Categories
Civil Rights Civil War Racine History

Peter D. Thomas: Ex-slave, Civil War veteran, and coroner

As a former resident of Racine County and a person interested in mortuary sciences, history, and human rights I have always been surprised about the important tidbits of Racine history I have never heard of. Many years ago, when I had been working at a museum in Racine for five or so years I first heard about an extraordinary gentleman—Peter D. Thomas. It was about a year ago that I photocopied the newspaper articles on him and tossed it on my large stack of “to-do”s. Though long overdue, today is the day I finally type his article up. Peter D. Thomas, the first person of color to be elected to an office in Racine County, and possibly the first in the state of Wisconsin. Peter D. Thomas, a former slave, a veteran of the Civil War, a pillar of the GAR community. Thomas’ legacy is a rich thread that today I’d like to share with you.

Early Life

Peter D. Thomas
Wisconsin Historical Society, Unknown, Peter D. Thomas, 3399. Viewed online at https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Image/IM3399.

Peter D. Thomas was born on April 8, 1847, in Tiptonville, Tennessee five miles from Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River.[1] The plantation he lived on was owned by a wealthy widow who looked after her four daughters. Originally, Thomas was charged with accompanying the young girls on their horseback rides to ward off “undesirable company” and to make sure if they met with an appropriate suitor that they would not be interrupted. When Thomas turned thirteen, however, he was sent to work in the fields.[2] A short year later, the Civil War began.

Beginning of Freedom

Thomas was sent to help defend the fortification on Island No. 10, as all plantations were required to send some of their slaves to help in the war effort. When the Battle of Island No. 10 broke out Thomas was nearly hit by a cannonball, but luckily for him, he saw the end of the fight and the beginning of his freedom.[3]  It was in October of 1862 that Union troops scored a victory at Island No. 10 and announced that the slaves forced to work on the fortification were now free and could go wherever they wished.[4] This left many former enslaved people with no idea where to go next, so Thomas, like many others, followed the army. Thomas tagged along with Captain Charles B. Nelson of Company G of the 15th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment. He acted as Captain Nelson’s servant for the time being, as people of color were not yet allowed to enlist in the military.[5] Map of Island 10 and New Madrid

While alongside the Captain he saw the Battles of Chickamauga, Mission Ridge, Dalton, Resaca, and finally Dallas—where Captain Nelson was wounded. Thomas left along with Captain Nelson, escorting him on the trip back to his home in Beloit, Wisconsin.[6] There, briefly, he worked on Nelson’s farm before the military began allowing former slaves and other African Americans to enlist in the army. Thomas traveled to Camp Randall in Madison, Wisconsin and from there was sent to Benton Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri.[7] On August 8, 1864, Thomas was mustered in as a part of the 18th U.S. Infantry, a division of African American troops.[8]

The War Ends

During his enlistment, he served in the Battles of Franklin and Nashville, with the war wrapping up when he was 18 years old.[9] Right after the war Thomas moved back to Beloit and worked on the farm as he attended high school and one year of college.[10] Thomas wanted to use his newfound knowledge to go back to the South and teach former slaves, but he found himself in Chicago for some time. It was then that Thomas decided the bias against African American teachers was still too great in the South, and he changed his line of work.[11] In 1870, Thomas became an expert whiskey sampler at a wholesale liquor house.[12] Before another move, Thomas married his wife, Carrie Prime, on May 17, 1879.[13] Then in 1883 that Thomas moved back up North to Racine, Wisconsin.[14] Thomas began working as a custodian of both the First National Bank and the Racine County Courthouse.[15] Three years later he was nominated for county coroner by acclamation and made his way onto the ballot as a Democrat. There was hardly any commentary from Racine newspapers regarding his race as a factor in the election—Thomas was a beloved member of the community, regardless of the color of his skin.[16] Thomas won the vote, 2,430 to 1,422.[17] He served for two years, continuing his work at the courthouse and bank after his term was up.[18]

Memorial Hall, 1979
Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin Architecture and History Inventory, Memorial Hall, Racine, Racine, Wisconsin, 11302.

Prominent Community Veteran

Governor Louis P. Harvey
The namesake of Wisconsin GAR Post 17 Wisconsin Historical Society, Unknown, Portrait of Wisconsin Governor Louis P. Harvey, 117538. Viewed online at https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Image/IM117538.

While in Racine, Thomas also became a member of Governor Louis P. Harvey Grand Army of the Republic Post 17.[19] Post 17 was founded in 1881[20] and was an important part of the Racine veteran community—62.6% of eligible veterans were a part of the organization.[21] Thomas was described as an “active member” and could always be found in the GAR room at Memorial Hall, recounting his experiences of the Civil War with other veterans. Once during his time with the GAR, he even served as the Junior Vice Commander and the chairman of the headstone committee.[22] This was important, as most posts of the GAR were heavily segregated by the 1880s but there are no records indicating that Post 17 was.[23]

Unfortunately, Thomas died at the age of 73 on December 11, 1925, in his home on Center Street. His death was the result of accidental asphyxiation when gas from his furnace began to leak into his home.[24] The Journal Times reported that “the gas that escaped from his coal furnace cost him his life.”[25] Peter D. Thomas was an accomplished man and an incredible part of Racine’s history. His life and part within the community reflect Racine’s diverse roots and narrative of equality. Though today Racine is struggling with both its diversity and equality, Thomas should serve as a reminder that everyone is equal and those who are allowed to flourish can do amazing things and even make history.

