High above the early-morning traffic in Lower Manhattan, a French street performer steps off the roof of the south tower of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974. Clad in black and carrying a long pole for balance, Philippe Petit begins the most famous high-wire walk in history, calmly traversing the space between the Twin Towers at a height of 1,350 feet.
Petit enjoyed tightrope walking from a young age, and began his career as a juggler on the streets of Paris. Amazingly, he first imagined himself walking between the Twin Towers before they had even been built. As he later recounted, the idea came to him because of a dental emergency: “Here I am, young, 17-years-old, with a bad tooth in one of those un-colorful waiting room of a French dentist … suddenly, I freeze because I have opened a newspaper at a page and I see something magnificent, something that inspires me. I see two towers and the article says one day those towers will be built.”
The towers would be not open until 1973, but Petit was determined he would one day walk between them. He began his high-wire career with walks between the towers of Notre Dame in 1971 and the pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1973. Although he trained with a circus performer and thought of himself as a “poet, conquering beautiful stages,” his preparations to walk between the Twin Towers most closely resembled scenes from a heist film. He disguised himself as everything from a construction worker to a journalist to an architect in order to gain access and study the site, even casing it from above via helicopter and identifying Barry Greenhouse, a man who worked on the 82nd floor of the south tower, as his inside man.
On the night of August 6, 1974, with Greenhouse’s help, Petit and some accomplices made their way into the towers, split into two teams. One of them shot an arrow across the gap between the buildings, spanning it with a length of fishing line that was then used to string stronger support wires. Around 7 a.m. the next morning, Petit stepped out onto the wire. Over the next 50 minutes, he completed eight trips across the divide, bowing to the onlookers below and even stopping to sit and lie down on the inch-thick wire. Finally, he dismounted and surrendered to the police, who arrested him and took him in for psychological evaluation.
Petit was charged with criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct, but the charges were dropped on the condition that he perform for the public in Central Park, which he happily did. Petit went on to perform a similar walk at the Lincoln Center and become the artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on the Upper West Side. He insisted that his famous walk, which was documented in the film Man on Wire and dramatized in another film, The Walk, was not an artistic statement so much as a natural outgrowth of his attitude toward life: “I see three oranges, and I have to juggle. I see two towers, and I have to walk.”
The Maginot Line, an array of defenses that France built along its border with Germany in the 1930s, was designed to prevent an invasion. But upon the eruption of World War II, it became a symbol of a failed strategy.
The Maginot Line, an array of defenses that France built along its border with Germany in the 1930s, was designed to prevent an invasion. Built at a cost that possibly exceeded $9 billion in today’s dollars, the 280-mile-long line included dozens of fortresses, underground bunkers, minefields, and gun batteries.
The Maginot Line was fortified with reinforced concrete and 55 million tons of steel embedded deep into the earth. It was designed to withstand heavy artillery fire, poison gas and whatever else the Germans could throw up against it.
“The Maginot Line was a technological marvel, far and away the most sophisticated and complex set of fortifications built up to that time,” as William Allcorn wrote in his 2003 book The Maginot Line 1928–45.
Nevertheless, after World War II erupted, the fortified border that was supposed to serve as France’s salvation instead became a symbol of a failed strategy. Leaders had focused upon countering the tactics and technology of past wars, and failed to prepare for the new threat from fast-moving armored vehicles. Instead of being stymied by the Maginot Line, Hitler’s forces went around it, driving their tanks through a wilderness area in neighboring Belgium that the French wrongly assumed would be impenetrable.
WATCH: Modern Marvels: Maginot Line
Barrier Designed to Counter Future German Attack
The French decision to build the Maginot Line was partly the result of centuries of invasions along its border with Germany, where France had few natural barriers to prevent armies from entering its territory. After World War I, in which France had fought a bloody, desperate struggle for survival that cost the lives of nearly 1.4 million soldiers, military leaders began to debate about how best to counter Germany in a future war that they saw as inevitable, according to the 2011 book The Maginot Line: History and Guide, by J.E. Kaufmann, H.W. Kaufmann, Aleksander Jankovic-Potocnik and Patrice Lang.
Marshal Joseph Joffre, a hero from the 1914 Battle of the Marne, argued that the best approach was to build a few heavy fortifications inside France to protect key areas against invaders, while allowing the French army room to maneuver and thwart an attack. In contrast, Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain, who had led the French to victory at Verdun in 1916, favored a continuous line of lighter fortifications.
Ultimately, the Maginot Line’s designers mixed the two concepts together, and came up with a plan for a single continuous line, which featured imposing fortresses with other defenses between them.
French engineers also studied the ring of forts around Verdun, which had been bombarded by artillery during the 1916 battle. Though military leaders at the time had expected them to fail, the engineers discovered that the walls had held up well and that the scattered gun turrets had been effective. They developed plans for concrete and steel fortifications with plenty of firepower, and extensive underground passages.
