Tuesday, September 17, 2013

President Wilson? That Was AGES Ago!

I have been spending days knee-deep in the College of William and Mary digital archives website. I began looking for mentions of my great-great granduncle Herman Lee Harris, of which there are many! Associate editor of the school newspaper The Flat Hat, officer of the Philomathean Literary Society, officer of the German Club (not the language, apparently), part of the Literary Magazine and the Colonial Echo staff…. The list goes on and on.

The Flat Hat was first published in 1911, when H. Lee, as he is most often called in the records, was a sophomore. I began pouring over these back issues, focused only on finding mentions of him. As I read these articles, however, I realized that something much more than one person was happening here. The revelation hit me as I read a small blurb from the March 4, 1913 issue that read: “H. Lee Harris and C.W. Holler are attending the inauguration.” 

Knowing that H. Lee was a Woodrow Wilson supporter at the time (there was a Woodrow Wilson Club of which H. Lee was a member), my first instinct was “Oh, he went to Wilson’s inauguration… but no, Presidential inaugurations take place in January.” Just to be sure, I googled “President Wilson inauguration” and sure enough, it took place on March 4, 1913. In the same moment, I learned that the inauguration date was changed to January during Franklin Roosevelt’s 2nd term.

President Wilson's Swearing-in March 4, 1913

The magnitude of what I had just read hit me like a ton of bricks:  H. Lee had attended the Presidential inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. To me, a 30 year old, Wilson’s presidency might have been light years ago. But somehow, tying this inauguration and Presidency to H. Lee, with whom I have spent many hours researching and getting to know through the records, made the event seem closer. It also inspired me to find out more. What were the issues of the day that made H. Lee a Wilson supporter? I know from later records that H. Lee served as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy during World War I – did he support the war or perhaps serve simply out of duty to his country, as most of my Harris's are apt to do?

I came to the alarming realization that history and genealogy are not separate. I had a good few hours of kicking myself over not having paid more attention in school. How could I not know that Presidential inaugurations have not ALWAYS been in January? After some serious introspection, I realized that my education had to come on its own time and I should stop being so hard on myself. The context had to be there for me to understand and appreciate what came before. For this, I will be forever grateful to Dr. Herman Lee Harris for inspiring me to examine all aspects of our nation's history and beyond.

In the meantime, if you have ancestors who went to the College of William and Mary, check out their archives website – it is a treasure trove!

© copyright, Piper Oneto

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