13 Incredible Facts About Frederick Douglass

Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock
Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock

The list of Frederick Douglass's accomplishments is astonishing—respected orator, famous writer, abolitionist, civil rights leader, presidential consultant—even more so when you consider that he was a former slave with no formal education. In honor of his 201st birthday, here are 13 incredible facts about the life of Frederick Douglass.

1. He bartered bread for knowledge.

Because Douglass was a slave, he wasn't allowed to learn to read or write. A wife of a Baltimore slave owner did teach him the alphabet when he was around 12, but she stopped after her husband interfered. Young Douglass took matters into his own hands, cleverly fitting in a reading lesson whenever he was on the street running errands for his owner. As he detailed in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he'd carry a book with him while out and about and trade small pieces of bread to the white kids in his neighborhood, asking them to help him learn to read the book in exchange.

2. He credited a schoolbook with shaping his views on human rights.

Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

During his youth, Douglass obtained a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of essays, dialogues, and speeches on a range of subjects, including slavery. Published in 1797, the Orator was required reading for most schoolchildren in the 1800s and featured 84 selections from authors like Cicero and Milton. Abraham Lincoln was also influenced by the collection when he was first starting in politics.

3. He taught other slaves to read.

While he was hired out to a farmer named William Freeland, a teenaged Douglass taught fellow slaves to read the New Testament—but a mob of locals soon broke up the classes. Undeterred, Douglas began the classes again, sometimes teaching as many as 40 people.

4. His first wife helped him escape from slavery.

Portrait of Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick Douglass's first wife.
First published in Rosetta Douglass Sprague's book My Mother As I Recall Her, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Anna Murray was an independent laundress in Baltimore and met Douglass at some point in the mid-1830s. Together they hatched a plan, and one night in 1838, Douglass took a northbound train clothed in a sailor's uniform procured by Anna, with money from her savings in his pocket alongside papers from a sailor friend. About 24 hours later, he arrived in Manhattan a free man. Anna soon joined him, and they married on September 15, 1838.

5. He called out his former owner.

In an 1848 open letter in the newspaper he owned and published, The North Star, Douglass wrote passionately about the evils of slavery to his former owner, Thomas Auld, saying "I am your fellow man, but not your slave." He also inquired after his family members who were still enslaved a decade after his escape.

6. He took his name from a poem.

He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but after escaping slavery, Douglass used assumed names to avoid detection. Arriving in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglass, then using the surname "Johnson," felt there were too many other Johnsons in the area to distinguish himself. He asked his host (ironically named Nathan Johnson) to suggest a new name, and Mr. Johnson came up with Douglas, a character in Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lady of the Lake.

7. He was deemed the 19th century's most photographed American.

Portrait of Frederick Douglass
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There are 160 separate portraits of Douglass, more than Abraham Lincoln or Walt Whitman, two other heroes of the 19th century. Douglass wrote extensively on the subject during the Civil War, calling photography a "democratic art" that could finally represent black people as humans rather than "things." He gave his portraits away at talks and lectures, hoping his image could change the common perceptions of black men.

8. He refused to celebrate Independence Day.

Douglass was well-known as a powerful orator, and his July 5, 1852 speech to a group of hundreds of abolitionists in Rochester, New York, is considered a masterwork. Entitled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July," the speech ridiculed the audience for inviting a former slave to speak at a celebration of the country who enslaved him. "This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine," he famously said to those in attendance. "Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?" Douglass refused to celebrate the holiday until all slaves were emancipated and laws like the Compromise of 1850, which required citizens (including northerners) to return runaway slaves to their owners, were negated.

9. He recruited black soldiers for the Civil War.

The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Douglass was a famous abolitionist by the time the war began in 1861. He actively petitioned President Lincoln to allow black troops in the Union army, writing in his newspaper: "Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army, to march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves." After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass worked tirelessly to enlist black soldiers, and two of his sons would join the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, famous for its contributions in the brutal battle of Fort Wagner.

10. He served under five presidents.

Later in life, Douglass became more of a statesman, serving in highly appointed federal positions, including U.S. Marshal for D.C., Recorder of Deeds for D.C., and Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti. Rutherford B. Hayes was the first to appoint Douglass to a position in 1877, and Presidents Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison each sought his counsel in various positions as well.

