Hero’s Welcome

A Souvenir Menu Recalls Earhart’s Triumphant Return to the U. S.

The recent reports about possible new evidence in the 80-year mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance reminded me of a little item in our collections: a menu for a 1932 dinner honoring the pilot. Housed, perhaps incongruously, within our Aviation Pamphlets and Brochures Collection (Ms1994-015), this souvenir  commemorates a milestone in aviation and women’s history.

Cover of the Earhart Waldorf-Astoria dinner menu. Though Earhart did not take her husband’s name after marriage and is invariably identified today by her maiden name, the press and others most often referred to her as “Amelia Earhart Putnam” or “Mrs. Putnam” during the years of her married life.

Though Amelia Earhart’s name endures, it may be difficult for us to imagine today the level of fame she attained through her derring-do.  The word “icon” has perhaps been devalued through overuse in recent years, but Earhart’s solo crossing of the Atlantic made her a true icon and arguably the most famous woman of her time.

Even before Earhart undertook her solo transatlantic flight in 1932, she had gained fame through her feats: as the first woman to cross the Atlantic via airplane (1928), as the first woman to make a solo transcontinental roundtrip flight across the U. S. (1928), and as the record holder for the highest altitude attained in an autogyro (1931). Despite occasional criticisms leveled against her skills as a flyer, Earhart through her personality and her penchant for self-promotion put a face on women’s advances in fields  that previously had been reserved for men.

The menu includes a brief list of Earhart’s accomplishments to 1932.

Earhart departed Newfoundland on May 20, 1932 and landed in Ireland the following day, exactly five years after Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic. While most know that Earhart was the first woman to make such a flight, few may remember that no pilot had successfully made a solo transatlantic flight in the five years after Lindbergh.

Within the menu is this photo of Earhart in Ireland. The caption celebrates her crossing of the Atlantic in 13 hours and 30 minutes, a new record for a transatlantic flight.

In the following weeks, Earhart toured Europe, receiving a number of honors and being feted by various dignitaries. After several weeks of enjoying her celebrity, Earhart  embarked for home. Despite her accomplishment, transatlantic flight remained a dangerous undertaking reserved for pioneering daredevils. (The transatlantic passenger service established by Germany’s Graf Zeppelin in 1928 averaged only about 20 flights per year for the next decade. Weather and distance would prevent the commercial viability of transatlantic passenger plane flights until the late 1930s.) The singularity of Earhart’s feat is underscored by the fact that she returned to the U. S. via cruise ship.

With the country in the throes of the Great Depression, Earhart had asked that her welcome home be an understated affair, but it was perhaps because of the desperate need for something to celebrate that the flyer’s request went unheeded. When the Ile de France arrived in New York on June 20, it was greeted by all the fanfare the city could muster, including a tickertape parade. Following a luncheon hosted by the Advertising Federation Convention and several rounds of interviews, the day’s activities concluded at the Waldorf-Astoria, where a full-course dinner was held in Earhart’s honor. Speakers included Charles Lawrence, president of the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce of America; Don Brown, president of Pratt & Whitney Aircraft; W. Irving Glover, second assistant postmaster of the United States; and Earhart herself. The speeches were broadcast nationwide via radio.

The menu for Earhart’s dinner.

Unfortunately, as far as I was able to determine (in an admittedly cursory search), Earhart’s words that night seem to have gone unrecorded. She reportedly recounted the experiences of her flight. Perhaps she also repeated some of the responses she had given earlier that day to critics who derided her flight as a non-event. In interviews, Earhart said that she regarded her flight as a personal mission, a justification. After she had flown across the Atlantic in 1928 as a passenger, one commentator downplayed the feat, likening her usefulness on the flight to a sack of potatoes.

In The Sound of Wings, biographer Mary S. Lovell writes of Earhart’s solo flight, “[T]hough the flight in itself offered no particular breakthrough, the mere fact that there were pilots prepared to risk all to gain records encouraged manufacturers to further technological effort. … In the public eye, too, the flight was a triumphant success at a time when newspapers carried daily reports of fatal air crashes. So her success encouraged confidence in aviation as a principle.”

Despite her protestations to the contrary, Amelia Earhart had done much more than answer her critics, and the public responded in a big way, as evidenced in a little menu in our little collection.

In addition to the Earhart menu, the Aviation Pamphlets and Brochures Collection contains a number of interesting pieces relating to the first half century of aviation history. For a complete list, see the collection’s finding aid.

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Less Than the Sum of Its Parts: the W. Dale Parker Papers

Behind virtually any collection of personal papers is an ego, a voice saying, “I was here. I mattered.” Such collections can be indispensable resources in chronicling the lives of the famous and infamous or in offering insights into a particular time or topic. While history may greatly benefit from these collections, however, it is often to egotism, not altruism, that their existence is owed. In the case of the W. Dale Parker Papers (Ms1989-093), we see that egotism taken to an extreme. In more than 20 years of arranging and describing personal papers, I’ve never run across a collection quite like it–one in which a person devoted so much time and effort to celebrating his life while leaving behind so little of real substance.

