Today in History

Today in History: May 25

Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion;…The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self Reliance,"
Essays, First Series, 1841.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson, copyright 1884.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Essayist, philosopher, and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston on May 25, 1803. Son and grandson of Protestant divines, Emerson attended Harvard College and Harvard Divinity School, entering the Unitarian ministry in 1829.

A popular, if unconventional preacher, young Emerson's sermons consisted of personal reflections on spirituality and virtue. He avoided expounding doctrine or engaging in scriptural exegesis. Increasingly dissatisfied with traditional protestant theology, Emerson resigned from the ministry in 1832. By the end of the decade, however, he was the leading exponent of transcendentalism, a philosophy that maintains the universality of creation, upholds the intrinsic goodness of man, and grounds truth in personal insight.

From the 1830s on, Emerson and a group of like-minded thinkers including Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody were based in Concord, Massachusetts. The transcendentalist community at Concord not only shared radical religious views, but also embraced forward-looking social reforms including abolition, temperance, and woman suffrage.

He lived in his family home, the Old Manse, for one year, where he completed his manifesto, Nature (1836) (external link), and composed the poem "Concord Hymn" (1837) which commemorates the Revolutionary War battle with its phrase "And fired the shot heard round the world." (Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife later rented the Old Manse.) A prolific writer and thinker, Emerson's collected essays earned international acclaim, and, for decades, he remained a popular lecturer.

The Old Manse, Concord
The Old Manse, Concord, Massachusetts, copyright 1900.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

By the time of his death in 1882, the eighty-year-old radical was heralded as the "Sage of Concord."

exterior of a house with a stone fence
Home of Emerson, Concord, Mass.
Cosmos Pictures Co., N.Y., 1905.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Use American Memory to learn more about the New England transcendentalists.

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson

Portrait of Bill Robinson
Bill Robinson,
Carl Van Vechten, photographer, January 25, 1933.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Van Vechten, 1932-1964

Legendary jazz tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was born on May 25, 1878, in Richmond, Virginia. His given name was Luther, but he despised it and appropriated that of his younger brother, William. An extraordinary performer and synthesizer of the tap tradition, Robinson is also credited with one major innovation in this American art form: transforming its flat footwork into dancing up on the toes, which gave tap "a hitherto-unknown lightness and presence."* Many steps Robinson perfected with his trademark clarity, precision, and elegance, including the famous "stair dance," remain part of the tap repertoire today.

Orphaned in early childhood and unwanted by his grandmother, a survivor of slavery and strict Baptist who forbade dancing, Robinson nevertheless began dancing and singing as a young child for nickels and dimes on Richmond street-corners. He ran away to Washington, D.C., and spent some years dancing in local beer-gardens and surviving on odd jobs before breaking into the relatively new theatrical genre called "vaudeville," which showcased dancers, singers, comedians, and actors in a series of short performances. By the early decades of the twentieth century, Robinson was earning top dollar on the vaudeville circuit and in nightclubs as one of the very few black dancers who was permitted to perform as a soloist. In 1928 he burst onto Broadway with sensational success in the all-black revue Blackbirds of 1928. Other Broadway triumphs followed.

By the 1930s, motion pictures and radio had usurped vaudeville's popularity and Robinson moved with the times. He went to Hollywood in 1932 and appeared in some sixteen films, most famously opposite Shirley Temple. Stormy Weather (1943), with Lena Horne, provided him a rare opportunity to appear in an African-American production. Although his film career brought him even greater prominence during this period, Robinson also continued to work in the theater. He was featured in the highly acclaimed Hot Mikado, staged at the 1939 World's Fair, in which a critic for Theatre Arts described his dancing:

He does not sing, or even swing, with his voice but with his feet.  Never has shoe leather beaten out such a variety of intricate patterns.  Never … has one note been made to sing and soar, to whisper and to laugh, in such astonishingly complex rhythm.

A quick-tempered and competitive man, a perfectionist well aware of his own immense artistic gifts, Robinson chafed at and challenged the oppressive racial norms of his era, gambled recklessly, and carried a gold-plated revolver that no one doubted he was prepared to use.  He celebrated his sixty-first birthday by dancing down Broadway from Columbus Circle to 44th Street. As his seventieth birthday approached, his dancing abilities, like his popularity, barely waned. At Robinson's death in 1949, thousands passed by his body as it lay in state in Harlem, where he had long since been deemed honorary mayor. Black and white, high and low, alike paid tribute to the man's professional genius and personal generosity.

Use American Memory to learn more about the life and times of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson:

Portrait of Bill Robinson
Bill Robinson,
Carl Van Vechten, photographer, January 25, 1933.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Van Vechten, 1932-1964

Fights of Nations
From American Variety Stage, 1870-1920

tap dancing
Tap Dance Sequence From Fights of Nations,
American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1907.
Part 2 of 3.
American Variety Stage, 1870-1920

Unabashedly racist, the comedy Fights of Nations relies on both stereotype and slapstick. "Part 2" opens with a sword fight between three kilted Scots, and moves on to a New York City dance hall. Between brawls, viewers are treated to a tap dance, performed by a character known as "The Bully."

Fights of Nations,
American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1907.
Part 2 of 3.
American Variety Stage, 1870-1920

MPEG format…30 Mb

Quick Time format…17 Mb

The Library of Congress presents such materials as part of the record of the past, reflecting the attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs of different times. The Library of Congress does not endorse the views they express.

*  Marshall and Jean Stearns, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance  (rev. ed. with foreword and afterword by Brenda Bufalino; New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 187.