Okay, I know that some of these famous Americans might not be suitable for elementary school kids to do reports on. Of course, Alfred Kinsey is obvious since he was a pioneer in human sexuality while Eugene Debs was a political radical and Al Capone and John Dillinger were criminals. However, this series about honoring great Americans who’ve necessarily made positive contributions since that might be a matter of opinion. And then there are some people who are rather controversial but that doesn’t mean I should leave them out. Nevertheless, in this post I bring you the Mount Rushmores I compiled from prairie state Kansas to Chesapeake Bay state Maryland. First, we venture to Kansas which has at times has been no place like home to a prominent WWII general who later became president, a noted black photographer and filmmaker, a famous poetic voice from the Harlem Renaissance, and a legendary aviator. Second, it’s on to Kentucky where you’ll meet an interesting lot consisting of a bird guy who’s name is synonymous with avian conservation, a knife guy who died at the Alamo, an eccentric journalist, and a mystic monk. Then we go down to Louisiana, home to a legendary jazz trumpeter, a larger than life politician, a French pirate, and a highly well-known gay playwright. Next, I bring you up north to the state of Maine where you’ll meet a legendary American poet, one of the most unlikely military heroes, an advocate for the mentally ill, and an academic who was an early supporter of civil rights. Finally, we go to Maryland where you’ll find a former slave who became the most prominent voice for African Americans in the 19th century, a lawyer who wrote what became a national anthem, a civil rights lawyer who eventually sat on the highest court bench in the land, and a Catholic bishop who supported Christian unity as well as a separation between church and state.
Figure 1: Dwight D. Eisenhower – US president from 1953-1961 and 5-star general during WWII who served as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe. Responsible for planning and supervising the invasion of North Africa with Operation Torch in 1942-43 and the successful invasion of France and Germany in 1944-45. Was first Supreme Commander of NATO, served as Army Chief of Staff under Truman, and president of Columbia University. Administration saw the end of the Korean War, coups in Iran and Guatemala, troubles in Vietnam, the Suez crisis, establishment of NASA, the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, the U2 Incident, McCarthyism, establishment of the Interstate Highway System, and Alaska and Hawaii becoming states.
Figure 2: Gordon Parks– photographer, musician, writer, and film director who became prominent in US documentary photojournalism in the 1940s through the 1970s, particularly in issues of civil rights, poverty, and African Americans. Was the first African American to produce and direct major motion pictures, developing films relating the experience of black slaves and struggling black Americans, and creating the “Blaxploitation” genre. Best remembered for his iconic photos of poor Americans during the 1940s (particularly the lady with the brooms behind the American flag), his photographic essays in Life magazine, and as the director in the 1971 film Shaft. Also an author, poet, and composer.
Figure 3: Langston Hughes– poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist who was one of the earliest innovators of the then-new literary art form called jazz poetry and best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. Famously wrote about the period that “the negro was in vogue”, which was later paraphrased as “when Harlem was in vogue.” Poetry and fiction portrayed the lives of the working-class blacks in America, lives he portrayed as full of struggle, joy, laughter, and music. Stressed a racial consciousness and cultural nationalism devoid of self-hate and thought united people of African descent and Africa across the globe to encourage pride in their diverse black folk culture and black aesthetic. In his time, he was one of the few prominent black writers to champion racial consciousness as a source of inspiration for black artists which influence many black writers today.
Figure 4: Amelia Earhart– aviation pioneer and author who was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, receiving the US Distinguished Flying Cross for the record and set many other records as well. Wrote bestselling books about her flying experiences and was instrumental in the formation of The Ninety-Nines, a female pilot organization. Disappeared in an attempt to make a circumnavigational flight around the globe in 1937 over the central Pacific Ocean. Fascination with her life, career, and disappearance continues to this day.
Figure 1: John James Audubon– ornithologist, naturalist, and painter who was notable for his extensive studies documenting all types of American birds and for his detailed illustrations that depicted the birds in their natural habitats. His major work titled The Birds of America is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed with nearly all later ornithological works were inspired by his artistry and high standards. Made significant contributions to the understanding of bird anatomy and behavior through his field notes. Identified 25 new species and 12 subspecies.
