5 Important People Who Were Screwed Out of History Books
We've got good news and bad news. The good news is that if you're dedicated, hardworking and a little bit lucky, you can change the world. The bad news is that if you're un-white, a woman or if your name doesn't rhyme with anything cool, there's a strong chance no one will remember you.
So let's take a moment to remember those who got screwed out of history books in favor of some more famous or charismatic peers. Like...
The African-American Ladies Who Made a Stand Before Rosa Parks
Ask any not-stupid fourth-grader in the country, "Who got the got the American civil rights movement rolling?" and they'll give you one answer: Rosa Parks, durr. Everyone knows that Rosa Parks' refusal to acquiesce her bus seat to a white man was the spark that lit the desegregation fire. And for that one act, Parks was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, had her face plastered on a stamp and was named one of the most influential women of the 20th century. Not too shabby for a day's ride home.
The most any of us has ever gotten out of a bus ride is covered in pee.
Here's the thing, though. Parks was only one lady in a long line of black women who refused to give up their seats. And like Parks, those women were also arrested, scorned and harassed for their bravery. Over a hundred years before Rosa, Elizabeth Jennings Graham insisted on her right to ride a horse-drawn street car in New York City. In an age when black people could still be the property of white people, it took the conductor and a policeman to physically remove her from the car, and her suit against them was what desegregated New York public transit.
Anyone who says anything about Aunt Jemima is a racist.
Still, Graham was ancient history by the time Parks came around. Plus, New York City is no Montgomery, Alabama. But oh, wait -- 15-year-old Claudette Colvin totally lived in Montgomery, Alabama, took the exact same buses as Parks and was also arrested for giving up her seat nine months before Rosa. As was 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith six weeks before Parks' arrest. Same buses. Same city. Same story. What did Colvin and Smith get for their troubles? Not much more than a rap sheet.
So why have we never heard of them?
Because Colvin was a knocked-up teenager and Smith's dad was rumored to have a drinking problem. Rosa Parks, on the other hand, looked like a 19th-century school-marm:
Months before Parks refused to give up her seat, local members of the NAACP were looking for the right test case: someone who could be the face of the civil rights movement as they took their cause to court. Colvin didn't work because not only was she was an unwed, pregnant teenager, but the father of her baby was an older, married man. Plus, she was described as "mouthy" and "feisty," which didn't sit well with leaders who knew that whoever gained notoriety would be a target for every racist on Earth. Likewise, Smith didn't work because word on the street was that her dad was an alcoholic, an allegation she later said wasn't true at all. She didn't even find out she had been in contention for the role until a reporter let it slip in 1995.
Parks, on the other hand, was perfect. Colvin's own mother cited Parks', um, lighter skin color and likable personality as reasons why she should be the one.
It sounds cynical, but you can't argue with the results.
The Guys Who (Really) Took Down Al Capone
Picture this: Through one clever idea, thousands of hours of monotonous hard work and the willingness to collaborate with an equally dedicated partner, you and a team of crackerjack investigators lock up the biggest gangster of the century, Al Capone.
Now, imagine that everyone in the entire world thinks a fame-hungry co-worker was actually the guy who did the deed. Better yet, imagine a host of movies, books, TV shows and rap lyrics all giving credit to that co-worker FOR THE NEXT 80 YEARS.
Congratulations! You just imagined being George E. Q. Johnson and Frank J. Wilson.
Johnson was the old fogey in a suit, and Wilson was the old squarehead in a suit.
In 1929, the federal government decided they'd had it up to here with Al Capone's fat face and his thuggish tomfoolery, so they launched a two-pronged investigation. The first and more exciting prong was catching the OG selling hooch, which would be a violation of the Volstead Act. That team was headed by the now world-famous Eliot Ness and his incorruptible Untouchables. The second line of attack would be catching Big Al on tax evasion, because apparently even bootlegging outlaws are supposed to pay their taxes. That team was headed by Frank J. Wilson, who worked closely with prosecutor George E.Q. Johnson to build their case.
Of the two approaches, you'd think Ness had the easier job. All he had to do was catch a gangster who had an eighth grade education doing something illegal. Johnson and Wilson, on the other hand, had a steaming pile of nothing to work with. They had to prove Al Capone was a millionaire with zero documentation: no bank accounts, no endorsed checks, no mortgage payments or paycheck stubs. Nothing. It took three years of trailing mobster bookies and accountants while infiltrating the Capone inner circle with informants, one of whom was murdered, to get enough information for an indictment.
Ness, meanwhile, spent most of his time posing for glamor shots.
And when the case against Al Capone was finally made, Wilson and Johnson had only 22 charges of tax evasion, while Ness and his team brought up 5,000 violations of the Volstead Act. Guess which charges stuck? If you said "the ones about taxes," you win. All those years of Ness' wiretapping and brewery raids equated to zip in the courtroom.