 

Sources

  • [1] “Ex-slave first African American elected to office in Racine County,” Journal Times (Racine, WI) February 20, 1993.
  • [2] “County voters made some history in 1886,” Journal Times (Racine, WI) February 2, 1992.
  • [3] “Veteran of Civil War,” Racine Journal (Racine, WI), February 22, 1922.
  • [4] “Ex-slave first African American elected to office in Racine County,” Journal Times
  • [5] “Veteran of Civil War,” Racine Journal
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Special Schedules of the Eleventh Census (1890) Enumerating Union Veterans and Widows of Union Veterans of the Civil War; Series Number: M123; Record Group Title: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs; Record Group Number: 15; Census Year: 1890.
  • [9] “County voters made some history in 1886,” Journal Times
  • [10] “Ex-slave first African American elected to office in Racine County,” Journal Times
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] “County voters made some history in 1886,” Journal Times
  • [13] Illinois, Marriage Index, 1860-1920.
  • [14] “Ex-slave first African American elected to office in Racine County,” Journal Times
  • [15] “Veteran of Civil War,” Racine Journal
  • [16] “County voters made some history in 1886,” Journal Times
  • [17] “Ex-slave first African American elected to office in Racine County,” Journal Times
  • [18] “Veteran of Civil War,” Racine Journal
  • [19] Eugene Walter Leach, Racine County Militant. (Racine: Eugene Walter Leach, 1915), 134-136.
  • [20] Thomas J. McRoy, Grand Army of the Republic Department of Wisconsin. (Black Earth, WI: Trails Books, 2005), 133.
  • [21] Thomas J. McRoy, Grand Army of the Republic Department of Wisconsin. (Black Earth, WI: Trails Books, 2005), 355.
  • [22] “County voters made some history in 1886,” Journal Times
  • [23] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001) 194-195.
  • [24] “County voters made some history in 1886,” Journal Times
  • [25] “Looking Backward,” Journal Times (Racine, WI) December 12, 1955.
Categories
Other History

The Nazi Blindfold: Nazi Propaganda in Germany

It is the year 1933 and Germany is doing great once again. The Nazis have held true to their promise of repairing both Germany’s economy as well as their national pride. It seems like everything is going well despite the impending war. Although it looks that way evil is lurking behind the scenes of everyday life in the country. Before the eyes of the citizens of Germany rests a blindfold, carefully tied by the Nazi party to keep the true terror of the war a secret- the true terror of their intentions a secret. Every book, every television show, every radio program and all other forms of media were all meant to spoon-feed German citizens with a pro-Nazi message intricately designed by Adolf Hitler and fellow party members. Slowly but surely the Nazis would rise to the position of ultimate power before a brainwashed Germany. Through this propaganda aimed at the common citizen, children, and German soldiers the Nazi party was able to gain both the power and support they needed to take over Germany.

Propaganda put in its most simple terms it is the usage of imagery and words to reach a goal. Most propaganda is viewed as meant to deceive, mislead and confuse a people into believing one’s scheme. Everything is factored into propaganda to carefully design a brainwashing medium. Propaganda is most often seen in certain mediums including film, television programming, speeches, books, magazines, newspapers, posters, advertisements, and rumors. It generally is meant to evoke both emotion and reason in a person. When both come together it generally presents an internal conflict and makes people more susceptible to new information.[1] The Nazis were able to master the art of propaganda and utilize it.

Nazi propaganda was intended to unite all Germanic people throughout Europe for a common cause- support of the Nazi party.[2] Through carefully manipulated newspapers, books, radio programs, posters, advertisements, magazines, and television shows the Nazis were able to instill their beliefs upon German citizens throughout the world, but mainly those in Germany.[3] Propaganda was not just meant to make citizens support the party through common ideals but also through fear. By using both types of propaganda, the Nazis were able to be quite successful in manipulating German citizens.

When Hitler rose to power in Germany he planned his ascent well, taking the legal avenue which not only maximized his presence but made it possible to use less force in the long run.[4] He took advantage of both his powerful public presence, as well as his affiliation with the Nazi Party. According to Gordon Craig, Hitler had “political genius” as well as a great sense of timing, confidence, and an impressive presence.[5] He knew each one of his strengths very well. For example, through his mastery of public speaking, Hitler was able to capture a crowd and rally support.[6]

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-1989-0821-502,_Joseph_Goebbels
Joseph Goebbels

Hitler had big plans for Germany and his vision just so happened to draw the support of Joseph Goebbels, a powerful propaganda strategist.[7] Goebbels became the head of Hitler’s Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda and was responsible for most of the distribution and creation of Nazi propaganda, including deeming whether or not it was fit to be used in the support of the party.[8] Everything was factored into the creation of their propaganda, including the iconic and bold reds, dark blacks, grays and whites used in many of their posters. These colors not only created a striking appearance but also caught attention and stood out. Goebbels and Hitler both knew much about propaganda and how it had to be applied on a massive scale in order for it to be effective. Goebbels thought that propaganda was like the oil for a well-run machine and that machine was the German state.[9] Luckily through the organization of the Nazi party distributing, it on such a scale became an easy task.

