Personalizing Miami’s History: James T. Titus

By Brittany Vonkamp

From its introduction to North America in the Seventeenth Century, slavery was an important aspect of society, culture, and the economy of the growing United States. Over time, slavery became more and more enmeshed in American life. At the same time, Americans were building their colonies and ultimately their country, to where they relied less heavily on Britain and foreign aid, including the establishment of colleges and universities across the colonies/country. Craig Steven Wilder argues that higher education in America reflects the nation’s deep ties with slavery, and as the nation was built to be so intertwined with slavery, so too were these colleges and universities – of which many are still prominent today. Wilder also outlines the imperialistic ideals surrounding the nation during this time, as Americans were building their new nation and expanding westward, relocating Native Americans along the way and moving slavery with them. The life of one student, James T. Titus, and his family serve as a case study to see how Miami University had those deep ties to slavery and to national imperialistic ideologies.

Although Ohio entered the Union as a free state in 1803, Miami University – chartered in 1809, and classes beginning in 1824 – was an institution of higher education that began in the midst of American expansion to the west and at a high point of slavery in America. Located in Ohio, Miami was not a part of the south, but at this time was on what would be considered the frontier of America. The University was an active participant of the nation’s movement westward, making opportunities for higher education on the frontier more accessible. The new profitability of cotton following the invention of the cotton gin, though, led to the spread of cotton across the south, ultimately allowing for slavery’s spread across this region as plantation owners needed more labor to produce the cotton.[1] This increased production of cotton and slave labor became important in aiding the financial stability of many universities. For example, Miami and other schools in the Midwest were “constantly teetering on the edge of financial disaster,” and financially relied on students’ tuition money, as “the state did not appropriate money regularly” to Miami until 1896. Wilder exhibits how, at this time, excess wealth was used to fund a students’ higher education, and that excess wealth often came as a result of slave labor. Thus, while Miami participated in American imperialism to the west, it was also “attracting students from [both] the Midwest and South between 1824 and 1873,” and, as college was “reserved for the sons of elites,”[2] it remains likely that many of those southern students’ tuitions (leading up to the Civil War) were paid from an excess wealth from slavery – including that of James T. Titus.

The Titus family first arrived in America in 1635, with Robert Titus on the Hopewell, (which sailed in the same fleet as the Mayflower) coming to New England with the migration of Puritans from England. Wilder highlights how “the Puritans quickly adopted slaveholding [when] the plantations were so profitable that an enslaved African paid for himself or herself after only eighteen months.”[3] Because of this, it is possible that the Titus family had their hand in slavery by the late 1600s. Slavery in the Titus family can be dated at least as far back as James’s great-grandfather, Ebenezer Titus, who purchased an enslaved­ girl in May of 1797.[4] As a part of the westward imperialism Wilder discusses, Ebenezer moved to Tennessee during its first settlement in Davidson County around 1780,[5] when the land was still part of the North Carolina territory, and where he was given a land grant in 1787,[6] on which he built the Dry Creek Plantation.[7] Other “Bill of Sale” records show Ebenezer’s purchase and sale of slaves as well as some stating the gift of slaves to his children – including gifts to the grandfather of our Miami student, James.[8] Along with the gift of slaves, Ebenezer also divided his plantation among his children upon his death, though the land was eventually sold off.[9]

Ebenezer’s son, James, the grandfather of James T. Titus, also played an important role in the Titus family’s connection to slavery as well as national imperialism. Although he sold the land passed to him from his father, James Titus moved to the new Mississippi Territory (present-day Alabama) in 1809, where he became a prominent figure in society there, as a captain of the Mississippi Territory Regiment, a member of the Mississippi Territory Legislature, and eventually “the sole council member for the entire first Session of the Alabama Territory Legislative Council.” Ultimately, after assisting Alabama’s government to statehood, James moved his family back to Tennessee in 1824 and specifically to Shelby County, Tennessee in 1836.[10] Here he owned 2,800 acres of land, worth $11,200 and sixteen slaves, worth $7,500 by 1837.[11]

In Tennessee, James was hired by the federal government to assist in President Andrew Jackson’s plan for “the immediate and complete removal of Indians to areas beyond white settlement”[12] under the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This relocation of Native Americans later became known as the “Trail of Tears.” By 1839, though, James Titus had settled in Texas with his son Andrew Jackson Titus, where he had received a land grant and built a plantation.[13] Here he opened the first post office of Clarksville, Red River County.[14] James “was one of the oldest [and] most respectable residents of [Shelby] County…[and] was well known both in [Tennessee] and Alabama.”[15] Upon his death in 1843, he willed his Texas plantation and his slaves to his wife and children. James’s son, Frazior Titus, the father of our Miami student, in addition to a piece of land, was given “a Negro boy between the age of twelve and fifteen to be bought for him out of the money coming to [James] from the state of Tennessee.”[16]

Frazior Titus was a member of a prominent Tennessee family, and remained a member of that elite class into his adulthood. For many years, he held position of alderman in Memphis local government [17] and also served as President of the Committee of Safety for the city, particularly during the Civil War, as he sympathized with the Confederate cause.[18] Being over sixty years old when the Civil War began, Frazior did not fight in the Confederate army, but many – if not all – of his sons did, but he still supported the Confederacy through his position in Memphis government. Even before the outbreak of war, Frazior signed the “Memphis Secession Directory,” on February 26, 1861, supporting Tennessee’s secession from the Union.[19] However, before the war officially came to a close, Frazior did take an oath of allegiance to the United States, and was later pardoned by President Andrew Johnson on August 14, 1865, for the role he played in the war.[20]

Not only did he actively participate on the confederate side of the Civil War through his position in local government, Frazior Titus was also a prominent businessman of Memphis. In 1850, he funded and built the construction of the first apartments in Tennessee on what was known as the “Titus Block.”[21] In addition to the apartments, Frazior also played an important role in the slave society of the south, as he owned at least twenty slaves by 1860 – “placing him in the top ten percent of slave owners”[22] – was a wealthy cotton factor and merchant who owned a Cotton firm, Moon, Titus & Co.,[23] and was director of the Memphis and Ohio Railroad in 1860.[24] Although Wilder’s argument focuses more on colonial merchants when he says they “became the patrons of higher education,”[25] the idea holds true after American independence as well. He later claims that “merchants and manufacturers with economic ties to the cotton and sugar plantations of the south and the Caribbean transformed higher education in the antebellum North,”[26] – this transformation being a tuition based on slave money, which ultimately helped fund the institution and then influenced the content that was taught, including the concept of “race.” Holding these strong ties to cotton, and subsequently slavery, as Wilder suggests, Frazior Titus likely played a hand in this transformation of higher education in the North by sending his son to Miami University.

That son, James T. Titus, was born on December 24, 1836, in Tennessee to Frazior and Louisa Ann Edmondson Titus, and James T. attended Miami University around 1852.  While not much else is known about him or his time at Miami, speculation can be made about his life through the records of James’ family. Through these records, it is clear that this Miami student did come from a prominent elite family in Memphis, Tennessee, supporting the “sons of elites” notion surrounding colleges during this period. He grew up in a household, family, and society where slavery was an important aspect of life, and imperialism was a strong belief. His grandfather helped expand the nation west to include Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas, and later his father was both a wealthy slave owner and important player in the cotton industry of Memphis. Like many other young men, Titus likely learned values and ideals during that time, coming to age, that he later carried with him as he attended school at Miami University. He may even have debated with other students based on those values and ideals during his time at Miami, where students, especially in the Literary Societies were discussing and debating the current events and rising tensions of the nation.[27] Although Titus only appears once in records of Miami students, when he is listed in the 1852 catalog as a student in the Preparatory Department,[28] he at least spent some time at the university, where he could have shared his beliefs with others and gained new perspectives from his peers.