Just to make this clear: Literally nothing from Ness' part of the investigation was useful in putting Capone behind bars.
This is not the sort of behavior you want to encourage in your law enforcement officials.
So why have we never heard of them?
Because Eliot Ness was a crappy writer. Twenty-six years after Capone's trial, Ness decided it was time to put together a memoir. But he couldn't write worth shit, so he collaborated with a sports journalist, and that guy made Ness the central character in the takedown of Al Capone. Ness OK'd the script, then died months before its publication.
That little ghost-written memoir was The Untouchables, which spawned the TV show The Untouchables, the movie and a whole other TV show just for good measure. None of which featured George Johnson or Frank Wilson by name. The closest they came to acknowledging Johnson and Wilson was when the 1987 movie invented a number-crunching Untouchable who worked for Eliot Ness. And even then, the guy is nothing more than a side note in the Kevin Costner Show.
But to be fair, we're all side notes in the Kevin Costner show.
The Female Paul Revere
We have previously pointed out that Paul Revere's midnight ride became famous primarily because Revere's name was easy to rhyme in a poem. So it's worth pointing out at least one more impressive feat that got overlooked for rhyme's sake.
In April 1777, the American Revolution was under way, and Colonel Henry Ludington of the American army found himself in a jam. It was spring, so he and his men needed to take a break from the war to get their crops planted for fall (it's not like you got paid so much for being in the army that you could let your entire business fail while you were away). So his entire regiment dispersed to their respective Connecticut farms to get their agriculture game on.
Nothing breaks up the monotony of getting shot at like a few hours of grueling farm work.
This was a problem, because the British weren't following the same schedule as the American farmers. Their day planner had one entry in late April; BURN THE SHIT OUT OF CONNECTICUT. Which they fulfilled gladly. By the time Ludington found out, the town of Danbury was in flames and his troops were spread out across the county, presumably sexing their wives and/or cobbling shoes. What Ludington needed was a phone. Barring that, he used the next best thing: his 16-year-old daughter.
See? It isn't always terrible when the words "youth" and "heroin" show up in the same description.
Beginning at 9 p.m., Sybil Ludington rode side-saddle through 40 miles of rough terrain, ordering her father's men to muster at her house. By the time she returned home the next morning, 400 troops were assembled and ready to fight. While they were too late to save the town, they joined the Continental army the next day and successfully chased the British out of Connecticut. Sybil was treated as a hero, eventually even getting an "Atta girl!" from George Washington himself.
So why have we never heard of her?
Because we get bored if we hear the same story more than once. Just as we only have room in the cultural history for ONE inventor of the light bulb, despite hundreds of people being involved, we have room in our collective hearts for one midnight rider, and Paul Revere filled that spot.
Goddamn, that is a smooth shave.
Despite the fact that this girl rode more than twice as many miles as Revere, and that she was completely alone while Revere had 40 other riders keeping him company, and that Revere was caught and arrested during his ride, which he never actually finished, and that she was a freaking teenage girl -- despite all of that, it is Revere we remember. All because Henry Wadsworth Longfellow picked him to be the subject of his poem "Paul Revere's Ride" 86 years later. And who can blame him? Can you think of anything that rhymes with "Ludington?"
"She carried a... pudding gun..."
The Man Who Invented Half of What's in Your Medicine Cabinet
In general, our relationship with scientists and innovators is pretty hit-and-miss. You'll get the occasional superstar scientist (Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan), and there are other researchers or inventors whom most people know for what they invented (Edison, Bell, Tesla, Turing), but the vast majority of the things we use every day were created by people whose names we never bothered to learn. When we hear a song on the radio we like, we immediately want to know more about the band, but did you ever get curious about the guy or lady who gave you aspirin? Or your drip coffee maker? Or your cell phone?
Or your crack pipe?
Well, the difference between the guys you've heard of and the guys you haven't usually comes down to personality. Which brings us to Percy Julian.
If you've ever used birth-control pills, or had asthma, arthritis, hemorrhoids, eczema, allergies, chronic lung illness, cancer or weak little baby muscles, you can thank Percy Julian for inventing steroids. It was one of the most crucial advancements in modern medicine -- there probably isn't a single person reading this who hasn't been treated with a steroid at some point.
"You're welcome, douchebags."
Way back in 1940, Julian figured out how to isolate the hormones progesterone, estrogen and testosterone from soybean oil, which was a huge deal. Up until that point, scientists had only taken tiny steps in figuring out what to do with these hormones, since they only had a miniscule amount to work with.
Now Percy Julian was synthesizing $10,000 worth of sex hormones a day, and the effect on the world was profound: Within a few years, one guy figured out how to use cortisone to treat arthritis. A few years later, another guy figured out how to prevent ovulation using progesterone, inventing a little thing most ladies refer to as "the pill." So, yeah, kind of a big deal. In fact, the arthritis guy got a Nobel Prize for his work.
