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editor's picktopical
University of Nebraska a story 150 years in the telling

Allen R. Benton found the prairie village rising from the salt flats to his liking.

Arriving in May 1871, time enough to settle in before his appointment as the University of Nebraska chancellor began in June, Benton described the grouping of homes, stores and hotels calling itself Lincoln as “first-rate.”

“All the family are pleased, and the climate is charming,” Benton wrote to his father on June 20, 1871, one of 19 letters he authored during his tenure as the university chancellor.

Previously president of Northwestern Christian University — what is now known as Butler University — in Indianapolis, Benton told his father he had arrived at a meeting of the Board of Regents in June ready to impress his new bosses.

“They seemed satisfied with me and my plans for work,” Benton wrote. “They appropriated me $13,000 for furnishing and apparatus most of which I shall expend for the University. This is a large trust.”

As construction on University Hall — the stately Franco Italianate academic and residence building that would undergo repairs from the beginning — neared completion and the first students prepared to enter the state’s newest institution in September, Benton seemed to anticipate the significance of the moment.

His task was nothing more than transforming the concept of a land-grant university — passed into law in 1863 and chartered by the Nebraska Legislature in 1869 — into a tangible place and community.

With reserved confidence, Benton signed off to his father.

“My work is going to be heavy before the opening of the University but I hope to bear it so as to keep healthy."

Telling UNL's story

Benton's letters, along with meeting minutes from the Board of Regents, are some of the only documents detailing life in the university's infancy.

They are just a small tale in the hundreds of thousands of stories that tell UNL's 150-year history, said Mary Ellen Ducey, an associate professor of University Libraries and curator of the depository.


Mary Ellen Ducey, an associate professor of University Libraries, looks over one of the many pieces in the university's archives in Love Library South. 

Lining shelves in the basement of Love Library are collections of papers from the university's leadership through the decades, speeches given by chancellors, outlines of programs by deans and directors, and resource material used by faculty members, Ducey said.

The archive maintains student transcripts, the Hesperian Student newspaper dating back to Benton's tenure, old Daily Nebraskans and Cornhusker annuals, as well as records from literary societies, registered student organizations and athletic teams.

"We have so many stories to tell," Ducey said.

There are physical artifacts, like the Russian samovar used as a trophy for women's athletics in the 1910s, 4-H awards from long-forgotten livestock-judging contests, and the recognition of Mari Sandoz's admission into the International Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

Some are valuable, like Willa Cather's copy of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," or First Folios of Shakespeare, while others, like Benton's letters, are worth little more than the paper and ink used to print them.

In all, the archive would span 54 football fields if spread end-to-end.

As the 150th anniversary approached, University Libraries opened some of its archives to the public through crowdsourcing opportunities, allowing history majors and history buffs to flesh out the history contained in old yearbooks and authorized accounts of the university's past.

"We really focused on creating the tools so people could find the pivotal pieces that start to get to the underlying stories," Ducey said.

The actual university charter, passed by the Legislature on Feb. 15, 1869, as well as the first annual report by the Board of Regents, will move from event to event this week, giving students, faculty, alumni and others a peek into the history of "Dear Old Nebraska U."

To present day

There are still stories being written about the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, however.

Although the campus and the city that swallowed it looks a lot different than it did in Benton's day, Chancellor Ronnie Green said UNL is in many ways the same.

GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star file photo 

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green delivers the State of the University speech on Jan. 15 at the Lied Center.

"There's this feeling in Nebraska — we talk about this all the time and it's very real — of the state identifying with the university and vice versa," he said in an interview last week. "I've lived in four states, and it's different here than anywhere else I've been."

Nebraska's status as a "big-small place," an expansive geographic area stretching hundreds of miles, but with a similar connection, exists to this day, Green said.

And the same support of the university exists today as when Nebraskans threw in behind Benton — who wrote to his father "I do not believe any man is more popular in the state than I am, when acquainted" — in the infancy of the institution.

Green, an animal geneticist by training, said while he's always had a love of history, and has delighted in learning more about UNL's history for years, he's focused attention on the growth and development of the university in anticipation of the 150th anniversary.

