This Week In American History: May 15th - 21st

May 15

1800

President John Adams ordered the federal government to pack up and leave Philadelphia and set up shop in the nation’s new capital in Washington D.C. After Congress adjourned its last meeting in Philadelphia on May 15, Adams told his cabinet to make sure Congress and all federal offices were up and running smoothly in their new headquarters by June 15, 1800. Philadelphia officially ceased to serve as the nation’s capital as of June 11, 1800.

1942

A bill establishing a women’s corps in the U.S. Army became law, creating the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAACs) and granting women official military status. The women performed a wide variety of jobs, “releasing a man for combat,” as the Army, sensitive to public misgivings about women in the military, touted. But those jobs ranged from clerk to radio operator, electrician to air-traffic controller. Women served in virtually every theater of engagement, from North Africa to Asia. It would take until 1978 before the Army would become sexually integrated, and women participating as merely an “auxiliary arm” in the military would be history. And it would not be until 1980 that 16,000 women who had joined the earlier WAACs would receive veterans’ benefits.

2009

After decades of environmental damage and legal wrangling, General Electric finally began its government-mandated efforts to clean the Hudson River. One of America's largest and most prestigious corporations, GE had dumped polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a harmful compound manufactured for GE by Monsanto, into the Hudson from 1947 to 1977 and spent a fortune trying to avoid the cleanup. The State of New York banned fishing in the Upper Hudson in 1976 due to the pollution. The dredging, which cost GE $1.6 billion, lasted from 2009 until 2015. The state still warns children and those who may bear children against eating fish and other wildlife caught in the Hudson, advising adult men to limit their consumption, as well as counseling citizens to try to avoid swallowing the river's water.

May 16

1868

The U.S. Senate voted against impeaching President Andrew Johnson and acquitted him of committing “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The main issue in Johnson’s trial was his staunch resistance to implementing Congress’ Civil War Reconstruction policies. The War Department was the federal agency responsible for carrying out Reconstruction programs in the war-ravaged southern states and when Johnson fired the agency’s head, Edwin Stanton. Congress retaliated by charging Johnson with illegally removing the secretary of war from office and for violating several Reconstruction Acts.

1929

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handed out its first awards, at a dinner party for around 250 people held in the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, California. The brainchild of Louis B. Mayer, head of the powerful MGM film studio, the Academy was organized in May 1927 as a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement and improvement of the film industry. The first official Best Picture winner was Wings, directed by William Wellman. The most expensive movie of its time, with a budget of $2 million, the movie told the story of two World War I pilots who fall for the same woman.

2014

Broadcast journalist and TV personality Barbara Walters retired from ABC News and as co-host of the daytime program “The View.” In a landmark career that spanned some 50 years on air, the 84-year-old Walters blazed a trail for women in TV news. On Walter’s May 16th “View” sendoff, Oprah Winfrey, Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric were among the more than two dozen female broadcasters who appeared on the show to pay tribute to the legendary newswoman. Best known for her interviews, over the decades Walters went one-on-one with American presidents (she interrogated every commander in chief from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama), world leaders, movie stars, convicted killers and scores of other newsmakers.

May 17

 

1943

The crew of the Memphis Belle, one of a group of American bombers based in Britain, became one of the first B-17 crews to complete 25 missions over Europe and return to the United States. The Memphis Belle performed its last mission in a bombing raid against Lorient, a German submarine base. At the time, the odds of completing a 25-mission tour and going home were small. During the Memphis Belle’s tour, the Eighth Air Force averaged one bomber lost every 18 sorties (one sortie equals one aircraft flying one combat mission). The Memphis Belle and its crew became timeless symbols of the service and sacrifice of the heavy bomber crews and support personnel who helped defeat Nazi Germany.

