Fascists at the Fair: A Deep Dive into Chicago’s Balbo Monuments

Monuments to problematic figures and historical events are increasingly the focus of issues relating to race and violence in the United States. Chicago’s own monuments to Italo Balbo are at the forefront of such discussions here in the city. The following is an abridged version of a research paper written for Loyola professor Dr. Timothy J Gilfoyle’s Urban History graduate seminar in 2015, meant to give historical context to the monuments, as well as to contextualize current calls to have them removed.

In Chicago’s Grant Park, just east of Soldier Field, stands a single, solitary, classical Roman column. An inscription in English and Italian at the base of the column, badly faded, reveals its surprising origins:

THIS COLUMN

TWENTY CENTURIES OLD

ERECTED ON THE SHORES OF OSTIA

PORT OF IMPERIAL ROME

TO SAFEGUARD THE FORTUNES AND VICTORIES

OF THE ROMAN TRIREMES

FASCIST ITALY BY COMMAND OF BENITO MUSSOLINI

PRESENTS TO CHICAGO

EXALTATION SYMBOL MEMORIAL

OF THE ATLANTIC SQUADRON LED BY BALBO

THAT WITH ROMAN DARING FLEW ACROSS THE OCEAN

IN THE ELEVENTH YEAR

OF THE FASCIST ERA

The column, mounted on a travertine base, was presented as a gift to the city of Chicago by Benito Mussolini in commemoration of the Italian Air Force’s 1933 transatlantic flight led by Italo Balbo, Air Marshall of the Aeronautica. Balbo and his squadron of pilots completed the final leg of their record-breaking flight in a spectacular landing in Chicago on the waters of Lake Michigan during the 1933-1934 World’s Fair. The column was unveiled a year later outside of the fair’s Italian Pavilion and has not moved from that spot since.

column dedication 7.14.34
Crowds gather to hear Balbo give a speech at the dedication of the pillar at Italian Day at the Fair. Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1934.

And the column is not even the only monument to Balbo in Chicago. Two other memorials include Balbo Avenue, formerly 7th Street, which was renamed in Balbo’s honor in 1933, and a plaque on the side of the statue of Columbus in Grant Park, which was presented to Chicago by the Italian community at the Century of Progress World’s Fair.

Chicago Alderman Ed Burke (14th) summed up many Chicagoans feelings when he recently commented to the Sun Times

“I’m amazed the citizens of Chicago have not demanded that these symbols of fascism – a street and a statue bearing Balbo’s name – donated by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, a sidekick of Adolf Hitler, be removed decades ago from the city’s landscape…It is now time Chicago does something permanent about this embarrassing anomaly.” [1]

The US was not always vehemently opposed to Mussolini’s brand of fascism. David F. Schmitz has written extensively on why the United States remained friendly towards right-wing dictatorships such as Mussolini’s during the interwar years. He argues that a desire to support order and stability in Europe, as well as anxiety over the Bolshevik threat, led United States policymakers to welcome Mussolini’s rise to power and support his regime in direct contradiction with US ideals. [2]

Historians have also argued that monuments such as Balbo’s remain because, in American memory, the actions of Mussolini’s brutal regime are eclipsed by the atrocities committed by Hitler and the Nazis. [3]

Despite the United State’s tacit support of fascism in the interwar years, Alderman Burke’s campaign to have the monument removed and to rename Balbo Avenue is not the first. Individuals and politicians have periodically challenged the monuments and their place in the city since they were installed more than 80 years ago.

The 1933 flight and dedication were protested by the Italian Socialist Federation and the Italian League for the Rights of Man, who circulated a pamphlet at the fair titled “Who is Balbo?” which described him as a terrorist and murderer. In 1946 residents waged a contentious battle in city council to rename Balbo Avenue after World War II hero John C. Waldron (Waldron did eventually get his own, different street). Opposition again arose during the 50th anniversary celebration of the flight in 1983, and as recently as 2011 a group of academics submitted a petition to Alderman Bob Fioretti to have Balbo Avenue renamed for Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist who built the first nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago and came to the United States to escape fascism. [4]

The monuments and the discussions they generate about how history should be remembered illustrate a complex process in which public memory is created and reinterpreted through time. The narrative of Balbo’s transatlantic flight and monuments began as a triumphant story of innovation and technology propelling humanity towards a more enlightened future. Today, they are seen as outdated at best and offensive at worst. Following the trajectory of how the flight was memorialized and the arguments that centered around the appropriateness of the monuments shows that public memory is a fluid and dynamic force, continually defining and redefining how individuals and institutions such as cities incorporate memory of historical events into the fabric of their identity.

