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Free online lectures: Explore a world of ideas

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American Inspiration Author Series

A presentation of American Ancestors, the Boston nonprofit and national center for family history, heritage and culture, this series offers stories of American history, heritage, and culture. Producer Margaret M. Talcott presents authors and their books explores themes of personal identity, families, immigration, and social and cultural history. Most events are presented virtually. In-person events take place at 99-101 Newbury Street in Boston’s Back Bay or at partnering organizations. See below for upcoming and past talks.  

  • Virtual
    Drawn from never-before-published records and letters, this heralded work of history offers an intimate account of the horrors witnessed and endured during the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. Join us to hear more from the award-winning author Michael Davenport about his research, see rare photographs, and listen to tragic tales of loss and survivors’ experiences on the morning of April 18, 1906. 

    More than 118 years ago, San Francisco, the largest city in the Western U.S. shook, crumbled, burned, and was completely devastated in an incomprehensible show of force by nature. In less than a minute, shockwaves shook the city, buckled its streets, shattered water mains, collapsed buildings on slumbering residents, and crushed hundreds. Then came the devastating fires, a second round of destruction that lasted weeks. From archival sources and hundreds of previously unpublished letters, many from private family collections; Matthew J. Davenport weaves a harrowing tale of the fateful day. Meticulously researched and gracefully written, The Longest Minute is both a harrowing chronicle of devastation, and a portrait of a city’s resilience in the burning aftermath of the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906.



    Partner:
    American Ancestors
  • Historic preservationist and Civil War reenactor Joseph McGill Jr. has logged more than 200 nights sleeping in slave dwellings at historic sites in twenty-five states and the District of Columbia. In this enlightening personal account, he tells the story of his groundbreaking Slave Dwelling project. His quest to share the experience of the enslaved took him throughout the South, but also the North and the West, where people are often surprised to learn that such structures exist.

    With journalist Herb Frazier, McGill reveals the fascinating history behind these sites and sheds light on larger issues of race in America.
    Partner:
    American Ancestors Boston Public Library
  • Celebrating women throughout our country’s diverse history, Tiya Miles, award-winning Harvard historian, converses with Pulitzer Prize winner Laurel Thatcher Ulrich about the natural world and the women who changed America. 

    Louisa May Alcott ran wild, eluding gendered expectations in New England. Harriet Tubman, forced to labor outdoors on a Maryland plantation, learned from the land a terrain for escape. The Indigenous women’s basketball team from Fort Shaw, Montana, recaptured a sense of pride in physical prowess as they trounced competitors at the 1904 World’s Fair. Spotlighting such women who acted on their confidence outdoors, Wild Girls brings new context to misunderstood icons like Sacagawea and Pocahontas, and to underappreciated figures like Native American activist writer Zitkála-Šá, also known as Gertrude Bonnin, farmworkers’ champion Dolores Huerta, and labor and Civil Rights organizer Grace Lee Boggs.

    For these trailblazing women of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, navigating the woods, following the stars, playing sports, and taking to the streets in peaceful protest were not only joyful pursuits; they were techniques to resist assimilation, racism, and sexism. Lyrically written and full of archival discoveries, this beautiful, meditative work of history puts girls of all races—and the landscapes they loved—at center stage, and reveals the impact of the outdoors on women’s independence, resourcefulness, and vision.
    Partner:
    American Ancestors
  • In this special Writing History event presented by American Ancestors in partnership with Massachusetts Historical Society, Steve Inskeep, the popular historian-author and host of NPR’s Morning Edition and Up First, discusses his new book, Differ We Must, a compelling and nuanced exploration of Abraham Lincoln’s political acumen. His presentation closes with an extended conversation about the hows and whys of writing about history.

    The author of Jacksonland and Imperfect Union joins us to discuss his-just released work about Abraham Lincoln and his political times. In this fresh and compelling narrative, rich in detail and enlightening commentary, Steve Inskeep expands our understanding of the great politician, a man led by his moral compass, but also his priorities. He shows how many of Lincoln’s greatest acts came about through his engagement with people who disagreed with him.

    Following Inskeep’s discussion of Lincoln and his new book, he engages in an extended conversation and Q+A session with Ryan Woods and Catherine Allgor about his process for writing histories and the importance of such story-telling. Past authors featured in the Writing History series include Nathaniel Philbrick, H. W. Brands, Eric Jay Dolin, and Stacy Schiff.

    Presented by American Ancestors' American Inspiration author series in partnership with The Massachusetts Historical Society, GBH Forum Network, and Porter Square Books.
    Partner:
    American Ancestors
  • Join us on an genealogical quest – an author’s exploration of her family and its history, brought to life in Benjamin Banneker and Us: Eleven Generations of an American Family, named a Best Book of the Year by the New Yorker. Don’t miss Rachel Webster’s presentation and conversation with historian Kendra Field about her experience connecting with relatives across lines of color, culture, and time.

    In 1791, Thomas Jefferson hired a Black man to help survey Washington, DC. That man was Benjamin Banneker, an African American mathematician, a writer of almanacs, and one of the greatest astronomers of his generation. Banneker then wrote what would become a famous letter to Jefferson, imploring the new president to examine his hypocrisy, as someone who claimed to love liberty yet was an enslaver. More than two centuries later, Rachel Jamison Webster, an ostensibly white woman, learns that this groundbreaking Black forefather is also her distant relative. Acting as a storyteller, Webster draws on oral history and conversations with her DNA cousins to imagine the lives of their shared ancestors across eleven generations, among them Banneker’s grandparents, an interracial couple who broke the law to marry.
    Partner:
    American Ancestors
  • Two journalist-professors discuss the history of women in American journalism from 1840 to the present; and the new book Undaunted, which showcases the exceptional careers of such impactful reporters as Margaret Fuller, Rachel Carson, Joan Didion, and Martha Gellhorn.