1954

In a major civil rights victory, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, ruling that racial segregation in public educational facilities is unconstitutional. The historic decision, which brought an end to federal tolerance of racial segregation, specifically dealt with Linda Brown, a young African American girl who had been denied admission to her local elementary school in Topeka, Kansas, because of the color of her skin. Brown v. Board of Ed served to greatly motivate the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and ultimately led to the abolishment of racial segregation in all public facilities and accommodations.

1965

The FBI concluded their investigation into the hit “Louie Louie," made famous by The Kingsmen, and declared the lyrics to be officially unintelligible. Based on outcry from parents who bought into what may have started as an idle rumor, the FBI launched a formal investigation in 1964 into the supposedly pornographic lyrics of the song “Louie, Louie.” Over the course of two years, the FBI gathered many versions of the putative lyrics to the song and interviewed the song writer, Richard Berry. They even turned the record over to the audio experts in the FBI laboratory. While not quite exonerating “Louie Louie,” the FBI did not censor the tune that would go on to become one of the most-covered songs in rock-and-roll history.

May 18

1860

Abraham Lincoln, a one-time U.S. representative from Illinois, was nominated for the U.S. presidency by the Republican National Convention meeting in Chicago, Illinois. Lincoln first gained national stature during his campaign against Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois for a U.S Senate seat in 1858. The senatorial campaign featured a remarkable series of public encounters on the slavery issue, known as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which Lincoln argued against the spread of slavery while Douglas maintained that each territory should have the right to decide whether it would become free or slave state. Lincoln lost the Senate race, but his campaign brought national attention to the young Republican Party. The announcement of Lincoln’s Presidential victory signaled the secession of the Southern states.

1980

Mount St. Helens, a volcanic peak in southwestern Washington, was shaken by an earthquake of about 5.0 magnitude and violently erupted. The giant landslide of rock and ice, one of the largest recorded in history, was followed and overtaken by an enormous explosion of steam and volcanic gases, which surged northward along the ground at high speed. The lateral blast stripped trees from most hill slopes within six miles of the volcano and leveled nearly all vegetation for as far as 12 miles away. Initially standing at 9,680 feet, the peak lost 1,700 feet and its volcanic cone. 57 people were killed and some 210 square miles of wilderness was devastated. While Mount St. Helens became active again in 2004, scientists do not expect a repeat of the 1980 catastrophe anytime soon.

2012

Facebook, the world’s largest social network, held its initial public offering (IPO) and raised $16 billion. It was the largest technology IPO in American history to that date, and the third-largest IPO ever in the United States, after those of Visa and General Motors. At the time it went public, Facebook was valued at $104 billion and had some 900 million registered users worldwide. However, despite all the fanfare surrounding Facebook’s IPO, its shares closed the first day of trading at $38.23, only slightly above the $38 IPO price, which many investors considered a disappointing performance.

May 19

1883

William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody opened Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in Omaha, Nebraska. His partner that first season was a dentist and exhibition shooter, Dr. W.F. Carver. Cody and Carver took the show, subtitled “Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition,” across the country to popular acclaim and favorable reviews, launching a genre of outdoor entertainment that thrived for three decades and survived, in fits and starts, for almost three more. The golden age of outdoor shows began in the 1880s, and with his theatre experience Buffalo Bill already was skilled in the use of press agentry and poster advertising. His fame and credibility as a westerner lent star appeal and an aura of authenticity. Most important, Cody gave the show a dramatic narrative structure.

1943

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S President Franklin Roosevelt set a date for the cross-Channel landing that would become D-Day—May 1, 1944. That date will prove a bit premature, as bad weather became a factor. Addressing a joint session of Congress, Churchill warned that the real danger at present was the “dragging-out of the war at enormous expense." And so, to “speed” things up, the British prime minister and President Roosevelt set a date for a cross-Channel invasion of Normandy, in northern France, for May 1, 1944, regardless of the problems presented by the invasion of Italy, which was underway. It would be carried out by 29 divisions, including a Free French division, if possible. The D-Day invasion ended up taking place on June 6, 1944.