Continue reading “Fascists at the Fair: A Deep Dive into Chicago’s Balbo Monuments”

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Changes to U.S. Copyright Office Could Impact Public Historians

On April 26, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to transform the Register of Copyrights from a position responsible to the Librarian of Congress to a political appointment chosen by the President and confirmed by the Senate. If passed by the Senate, this legislation could impact public historians and others who rely on the Library of Congress to represent the interests of educators, scholars, librarians, and archivists when administering copyright law.

The James Madison Memorial Building of the Library of Congress houses the U.S. Copyright Office. 2011 U.S. Government photo by the Architect of the Capitol.

The “Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act of 2017,” or H.R. 1695, passed the House with bipartisan support on a vote of 378 to 48. Proponents claim that the legislation will help modernize the Copyright Office, which has been overseen by the Library of Congress since 1870. The text of the bill, however, does nothing to update the Copyright Office’s systems or procedures — it simply gives the President rather than the Librarian of Congress power to appoint the Register of Copyrights. Critics of this change, including the American Library Association (ALA), the Society for American Archivists (SAA), and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), argue that it would further politicize the copyright office and elevate the influence of entertainment industry lobbyists over other copyright system stakeholders.

The U.S. Constitution authorized Congress to grant copyrights “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Courts have interpreted this clause to mean that copyright law must balance the rights of authors and creators with the public’s fair use of copyrighted works to advance art and science through research, education, and other fields. Locating the Copyright Office within the Library of Congress, a research institution, helps keep the administration of copyright law accountable to its constitutional mission.

Historians, archivists, librarians, and others rely on the Register of Copyrights to maintain the official historical record of copyrighted materials, as well as tools like the Fair Use Index that compile legal decisions on the use of copyrighted works for education and research. The Register of Copyrights is also responsible for recommending exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s prohibition against circumventing copyright protection systems. Under current law, the Register must consider the “use of works for nonprofit archival, preservation, and educational purposes” among other factors in granting exemptions — a consideration  that may determine whether historians in future years can access electronic sources published with software based copy-protection or D.R.M.

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Resource Roundup: Historical Perspectives on Race, Police, and Crime

Mike Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice.  The deaths of young black men–and the lack of indictments for the policemen who killed them–have ignited outrage and urgent conversations on the structural racism of the criminal justice system and the fraught state of race relations in the United States.  The following list links to articles that utilize historical perspective while participating in contemporary discussions of racism and police violence.

This brief list only contains only one article by academic historian.  Why aren’t more historians contributing to the national discussion on race, police brutality, and the criminal justice system?  Please post additional links in the comments of any articles that employ a critical historical perspective in addressing these current events.

When Police Brutality Protest Was White

The killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer, and the resulting community reaction, has put police brutality protest in the spotlight. The mass marches, limited looting, and confrontations with aggressive or ‘militarized’ law enforcement that typified the Ferguson protests seem like a relic of an earlier age. Many have been quick to draw parallels to Harlem (1964), Watts (1965), Detroit (1967), and Camden (1971), among others. I would like to add one more historical note, pulled from a chapter that I just so happen to be drafting this month. My case involves several similarities to Ferguson, but it is remarkable mainly because of a difference. The August 12, 1966, Summerdale March in Uptown Chicago was almost exclusively white.

