What the world was like when your grandparents were born
Independent since 1776, the United States of America is 243 years old. With the average life expectancy now hovering around 80 years, that means the entire history of the country—from powdered wigs to the Internet of Things—spans a little more than just three back-to-back modern human lifetimes. Historically, America is a young country.
The centenarians who defied the odds and lived to be 100 today could have grandparents who were alive in 1860, provided that both their parents and grandparents gave birth at the age of 30. For a 20-year-old whose parents and grandparents both gave birth at 20, their three-generation lineage would date back only to 1960—a full century later.
A lot happened during that century. If someone said "British invasion" at the beginning of it, Redcoats with muskets would likely have come to mind. Just beyond the other end of that timeline, however, the same utterance would have probably sparked a conversation about The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Chances are good that your actual grandparents were born somewhere in between.
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By 1860, the United States was a country that could no longer sidestep a reckoning over the question of slavery. It was an open wound that had been festering since Congress punted on the issue with the Missouri Compromise two generations earlier in 1820. With the election in 1860 of anti-slavery presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln, South Carolina seceded from the Union. It was the point of no return. War between the North and South was now inevitable.
In 1861, the opening shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The Civil War would rage for four years, killing more than 600,000 Americans at the hands of other Americans. To finance the war, the government created what would go on to become an American institution: the income tax. Also, a new era in communication was ushered in that year when the completion of the transcontinental telegraph rendered the famed Pony Express obsolete.
Thanks to ghastly new weapons like the Gatling gun, grandparents of the oldest Americans in 1862 were growing up as towns like Antietam, Shiloh, and Manassas transformed into graveyards. As the war dragged on, the country's landscape changed. West Virginia broke away from Virginia and became its own state while the Homestead Act sent waves of Americans, including freed slaves, pouring into the interior of the country under the promise of free land.
The Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, officially granted freedom to any slaves held in rebel states. Because Confederate states were already in rebellion and therefore not taking orders from the Union, and because the proclamation did not apply to Union states, the order did nothing to change the status of slaves. Still, the Emancipation Proclamation did pave the way to the eventual emancipation of all people; making your young grandparents among the first children in American history to grow up in a country where human beings were not bought and sold at auctions alongside farm equipment and animals.
While war raged at home, the nature of war and global alliances were changing overseas as 12 nations came together in 1864 to sign the first Geneva Convention. November would also take on a whole new meaning for generations of Americans as President Lincoln formally established Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
In 1865, the Civil War finally passed into history when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House. Shortly after, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but storm clouds were on the horizon. That same year, a famous actor and Confederate militant named John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
In 1866, newly freed slaves were emboldened by the presence of federal troops in the South as what would become the era of Reconstruction offered protection and political empowerment. To restore white supremacy in the postwar South, former Confederate soldiers and sympathizers formed the Ku Klux Klan to suppress and intimidate black people through racial terror.
In 1867, Americans would have noticed their country getting much bigger. That year, America added Alaska to its tally of territories after purchasing the enormous northern land mass from Russia for about $.02 an acre. Also, human communication changed forever that year with the invention of the typewriter.
New technologies in 1868 changed the postwar world as intellectual and business giants rose to prominence. Their ideas would shape the coming decades and position America as an industrial giant. George Westinghouse patented a railroad air brake—just one of over 400 inventions he would go onto develop. That same year, a brilliant up-and-coming inventor named Thomas Edison applied for his very first patent.
In 1865, America was unified through war. Four years later in 1869, the country was unified by steel. On Nov. 24, Central Pacific railroad workers pushing east from California met up with Union Pacific workers pushing west from Omaha, Nebraska. The transcontinental railroad was completed when the two parties met in Promontory, Utah. The moment signaled the passing of the American frontier, with its caravans of wagon trains carrying pioneers on the long, dangerous journeys west.
In 1870, black Americans enjoyed unprecedented optimism under the protection of Reconstruction. The 15th Amendment gave black Americans the right to vote that year, and the first African-American was sworn into Congress. While all that was happening, America's budding industrial and corporate dominance began to take shape as business titans emerged. John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil that year.
