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North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends

Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Muhammad Ali in North Dakota? Discovering a Film Treasure in State Archives

Working with Archives’ film collections, it’s not out of the ordinary to come across something special once in a while. On January 26 I was searching through our film database for a requested topic when I spotted “Muhammad Ali” in a description. Immediately I figured this was a clip from the national news or something, and then I read the whole thing: “WDAZ Muhammed Ali talks with Boyd Christensen at the train depot.” “Wow!” I thought. “What could this be?” The database indicated it had not been digitized, so I went back to the storage vault and pulled core 2490 from the WDAY/WDAZ TV news collection 10351. It is 16mm film on a core with a total of 20 segments. The clip is nearly eight minutes and is a treasure.

For those too young to have been around during Ali’s boxing career here is a little refresher:

Muhammad Ali was born in 1942 as Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky. He won the gold medal for boxing in the 1960 Olympics, turned professional boxer, and became the second youngest heavyweight champion of the world in 1964. Clay would convert to Islam in the 1960s and change his name to Muhammed Ali. He had his title stripped from him and was banned from boxing for three years for refusing to be inducted into the armed forces because of his religion and his anti-Vietnam war stance. He was later acquitted. Following his suspension, Ali would capture, lose, and recapture the heavyweight title several times throughout the 1970s. His last fight was in 1981. In 1984 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He passed away on June 3, 2016.

On January 27, 1969, Ali, AKA “The Greatest,” was in North Dakota. North Dakota Sportscaster and eventual Sportswriter Hall of Famer Boyd Christensen of WDAY TV in Fargo interviewed Ali at the Fargo train station. In the interview, Ali speaks about civil rights, black society, and……the weather! How else could The Greatest have ended up in Fargo?

The following day the Forum read, “The champ, unstoppable in the ring, was decked here Monday by the North Dakota weather en route from his New York home to the west coast by car. Ali found the northern climate too much for a left jab and ended up in a snow bank.”

Enjoy the clips! Take a look at the full clip and a short one where Ali tells us why he’s in Fargo.

Teaching People to See: How to Use Photographs as Teaching Tools

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”
—Dorothea Lange

Photographs are one of my favorite tools to use as a museum educator. One technique I like to use, known as a Visual Thinking Strategy (VTS), is a very simple and effective way for people to start to see more in an image than they otherwise would have noticed. There are three main steps to follow:

  1. Show an image to your audience—either project it on a screen in front of a classroom, or pass it around so everyone can get a good look at the details.
  2. Ask students to sit silently and look closely at the image for a minute or two.
  3. Guide the students through a series of questions that help them think critically about the image and start asking questions of their own.

We might start with an image like this one:

Tintype Portrait

Tintype portrait of unidentified group of African American women. SHSND 10737-310.

After taking in all the details for a couple of minutes, I would first ask my audience to tell me what is going on in the photograph. It is important that we don’t tell them what we want them to know. We have to be patient and let them make observations; compare and contrast their own answers; and start asking questions. We can keep the conversation going by asking follow up questions—“What makes you say that?” and “What more can we find?” This will help students continue their observations and will help them associate details in the image with their own personal experiences or prior knowledge.

This is a great activity for teachers of any discipline. English teachers can use this activity to initiate a creative writing activity. Science teachers can use this to connect observations of an image to classroom lessons such as identifying physical properties of an object. Math teachers can use images this way to help make connections for students between the real world and abstract concepts—for example, you could ask younger students to find basic shapes or to add or subtract the number of items in an image.

This exercise is great for someone teaching North Dakota Studies or other history classes. We can talk about the clothing and interior décor styles of past decades. We can talk about how a historian or archivist could do some detective work to try to find out more about who these unidentified women are. We could even talk about the preservation of historic images, and the process used to create a tintype.

Using a strategy like VTS gets people to start noticing details and interpreting what is going on in an image. Students begin to understand how other people might have a completely different understanding of what is going on in an image than they did. I always try to pair appropriate images to any lesson I’m teaching so that students start to exercise their history detective muscles. It can spark an interest in students of all ages.