1977

"Smokey & the Bandit," American road action comedy film starring Burt Reynolds, Sally Field and Jackie Gleason, premiered in New York. The film follows Bo "Bandit" Darville (Reynolds) and Cledus "Snowman" Snow (Reed), two bootleggers attempting to illegally transport 400 cases of Coors beer from Texarkana to Atlanta. While the Snowman drives the truck carrying the beer, the Bandit drives a Pontiac Trans Am to distract law enforcement and keep the attention off the Snowman. During their run, they are pursued by Texas county sheriff Buford T. Justice (Gleason). Smokey and the Bandit was the second highest grossing film of 1977.

May 20

1873

San Francisco businessman Levi Strauss and Reno, Nevada, tailor Jacob Davis were given a patent to create work pants reinforced with metal rivets, marking the birth of one of the world’s most famous garments: blue jeans. Davis was one of Strauss’ regular customers. In 1872, he wrote a letter to Strauss about his method of making work pants with metal rivets on the stress points—at the corners of the pockets and the base of the button fly—to make them stronger. By the 1920s, Levi’s denim waist overalls were the top-selling men’s work pant in the United States. As decades passed, the craze only grew, and now blue jeans are worn and beloved by men and women, young and old, around the world.

1989

Sunday Silence edged by Easy Goer to win the closest race in the 114-year history of the Preakness Stakes by a nose. Sunday Silence had already beaten Easy Goer in the Kentucky Derby by two-and-a-half lengths, putting the horse one victory away from winning the first Triple Crown since 1978. Come June, though, Easy Goer had his revenge, beating Sunday Silence by eight lengths in the Belmont Stakes.

1996

In a victory for the gay and lesbian civil rights movement, the U.S. Supreme Court voted six to three to strike down an amendment to Colorado’s state constitution that would have prevented any city, town, or county in the state from taking any legislative, executive, or judicial action to protect the rights of gays and lesbians. Colorado’s Amendment Two was passed with a majority of the state’s citizens approving it in a special referendum, but the Supreme Court agreed to hear Romer v. Evans, a case that allowed the nation’s highest court to scrutinize the constitutionality of the amendment. In a ruling authored by Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the court struck down Amendment Two, arguing that the law violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

May 21

1881

Humanitarians Clara Barton and Adolphus Solomons founded the American National Red Cross, an organization established to provide humanitarian aid to victims of wars and natural disasters. Barton worked with the sick and wounded during the American Civil War and became known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” for her tireless dedication. She was in Europe in 1870 when the Franco-Prussian War broke out, and she went behind the German lines to work for the International Red Cross. In 1873, she returned to the United States, and four years later she organized an American branch of the International Red Cross. The American Red Cross received its first U.S. federal charter in 1900. Barton headed the organization into her 80s and died in 1912.

1927

American pilot Charles A. Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget Field in Paris, successfully completing the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight and the first ever nonstop flight between New York to Paris. His single-engine monoplane, The Spirit of St. Louis, had lifted off from Roosevelt Field in New York 33 1/2 hours before. One of the most highly regarded American aviators, Lindbergh took up a challenge made by Frenchman Raymond Orteig, an owner of hotels in New York, who put up a purse of $25,000 to the first aviator or aviators to fly nonstop from Paris to New York or New York to Paris. Six men had died attempting the long and dangerous transatlantic flight before Lindbergh was successful.

1999

“The streak is over…Susan Lucci!” announced Shemar Moore of The Young and the Restles, right before presenting the Daytime Emmy Award for Best Actress to the tearful star of ABC’s All My Children. The award was Lucci’s first win in 19 straight years of being nominated in the Best Actress category for her portrayal of Erica Kane. All My Children debuted in 1970, and Lucci would go on to play Erica Kane over the next four decades as the character married no fewer than 11 times, was kidnapped, survived an airplane crash and a car accident, and many other notable events. By 1991, Erica Kane was, according to TV Guide, “unequivocally the most famous soap-opera character in the history of TV" with Lucci as the highest paid actor on daytime television.