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August 26, 2020 33 mins

On the second part of the discussion of White House history, Holly and Tracy first cover the gardens and landscaping, and then dig into discussion of how slavery is a part of the very foundation of the building.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class, a production
of I Heart Radio. Hello, and welcome to the podcast.
I'm Holly Fry and I'm Tracy B. Wilson. Okay, so
here we are in part two of our two parter
about the White House, and if you missed part one,

that means you skipped past all of the discussion of
the construction of the White House and all of the
renovations that have been done there over the years. We're
talking about a lot of renovation, more than you might
even think for a building for sure. Uh. And today,
what we're gonna talk about first is the White House
gardens and how they have evolved. But then we are

going to shift gears and talk about the more serious
matter of how deeply connected the president's home is to
the country's history of slavery. So while you can jump
in here, you're gonna miss some of the context that
gives a fuller picture to that discussion of enslavement and
its role in the early presidential administrations. To talk about
the gardens though, which, as we nodded too in part one,

we're a big part of the inspiration for this episode.
Gardens were always part of the plan for the White House,
George Washington saw to the purchase of property adjoining the
lot that was chosen for the house itself. Had the
intent to plant a botanical garden. The area that now
makes up the South Lawn was owned by a tobacco planter,
and that and the tract that make up the North

grounds were purchased from their private owners. Washington, having never
lived in the house, did not get to fulfill his
garden plans. He had really envisioned something akin to Andre
Le Nutra's impressive gardens at Versailles. We also talked about
how Thomas Jefferson was very motivated and inspired by that.
The idea was that visiting dignitaries would be able to

walk through the White House gardens and find the landscape
arrival to anything in Europe. But it fell to the
first occupant of the home, John Adams, who was only
there for four months, to have the first garden planted,
and he did that, but it was definitely not quite
as grand as Washington had probably envisioned, due to a
lot of challenges just with like establishing a garden on
land that was never intended for that. The layout of

the White House landscape is really more to be credited
to Thomas Jefferson, who redesigned everything on the grounds during
his time as president. It was under his direction that
seedling trees were planted throughout the property to create groves,
and he also directed the placement and layout of fences, walls,
and the flower garden. The first official White House gardener

was Charles Base, hired by President James Monroe, and his successor,
who was brought in by the John Quincy Adams administration,
was Irish immigrant John Owsley. Owsley and President Adams are
said to have gardened and planted trees together, and Adams,
who clearly did love to garden, established fruit trees and vegetables,
as well as the flower gardens that have been planned

by his presidential predecessors. Base may have been the first,
Butsley was really far more influential in the role of
White House gardener, and he continued to serve as the
official White House gardener for three decades. John Quincy Adams
really respected Asle's knowledge and he seems to have truly
enjoyed the time that he spent learning from the gardener.

In a journal entry dated June seven, he wrote, quote
in this small garden of less than two acres. There
are forests and fruit trees, shrubs, hedges, esculent vegetables, kitchen
and medicinal herbs, hot house plants, flowers and weeds to
the amount eye conjecture of at least one thousand. One

Half of them, perhaps are common weeds, most of which
have none but the botanical name. I asked the name
of every plant I see. Ausley the gardener knows almost
all of them by their botanical names. But the numbers
to be discriminated and recognized are baffling to the memory
and confounding to the judgment. From the small patch where
the additional herbs stands together. I plucked this morning leaves,

a bomb and hiss up majora mint, rue, sage, tansy, tarragon,
and wormwood, one half of which were known to me
only by the name the tarragon, not even by that.
I like how he discovered tarragon and was really excited.
Owsley gained a staff to help him during Andrew Jackson's term,

enabling him to establish an ora injury. We mentioned that
in the first episode, where citrus could be grown year round,
again borrowing from the European gardening playbook. Owsley also planted
new species of trees during this period, including elm and maple,
and John Ousley tended the White House gardens until eighteen
fifty two and then left during the presidency of Millard Fillmore.