CITIZENS OF THE REICH

Most Nazi propaganda was aimed at the common citizen including many working-class families. After the loss of World War I Germany’s morale and economy were both at an all-time low.[10] The Nazi party took advantage of this and used the impressionable citizens as a platform to grow their party from. They promised to help a downtrodden Germany and bring her back to her former glory.[11] After winning the election they seemed to keep true to their promises as well, making German citizens very happy. The golden years of the Nazi party were when the ministry was pumping out their best and most attractive propaganda yet, making Goebbels incredibly successful and indispensable to the party.[12]

Patriotic events like parades and rallies were frequent in Germany and led by the Nazi party, helping raise morale and rally national support with showy celebrations, but the biggest show of all came in 1936.[13] The 1936 Summer Olympics was one of the Nazi’s best chances to show off and put on a good image of the “New Germany.” During the opening ceremonies of the game, Reich Youth Leader Baldur von Shirach welcomed guests with a short greeting, “We, the youth of Germany, we, the youth of Adolf Hitler, greet you, the youth of the world.”[14]  This quote sets the tone for a whole series of impressive welcoming displays from Germany that were meant to show that nobody could put on a better show than the Nazis. From their impressive Olympic complex to their talented all-Aryan athletes, the Nazis knew exactly what to do to make their country look like a shining success.

Berlin_1936_olympiaden
Gustaf Adolf, Hitler & Göring at the 1936 Olympics

Ritual was a very important part of the Berlin Olympics and was meant to have a propagandistic effect.[15] Nazi party members, as well as citizens of the city of Berlin, gave the Olympic athletes red-carpet treatment. The German airship, the Hindenburg, flew back and forth over the stadium as a sign of both Germany’s inventive genius, as well as national pride. Impressive scores of music and performances, including an Olympic hymn by Richard Strauss himself, were all displayed with great organization and rigor.[16] Visitors to Berlin to view the Olympics had plenty to do when not watching the games as well. All over Berlin, there were cultural events, galleries, and exhibits that promoted the party and Germany.[17] By the end of the Olympics, the Nazis considered the event a huge victory overall. The country’s morale was at an all-time high, tourists left feeling good about their trip, and the reviews of the Nazi complex and athlete housing were raving about the lavishness of it all.[18] The victory helped the Nazi party exhibit the power of their new and improved Germany.

Olympia-Kanone_1936
Walter Bruch recording the 1936 Olympics

Among one of their more impressive varieties of propaganda was television programming. German television under the Reich was on air for nine years.[19] In the beginning, Nazi television was broadcast live for about four hours a day.[20] When it was first starting out not many people were able to afford televisions and instead viewed their favorite programs at T.V. parlors. Every day people would gather around the television to watch the newest T.V. show or news report.[21] By broadcasting current events as well, viewers were made to feel well informed about their country’s happenings. It was during the 1936 Summer Olympics that the Nazi party had their first real chance to show off their programming. Views skyrocketed as the Nazi party broadcast the event live and the nation was filled with a sense of pride.[22]

After their large success, the Nazis began to develop a wider variety of programming, made to appeal to everyone. The programs included shows about arts and crafts, cooking, hunting, politics, and many more topics to entertain the average viewer. Every single show, however, was carefully censored and contained one or more pro-Nazi messages in it.[23] During musical programs, Nazi party songs were sung by charming young men and docile young women. Programs about everyday life included many Nazi ideals in them. Celebrities even came on T.V. quite often to show their support for the Fuhrer, who was treated like a celebrity himself. Cleverly phrased metaphors often passed on anti-Semitic messages or information about the so-called “Jewish Conspiracy” and T.V. hosts always said, “Heil Hitler!” at the beginning and end of each program as if it were a greeting.[24]

Along with German television, the Nazis had another form of media at their disposal, that of radio. German radio programs were also popular among the people and censored much in the same way television was at the time. Joseph Goebbels thought “what the press was to the nineteenth century, radio will be to the twentieth”, making mastering the medium a must for the propaganda ministry.[25] Dr. Adolf Raskin, one of the men working under Goebbels for broadcasting, made it clear that the radio propaganda was all meant to fit in with the idea of German race, blood, and nation.[26] By 1936 it was clear that the Germans had managed to create a radio broadcasting system that rivaled all other counties at the time. The Nazis managed to secure some of the best technology and were well staffed with loyal party members.[27]