"If we'd spent money on kids we wouldn't have all these boxes of stuff! Thanks Percy Julian!"
Percy Julian, the guy who made all of that and more possible, got jack shit.
So why have we never heard of him?
Did we mention that Julian was a black man living under Jim Crow? No? Because he was.
We know what you're thinking. It's because he was black, right? Not exactly. Back before Julian ever figured out all this steroid stuff, the promising chemist was hired as a faculty member at the traditionally black school Howard University. The only problem was that he really wanted to get his Ph.D. in chemistry, something no other African-American had accomplished up to that point. Even though there wasn't a school in the country that would offer him a spot in a doctoral program, Julian percyvered, securing himself a fellowship to get his doctorate in Vienna, Austria.
Racism can't exist somewhere with this many old statues.
Homesick, stressed and still pissed over having to leave the country to get his degree, Julian sent letter after letter to one of his colleagues back at Howard. But instead of limiting his subject matter to awesome Austrian food and the sick waltzes he kept hearing, Julian bragged about his sexual exploits with foreign ladies and talked trash about his former co-workers at Howard. Big mistake. Because years later, he ended up back at that same university and pissed off his ex-pen pal, who then found it totally professional and appropriate to hand Julian's letters to the black press, who found it totally appropriate and professional to publish them.
Then, as if having his private smack-talk letters made public wasn't enough, Julian was correctly accused of having an affair with his assistant's wife. He was forced to quit Howard University and left town humiliated and vilified by the black press, which chose to keep that grudge against him years later when he saved the universe with steroids. By 2004, "no historian had ever studied Julian's career; no biographer had ever told his story."
We've said it before and we'll say it again: Success is all about not pissing off the right people.
Smile at everyone, never burn bridges, and always carry a handgun.
The Slave Who Tried to Take New Orleans
Quick! What's the first thing that pops into your head when we say "slave rebellion"? If you have even a little bit of a history education, you'll say Nat Turner's 1831 revolt in Virginia. It involved over 70 slaves who killed 55 white men, women and children, and it ended after the official executions of 55 slaves, with 200 more unofficially tortured and/or killed by angry white mobs. Nat Turner's story is the most well-known slave rebellion in American history. But it wasn't the largest or most remarkable, not by a long shot.
In 1811, a slave named Charles Deslondes led between 200 and 500 uniformed, semi-armed, flag-bearing multi-ethnic slaves toward New Orleans, and they weren't coming for goddamned Mardi Gras. They wanted to conquer the city and establish a black republic on the Louisiana coast.
For years, Deslondes had played the part of the loyal, trustworthy slave, all the while plotting a revolution, just like the one that happened in his home country of Haiti a few years earlier. But he wasn't interested in a Nat Turner-style helter-skelter slaughter. Which was why his conspirators didn't steal just the weapons of their masters, but their militia uniforms and marching drum as well, and why between 10 and 25 percent of the local slave population joined them. For seven hours, the army marched from plantation to plantation, picking up more slaves and leaving destroyed homes and terrorized slave owners behind as they made their way to New Orleans.
Thousands of college students follow in their footsteps every year.
By the next morning, refugees from the plantations had warned the New Orleans militia of the coming insurrection, and the better-armed whites easily squelched the revolt. Charles Deslondes was never tried for the insurrection, but that was probably because he was shot, mutilated and burned alive before anyone had the chance to formally arrest him.
So why have we never heard of him?
Because the story of an organized, politically sophisticated slave rebellion didn't quite fit the narrative that Southern slave owners wanted for their history. Especially since Deslondes' rebellion only killed two people, while the retribution resulted in the immediate deaths of over 45 rebels, the decapitation of 18 more, (whose heads were displayed on pikes), and then the execution of dozens of others for good measure. And oh yeah, $300 in compensation for every executed slave ... to the slave owners, for loss of property.
"Pick up yer receipt around back."
As word of the failed rebellion spread across the South, something incredible happened. Louisiana newspapers downplayed the incident, claiming the rebels were nothing more than bandits, while others deliberately omitted the story altogether, as if it never happened. One historian says the white slave owners' refusal to acknowledge the revolt "laid the groundwork for one of the most significant moments of collective amnesia in American popular consciousness." To this day, the only memorial of America's largest slave rebellion is this plaque:
...which isn't so much an acknowledgment of the uprising as it is a memorial to the plantation itself. Way to go, history.
To view more of Eric Yosomono's ramblings visit GaijinAss.
For more stuff your teachers got wrong, check out The 5 Most Ridiculous Lies You Were Taught in History Class and 8 Historic Symbols That Mean The Opposite of What You Think.
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