Dale Parker, management specialist with NASA’s Project Gemini, 1964-1969; self-described aerospace engineer, human relations expert, and presidential advisor. (NASA photo)

Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, Dale Parker (1925-2007) attended the College of William & Mary for a year before being dismissed for poor grades. (He would remain devoted to the school and invariably identified himself as an alumnus of the class of 1949.) During World War II, Parker served in the U. S. Coast Guard for 16 months before being discharged, apparently for medical reasons. Afterward, he took a handful of courses at various colleges, and, following 10 years of coursework, graduated from the industrial engineering program of International Correspondence Schools (ICS). (Though he would later claim to have earned a doctoral degree and thus frequently referred to himself as “Dr. W. Dale Parker,” Parker’s 1968 doctorate from a now-defunct Mexican university was strictly honorary, bestowed upon him for unknown reasons. Likewise, though he sometimes described himself as an aerospace engineer, there is no evidence within the collection that Parker held any educational credentials beyond the ICS industrial engineering degree.)

After working for five years as a draftsman at the Naval Proving Ground, Parker became a plant engineer at General Motors’ Wilmington, Delaware plant in 1951, later serving as an assistant director in charge of public relations and counseling. He worked as a management specialist for General Dynamics – Astronautics from 1961 until 1964, when he was hired by NASA as a management specialist for Project Gemini. (He often credited himself with bringing Gemini from nine months behind schedule to nine months ahead of schedule within nine months.) He retired from NASA in 1969, records suggesting that the retirement was on a disability claim.

Parker remained engaged in a number of other activities after retirement: working as a pro bono counselor; volunteering with civic organizations and charities; and maintaining memberships in a number of fraternal and masonic organizations. He also incorporated a small, nebulous business called Multiple Services; tried his hand at several short-lived business enterprises; and self-published several books.

One of several books self published by genius Dale Parker.

Parker’s papers were donated to Virginia Tech’s Special Collections in several installments beginning in the late 1980s, when the department was aggressively building its collections. Due to his work at NASA, Parker’s papers seemed a good fit for the department’s Archives of American Aerospace Exploration, where they would share shelf space with those of such figures as Apollo astronaut Michael Collins NASA flight director Chris Kraft.

Unfortunately, Parker’s papers have very little to do with the topic of space exploration and very much to do with the topic of Dale Parker. With the exception of bills and invoices, Parker seems to have retained anything that had his name on it. A large portion of the collection consists of such ephemera as membership cards, credit cards, and appointment calendars. Also included are such self-exploring items as personality quizzes, astrological readings, handwriting analyses—anything that could possibly be used to help future historians to understand and explain the unique and powerful mind of Dale Parker. In the collection’s many folders we learn of his short-lived 1977 Florida gubernatorial campaign; his ill-fated attempts to manufacture and market such inventions as the Amy Carter Peanut Doll and the Space Exploration and Technology Trivia Game; and his acquaintance with such celebrities as Bob Hope and Johnny Weissmuller. Prominent in the collection are the many scrapbooks that Parker compiled, including his scrapbook magnum opus: a pair of giant albums in the shape of the state of Delaware. Meanwhile, the records of his work at NASA comprise just a single folder (though, admittedly, the collection contains a handful of other folders about Project Gemini and NASA history).

Given that the focus of Dale Parker’s papers is largely on himself as an individual, providing few insights into Project Gemini, the most noteworthy period of his career, we might be forgiven for thinking the collection unworthy of any attention. Even here, however, are to be found materials of interest.

Parker took painstaking efforts in collecting materials relating to his youngest daughter, Jacquelyn Parker, the first female graduate of the U. S. Test Pilot School. Included are items detailing her personal, professional, and military life, of interest for their relevance to both aviation and women’s history. Also of possible interest are hundreds of letters from Dale Parker’s pen pals in Belarus and other former Soviet states. Written from 1993 to 2006, many of the letters discuss cultural, political, and economic changes following the Soviet collapse; the balance of newfound freedoms against economic hardships; international relations; and the Chernobyl disaster.

Of all the accolades that Parker awarded himself, perhaps none was more important to him than that of political insider. A prolific correspondent, he frequently wrote to politicians to offer advice and ask favors. Seemingly guided not so much by ideology or personal loyalty than an attraction to power and a compulsive need to be heard, Parker donated to both major political parties and indiscriminately offered his advice. Though he did not wield the political power that he claimed (often billing himself as a “presidential advisor” and “White House veteran”), Parker was in fact personally acquainted with a number of prominent politicians and had a knack—largely through his monetary donations—of getting their attention. (In 1977, Parker mounted his own short-lived, independent Florida gubernatorial campaign and gained some attention in the press for his unconventional method of recruiting a running mate through newspaper advertisements.) The collection’s political series provides something of an overview of American political issues and personalities of the late 20th century. Included among the printed material are letters personally addressed to Parker. In addition to office-holders, the collection contains personal notes from presidential family and staff members.

A 1979 letter from George H. W. Bush, apparently responding to a request from Parker to withdraw from the 1980 Republican primary campaign for the benefit of a united Republican Party.

 

Apparently responding to a problem that Parker had expressed about Medicare, then-Senator Joe Biden wrote this 1990 letter, briefly expressing his views on oversight of bureaucratic agencies.

 

One of several letters received by Parker from Rose Mary Wood, Richard Nixon’s personal secretary. In this brief note, Wood thanks Parker and his wife for their continued support of the recently resigned Nixon.

The collection also contains a number of individual items that, while having no great research value, are of interest for their association with a specific time, activity, or person. A “WIN” (“Whip Inflation Now”) button from the Ford era; an autographed photo of astronaut Alan Bean; a letter from Carl Sagan regarding the prospect of faster-than-light space travel: these are among the collection’s many disparate items with a little tale to tell.