Still, while it is difficult to track his life at Miami, through the few records available of James T. Titus’s later life, his family and youth evidently influenced him in adulthood. For one, Titus, like his father, signed the “Memphis Secession Directory,” supporting Tennessee’s secession from the Union and joint of the Confederacy, before the Civil War officially began. Titus also enlisted to serve in the Confederate Army with the 1st Tennessee Volunteers. He served as a corporal in Company B, of the Tennessee 154th Infantry Senior Regiment, which was organized for the Civil War in May 1861.[29] With this regiment, Titus participated in “the difficult campaigns of the army from Murfreesboro to Atlanta.”[30] Upon the regiment’s return to Tennessee, James T. Titus was killed in the Battle of Nashville, at only 27 years of age. The death of James T. was one of the two that the Titus family suffered during the war.

Though Titus died at a young age, and few records of his lifetime are available, by looking into his family and ancestry, it is evident that the Titus family was a part of the elite class in the Southern United States that participated in the growing institution of slavery and the cotton industry that it provided, as well as American imperialism and relocation of Native Americans along the way. Thus, when James T. Titus came to Miami University, he fit the idea at the time that it was the sons of the elites who received a higher education. Titus and his family, with their connection to cotton industry, slavery, and imperialism, in addition to Miami, also represent and reflect the numerous other students that came to Miami in those early years, and their families, with similar connections to slavery and imperialism. Ultimately, James T. Titus is a case study to show how the university – like many others of its time – has a history that is deeply rooted and intertwined with the wealth of slavery, just as Craig Steven Wilder suggests.

Brittany Vonkamp is a senior majoring in History with a minor in Museums and Society.



1852, The Twenty-Seventh Annual Circular of Miami University, Comprising the Catalogue, The Course of Studies, etc., For the Year 1851-52, Cincinnati: T. Wrightson, in Miami University Catalog; Miami Catalog [Bound]; 1832-65, 8.


“Alderman nomination,” Frazier Titus Col, Bell Family Tree, on, posted by wendyakeman, 23 July 2013, accessed 24 November 2018.


Ancestry person: James Titus, Bell Family Tree, on, accessed 24 November 2018.


“Battle Unit Details: Confederate Tennessee Troops.” National Park Service. Accessed 9 December 2018.


“Biographical Information,” Ebenezer Titus, Bell Family Tree, on, posted by wendyakeman, 7 April 2012, accessed 24 November 2018.


“Biography of James Titus Sr. by Ollie Lynn Titus,” James Titus, Bell Family Tree, on, posted by wendyakeman, 2 April 2013, accessed 24 November 2018.


Early Tax Lists of Tennessee. Microfilm, 12 rolls. The Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville, Tennessee. Accessed on


Early Tennessee/North Carolina Land Records, 1783–1927, Record Group 50, North Carolina (Revolutionary War) Land Grants, Roll 11: Book H-8. Division of Archives, Land Office, and Museum. Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville, Tenn. Ebenezer Titus, Bell Family Tree, accessed on


“F Titus Presidential Pardon, pic 1,” Frazier Titus Col, Bell Family Tree, on, posted by wendyakeman, 19 February 2012, accessed 24 November 2018.


“James Titus (1775-1843) Obituary info,” James Titus, Bell Family Tree, on, shared by JenniferB Collins, 22 June 2016, accessed 24 November 2018.


Jones, James B. Jr. Hidden History of Civil War Tennessee. Arcadia Publishing, 2013. Accessed on Google Books.


Keating, J. McLeod. History of the city of Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee: with illustrations and biographical sketches of some of its prominent citizens, Syracuse, N.Y.: D. Mason & Co., 1888. Accessed on;view=1up;seq=502.


Miami University, 1809-2009: Bicentennial Perspectives. Edited by Curtis W. Ellison. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2009.


Mitchell, John L. Tennessee State Gazetteer and Business Directory for 1860-61, Issue 1. 1860. Accessed on Google Books.


“Moon, Titus & Co.,” Frazier Titus Col, Bell Family Tree, on, posted by wendyakeman, 23 July 2013, accessed 24 November 2018.


Seventh Census of the United States, 1850; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M432, 1009 rolls); Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29; National Archives, Washington, D.C. Accessed on

Shakenbach Regele, Lindsay. “How Did Slavery Change Through the Early Republic?” Lecture, The Early American Republic, 1783-1815, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, 29 October 2018.


“Soldier Details: Titus, James T.” National Park Service, accessed 7 December 2018,


“Tennessee Historical Magazine, Vol 3,” Ebenezer Titus, Bell Family Tree, on, shared by BigMuddy2Sides, 11 August 2016, accessed 24 November 2018.


“Titus Block information,” Frazier Titus Col, Bell Family Tree, on, shared by Frazor Edmondson, 15 April 2012, accessed 24 November 2018.


“Titus Block, Third & Market Streets, Memphis, Shelby County, TN.” Library of Congress. Accessed 26 November 2018.


Wilder, Craig Steven. Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013.


“Will of James Titus,” James Titus, Bell Family Tree, on, posted by wendyakeman, 1 April 2013, accessed 24 November 2018.


Young John Preston and A.R. James. Standard history of Memphis, Tennessee, from a study of the original sources. Knoxville, Tennessee: H. W. Crew, 1912. Accessed on

[1] Lindsay Shakenbach Regele, “How Did Slavery Change Through the Early Republic?” (lecture, The Early American Republic, 1783-1815, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, 29 October 2018).

[2] “’Old Miami’ Themes,” in Miami University, 1809-2009: Bicentennial Perspectives, ed. Curtis W. Ellison (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2009), 10; “A New University in and Emerging Nation,” in Miami University, 19-20.

[3] Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013), 30.

[4] “Biographical Information,” Ebenezer Titus, Bell Family Tree, on, posted by wendyakeman, 7 April 2012, accessed 24 November 2018.

[5] “Tennessee Historical Magazine, Vol 3,” Ebenezer Titus, Bell Family Tree, on, shared by BigMuddy2Sides, 11 August 2016, accessed 24 November 2018.

[6] Early Tennessee/North Carolina Land Records, 1783–1927, Record Group 50, North Carolina (Revolutionary War) Land Grants, Roll 11: Book H-8. Division of Archives, Land Office, and Museum. Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville, Tenn. Ebenezer Titus, Bell Family Tree, accessed on

[7] “Tennessee Historical Magazine, Vol 3,” Ebenezer Titus, Bell Family Tree, on, shared by BigMuddy2Sides, 11 August 2016, accessed 24 November 2018.

[8] “Biographical Information,” Ebenezer Titus, Bell Family Tree, on, posted by wendyakeman, 7 April 2012, accessed 24 November 2018.

[9] “Tennessee Historical Magazine, Vol 3,” Ebenezer Titus, Bell Family Tree, on, shared by BigMuddy2Sides, 11 August 2016, accessed 24 November 2018.

[10] “Biography of James Titus Sr. by Ollie Lynn Titus,” James Titus, Bell Family Tree, on, posted by wendyakeman, 2 April 2013, accessed 24 November 2018.

[11] Early Tax Lists of Tennessee. Microfilm, 12 rolls. The Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville, Tennessee. Accessed on

[12] Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, 249.

[13] “Biography of James Titus Sr. by Ollie Lynn Titus,” James Titus, Bell Family Tree, on, posted by wendyakeman, 2 April 2013, accessed 24 November 2018.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “James Titus (1775-1843) Obituary info,” James Titus, Bell Family Tree, on, shared by JenniferB Collins, 22 June 2016, accessed 24 November 2018.

[16] “Will of James Titus,” James Titus, Bell Family Tree, on, posted by wendyakeman, 1 April 2013, accessed 24 November 2018.

[17] “Alderman nomination,” Frazier Titus Col, Bell Family Tree, on, posted by wendyakeman, 23 July 2013, accessed 24 November 2018.

[18] J. McLeod Keating, History of the City of Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee: with illustrations and biographical sketches of some of its prominent citizens (Syracuse, N.Y.: D. Mason & Co., 1888), 484.

[19] John Preston Young and A.R. James, Standard history of Memphis, Tennessee, from a study of the original sources (Knoxville, Tennessee: H. W. Crew, 1912), 116-17.

[20] “F Titus Presidential Pardon, pic 1,” Frazier Titus Col, Bell Family Tree, on, posted by wendyakeman, 19 February 2012, accessed 24 November 2018.