One of the big proponents for a heavily fortified border was Andre Maginot, a French politician who had suffered such serious injuries in World War I that he needed crutches to walk. In his two stints as Minister of War during the 1920s, Maginot managed to convince the French Parliament to allocate funds for the project. Journalists started calling it the Maginot Line, in recognition of his role.
Maginot Line Designed to Fortify France After WWI Losses
In addition to the likelihood of a future conflict, Maginot had another very compelling argument on his side. The toll that World War I had taken upon the French population meant that the country faced a future shortage of soldiers to defend the country against Germany, which also suffered heavy losses but had almost twice the population. Heavy fortifications seemed like a good way to provide protection until manpower returned to normal.
Construction began in the late 1920s, and by 1936, the Maginot Line was largely complete. When French officials gave Winston Churchill a tour of the Maginot Line in August 1939, he was impressed by what he saw. “The French front cannot be surprised,” the future Prime Minister wrote, according to Paul Addison’s 2007 biography Winston Churchill. “It cannot be broken at any point, except by an effort which would be enormously costly in life and take so much time that the general situation would be transformed while it was in progress.”
But despite all its steel and concrete, the Maginot Line had at least one glaring flaw. While the border with Germany was protected, the fortifications stopped at the beginning of the border with Belgium, which in the 1930s was a French ally. After Belgium declared its neutrality in 1936, French defense minister Edouard Daladier sought additional funding to extend the Maginot line along France’s border with Belgium, but those fortifications were never completed.
Germans Penetrate France Through Belgium
With the Maginot Line blocking the Germans from directly crossing the French-German border, the French military knew that the Germans would have to go through Belgium to attack. But they counted on the natural barrier of the Ardennes, a dense forested area with rough terrain and few roads, to narrow the area that the Germans could cross.
But Lt. Gen. Heinz Guderian, Germany’s top tank commander, had spent time in the Ardennes during World War I, and knew the area well enough to map out the terrain and find a way to get through, as Bevin Alexander describes in Inside the Nazi War Machine. That emboldened the German army to gamble on getting through the wilderness—and it paid off. As French historian Michael Bourlet explained in a 2020 interview, the Germans were able to outmaneuver the French army that had been set northward to fight them. As a result, the Germans were able to encircle the French and their British allies and drive them back toward the coast, and then head south to Paris.
Once the Germans were behind the Maginot Line, they also were able to attack it from the rear and capture the fortifications, taking more than 500,000 prisoners.
Today, “Maginot Line” has become a catchphrase used to describe a barrier that provides a false sense of security.
Simmering racial tensions and economic frustrations boil over in New York City on the night of August 1, 1943, culminating in what is now known as the Harlem Riot of 1943. During an altercation in the lobby of the Braddock Hotel, a white police officer shoots a Black soldier, Robert Bandy, triggering a massive uprising.
Overwhelmingly white before the Great Migration, Harlem was 89 percent Black by the time the United States entered World War II. Despite the cultural innovations that accompanied these changes, known as the Harlem Renaissance, the neighborhood’s businesses remained mostly white-owned, and landlords and business owners continued to discriminate against Black residents. World War II brought not only conscription but also a higher cost of living, putting even more strain on a Black community whose economy was still controlled almost entirely by whites.
On the evening of August 1, a Black woman named Marjorie Polite checked into the Braddock, a historic hotel that had fallen into disrepair. Unsatisfied with her room, she asked for a refund at the front desk. The ensuing altercation led a white policeman, James Collins, to arrest her for disorderly conduct, during which time Bandy, a military policeman based in New Jersey, arrived to meet his visiting mother for dinner. The New York Police Department’s official report recorded that Bandy attacked Collins, but Bandy and his mother claimed that they merely tried to stop him from pushing Polite and prevented him from hitting her with his nightstick. Collins shot Bandy, who was taken to a hospital and treated for superficial wounds.
As a rumor spread that Collins had killed Bandy, crowds assembled near the Braddock and soon began to riot. They turned their rage on local white-owned businesses, leading Black business owners to hurriedly post signs announcing that their stores were Black-owned. Six Black residents were killed and nearly 500 were injured as the NYPD and, at the behest of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, the Army moved into the streets of Harlem. La Guardia did his best to downplay the riot, but the unrest did draw the attention of the federal Office of Price Administration and of La Guardia’s government, which pressured local landlords to comply with price restrictions and stop gouging residents. The riot also affected Harlem residents like James Baldwin, Malcolm X (then Malcolm Little) and the poet Langston Hughes, whose poem “Beaumont to Detroit: 1943” ends with a reference to the sad irony of African Americans fighting for a racist country: “I ask you this question/ Cause I want to know/ How long I got to fight/ BOTH HITLER–AND JIM CROW.”
READ MORE: How the Police Shooting of a Black Soldier Triggered the 1943 Harlem Riots
On the morning of January 28, 1917, a Mexican maid named Carmelita Torres refuses to put up with the indignity she has been made to suffer every morning since she started working across the border in the United States. Torres’ objection to the noxious chemical delousing visited upon Mexicans upon crossing the Northern border sparked what became known as the Bath Riots, an oft-overlooked moment in Chicano history.