So, while we cannot claim that the W. Dale Parker Papers are an invaluable resource for the  scholar of aerospace exploration, they do contain, here and there, items of lasting interest, some that have legitimate research value and some that could perhaps be used as exhibit pieces or instructional materials in a classroom setting.

If nothing else, however, the Dale Parker Papers would be of interest to anybody writing a biography of Dale Parker, and perhaps that was all he ever wanted.

(You can learn more about Dale Parker and his papers by seeing the collection’s finding aid here.)

The Crush

A Young Blacksburg Woman Falls Victim to Infatuation

We may be just a little late for Valentine’s Day, but of course the subject of love is never passé. And that brief, trite introduction leads us to the 1919 diary of a young Blacksburg woman named Olivia Tutwiler. Pouring her heart into a small composition book, this young schoolteacher gave vent to the frustration and consternation caused  by a crush that she had on a cadet at nearby Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute—now Virginia Tech. Along the way, Tutwiler provides us with some insights into what life was like for a young woman in a small, sleepy college town a century ago.

The diary spans the first two months of 1919 and was written by Tutwiler while she was away from work—her school in nearby Riner, Virginia, apparently having been closed during an influenza outbreak. Purchased at a local estate sale 95 years later, the diary was donated to Special Collections last year. Whether Tutwiler maintained a journal only during this short period or was a lifelong diarist, we don’t know.

Tutwiler’s diary is somewhat unusual in that the entries are written as though addressed to the object of her affection.  The entry for January 1 sets the tone for much that follows: “So dear boy I saw you again to-day and spoke to you too. … Oh boy if you only knew how much I love you.” On the following day, Tutwiler provides a description of the young man: “I couldn’t help thinking of you. I like your black hair its [sic] so nice and crisp with just a little bit of curl and blue eyes. What makes you have dimples and be so altogether good looking and adorable,” she writes.

For the next several weeks, Tutwiler chronicles her failed attempts at winning the affection of this young man. Each time romance seems about to blossom, however, her desires are waylaid by a a miscalculation, the cadet’s reticence, or Tutwiler’s own pride and code of conduct. On January 5, she summarizes the challenge of her lovelorn melodrama:

You’re really the most extraordinary boy I’ve ever seen. No one seems to be able to get anything out of you one way or the other. I used to think you cared a lot for me but I’ve evidently been mistaken from all I hear and see. Its [sic] a funny thing how boys will be in love with one girl and still try to make all the others think he’s wildly in love with them by acting if not speaking. They all seem to do it and I suppose youre [sic] no exception to the rule.

Frustrated by the young man’s seeming hesitancy and insincerity, Tutwiler on January 14 reports taking the as much initiative as she dared within the strictures of polite society of the day:

I had to see you so I called you up to come down tomorrow night so I could see about the bastket-ball game + candy pull…. And you’ll never know that it was mostly to see you. How your voice changed when you knew it was me over the phone. Like you were so glad. Were you? I do hope you will take me to one of the games. And I went in the drug store just to see you too. Foolish and crazy but you don’t know so what difference does it make?

Just who was this reportedly handsome fellow, who won the heart of at least one steadfast  admirer? Unfortunately, his identity will have to remain a mystery. Throughout her diary, Tutwiler refers to her beloved only as “dear boy.” She slips on one occasion (January 18) and uses his given name, Charles. A little digging found that there were no cadets named Charles in the VAMC class of 1919. There were two in the class of 1920, but neither had black hair. The class of 1921, however, had no fewer than five students named Charles—plus a Charlie—all with dark hair. Of these, only Charles Thornton Huckstep had hair with “just a little bit of curl.” Though his hair doesn’t appear jet black in his photo, he  seems the most likely candidate.

Charles Huckstep, class of 1921. Could he have been the "dear boy" to whom Tutwiler was writing?
Charles Huckstep, VAMC class of 1921. Could he have been the “dear boy” to whom Tutwiler was writing?

Given the lengthy discourses about her crush, we might be excused for imagining Olivia Tutwiler pining away alone in her room and for expecting her diary to hold nothing of interest. In fact, however, Tutwiler lived a very active social life, and her diary would be of interest to local historians as a record of a young woman’s activities in Blacksburg early in the 20th century. Tutwiler frequently attended VAMC basketball games, parties (including her own Valentine’s Day party), and movies. She also picked up some temporary work at the Extension Service and was active in her church.

Also of interest to local historians would be Tutwiler’s mentions of the flu epidemic, soldiers returning from service in World War I, and road and weather conditions. Researchers might also benefit from her passing comments about acquaintances, such as this catty remark on January 7: “Miss Logan has her spring hat already [sic]. Doesn’t it seem foolish to be wearing one with snow and ice on the ground?” She also briefly shares her opinion of a number of cadets.