11. He was nominated for Vice President of the United States.

As part of the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872, Douglass was nominated as a VP candidate, with Victoria Woodhull as the Presidential candidate. (Woodhull was the first-ever female presidential candidate, which is why Hillary Clinton was called "the first female presidential candidate from a major party" during the 2016 election.) However, the nomination was made without his consent, and Douglass never acknowledged it (and Woodhull's candidacy itself is controversial because she wouldn't have been old enough to be president on Inauguration Day). Also, though he was never a presidential candidate, he did receive one vote at each of two nomination conventions.

12. His second marriage caused controversy.

Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.
Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.

Two years after his first wife, Anna, died of a stroke in 1882, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white abolitionist and feminist who was 20 years younger than him. Even though she was the daughter of an abolitionist, Pitts's family (which had ancestral ties directly to the Mayflower) disapproved and disowned her—showing just how taboo interracial marriage was at the time. The black community also questioned why their most prominent spokesperson chose to marry a white woman, regardless of her politics. But despite the public's and their families' reaction, the Douglasses had a happy marriage and were together until his death in 1895 of a heart attack.

13. After early success, his Narrative went out of print.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, his seminal autobiography, was heralded a success when it came out in 1845, with some estimating that 5000 copies sold in the first few months; the book was also popular in Ireland and Britain. But post-Civil War, as the country moved toward reconciliation and slave narratives fell out favor, the book went out of print. The first modern publication appeared in 1960—during another important era for the fight for civil rights. It is now available for free online.

This article originally ran in 2018.

100 Years Later: 50 Facts About Prohibition

The sheriff of Orange County, California, dumping bootleg booze during Prohibition
The sheriff of Orange County, California, dumping bootleg booze during Prohibition
Orange County Archives, Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

For 13 years, the United States had a constitutional ban on booze. By 1920, the chorus of citizens who didn't want the "corrupting" effects of alcohol ruining society had grown loud enough that the government acted to shut down booze-based business—and on January 17, 1920, Prohibition in the U.S. officially went into effect. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors."

Try considering what life might be like without a local pub or easy access to bottles of wine while you read these 50 not-at-all-dry facts about Prohibition.

1. Prohibition's roots are as old as the colonies.

November 1931: Evening dressed revellers buying their drinks at a bar at the time of prohibition
Revellers buying their drinks at a bar in 1931, when Prohibition was in full effect
Keystone/Getty Images

Distilled spirits were the first domestic product to be taxed by the nascent federal government, led by President George Washington, as a way to raise a significant amount of money from a popular luxury item. The tax also found support with social reformers, who hoped this "sin tax" would stop people from drinking as much.

2. Early Americans protested prohibition back then, too.

Farmers and distillers refusing to pay the tax led to the Whiskey Rebellion, which saw armed resistance challenge Washington's militia. The resistance ultimately fell apart, and two men were convicted of treason. (Washington later pardoned them.)

3. Maine got an early start on prohibition.

The first state to outlaw alcohol was Maine, which passed its law in 1851 thanks largely to the local Temperance movement leader and Quaker mayor of Portland, Neal Dow. After four years under the law, a mob of 3000 stormed city hall in 1855 when "[t]he city’s Irish working-class residents found out their teetotaling, saloon-raiding mayor was storing $1600 worth of liquor at City Hall," according to Smithsonian.com. Oops.

4. Kansas prohibited alcohol in its constitution.

Maine's prohibition test led to several other states adopting similar laws, but Kansas was the first to have a constitutional ban on alcohol manufacturing and sales. Voters passed the amendment in November 1880, and their state legislature made manufacturing alcohol a misdemeanor shortly after.

5. The Supreme Court once called alcohol "evil."

Peter Mugler set up a brewery in Kansas in 1877, and the constitutional ban made his business worthless. So when he was indicted on charges of violating the new ban, he appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court ... where he lost. In the 8-1 decision, Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote that the court had to consider the social deterioration caused by alcohol and that "idleness, disorder, pauperism, and crime existing in the country are, in some degree at least, traceable to this evil."

6. Prohibition had a trial run during WWI.

Americans got a taste of prohibition when the Wartime Prohibition Act passed and took effect June 30, 1919. The idea behind the act was to preserve grain for the war effort.

7. The Prohibition Party mascot was a camel.

A photo of a camel looking into the camera
Servet TURAN/iStock via Getty Images

Republicans have the elephant. Democrats have the donkey. The Prohibition Party had the camel, a perfect symbol for not drinking.