    Join us in Women’s History Month to examine the lives of some of the best-remembered and long-forgotten woman journalists, standout reporters who covered the major news stories and every conflict at home and abroad since before the Civil War. In addition to chronicling the careers of journalists and newsroom leaders, Undaunted explores the larger story: the nearly two-centuries-old struggle for women’s rights as it manifests in a field where women have never found easy welcome. The book documents their collective fight for equity from the gentle stirrings of the late 1800s to the work, actions, and pronouncements of celebrated journalists such as Ida Tarbell, Ida B. Wells, and Kate Masterson as the century turned, on to Pauline Frederick, Anne O'Hare McCormick, Martha Gelhorn, and Charlayne Hunter-Gault in the first half of the 20th; through the legal battles of the 1970s to the #MeToo movement and onward. With Tracy Lucht, Kroeger will discuss the huge and singular impact women have had on this vital profession still dominated by men.

    This program is presented by the American Inspiration Series from American Ancestors/NEHGS and presented in partnership with with the Boston Public Libraryand the GBH Forum Network.
    Partner:
    American Ancestors Boston Public Library
  • In this dual biography of two famous women whose sons changed the course of the 20th century, the award-winning historian Charlotte Gray breathes new life into Jennie Jerome Churchill and Sara Delano Roosevelt. Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons offers a fulsome portrait of how leaders are not just born but made. 

    Sara Delano, the mother of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill, were both born into upper-class America in 1854. A vivacious extrovert, Jennie married Lord Randolph Churchill, a rising politician and scion of a noble British family. Deeply conventional Sara Delano married a man as old as her father. As mothers, both woman turned their energies toward enabling their sons to reach the epicenter of political power on two continents. Set against one hundred years of history and filled with intriguing social insight, Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons reveals how these two remarkable individuals with dramatically different personalities shaped the characters of their adoring sons, men who would go on to change the world. 
    Partner:
    American Ancestors
  • Celebrating one of America’s greatest female novelists, this biography brings to life Willa Cather -- her artistry and endurance, her immigrant family and the prairies on they lived, and her trailblazing success as a journalist and writer.

    In the early 20th century, Willa Cather leapt into the forefront of American letters with the publication of her novels O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Antonia (1918). At the time, she was well into middle age. Her success followed years of working in journalism in Nebraska, brief spells of teaching, and editorial work on magazines. Chasing Bright Medusas is her story told by of another mature and highly accomplished writer, the award-winning biographer Benjamin Taylor, a lifelong lover of Willa Cather’s work. Taylor’s elegant exploration of her artistic endurance and of her early years and family, bring us back in time to portray vividly the challenges of being an immigrant family, a woman, and a literary trailblazer -- one the greatest authors of the twentieth century.
    Partner:
    American Ancestors Boston Public Library
  • Hear from the author of a revelatory memoir about a 330-mile walk from Washington, D.C., to New York City—an unforgettable pilgrimage to the heart of America across some of our oldest common ground.

    Neil King Jr.’s desire to walk from Washington, D.C., to New York City began as a whim and soon became an obsession. By the spring of 2021, events had intervened that gave his desire greater urgency. His neighborhood still reeled from the January 6th insurrection. Covid lockdowns and a rancorous election had deepened America’s divides. Neil himself bore the imprints of a long battle with cancer.

    Determined to rediscover what matters in life and to see our national story with new eyes, Neil turned north with a small satchel on his back and one mission in mind: To pay close attention to the land he crossed and the people he met.

    What followed is an extraordinary 26-day journey through historic battlefields and cemeteries, over the Mason-Dixon line, past Quaker and Amish farms, along Valley Forge stream beds, atop a New Jersey trash mound, across New York Harbor, and finally, to his ultimate destination: the Ramble, where a tangle of pathways converges in Central Park. The journey travels deep into America’s past and present, uncovering forgotten pockets and overlooked people. At a time of mounting disunity, the trip reveals the profound power of our shared ground.

    This program is part of the American Inspiration Series from American Ancestors/NEHGS and presented in partnership with with the Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library and the GBH Forum Network.
    Partner:
    Boston Public Library American Ancestors
  • Explore the origins of the most iconic words and concepts in American history with English historian Peter Moore. His spirited group biography provides a richer understanding our country’s colonial past and current ideology.

    The most famous phrase in American history once looked quite different. “The preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness” was how Thomas Jefferson put it in the first draft of the Declaration. Then came a series of deletions and a long chain of revisions stretching across the Atlantic and back. In making these words into rights, Jefferson reified the hopes (and debates) not only of a group of rebel-statesmen in the colonies, but also of an earlier generation of British thinkers who could barely imagine a country like the United States of America.

    Peter Moore’s Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness tells the true story of what may be the most successful import in U.S. history: the “American dream.” Profiling the generation that preceded the Declaration in 1776, this fascinating work reveals the influence and impact of the day’s leading figures including Benjamin Franklin, the British publisher William Strahan, the cultural giant Samuel Johnson, the ground-breaking historian Catharine Macaulay, the firebrand politician John Wilkes, and revolutionary activist Thomas Paine. Moore shows why, and reveals how these still-nascent ideals made their way across an ocean and started a revolution.
    Partner:
    American Ancestors