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Even as Tutwiler set her heart on an unobtainable suitor, so too did she inspire unreciprocated feelings among several other young men. January 5: “I like Bush a lot and I believe if I’d fall in love with him.” January 17: “Its [sic] funny that you and Fred should both like the same picture isn’t it. He insisted that I give him one this afternoon but I didn’t.” January 23: “[Johnnie] asked me if I wanted to wear his V.P.I. class ring.” January 25: “Oglesby insisted on one of my pictures but nothing doing.” February 9: “I didn’t know [Pat]’d ever try to kiss me but he did twice and I had to tell him a few things.” February 17: “Had a letter from Hampton to-day and he said … how much he loved me…”

When Tutwiler finally returns to her school on February 2, we learn something of her experiences as a young teacher in a rural community, as she navigates between parents and school officials. At her boarding house, she endures local gossip and less-than-desirable living conditions, while at work, she contends with a crowd of indifferent and unruly students, as in this entry from March 4: “Gee but I’ve had a time to-day. I just got so mad at dinner when two of my kids set the field on fire. The seventh grade just doesn’t seem to know a thing…. I kept Frank and Fred in until 4:30 to day [sic] and made them learn poetry. They certainly are bad. I had to slap both of them to-day.”

Never far from Tutwiler’s thoughts, however, is the elusive cadet.

By January 27, Tutwiler is already questioning her feelings: “Do I love you or do I not?” Her entry of February 6 reflects deeper thoughts, as she questions her motivations: “I want you oh so much dear dear heart or is it only what you stand for now.” Her February 25 entry finds the young teacher looking into the future, wondering what it will bring: “I would like to know how all this is to turn out and whether you’ll ever love me or I’ll ever love Bush. We may all drift apart and perhaps I’ll fall in love with some one else.” By this time, just a few weeks after commencing her diary, Tutwiler seems ready to admit a temporary defeat and look for love elsewhere.

Mentioned only a few times in passing within Tutwiler’s diary is the name “Bunker.” Henry Harris “Bunker” Hill, a native of Scottsville, Virginia, obtained both his bachelor’s (1907) and master’s degrees (1909) in chemistry at VAMC. By the time Olivia Tutwiler was pouring her deepest feelings into a composition book, Hill had already been employed as a professor with the university for a dozen years.

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Henry Harris “Bunker” Hill, VAMC class of 1907.

In 1922, Olivia Tutwiler married Hill, and the couple would have two children. She continued to teach, eventually opening a school of her own in the Blacksburg Presbyterian Church. She retired from education in 1969, following a 50-year career. Of teaching, her obituary quotes her as saying “I certainly have had a good time teaching and I surely do hate to quit. I have been most fortunate, not only to have a job I like to do but to be paid for it.” Though things didn’t take the direction she wanted in 1919, Olivia Tutwiler seems to have had a happy life. One has to wonder, though, whether she sometimes took out her diary after a long day and pondered over her youthful infatuation.

You can read Olivia Tutwiler Hill’s diary in its entirety here. We’ll soon add a complete transcript of the text. The diary’s finding aid contains more biographical information on Tutwiler. We also hold the papers of “Bunker” Hill, the finding aid for which may be found here.

The Fugitive Author

Robert Burns Escaped from the Georgia Chain Gangs, Then Strove to Abolish Them

Here in Special Collections, we hold a number of books that have altered the course of history. Such works as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Communist Manifesto, Common Sense, and Walden have all profoundly shaped human thought and history, and all have places on our shelves.

Today, I want to tell you about another book in our collection that—though not as celebrated as the above examples—has had a significant influence on the course of events. Robert Elliott Burns’s I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!  is an account of the author’s experiences in—and escape from—the Georgia penal system of the 1920s. Burns’s vivid description of the system’s brutality and inhumanity has been credited with spurring 20th-century penal reforms in Georgia and beyond.

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The Special Collections copy of I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!, a souvenir edition from Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, is inscribed by the author.

A New York City accountant, Burns volunteered for the army when the United States entered World War I. Assigned to a medical detachment with the 14th Railway Engineers, he served mostly at the front from September 1917, until armistice 14 months later. His service took its toll, and, according to his brother, Robert Burns returned home “nervously unstrung and mentally erratic—a typical shell-shock case.” In more recent years, Burns might have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Returning to New York, Burns struggled to rebuild his life, expecting that his military training and service would be valued by potential employers. He soon found, however, that his status as a veteran instead proved a handicap in securing employment. Burns arrived at the same conclusion as many veterans returning from that war and others.

The promises of the Y. M. C. A. secretaries and all the other “fountain-pen soldiers” who promised us so much in the name of the nation and the Government [sic] just before we’d go into action turned out to be the bunk. Just a lot of plain applesauce! Really an ex-soldier with A. E. F. [Amy Expeditionary Forces] service was looked upon as a sucker. The wise guys stayed home—landed the good jobs—or grew rich on war contracts … I went through hell for my country and my reward was the loss of my sweetheart and my position.

Disillusioned, Burns drifted from town to town as a vagrant, alighting in Atlanta in 1922. There, he participated in an armed robbery with two other men. Burns paints himself as a reluctant accomplice in the crime, coerced by the ringleader’s trickery and intimidation. The robbery netted the perpetrators a mere $5.80, and the three were captured 20 minutes afterward.

For his part in the theft, Burns was sentenced to six to ten years at hard labor. Expecting to serve his time in a penitentiary, Burns instead found himself designated for roadwork on a county chain gang. Issued a convict’s striped uniform and shackled with heavy chains, Burns was transported to one of Georgia’s many county prison camps.

Burns describes the Campbell County prison camp as filthy and dehumanizing. The endless days were filled with backbreaking and mind-numbing work; frequent beatings by guards; and subsistence-level, sometimes putrid food. The system made no pretense of reformation but instead sought to inflict harsh punishment and exploit a captive workforce.