In Germany, anti-war material in any medium was banned and propaganda that supported war and loyal heroism were distributed in their place. Everywhere the average citizen turned, one-sided information was at their disposal, while all the opposing material was hidden away or burned. Pleasant posters asking for donations to “help build youth hostels and homes” were plastered on walls while in reality, the money was going toward preparations for the war.[28] Propaganda under the Reich went so far as to single out certain groups of people and idolize them, not only making other people see them as important but giving these people a boost of self-confidence as well. Some of these groups included farmers and workers and mothers- all advertised as important roles in German society.[29]Kinder, kuche, kirche” was a common saying describing the duties of a woman as children, kitchen, and church. Women who had at least four children were even given a medal called the Mother’s Cross every year on Hitler’s mother’s birthday.[30] These ideals for women kept them uninvolved in politics and busy with their so-called duties.

Mutter mit Kindern
German mother with her children c.1933

Nazis were even able to put many of their ideals in German churches through anti-Semitic sermons fed to church-goers every Sunday. These sermons focused on messages about “blood and race”.[31]  Hitler believed that churches needed to be carefully monitored just like any other potential threat to their party’s message due to the fact that churches were very important to everyday German culture and life.[32] The Nazi party accomplished this by not only threatening clergymen and other people involved with the church, but also by creating their own church called the “Reich Church.” The traditional crucifixes of the church were replaced with portraits of Hitler. These churches, however, were not so much filled with the teachings of God as they were filled with the teachings of the Nazis. Many pastors praised the party and Hitler’s messages as a national and religious renewal.[33] It seems impossible now to escalate anyone from our government to that same god-like position that Hitler had, but the Nazis managed to make the transition almost flawlessly by eliminating many of the other options people had. Nazis were at war with the Catholic and Bavarian Protestant church from the start due to the fact that they objected to many of their ideals and teachings.[34] When the Nazi Party’s power had grown enough, they were able to combat this by bribing or arresting clergy members and commandeering churches’ land.[35] To Christians throughout Germany, it seemed like the Nazi Party’s teachings were God’s will.

Since anti-Semitism was already fairly common among citizens it was also easier for the Nazis to build off that platform and instill even more extreme views onto the people.[36] Every day Germans were fed information about the Jews being the inferior race and how the Germans were the master Aryan race. Inferior treatment of the Jews, as well as other persecuted groups including anyone of non-German descent, homosexuals, and the disabled, were able to be spun as a part of everyday life.[37]

CHILDREN OF GERMANY

The Nazi party was also quick to produce propaganda aimed at German children of all ages and was known as a party of the youth.[38] Aside from family television programming, the Nazi party put their ideas into schools, the home, and youth groups, like the Hitler Youth. Goebbels was one of the first to realize the powerful effect linking the Ministry of Education and the Propaganda Ministry would have.[39] Because of this attitude, the Nazi party was very aware of how impressionable children were and were determined to raise loyal citizens from a very young age.

Young people were constantly exposed to this kind of ideology. Nazi propaganda even reached into the classroom and started as early as kindergarten. Children were taught proper National Socialist ideology and how to behave at home. Sometimes their teachers even made home visits with their parents to make sure their education was continuing at home.[40] In schooling at all ages, teachers gave anti-Semitic lectures and taught children to be obedient and to follow the Fuhrer and party no matter what. Educational films were shown, usually documentary style, that discussed ideals like German freedom and expansion under the guise of geography and history.[41] It was exposure like this that began to create a new pro-Nazi generation.

Hitler-Jugend_(1933)
Colored image of Hitler Youth c.1933

The Hitler Youth was the main way the Nazi party reached out to German youth. This party run organization was much like Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts to German children. Though membership was originally optional it became required after 1939.[42] The Hitler Youth boasted six million German citizens under the age of 18 as members.[43] The Hitler Youth was created to teach children to be strong, brave, loyal, and obedient to their country while instilling the ideals and thoughts of the Nazi party into their heads.[44]

Young girls went camping and learned homemaking skills during their meets. They also played organized sports and were taught how to be good future mothers. These teachings were meant to keep them busy throughout their life, so they would be dissuaded from ever pursuing a career. Both genders participated in events where they got to meet Nazi party members who talked to them about the importance of their lessons through the Hitler Youth. When the Hitler Youth finally wrapped up it was considered an almost too successful venture for the Nazi party. So many members were enrolled that the organization had a hard time dealing with such a large number of children.[45]

Children’s most crucial role in Nazi Germany however, was the message they took home to their parents and other adults. Children were encouraged to tattle on anyone who said anything against the Fuhrer, the war, or the Nazi party as well as anyone who supported the Jews.[46] The party used them almost like spies. Children that were members of the Hitler Youth were even given small portraits of Hitler to hang on their walls at home.[47] This made parents that did not support the Nazi party’s ideals fearful. If they did not support the party their own children may have turned against them and ratted them out to the Nazis. The children who were once many parent’s source of happiness were now a source of constant fear.

