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By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor
Mardi Gras is more than beads, bands, and parades. It’s a three-century-old celebration of cultural identity in the United States, with varied celebrations at the same time in the Caribbean and Brazil.
Each generation uses the festivities in the days before Ash Wednesday to pass on family and community traditions to the next generation, writer Chelsea Brasted says. It’s part of a Christian feasting period that culminates on Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, and is also known as Carnival and Carnaval.
The history is tricky. New Orleans is popularly considered America’s Mardi Gras epicenter, but Mobile, Alabama, lays claim to the first celebration, citing a party in Mobile by French-Canadian explorer LeMoyne d’Iberville, before New Orleans was founded. (New Orleans has a competing claim, and historians question the Mardi Gras-ness of d’Iberville’s first celebration.)
Nonetheless, Mardi Gras became an annual tradition in Mobile (above). Parade crews began in the 1830s and party beads (gold for power, green for faith) were distributed in 1872. Mobile later added purple beads, signifying justice. (A side note: environmentalists say parade organizers should move from plastic beads to a more sustainable component.)
Both Mobile and New Orleans swapped and enriched each other’s Fat Tuesday traditions, says Steve Joynt, a Mobile Mardi Gras historian. “Without New Orleans, there would be no Mobile Mardi Gras,” he says. “Without Mobile, there would be no New Orleans Mardi Gras.”
That settled, let the good times roll.
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Today in a minute
R.I.P. Katherine Johnson: She hand-calculated the trajectory for America’s first trip to space. Helped Apollo 13 get home. Yet NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, remained unknown to most Americans until the movie Hidden Figures came out in 2017. “She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Today in announcing Johnson’s death at age 101.
Hello Harriet Tubman (goodbye Dixie): Florida's Miami-Dade County has renamed part of the region's Dixie Highway after the Underground Railroad conductor and courageous abolitionist. A proposal is before the Florida Legislature to rename the state-controlled section of the highway in the county after Tubman as well, the Miami Herald reports. “It’s never too late to do the right thing,” county commissioner Rebeca Sosa said before the unanimous vote.
Staying on mission: Since her unexpected trip to the Academy Awards, courageous Syrian doctor Amani Ballour has kept pressing the world for help for Syrians suffering from attacks by Russian warplanes and soldiers from Syria's dictator in one of the nation's last pockets of resistance. Ballour, who saved hundreds of lives in an underground hospital known as “The Cave,” has spoken out about the horrid and freezing conditions in Idlib, near the border with Turkey. “No one has helped these people—they’re still watching them,” Ballour told Nat Geo’s Sydney Combs in a visit to our HQ. “We need shelters for these people, food, something for heating, and medicine. They need everything.”
The pioneering senator: Before Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, Tim Scott, or Cory Booker, there was Hiram Revels of Mississippi. The stalwart minister, subverter of slave states, and recruiter of Union soldiers in the Civil War was the first of only 10 black Americans to serve in the U.S. Senate. In 1870, he took his seat in Congress, although his term lasted only a year, Nat Geo reports. Of Revels' time in Congress, in which he argued for desegregated schools in Washington, D.C., and the reseating of ousted black officials in Georgia, historian Eric Foner has said: “It was a pivotal moment in American history, even though it was shortly overthrown.”
After the gulag: Books and deep friendships have nourished the elderly, and often poor, female survivors of the harsh Soviet Communist prisons, known as gulags, Time reports. In interviews with the women, author Monika Zgustova realized “that human beings are capable of great fortitude, and I also realized that there is no situation, no matter how awful, that we cannot survive.
Your Instagram photo of the day
Let there be light: Lanterns line the ceiling of Ryozen-ji, a temple founded in the 8th century on the island of Shikoku, Japan. Shikoku is the smallest and least populated of Japan’s four main islands.
Read: Falling in love with Shikoku
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A moment in history
One contentious photo: It’s one of the most iconic photographs of World War II. But was the image of six Marines hoisting a U.S. flag over Iwo Jima (above) too good? In short, was it staged? The answer is no, but like much of this story, it’s complicated. One flag already was atop the summit during the 1945 battle, but AP photographer Joe Rosenthal noticed a team of Marines, on orders from Marine brass, preparing to plant a second, bigger flag, visible over much of the island. “In one moment,” Bill Newcott writes for Nat Geo, “he turned, raised his camera, clicked his single shot, and left the rest to fate.” Navy corpsmen were among the Marine unit atop the mountain, but as readers were quick to correct us after an item in last week’s newsletter, all six of the Marines in Rosenthal’s Pulitzer-winning image were Marines. Semper Fi!
The big takeaway
A Persian comeback: So you learned that Alexander the Great whupped the Persians and that was it? Not so fast. Here’s the rest of the story: Centuries later, a reborn Persian Empire defeated the Romans, killed a Roman emperor, and made another Roman emperor a human footstool for the Iranian shah, Nat Geo’s History magazine reports. Above, a fifth-century ruler on a hunt.
Subscriber exclusive: When a reborn Persian Empire defeated the Romans and took their lands—and an emperor
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The last glimpse
Clues: A mass grave found near an abbey in England has offered new clues on how authorities handled one epidemic, more than six centuries before coronavirus. The remains, from which authorities detected traces of bubonic plague, revealed that the Black Death hit the countryside with considerable force as well as the nation’s cities, Nat Geo reports. It showed that these rural authorities also were overwhelmed by the plague, which killed as much as half of England’s population by the end of 1349. Above, villagers carry the coffins of plague victims in this depiction of the outbreak.
Correction: An item in Friday's newsletter misspelled the last name that the chief meteorologist for ABC News uses on air. She is known professionally as Ginger Zee; her real name is Ginger Renee Colonomos.
This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Eslah Attar. Have an idea or a link? I'd love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading, and happy trails!