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Nagging Questions
Fifty years ago, a Cleveland neighborhood was the scene of the first shootout between police and black nationalists
Firefighters spray the ruins of a Cleveland building during the Glenville riots in 1968 (Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University)

An abandoned Cadillac sat parked on Cleveland's’ Beulah Avenue, sticky in the heat of a summer night. William McMillian, a tow truck operator, monitored the truck as his partner, Ray Bensely, prepared to tow the car. Suddenly, McMillian felt a sharp pain in his back. He had been shot. Dodging a line of fire from across the street, McMillian stumbled into the truck. “Tow truck in trouble,” Bensely screamed into the radio, “123rd and Beulah, they’re shooting.” It was 8:24 p.m. on July 23, 1968.

Police cars, already stationed around the neighborhood, responded. A full-scale shootout between Cleveland’s police and black nationalists ensued. By the end of the night, seven people had been killed and more than 15 were wounded. Three days of rioting followed, resulting in $2.6 million in damages.

This week marks 50 years since Cleveland’s eastern neighborhood, Glenville, experienced the first shootout between police and black nationalists. Media accounts at the time claimed the same basic narrative: the black power group, Black Nationalists of New Libya, had planned a guerrilla warfare-style attack on white police officers to avenge the community. Fifty years later, some are questioning whether that narrative is complete. 

The Glenville riots came only two years after Cleveland’s racially charged Hough riots—when four were killed, about 30 people were injured and close to 300 were arrested. The riots made Cleveland’s police force and black nationalists wary of each other. Increased surveillance of black power leaders and members intensified the racial divide in the city.

The situation seemed to be improving in 1967 when Cleveland elected Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major American city. The following year, Stokes introduced a progressive policy to alleviate poverty. His program, Cleveland: NOW!, used public and private funding for housing, jobs, recreation centers and health care.

Still, debates divided black communities. Pacifists and militant groups disagreed on the best way to eradicate poverty and inequality. The city’s crippling unemployment rate of 16 percent—the highest in the nation at the time, according to the U.S. Department of Labor—and a broken relationship between black residents and the police and politicians laid the foundation for unrest.

There are conflicting accounts about who fired the first bullet that night. Fred Ahmed Evans, the leader of the Black Nationalists of New Libya and a veteran, owned a store that sold cultural African goods. After Evans was notified that he was being evicted from both his shop and his home, he started to plan an uprising with black nationalists in other cities, according to an FBI informant. The bureau told local officials that Evans and his group had marked six African-American leaders for assassination including Mayor Carl Stokes, Councilman Leo Jackson, local newspaper publisher William Walker and police officer William Payne. Evans had purchased guns and ammunition using funds he received from Stokes’ Cleveland: NOW! program and was planning to launch an attack on the day of his eviction, July 24.

After the FBI was tipped off, both the police and FBI increased their presence around Evans’ home and store. Most media reports identify the first victim as the driver of the tow truck, which Evans’ followers appeared to have mistaken for a police vehicle. Evans claimed that police snipers had fired on him and his followers first. Either way, Evans’ neighborhood quickly filled with police vehicles responding to an “all units” call (summoning every officer available). Three suspects, three officers and a bystander were killed that night.

Evans gave himself up after the shootout, claiming he did not shoot any officers because his gun had jammed. Evans went to trial, was convicted on seven counts of murder and was sentenced to death by electrocution. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison, where he died from cancer in 1978.

The Cleveland: NOW! funds withered once people found out Evans had used the grant money to purchase guns. Cleveland’s eastern neighborhoods are still facing issues in unemployment, health care access and housing similar to those of 1968. 

Today, many Cleveland residents still question who is to blame for the violence, and whether or not Evans deserved a death sentence. On the 50th anniversary of the shootings and the riots, local high school students, with the help of independent documentary filmmaker Paul Sapin, are investigating the case and its aftereffects on their community. Sapin’s father, George Sapin, was an advertising executive who designed a full-page ad that ran in the Cleveland Press in 1968, as Evans was awaiting trial. It featured the image of a black man, arms handcuffed and raised. The text read: “Before we lynch Fred Ahmed Evans, a few nagging questions.”

Marissa A. Vonesh

Garden Variety
From seed catalogs to fiction, American literature reflects the ways gardening has shaped our national identity
(University of Georgia Press)
Gardening books aren’t just places to find advice about seeds and soil, says Jennifer Wren Atkinson. They contain hidden histories of desire, hope and frustration, and reveal that the reasons people garden are not always obvious.

