Connecticut claim wrongs our Wrights

Oct. 26, 2013 @ 12:51 PM

To paraphrase a cliché about academic politics, the disputes over the correct sites of historical events are so bitter, perhaps, because the stakes are so low.

But the stakes are far from low for communities in those disputes. Regional identities can be forged around a landmark event, and tourism dollars can flow.

North and South Carolina have argued for years over which state can claim the birthplace of Andrew Jackson, the nation’s seventh president. Jackson was born in a region near Charlotte called the Waxhaws, and neither the exact spot of his birth nor the precise location of the border at the time is completely settled.

I’ve lived much of my life in North Carolina, part of it in Charlotte, so I’m inclined toward the loyal view that Old Hickory was a Tar Heel.

Several communities across the country claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day – with good reason. Many commemorations have a reasonable claim to having inspired the eventual designation of that national holiday to honor those who have died in American wars.

But as long as I edited a newspaper in State College, Pa., I was content to cede that honor to nearby Bellefonte.

And like many a good Durhamite, I’ve patiently explained countless times that, yes, Appomattox Courthouse gets all the attention as the place the Civil War ended, but we know that the surrender of the largest Confederate army at Bennett Place here nine days later truly was the end of hostilities. Worse our luck that Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s surrender to the Union’s William T. Sherman was overshadowed by President Lincoln’s assassination three days earlier.

Now comes the latest threat to a claim to history.  North Carolinians native and adopted know where human beings first went aloft in a powered airplane – Kill Devil Hills.

We’ve even made peace with Ohio, where Orville and Wilbur Wright, those aviation pioneers, built the plane they first flew on our Outer Banks. Let the Buckeye state be “the Birthplace of Aviation.” We’re good with “First in Flight.”

But Connecticut?

This past summer, that state gave the imprimatur of law to the contention that a German immigrant named Gustave Whitehead undertook the first powered flight near Bridgeport in April 1901, two years before the Wright Brothers’ flight.

This dispute has been simmering for a long time, it turns out, but when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed that law this summer, it provoked Ohio and North Carolina.  And Thursday, Ohio state Rep. Rick Pareles and North Carolina state Sen. Bill Cook held a press conference to, as Cook put it, “protect the truth.”

Cook was dismissive, according to a report on WRAL.com, of a photo Whitehead supporters argue is evidence of his flight. “I don’t know about you, but I looked at it real hard,” the Dare County Republican said. “I think it’s a frog.”

The Smithsonian Institution has lent its significant weight to the Wright Brothers side of this argument. That may not be surprising, since “the nation’s attic” displays the Wrights’ famous biplane and, according to WRAL, is “forbidden by contract with the Wright brothers’ estate to admit that anyone else was the first to fly.”

The Smithsonian’s Tom Crouch terms the Whitehead claim “absolutely wrong.”

“I have yet to see anything – anything – that even closely resembles an indisputable fact,” said Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics. Whitehead, he said, “is less than a footnote in history.”

I’m a card-carrying member of the Smithsonian and a longtime resident of North Carolina.

I’m with Crouch.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.