Many of the children raised on Nazi ideology were also a later generation of soldiers, going off to fight in the war. From the beginning, the order and direction of the Nazi party’s German army attracted many young men who sought order in their life to join its ranks. Others joined for the sense of adventure, and others yet for the cause while some simply needed the job.[48]

SOLDIERS OF THE WAR

Propaganda was what really helped the soldiers of Germany into the right mindset, thoroughly convincing many that they were truly the superior race and fighting to protect their country. Even soldiers not of the Nazi party were often convinced that they were fighting for the noble cause of defending their country.[49] A Nazi party endorsed anti-Semitic newspaper called the Der Sturmer was given free to all soldiers as well.[50] National Socialist Leadership Officers were officials sent to the front lines to give informal lectures and pep talks meant to both boost soldier morale as well as hype them up in support of the cause.[51]

Auszeichnung des Hitlerjungen Willi Hübner
Goebbels awarding 16-year-old Willi Hübner the Iron Cross

Hitler gave a speech to his army on December 11th of 1941 when they declared war against the United States of America. In his speech, he convinced German soldiers that though they may be killed they will never be forgotten for their sacrifice to Germany. Hitler even addressed President Roosevelt’s refusal of Germany’s kindness and diplomacy as well, claiming he was trying to rile up his people to support the war in America. The German people watched this impassioned speech and felt as a country they must stay united. For better or for worse the German army had been brought together to defend their country against the enemy.[52]

Der_stuermer_logo
Der Sturmer logo

Killing the “enemy” was viewed as a heroic act, rewarded by the Nazi party and encouraged to be shown-off. That view is supported by this fragment of a letter, written by an unknown German soldier:

Can you receive Belgrade with your radio; every evening they broadcast German news at eight and 10 p.m.? Maybe you will have a chance to hear it. But don’t be shocked if the number of executed Jews and Communists happens to be announced. They are listed daily at the end of the news. Today a record was set! This morning one hundred and twenty two Communists and Jews were executed by us in Belgrade.[53]

From this, it’s easy to draw that soldiers felt that killing the enemy was for the greater good of Germany, and with the reward of being recognized, soldiers were encouraged even more.

The German army was also very good at trying to save face with soldiers who had seen the terrors of the war they were fighting. Soldiers were encouraged to go to their commanding officers and report to them if they no longer believed they were able to fight. When a soldier was deemed psychologically unfit he was relieved of his duty and sent back home to do another, less stressful line of work. Although this process seemed kind on its facade it was just to keep German soldiers from snapping and possibly shooting their comrades and wasting valuable supplies[54].

Though some may argue that the Nazi’s expertise in military was their true key to success, that isn’t the case. Though the Nazis had a strong military, without winning the support of the people they would have never been able to come to power. Every form of information was controlled- from books to movies, radio to television, magazines to the spoken word. German citizens were living in a controlled environment designed and meant to filter out anything that may challenge the Nazi party’s ideals. It was brainwashing and those who weren’t blindfolded and ignorant to the true horror of the Reich were controlled by their fear. Through the effects of propaganda, the Nazi government was able to gain the support they needed in taking over Germany- and from support comes power. When the war ended and Germany lost, it became quite apparent to the German people that they had been controlled by their consumption of biased media. Propaganda has the power to sway, to control, and to mislead a people and the Nazi Party employed their techniques upon Germany resulting in her takeover.

