Whether it’s football players kneeling or President Donald Trump tweeting, few are without an opinion on what to do during the rendition of the national anthem.
But only a handful of people know the tradition of standing for the “The Star-Spangled Banner” began in downtown Tacoma 124 years ago.
That’s according to some historians and a bronze plaque.
Gen. Rossell G. O’Brien, a Civil War veteran and the “father” of the Washington National Guard, suggested standing for the anthem at a meeting of war veterans in Tacoma on Oct. 18, 1893.
O’Brien, an Irish immigrant, held many government positions, including U.S. commissioner and mayor of Olympia.
The building where the event occurred, the 1889 Bostwick Building, still stands at 755 St. Helens Ave. The Flatiron-shaped building holds a Tully’s coffee, tattoo shop and apartments.
But did O’Brien really start the tradition?
It’s a simple act: standing for the national anthem. Trying to pin down who “invented” it is almost like deciding who came up with the hand shake.
An essay by historian Duane Colt Denfeld at historylink.org acknowledges O’Brien’s official motion at the meeting but states several others had suggested it earlier.
For instance, Michigan Sen. Julius Burrows was speaking at West Point in 1891 when he said he’d “like to see every true American, soldier or citizen, when he hears the grand notes of National air (anthem), rise to his feet in patriotic recognition and uncover (remove hats,)” the essay states.
Long before body position became a referendum on patriotism, the country’s relationship with its national anthem has been complicated.
Just as English is the de facto, but not official, language of the United States, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was the de facto national anthem before after the Civil War. It had competition from “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” and other patriotic songs.
The U.S. Navy used “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1889 and President Woodrow Wilson gave his stamp of approval in 1916. But it wasn’t until 1931 that Congress and President Herbert Hoover made it official.
As for the bronze plaque, it’s on the Broadway side of the Bostwick Building.
“In honor of Rossell G. O’Brien,” it reads. “Who … did originate the custom of standing during the rendition of the star spangled banner, the national anthem of the United States of America.”
It was placed there in 1970 by the Mary Ball Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
A story in the Oct. 22, 1893, Tacoma Daily Ledger has an account of O’Brien’s idea.
“Honor the old flag,” reads the headline. “There are some things one cannot have too much of, and one of these is patriotism,” the story states before giving a brief background of O’Brien’s action.
“This may seem a small and trivial matter, but it is not so in reality,” the story says of standing and removing hats in honor of the national anthem. “Americans are patriotic, of that there is no doubt, but it will do no harm to be a little more demonstrative.
“This action is sure to propagate patriotism, because it will be doing honor in a public, though not an ostentatious, manner to the flag of our country, the glorious stars and stripes.”
The story then ends with the admonishment that, “all patriotic organizations will do well to encourage similar patriotic observances.”
O’Brien’s plan stuck, and continues to this day.
“I get tears in my eyes at the national anthem at a football game,” Nadine Michaelson of University Place said recently. “I stand up and have my hand over my heart and I expect everyone else to do it, too.”
She’s known about the plaque for years.
“It’s pretty darn special,” she said.
Michaelson isn’t shy about letting others have a piece of her mind when they are not following custom at her beloved University of Washington Huskies football games.
“I yell at the people who don’t take their hats off,” she said. “I’m a mouthy almost 89-year-old person.”
Linda Morrison owns a gift and antique store in the Bostwick Building. The door to her eponymous store is just inches from the plaque.
But the plaque has a way of going unseen.
“I was here a whole year before I noticed it,” Morrison said. “I do have a lot of people stopping and asking me about it.”
Store employee and longtime Broadway resident J.D. Aarde said she’s seen many people read the plaque over the years.
“They kind of do a nod — cool — and walk away,” she said. “I haven’t had anyone deface it.”
Is ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ racist?
In 1814, lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key wrote what soon would be known as “The Star-Spangled Banner” during a British attack on Fort McHenry.
The lyrics of the song heard at sports and other public events today are only its first stanza. There are three more, and one contains what some historians say are racist lyrics.
“No refuge could save the hireling and slave,
“From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
“And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
“O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Key was most likely referring to slaves recruited to fight for the British.
“Key regarded the land of the free and the home of the brave as properly a white man’s republic,” wrote historian Alan Taylor. “In this sentiment, he merely expressed the consensus of his contemporaries.”
Key’s history with slavery was contradictory. He both owned and freed slaves.
But as the anti-slavery movement grew in the 1830s, Key remained a staunch proponent of slavery, according to historian Jefferson Morley.
Key died in 1843.
“The country would go on — and still goes on — to experience how very difficult it is to have a ‘land of the free and home of the brave’,” Morley said.
Craig Sailor, staff writer