8. Economists were in favor of Prohibition.

Many economists, including the former president of the American Economic Association, Dr. Irving Fisher, thought prohibiting alcohol would have a positive effect on the nation's economy. One major target was "Blue Monday," the wasted day of productivity following a Sunday of heavy drinking.

9. Prohibition was entangled with nativism and anti-immigrant sentiments.

While alcohol was the main enemy, communities that favored alcohol (like Catholic immigrant groups) also came under fire. Nativist rhetoric was used alongside anti-alcohol arguments that railed against alcohol as an agent of social corrosion, and at least one national Prohibition figure, Bishop James Cannon, openly used anti-Catholic language.

10. Income tax partially made prohibition possible.

Congress generally refused to consider prohibition because taxing alcohol was so lucrative. But after the income tax was established in 1913, representing two-thirds of the taxes the federal government took in by 1920, the fiscal incentive for denying prohibition was almost completely wiped out, paving the way for genuine consideration of the ban.

11. Some people believed alcohol turned your blood to water.

Odd beliefs and misinformation were common while Prohibitionists fought to get the law on the books. One belief was that your blood would become water if you drank, a notion popularized by the "Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction." But it's not the only such strange belief.

12. Prohibition rebooted the KKK.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan gather for a ceremony in the 1920s
Topical Press Agency, Getty Images

Because of the connection between Prohibition and anti-immigrant sentiment, the then-diminished Ku Klux Klan used the 18th Amendment and its social backers as a means of resurgence. The racist organization recruited from Protestant Prohibition groups and provided foot soldiers for raids where law enforcement lacked funds and people.

13. Anti-German sentiment gave prohibition a boost during WWI.

With its connection to nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment, the Prohibition movement got a big boost when the United States entered WWI against Germany. Since German Americans ran a majority of the breweries, dry activists argued that buying alcohol was akin to supporting the enemy.

14. President Wilson vetoed the Volstead Act.

While the 18th Amendment made Prohibition the law of the land, the Volstead Act defined what "intoxicating liquors" were and set the parameters for enforcing the new rule. Although publicly agnostic on the wet vs. dry issue, President Wilson vetoed the bill and declared that "personal habits and customs of large numbers of our people" should be legislated with greater caution. However, Congress overrode his veto.

15. Anti-alcohol groups claimed wine was made with cockroaches.

Dry pastor T. P. Hunt warned people off Madeira wine by saying it was "common practice" to make it with a bag of cockroaches.

16. Prohibition supporters also claimed your brain could catch fire …

Prohibition fan George McCandlish said that he'd seen a dead man's brain burst into flame when doctors tested it for alcohol with a lit match.

17. … And that your liver would grow to be 25 pounds.

Drinking does damage the liver, no doubt, but Prohibitionists exaggerated its effect in a bizarre direction when claiming the organ (which is normally about three pounds) could swell up to as much as 25 pounds while drinking.

18. Prohibition proponents also claimed that second-hand alcohol smelling would hurt unborn children.

Alfred Ploetz was a German who moved to Massachusetts in 1890 and wrote in The Influence of Alcohol Upon Race that pregnant women who merely smelled alcohol risked giving birth to deformed babies. He later moved back to Germany and joined the Nazi party as a prominent eugenicist.

19. Prohibition helped women get the vote.

Members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) who marched on Washington DC to present a petition supporting prohibition.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Women were major leaders of the temperance movement, arguing that alcohol made men waste money, become violent, and destroy families. Frances Willard of the Women's Christian Temperance Union called the movement a "war of mothers and daughters, sisters, and wives." Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton also created the Women's State Temperance Society. In nationalizing a cause women cared about, Prohibitionists saw their success as working hand-in-hand with progress toward allowing women to vote. They managed to succeed without that, but the 19th Amendment, which granted women's suffrage, was ratified only seven months after the 18th.

20. The 18th Amendment didn't actually make drinking alcohol illegal.

As you can tell by the prohibitive language on manufacturing, selling, and transporting, the 18th Amendment didn't outlaw drinking hooch per se. There was just a lot less of it to go around.

21. There were 1520 federal agents focused on battling booze.

The Department of the Treasury and the Coast Guard were responsible for enforcing Prohibition, and 1520 agents—many with little training—combated breweries, home operations, and smugglers on land and sea.