There are several dozen commemorative trees on the White House property.
That tradition was started by the nineteenth President, Rutherford B.
Hayes in eighteen seventy six. He initiated the practice with
the dedication of a tree to commemorate the centennial of
the country. When that massive Roosevelt renovation of the actual
house took place in nineteen o two that we've talked

about in the first episode, so too, was the garden
almost completely reimagined. During that time. The White House gardener
was Henry Fister, and he and First Lady Edith Roosevelt
designed and executed a colonial garden. The colonial garden only
lasted a little more than a decade, though, when Woodrow
Wilson became president, First Lady Ellen Wilson removed Edith Roosevelt's

design and replaced it with what most modern folks might
think of as a classic element of the White House grounds,
and that is the Rose Garden. It had been known
as the West Garden prior to the redesign, and after
it was completed it was simply the Rose Garden, in
a name recognizable to many. Frederick Law Olmsted was brought

in by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to reshape the gardens. The
design that Olmsted came up with has essentially been in
place ever since, with changes to the gardens still following
the lines that he laid out, and those changes focusing
more on content shifts than any alteration to the footprint
of the beds. Later, Eleanor Roosevelt also planted vegetables part

of a Victory garden that was a symbol of similar
gardens being planted throughout the country to bolster the food supply.
Even through the nineteen fifties, while the Rose Garden was
established by that name, it wasn't what we think of
when we envisioned it today. It was still a private garden.
It was not like somewhere that the press would congregate.
The Rose Garden didn't evolve into the current space as

a place where press conferences and other ceremonies would take
place until the Kennedy administration changes to the east garden
were initiated during the Kennedy presidency, but didn't come to
fruition until President Lyndon Baines Johnson was in office. When
the garden was completed, it was dedicated by First Lady
Lady Bird Johnson to Jackie Kennedy. Although it is still

officially named the East Garden, it is also sometimes referred
to as the First Ladies Garden or the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden.
Mrs Johnson also spearheaded the creation of the Children's Garden
at the White House in nine. While the gardens and
grounds themselves have at least in layout, stayed pretty static
for the second half of the twentieth century and into

their uses have really varied. The South Lawn has become
home to the traditional White House Easter egg hunt, and
in two thousand nine, a portion of the South Lawn
near the tennis courts was converted into a vegetable garden.
That was done by First Lady Michelle Obama and Chef
camp Cast, with an assist from the students of Bancroft

Elementary School. Yeah, I imagine ongoing changes will happen forever.
So okay, we are about to get into the unpleasant
realities of this building which we've been talking about and
which has become so iconic, uh and its links to enslavement.
So before we do, we're going to take a quick
breath and have a little sponsor break. So we have

been talking at great length about out the White House
and how it was built, in all of this progress
and renovation and updating and gardening, but we have to
acknowledge that even through numerous early administrations in slave labor
was part of the White House literally at its very foundations.
It is not a part of its history that is

particularly comfortable, but it is an important part of this story.
So you've probably heard the quote from First Lady Michelle Obama,
which she used several events during her time as First Lady,
so it became pretty famous quote, I wake up every
morning in a house that was built by slaves. So
when she first said that, it made a bunch of

people really angry. We said it on the show one
time and a bunch of people got really angry. But
it's absolutely the truth. Slavery was a part of the
President's home from the very beginning. So we mentioned at
the beginning of the first episode that New York and
Philadelphia both vied to be selected by George Washington as
the place for the president's permanent residents would be built,

but slavery was a significant factor in those cities not
being chosen. Both New York and Philadelphia were already working
on anti slavery legislation at this point, and George Washington
enslaved people, and he knew that moving the presidential household
to one of these cities permanently would look really hypocritical
and that it could come up as a contradiction of

his public image as a liberator of the people. So
the Residents Act of seventeen ninety, which we talked about
a little in the previous episode, offered him a way
to avoid that problem by placing the seat of the
government near Virginia, where his home of Mountain Vernon was
also worth remembering the land that was seated for the

capital had come from two states, Virginia and Maryland, which
were both slave states. We nodded to the fact that
there was a lot of like back room negotiation that
happened and putting this act together, and one piece of
it wasn't giving the southern slave states more power by
having the capital located there yep. So the records from

the huge construction effort to first build the President's House
feature a lot of laborers by first names only, and
that means those were enslaved men who had been hired
out by their enslavers to work on the project. So
a lot of times you would see them listed as
for example, like John hired out by person who enslaved him.
So while there were Europeans in many of these skilled