[21]“Titus Block information,” Frazier Titus Col, Bell Family Tree, on, shared by Frazor Edmondson, 15 April 2012, accessed 24 November 2018.; “Titus Block, Third & Market Streets, Memphis, Shelby County, TN,” Library of Congress, accessed 26 November 2018,

[22] James B. Jones, Jr., Hidden History of Civil War Tennessee (Arcadia Publishing, 2013), [no page numbers provided].

[23] “Moon, Titus & Co.,” Frazier Titus Col, Bell Family Tree, on, posted by wendyakeman, 23 July 2013, accessed 24 November 2018.

[24] John L. Mitchell, Tennessee State Gazetteer and Business Directory for 1860-61, Issue 1 (1860), 138.

[25] Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, 48.

[26] Ibid, 285.

[27] “Life at Old Miami,” in Miami University, 65.

[28] 1852, The Twenty-Seventh Annual Circular of Miami University, Comprising the Catalogue, The Course of Studies, etc., For the Year 1851-52, Cincinnati: T. Wrightson, in Miami University Catalog; Miami Catalog [Bound]; 1832-65, 8.

[29] “Soldier Details: Titus, James T.” National Park Service, accessed 7 December 2018,

[30] “Battle Unit Details: Confederate Tennessee Troops,” National Park Service, accessed 9 December 2018,

Personalizing Miami’s History: Henry L. Haynes

By Adam Wright

The intersection of race and slavery in the United States is intrinsically linked to the development of higher education. In the years leading up to the American Civil War, male students at universities across the nation underwent the preparation and skills required to be leaders of this burgeoning country. Students frequently arrived from the upper echelon of society, where they often stayed and created a lineage of men educated in gentility, masculinity, and racism, all based on class structure. Miami University students exemplified this privilege, specifically those from the antebellum South.

Henry L. Haynes, a graduate of the class of 1866, embodies this experience. Born in Missouri, Haynes was an active and involved student who later earned a law degree. Haynes eventually settled in Oklahoma where he became a staple of his community, with ancestors continuing to reside there in present times. Haynes was born in Missouri to William Haynes, a carpenter from Tennessee, and a mother from Alabama (United States Census, 1910). Henry L. eventually married a woman named Fanny, also from Missouri (United States Census, 1910). As a Miami University student with all his immediate family originating the South, Haynes benefited immensely from an education enabling him to push the doctrine of white and Christian excellence; he also benefited from the subjugation of native peoples in his adopted home of McAlester, Oklahoma.

The suppression of Native American peoples is woven into the development and historical progression of McAlester, Oklahoma. McAlester is the largest city in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, a federally recognized Indian tribe and territory (LeFlore n.p.). This Nation was established after the forced relocation of Native tribes, otherwise referred to as the “Trail of Tears”. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, the “…needs and wishes of Native peoples were ignored. In fact, the settlement of Oklahoma amounted to an invasion of Indian lands” (Green n.p.). McAlester’s history begins as a town named Perryville, a major supply depot for Confederate Army during the Civil War. During this war the “Choctaw allied with the Confederate States of America (CSA) as the war reached Indian Territory [and] a depot providing supplies to Confederate Forces in Indian Territory was set up at Perryville” (LeFlore n.p.).

Post-Civil War the development of railroads further oppressed native peoples and barred them from their traditional lands. The ideas at the heart of Indian removal presented themselves during the development of McAlester. According to Wilder, white people were “… convinced of not only the possibility of racially homogenizing their regions but also the value of that project. They were building a social geography consistent with their political and economic desires” (Wilder 254). Wilder also wrote “The fate of the American college had been intertwined from its beginning with the social project of dispossessing Indian people” (Wilder 150). Universities, including Miami University, funded themselves with money earned in the ideals of white supremacy, and soon these universities and students came to eternalize the ideals. Henry L. Haynes utilized these ideals to benefit himself in the town of McAlester, Oklahoma.

According to the Miami University Alumni Catalog, 1809-1909, Haynes moved to McAlester in 1889 and resided there until his death in 1924 (Bartlow 115). Haynes is credited in his daughter’s obituary as a “McAlester pioneer resident… [and] an early day lawyer” (MillieBelle n.p.)- a statement which fails to consider the Native populations residing in McAlester. This allows the conjecture that the Native Americans from this region held little to no rights over their land; in other words, savages waiting to be civilized. Wilder writes “The presuppositions of removal campaigns- particularly the biological basis of civilization and citizenship- were informed by racial ideas that had ascended in every region of the … nation” (Wilder 254). Daniel Drake reaffirms this sentiment when he spoke at Miami University of the Indian that naturally “prefers the freedom of the woods, to the imprisonment of fields and cities” (Daniel Drake). There is undoubtedly a link between the dispossession of Native lands and the development of American colleges and a collective national identity, exemplified by Henry L. Haynes’s education and residence.

It is through Haynes’s activity at Miami University that a foundation for the belief in white and Christian supremacy was finalized. Haynes subsequently took these ideals and benefited from them in his future endeavors as a lawyer and community leader in nineteenth-century McAlester, Oklahoma. Haynes was a diligent and dutiful student while attending Miami. He was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE), a fraternity founded in 1852 (Bartlow 115). Haynes was involved in the Miami Union Literary Society. At a Miami Union Literary Society assembly dated December 19, 1865, Haynes delivered the final speech of the night titled “Some Thoughts” (Fortieth Annual Exhibition). The popularity of the literary societies is evidenced by attracting influential Cincinnatian Daniel Drake to discourse at the Union Literary Society of Miami University on September 23, 1834 (Daniel Drake). Additionally, at the forty-first Annual Commencement of Miami University dated Wednesday-Thursday June 27th-28th 1866, Haynes gave a commencement exercise titled “Transcendentalism” (Forty-First Annual Commencement).

As evidenced from these honors, it can be surmised that Haynes excelled in the debates conducted by DKE and the Miami Union Literary Society. According to Miami University Bicentennial Perspectives, “The spring of 1860 shifted… debates to issues of liberty, power, and loyalty” (Ellison 64), with discussions coinciding with Haynes’s “Some Thoughts” speech. Prior to Hayne’s arrival to campus, a professor named Francis Lieber delivered an address to the students of Miami titled “The Character of a Gentleman”. In it he espouses that the author from a passage from which he had been reading was “… right in calling the character designated the gentleman a type peculiarly Anglican. It belongs to the English race; nor is it long since it has been developed in its present and important form (Lieber). Miami University incorporated this philosophy of white excellence into their intellectual atmosphere on campus, of which Haynes was a part of.

It was typical that following graduation from higher education, men from the upper echelon of society attained authority and influence in society, which continued through their lineage. This is no different for Henry L. Haynes, as his children and further generations remained in positions of power within McAlester. His daughter, Ethel Haynes Pemberton, attended the Texas Presbyterian College for Girls in Milford, Tex., graduating in 1909 (MillieBelle n.p.). Ethel returned to McAlester and became a successful community leader. Helping to run the Hitchcock Oil Company, Ethel was a member of the McAlester Fortnightly Club, the McAlester Garden Club, the Fin and Feather Club and the McAlester Country Club (MillieBelle n.p.). Additionally, Ethel was a lifelong member of the First Presbyterian Church in McAlester. Her parents contributed to the founding the church, as evidenced by their roles as charter members. Ethel’s mother Fanny went as far as to organize the Sunday School and serve as its first teacher. (MillieBelle n.p.). All of this evidence further points to a cycle of elitism and civic success enjoyed by graduates of American higher education. There is a First Presbyterian Church of McAlester Oklahoma under the National Register of Historical Places (National Register of Historic Places Inventory- Nomination Form). As influential members of this church, the Haynes family undoubtedly commands respect and power within McAlester.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, American students in higher education received the preparation and skills required to be leaders. Students experienced training to be lawyers, doctors, and politicians, among other things. These highly educated Americans often came from privileged backgrounds and those who didn’t often joined their colleagues upper class rank following graduation. A student from Miami University named Henry L. Haynes excellently represented the link between higher education and the doctrine of white and Christian excellence pushed by universities onto students. As a settler of McAlester, Oklahoma, Haynes and his ancestors achieved success while benefiting from the subjugation of native peoples in his adopted home through preparation received at Miami University.