One was never allowed to rest a moment but must always be hard at work, and even moving in the mass of chain was painful and tiring—yet if one did not keep up his work greater terrors and more brutal punishment was in reserve. If a convict wanted to stop for a second to wipe the sweat off his face, he would have to call out “Wiping if off” and wait until the guard replied, “Wipe it off” before he could do so.

Dinner came in a galvanized iron bucket …The contents of the iron bucket was boiled, dried cowpeas (not eaten anywhere else but in Georgia) and called “Red beans.” They were unpalatable, full of sand and worms.

Determining that he’d be unable to serve out his time in such conditions, Burns escaped the chain gang after several months. Evading his pursuers, the fugitive made his way to Chicago and arrived there with 60 cents in his pocket. He soon secured employment and began saving money. By 1925, Burns had saved enough to begin publishing The Greater Chicago Magazine, and he became a well-known figure about the city. During his rise to prominence, Burns claims, he was compelled by extortion into an unwanted marriage. Soon after he initiated divorce proceedings in 1929, Burns was arrested as a fugitive—betrayed, he asserts, by his estranged wife.

Citing the law-abiding and productive life that Burns had led in the seven years since his escape, a number of prominent Chicagoans helped Burns fight extradition. Assurances of leniency from Georgia authorities, however, persuaded Burns to voluntarily return. Upon arriving in Georgia, Burns found that the promises of fair treatment soon evaporated. Relegated to Troup County’s prison camp, Burns experienced conditions that were even more primitive and cruel than those he had experienced in Campbell County several years earlier.

After 14 months, Burns made a second escape, and he provides the reader with a step-by-step description of his flight. A natural-born storyteller, Burns keeps the reader in suspense through several close calls and daring risks.

Burns made his way to New Jersey, but, with the nation in the throes of the Great Depression, the success that he’d found in Chicago during the 1920s would elude him. Working at a series of menial jobs and living under an assumed identity, he decided to write a scathing indictment against the penal system from which he’d escaped. “It’s now my life’s ambition to destroy the chain-gang system in Georgia,” he told a friend, “and see substituted in its place a more humane and enlightened system of correction.”

Serialized in True Detective Mysteries magazine in 1931, the fugitive’s story gained national attention. I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! was later released in book form and became a bestseller. A popular film adaptation, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, soon followed, netting three Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor for leading man Paul Muni and Best Picture.

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The Steel Pier Souvenir Edition of Burns’ book features on its end papers several scenes from the film adaptation.

In 1932, Burns was again arrested as a fugitive, but public outcry convinced New Jersey Governor A. Harry Moore to refuse extradition to Georgia, and Burns was soon released. In 1945, Burns again voluntarily returned to Georgia and appeared before the parole board, with no less a figure than Georgia Governor Ellis Arnall serving as his counsel. The board commuted Burns’s sentence to time served.

Burns died ten years later, but he lived long enough to witness reforms to the cruel system he opposed. The state of Georgia, spurred perhaps not so much by humanitarianism as by embarrassment, implemented a series of penal reforms in the 1940s. In abolishing the use of chain gangs within the state, Governor Arnall cited Burns’s story as the impetus behind his actions. Though chain gang systems remained in place in other Southern states, their abolition in Georgia signaled the beginning of an incremental change that would accelerate during the civil rights movement.

In Robert Burns, the chain gang system had perhaps created its own worst enemy: an inmate with the background, eloquence, and determination to attack it. His book caused widespread outrage and sparked condemnation of the chain gang system. It is impossible to gauge the influence of I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! within the context of a wider movement for prison reform, and the book certainly didn’t cause the immediate demise of the chain gang system, but it undoubtedly implanted the need for reform in the national consciousness.

In addition to Burns’s book here in Special Collections, the library also holds the film’s screenplay and a videocassette copy of the film.

William “Uncle Bill” Gitt, Virginia Tech’s Original Campus Character

A century ago, the most recognizable face on Virginia Tech’s campus probably wasn’t that of the college president (Joseph Eggleston) or the football coach (Charles Bernier) but instead belonged to a beloved figure now all but forgotten in campus lore, William Grove “Uncle Bill” Gitt, Virginia Tech’s original campus character.

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William “Uncle Bill” Gitt.

Born to William and Amanda Gitt in Montgomery County, Virginia, in 1860, Gitt soon afterward moved with his parents to Newport, in neighboring Giles County. There, the Gitts operated the Gitt House, an inn that became a popular stop for cadets, especially during outings to nearby Mountain Lake.

According to biographical information appearing in the 1918 Bugle and Col. Harry Temple’s The Bugle’s Echo, Gitt enrolled in what was then Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in 1877. Having failed every subject during his freshman year at VAMC, Gitt began searching for employment. He somehow alit in New Haven, Connecticut, where he clerked in a 99-cent store for about a year before joining the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth as a circus clown. After a single season, Gitt left the circus and worked successively as a brakeman, fireman, and conductor on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, but he returned to performing for Barnum & Bailey three years later. He remained with the circus for several seasons, including a European tour, but an injury in 1891 forced his retirement from performing. After retiring from the circus, Gitt worked at several jobs in Chicago, where he is said to have saved the lives of two children. He was later employed as a railroad brakeman for four years, then as a bartender in Huntington, West Virginia, for another four years.