Common themes have emerged, like Clifford Hardin's pursuit of growth both in enrollment and physical space in the 1950s and '60s, or the attempts of Samuel Avery and Martin Massengale to navigate difficult economic times in the 1910s and '20s, and 1980s, respectively.

All that history matters, Green said, because the University of Nebraska belongs to the people.

"It's the core DNA of this place," he said.

Into the future

Future historians may look for clues about the university's development in its 150th year the same way historians today hold up Benton, Avery and Hardin as examples.

"It has been very insightful to think back through what each of those leaders were doing to think about moving the university forward given the contexts of the time they were dealing with," Green said.

Ducey said the university's archives anticipate capturing the digital records created by university leaders, faculty and students the same way they gathered the physical records of the past.

That means ahead of the University of Nebraska's 300th anniversary, Nebraskans could be combing through ancient tweets, "Perls of Knowledge," or online petitions to cancel classes because of bitterly cold weather.

"I hadn't thought about the way it would be captured," Green said. "But I certainly hope those generations will look back and see this as a seminal moment for the university in how we're envisioning the next generation."

editor's picktopical
Cindy Lange-Kubick: Breaking a racial barrier on a football field in Lincoln

The football player lounges in the middle of a sea of young men wearing heavy sweaters emblazoned with the same scarlet letter: N.

His arms spread wide, taking his space, as if he were embracing his fellow Bugeaters.

George Flippin sports a mustache in that frozen image, his hair sleek and wavy, parted on the side.

The picture makes a statement about a black man who took the football field at NU in 1892 and broke a racial barrier, comfortable in his own skin.

The son of a freed slave father. A man who came into the world on Feb. 8, 1865, in Port Isabelle, Ohio, and left it early on the morning of May 15, 1929, in a small Nebraska town.

“Dr. G.O. Flippin of this city died at hospital here after an illness of five months,” a Lincoln Star story with a Stromsburg dateline read that day. “While studying at the University of Nebraska in the early nineties, Dr. Flippin, a negro, gained prominence as one of the first great Cornhusker football players. He was a powerful plunging halfback.”

The “colored halfback” was the term sports reporters repeated. A footballer who wrestled and ran track and played baseball, too.

The star player made his way into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 1974. He found himself on a list of 150 notable Nebraskans in 2017, the year the state celebrated its sesquicentennial.

Another photo appeared that celebratory year, Flippin standing alone in football pants and striped socks, a pigskin under one arm. The accompanying text recounted a game the University of Missouri refused to play against Nebraska because Flippin was on the roster.

And the way he’d responded years later: "Was I any good? Why, yes. In fact, one time, I was so good I beat the University of Missouri all by myself."

The fleet-footed athlete was president of the Palladian Literary Society, sergeant-at-arms of the college debate club, and voted captain of the 1893 football squad by his teammates.

A decision the new coach vetoed.

“It takes a man with brains to be a captain,” Frank Crawford reportedly said. “All there is to Flippin is brute force.”

The brute-force halfback earned his medical degree in Illinois and became Dr. Flippin of Stromsburg. He and his physician father established a hospital in the Polk County town.

He had a son named Robert and a daughter named Dorothy with his first wife, Georgia, and scandalized some when he divorced her and married the head nurse at the hospital, a white woman of Swedish descent.

A lawsuit against a York cafe that refused him service earned him this editorial in a Hamilton County paper: “We know nothing admirable about him except his nerve. With his … habit of marrying white blood, he is a deteriorating influence in the state, and many people are ashamed that he is a seemingly prominent and influential member of his community.”

Flippin did not bend.

He was a dedicated country doctor who made house calls, delivered babies and tended the sick whether they had money to pay his fee or not.

The man who had once run for touchdowns, picked up an injured boy from the street and carried him all the way home, blocks farther than a football field, where he tended to his leg and left him with his mother.

His bronze silhouette is one of six on the Tunnel Walk doors at Memorial Stadium.

A mural in his honor graces the multicultural center on the other side of campus.

Flippin’s black hair turned white. He posed for photos in a suit and bow tie, wavy hair peeking out from his felt-brimmed hat.