Adam Wright is a senior majoring in Political Science.


Works Cited

Bartlow, Bert Surene. Miami University Alumni Catalog, 1809-1909, University Documents, Walter Havighurst Special Collections Library at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, Miami University Libraries-Digital Library Program.

Drake, Daniel. Discourse on the history, character, and prospects of the West: delivered to the Union literary society of Miami University, Oxford, Ohio … September 23, 1834. By Daniel Drake. Truman & Smith. Hathi Trust Digital Library.

Ellison, Curtis W. Miami University 1809-2009 Bicentennial Perspectives. Ohio University Press.

Fortieth Annual Exhibition of the Miami Union Literary Society Miami University, Tuesday Evening, December 19, 1865. Oxford, Ohio.

Forty-First Annual Commencement Miami University, Wednesday and Thursday, June 27th and 28th, 1866. Oxford Ohio.

Green, Donald E. “Settlement Patterns”. Oklahoma Historical Society, The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, Accessed on 22 November 2018.

LeFlore, Jeanne. “McAlester History.” McAlester News, McAlester News-Capital, 23 July 2013, Accessed on 22 November 2018.

Lieber, Francis. The Character of the Gentleman: An Address to the Students of Miami University, on the Evening Before Commencement Day, in the Month of August, 1846. J. A. James. Columbia University.


MillieBelle. “Ethel Haynes Pemberton”. Find A Grave. 24 April 2006.

National Register of Historic Places Inventory- Nomination Form. National Park Service. United States Department of the Interior. 3 October 1979. Accessed on 8 December 2018.

United States Census, 1910. FamilySearch. Accessed on 25 November 2018.

Wilder, Craig Steven. Ebony and Ivy. Bloomsbury Press. 2014.


Personalizing Miami’s History: Samuel McKee

By Daniel Willis

The story of Samuel McKee, born November 5th, 1833, died December 11th, 18981, begins with his grandfather, Samuel McKee (henceforth called “the elder Samuel”). The elder Samuel was born in Virginia and fought during the American Revolution. In 1783 he left his home in Virginia and went to Kentucky to settle the frontier and start a family2. In 1797 the elder Samuel was blessed with a son, James McKee3. James would go on to marry Sallie Wilkerson, a woman born in Kentucky and descended from North Carolinians who came to the state following Daniel Boone. In 1833, Samuel McKee was born to James and Sallie in Mount Sterling, Kentucky. In 1854, at the age of 21, he enrolled in Miami University which laid the groundwork for his future career in politics. The story of the McKee family reflects arguments laid forth by Craig Wilder’s argument in the book Ebony and Ivy; namely, that higher education in the United States was an “imperial institution” used to develop and spread the ideals of the nation.

Samuel McKee’s family —both his maternal and paternal grandparents— came into Kentucky when it was largely unsettled (by white Americans) frontier and displaced the Native Americans in the region to carve out homesteads. This is captured best in speech by notable Cincinnatian Daniel Drake in an address he made before the Miami University Union Literary Society in 1834. In his address he states, of the native inhabitants of Kentucky, that “many of them exist only in the memory of the first settlers of our own race”4. He goes on to explain that the “red man” is faithless and cruel for resisting the arrival of white settlers into the region5. Drake’s address shows the colonial and imperial mindset that Craig Wilder explores in Ebony and Ivy. The white settlers of Kentucky benefitted from driving the natives from their home land. With these tracts of land, the white settlers of Kentucky, including the McKee family, were able to generate immense amount of wealth. By 1850, the household of James McKee was valued at $12,000 (roughly $360,000 today). To put this into perspective, the families listed immediately before and after the McKees in the census both had a property value of $2500 (or $75,000)6. This shows that James McKee greatly benefitted from his father’s settling of the frontier. The wealth James obtained would allow him to send his sons to college to continue the cycle of privilege and wealth. Additionally, the 1850 census listed a black laborer, Joseph Garrett, as a member of the McKee family. While his status as a slave is difficult to determine, as he is not listed in any slave schedule nor does he appear in other records, it is worth considering that he was in all likelihood enslaved. (Joseph may not have been enslaved directly by the McKee family it is possible that he was hired out by another slaveowner.) The practice of slaveowners hiring out their slaves was common in antebellum Kentucky7 meaning that while the McKees may not have owned slaves themselves they still benefitted from slavery overall. Furthermore, given that the McKee family has many ties to the south it is worth considering that slavery played a role in the development of their wealth prior to their arrival in Kentucky.

The McKee family’s ties to the south reflect the ties many early American colleges had to the south, and to slavery in general. Higher education played a major part in the growth of the United States; early colonial colleges helped establish the early educational architecture of the nation and also helped develop a national identity. Craig Wilder connects the growth of early higher education to the economy created by the slave trade in the Americas. He suggests that the ties higher education had to the slave industry created a feedback loop in which the institutions took slave money and in turn taught pro-slavery curricula. Wilder focuses primarily on institutions founded in the 17th and 18th centuries and while Miami University was founded in 1809 some the arguments Wilder lays out apply. For example, Wilder’s statement that “colleges were imperial instruments”8 can be seen with the history of Miami University. With the phrase “imperial instrument”, Wilder means that the early American colleges existed to create statesmen and ministers in order to spread the influence of the colonial governments. He focuses on the role colleges played in creating missionaries who then went out to convert the native populations of the colonies in order to civilize savages and spread Christianity. Miami University was founded in this tradition, though much later than earlier colleges such as Harvard and others. According to Curtis Ellison, the university had a strong Presbyterian tradition and worked in tandem with local seminary schools in order to create a new generation of ministers9. The role of Miami University as an imperial institution can be seen in an address made by Daniel Drake, a Cincinnati doctor, to the Union Literary Society of Miami University in 1834. In this address Drake states that the students will leave the university as men and go on to establish civil governments in the Mississippi Valley10. He goes on to say that the students attending will, “contribute to raise up a mighty people, a new world of man, in the depths of the new world of history, and the friends of liberty, literature, and religion”11. This shows that, in Daniel Drake’s eyes, Miami University, like the colleges in Wilder’s work, was seen as a nation building institution.

Graduates of Miami University would go on to become professors, ministers, and lawyers. Others became politicians on the national stage, for example, Benjamin Harrison would become president in 1889. This reinforces Wilder’s view of higher education as an imperial force, Miami University, like Harvard or Yale, created a new generation of leaders. Samuel McKee became one of those leaders. After his graduation in 1857 he attended to law school in Cincinnati and then returned to his hometown to practice law. In 1862 he joined the Union army as a captain in the Fourteenth Kentucky Cavalry. In 1864, after his service expired, Samuel returned home and resumed his law practice. His time as lawyer was cut short when he became the Assistant Elector for the Ninth Judicial District for the Republican Party in 1864. In 1865, he was elected into the House of Representatives as a congressman and was reelected two years later12. For his first election he ran as an Unconditional Unionist and for his second he ran as a Radical Republican13. He was known for being a forceful speaker and for defending his radical views even when it was politically inexpedient to do so. His skill as a debater, coupled with his radical views, caught the eye of Ulysses S. Grant who, in 1869, rewarded Samuel McKee with a position as a pension agent in the administration14, a position he served in from 1896 to 1871. After leaving his post as a pension agent he returned home to practice law and records of his life from this period on are vague. However, his actions from 1865 to 1871 are the most useful to focus on when examining Miami University’s role in his professional career. McKee’s professional career was built on a series of strategic choices. He chose to be a radical Republican immediately after the Civil War, a choice which allowed him to gain influence in the Grant administration. He leveraged that influence into a career as a pension and in 1871, as the winds turned against reconstruction and Grant, he disappeared back into a private life as a lawyer.