In 1907, Gitt returned to Blacksburg, where he operated a street corner stand, selling fruit, candy, and knickknacks. He soon became a favorite local figure of Virginia Tech’s cadets, who probably enjoyed the many stories he undoubtedly shared of his life and travels. Fond of composing bits of doggerel for every occasion, Gitt always ending his poems with “Uncle Bill—That’s all,” and it was by this stock phrase that the cadets invariably referred to him.

In a move that was mutually beneficial, the university allowed the perpetually down-on-his-luck Gitt to move into Room 102 of Virginia Tech’s Barracks No. 1 (now known as Lane Hall) in 1911. In exchange for his room and a salary of $7.50 per month, Gitt performed various tasks for the cadets, as summarized in The Bugle’s Echo:

He handled incoming and outgoing express packages. The cadets left their bags of soiled laundry in front of his room, and he looked after them. He mailed letters, sold stamps, and ran errands such as buying cigarettes. He sold smoking equipment such as pipes and matches, and sold apples and notions, tickets for athletic events, Lyceum shows, and the Pressing Club. He operated a telephone service…, relayed messages, and went to cadets’ rooms to call them to the telephone. He collected items for charities and acted as a coordinator between the boys and community projects and actions. He cashed checks at the downtown bank for the cadets and operated a lost and found service. He maintained a bulletin board in the hall outside of his room on which items of current interest were posted, including intercollegiate athletic scores….

Finding his salary to be insufficient, Gitt subsisted on gratuities as well as commissions on the sales of event tickets and fees for other odd jobs. Fortunately for him, faculty members frequently invited him into their homes for dinner.

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An advertisement for one of the services offered by Gitt (from Ms1964-006).

Here in Special Collections, we’re fortunate to have a journal maintained by Bill Gitt (Ms1964-006). Covering a period of 10 weeks in the fall of 1912, the journal is titled “Dope Sheet and Daffy Dill.” Always given to rhyme, Gitt couldn’t help but refer to himself as “Old wobbly Uncle Bill / owned by the boys on College Hill / Rah / That’s all.”

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Cover of Bill Gitt’s 1912 journal (Ms1964-006).

In addition to describing his daily work and activities, Gitt’s journal chronicles his health problems and his dire financial condition. Throughout all, however, he tries to maintain a positive attitude, and the entries are full of slang and poetry. On November 28, 1912, he wrote: “I am thankful that I am as well situated as I am. I have a good warm room, electric light, and plenty to eat, and clothes and shows. And the boys are my friends. I would not get by on $7.50 a month, if it was not for the boys.”

Elsewhere, Gitt chronicles life among the cadets, mentioning fights, celebrations, and football games. He makes frequent mention of his roommate, Rusty the dog, who served as a college mascot, and of the cadets, invariably referring to them as “my boys” and with genuine affection.

By 1918, Gitt’s health had deteriorated to the point that he could no longer tend to his demanding duties at Virginia Tech. After Gitt underwent a surgical operation in Roanoke, an alumnus obtained for him a job in that city’s Traveler’s Hotel. Medical bills soon eroded his savings, however, and Gitt had to move into the Roanoke City Almshouse, the last refuge for the area’s indigent and aged in the days before government assistance.

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Bill Gitt’s bad leg, probably a result of the injury he sustained as a circus performer, forced him into early retirement.

Bill Gitt remained a beloved figure to students and alumni. Following his move to Roanoke, the cadets pooled their money and purchased for him a phonograph and a collection of his favorite records. They were sent to Gitt in Roanoke, accompanied by a letter of appreciation signed by every cadet.  Each year, he received a complimentary subscription to The Virginia Tech (today’s Collegiate Times). Despite his difficulties, Gitt revisited campus on several occasions and attended the annual Thanksgiving Day game between VPI and VMI until he died.

One cadet’s feelings about Virginia Tech’s first campus character were recorded in a 1917 Roanoke World News article:

 Every one that knows Virginia Tech is sure to know Uncle William, for he is truly a part of the College. At any rate, the boys are very fond of the old man; and if any one would like to hear some real interesting experiences, just have a chat with Uncle Bill—That’s All.

The Agitator

Charles Taylor Adams Played the Provocateur as Both Student and Alumnus

The title of the Herman Bruce Hawkins Papers (Ms1974-014) is a little misleading. While the materials in the one-box collection do relate to Hawkins (who graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1910, had a  successful 50-year career in the power industry, remained actively involved in Virginia Tech’s alumni association, and was awarded Virginia Tech’s Distinguished Alumni Citation in 1961), the overwhelming focus is on Hawkins’ VPI classmate, Charles Taylor Adams.

A native of Richmond, Adams entered VPI as a sophomore in the school’s horticultural program in 1908. Adams became known on campus for his verbose and iconoclastic nature and his relative lack of interest in the discipline and protocol of a military school. The blurb below his picture in the 1910 Bugle sums up Adams (known more familiarly by his middle name) in this way: “Taylor has the hot-air supply of Montgomery County cornered, trussed up and stored away. And that isn’t the worst of it. If he’d keep it where he’s got it, we would not object so strenuously. But he always has it on tap … and you never can tell what is and what isn’t true.” Taylor also seems to have had a reputation for  excessive idealisism and was sometimes known to friends as “Quix,” short for Quixote.