A bandaged Uptown protester marches on the local police precinct. (Edgewater-Uptown News, August 16, 1966)
A bandaged Uptown protester marches on the local police precinct. (Edgewater-Uptown News, August 16, 1966)

An uncommon density of vacant low-rent housing in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and a postwar job crisis at home attracted tens-of-thousands of working-class and poor whites from Appalachia and the south through 1970. By 1960, many considered Uptown the nation’s foremost “Hillbilly Ghetto,” even though the area’s low-income community also consisted of American Indians, non-southern whites, a smattering of African Americans, and a growing Latino population. Uptown’s postwar southerness has been ‘discovered’ time after time by various segments of the dominant culture: urban renewal advocates, social workers, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, country music radio executives, the New Left, sisters religious, the War on Poverty, and on and on up through…urban historians.

When the SDS created the Economic Research and Action Program (ERAP) in 1964 to work towards an interracial solution to urban poverty, Uptown was a natural choice for one of the early projects. By 1966, SDS members were clamoring to be part of the Uptown ERAP effort known as Jobs or Income Now (JOIN). Noted organizers like Rennie Davis, Richard Rothstein, Vivian Leburg Rothstein, Todd Gitlin, and Casey Hayden lived in Uptown, undertaking the slow and uneven process of pushing locals towards political action. Early successes included a sit-in at the city welfare office, and tenant strikes that resulted in contracts between collectivized renters and landlords. These efforts antagonized most of the local political and social elites. The notorious “Red Squad” of the Chicago Police Department quickly placed JOIN under surveillance, and soon relied upon information from a local JOIN member who had become disgruntled with the outside activists’ “Unamerican” opinions about increased involvement in Vietnam. A law student soon infiltrated JOIN on the CPD’s behalf.

Meanwhile, patrolmen from the local precinct prosecuted an aggressive policing of Uptown low-income teenagers and young people. When outside JOIN organizers—operating under the banner of “participatory democracy”—sought to create political consciousness around the grievances expressed by locals, police brutality came to the fore. JOIN leaders were mostly unprepared and unwilling to base organizing around the issue, preferring instead to confront economic injustices and the shortcomings of the local War on Poverty “Urban Progress” program. Yet anger simmered, most notably with the politicization of the “Uptown Goodfellows,” a street organization of southern and Appalachian tough guys. The Goodfellows took cues from similar black and Latino groups that were beginning to evolve from gangs into political units.

Read the rest at dvhunter.com

My Favorite Historical Lecture

James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Debate Video

(Click the link above to skip the commentary and watch the debate)

Since I finished my summer independent study course last week, you will finally stop seeing book reviews on “The Black Atlantic” posted on this blog. For those of you that read some of those reviews, thank you for giving me an audience. Now, I have decided to followup my weekly tradition by posting a video. My favorite historical video.

Recently, I have been struggling to deal with, to talk about, and to understand the Israeli/Palestinian crisis in the Middle East. I have felt a lot of pain and a lot of anger. Not only at the conflict, but at my seeming inability to have any recourse to have my voice heard.  I have tried to work my way through some discussions on Facebook about this topic, but they always seem to end in gridlocked, polarized, and intractable monologues. I find myself very eager to assert my opinion in the beginning (backed by righteous self-affirmation), but after the arguing continues, I become weary, and I cannot find the energy to keep up.

This week, I was involved in one particularly exciting back-and-forth about the crisis in the Middle East. When I became weary of the debate, I logged off Facebook and I turned to YouTube. I decided to revisit my favorite lecture (as I often do when my frustration with the world mounts). While this lecture has nothing to do with the Israeli/Palestinian crisis directly, it touches on some very basic and shared issues of human co-existence. It is this lecture that I want to share with you today. As you will see, I have posted a link to it below.

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Multiculturalism Needs to Work: Public Historians of Color

Mining the Public

During my oral exam (the final step in completing my Masters program), my adviser/program director asked me: “Do you think it matters that you’re an African-American public historian?” Before he could barely ask the question I knew where he was going and it had been something in the back of my mind for nearly a year by that time. In an explosion of anticipation, I quickly and loudly said “Yes!” I had a lot to say on the subject. Well that already seems like it was long ago and now I’m officially done with my Masters degree in public history.