Samuel’s time at Miami University was instrumental in shaping his future career path. Like Harvard or Yale, Miami University had a student body made up of young men from both northern states and southern states. This meant that while Samuel was attending the college he was exposed to a wide range of views, from pro-slavery to radical abolitionists. At Miami, in the various literary societies (extracurricular groups that debated topics outside of the approval of the university faculty) students argued over all sorts of political and social events relevant to the day15. When he attended Miami University, Samuel McKee was an active member in the Erodelphian Literary Society. He served as a President of the Society in 185616. His involvement in the Society and the debates it proctored helped develop his skills as an excellent debater — a skill which allowed him succeed as a congressman. It may also explain where he began to experience the radical points of view that he would later utilize to advance his political career. The history of Miami University’s views on slavery, the topic that helped start McKee’s career, began in the 1820’s when Miami faculty and trustees argued in favor of the American Colonization Society, a compromise for abolition which advocated returning slaves to Africa17. Slavery remained a topic of debate on campus until slavery ended in 1865, with the ratification of the thirteenth amendment.

The fact that Miami Trustees were arguing for the abolition of slavery, in any capacity, seemingly contradicts some of the arguments put forth by Wilder. Wilder argues that in the colleges of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the reliance on slave-based money meant that those schools developed pro-slavery views. For example, he states that Dartmouth’s earliest buildings were built on land cleared by slaves using wood donated by slave traders18. He also mentions that the trustees of early colleges were made up of members of the merchant class who directly benefitted from the expansion of slavery and whose wealth from slavery allowed them to help fund education19. All of this led to the early colleges developing in favor of slavery. Miami’s origins were different; it was founded after the Revolutionary War using land granted by the federal government in territory were slavery was illegal20. Because of the difference in the origins of Miami and the institutions mentioned by Wilder the reliance on slave money is less noticeable at Miami. However, Miami’s position near the Ohio-Kentucky border meant that there were students attending Miami who came from slave states. Given that education was largely obtainable only for the wealthy it is a near certainty that a portion of Miami’s early funding was coming from households that owned slaves. Students came to Miami from a wide assortment of southern states, including places like Mississippi and the Carolinas. While it is difficult to find records of precisely what was being taught at Miami during the antebellum period the fact remains that the university attracted students who came from regions of the nation where slavery was endemic. To further speak to this, President of Miami University from 1854 to 1866 (the time Samuel McKee attended the college), John W. Hall, was a southerner21. This suggests that, in some way, Miami University reinforced the systems of slavery that permeated the south. In fact, after the Civil War and the abolishing of slavery there was a decline in the number southern students attending Miami University. This resulted in the university suffering a period of lower enrollment numbers and financial hardship22.

The story of Samuel McKee is just one piece of the larger history of Miami University. His time spent at the university helped establish the skills and opinions he needed to succeed as both a lawyer and a politician. His attendance of the university was made possible by the wealth his family accumulated over several generations—made possible by the removal of Native Americans which allowed them to have land, and by the exploitation of slave labor, which helped further enhance their wealth. Samuel McKee was one of many southerners who attended classes at Miami University prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. In one way or another these southerners all benefitted from the practice of slavery in the United States. Miami University, in turn, benefitted from the money these students brought in. When these students stopped attending the university fell on hard times and had to reorient its priorities in order to make up for the lack of funding these students had brought in. Like the colleges of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Miami University’s early years are intrinsically tied to the wealth generated by the practice of slavery.

Daniel Willis is a senior majoring in History.



  1. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
  2. The Biographical Encyclopedia of Kentucky of the Dead and Living Men of the Nineteenth Century. (Cincinnati, J. M. Armstrong Company, 1878), 145.
  3. 1850 Federal Census. Montgomery County, Montgomery, Kentucky. Family 109.
  4. Daniel Drake, Discourse on the History, Character, and Prospects of the West, (Cincinnati, Truman and Smith, 1834),
  5. Ibid,
  6. 1850 Census
  7. Bridget Ford, Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland, (University of North Carolina Press. 2016), 93.
  8. Craig Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, (New York, Bloomsbury Press, 2014),
  9. Curtis W. Ellison, Miami University, 1809-2009: Bicentennial Perspectives, (Athens, Ohio. Ohio University Press; 2009.), 29-31.
  10. Drake, Discourse, 43.
  11. Ibid, 44.
  12. Biographical Encyclopedia,
  13. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
  14. Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America, (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1901), 269.
  15. Ellison, Miami University, 63.
  16. Erodelphian Society, Minutes/Records: 1854-60, 1.
  17. Ellison, Miami University, 60.
  18. Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, 135-136.
  19. Ibid, 48
  20. Ellison, Miami University, 18.
  21. Ibid, 73-74.
  22. Ibid, 75.



1850 Federal Census; Montgomery County, Montgomery, Kentucky. Image 18. Accessed on November 12th, 2018.

Anderson, Charles. An Address Delivered for the Society of Alumni of Miami University. Oxford, Ohio:          John B. Peat [printer].

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. “McKee, Samuel.” Accessed November 12, 2018.  

Drake, Daniel. Discourse on the History, Character, and Prospects of the West. Cincinnati: Truman and Smith, 1834.

Erodelphian Society, “Minutes/Records: 1854-60.” Student Life; Erodelphian Society. Miami University Archives.

Ellison, Curtis W. Miami University, 1809-2009: Bicentennial Perspectives. Athens, Ohio. Ohio       University Press; 2009. Oxford, Ohio.

Ford, Bridget. Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland Chapel Hill: The      University of North Carolina Press. 2016.


Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America. Vol. 17.          Washington: Government Printing Office. 1901. pg. 269.


Miami University Alumni Catalogue: Centennial Edition 1809-1909, Reference Collection, Miami         University Archives.


The Biographical Encyclopedia of Kentucky of the Dead and Living Men of the Nineteenth        Century. Vol. 1. Cincinnati, Ohio: J. M. Armstrong Company, 1878.  pg. 145.

Third Session, Forty-Second Congress. Executive Documents Printed by Order of the House of  Representatives. 1872-’73. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1873. pg. 180.

Twenty-Ninth Annual Circular of Miami University, Comprising the Triennial and Annual       Catalogues, The Course of Studies, &c, May 1854. pg. 21. Miami University Catalog         [Bound]; 1832-65.

Thirty-first annual circular of Miami University, Covering the Triennial and Annual Catalogues,       The       Course of Studies, &c, May 1856. pg. 20. Miami University Catalog [Bound];



Thirty-Second Annual Circular of Miami University, Comprising the Triennial and Annual       Catalogues, The Course of Studies, etc., May 1857. pg. 20. Miami University Catalog         [Bound]; 1832-65.

Wilder, Craig Steven. Ebony and Ivy. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014.

National Consciousness in Crisis: Assessing Perceptions of Guilt, Heroism, Femininity, and the Myth of the “Good Soldier” in German World War II Cinema

By Paige Ross

“Why do the oppressors praise you everywhere, / The oppressed accuse you?

The plundered, Point to you with their fingers, but / The plunderer praises the system

That was invented in your house! / Whereupon everyone sees you

Hiding the hem of your mantle which is bloody / With the blood

Of your best sons.”

“Deutschland,” Bertolt Brecht (1933)

In the scope of the Second World War, perhaps no nation underwent such a severe and pronounced identity crisis following the Allied victory in Europe, than Germany. The country had been plunged into a dictatorial fascist system with the promise of better times to come economically, politically, and globally. This fascist experiment failed miserably. In the wake of Germany’s surrender and the uncovering of the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, the nation was forced to grapple with its people’s actions prior to the war as well as during. The difficulties Germany faced in rendering judgement on its people can be seen as a chronological evolution in German films about World War II. Through each film, various elements of the German past, consciousness, and national identity are revealed to the viewer. The Bridge (1959), Germany Pale Mother (1980), Stalingrad (1993), and A Woman in Berlin (2008), all seek to confront or deny various aspects of German victimhood, femininity or masculinity, and heroism in war.