In 1909, Adams was named editor-in-chief of The Virginia Tech, forerunner of today’s Collegiate Times. Taylor presented a number of tongue-in-cheek editorials and soon began running a regular feature, “Asbestographs,” so-called because the column was intended to cover “red-hot matter,” too incendiary to print on paper. Not quite living up to its stated purpose, the column usually featured gripes about mundane aspects of campus life: the stench from campus incinerators, the inefficient laundry service, and the lack of heat in the dorms being among the many grievances aired. Adams’ diatribes were often directed against his classmates, whom he castigated for their lack of enthusiasm and involvement.

The paper’s editorials took on a more weighty subject on January 26, 1910, when Adams addressed a  local issue. Some students had taken a dislike to a local Italian immigrant who had been peddling peanuts and popcorn (and, according to some, anarchism) and had pelted him with firecrackers. According to Adams (in language not politically correct), the Blacksburg mayor had paid an African-American Blacksburg resident to act as witness against two innocent cadets against whom the mayor held a grudge. The case was ultimately thrown out by the grand jury, but it came at a time when other issues were straining town-gown relations, and Adams’ editorial apparently received some negative attention from school authorities. In protest, Adams published the following week  a “Spotless Edition” of The Virginia Tech. The issue contained only advertising. The sections that would have held news stories and editorials were intentionally left blank.

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The front page of the Virginia Tech’s “Spotless Edition,” February 2, 1910

Adams remained editor-in-chief and seems to have completed the school year, but records indicate that he never graduated from VPI. He did, however, go on to a successful career, working for several prestigious New York advertising firms.

In 1959, classmates Adams and Hawkins reconnected through correspondence.  The letters between the two served as an outlet for Adams’ views, and he wrote of his great regret  for having spent his years in advertising, rather than being a communist activist:

Did I ever tell you that I once met John Reed [the American journalist who chronicled Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution] and talked with him? (and how shamed I am now that his words moved me not, and I put him down as a wild eyed young radical).  It was in 1914, I think, in some smoke-filled bistro in Greenwich Village, and I was down there with some of my friends, and Reed came over to greet one of them … and not long thereafter he went over and was in the October Revolution … When I think that I might have done that, or something like it, I am shamed and deeply sick in spirit. For what have I done, in the seventy years I have had? … Advertising to make people buy things they do not need, at prices far beyond their true worth …

Remembering with fondness their time as classmates, Hawkins saw Adams as a frustrated idealist:

Your unhappiness though is, I suspect, that of so many intellectuals who expect too much of people. And with the people being what they are throughout the world, I wonder just where you might go to find happiness. In thinking back over the years I can recall now that you were a revolutionary from the start during our early years when we roamed the campus together at Blacksburg … You are though my favorite revolutionary and though it would have been thrilling to say, “I knew him well – he was one of my dearest friends” – I’m really glad that you didn’t distinguish yourself in the same way that John Reed and Lenin and Castro did.”

Taylor Adams (left) and Herman Hawkins are pictured as classmates in the 1910 Bugle.

During the next few years, the two men occasionally exchanged letters that present in microcosm the contrast of opinions on the overarching issues of the day—civil  rights, nuclear arms, and the Vietnam War—Adams  espousing views that at the time were considered fairly radical and often sharing printed materials from such organizations as the NAACP and the Congress for Racial Equality, while Hawkins held on to prevailing conservative opinions, such as his take on Adams’ activities as a speech-writer for the NAACP:

I do believe that you are being unrealistic for the highest hurdle the Negro has to clear is that of prejudice[,] and what you are doing through the N.A.A.C.P. – the writing of speeches for the traveling educators being sent through the plague ridden Southern States – will do nothing more than harden and heighten this barrier of prejudice.

Hawkins abruptly cut off correspondence in 1962, though Adams apparently made at least one more attempt at contact. Adams, having  retired from advertising, continued to use much of his free time in sharing his opinions with whomever would listen. The Hawkins collection contains several opinion pieces that Adams contributed to publications both large and small.

In 1969, perhaps recalling the reaction that he’d been able to provoke as editor of the student newspaper 60 years earlier, Adams placed three advertisements in The Virginia Tech. In the first, he exhorted students and their parents to protest a raise in the school’s room and board rates. In another ad, Adams offered a five-dollar reward to the first person answering two questions: “How many Negroes are on the academic (not sports, dance, or Home Ec.) faculty of VPI?” and “Give name and brief description of all academic courses in Negro History, Culture and related specifically Negro subjects.” It was Adams’ third ad, however, that caused a stir.

Learning that U.S. Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland would be delivering an address at Virginia Tech’s ROTC commissioning ceremony on June 7, Adams  place an ad in the Tech calling for recruits for a “guerilla battalion” to protest the event. The ad generated a brief firestorm of controversy, and the Hawkins collection contains a number of opinion pieces against Adams specifically and school protests generally. In the end, Adams claimed that the ad was a joke. According to a May 22 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “He said he ran it because he wanted ‘to stick a pin’ in the people at VPI, a school which he contends is behind the times.” Citing poor health, the 80-year-old Adams did not leave his home in New York to attend the event. A small, peaceful protest was, however, staged at the ceremony. (You can see footage of it in this Youtube video.)

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Taylor Adams’ ad in a 1969 issue of The Virginia Tech

Adams continued writing about issues of the day into his 90s and died in 1981; Hawkins died that same year.

The Hawkins papers would of course be of interest to anybody researching Hawkins, and especially his involvement in the alumni association, but much more importantly, the papers provide a small glimpse into the private, conflicting opinions of two Virginia Tech alumni on some of the bigger questions confronting the United States during the 1950s and 1960s.