In her new book, Gardenland: Nature, Fantasy, and Everyday Practice, Jennifer Wren Atkinson looks at the unique role that gardening plays in American culture and history by exploring garden literature over the past 150 years. She delves into a diverse range of works: down-to-earth manuals and seed catalogs, accounts of enslaved people, literary fiction and nonfiction (by Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, John Steinbeck, Willa Cather, Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid) and even science fiction (by Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood).

Atkinson notes that gardening often appears in books as a sort of fantasy activity that allows us to inhabit modes of thought and action otherwise absent in daily life. It’s a way of indulging desires for sensuous contact with nature, for beauty, pride and purpose in our work.

We caught up with Atkinson, a senior lecturer in American literature, culture and environmental studies at the University of Washington, Bothell, when she gave a talk recently at the Smithsonian.

You state that gardening has become “the new rock and roll”—from the cultlike status of Michael Pollan and Martha Stewart to the popularity of Michelle Obama’s White House garden, and the growth of urban farms, guerrilla gardening, the Slow Food movement and more.  But is our current obsession with gardening really new?

Gardening is definitely having a moment right now, and the advocacy of figures like Pollan and Obama has helped a lot. But no, our obsession isn't new: The desires we invest in gardens have always been with us. If we want to understand the unique role those fantasies play in our daily lives, we need to understand their past.

For example, the early 2000s saw an explosion of concern about where our food comes from and how it's made. Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma became an overnight blockbuster, every college seemed to be offering courses on food, and school garden programs popped up everywhere. Growing your own food was suddenly a remedy to a host of problems in our industrial system—chemical pesticides, the carbon footprint of shipping food long distances, worker exploitation and more.

But that same dynamic actually played out over a hundred years earlier when journalists started sounding the alarm on the industrialization of agriculture, and the popularity of gardening exploded in response. Another example is local and seasonal eating. It may seem like a recent fad, but Henry David Thoreau was an early advocate of the practice, and a lot of insights behind his philosophy emerged from his experience gardening and foraging fruits from the New England countryside.

The modern genre of garden literature was established in 1870 with Charles Dudley Warner, you wrote. What role did the novelist (better known as Mark Twain's sidekick, the co-author of The Gilded Age) play?

There was certainly plenty of gardening literature before Warner, but the genre we know today—a form that combines practical instruction with personal anecdote, observations of nature and aesthetics, and even philosophical reflection—really began with Warner’s My Summer in a Garden (1870). Prior to that, U.S. gardening publications were typically split into two categories: instructional manuals, for those who did the actual work, and “fine gardening” literature, for wealthy readers interested in landscape aesthetics.

In other words, one set of books targeted readers who produced gardens, while the other addressed those who consumed them (primarily as views). In that sense, the dual nature of garden writing reflected much larger divisions in our society that separate labor from leisure, the beautiful from the useful, and so on. You even saw this reflected in the physical landscape, where front yards were reserved for “non-productive” flowers and ornamental plantings, while back yards were “working spaces” that hid food plantings from public view.

The real innovation of My Summer was to unite work and play in the garden. Warner celebrated the garden as a space of practical activity that simultaneously connected us with simple pleasures like playing in the dirt. And most importantly, he featured the garden as an actual character in his book. Anyone who reads Warner today will find all the familiar themes we associate with garden writing: celebrations of nature’s beauty and the changing seasons, the virtues of physical exertion and pleasures of growing your own food. Those elements are entirely conventional now, but back in 1870 it was an unusual way to talk about gardening.

Katharine White, an editor at the New Yorker and a self-confessed addict of gardening literature, spoke of “gardens of the mind.” What did she mean by that?

White is referring to the daydreams and fantasies gardeners indulge during winter months when they’re frozen out of their gardens. Trapped inside, we channel our imagination into gardening books and publications, sketching new schemes or making wish lists from seed catalogs. Essentially, these rituals provide substitute pleasures in the absence of the real thing.

It was actually White's notion of these gardens of the mind—places we experience through acts of reading—that led me to recognize garden writing as a fantasy genre, a way of satisfying desires for other places, activities and times. The same thing goes for hands-on dirt gardening: Like the publications that feed our imaginations with all the pleasures postponed by winter, gardening allows us to indulge thoughts and experiences that aren't available in other realms of day-to-day life.

As American farms moved into a new mode of production in the late 19th century—from diversified family farms to enormous factorylike operations specializing in a single crop (wheat, corn, etc.)—how was the change reflected in the nation’s literature?