Bernhard Wicki’s 1959 film The Bridge, tells the story of seven young boys in a small German town as the American forces advance during the last year of World War II. The seven are drafted into the German army in the final desperate days of the war in Europe and tasked with defending a bridge outside of their small town. Each of the seven boys has a distinct and particular storyline and each represent a unique facet of the German population at the time. Taken collectively, they represent a cross-section of German society in the latter years of World War II, and allow for class lines to vanish as all become intertwined in their struggle for life. The film is a story of friendship, brotherhood, and the loss of innocence that inevitably occurs in a time of war. The Bridge also depicts the generational gap in the adherence to or disregard of the nation’s rallying cry, “For the Fuhrer, the People, and the Fatherland!” For older soldiers, the men who likely saw the destruction, horror, and death of the First World War; this fight is becoming clearly hopeless. For the youngest in Germany, likely not even born during World War I, this war is a valiant struggle for the country and its ideals, a source of inspiration and a fight that can be won.

Above all, The Bridge provides a raw commentary on the pointlessness of the enterprise of war, and in doing so, offers a subtle criticism of not only war in general, but the insignificance of the hopeless war Germany carried on in the last months and weeks of the conflict. While the film comments on the sacrifice of the youngest boys in Germany as an act of desperation sent from military leaders at the top, the film dodges any mention of or depiction of policies or practices pertaining to the Holocaust. In that sense, while The Bridge may effectively comment on the evils of war as an enterprise, and even the practice in Germany of sending boys as young as fifteen to the front in the war’s waning days, it fails to provide a well-rounded criticism of Germany in the larger context of the atrocities committed by Germans in the war.

While The Bridge depicts the pointless enterprise of war, and especially the senseless loss of life (particularly among the youth) that occurs in a time of violent conflict, Helma Sanders-Brahms’ 1980 film Germany Pale Mother, provides an obvious commentary on the narrative of “German victimhood.” In addition to critiquing the “victimhood” narrative, Germany Pale Mother focuses intensively on the feminine struggle unique to war, by following the life and hardships of Lene, a woman married to a German soldier. During the war, Lene is forced to flee her home after it is destroyed in an air raid, and many of the most gripping sequences involve her journey on foot to safety, often in adverse weather conditions, carrying all of her remaining belongings and her only child on her back.

Germany Pale Mother is starkly unique in that it captures the embattled essence of the feminine experience during a time of hyper-masculinity and widespread violence. One of the most powerful sequences in the film occurs after Lene is raped by two Allied soldiers and her daughter Anna walks to where she lies. Lene calmly tells her, “The victors’ right, little girl. They rob and take women.” This single scene perhaps more than any in other in Germany Pale Mother addresses Lene’s understanding (and perhaps the broader understanding of German women) of her complicity in the war and its effects. Germany Pale Mother is a valuable work of history in that it not only acknowledges the strength and fortitude of German women during and after the war, but that it also addresses that these strong women were a part of a larger system that caused immense suffering and widespread atrocity.

Nearly a decade and a half later, Joseph Vilsmaier’s 1993 film Stalingrad, moved in a completely opposite direction in terms of addressing German complicity in the war and its tragedies. Against the backdrop of the so-called historian’s debate, in which academics in the 1980s began to question how Germany and its soldiers should be portrayed and remembered in the larger legacy of World War II, the film is deeply troubling. Stalingrad takes a sympathetic stance on the German soldiers of the 6th Army fighting in the Soviet Union, even as some of Germany’s atrocities in the USSR are depicted. In a further attempt to convey the main protagonists as purely good men fighting for love of country, Stalingrad creates obvious rifts and differences between the authority figures who give the orders and the “average” soldiers who obey them. The film paints the image of the top tier officers as stereotypically evil and callous, while giving the ordinary soldiers redeeming characteristics.

In addition to illustrating a sympathetic picture of the German soldiers as they struggle for their lives against the brutal elements of Soviet winter and battle, the film also conveniently begins in a time frame that excludes the atrocities committed by the advancing Wehrmacht in various parts of Belorussia. As a work of history or historical truth, Stalingrad is extremely problematic. And while the film is a gripping work that illustrates a raw side of war, it fails to provide acknowledgement of the evils committed by German troops in the Soviet Union. In failing to address the truth which runs counter to the “clean Wehrmacht” and the “good German soldier” myths, Stalingrad points to the selectivity of the histories being told in Germany during the time, and the desire to adhere to an untarnished legacy of the nation’s soldiers in World War II.

The cycle of addressing morally ambiguous elements of war as well as femininity and the unique circumstances women face comes full circle in Max Färberböck’s 2008 film A Woman in Berlin. The film follows the collapse of Germany and the capture of Berlin by the Soviets in the final weeks of World War II through the eyes of an anonymous German woman. The film illustrates the unique and complex circumstances civilians, and in particular, women, were forced to face following the Allied victory. Much of the opening portion of A Woman in Berlin focuses on the visceral fear and despair the remaining civilians felt in the war’s concluding days and deals with the repeated rape and victimization of German women. These circumstances force a viewer to feel a semblance of the volatile emotions facing German women as well as to come to terms with questions pertaining to their innocence or guilt in the larger Nazi system. While many women were loyal followers of the party (the main character included), one is forced to grapple with whether or not the women in the film, in the wake of a lost war, should solicit sympathy for their plight. A Woman in Berlin also speaks once more to the strength and fortitude of German women, as the anonymous main character learns to navigate a hostile environment wrought with rape, exploitation, and pain—and win back some of her autonomy. The film speaks to the feminine experience of the effects of war, as well as to a part of German history that largely remains ignored.

Films are a distinctly powerful way to depict and convey pieces of the human experience. Historical films have the unique ability to not only tell stories, but to educate audiences on the truths of the past. In this sense, films about history have a responsibility to provide a “truthful” immersion in the events being told and played out on screen. “Truth” can encompass a wide variety of facets—emotional, psychological, factual—but above all, “truth” remains of the utmost importance. Perhaps nowhere is this strict adherence to truth in historical film more important than in Germany. The country was led to war by a fascist regime that was directly responsible for the death of millions of innocent people. Germany was also one of the nations that lost the most in World War II. Nuances and ambiguities abound in any major conflict such as war, and by examining the chronological depictions of Germany and its people on screen, one can gain a greater understanding not only of the evils of a people, but of the virtues as well—culminating in larger historical and pointedly human experience.

Paige Ross graduated in December 2018 with a degree in History.

Studying History through Film: A Reflection

By Adam J. Ring

Over the course of the Fall 2018 semester, my classmates and I engaged in a focused study of World War II using film as the primary vehicle for historical insight and interpretation. The learning that has occurred from day one up to the last meeting cannot be understated: I now approach films, and historical films in particular, much differently. I wrote fourteen reviews, one for each assigned film, analyzing movies about World War II, mainly concerning myself with questions surrounding the extent or lack thereof of historical accuracy. This piece will attempt to synthesize everything learned over the past fifteen weeks and offer some takeaways about the importance of historical film and what it is able to offer that other mediums cannot.

Movies are not texts; they are often two hours or less and utilize sound and imagery to convey a message. This has both pros and cons: movies are logistically limited in what they can show; after all, it is very difficult if not entirely impossible to capture the same amount of information in a movie that a book about the same topic might contain. Yet, that analysis is very surface-level, because it prioritizes breadth over depth. Books have the ability to cover every little minutiae and can take hundreds of pages meticulously describing out every detail. Films, on the other hand, are time-constrained, and thus must make sacrifices. Sometimes these sacrifices omit important information that books or other mediums could have better portrayed; but other times they allow for interesting interpretations, and actually enhance the quality of the history that is told.

Robert A. Rosenstone, Professor Emeritus of History at the California Institute of Technology, offers some insight that highlights the advantages films have over other forms of distribution. He explains that “the ability to elicit strong, immediate emotion…[is] no doubt the practice that most clearly distinguish[es] the history film from history on the page” (Rosenstone 15). This simple statement carries with it a great deal of truth. No matter how brilliantly-worded the language is, printed books simply cannot compete with advanced camera work, where directors are literally able to show their audiences scenes that cannot be adequately expressed in words. Reading about European Jews being executed is not the same as watching it on the screen. Reading about men dying from freezing weather on the Russian fronts does not have the same impact as watching it. The point here is simple: movies offer two things books cannot and will never be able to offer: image and sound. Film has the ability to recreate the past in a way that can bring its audience closer to the truth, which is ultimately the paramount purpose in historical movies.