Today, public history tends to be sensitive to those it serves and their diversity. Attempts to be inclusive seem to increase every year. During my studies, I learned about indigenous curation which applies the source culture’s reverence and attitude to their objects in museums. In other words: Hidatsa ritual objects…

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Public History Has Revisionist Roots, and the NYT Is ON IT

This post is part of a series from Loyola public historians attending NCPH 2014.

The public historians assembled here in sunny Monterey spent their first day and a half covering what has become familiar yet still challenging ground for those of us in the profession. In round-tables, poster sessions, panel sessions, and working groups, they swapped insights on the cultural work that goes into interpreting an increasingly inclusive past to a likewise increasingly diverse public. The sessions I have attended include those about museum exhibits “co-created” with community members, the latest in attempts to interpret slavery at historic sites, my own working group about innovative reuse of “less-than-charismatic” structures, and sustaining public history though community engagement. Implicit in all these topics is the internalized impact of social history and the commitment to embracing marginalized voices—-both historical and contemporary. I actually feel that this laudable aspect of public history has become a little too familiar for practitioners, maybe even sometimes taken for granted. I’m certain that the social and even activist history ethic undergirds the projects highlighted thus far in Monterey. But I still crave even more forceful, direct, and critical expressions of public history work as ‘on a mission,’ for lack of better phrase.

So imagine how surprised I was to read that, according to the New York Times, museums have generally gone too far in exploring diverse, contested, and contradictory themes. Edward Rothstein’s “New Insights into History May Skew the Big Picture” deserves a much fuller take-down than I care to provide at this time (and I hope that many of us currently here in Monterey will get home, unpack, and take up that very task). But suffice to say Rothstein’s synthesis of gripes about major exhibits is vague, myopic, and intellectually sloppy. The closest he comes to coherently expressing his critique is a passage that could have been ripped from a disgruntled letter to the editor circa 1995 circa Smithsonian circa Enola Gay exhibit.

This mixture of new insight accompanied by new simplifications has become familiar elsewhere as well. The transformation of history that began in the 1960s (inspired by the American political left), took decades to have full impact on museums, but its perspectives have now become commonplace. Museums, in their traditional roles, were almost mythological institutions claiming to display the origins and themes of a society, shaping understandings with a coherent interpretation of the past. That model has now been remade with the singular replaced by the plural, coherence displaced by multiplicity.

Colorful varieties of taffy at Monterey's Candyland. Or to some a distracting diversity in need of revision.
Colorful varieties of taffy at Monterey’s Candyland. Or to some a distracting diversity in ironic need of revision.

There’s a lot to unpack from that paragraph and from Rothstein’s subsequent expressions of dismay about the scourge of “identity museums” (he seems to have a particular disdain for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian). For example, Rothstein should be reminded that those hoary “almost mythological institutions” of yesteryear were as much “identity museums” as the NMAI or any other such place. It’s just that the identity promoted then was elite and white. And then there’s his alarm at the way that the National Archives dares to call to attention to the fact that the nation’s past (and, gasp, present) has failed to live up to its lofty ideals. 

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Conquering the Organic in Filthy Cities

In 2012, the final episode of the BBC-documentary series Filthy Cities, hosted by the English television presenter Dan Snow, took viewers back “to a seething Manhattan in the throes of the industrial revolution.” Among other things, the only American episode of this three-part series argued that New York was a “nightmare” for the millions of poor emigrants who settled in the Lower Manhattan slum of Five Points in the late nineteenth century.

As Snow recites, New York was one of “the most disgusting and filthy places on earth;” it was a corrupt and frontier city, where immigrants were ruthlessly exploited by plutocratic barons and avaricious landlords, residents were hemmed in by claustrophobic and unhygienic tenement conditions—without access to central heating, running water, or public sewers—and parasitic diseases like typhus and cholera were permitted to reign unabated.

Although the smell, muck, and filth of industrial Manhattan might offend our modern sensibilities, recent scholarship on what American historian Ted Steinberg has called ‘the organic city’ suggests there were some benefits to these nineteenth-century urban environments that Filthy Cities does not explore. By extension, the triumphalist conquest of the unclean city did not come without significant environmental and social consequences.

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