Scared that a recent outbreak of typhus in Mexico could find its way to the United States, the Public Health Service instituted mandatory disinfecting for all Mexicans entering the country. The process was both humiliating and dangerous—men and women were directed to separate facilities, where they were made to strip off their clothes, which would be steamed. Officials examined the nude border-crossers and frequently doused them in harmful chemicals such as kerosene, a method which had resulted in the deaths of 27 prisoners in an El Paso prison in 1916.
Having heard that workers at the facility would regularly photograph women in the nude as they underwent this process, 17-year-old Torres refused to leave the trolley as it stopped at the Santa Fe Bridge border facility. Torres and her fellow passengers, most of whom were also young, female domestic workers, quickly seized four trolleys, hurling whatever they could find at the American authorities. A number of other Juárez residents joined them, and the ensuing riots lasted through the next day, although no one seems to have been seriously injured and there were only a few arrests.
Despite the riot, American officials continued with chemical disinfecting into the 1950s. In addition to these decades of indignity, another effect of their actions was to inadvertently inspire the gas chambers—a term Americans applied to the El Paso facilities at the time—used by the Nazis during the Holocaust. In 1938, a German scientific journal studied and praised the methods employed at El Paso, including the use of Zyklon B. The same chemical, as well as similar chambers, would become key components of the Nazi’s death camps.
95 years after women were first granted the right to vote, on July 28, 2016, former Secretary of State, Senator and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton makes history by accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, becoming the first woman to lead a major U.S. political party.
The Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia formally nominated Clinton two days earlier, with South Dakota casting 15 votes to put Clinton over the threshold of 2,382 required delegates.
In her acceptance speech on the night of July 28, Clinton acknowledged the historic nature of her nomination.
“Tonight, we’ve reached a milestone in our nation’s march toward a more perfect union: the first time that a major party has nominated a woman for president,” she said. “Standing here as my mother’s daughter, and my daughter’s mother, I’m so happy this day has come. Happy for grandmothers and little girls and everyone in between. Happy for boys and men, too—because when any barrier falls in America, for anyone, it clears the way for everyone. When there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.”
Clinton, who ran in the general against Donald J. Trump, won the popular vote but lost the election in the electoral college. Trump served one term and made history himself, becoming the first U.S. president to be impeached twice.
READ MORE: Women’s History Milestones: A Timeline
On August 19, 1791, the accomplished American mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker pens a letter to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson corresponds prolifically with luminaries from around the world, but Banneker is unique among them: the son of a free Black American woman and a formerly enslaved African man from Guinea, Banneker criticizes Jefferson’s hypocritical stance on slavery in respectful but unambiguous terms, using Jefferson’s own words to make his case for the abolition of slavery.
Banneker himself was born free in what is now Ellicott City, Maryland, and was encouraged in his studies of astronomy and mathematics by the Ellicotts, a Quaker family who owned a mill and much of the land in the area. Predicting a solar eclipse and constructing a functioning clock that struck on the hour were among his early achievements. His prowess caught the eye of Jefferson after Major Andrew Ellicott chose Banneker to assist him in surveying the original boundaries of what would become the District of Columbia. Banneker also compiled several ephemerides (a type of astronomical chart) and almanacs.
In August of 1791, Banneker sent Jefferson, who was known both as a Founding Father and a devoted scientist, a draft of an almanac he was readying for publication. He felt compelled to include a personal note. In this letter, Banneker quoted the famous preamble to the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…”) and said plainly that he was disappointed in the hypocrisy of Jefferson, a slaveowner:
“…but Sir how pitiable is it to reflect, that altho you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of those rights and privileges which he had conferred upon them, that you should at the Same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the Same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.”
Jefferson’s response, eleven days later, was cordial and complimentary but also condescending and racist. Jefferson praised the almanac and informed Banneker that he was sending it along to the Marquis de Condorcet, a French philosopher, mathematician, and abolitionist. The future president praised Banneker as a credit to the Black race, essentially telling him that he considered the almanac evidence that African American’s inferiority was owed “merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa and America” and not to their innate inferiority, a paternalistic sentiment that was a frequent topic of debate among whites.
After Banneker’s death, Jefferson expressed doubt that a Black man could have written the almanac. He continued to own enslaved workers, despite decrying slavery in some of his writings, until his own death in 1826. Shortly after they were written, a Philadelphia publisher circulated a pamphlet containing Banneker’s eloquent argument for abolition and Jefferson’s non-committal response, which made the rounds among the nascent abolitionist movement. Contrary to the myth that slavery was universally accepted among educated and elite circles in the early United States, Banneker’s letter stands as proof that one of the nation’s founders received first-hand criticism of his hypocritical and contradictory stance on slavery in his lifetime.
READ MORE: Why Thomas Jefferson’s Anti-Slavery Passage Was Removed from the Declaration of Independence