A lesson in American history

Published 8:43 pm Monday, May 4, 2015

By Andrew Lind

Prior to moving to Virginia late last year, I knew very little about the people or places associated with the birth of America.

I knew George Washington was the first president of the United States and commander-in-chief of the Continental Army; that Jamestown was the first permanent European settlement; and that the United States declared its independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776.

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I knew about the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, and I could recite the National Anthem, Pledge of Allegiance and Preamble by heart. Outside of that, my knowledge of early American history is pretty slim.

My historical studies in high school were more focused upon the state that I grew up in, Ohio.

I could tell you all about the Wright brothers, inventors of the first airplane, who were born in Dayton; the 23 astronauts and eight presidents from Ohio, the latter of which is tied with Virginia for the most; Thomas A. Edison, inventor of the light bulb and phonograph, who was born in Milan; Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, who led the Navy to a decisive victory at the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812; and former Ohio State track-and-field star Jesse Owens, an African-American who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany.

I was taught about Native Americans and the Great Serpent Mount near Cincinnati; that the Industrial Revolution turned Ohio into one of the largest iron and steel producers in the country; how an abundance of ports and railroads traveling in all directions helped the state become the heart of the nation’s transportation system; and the role that Ohio played in World War II.

It makes sense to learn about the place where you live, but that logic hinders me now that I’m in Virginia.

I didn’t realize my knowledge of American history was lacking until I met my girlfriend in college. The first time we visited her family in Virginia, we drove through Colonial Williamsburg. I was fearful she would think I was dumb when I halfheartedly asked her what was so special about the town.

She simply explained it was once the capital of Virginia. But the conversation was revisited that night at dinner with her family, and that’s when I knew that my Ohio high school education hadn’t prepared me for such a moment.

“In what city did the American Revolution come to an end?” her mother asked me, as I sat there with a puzzled look on my face. “Where did Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrender to the Union?” “What was the name of the slave that led a rebellion and killed his owners?”

Nearly two years after that dinner, I now know the answers are Yorktown, Appomattox Court House and Nat Turner.

History is fascinating, and was always my favorite subject growing up. I just wish that my high school, and schools nationwide for that matter, taught a curriculum that included early American history. I would have been able to answer those questions correctly when they were first asked if that were the case, as opposed to recalling only lectures about Ohio history.

It’s now fallen upon my shoulders to learn what I was not taught during my years of formal education. Luckily, living in Virginia is a history lesson of its own.

Andrew Lind is a staff writer for The Tidewater News in Franklin. Email him at andrew.lind@tidewatenews.com.