement housing regulations. 35 freaking years.

I’m tired and I’m scared and I’m so disgusted with our fellow Americans pretending COVID precautions or the vaccine are controversial. I know you are too. 4 1/2 months left in 2021 and we are heading for another pandemic winter. Pass me the vodka.

We are a nation that is self-governed. It’s radical af as a concept but it beats some individual dude telling us what to do (and you know it’ll be a dude with a dictatorship). But our history gives me hope. We are terribly flawed as humans so of course self-government is also flawed.

But imagine being any American in 1866 after years of war and shortages, fear, lost loved ones, and lost fortunes, only to come out the other side to the terror of 1866.

Imagine being a newly freed slave & understanding with grim determination just how far we still needed to go, right on the heels of the joy of emancipation.

These Americans got through it & so will we. We will take our 3 steps forward & 2 steps back like always. It will be frustrating like always. But we will continue to fight for our rights and the rights of those who need allies. We will continue to fight for justice.

Because damn, if those folks living in 1866 could do it, so can we. The more hope you have, the harder you’ll fight for that which is hopeful. Find a way to hold on. It's the only way.

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