labor positions and there were freemen of color on the payroll,
they were working right alongside men who were enslaved. The
plan had originally been to hire a workforce made entirely
up of European craftsmen, but there just wasn't enough interest
to establish a big enough workforce for what was needed,
and that is when the shift was made to use

both free and enslaved black labor to build not only
the White House, but also the Capitol Building and other
necessary spaces for the new federal government. From bricklaying to
carpon treat to stone cutting and a lot of other jobs.
Enslaved people were used for labor. Often they were trained
right there on the job, and they cleared the land,
and they established roads and the infrastructure that allowed construction

to take place, all while, as we said, working alongside
paid labor and earning extra income for their enslavers, some
of whom were the project commissioners. The hiring of enslaved
labor is in the records kept by the commissioners, the
earliest mention of it appearing on April sevento in which
they lay out their plan to hire enslaved people to

make up this gap in their workforce. Their agreement was
that the enslavers would provide clothing in a blanket for
each person, and then in return, the commissioners would handle
provisions needed for those people and pay twenty one pounds
per year per person to their enslaver. It's hard to
find documentation about the identities and the specific jobs of
the enslaved workers, but the White House Historical Association has

compiled a list of more than two hundred, each associated
with the person who hired them out, and the association
continues to search for more information. To tie back to
our previous episode with historian Stephanie Jones Rodgers about her
book They Were Her Property. Some of those people who
hired out enslaved people were women, There is only one

enslaved woman listed in the Commissioner's records, and she also
has the unusual distinction of being listed with the last name.
Her name was Catherine Greene. We do not, unfortunately, know
anything else about the specifics of her work. There also
are some instances on the record and which an enslaver
was part of the construction staff and then also brought

their own enslaved workforce to work alongside them, collecting the
federal funds for each of them in addition to his
own wages. Even architect James Hoban hired out his enslaved
workers for the project, although there was a conflict with
the commissioners when they found out that the work Hoban's
people were doing was being paid at a higher rate
than the standard. The last pay meant made for enslaved

labor for the initial construction of the President's home was
made on June seven hundred, for the amount of nineteen
dollars and seventy four cents to an enslaver named Joseph Queen.
When the President's mansion burned in eighteen fourteen, enslaved labor
was once again used to rebuild it, as well as
to landscape the grounds. Additionally, it was decided that the

landscape of the surrounding area should be upgraded, and enslaved
labor continued to be used in that endeavor. Also, yeah,
we'll talk about it in a little bit, but that
went on for years. So students in the US, particularly
of our generation, I think tracy, when we first were
taught about the Founding Fathers, it was in this way
that framed them as almost transcendent. They're really like just

regaled as these amazing humans. Uh. Sometimes that is still
the way people talk about them, but it's important to
remember that they were human and many of them, most
of them participated in the institution of slavery. Of the
fir twelve presidents of the United States, only two are
normally cited as having not been enslavers, those being John
Adams and John Quincy Adams. And even that statement is

more complicated than it might seem at face value, but
we're going to get into that in a moment. So
George Washington is estimated to have enslaved a hundred and
twenty three people in his lifetime. For Thomas Jefferson, that
number was six hundred. James Madison one hundred, James Monroe
seventy five, Andrew Jackson two hundred, Barton van Buren one,

William Henry Harrison eleven, John Tyler seventy, James K. Polk,
and Zachary Taylor a hundred and fifty. And those numbers
are totals of people enslaved by those presidents in their lifetimes,
not necessarily when they were president, but there was definitely
enslaved labor in the president's house for each of those men.

In the presidential household of George Washington, at least ten
enslaved people have been documented. At least eleven were documented
as as part of Jefferson's time in the White House.
James Madison had six enslaved workers in his White House
James Monroe thirteen, Andrew Jackson nine, Martin van Buren four,
although not all their names were known. You'll notice that

is a higher number than what he's listed as having enslaved.
There's not necessarily always a direct correlation that it is
a person that he was the direct enslaver of or
would claim ownership over that person, but they are hired
in through another way. That's why there's that discrepancy. John Tyler,
for James K. Polk for again, these are all in

the White House. Zachary Taylor eleven. More than thirty enslaved
people tended the grounds in that period we talked about
from eighteen eighteen to eighteen twenty one, as part of
that redesign of the gardens and the landscaping. All of
these numbers are also at least meaning there could have
been more. These are just the numbers for which there's
some sort of documentation, whether it's in ledgers, census records,

or journal entry's made by the people in each household. Yeah,
different UM presidents had different levels of record keeping about
how things ran. Like one of the reasons we know
so much about Thomas Jefferson's enslaved workforce is because he
was very rigorous about keeping notes and records and ledgers.

