For 244 years now, we have been celebrating a brash idea committed to paper in Philadelphia and signed by 56 Founding Fathers, more than half of whom were in their thirties and forties. Midway through each summer, we pause for reflection, commemoration, and jubilation of that idea. Through thick and thin, war years and peace times, deepest despair and highest hopes, we join: bicentennially as a people, but more often in the backyard as family and friends, to celebrate the birth of a nation that declared itself independent enough to self-govern.
After the Armistice ended the Great War and the Spanish flu pandemic ceased to threaten, local folks celebrated Independence Day with the games of summer. As American women finally voted and Lindy flew high above the Atlantic, Champaign Countians congregated at the fairgrounds for picnics, parachute jumpers, and parades. Available at any Urbana bookstore: the hammocks, croquet sets, sky rockets, and roman candles needed for our traditional midsummer party.
Momentarily setting Depression struggles aside, community members headed back to the fairgrounds to watch aerialists on the high wire or to the Urbana Athletic Club Park for softball and fireworks. For some, the 4th of July became more enjoyable without Prohibition and with libation. Amid our celebrations we wondered where Amelia Earhart was, bid a tearful farewell to Lou Gehrig – the “luckiest man on the face of the earth” – and read headlines announcing FDR’s Democratic presidential nomination.
During the war years, American soldiers of light and dark skin color and both genders headed off to protect our country’s principles, spending multiple Independence Days away from home – some never returning. Headlines tracked Allied progress against Axis powers while also reporting local draft board registrations and ration board meetings. We in Champaign County celebrated thriftily and quietly with ballgames and picnics and the occasional picture show at the Gloria– until our parents, who had attained Greatest Generation status for their efforts, came home to start the Baby Boom.
Settling into life at home, we heard new names from elsewhere in the world: South Korea, Nikita Khrushchev, a young Queen Elizabeth II. On the home front Senator McCarthy’s campaign to root out every last Communist, the Salk vaccine to protect our children from the scourge of polio, and the creation of NASA occupied the headlines. Elvis was popular, and everyone loved Lucy. Mickey Mouse had a club and a California theme park. Champaign County folks happily celebrated their independence with Davy Crockett hats and continuous air-conditioned showings at the Gloria of The King of the Wild Frontier. And there was the St. Mary’s Summer Festival with lunch, games, and rides to benefit the new hospital.
The 1960’s were as exciting as they were frightening, with JFK’s vigor and assassination, missiles on the move, space travel, the specter of Vietnam – and America’s first Walmart. There were July 4th celebrations in every corner of the county: a circus in West Liberty, festivities at Mitchell Field in St. Paris, a trap shoot and regatta at Kiser Lake, the Goshen Festival, as well as the ever-popular Rotary Club barbeque and fireworks by Grimes at the airport. We also celebrated new stars on Old Glory for the consecutive statehoods of Alaska and Hawaii – and the Civil Rights Act signed into law by Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964.
We lost some faith in the government during the Watergate scandal, and the entire Vietnam experience left wounds from which we have yet to completely recover. But the Bicentennial was a splendidly-patriotic birthday party. The nation – including many of our fire hydrants – was swathed in red, white, and blue. We watched the tall ships, as Queen Elizabeth came to visit and stayed for the Olympics up north in Montreal. What a grand time we had celebrating two hundred years of independence!
In the years since that glorious summer, however, far-flung parts of our country and world have become ever more closely linked – even as we seem to grow further and further apart. Shortly after our Y2K fears proved unfounded, the 9/11 attacks shocked and shook us. Computers and cell phones have brought the world right into our living rooms; unfortunately, however, social media have made too many of us less socially conscientious. Vast reservoirs of accumulated knowledge at our fingertips too often go unused in favor of political catch words and illogical conspiracy theories.
This year of 2020 has exposed huge cracks in our national unity. By electing people to insist upon our personally-narrow points-of-view, we have stopped listening to one another, allowing politicians to exploit the resulting divisiveness for their political gain. More than a few elected officials and citizens have politicized the current pandemic and newly-ignited focus on racism instead of accepting that equal treatment regardless of ethnicity and social distancing with covered faces are solutions that benefit us all.
This year on our birthday, let us take a few moments from the recently-rescheduled fireworks to consider these thoughts expressed on a UDC op-ed page back in July of 1974. Calling it “our nation’s birth certificate,” the writer opined that the Declaration of Independence, along with the Constitution, is a document and an idea. As carefully as we protect these physical documents written so long ago, we must encourage the ideas they set forth to grow and guide our independent nation in moving forward – for each American and for all Americans.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.