Freedom and inclusion expanded with the railroads in 1871 as Utah became the second state to afford women the right to vote. However, it wasn't all rosy. It was the dawn of the era that would come to be known as the Wild West. The railroads brought scores of Buffalo hunters who decimated herds that once numbered in the millions to satisfy booming demand from teeming cities in the East. Massacres and encroachment crushed the remaining American Indian tribes, and racial tensions soared as whites were forced to compete with freed slaves and masses of cheap, expendable Chinese workers who were shipped in for railroad labor.
In 1872, two iconic American institutions were established as the country's image began to take shape. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was dedicated to culture and Yellowstone Park stood as a testament to America's natural splendor.
In the history of American clothing, few years have been more consequential than 1873. That year, Levi Strauss created his trademark denim pants, which he strengthened by reinforcing the strain points with rivets. Blue jeans, an American original, were born.
In 1874, the days of the open range and the era of the cowboy were delivered a fatal blow with one of the simplest yet most consequential inventions in world history: barbed wire. Barbed wire fences divvied up the American prairie, sparked violent "range wars" between competing cattle barons, and doomed the era of long, cross-country cattle drives to the realm of history and legend.
As waves of immigrants poured into the United States, the country's traditional ethnic identity began to change. In 1875, Archbishop John McCloskey became the first American Roman Catholic clergyman to be named a cardinal. Upon his death 10 years later, he was buried in New York City's famed St. Patrick's Cathedral.
In 1876, the West was as wild as ever. Two of the last great Indian chiefs, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, led an army that annihilated Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his entire regiment of soldiers at the Battle of the LIttle Bighorn. Also in 1876, legendary gunfighter and lawman Wyatt Earp became a deputy marshal in Dodge City, Kansas. However, the tide of progress wouldn't be denied. That same year, Alexander Graham Bell said "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you." Those were the first words ever spoken into a telephone.
A year after Bell demonstrated that the telephone could project sound across great distances, Thomas Edison perfected a machine that was able to record it. The phonograph used vibrating needles to record sound and then play it back on command—it was the first of all modern recording devices.
People weren't the only things that traveled on the railroads and steamships that now crisscrossed your young grandparents' America. Yellow fever, an old menace long relegated to the tropics and isolated Southern plantations, now hitched rides all over the country. An especially nasty epidemic brought the country to its knees when as many as 20,000 people died from a yellow fever outbreak that originated in New Orleans.
Since time immemorial, human beings had to set things on fire if they wanted to see in the dark. Then, in 1879, Thomas Alva Edison turned night to day in his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, when he applied voltage to a cotton thread filament in a glass bulb. The era of electric lights had arrived.
Edison's invention didn't stay in Menlo Park for long—electricity quickly began changing the way human beings interacted with each other, with the machines they made, and with the world around them. By 1880, Wabash, Indiana, became the world's first electrically lighted city.
In 1881, Clara Barton founded the Red Cross, changing the nature of volunteerism in America while ensuring that people would have a place to turn in times of distress and emergency. While some like Barton worked to move America toward compassion and progress, there were constant reminders that the U.S. was still a wild, violent land. President James Garfield was inaugurated just a few months before an assassin's bullet ended his life, just as it had with Lincoln less than 20 years before. In the West that year, Pat Garrett killed outlaw Billy the Kid, and the Earp brothers engaged the Clanton gang during a gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
In the East in 1882, titans of science and industry were transforming the world—the Edison Illuminating Company built the country's first commercial power plant, which Thomas Edison (who was head of the company) showed off by lighting up one square mile of lower Manhattan. That same year, John D. Rockefeller created teh Standard Oil Trust, a mind-boggling maze of corporate accounting that allowed him to consolidate his power into a single monopoly, but the West was wild as ever. Outlaw Jesse James was shot and killed that year by a rival gunman.
Prior to the Civil War, America was a country divided by North and South. But by 1883, the culture lines were drawn between West and the East, and citizens on both sides made major gains that year in terms of entertainment. The first of the famed Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows debuted in 1883. In Boston that year, audiences took in the world's very first Vaudeville show.
1884 was a major year for monuments dedicated to projecting America's founding ideals. On Independence Day that year, France presented the Statue of Liberty to the United States as a gift—although it still had to be disassembled and shipped across the ocean. Back in the capital, the Washington Monument was completed, taking the title of the tallest building in the world at the time.