Others were not as rigorous in that way, so it's
a little bit trickier to identify what the situation really was.
And enslaved workers feel just about every role that would
be needed in the president's household. So they cooked the meals,
they attended to the horses in the stables, They served
as personal servants, as ladies, maids and valets. They basically
supported the household in every way, and the personal space

that was set aside for the enslaved workforce was normally
the attic or rooms on the ground floor, none of
which were particularly comfortable, and there were often rodent issues
coming up. We're going to talk about a couple of
stories of presidents and their enslaved staff that you may
have heard about, but then we will talk about some
of the more difficult and nuanced topics related to how

even ardent anti slavery leaders we're just not necessarily walking
the walk. And we'll do all that after a sponsor
break one of the women who had been enslaved in
the Washington household caused the president a great deal of
embarrassment and probably anger. As a result, one of his wife,

Martha's enslaved maids, Ownah Judge, escaped to freedom. Onnah was
born into slavery at Mount Vernon. She began training as
a maid when she was twelve, and she was moved
to New York with the First Lady in seventy nine
at the age of sixteen, when Oonah Judge learned that
she was going to be given to the Washington's granddaughter

as a wedding gift. She took her chance and slipped
out at dinner one night, rather than being moved into
the home of a woman who was known to have
a temper and a man who she feared might sexually
assault her. There was a notice placed in the Philadelphia
Gazette offering a ten dollar reward for the return of
Owny Judge. How it was spelled in the listing who

had quote absconded from the household of the President of
the United States. But Nonnah Judge lived a free life
after that, although George Washington pursued her for years. After
leaving the President's home, she had made her way to
a ship that left Philadelphia and headed to New Hampshire.
She did that immediately, and she worked there as a

domestic servant, and she settled into a married life with
a man named Jack Stains, who she met after she
had made her escape. Although Washington twice sent men that
essentially tried to trick Ownah Judge into returning to Virginia,
she outwitted them both times, and then after George Washington died,
she lived more or less unbothered, at least by this pursuit.

Uh In an interesting twist. Washington stipulated in his will
that when his wife Martha died, all of their enslaved
workforce was to be freed, which seems interesting considering pretty
much right up to the end he was obsessed with
this one person coming back. Yeah, Well, and doing it
that way also meant that he was technically freeing the

people he was enslaving, but without any inconvenience to him
or his spouse by having to not having enslaved workforce anymore. Yeah,
there's a lot of her story that I didn't get
into here. It's been told in other places. But like,
the things that really struck me are how much the
Washington's seemed so shocked were They're like, but we treated

her like a daughter. And then later in her life
own a judge gave statements about her time being enslaved,
and she's like, yeah, daughter that they owned essentially like
to her. It was so obvious why this was a problem.
But the Washington's, it was very clear, did not really
get how that was incorrect, because they felt like they
were such good They felt like they were the original

trope of the kind slave owner. Yeah, there's a I'm
pretty sure it's an episode of the podcast Uncivil that
tells this whole story. I don't remember if it is
one of the episodes where there is some profanity in
that show. So if you're gonna listen with kids, maybe
anyway that that entire podcast is extremely good. I highly

recommend it. Thomas Jefferson has often been written about as
sort of a walking paradox. He was a man that
penned the preamble to the Declaration of Independence that was
full of all this rhetoric about all men being created
equal and the whole quote life, liberty, and the pursuit
of happiness thing, while he was simultaneously enslaving scores of

people because he was not thinking of them as actual
people when he was writing that language. He tried to
blame slavery in the Colonies on King George the Third
in a discarded passage that he wrote for the Declaration
of Independence. He kept almost all of his enslaved staff
at Monticello, away from his home in the capital, although

he did have a smaller enslaved staff at the Capitol
when he was president. And of course there's this a
relationship with Sally Hemmings that's been the source of debate
since his presidency at this point, like pretty much historians
agree that that that he fathered children with her. Yeah,
there has been DNA testing definitely points in that direction.