He traveled to Europe often to learn the latest surgical techniques.

He filled his library with collections of short stories and the works of Charles Dickens and poetry. “The poem ‘Make Me a Man,’ by O. Lawrence Hawthorne was a permanent fixture on Flippin’s desk,” wrote Kathy Nelson in her book “More Than Football: George Flippin’s Stromsburg Years.”

Nelson wrote about the racism Flippin faced living in Stromsburg and during his years in Lincoln.

About the time he was denied access to a local bath house: “OBJECTED TO HIS COLOR — Civil Rights Bill Violated by a Lincoln Institution,” the headline from August 1893 read.

About the November 1892 night in Omaha after a 10-10 tie with Iowa, when the team stopped at the Paxton Hotel for the night and Flippin was refused a room, his teammates standing beside him until the proprietor relented.

He was turned away from an opera house in Denver, too, after the Bugeaters played the local team.

His entire team boycotted the opera that night, the newspapers said, and in 1892, when Missouri sent word its squad wasn’t likely to share a field with a “colored player,” Nebraska fired back: “The color line has not and never will be drawn in this university.”

Nelson uncovered old speeches Flippin gave in his Lincoln years: “The Republic cannot stand half slave and half master. The problem must be faced while the difficulties can be overcome.”

He did not advocate for more laws or sympathy that night at Quinn Chapel. “All we ask for is the enforcement of the laws as they are, the right and opportunity to stand or to fall as we deserve, and we would demand that public sentiment recognize the majesty of the mind and not the color of the face.”

Years later, he was charged with illegally voting and was found not guilty. He was charged with assaulting a Stromsburg man who slandered him in the town paper, calling him a n***** and besmirching his wife’s name.

He drove fast cars and raised Barred Plymouth Rock pheasants and rose high in the ranks of colored Masons.

He tended to his many patients, most of them white. He helped raise his grandson. He returned to Lincoln to cheer a football team called the Cornhuskers.

In the 1920s, the KKK came to Polk County, holding meetings at the Stromsburg Country Club and celebrating Klucker Day with a concert, speeches about Americanism and an evening-ending baseball game.

“There is no account of George Flippin publicly speaking out against the Klan,” Nelson wrote. “As long as they did not directly target him or his family, he did not make his views public.”

He was busy, she wrote, making people better.

Flippin was 61 when he died in the hospital he founded, five months after a bout of influenza that weakened his heart.

The church was packed for the funeral of the “colored halfback” who went on to become a beloved doctor.

It was believed to be the largest the town had ever seen.

Courtesy of UNL 

George Flippin attended the University of Nebraska from 1891 to 1894. He was the first black football player for the university. Missouri refused to play a scheduled football game because of Flippin’s presence on the team. They forfeited 1-0. Flippin was inducted into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 1974. (Courtesy of UNL)

KAYLA WOLF, Journal Star 

Cedar Bluffs' Madison Griffis pins Omaha Northwest's Lay Lay Tun on Feb. 2 at Cedar Bluffs High School.

Historians irked by 'Hamilton' escalate duel

NEW YORK — Ever since the historical musical "Hamilton" began its march to near-universal infatuation, one group has noticeably withheld its applause — historians. Many academics argue the portrait of Alexander Hamilton, the star of our $10 bills, is a counterfeit. Now they're escalating their fight.

Ishmael Reed, who has been nominated twice for a National Book Award, has chosen to fight fire with fire — collecting his critique of Lin-Manuel Miranda's acclaimed show into a play.

Reed's "The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda" is an uncompromising take-down of "Hamilton," reminding viewers of the Founding Father's complicity in slavery and his war on Native Americans.

"My goal is that this be a counter-narrative to the text that has been distributed to thousands of students throughout the country," said Reed, who teaches at the California College of the Arts and the University of California-Berkeley and whose latest novel is "Conjugating Hindi."

Reed, whose play had a recent reading in New York and who is raising money for a four-week production in May, is part of a wave of "Hamilton" skeptics — often solitary voices of dissent amid a wall of fawning attention — who have written journal articles, newspaper op-eds and a 2018 collection of essays, "Historians on Hamilton."