Many of the movies assigned this semester contained similar themes, and asked questions dealing with assessing where blame should lie, and who some of the biggest losers of the war were. Books can often brush past some of the most controversial issues, or, if they do tackle them, it is just printed text on a page. Movies, on the other hand, offer something much greater: the director can use metaphors and other symbolic imagery to convey a central message, and can avoid censorship by employing clever tricks that hint at possible controversial opinions, but carefully hide them in the fabric of the movie.

There is a constant struggle between assessing what makes a good movie versus what makes a good historical movie. This distinction is an important one, because movies can be theatrically and graphically fantastic, but they fail to be good historical movies unless they use what is on the screen to convey some bigger message. Rosenstone notes that “significant works have been created – films that provide knowledge of, insight to, and interpretation of the lives of individuals; films that let us see, hear, and understand a great deal about not only the person but, in many cases, his or her historical milieu” (Rosenstone 82). I like that Rosenstone comments that movies have a particular ability to help us learn about a person’s milieu, or social environment. It is not enough to create a plot and include characters; what is far more important is to situate characters in an environment that invites critical analysis and commentary, something that good movies of history try to accomplish.

All of this being said, watching and analyzing historical movies has an even larger and nobler purpose, because through the practice of studying film, we are able to sharpen our “historical lenses” and ultimately become better citizens of a democratic society situated within a multicultural world. The skills I have learned after watching and reviewing these movies helped bolster my appreciation for the past, but more importantly, it taught me to critically examine everything I see, because it is through analysis and deliberation where the truth begins to emerge.

Adam J. Ring is a junior majoring in Integrated Social Studies Education with a minor in History.

Visions of “Dunkirk”

By Chad Goss

Grade for “Dunkirk”:  B-

If I were to give Dunkirk just a film grade, it would be a solid A. The performances, non-linear storytelling, score, storyline, and some of the shots all combined to create the best and most enjoyable viewing experience so far experienced in this class. The combination of three different narrative threads, on land, on sea, and in the air, all following one or several major characters as they attempt to leave or get to Dunkirk was a viewing experience that demands repeat viewings as a film. However, my job is to grade the film as a historical film, and in that sense this film earns a B-.

The strengths of Dunkirk come from the filmmaking. It is without a doubt one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen and for sure this is the most well shot and edited film seen in our class with certain shots of the sea and the beaches being breathtaking. The nonlinear storytelling and lack of much dialogue throws viewers into the confusion and uncertainty that many of the characters in the film would have been feeling at the time as well. Finally, the score completes the viewing experience by drawing viewers fully into the film. Each moment of music or sound clues the viewer in on what is coming next and at certain points the lack of any extra music leaves the viewer feeling as if they two were experiencing the events first hand. All around an impressively made film that deserves much praise for maintaining the emotional truths of the soldiers by showing their despair, hopelessness, and overall uncertainty throughout the entire film. Even though the viewers knows many of them will be saved, the viewer is still left with a sense of dread and worry much like the characters in the scene.

What truly brings this film down in its rating is its inability to draw on the historical truths about the presence and sacrifices of imperial soldiers at this moment in history. Robert Rosenstone makes a point of emphasis that maintaining accuracy is a primary component to creating a good historical film. It is the responsibility of these films to represent and portray history as closely as possible to the way that it actually happened. Dunkirk does a great job with physical aspects such as uniforms, vehicles, and timelines, but it fails to include all those who were there. By ignoring those who sacrificed their lives the film creates historical inaccuracy and throughout the semester this has proven to be an error that must result in a lower grade. Dunkirk is not exempt from this just because it is a high quality film.

It is a shame that more care was not taken in ensuring the historical accuracy of the film was complete and peoples were included in the final cut of the film. If this had been done, Dunkirk might have stood above the rest as film depicting history while also creating an incredibly pleasing viewing experience. However, despite all of the greatness that was achieved in the filmmaking process, it is undone by the choice to not accurately represent all of those where truly there and sacrificed all everything.

Chad Goss is a senior majoring in Finance with a minor in History.

Emotional History in “Dunkirk”

By Aleah Sexton

Grade for “Dunkirk”:  A

Dunkirk, the 2017 British WWII film directed by Christopher Nolan, brilliantly portrays the 1940 evacuation at the Battle of France of over 300,000 men on the German-occupied beach. The film highlights the bravery and resilience of the soldiers on the land, air, and sea during a period of intense anxiousness and uncertainty. The film follows the journeys of three men in the RAF, three privates on foot, and three British civilians requisitioned to use their vessel to help with the evacuation. The production allows the audience to follow Operation Dynamo in a nonlinear way to create suspense and confusion to mirror the emotions the actual soldiers were feeling. Nolan plays with temporal setting to focus on the variety of stories and mental states that the men were feeling during the evacuation. The true nature of war was distinguished between the military control and civilian control. The men on the mole awaiting their evacuation were treated as pure numbers and the boats were certainly not overloaded. This portrayal can be contrasted against Dawson and his unwavering stance on rescuing as many men as his small vessel can handle. There appear to be three main protagonists – Tommy, the single survivor of a German ambush; Farrier, the committed RAF who is captured by the enemy as a result of a broken fuel gauge; and Dawson, the older sailor dedicated to rescuing the men of Dunkirk as a tribute to his passed son. Their stories become intermingled as the film moves on, and the creative use of filmography allows the audience to truly engage themselves with the mission.

In terms of historical accuracy, I would estimate Dunkirk to be a mix between a dramatic feature film and innovative historical film as documented by Robert Rosenstone. The dramatic feature film seeks to place “individuals at the centre of the historical process” and elicits strong emotions. It aims to get “you, the viewer, to experience the hurt (and pleasures) of the past”. Dunkirk uses the stories of the men to create specific reactions from the audience. Their struggle and celebration is mirrored by the audience. It is plausible Dunkirk is also a innovative historical film because of Nolan’s use of cinematic features. This category of historical films is broad, and uses “a wide variety of theories, ideologies, an aesthetic approaches with both potential and real impact upon historical thought”. The nonlinear combination of stories creates a confusing, yet entrancing WWII story. These films “attempt to rethink history on the screen”. The history surrounding Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo may have a particular narrative and the film creates conversation around the the actual technicalities revolved around the situation.

In essence, Dunkirk is a phenomenal modern WWII film which utilizes advanced filmography techniques to recreate the emotions of the time. The protagonists each share a compelling story about how the sea, land, and air was connected to create an extremely challenging, yet absolutely necessary rescue of more than 300,000 British men.

Aleah Sexton is a junior majoring in Finance with a minor in History.

The Suspense of “Dunkirk”

By Jill Teitelbaum

Grade for “Dunkirk”:  A-

Dunkirk is a dramatic portrayal of the Allied evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 that glorifies the British efforts while snubbing those of the French and colonial troops. The director, Christopher Nolan, successfully uses music and temporal sequences to create suspense and time sensitivity as well as introduce the various characters before they all converge in the end.


The opening title card sets the scene and introduces the high stakes, “The enemy have driven the British and French armies to the sea. Trapped at Dunkirk, they await their fate. Hoping for deliverance. For a miracle.” There are 400,000 men awaiting rescue. The rescue effort is hindered by bombing from German planes. In one particularly jarring scene, a medical ship is sunk at the mole with countless wounded men aboard. In addition to the threat from overheard, the Nazis are closing in from the land. Captain Winnant warns that, “They’re breaking through the dunes to the east. This is it.” This dialogue is one example of the emphasis on timing.


Nolan uses three temporal sequences to drive the plot: the mole, the sea and the air. The audience is told that they last one week, one day and one hour, respectively. Throughout the movie, the stories from each sequence begin to interweave. For example, an early dogfight results in a pilot, Collins, attempting a water landing. We later see the same landing from the perspective of the Dawsons aboard their private boat. After the Navy began requisitioning civilian boats, the Dawsons, along with their young friend, George, head to Dunkirk to help rescue men themselves. They rescue Collins in the nick of time as he was drowning while trapped inside his cockpit. This also shows how the overlapping stories are crucial to establishing the time sensitivity.