“Amanda: Colored Daughter of Virginia”

Hidden History at Special Collections III

(In this on-again, off-again (mostly off-again) series, we look at interesting pieces found in unexpected places—noteworthy items that, because they represent only a tiny part of a larger collection that’s devoted to unrelated topics—remain concealed to all but the most thorough of researchers.)

Despite an increased interest in the past couple of decades, Blacksburg’s early African-American experience remains an underrepresented piece of the town’s history. Such projects as the restoration of St. Luke and Odd Fellows Hall as a museum of black history have done much to preserve a long-ignored history, but still African-American contributions to Blacksburg’s early development remain greatly undocumented. With a dearth of primary sources, every scrap of information that comes to hand is a precious discovery. One such discovery is a brief, off-the-cuff essay found in the James Robbins Randolph Papers (Ms1971-001).

Born in 1891, James Randolph was the son of Lingan Randolph, a professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. The younger Randolph grew up in Blacksburg and obtained his own degree in mechanical engineering at VPI in 1912. After earning a master’s degree at Harvard in 1921, Randolph taught physics and mechanical engineering at a succession of colleges and served in the U. S. Army Reserve Ordnance Department from 1931 to 1943.

Nearly all of Randolph’s surviving papers consist of his notes and writings on various subjects. Not surprisingly, most of these writings—both fiction and non-fiction—focus on science and technology, particularly rocketry. But within a collection of essays gathered under the title “Maybe We Are Not Wanted on Mars” is a brief, seemingly incongruous piece Randolph called “Amanda: Colored Daughter of Virginia.”

In his five-page essay, the professor offers his views of race relations in the South, focusing primarily on the Blacksburg of his youth. His viewpoints might today be considered at best naïve, but they do offer some insights into race relations in Blacksburg a century ago. For example, Randolph attributes the necessity for the founding of New Town, a one-time historically black neighborhood near the present intersection of Main Street and Price’s Fork Road, to an influx of new residents:

Before the Civil War in the South, Negroes and whites lived side by side because they belonged to each other, and seldom had occasion to move separately. After the war both found it expedient to stay where they were … As the older people of both races died, or moved and were replaced by strangers, living side by side became less pleasant. So a group of Negroes bought a farm on the edge of town, divided it into lots, and called it Newtown.

Elsewhere in the essay, Randolph repeats his assertion that problems between the races resulted from disruptions by “outsiders.” Despite presenting a somewhat skewed look at the issue, Randolph recalls becoming aware at an early age that local relations between the races were not always easy, and that crises could erupt at any time:

Some of our students were from the mountains, where strange Negroes were apt to get shot, so we always feared a race riot, but it never came. As soon as we boys were big enough, Father told us how he planned to meet such an emergency. His plan was to round up as many as possible of our colored friends and get them into our house. Then he would take the front door, while we boys and the colored men took the back and sides. We were all good shots, and he explained that a man with peaceful intentions would come to the front door, whereas an enemy would try to sneak in somewhere else, so there was no harm in being trigger happy there.

It was around 1900, Randolph recalls, that “two colored girls, Amanda and Ella began coming to us once a week to give the house a real cleaning.” Thus began the family’s lifelong friendship with Amanda, who eventually became the Randolph’s cook. Later, when Amanda married, she and her husband John would live in the Randolph house while saving for a home of their own. Throughout the essay, Randolph writes of the couple with fondness and respect:

She and John were a thrifty industrious couple. He had his job. She worked part time for a white family, and she took in washing. She and John picked and canned fruits and vegetables on shares. They had fruit trees and a garden of their own. They had pigs and chickens. Their house was small and plain, but always neat. Their three daughters did well at school.

The Randolphs eventually left Blacksburg (James Randolph in 1914, his parents in 1918) but frequently corresponded with Amanda, and she visited the Randolphs in New Jersey on several occasions. James Randolph concludes his essay by remembering his last meeting with Amanda:

The last time I saw Amanda was when my father’s portrait was unveiled at the college where he had taught for so long … Amanda and her three daughters were among the invited guests. Her oldest daughter, Clio [sic], took Mother there … Amanda and I were talking when the meeting was called to order, and we sat down, side by side.

Randolph never provides Amanda’s last name, but a quick search of the census reveals the missing information. Among the inhabitants of the Randolph household in 1910, the census lists two servants named John B. and Amanda D. Rollins, aged 38 and 29, respectively. By 1920, John and Amanda owned a home of their own, which they shared with three daughters: Cleo, 10; Theriffee, 8; and Cuetta, 4. The census notes that the Rollins home was on a cross alley between Price’s Fork Road and Main Street, placing it within the bounds of what was at that time New Town. The family continues to appear in Blacksburg through the 1940 census, which shows Amanda Rollins, a 61-year-old, widowed cook, living on New Town Alley with daughters Cleo Price, 30; and “Quella” Rollins, 23. Cemetery readings on findagrave.com reveal that Amanda Rollins died in 1950 and is buried in Blacksburg. John B. Rollins (1878-1931) is also buried there, as are the couple’s daughters, Cleo Rollins Price (1910-1974), Theriffa Rollins Christian (1911-1956), and Cuetta Virginia Rollins Webb (1916-1987).

For more on Blacksburg’s African-American history and Special Collections’ role in helping to preserve it, see Sam Winn’s post of October 19, 2015, “Uncovering Hidden Histories: African Americans in Appalachia.”