SOURCES

  • [1] Z.A.B. Zeman, Nazi Propaganda (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 11.
  • [2] Cherese Cartlidge and Charles Clark, Life of a Nazi Solider (San Diego: Lucent Books, 2001), 9.
  • [3] Ibid. 56
  • [4] Nathan Stoltfuz, Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 24.
  • [5] Alex Woolf, Nazi Germany (London: Hodder Wayland, 2004), 7.
  • [6]Z.A.B. Zeman, Nazi Propaganda (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 32.
  • [7] David Welch, Nazi Propaganda: The Powers and Limitations (Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983), 3.
  • [8] Ibid. 29.
  • [9] Ibid. 29-31.
  • [10] Alex Woolf, Nazi Germany (London: Hodder Wayland, 2004), 6.
  • [11] Ilse Koehn, Mischling, Second Degree (New York: Greenwillow Books, 1977), 20.
  • [12] David Welch, Nazi Propaganda: The Powers and Limitations (Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983), 39.
  • [13] Z.A.B. Zeman, Nazi Propaganda (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 8-9.
  • [14] David Clay Large, Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936 (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 192.
  • [15] Ibid. 190.
  • [16] Ibid. 195-196.
  • [17] Ibid. 203-205.
  • [18] Ibid. 202.
  • [19] Television Under the Swastika, directed by Michael Kloft (1999; CA: First Run Features), DVD.
  • [20] Ibid.
  • [21] Ibid.
  • [22] Ibid.
  • [23] Ibid.
  • [24] Ibid.
  • [25] Horst J.P. Bergmeier and Rainer E. Lotz, Hitler’s Airwaves: The Inside Story of Nazi Radio Broadcasting and Propaganda Swing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 6.
  • [26] Ibid. 6-7.
  • [27]  Ibid. 7-8.
  • [28] Linda Jacobs Altman, The Holocaust, Hitler, and Nazi Germany (Berkeley Heights: Enslow Publishers, 1999), 22.
  • [29] Anthony Rhodes, Propaganda The Art of Persuasion: World War II (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1976), 12.
  • [30] Linda Jacobs Altman, The Holocaust, Hitler, and Nazi Germany (Berkeley Heights: Enslow Publishers, 1999), 28.
  • [31] Nathan Stoltfuz, Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 55.
  • [32] Ibid. 79.
  • [33] Ibid. 55.
  • [34] Ibid. 68.
  • [35] Ibid. 69.
  • [36] Cherese Cartlidge and Charles Clark, Life of a Nazi Solider (San Diego: Lucent Books, 2001), 54.
  • [37] Nathan Stoltfuz, Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 20.
  • [38] David Welch, Nazi Propaganda: The Powers and Limitations (Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983), 65.
  • [39] Ibid. 69.
  • [40] Nathan Stoltfuz, Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 83.
  • [41] David Welch, Nazi Propaganda: The Powers and Limitations (Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983), 66-69.
  • [42] Ibid. 72.
  • [43] Ibid. 72.
  • [44] Ibid. 72.
  • [45] Linda Jacobs Altman, The Holocaust, Hitler, and Nazi Germany (Berkeley Heights: Enslow Publishers, 1999), 31.
  • [46] Ibid. 30-33.
  • [47] Ibid. 33.
  • [48] Tom Streissguth, Adolf Eichmann (Berkeley Heights: Enslow Publishers, 2005), 20.
  • [49] Cherese Cartlidge and Charles Clark, Life of a Nazi Solider (San Diego: Lucent Books, 2001), 9.
  • [50] Ibid. 54.
  • [51] Ibid. 56.
  • [52]  Adolf Hitler, “Speech Declaring War Against the United States” (December 11, 1941).
  • [53] Cherese Cartlidge and Charles Clark, Life of a Nazi Solider (San Diego: Lucent Books, 2001), 56.
  • [54] Ibid. 57.
Categories
cemeteries Racine History

SECOR: The Story of Racine’s Most Colorful & Controversial Character

Martin Mathias Secor—it’s a name that may not ring a bell to you, dear reader, but I assure you in all my research I have done, this man stands apart from the crowd. M.M. Secor was a Bohemian immigrant with a motto— “Anything worth doing at all is worth doing right.”[1] He was a character, an eccentric, some might say. With a tall stovepipe hat[2] adorning his already 6-foot stature, flowing white hair with a windswept mustache,[3] a flower from his garden always tucked in his lapel,[4] and a golden knobbed cane,[5] Secor was a man of distinction. He had a booming voice, people said, but a kind one nonetheless.[6] He was an entrepreneur who owned several businesses, including a nationally renowned luggage company, and he was a well-respected member of the Bohemian community.[7] Not only was he financially successful, but Secor also spread his wealth through various charitable avenues and to his own workers.[8] M.M. Secor was the man who could, and did, do it all.

A Bohemian Businessman

In 1851 Secor made his trip from Bohemia to the United States, and at the young age of eleven Secor had arrived in Racine County with his parents, Mathias and Fanny Secor, three sisters, and a brother.[9] His family soon settled in to a log cabin on Four Mile Road.[10] He stayed on his father’s farm doing work until the age of fourteen when he left to start doing work of his own—odd jobs, mostly.[11] After living in Racine for a while Secor found his future wife, Frances Hayes, also the child of Bohemian immigrants and on February 4, 1862 he married her.[12]

820 Secor, M.M
Portrait of Martin Mathias Secor

After building up a reputation for himself, in 1868 Secor decided it was time to plunge into the business world on his own and borrowed $100 at 10% interest for ten years. Along with $80 of his own money he invested in his first company, the Northwestern Bag Company.[13] Originally, Secor made his trunks in his wife’s kitchen until he had the money for his own location.[14] The location he chose was on Main Street, but his company was growing so rapidly that it soon required its own building to be constructed. Soon Secor’s trunk company stood on Lake Avenue, slowly growing until in 1888 the plant had eight buildings[15] and around 125 employees.[16] It was recorded in 1918 that the building stretched all the way from 127 to 407 Lake Avenue.[17] Eventually Secor even incorporated several other companies and renamed his own the Northwestern Trunk and Travelling Bag Company.[18] The buildings remained on Lake Avenue until their demolition in the Summer of 1987.[19]

 

656.02 Lake Ave c.1880 Middle Large Building was Secor's Trunk co there is a trunk on a pole in front of the building 200~1
Lake Ave c.1880–the middle large building was Secor’s Trunk company–there is a trunk mounted on a pole in front of the building