People will try to say that that was really a
relative and not him, But like at this point, Manicello
was like no, really, like yeah, yeah. They have a
lot of writing about it, and a lot of writing
about Sally. This is one of those things where people
like to debate this um and Sally's part in the relationship.

The problem is that we don't have anything in her
words to really inform any of this. But I remember
in high school history having a teacher that really wanted
this to be romanticized desperately, which there are plenty of
people who still like that version. But I think it's

really important to remember because one of the things that
people point to you as this being a romantics like
an actual caring for one another sort of relationship is
that they had been in Paris. Sally had been brought
to Paris with Jefferson, she was the maid to one
of his daughters, and that she had negotiated going back

to the United States with him once again to be
enslaved because in France she was not considered property of
any kind, and so people are like, well, she must
have loved him, she chose this life, and it's like, well, okay.
First of all, she was pregnant at the time, so
she was in a little bit of a desperate situation. Two,
she was sixteen, not a situation where this person really

has agency in the relationship of any kind. Three, Like
a sixteen year old who is with child in France,
a country she does not come from. That's not really
a choice in that time. Um So I just if
you are one of those people I hate to bust
any bubbles, but like this one needs to be busted,
because you can't really consider this a consensual, like valid relationship,

even if they had feelings for one another. The power play,
like the power structure involved, is just not one where
she had any agency. Anyway. That was my soapbox about
Sally Hemmings. There's certainly more that you can go on about,
but will keep scooting on. There are also ways where
you can, like you can see people exercising the agency

that they did have, and sometimes people will like use
that to be like, well, she could have left because
she chose to do these other things, and like that's
not the same thing as being on equal footing with
the person who's enslaving you, right, And she was often
negotiating and looking at the future of her children at

that point, which is a whole other set of needs
and values and sacrifice. Uh. That further shift that that
power dynamic. The stories of Washington, Jefferson, and other early
presidents and their relationships with slavery are likely not new
to many of our listeners. But I wanted to make

sure we go back and we talk about the Adams
Is because that becomes a lot more multifaceted, and it
is a closer examination that will reveal that they too,
certainly benefited from enslaved labor. And I want to cover
this not to vilify them, because they are often held
up as like not these two, but I really think
it's important to talk about this so that we can

underscore just how institutionalized the practice of enslavement was, so
much so that people in power who vocally spoke out
against it, we're also passively part of it, and sometimes
not so passively. So one of the trickier parts of
the accounting of enslaved people in the President's residence because

during the admitted stration of John Quincy Adams, while the
household of his father, John Adams, at various times may
have hired in enslaved labor. It's a little bit unclear,
but in the case of John Quincy Adams, while he
did not enslave anyone personally in terms of direct ownership,
there were at least two enslaved people who lived in

the President's home while he was in office. So to
set the groundwork here first, Lady Louisa Adams, as sister
Nancy Helen and her husband Walter Helen did enslave people,
and Louisa's mother did as well, but they were certainly
not the only people in the Adams life who participated
in slavery. And we talked about in a previous episode

a live show that we did at Adams National Historic
Park about the time that Louisa and John Quincy spent
abroad when he was serving as a diplomat, And in
the time that they were away that near decade, Washington,
d C. Really Had this big growth spurt and became
a busy metropolitan city. And so when they returned, they
returned to a place that was much more populated and

a lot of households with much more affluent people had
been established, and at that point slavery had become very
common because most of the domestic servants were enslaved people.
And while the adams As may have hated the institution,
they definitely had people in their social circle who had
enslaved labor. They were probably served by an enslaved workforce

when making social calls. It would have been almost impossible
for that not to be the case. But the bigger
issue of enslaved people living in the White House in
John Quincy Adams's term goes back to Louise's family. This
is a little bit tricky to follow, but when Louisa's sister,
Nancy Helen died, her husband Walter, Helen married another of

Louise's sisters, Adelaide, and then Walter died and Adelaide at
that point had four children on her hands, ages fifteen
to one year old. The baby had been the only
child from her marriage to Walter, the others were her
sister's children, and as Adelaide's health got a little bit
worse over time, John Quincy and Louisa took two of

the children, Mary and Johnson, into their home and they
likely those two children brought with them enslaved servants that
they had inherited from their father. John Quincy Adams referenced
quote Holsey the Black Boy belonging to Johnson Helen and
his diary that February of eight and that entry sadly
marks Holsey's death from consumption, and it also mentions that

