The world is witnessing history unfold as the Corona Virus, or Covid-19, spreads throughout the world. It’s a stark reminder that history happens every day.
And while we cannot stop bad things from occurring on a global scale, we can look to history to see great events, and the individuals who play a role in them.
May 1: Empire State Building Officially Opens
When the Empire State Building opened in New York City on May, 1931, the city was in the midst of a “race into the sky” where multiple buildings were vying to be the tallest building in the city, and the world.
The Art Deco structure was the tallest building in the world until it was passed by the World Trade Center.
May 4: National Guard Fires on Kent State Protestors
As the Vietnam War dragged on, American sentiment turned strongly against the war. In early May 1970, a series of increasingly violent protests on the campus of Kent State University culminated in a large protest on the Commons on May 4. The National Guard had been called out, and, for unknown reasons, the soldiers fired on the dispersing crowd, wounding nine and killing four students.
A photograph taken as a young woman knelt over a dead student’s body has become a symbol of the day’s events and of the anti-war protest movement overall.
Memorials for the fallen are important parts of the Commons, and of the university’s commemoration of the event.
May 12: King George VI is Crowned in Westminster Abbey
King George VI became King of of the United Kingdom on December 11, 1936, but did not hold his coronation until May 12, 1937. He reluctantly stepped into the role of King when his brother, King Edward VIII, chose to abdicate the throne to be with Wallace Simpson.
George brought with him a vital sense of unification and patriotism that was critical as the country prepared to enter what would become World War II.
May 17: Founding of the New York Stock Exchange
On May 17, 1792, 24 men got together on Wall Street in New York City and signed an agreement to organize securities trading among them. The agreement held, and the organization grew into the New York Stock Exchange, the largest trading floor in the world, and has made the term “Wall Street” synonymous with wealth, prestige and power.
May 23: Bonnie and Clyde are Gunned Down
During the Depression, the tale of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow and the Barrow gang captivated the nation; the idea of a gun-wielding criminal couple too much to resist. The gang was famous for robbing banks, gas stations, and country stores. They killed nine police officers and four civilians along the way.
In early 1934, the gang was pursued relentlessly by authorities. The gang was tracked to Gibsland, Louisiana, and in the morning of May 23, a posse ambushed them, shooting Bonnie and Clyde up to 50 times each. There is now a monument marking the place they were killed.
There is a museum in Gibsland, run by the son of one of the posse members.
May 29: Constantinople Falls to the Turks
If you know the song, you know the history: “Istanbul was Constantinople”, but you may not know the details. After more than a thousand years as the head of the Roman Empire, the city of Constantinople had been severely weakened, but was still an impenetrable fortress due to the 12-foot thick Theodosian walls built in the 5th Century.
However, by 1453, the advent of weapons technology and gunpowder proved too much, and the walls were breached on May 29 by Mehmet the Conqueror. After three days of brutal looting, Mehmet restored peace to the city. He made Constantinople his capitol and renamed it Istanbul, which is now the capitol of Turkey.
Portions of the walls still stand, reminding residents and visitors of the history and power of the ancient city.
May 31: Johnstown, Pennsylvania Flood
Johnstown, Pennsylvania was an industrial town of more than 30,000 built on the Little Conemaugh River. In May 1889, the area was hit by a series of rain storms, including one 24 hour period that dumped 6-10 inches. The rain caused a dam about 14 miles upriver to break, sending a massive river of debris and rushing water that wiped out three towns and killed more than 2,200 people.
It caused nearly half a billion dollars in damages (in today’s dollars), and led to legislation improving working and safety standards and requiring organizations to take increased responsibility for accidents. Clara Barton, a famous Civil War nurse who founded the Red Cross, led the volunteer relief effort. A memorial now exists at the site of the dam break, preserving parts of the dam and the river bed.
Everyone has the chance to make history, whether it’s in the newspaper or just changing the life of a friend, neighbor, or stranger for the better. We should all try to make the world around us a better place; we can certainly use it.