Towards the end of the movie, when the fate of the men at Dunkirk seems sealed, Commander Bolton notices all of the civilian British boats appear on the horizon. This is one of the most heartwarming scenes in the movie and it also highlights the Britishness of it. The small ships have Union Jacks and plainly clothed Brits of all ages. The Commander excitedly greets many of them and asks which towns they’re from.


Despite the combined military and civilian efforts, thousands of men do not survive. Many drown aboard ships sunk by German bombs or torpedoes. Others burn alive while caught in oil slicks on the water. Several of the characters, including the main protagonist Tommy, and the first man that the Dawsons rescue, the shivering soldier, endure multiple failed attempts to escape Dunkirk. They witness one tragedy after another before finally making it home in the end.


Overall, this movie powerfully illustrates the stories of a handful of the hundreds of thousands of British who were at Dunkirk and how they relied on all of the efforts on land, sea and air to survive. Although it neglects to recognize the French and colonial efforts, it highlights the time sensitivity, tragedies and heroism of the operation which affected everyone at Dunkirk.

Jill Teitelbaum is a senior majoring in Marketing with a minor in History.

War, Survival, and “Dunkirk”

By John Kirchhoefer

Grade for “Dunkirk”:  A+

Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s masterful tribute to the selfless sacrifice and patriotic integrity displayed by his countrymen in the civilian evacuation of British troops from Nazi occupied Northern France. Nolan’s reverence for the righteousness and moral character of the British people who answered the call is the running theme throughout the three converging timelines that culminate with the successful withdrawal from France. Through these three vignettes of a week (The Mole), a day (The Sea), and an hour (The Air); Nolan explores motifs such as the appreciation of home, the honor in service and sacrifice, the anxiety of war in all its fronts, and the dual nature of survival.


Dunkirk opens with a small group of British soldiers patrolling an eerily vacant and quiet French town as they scavenge and scrounge for anything useful they could glean: hose water, cigarette butts, Nazi propaganda repurposed as toilet paper and in an instant, all but one soldier are cut down by machine gun fire. This opening scene shows how in war a seemingly placid moment can decay in a matter of seconds. From that point on, the clock is ticking for the British and French to get off the beach before they are overrun by “The Enemy,” an unnamed nod to the facelessness and namelessness of all belligerents in wars throughout history. As the unarmed British rifleman makes his way to the soon to be abandoned beachhead, Hans Zimmer’s excellent score has begun. Throughout Dunkirk, Zimmer’s slowly progressing tempo that accompanies each new timeline continually reminds the audience of the increasing urgency of the evacuation as the advancing Enemy closes in on the Allied forces’ position. The score crescendos as the timelines converge and intensity peaks.


With options and resources limited, the British government executed Operation Dynamo which essentially drafted hundreds of British civilians who owned small vessels in Southeast Britain and sent them with their 850 requisitioned boats across the 20 nautical miles of the Straight of Dover in the English Channel to aid in the retreat. Nolan tells this story through the eyes of Mr. Dawson, an older man who owns the Moonstone; his teenage son, Peter; and his son’s friend, George. On their way to Dunkirk, the Moonstone rescues a marooned British soldier from his capsized ship. As the soldier pleads with Mr. Dawson to turn the boat around as continuing to France would assuredly result in their deaths, Mr. Dawson tells him, “Men my age dictate this war. Why should we be allowed to send our children to fight it?” To which, the soldier replies, “You should be at home!” Mr. Dawson poignantly implores the soldier to hold fast by telling him, “There won’t be any home if we allow a slaughter across the Channel.” This causes the soldier to grasp for the helm and accidentally knocks George down the stairs into the cabin where he sustains a head injury that would blind and eventually kill him. This scene captures many of the deeper nuances Nolan tries to express through the film. Mr. Dawson explaining that “home” will cease to exist if they fail their mission to bring the hundreds of thousands stranded British soldiers back, shows that “home” is not a place or an island, it’s the British people. A loss that significant would not only cost Britain being overrun by the Nazis due to the lack of troops left to defend the island, but British culture itself could not carry on if they were to abandon their boys on the shores of France to be slaughtered by the Nazis. The point is driven home when Commander Bolton, portrayed by the brilliant Sir Kenneth Branagh, sees the fleet of fishing, yachting, and sailing vessels and declares he sees “home.”


Another theme addressed in Dunkirk is sacrifice, survival, and the cost of war. In The Sea, George is an accidental casualty of “friendly fire,” but as the audience sees at the end, his sacrifice towards the war effort is no less significant and he is remembered as a “Hero at Dunkirk.” The issue Mr. Dawson and Peter face is whether or not the tradeoff of George’s life worth saving the lives of dozens of British soldiers. It is near impossible to decide whether the cost of the survival of a ship full of men is worth the life of one innocent boy. Nolan again touches on this notion of survival as victory in The Mole, when Harry Styles’ character snarks to the blind World War I veteran that “Well done? All we did was survive.” The old man responds, “That’s enough. Well done.” In The Air, the story of the two spitfire pilots was again that of self-sacrifice for the greater good. Both men knew that the spitfire engine technology was state of the art and they were under strict orders to not let it fall into the Nazis’ hands. So instead of bailing out to save their lives they both risked dying and being captured and tortured by putting the planes down and assuring they were completely destroyed. Farrier, Tom Hardy’s character, also decides to carry on dogfighting, despite being completely out of gas and gliding over the beach, in order to try and protect his countrymen as they made their way to rescue boats. Farrier’s sacrifice, like George’s, like Mr. Dawson’s, like Mr. Dawson’s RAF son, and like the rest of the Britons who risked it all to save their “home” was paramount to the survival and thus the victory of British.

John Kirchhoefer is a senior majoring in Public Administration.

The Emotional Impact of “Dunkirk”

By Madeline Phaby

Grade for “Dunkirk”:  A-

Dunkirk is a 2017 film directed by Christopher Nolan that gives a stunning account of the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk. The film’s heavy emphasis on visuals and sound rather than dialogue makes it a highly immersive experience for the viewer, while also contributing greatly to its successful portrayal of the emotional impact of war. While this alone is arguably enough to make Dunkirk an effective historical film, the lingering sense of English superiority created by certain aspects of the plot hold it back from achieving the perfect depiction of the dramatic event.

The premise of the film is to show the events of the evacuation on multiple fronts – the land (a week of action), the sea (a day of action), and the air (an hour of action). This concept mirrors the words of a speech by then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill in response to the events at Dunkirk in which he stated that the Britons would fight “on the seas and oceans,” “in the air,” and “on the beaches.” The viewer is whisked back and forth between the three storylines, which contributes to the dramatic nature of the film by often leaving the viewer in suspense as to what would happen to the characters in the previous storyline. Also contributing to this suspense is the deeply immersive nature of the directing, as the viewer is often made to feel as if they are underwater along with the soldiers frantically trying to escape their sinking ship or sinking through the air along with a pilot whose plane has been shot down. The genuine panic exhibited by the actors portraying the soldiers, relative lack of melodramatic side stories, and sole focus on the wartime action without digressions into the Homefront or British politics make the film an impressively emotionally accurate illustration of the events at Dunkirk.

Despite its numerous strong points, Dunkirk falls a bit short when it comes to historical accuracy. Although it is rather subtle, there is a pervasive sense throughout the film that English soldiers and civilians were the sole heroes responsible for the success of the evacuation. French contributions are largely ignored, and in fact, the only French soldier shown in the film wears a stolen British Army uniform and is nearly thrown off the ship because the others suspect he is a German spy. The cast of the film is also blindingly white, which does not account for the thousands of African and Indian soldiers that served in the British and French armies. While it is up to the viewer to determine whether these inaccuracies are enough to taint their opinion of the film, they are certainly worth noting. Regardless, Dunkirk is a visual masterpiece that is definitely accurate in at least one regard – its portrayal of the emotions experienced by someone who endures war.

Madeline Phaby is a freshman majoring in History.