Miranda's glowing portrayal of a Hamilton who celebrates open borders — "Immigrants, we get the job done!" — and who denounces slavery has incensed everyone from professors at Harvard to the University of Houston to Rutgers.

They argue that Miranda got Hamilton all wrong — the Founding Father wasn't progressive at all, his actual role as a slave owner has been whitewashed and the pro-immigrant figure onstage hides the fact that he was, in fact, an anti-immigration elitist.

"It's a fictional rewrite of Hamilton. You can't pick the history facts that you want," said Nancy Isenberg, a professor of American history at Louisiana State University who has written a biography of Aaron Burr and is the author of "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America."

It's not just the portrait of Hamilton that has drawn fire. Critics also say Miranda's portrait of Burr is horribly distorted and argue that Hamilton's sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler, was in no way a feminist, as she is portrayed in the musical. Reed considers "Hamilton" so problematic that even edits to it wouldn't help. "I think the corrective would be to close the show," he said.

Reed's own play borrows from Charles Dickens in portraying a naive Miranda being visited by a succession of ghostly slaves, Native Americans and indentured servants — people Reed argues never made it into the Tony-, Grammy-, and Pulitzer-winning musical. "What I tried to do was to cover the voices that were not present onstage," Reed said.

Reed, who has not seen "Hamilton" but read it, criticizes the musical as just the latest piece of entertainment that is sympathetic to slave owners. "I say this is a successor to 'Gone With the Wind,'" he said. "But at least in 'Gone With the Wind,' Hattie McDaniel had a speaking part."

In Reed's play, Hamilton is unmasked as a slave owner who once worked for a slave-trading firm in St. Croix. "You've been up to your blue eyes in the slave trade from the time you were a child," he is told. A slave tells Miranda that the Schuyler family, which Hamilton married into, were brutal slave owners and life under them was "no damned musical comedy."

A horrified fictional Miranda is eventually convinced by the evidence. "I have to undo the damage that I have done," he wails at the end. "Because of me, thousands of school children are trapped intellectually in the same lies as I was."

Perhaps the true villain of the piece is historian Ron Chernow, who wrote the award-winning biography of Hamilton that Miranda relied upon. ("You should have read books by black people," a slave tells Miranda in Reed's play.) At the play's conclusion, the fictional Chernow advises the fictional Miranda to stop making a fuss and just enjoy their "good hustle."

Chernow has declined to comment on Reed's criticisms, and a publicist for "Hamilton" and Miranda also declined comment.

However, Miranda has said in interviews that he felt a responsibility to be as historically accurate as possible but that "Hamilton" is necessarily a work of historical fiction, including dramatizations and imprecisions.

Perhaps in a veiled response to the critics, producers of "Hamilton" have created an immersive exhibit that promises to take "visitors deeper into the life and times" of Hamilton. How much it will try to correct the impressions made in the musical is unclear.

Harvard Law professor and historian Annette Gordon-Reed, who has criticized the show in the past, is offering her historical consultation for the exhibit. She attended a reading of Reed's play and sounded a hopeful note that both sides can come together.

"There's room for my earlier commentary, Mr. Reed's take, the grand musical itself, and now a good faith effort to consider the musical's subject in his real-world historical context — which is what the exhibit is designed to do," she said.

For Reed and Isenberg, the omissions and distortions in "Hamilton" are part of a larger problem with the way the Founding Fathers are portrayed in mainstream history, often as flawless, enlightened geniuses. It even has a name: "Founders Chic."

Isenberg notes that, over generations, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and then John Adams have been held up periodically as darling patriotic heroes. Now it's Hamilton's turn.

"We always want to refashion the Founders to be a mirror for us," she said. "My job as a historian is to dislodge misconceptions, not to entertain my students and not to make people feel comfortable. That's what good history does."

GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star file photo  

Virginia's Travelers Café, 3820 Cornhusker Highway, could be in the path of planned improvements along the Cornhusker Highway corridor.

GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star file photo 

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green delivers the State of the University speech on Jan. 15 at the Lied Center.