Holsey had been living with them for several years. And
the second record of an enslaved person in the John
Quincy Adams white house involves a woman named Rachel Clark.
So when Mary Catherine Helen married Louisa and John Quincy's son,
John Adams the second in eight, Mary filed manumission papers
for Rachel Clark that same day, and it is likely

that Rachel had moved into the Adams home with Mary.
This lines up with an eighteen twenty cents his record
that mentions an enslaved girl of fourteen living in the household.
The exact reasons for Rachel's manumission on the day of
Mary's wedding are really a matter of speculation. It could
have been a condition of the marriage for the Adams
is whether it was a moral issue or even just

one of public image and It also could have been
a matter of legality. Mary may not have had the
power to divest herself of her enslaved help until a
marriage or a certain age, according to the terms of
the inheritance. So even in the case of a family
that was outspoken against the institution of slavery, there was
a deep complexity to their relationship with the institution. Yeah,

there's also speculation that because they were going after Andrew
Jackson so hard for his participation in slavery, that it
was like this, you gotta get rid of this. This
is not a good for US. President Zachary Taylor was
the last president to enslave people while in office. When
he died in eighteen fifty, the free black population of Washington,

d c. Had grown considerably. It was at that point
nearly double that of the enslaved black population. Slavery was
not abolished in the nation's capital for another twelve years.
That was marked by the Emancipation Act of eighteen sixty two.
Not the most up with people topic, I know, but
I think it's so important because I feel like, as

our country is coming to terms with a lot of
problems that have been here involving racism, that stem from
this period of time, Like, we have to acknowledge that
the very foundations literally of a government that was founded
on the idea of freedom were laid by people who
were not free. I don't want to mess with anybody's

love of a historical figure, but we got to acknowledge
this stuff. Um, always super important. Everybody's complicated. No one
is all good or all evil. That's what history is. Um. Yeah.
So I hope that is food for thought and that it,
you know, gives context to some of what we're living

through today, right, like, yeah, yeah, this this is where
it all started. Yeah, that passage of Thomas Jefferson where
he wants to blame the whole thing on George the Third.
There might have been some swearing at my house last night.
Thomas Jefferson's no sense of personal responsibility in there. I
have to because you set this up and it's the

only way I'm going to function. Yeah, I'm sorry. What
we've also read some of his other writing recently on
the show makes it clear how he viewed people of
African descent. Yes, yeah, um, Thomas Jefferson, Oh you're problematic thing? Okay,

do you want to hear fun listener? Mail to kind
of be a palate cleanser. Actually it is from our listener, Christina,
and it is about our Thomas Dorsey episode. She writes,
I have been a longtime listener of the show and
the lover of history and especially personal stories. I was
absolutely thrilled when I realized a little personal connection to
your episode on Thomas Dorsey. You see, I live in Columbus, Georgia,

home of Ma Rainey, many times called the Mother of
the Blues. Growing up, my dad made it a point
to actively show me the history of my city, so
Ma Reney's house was a place we visited and read
about many times. Music from this era has always been
one of my favorites. But here is the seemingly insignificant
personal connection to Thomas Dorsey. During my teenage years, every

day I drove down Dorsey Drive on my way home
Dorsey Drive. Honestly, I have no idea if this is
named after Thomas Dorsey, but the sentimental person I am
hopes it is. I listened to his music and I
was hit to the core with how much feeling it conveyed.
As he had connections to Ma Rainey. I do wonder
if he spent some time in Columbus and walked the
very same steps I have. Thank you for listening to

this possibly insignificant connection. I love listening to y'all, and
keep up the great work. Uh. You know, here's the thing.
Even connections you think are insta minificant mean that you're
thinking about history and your place in it. So I
love it just the same. Like that's I think that's
kind of part of what drives both Tracy and I
could do this because you know, it's our research paper
a week essentially, which can be a lot of workload.

But then when you realize that people are using that
to to figure out their place in the bigger history
and their connections to things we've talked about, to me,
that is immensely rewarding. So thank you, Thank you, Christina.
If you would like to write to us, you can
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Tracy V. Wilson

Tracy V. Wilson

Holly Frey

Holly Frey

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