National Geographic History March/April 2021

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United States
National Geographic Society
6 Issues

in this issue

1 min
from the editor

Who was the first person to circumnavigate the globe? If it were trivia night, someone would probably blurt out “Ferdinand Magellan” because that’s a simple answer. The standard version (or what was probably taught in history classes covering European exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries) usually goes something like this: Magellan sets out from Spain in 1519, sails around South America’s southern tip and through the Pacific, and returns in 1522 to become the first to sail around the world. Only that’s not true. The real answer is more complicated than that. Magellan may have led the expedition that was first to sail around the world, but he himself did not complete the voyage—nor did most of his crew. Along the way, their numbers were decimated by illness, desertion, mutinies, and violence.…

2 min
the search to recover a storied black church

In 1956 the century-old home of the First Baptist Church—one of the United States’ oldest Black congregations—was demolished. The congregation would be relocating to a new home, while Colonial Williamsburg, a living-history museum in Virginia, would expand into the site on Nassau Street. They did a quick excavation of the site, but then it eventually became a parking lot. A memorial plaque was placed there in the 1980s. In 2020 Colonial Williamsburg announced that it would return to thoroughly excavate the site of the First Baptist Church, whose use as a place of worship goes back as far as 1818. Free and enslaved Blacks began to worship in secret around 1776, gathering just outside of Williamsburg. In 1781, under the leadership of Rev. Gowan Pamphlet, an enslaved man in Williamsburg, they…

1 min
first baptist’s long history

THE FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH on Nassau Street, in Williamsburg, Virginia, served as the home for one of the oldest continuous congregations in the United States. The original structure, built around 1818, was destroyed in the 1830s when the African Baptist Church (as it was called then) had as many as 600 members. A new brick building (photographed in 1901, above) was dedicated in 1856. TODAY’S MEMBERS of the First Baptist Church regard the ongoing excavation and hoped-for restoration of its early 19th-century meetinghouse as “a symbol of healing,” said Connie Matthews Harshaw, who heads the foundation that works to preserve the church’s history. The brick building built in the 1850s not only served as the congregation’s home for a century but also played an important role in American history. In the…

6 min
nellie bly, pioneer of investigative journalism

In 1885 the Pittsburgh Dispatch published an article entitled “What Girls Are Good For,” which claimed a working woman was “a monstrosity.” The feature provoked a fiery rebuke from a 21-year-old reader, Elizabeth Jane Cochran, whose argument so impressed the editor that he published an advertisement asking the author to come forward so he could meet her. She did, and he hired her on the spot, her first article appearing under the name “Orphan Girl.” Soon after, she changed her pen name to the title of a popular song by Pittsburgh songwriter Stephen Foster, and so “Nellie Bly” was born—a name forever associated with her pioneering role in investigative journalism. In the course of her life, she spotlighted social ills and corruption, often at great personal risk, resulting in important reforms. Distinguishing…

1 min
fighting for equality

AFTER LOSING her father at age six, Nellie Bly learned to be aggressive, bold, and self-reliant. She also realized early on that despite her abilities, she faced greater obstacles in the workplace than her brothers, who landed their jobs with minimal education. This unfairness prompted her to address the discrimination women faced. In her first article for the Pittsburgh Dispatch, she made an example of a boss who hired a competent woman but, “as she was just a girl,” paid her less than half that of her male co-workers. “There are those who would call this equality,” she wrote sardonically.…

1 min
racing around the world

NELLIE BLY managed to circumnavigate the world in just 72 days, eight less than Jules Verne’s fictitious hero, Phileas Fogg, who inspired the feat. On train, ship, rickshaw, horse, and donkey, Nellie passed through London, Amiens, Suez, Singapore, Hong Kong, Yokohama, and San Francisco before returning to New Jersey in 1890. Readers of the New York World followed her adventures daily and placed bets on the number of days it would take. Bly defeated journalist Elizabeth Bisland, sent by the magazine Cosmopolitan, in a race that boosted the World’s readership and advertising revenues.…