Starting in 1885, American cities were on the rise—literally. That year, the world's first skyscraper was erected. The Home Insurance Building rose 10 stories—138 feet—in the air above Chicago. Soon, skylines across the country would undergo radical transformations.
While massive buildings were towering in eastern cities, the era of the Old West was rapidly drawing to a close. On Sept. 4, the legendary Apache warrior Geronimo surrendered after three decades of fighting. He was the last native warrior to hold out to the United States government. As the Indian Wars ended, something new and uniquely American emerged in Atlanta when pharmacist John Pemberton invented Coca-Cola.
In 1887, the United States was positioning itself as a global power on the world stage. That year, the U.S. Navy won the right to establish a permanent base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A little more than a half century later, world history would forever change at that exact location.
In 1888, the peculiar workings of America's democracy were put on display when Grover Cleveland lost the presidential election to Benjamin Harrison. Although Cleveland actually received more popular votes, Harrison won the Electoral College vote—and therefore the presidency. This had happened twice before, once in 1824 and again in 1876. More than a century later in 2000, President George W. Bush would win the presidency after losing the popular vote. Most recently and most dramatically, President Donald Trump took the White House despite receiving 2.8 million fewer votes than his opponent.
In 1889, America was transforming at a rapid pace, admitting more states to the Union than in any single year since the time of the Founding Fathers. That year, the admission of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Washington reshaped the American West.
In 1890, West Point's football team beat the U.S. Naval Academy's squad 24-0 in the first-ever Army-Navy game. Also that year, the West filled out some more with the admission of Idaho and Wyoming as states. Nearby, the United States Army massacred hundreds of defeated and starving Lakota Sioux, including their chief, Sitting Bull, at Wounded Knee, S.D.
In 1892, one of the most uniquely American moments in the country's history took place, but it involved people from the farthest corners of the planet. That year, Ellis Island opened as a major immigration station. Today, over 40% of all Americans can trace at least one ancestor to Ellis Island.
In 1893, the World's Columbian Exposition—better known as the World's Fair—opened in Chicago. Children and parents alike were thrilled by a rotating wheel invented by a man named Ferris, and the nation and the world marveled at the electric-powered lights, machines, and generators that sparkled and lit the entire event. Nearly 26 million people attended, and the world paused to recognize America as the global leader in innovation, technology, and leisure.
As American corporate titans carved up the country and the world, the workers who performed the labor that built their business empires were largely marginalized. In 1894, the budding labor movement gathered steam when the Pullman Strike disrupted the railroad industry: 12,000 tailors took to the streets in New York City to protest sweatshop conditions, and Coxey's Army marched on Washington D.C. to protest unemployment. As a concession, Congress officially recognized Labor Day as a federal holiday in 1894.
The year 1895 witnessed the rise of a new generation of African-American leaders as the old guard passed into history. That year, W.E.B. DuBois became the first black American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University and Booker T. Washington gave his famous "Atlanta Compromise" speech. Neither man, however, could have reached such heights had it not been for the efforts of people like iconic escaped-slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who died that year.
For slaves in the South, the exhilaration of Emancipation was backed up by the protections and empowerment provided during Reconstruction. Those hopes, however, were quickly dashed when federal troops left the South, leaving masses of traumatized, uneducated, and desperately poor former slaves at the mercy of their beaten and enraged former masters. White supremacy enforced through violence and terror was again the status quo, and remaining hopes of real freedom were dashed in 1896 when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of legalized segregation in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which made "separate but equal" the law of the land.
Tens of thousands of a new kind of American pioneer poured into Alaska in 1897, one of the country's last, true frontiers, when gold was discovered in the Klondike. It was a big year in Boston, too, as the city debuted the world's first underground subway and held the first Boston Marathon.
1898 witnessed the United States flexing its muscles overseas. That year, the country defeated the Spanish in the Spanish-American War, winning Puerto Rico in the process. America also blockaded Cuba and took Guam as a territory after annihilating the Spanish fleet in the Philippines. Later that year, the U.S. annexed Hawaii and took control of the Philippines.
As the 19th century drew to a close, future grandparents born that year would grow up in a country and a world that would have been unrecognizable to those raising the future grandparents who were born in 1860. The slaves were freed, but not really free, and any remaining Native American had been confined to reservations. The West was won. Nearly 200,000 miles of railroad track crisscrossed the country. Titans of industry had created corporate empires, inventors had changed the world with fantastic new technologies, and America was a global force to be reckoned with. However, with the 20th century on the horizon, all of that would soon feel like ancient history.