22. Doctors had a medical loophole during Prohibition.

Medical professionals lobbied to prescribe alcohol for medicinal purposes while the drug was illegal. Thousands of doctors and pharmacists got official licenses and created a lucrative side gig. Still, there were limits on how much a patient could get: A pint every 10 days.

23. Clergy could also serve sacramental wine during Prohibition.

In 1922, IRS head and main Prohibition regulator David Blair lifted the ban on wine for religious use. It's likely that most local officials let churches use wine even before then.

24. The British refused to help crack down on illegal smuggling.

During Prohibition, British-run Nassau in the Bahamas became a smuggling hub, so the American government repeatedly asked the British government to help shut it down. They did not—probably because alcohol imports to the Bahamas jumped from 5000 quarts to 10 million between 1917 and 1922, and the government collected tariffs on all of it.

25. Winston Churchill had a doctor's note for alcohol so he could drink in America during Prohibition.

Winston Churchill takes a drink at a luncheon
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Prescriptions for medicinal alcohol were a luxury, and there was that pesky cap on how much you could get—unless you were Winston Churchill. Not only was his prescription for an "indefinite" amount of alcohol, the doctor put a minimum limit of 250 cubic centimeters (a little more than 8 ounces) on it.

26. Breweries started making ice cream and pottery during Prohibition.

While the church helped keep the wine industry afloat, beer brewers had to transition to survive. The equipment, right down to the refrigerated trucks, made ice cream a lucrative change for Anheuser-Busch and Yuengling, and Coors built and expanded their bottling company to make pottery and ceramic tubing for the military.

27. They also made beer without the alcohol.

It probably can't technically be called beer, but Anheuser-Busch also predicted Prohibition passing and launched a cereal-based, non-alcoholic drink called Bevo in 1916.

28. Anheuser-Busch had beer ready when prohibition ended.

In another sign of the company's forward-thinking, Anheuser-Busch got approval from the government to brew 55,000 barrels of beer in anticipation of Prohibition's end, which is why people could raise their glasses when they heard the law was dead.

29. People bought bread-making ingredients to make beer at home.

Basement Stills to Produce illegal Whiskey was a great way to augment or supplant family income.
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Sorry, homebrewers: During Prohibition, it was illegal to make beer at home. Fortunately, breweries also shifted to selling malt extract to the public as a baking additive that no one actually used to bake with. One newspaper reckoned that enough malt extract was sold in an Ohio town each week to make 16 loaves for every person who lived there.

30. You could also buy a brick of grapes during Prohibition.

In a similar pivot, winemakers began selling bricks of dried grape juice that came with a warning label with explicit instructions on how not to let it soak and ferment into delicious wine.

31. Prohibition encouraged the Waldorf-Astoria to create the modern kids' menu.

Oases of adult fun, hotel restaurants used to keep children out, but with the threat of losing money during Prohibition, the famous Waldorf-Astoria in New York turned to the youth market with a special menu featuring Little Jack Horner and broiled lamb chops.

32. Medicinal booze really helped Walgreen's.

The burgeoning pharmacy credits milkshakes, but selling booze when it was illegal arguably helped Walgreen's expand from 20 stores to 525 in the 1920s.

33. Men and women started drinking together during Prohibition.

Before Prohibition, men and women were largely separated socially. The pub was a men-only domain. Once alcohol became illegal, speakeasies that were already breaking the law saw no real need to discriminate who they sold to, so women joined in the fun. Over time, men and women drinking and listening to music together in a crowded, sweaty room became the norm.

34. Prohibition gave birth to NASCAR.

Race cars speeding around a track
PICSUNV/iStock via Getty Images

The connection between illegal hooch and the sport of driving incredibly fast is a pretty obvious one: Moonshiners transported their illicit wares in the fastest cars they could build to evade police. Since driving fast is fun, people kept doing it even without cops on their tail, and by 1947, NASCAR was founded.

35. Brand-name booze became a big deal during Prohibition.

Moonshine was cheap, but it could blind you. Or kill you. So, if you had the money, you'd order something with a familiar name and a comforting label. Foreign liquor manufactures created brands specifically for the U.S. market to capitalize on the consumer desire to not be killed by unregulated hooch.