The industrialization of agriculture actually helped trigger the skyrocketing popularity of garden publications and nostalgia for “old-fashioned” gardens—spaces that seemed familiar and secure at a time when everything was changing. The 1890s were a period of tremendous upheaval: This was the first decade when the majority of Americans no longer worked on farms, and agriculture began to resemble other forms of industrial production.

If you look at the iconic novels of American farm life from this period, many feature gardens as sanctuaries for a passing way of life. Frank Norris’s The Octopus reflects the anxieties many Americans felt as they looked around and saw familiar places becoming unrecognizable. His characters live on these sprawling, monstrous factory farms, and the only place they find refuge from the upheavals of modern life is the local Mission garden.

In representing the garden as a foil to our industrial culture, Norris is actually mirroring a broader trend among his contemporaries. To the extent that farms grew to colossal dimensions, novelists highlighted the miniature scale of gardens; or insofar as farming was increasingly done by machine, writers made a virtue of the old-fashioned hand-work done in backyard plots. For many people today, those nostalgic associations—gardens as a site of heritage, the home-grown and the handmade—are still a huge part of their appeal.

You wrote that garden writing, with its profoundly sensual depictions, can stand beside the very best nature writing from the past century, yet it has been traditionally excluded from the traditional canon of American literature. Who are some writers in this category our readers might enjoy?

I'm absolutely in love with Ross Gay's poetry. His Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is bursting with earthy images of the garden and the joy of intimacy with soil and bugs and the cycles of life. The language is remarkably organic and playful—from bare feet and worms to the pleasures of juice gushing down your chin when eating fresh plums. Eleanor Perenyi, Ruth Stout and Katharine White also give exquisite accounts of the physical sensations and pleasures of interacting with nature in their gardens. Karel Čapek is another gardener I consider an extraordinary writer.

All of them go far beyond just looking at nature as scenery: They’re engaging it with their whole bodies, plunging their hands in the earth and smelling the compounds in the soil, tasting the bitterness of herbs, feeling the effects of a day’s work in their back muscles. That physical intimacy really makes them expert observers of natural detail that can be lacking from accounts based solely on visual observation.

Jeanne Maglaty





Surfer of the Mind
The writer Paul Theroux is fascinated by challenges that begin within
The record-breaking surfer Garrett McNamara practices breathing exercises, which he says help him utilize the power of natural forces around him (Susan Seubert)
“As a traveler, I’m interested in people who make solitary journeys and overcome obstacles,” says Paul Theroux, Smithsonian contributor. He counts among his heroes people such as Gérard D'Aboville, a French mariner who rowed a small boat from Cape Cod to France, and later rowed from Japan to Oregon. “Such difficult travel is a mental challenge most of all,” Thoreau says.

It was that element of mental challenge that drew the celebrated travel writer to the professional big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara. “He’s an example of someone who overcame the odds,” Theroux says.

On the North Shore of Oahu, the island where both men live, the Eddie surfing competition sees surfers, including McNamara, go up against 30- to 40-foot waves. But that’s nothing compared to the 78 foot wave McNamara once conquered off the shore of Nazaré, Portugal. In the July/August Smithsonian article “The Epic Quest to Ride the World’s Biggest Wave,” Theroux recounts McNamara’s journey to that Guinness World Record–setting ride.

Raised by a single parent without many means, McNamara experienced an often difficult and directionless childhood and young adulthood. His mother eventually brought them to Hawaii, where McNamara found his passion for surfing. After winning the Triple Crown and several other surfing championships, he was lured to Nazaré, where he studied, and soon tackled, a monster wave.

Theroux says, “It’s more than a piece about a wave—it’s really a piece about motivation, about how someone can realize this ambition and do something extraordinary while still keeping his ethical sense.”

Read Paul Theroux’s “The Epic Quest to Ride the World’s Biggest Wave” in our July/August issue.

Anna Diamond

Smithsonian in the World
The “Sites Unseen” exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum focuses on things that are generally obscured from view: the infrastructure of American surveillance. The MacArthur Award recipient Trevor Paglen uses art, science and investigative journalism to explore hidden levels of the world around us. Read more at DC Military.

The Revolutionary War is usually presented as an uprising of colonists against an oppressive English king. But “The American Revolution: A World War,” an exhibit at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, shows that the revolution involved a number of European nations and was linked to conflicts as far away as Gibraltar and the Caribbean. Read more at The Washington Post.

The seven new cheetah cubs at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute were born into a welcoming family. “Two of these cubs' grandparents also live at SCBI, so they are the third generation from some of the first cheetahs to ever live and breed here,” says Adrienne Crosier, a Smithsonian cheetah biologist. Read more at Fox 5.
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