In 1900, the world got a little sweeter when Milton Hershey unveiled his new milk chocolate Hershey's Bar. That same year, the hamburger was invented and would quickly rise to the top of the American food chain. Also in 1900, America entered the era of the automobile with the first major car show at New York City's Madison Square Garden—it would soon be a country on the move.
By 1901, America had been infatuated with baseball for quite some time, but that year the American League declared itself a Major League and America's pastime entered the modern National League/American League era. Also, a major oil discovery in Texas put the Lone Star State on the map as a global energy giant, but the year closed on a dark note. Theodore Roosevelt became president in the wake of yet another presidential assassination—this time, a bullet ended William McKinley's life.
Two 1902 events shapes the nature of American leisure through the present day: The country's first movie theater opened in Los Angeles. The only problem is that it was hot inside, but not for long, as the first air conditioner was invented later that year.
Physical and geographical boundaries came crashing down in 1903. That's the year that the first cross-country car trip was completed and the first two-way wireless communication was made across the Atlantic Ocean. However, the year will always be remembered not for what happened over the ocean or on the road, but in the air. In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved the miracle of human flight, which had escaped the human race since antiquity. The shackles of gravity had been broken.
Boston Americans star Cy Young pitched history's first-ever perfect game in 1904, curing a time when America was still largely an agrarian society. That year, farming changed forever when Benjamin Holt invented the first tractor, which he perfected by incorporating a caterpillar track.
Eager to move forward since the close of the Civil War, America in 1905 finally paused to reflect on where it had been. That's the year that the Lewis and Clark Exposition dominated the World's Fair in Portland, Oregon, in 1905. It had been a full century since the famous explorers ventured off into the great unknown to investigate the Louisiana Purchase, which went on to become the heart of future America.
In the Bay Area, 1906 will always be the year that the most significant earthquake in recorded American history leveled the city of San Francisco. But for lifelong hunter, sportsman, and conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt, 1906 was about preservation, not destruction. That year, Roosevelt signed a law that allowed presidents to preserve important public land, and as the country's natural beauty and bounty were being rapidly annihilated by industry, Roosevelt expanded and enshrined America's National Park system.
On April 17, 1907, Ellis Island experienced its busiest day as ever-larger groups of immigrants continued to pour into America looking for opportunity in a newly rich nation. No fewer than 11,747 of the world's wretched refuse and huddled masses became Americans that day, which was part of a month that welcomed just shy of 200 ships to the New World. In all, 1907 saw 1.2 million immigrants arrive on American shores.
William Howard Taft was elected president in 1908, a year dominated by giant leaps in transportation. Wilbur Wright conducted the world's first passenger flight and Henry Ford's first production Model T was built in Detroit. At the same time, workers finished the first two miles of roads in a program to test paved driving surfaces in the car-crazy United States.
In 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed in response to rampant violence and disenfranchisement of black Americans, particularly the horrific lynchings that by that time were regularly used to enforce white supremacy in the South and beyond. Also that year, Sigmund Freud introduced the world to his controversial brand of psychological science with his tour of psychoanalysis lectures.
By the start of the 20th century's second decade, more than 92 million human beings called America home. Also, an American institution known as the Boy Scouts was founded that year.
The aircraft carrier was invented in 1911, and the airplane became a viable long-range military weapon when a pilot landed a plane on a ship for the first time in history. The Indianapolis 500 ran for the first time in the race's namesake city, the Standard Oil monopoly was smashed, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire led to sweeping safety regulations, and Colt unveiled the vaunted 1911 pistol.
In 1912, the map of the contiguous United States was finally completed with the admission of New Mexico and Arizona to the Union—states #47 and #48. In the North Atlantic, the most famous maritime disaster in history took place when the RMS Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage. Back home, the Nabisco corporation introduced the world to the Oreo cookie.
A Liverpool journalist gave the world the first crossword puzzle in 1913, which was also the year Grand Central Station opened in New York City. That year, Henry Ford revolutionized manufacturing when he launched the first assembly line. Despite all the innovations changing life at home, however, storm clouds were brewing in Europe as the continent's great empires lurched toward war.