Figure 2: Jim Bowie– pioneer who played a prominent role in the Texas Revolution which culminated in this death at the Battle of the Alamo. Stories of him as a fighter and frontiersman have made him a legendary figure and a folk hero of American culture. Despite conflicting accounts of the manner of his death, the “most popular, and probably the most accurate” accounts maintain that he died in his bed after emptying his pistols into several Mexican soldiers. Was renowned for his prowess with a large knife that lends his name with which he was reputed to kill a Louisiana sheriff after having been shot and stabbed himself, according to reports of the 1827 Sandbar fight.
Figure 3: Hunter S. Thompson– journalist, author, and founder of the gonzo journalism movement. Became a counter cultural figure in the 1970s, with his own brand of New Journalism which he termed “Gonzo”, an experimental style of journalism where reporters involve themselves in the action to such a degree that they become central figures of their stories. Best known work is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream which constitutes a rumination on the failure of the 1960s counterculture movement and was serialized by Rolling Stone with which he’d be long associated. Also known well known for his inveterate hatred of Richard Nixon, who he claimed represented “that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character” as well as for his lifelong use of alcohol and illegal drugs, his love of firearms, and his iconoclastic contempt for authoritarianism.
Figure 4: Thomas Merton– writer, mystic, poet, social activist, and Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky who wrote more than 70 books, mostly on spirituality, social justice, and a quiet pacifism as well as scores of essays and reviews. Among his most enduring works is his bestselling autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain which sent scores of WWII veterans, students, and even teenagers flocking to monasteries across the US. Was a keen proponent of interfaith understanding, pioneered dialogue between Asian spiritual figures including the Dalai Lama, and authored books on Zen Buddhism and Taoism. Called by Pope Francis as ”a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”
Figure 1: Louis Armstrong– trumpeter, composer, and singer who was one of the most influential figures in jazz and whose career spanned 5 decades and different jazz eras with a profound influence extending well beyond jazz music. One of the first truly popular African American entertainers to “cross over” whose skin color was secondary to his music in an America that was extremely racially divided. Was a foundational influence in jazz shifting focus from collective improvisation to solo performance. With his instantly recognizable gravelly voice, he was also an influential singer demonstrating great dexterity as an improviser, bending lyrics and melody of a song for expressive purposes as well as skilled in scat singing.
Figure 2: Huey Long– politician nicknamed “The Kingfish,” who served as Louisiana’s governor and senator during from 1928 to his assassination in 1935. Best known for being an outspoken populist who denounced the rich and the banks and called for “Share Our Wealth” that proposed new wealth distribution measures in the form of a net asset tax on corporations and individuals to curb poverty and homelessness during the Great Depression. Advocated federal spending on public works, schools and colleges, and old age pensions stimulate the economy as well as was an ardent critic of the Federal Reserve. As Louisiana’s political boss, he commanded wide networks of supporters and was willing to take forceful action. Under his leadership, he expanded hospitals and schools, set of a system of charity hospitals to provide healthcare to the poor, massive highway construction and free bridges that brought an end to rural isolation, and free textbooks provided for schoolchildren. But his dictatorial means and motives violated American norms. Remains a controversial figure in Louisiana with critics and supporters debating whether or not he was a dictator, demagogue, or populist. Has inspired countless novels, particularly Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.
Figure 3: Jean Laffite– pirate and privateer in the Gulf of Mexico in the early 19th century who had a successful smuggling operation in Louisiana with his brothers as well as was instrumental in helping Andrew Jackson defend New Orleans against British forces in the final battle of the War of 1812 in exchange for a legal pardon. His assistance to the US in that battle was crucial in achieving victory for he provided ships and men. Also suggested to Jackson that the American line of defense be extended from the Mississippi to a nearby swamp. Later became a spy for the Spanish during the Mexican War of Independence and developed a pirate colony in what is today Galveston, Texas. Continued attacking merchant ships as a pirate around Central American ports until he died around 1823, trying to capture Spanish vessels. Historians have speculated about his life and death ever since.
Figure 4: Tennessee Williams– playwright and author of many stage classics. Considered among the three foremost playwrights in 20th-century American drama along with Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller. Also wrote short stories, poetry, essays and a volume of memoirs. Best known for The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Sweet Bird of Youth. While his plays in the 1940s and 1950s are seen as extraordinary, his later works brought him turmoil and theatrical failures, mainly due to his alcoholism.