36. There was an explosion of slang during Prohibition.

Bathtub gin. Juice joint. Whale. Blotto. A lot of words sprung from the collective imagination while hooch-makers served white lightning to booze hounds on the sly.

37. Enforcement during Prohibition was tragically uneven.

While Congress and the president kept drinking, and the wealthy got by with pricey "medicinal" alcohol from pharmacies, police enforced the law to dramatic effect among urban immigrant and African American communities.

38. There was a lot of hooch at the White House.

Prohibition, schmohibition. President Warren Harding (who voted for the Volstead Act as a senator) kept a fully stocked bar in the White House and had frequent poker nights where everyone drank whiskey.

39. Congressmen kept drinking and had their own supplier.

Bootlegger George Cassiday brought bottles of alcohol to Congressional buildings in a briefcase, making an average of 25 trips a day. He became widely known as "The Man in the Green Hat" when he was arrested while wearing, ahem, a green hat, and banned from entering the Cannon House Office Building (so he switched to the Russell Building). Capitol Police largely let him go through unchecked, but the Prohibition Bureau initiated a sting operation that sent Cassiday to prison for 18 months.

40. George Cassiday estimated that 80 percent of congressmen drank illegally.

George Cassiday, bootlegger to Congress, in 1930
George Cassiday, bootlegger to Congress, in 1930
Library of Congress, Wikimedia // No known copyright restrictions

The bootlegger wrote articles for The Washington Post and claimed that 80 percent of Congress broke their own law during Prohibition. Apparently, they also left bottles lying all over the place.

41. Prohibition turned public sentiment around on tipping.

Before Prohibition, the public looked down on tipping as an outdated specter of the aristocracy. But with alcohol sales disappearing overnight, a lot of businesses suffered, so they cut corners by not paying servers as much—and encouraged customers to tip servers to make up the difference.

42. Drinking went down during Prohibition.

In the earliest days of the Volstead Act's implementation, alcohol use dropped to 30 percent of pre-Prohibition levels. It jumped back up while the 18th Amendment was still in place, but only to 60 to 70 percent of the original level.

43. Ending Prohibition took doing what had never been done.

In the United States, there are two methods of ratifying amendments to the Constitution: One is sending the amendment to state legislatures; the second is sending it to state ratifying conventions. The second method had never been used before the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th, and it hasn't been used again since. On December 5, 1933, Utah became the 36th state to approve the repeal of Prohibition, making the amendment official. Maine passed it the following day, and Montana, purely symbolically, passed it the following August.

44. Two states rejected the repeal of Prohibition outright.

Both South Carolina and North Carolina did not ratify the 21st Amendment. Even more drastically, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Oklahoma didn't even call a convention.

45. FDR drank a martini to mark the end of Prohibition.

Prohibition lasted for 13 years, and when Utah put repeal proponents over the mark, President Franklin Roosevelt celebrated with a martini and said, "What America needs now is a drink."

46. Some states stayed dry after Prohibition was repealed.

As you might guess from the states who refused to even consider the 21st Amendment, not everyone was happy about going back to imbibing. Kansas, for example, prohibited alcohol until 1948. In Kansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, counties have to opt-in to legalizing alcohol. About 18 million American now live in "dry" areas.

47. The black market made $3 billion per year during Prohibition.

A haul of illegal liquor found during Prohibition
A haul of illegal liquor found during Prohibition
National Photo Company Collection, Wikimedia // No known restrictions

Prohibition Commissioner Dr. James Doran estimated in a 1930 interview that the illicit alcohol industry pulled in $3 billion a year, with 25 million gallons of booze a year coming from "distillation in large, hidden stills." That's $45 billion in today's money considering inflation. It also cost the government $11 billion in lost tax revenue and more than $300 million to enforce.

48. Seventy percent of Americans now drink.

Despite Prohibition, Americans never fell out of love with alcohol. According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 70 percent of Americans over the age of 18 had consumed alcohol in the past year. More than half reported having a drink within the past month.

49. Almost one-fifth of Americans think drinking is morally wrong.

According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 19 percent of Americans said drinking alcohol was morally wrong, and a 2014 CNN poll [PDF] found that 18 percent believed alcohol shouldn’t be legal. So it may not be a surprise that ...

50. The Prohibition Party still exists.

Their platform is still rooted in Christianity and supports assisting vineyard operators to switch their crops.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

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