Secor had not only developed an impressive production of trunks that were popular with Racine residents, but they were popular nationally. Secor’s trunks stood for quality, bringing us back to his favorite motto, “Anything worth doing at all is worth doing right.” It was said that one day on a trip to a department store in Denver, Secor purchased a trunk made by another manufacturer and dissected it with a jackknife in front of everyone to prove its “inferior quality.”[20] It is easy to just assume that the claims of the quality of his trunks were just legend but if you’re out around Racine in the summer stop by some thrift sales—some of his trunks that are well over 75-100 years old are still in decent shape being sold as antique luggage.[21]

Park of China Asters

With a successful business comes profit. M.M. Secor’s home, commonly known as the Park of China Asters, exemplified that wealth.[22] Secor moved from above his trunk salesroom on Main Street in 1874 to a beautiful mansion on Milwaukee Avenue (now known as Dr. Martin Luther King Drive) that took up the entire block. The building is thought to have originally been built for a lumber dealer in the early 1850s.[23] Secor lived there with his wife Fanny and his four daughters.

820 Secor Home c1870 1014 Milwaukee Ave 72 dpi watermark
Park of China Asters c.1870

They had a lavish garden with Secor’s favorite red and white roses he often cut to wear in his lapel, along with a rare species of black roses. He had a small orchard complete with a fig tree, a dwarf lemon tree, and many orange trees. There were two conservatories on the property and a five-basin goldfish pond, which was just an example of Secor’s exotic pets that lived on the ground. Secor had a proper menagerie on his estate.[24] Secor’s menagerie was home to a coyote—his first animal—two bears, a monkey, six deer, many parrots, rabbits, mockingbirds, a goat, and seven peacocks, five of which were killed by dogs that got onto his property in 1889. A deer was also injured in the attack.[25] Secor was incensed and threatened to shoot the “vicious canines” if they attacked his pets again.[26] After his death it was said that the Ringling Brothers Circus bought several of his animals.[27]

Progressive Philanthropist

Secor’s home was much larger than he needed for a small family of six, even with the additional animals that lived on the property, so Secor decided to use his home as a boarding house for some of the men who worked for him at the trunk company.[28] In an 1880 census there were 28 people recorded as living in the Secor mansion—Secor and his own family, the family gardener and teamster, and eighteen boarders from his own company.[29] On his 2 ½ acre property his gardens also provided much of the food his boarders ate and the excess was sold to others at a discounted price. Secor was an individualist and believed firmly in free enterprise, but also in humanity.[30] Secor was by all accounts, a very generous and progressive business owner. He believed that a man’s religion was how he lived and what he did, not what he believed in and Secor lived up to that very ideal.[31] Aside from providing room and board to his workers, Secor was well known for a work holiday of his own invention—Thirteenth Day. On Thirteenth Day, which occurred once a year, Secor would give every one of his employees an extra month’s salary.[32] He was proud and often reminded people that 95% of his workers owned their own homes.[33]

His benevolence was recognized around town and extended beyond his own company. Residents recalled how when he saw a poor or “shabby” child on the streets he would take them to the nearest shop and buy them coats, caps, and other clothing.[34] He also donated to charities, hospitals, and the local orphanage, the Taylor Home.[35] Because Secor did not believe that religion was in itself a charitable organization he made a point to never donate to churches.[36] Secor also donated to the city for construction projects that would benefit the public and was the mayor when Racine’s streets were first paved.[37] At one point in time, the Chicago Tribune published an article about Secor accusing him of being a drunk (due to his anti-prohibition views)[38] and of embezzling funds from a new bridge he built in Racine.[39] He successfully sued the Chicago Tribune for libel and purchased a new illuminated four-sided clock that was installed in the tower of City Hall,[40] a building that he had at one point donated $7,000 toward the construction of.[41] Secor later said that the clock would ensure that there would be no excuse that people didn’t know when it was midnight—the time saloons closed in Racine.[42]

Secor was also the owner of the Nelson Hotel,[43] the First Bohemian National Bank of America, and a set of Turkish baths which were all located in the present-day Main Place (also known as the McClurg building).[44] He was also the first business owner in Racine to have his own business telephone, installed in 1881, and his daughters were the first stenographers in Racine because Secor was also one of the first men to own typewriters in his office.[45]

Mayorship and the Assassination Attempt

Secor was not only a prolific businessman but also involved in politics. He ran on both the Republican and Democratic tickets for different positions and considered himself to be independent.[46] Secor ran twice for mayor, winning his first term as in 1884 and his second term in 1888.[47] Although he did many things for the city in his time as mayor, perhaps one of the most notable parts of his mayorship was when he was almost assassinated. To this day he is still Racine’s only mayor to have an assassination attempt.

