This week in history, we’ll take a look at three moments in American cultural history that sent shock waves throughout the nation and help build society as we know it. So let’s dive in!
On April 13, 1870, 152 years ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in New York City.
For centuries, cities like Paris and London boasted the greatest art collections in the Western world, home to remnants of classical Roman statues and masterpieces of the Renaissance. The United States, and particularly New York, were at the cusp of a new era, with new industries and factories booming like never before. Wealthy socialites and railroad magnates thought it was high time the Big Apple was also a center of art and culture, and now they had the funds to do so.
A small group of Paris-based American millionaires with tremendous clout in both European and American circles met to establish “a national institution and gallery of art” in New York. Appealing to other wealthy New Yorkers for funds, the Met opened its main location, its current home at Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, 10 years later.
Today, the Met is one of the most visited museums worldwide with art collections from every continent and in every medium, hosting more than 7 million visitors each year.
On April 15, 1912, 110 years ago, the legendary British ocean liner, the R.M.S. Titanic, sank into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.
Built in Belfast, Ireland, the Titanic was, at the time, the world’s largest and most luxurious passenger ship ever constructed. 2,200 passengers and crew members boarded the ship as it departed from Southampton, England, and set off for New York City.
At midnight on April 14, the ship’s maiden voyage was cut short after the vessel struck an iceberg, damaging several compartments of the bow. Water surged into the ruptured side of the ship, causing the bow (the front) to plunge deeper into the water while the stern (the back) raised in the air to a near-vertical position. The ship was so massive it could not support its own weight, snapping in half and sending both ends into the depths of the Atlantic, hitting the ocean floor at 2:20 a.m. on April 15.
What made the disaster all the more memorable and tragic was the incredible loss of life. 1,500 passengers and crew members — nearly three-quarters of those who boarded — died that night, either going down with the ship or freezing to death in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. This could all have been avoided had the ship owners included more lifeboats in the ship’s design, rather than enlarging the rooms of the first-class passengers. Since the vessel was ironically reported to be “unsinkable,” the ship did not have an emergency protocol to follow, leaving crew members scrambling about as the night waned on. First-class women and children boarded half-full lifeboats while third-class passengers were locked inside steerage floors, trapped as the water flooded the cabins and hallways.
The only positive of the catastrophe (besides the Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet classic) was heightened government restrictions on ocean liners, requiring enough lifeboats to hold every person aboard and mandating routine lifeboat drills with every voyage. The Titanic was and continues to be the most infamous maritime disaster of the modern era.
Also on April 15, in 1947, 75 years ago, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by becoming the first African American Major League Baseball player.
Born to a family of sharecroppers in Georgia, Robinson was called up to the Majors after showing tremendous athletic prowess at the collegiate and minor league levels. He was the star of the Brooklyn Dodgers, earning titles such as the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1947 and the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1949. He led the team to win six National League pennants and one World Series title in 1955 over the course of his career. He retired in 1957 and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, the first year he was eligible.
Despite his incredible success in a short 10-year span, Robinson faced intense racial discrimination for the duration of his time in Major League Baseball. In addition to daily threats and slurs from both fans and other players, Robinson was even forced to stay at different hotels than the rest of his teammates when playing in the Jim Crow South.
Jackie Robinson will go down in history as one of the greatest American baseball players of all time. Fifty years after his first day, in 1997, the MLB commemorated his career by retiring his No. 42 from the entirety of the league, the first player to ever receive this honor.