In August 1914, a single shot created a global catastrophe when a Serbian militant assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The Austria-Hungary Empire, Russian Empire, German Empire, British Empire, and Ottoman Empire—and their many scattered colonies—would quickly be dragged into a conflict unlike any other in history: World War I. Horrific new weapons like tanks, bomber planes, chemical gas, and predictive artillery collided with primitive tactics like human-wave charges and trench warfare. When the dust settled, four of the five great empires would cease to exist and 20 million human beings would be dead.
By 1915, New York and San Francisco had been connected by telephone, but emerging media technologies weren't always helpful. That year, D. W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" freshly demonized black America and breathed new life into the Ku Klux Klan. Overseas, Ottoman Turks used the cover of war to slaughter more than a million Armenian civilians in the century's first genocide. It would not be the last.
The horrors of World War I escalated in 1916 as nearly 3 million people were killed in just two epic battles: Verdun and the Somme. Back home, a series of great white shark attacks off the coast of the Jersey Shore stoked terror on the beaches, and John Rockefeller became the world's first American billionaire. Shortly after, Margaret Sanger was arrested for setting up the country's first birth control clinic in New York City.
Global politics in 1917 triggered two events that would forever alter the course of American history. The United States was finally drawn into World War I, and communist revolutionaries led by Vladimir Lenin toppled the czarist Russian Empire. The Soviet Union was born, and it would become America's greatest ally and, later, its greatest adversary.
Although hostilities abroad were winding down in 1918, a new, invisible enemy wreaked havoc across the world. A global epidemic of Spanish flu killed about as many people as World War I, including tens of thousands of Americans.
In 1919, a movement built on a century of activism that involved groups as disparate as abolitionists, women's rights organizations, and religious revivalists got its due. The 18th Amendment became the law of the land and Prohibition ended the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol in America—at least on paper. In reality, Prohibition drove booze underground, creating a gargantuan black market that fueled an unprecedented rise in organized crime.
The 1920 census was the first in history to require nine digits to record—America was now more than 100 million people strong. About half of those people were women, and now, thanks to the 19th Amendment, they were finally granted the right to participate in American democracy. Women's suffrage succeeded a full half century after black men were afforded the right to vote—in policy if not in practice—when the 13th Amendment was ratified during Reconstruction.
In 1921, the endless influx of immigrants proved too great for many in the U.S., and the country responded by passing the Emergency Quota Act, which severely limited the number of immigrants allowed in the country. Migrants from white Western European countries were given preference over "undesirables." Also that year, the first Miss America pageant was held in Atlantic City, N.J.
The first issue of Reader's Digest was published in 1922 while work began on Yankee Stadium. Soon after, the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in Washington D.C.
In 1923, Oklahoma became the first of many states to enact anti-evolution legislation that banned the teaching of Darwinism—or any alternative to biblical creation—in schools. Fundamentalist religion had swept through much of the region in the 1920s, leading to not just anti-evolution laws, but religious blue laws, as well.
In 1924, human encroachment proved that America's natural bounty was not endless. That year marked the last known sighting of the now-extinct California grizzly bear, which adorns the state flag to this day.
In 1925, an Austrian veteran of World War I and political extremist named Adolf Hitler penned "Mein Kampf" (“My Struggle”) while in prison for a failed coup. The autobiography, which sold more than 12 million copies by 1945, outlined the doctrines that would go on to define Nazism: ferocious anti-Semitism, a society based on racial hierarchy, and an unquenchable thirst for conquest to confiscate land for German "living space." It was the start of one of the darkest chapters in human history.
Communication got a huge boost in 1926 when the NBC Radio Network opened with 24 stations. Also that year, pilots flew a three-engine monoplane to the North Pole and back for the first time in history, but the nature of aviation was changing. That same year, a scientist proved that liquid-fueled rockets were viable for flight.
Mother Nature was not kind to the United States in 1927, as the Great Mississippi Flood affected nearly three-quarters of a million people. Work on an homage to presidents past—Mt. Rushmore—began that year, the talking picture was born, and a primitive version of the television was invented.