The attempt was made during his first term as mayor in 1884.  He was riding home from a city council meeting when his carriage rode over a bomb that was placed in front of his home. The bomb did not immediately go off as the carriage rolled over it, so the bomber came out of hiding to inspect it—as he did so, it went off seriously injuring the man.[48] The suspect fled but spots of blood led back to the home of a former bookkeeper of Secor’s who had recently been dismissed. Although the bookkeeper was not the bomber, the suspect was, in fact, hiding in his home, a man by the name of John Jambor from Milwaukee. Some believe that the bookkeeper was in on the plot, but it was never proven.[49] Secor was apparently so rattled by the near-death experience that from then on he was always seen holding the reigns from the backseat of his carriage, where he felt safer.[50]

A Lasting Legacy

820 Secor Gravestone 150 dpi watermark
M.M. Secor’s tombstone at Mound Cemetery, Racine WI

Secor died in his home after a deadly fall in 1911 at 69 years old. The news article that reported his death said he fell a week prior on a Tuesday when he was getting up from his bed. Secor fell upon one of his bedposts, breaking three ribs, one of which punctured his lungs. He contracted a serious cold afterward and died due to complications. The flags at City Hall and his trunk company were lowered in honor of the former mayor.[51] His company continued for a full seven years after his death,[52] being one of the largest in the United States at the time.[53]

Before his death, Secor had his headstone erected in Mound Cemetery. It caused quite a bit of controversy. Engraved in the headstone was a somewhat tendentious quote by Voltaire, a favorite philosopher of his.

THIS WORLD IS MY HOME

TO DO GOOD IS MY RELIGION

WHY DID THE GOOD GOD CREATE A BAD DEVIL[54]

So many people were outraged by the message on the tombstone that is was debated on whether or not it would even be placed in the cemetery. However, it was. Attempts have been made to have the headstone removed from the cemetery as late as the 1930s.[55]

Secor’s progressive attitude and sense of philanthropy have left a lasting impact on the Racine community. He may have been mostly forgotten but this character can never be dashed from the historical record. Secor’s life and legacy are a fascinating look into Racine’s manufacturing history and politics of the late 1800s.

Sources

  • [1] “Freethought Trunks and Travelling Bags.” Freethought Today (Madison, WI) June/July 1990.
  • [2] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) August 19, 1973.
  • [3] “Forty-Two Men Held Mayor’s Post During Racine’s 105 Years as a City,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) February 6, 1953.
  • [4] Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) August 18, 1998.
  • [5] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times
  • [6] “Forty-Two Men Held Mayor’s Post During Racine’s 105 Years as a City,” Racine Journal Times
  • [7] “Freethought Trunks and Travelling Bags.” Freethought Today
  • [8] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times
  • [9] Soldiers and Citizens’ Album of Biographical Record (Chicago: Grand Army Publishing Co, 1890)
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Soldiers and Citizens’ Album of Biographical Record (Chicago: Grand Army Publishing Co, 1890)
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] “A Secor Biography,” Preservation Racine Newsletter (Racine, WI) Spring 1990.
  • [14] “Business started in his kitchen,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) April 26, 1986.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times
  • [17] “A Secor Biography,” Preservation Racine Newsletter
  • [18] Soldiers and Citizens’ Album of Biographical Record (Chicago: Grand Army Publishing Co, 1890)
  • [19] “So what’s new about Hill hotel proposal?” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) August 1, 1987.
  • [20] File 1, Folder 1. Secor, M.M. Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [21] Ibid.
  • [22] “A Secor Biography,” Preservation Racine Newsletter
  • [23] File 1, Folder 1. Secor, M.M. Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [24] Ibid.
  • [25] “Why not Secor Park?” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) January 15, 1983.
  • [26] Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) August 18, 1998.
  • [27] Margo Drummond, The Legend of M.M. Secor (Racine) 26.
  • [28] File 1, Folder 1. Secor, M.M. Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [29] Ibid.
  • [30] Ibid.
  • [31] Ibid.
  • [32] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times
  • [33] Ibid.
  • [34] Ibid.
  • [35] Ibid.
  • [36] File 1, Folder 1. Secor, M.M. Vertical File. (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [37] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times
  • [38] Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) August 18, 1998.
  • [39] Margo Drummond, The Legend of M.M. Secor (Racine) 17-18.
  • [40] “Why not Secor Park?” Racine Journal Times
  • [41] Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) August 18, 1998.
  • [42] “Why not Secor Park?” Racine Journal Times
  • [43] “So what’s new about Hill hotel proposal?” Racine Journal Times
  • [44] Margo Drummond, The Legend of M.M. Secor (Racine) 5.
  • [45] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times
  • [46] Soldiers and Citizens’ Album of Biographical Record (Chicago: Grand Army Publishing Co, 1890)
  • [47] “Long, short terms,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI) April 29, 1984.
  • [48] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times
  • [49] “Freethought Trunks and Travelling Bags.” Freethought Today
  • [50] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times
  • [51] “Ex-Mayor Secor Has Passed Away,” Racine Daily Journal (Racine, WI) January 5, 1911.
  • [52] Margo Drummond, The Legend of M.M. Secor (Racine) 26.
  • [53] “Tombstone Epitaph Recalls Controversial Racine Mayor,” Racine Journal Times
  • [54] Ibid.
  • [55] “Freethought Trunks and Travelling Bags.” Freethought Today