Figure 1: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow– poet and educator whose works include “Paul Revere’s Ride”, The Song of Hiawatha, and Evangeline and was one of the 5 Fireside poets. First American to translate Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Wrote many lyric poems known for their musicality and often presenting stories of mythology and legend and was the most popular American poet of his day. Yet has been criticized for imitating European styles and writing specifically for the masses.
Figure 2: Joshua Chamberlain– college professor who volunteered for the Union Army during the American Civil War where he became a highly respected and decorated Union officer reaching the rank of brigadier general. Most well-known for his gallantry at Gettysburg in his valiant defense of Little Round Top where he ordered simultaneous full frontal assault and flanking maneuver on Confederate troops, capturing 101 of them. This earned him the Medal of Honor as well as gave him the honor of commanding Union troops at the surrender ceremony of Robert E. Lee’s Army at Appomattox Court House. After the Civil War, served as governor of Maine and president of his alma mater Bowdoin College.
Figure 3: Dorothea Dix– author, teacher, and activist on behalf of the indigent insane who, through a vigorous program of lobbying state legislatures and the US Congress, created the first generation of American mental asylums as well as helped change people’s perceptions on the mentally ill as well as prisoners and the disabled. Her own troubled family background and impoverished youth is said to serve as a galvanizing force throughout her career. Served as Superintendent of Army Nurses during the American Civil War where she established a reputation as an advocate for the work of female nurses.
Figure 4: Oren Burbank Cheney– Free Will Baptist clergyman, politician, editor, and academic who was a leader in the New England antislavery movement and played an active role in the empowerment of African Americans and women in the American Civil War and decades beyond as well as was one of the earliest advocates for civil rights for both groups. His contributions to the political and religious landscape of Maine and Massachusetts proved to be influential and changed the notions of equality in the United States. Established Bates College which provided the backdrop to increased racial equality, the formalization of women’s rights, making a college education available for those with limited financial means, and educational reform where he was president for 39 years.
Figure 1: Frederick Douglass– social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping slavery, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement from Massachusetts and New York, gaining note for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writings. Because he was born into slavery, he was seen by abolitionists as a living counter-example to slaveholders’ arguments that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. Wrote several autobiographies and was influential in promoting the cause of abolition. Was a firm believer in the equality of all peoples, in dialogue and in making alliances across racial and ideological divides, and in the liberal values of the American Constitution. By making a career of agitating the American conscience, he is by far the most influential African American of the 19th century.
Figure 2: Francis Scott Key– lawyer, author, and amateur poet who wrote the lyrics to what eventually became the US national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner” which was based on his experience witnessing the 1814 bombardment of Fort McHenry in the Battle of Baltimore while he was a prisoner on a British ship during the War of 1812. It would be published in the American and Commercial Daily Advertiser that same year as “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” He later took it to Thomas Carr who adapted it to a melody of a popular drinking love song “To Anacreon in Heaven” and it became “The Star-Spangled Banner” ever since. Though somehow difficult to sing, the song became increasingly popular, competing with “Hail Columbia,” as the de facto national anthem during both the Mexican-American War and the American Civil War. More than a century after its publication, it was adopted as the US national anthem first by an Executive Order by Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and then by Congressional resolution in 1931. Also wrote some religious poems that were used in Christian hymns.
Figure 3: Thurgood Marshall– lawyer who served as Chief Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund during the 1940s and1950s. Best known for his high success rate in arguing civil rights cases before the Supreme Court and for the victory in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, a decision that desegregated public schools. Would eventually be appointed the first African American justice on the Supreme Court where he served from 1967-1991.
Figure 4: John Carroll– prelate to the Roman Catholic Church who served as the first American bishop and archbishop as well as founded Georgetown University and the first diocesan parish at Saint John the Evangelist in what is now Forest Glen, Maryland. When he joined the Jesuits, there was no public Catholic Church in Maryland due to anti-Catholic discrimination laws that effectively banned Catholics from political participation. In 1776, he accompanied Benjamin Franklin on a failed diplomatic mission to Quebec which gave him some name recognition to other Founding Fathers. Selected as Bishop of Baltimore by US clergy which was approved by Pope Pius VI. Was an early advocate for Christian unity and a vernacular liturgy as well as wrote articles defending Catholic tradition from those who promoted anti-Catholicism and fought notions of state establishment Protestantism as the official religion (though he always treated non-Catholics with respect).