Walt Disney introduced the world to Mickey and Minnie Mouse in 1928, the same year that Amelia Earhart took the title of first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. It was a prosperous, exciting time for much of the country—but trouble was brewing on Wall Street.
On Oct. 29, 1929, the prosperity of the post-war decade came to a screeching halt when massively overvalued stocks collided with reality, causing panicked investors to dump 16 million shares on the New York Stock Exchange. It was Black Tuesday, the precursor to the Great Depression, the most destructive financial calamity in modern world history.
The country in 1930 was sinking into a financial depression, but life went on. An American astronomer discovered Pluto, and a man with the last name Birdseye invented the process that made frozen food possible. It was also the year that a seed was planted to eventually grow into the digital age: Vannevar Bush invented the analog computer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In 1931, a furious race to build the world's tallest building ended when work finished on the Empire State Building in record time. That same year, the nature of American crime evolved when gangster Charles "Lucky" Luciano united the Mafia into a corporate model that organized underworld bosses into a "Commission." That same year, Prohibition kingpin Al Capone was sentenced to 11 years in prison for income tax evasion, and Nevada legalized gambling.
By 1932, more than 12 million Americans were out of work—nearly a quarter of the workforce compared to just over 3% in 1929. That same year, America was captivated by the ransom kidnapping of the child of famous aviator CharlesLindbergh. The story ended tragically when the baby was found dead.
After defeating Herbert Hoover in a landslide the year before, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated as the president of a reeling nation. By that point, most banks had shut down, the country was teeming with unemployed vagabonds, countless farms were facing foreclosure, and production had plummeted. Roosevelt's resolve and "New Deal" programs would usher America through the crisis—and the crisis to follow—during an unprecedented four terms in office.
Prohibition was repealed in 1933. The next year spelled the end of the most fantastical crime wave in American history—the gangster era. The FBI emerged as an unshakable arbiter of law and order in 1934 after tracking and killing legendary outlaws like Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow, Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd, and John Dillinger within the span of a few months.
By 1935, America was buckling under the weight of not just the Great Depression, but a second calamity called the Dust Bowl. The combination of natural drought and years of reckless farming practices turned millions of tons of previously farmable soil into airborne dust. Huge portions of the country were blanketed, as massive dust storms created ominous walls of dirt called "black blizzards," which buried farms, killed people and animals, and decimated farmers that were already struggling to survive.
In 1936, the Hoover Dam, one of the great New Deal public works projects, was finally completed. However, a bad situation in Europe was quickly getting worse. No longer just a nuisance, Adolf Hitler broke the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended World War I, and sent troops into the Rhineland.
Major landmarks appeared on both sides of the country as the Golden Gate Bridge and Appalachian Trail opened to the public. The Hindenburg disaster captured the world's attention, and, for the first time in American history, an African-American judge was appointed to the federal bench.
In 1938, the era when the grandparents of today's oldest Americans were born was finally put to rest. That year, the last living survivors of Gettysburg staged their final annual reunion 75 years after the iconic Pennsylvania Civil War battle ended. Also, the Federal Writers' Project wrapped up a two-year mission to record 2,300 first-hand oral narratives of the last living Americans who were born into slavery.
In 1939, John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Grapes of Wrath" revealed to the masses the struggles of the Midwestern farmer during the Depression and the Dust Bowl. That same year, the world met Batman for the first time, but more consequential events were happening overseas. In 1939, Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. World War II and the Holocaust had begun.
In 1940, Hitler's war of military conquest and civilian annihilation were raging in full force. Paris fell to the Nazis that year, and the first captives began arriving at the Auschwitz concentration camp. In response, Roosevelt began conscripting troops and expanding the Navy.
In 1941, Red Sox slugger Ted Williams became the first and, to this day, only player to end a season with a batting average over .400. In fact, 1941 was a busy year filled with important news, but none of it compared to the raging storm that was about to engulf the United States. In 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, destroying much of the Pacific Fleet and killing over 2,400 Americans. The United States was now at war.
In one of the most shameful chapters in modern American history, the United States government rounded up Japanese-Americans, confiscated their property, and interned them in camps, often far from home in remote locations. Unlike the many Italian-Americans and German-Americans who openly supported America's fascist enemies overseas, these prisoners in their own country had committed no crime except being Japanese. Not a single one was ever convicted of colluding or spying.
In 1943, only a few human beings on Earth knew how close the United States was to acquiring the most hideous weapon in human history. As part of the Manhattan Project, special reactors were being constructed and tested while uranium and plutonium were being mined and enriched. America was close to developing the atomic bomb.
In 1944, Allied troops led by the United States stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, in the largest amphibious assault in human history. Although they sustained massive losses, the Allies prevailed. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi dream of a world that existed to serve a "master race" was all but finished.
1945 was one of the most consequential years in the history of the world. The Allies secured Germany's surrender and battered the Japanese in the East. Franklin Roosevelt's sudden death turned the presidency over to Harry S. Truman, who would give the order to drop America's secret weapon, the atomic bomb, on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. World War II ended with a mushroom cloud.
In 1946, the world order had changed and the first United Nations General Assembly was held as the League of Nations was disbanded. Back home, workers were demanding better conditions, as hundreds of thousands of miners went on strike. African-Americans, once again, wondered why they had fought and died to defend a country in which they were still second-class citizens upon their return. In response, Truman launched the President's Committee on Civil Rights.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Much of America was booming in the post-war peacetime economy. However, the peace was tenuous, as the United States and its former Soviet Allies were now locked in a communism vs. capitalism stare down called the Cold War.
In 1948, President Harry Truman was elected to his first full term. He had made bold speeches about the need for full civil rights for African-Americans, but now he put his words into practice. That year, he signed an order desegregating the military.
In 1949, the first Volkswagen Beetle was imported into the United States, communist party leaders were arrested in the United States as red fever gripped the country, and the first nonstop around-the-world airline flight was a success. Overseas, America withdrew its troops from the troubled Korean peninsula.
After what seemed like a brief peace, America was once again at war in 1950, this time in Korea. Any hope for a quick resolution ended when communist Chinese troops poured over the 38th parallel in support of Soviet-backed North Korean troops. That same year, America sent 35 advisors to support anti-communist forces in a remote and obscure Southeast Asian country called Vietnam.
The era of transcontinental television began in 1951 with a live broadcast speech by President Truman. Also that year, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death after being convicted as spies.
In 1952, World War II military hero Dwight Eisenhower was elected in a landslide. Also that year, the first hydrogen bomb was successfully tested, ushering in the era of the H-bomb. However, an airborne drop of the massive new weapon wouldn't take place for four years.
The color television was born in 1953 and scientists published the discovery of DNA. The Korean War technically ended that year, but American troops would remain on the peninsula indefinitely.
In 1954, one of the greatest breakthroughs in medical history took place when large-scale vaccinations against polio began in Pittsburgh. Also, the Senate voted to condemn anti-communist crusader Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, ruling racial segregation unconstitutional.
In 1955, a 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago named Emmett Till was brutally murdered while visiting family in Mississippi. He had been accused of the same "crime" that had condemned thousands of black men and boys to ghastly deaths for decades before him: insulting a white woman. An all-white jury returned a not guilty verdict against the murderers, as was the custom in the rare cases where white people were even brought to trial for murdering black people in the South. However, this time was different—his mother smuggled the mutilated body back to Chicago and gave him an open-casket funeral, galvanizing the modern Civil Rights movement.
In response to the Supreme Court's ruling on desegregation, Southern leaders sent out a call for massive resistance with their Southern Manifesto. It is the final stand of the Confederacy, and it would trigger one of the most violent and turbulent eras in American history.
In 1957, America was horrified to learn that the Soviets had beat the United States into space. That year, the communists successfully launched Sputnik, a beach ball-sized contraption that would go down in history as the world's first satellite. If the Soviets could launch a satellite, they could launch ballistic missiles.
A 1958 flight between Miami and New York signals the start of the passenger jet age. Also that year, America launched a satellite of its own at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
In 1959, Texas lost the title of the largest geographical state in America when Alaska was admitted into the Union as the 49th state. That same year, the Cold War thawed just a little bit when Nikita Khrushchev became the first Soviet leader to visit the United States—Eisenhower hosted him at a farm in Gettysburg.
In 1960, the youngest American grandparents were born into a decade that would be remembered as among the most turbulent in American history. Social upheaval, a gruesome war, African-Americans struggling for civil rights against groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and a presidential assassination would define the decade—just as it had a century before.