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Car Dealership on Wilshire Blvd

Car dealership on Wilshire Blvd (circa 1937) courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

By Michael Block

Through a grant administered by the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, I am helping to research the early history of automobile dealerships in Los Angeles. Scholars have frequently written about “car culture” (especially as it developed in Los Angeles), but they have focused almost exclusively on the roles of manufacturers, drivers, and drivers’ advocacy groups like the Automobile Club of Southern California. History has paid far less attention to the role of car dealers. The car industry in the early twentieth century was similar to the technology sector today: innovation and competition meant that firms popped rapidly in and out of existence. Los Angeles, led partly by its car dealers and partly by heavy demand for cars, wanted to be at the forefront of the excitement. In 1907, car dealers in Los Angeles organized the first car show west of the Mississippi, narrowly beating out San Francisco. In 1917, the chair of the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce declared the Los Angeles dealers’ association to be the largest in the country, and claimed that Los Angeles had “more cars than in any other county in the country, and judging by the traffic conditions in Los Angeles, it has more cars per mile of street than New York or any other city.”[1] Despite the excitement at the time, we know very little today about how the automobile selling business took shape in Los Angeles. Part of the project will involve mapping the locations of dealerships (the auto row on Figueroa Street turns out not to have been the first such concentration). My research so far has focused on the collections of the Seaver Center for Western History Research at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

[1] “Reeves Praises California,” Motor West 26, no. 11 (15 March 1917): 13.

Don Lee Cadillac LaSalle in Pasadena

Don Lee Cadillac and LaSalle dealership in Pasadena (circa 1935) courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.


Michael Block received his PhD in history from USC in 2011. He is currently a lecturer in the history program at CSU Channel Islands. 

William S. Hart

Photo of William S. Hart is courtesy of the Hart Museum.

By Beth Werling

Before Clint Eastwood, before John Wayne, William S. Hart not just personified, but created the prototypical Western hero during the silent film era; the good bad man who lived by his own code of honor. Hart promoted this image offscreen as well, filling his home with Native American memorabilia as well art by Remington and Russell depicting his idealized vision of the West. He ensured that his vision of the West became legacy when he bequeathed his mansion and its contents to the County of Los Angeles following his death on June 23, 1946. Visitors today can visit his Newhall home and experience a romanticized portrait of the West through the lens of one of the genre’s earliest stars.


Beth Werling is curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

By Stan Fonseca

The Coachella Valley, roughly one hundred miles east of Los Angeles, has long been renowned for its beautiful scenery, for its warm climate, and for its close association with the wealthy of the West Coast. The dry desert valley, however, is also home to a more surprising phenomenon: the highest number of golf courses per capita in the world. Aerial views reveal that the desert landscape resembles a squiggling mass of fairways intertwined around housing developments and bleached desert. Since the construction of the first eighteen-hole course, the Thunderbird Country Club in 1951, more than 125 have been built over the last seventy years.

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Thunderbird Country Club’s first hole. Palm Springs Villager, Pictorial Edition, 1957. Palm Springs Historical Society

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, residents of the Valley witnessed the desert seemingly bloom before their eyes into the unlikeliest of forms: manicured green fairways, lined with imported palms and artificial lakes. This was, of course, no spontaneous blossom; developers worked hard to build country clubs in the Coachella, and likened their success to the building of a “Desert Empire.” West Coast business moguls, Hollywood figures, and wealthy retirees flocked to the Valley to purchase property in these new, exclusive country clubs. Golf, in the Coachella Valley, has been more than just the frivolous sport of the rich; it was the defining driver of land development, infrastructure, migration, and exclusion in the desert region.

Building golf courses was an environmental project that necessitated vast infrastructural and ecological change in the valley. In almost every way, the Coachella Valley was not suited for golf: high temperatures, low rainfall, and rocky soil would not support grass; the valley’s flat floor made for unexciting terrain; frequent high winds blew sand onto courses and redirected shots. As each course was developed, developers dug deep wells that could draw up millions of gallons from the Valley’s subterranean aquifer. When the aquifer ran dry, they purchased water from the nearby Colorado Aqueduct; by 1969, they had used over 32 billion gallons of Colorado River water to feed their courses. New courses, opening at a rate of roughly one per year, sought to outdo the others in their ostentatious display of mastery over the desert—an “arms race” of environmental transformation. When Bermuda Dunes Country Club installed two artificial lakes in 1957, for example, La Quinta Golf Club was not to be outdone: in 1959, it stocked its own lake with imported trout and attached fishing poles to its golf carts.

The environmental transformation of the desert was only part of the business of attracting the wealthy to the Coachella Valley. To do so, club owners also engineered a new social landscape: the residential golf club, in which members’ homes opened up onto the fairways. Thunderbird Country Club invented the design, and it was quickly copied both in the Valley and across the country. Of the nineteen Coachella courses opened between 1951 and 1967, fourteen employed this new design. However, an essential aspect of the residential golf club was its exclusivity; members and owners alike desired a homogeneous social world reserved for the wealthy and the white. Thunderbird, among others, explicitly denied membership to all nonwhites and non-Christians. Each club built opaque social boundaries surrounding their courses to keep out the unwanted. Often, dense hedges of Tamarisk trees would be planted along the borders, rendering the course invisible from the public eye.

As the world of country clubs grew throughout the 1950s, they began to flex their muscles as a political bloc to pave the way for more course construction. Developers were hungry for more land in the Valley, but fully half was reservation land belonging to the local band of Cahuilla Indians, the Agua Caliente. Bureau of Indian Affairs regulations prevented developers from leasing the land, and the Agua Caliente were ambivalent about the rapid pace of development. However, the “country club set” had a powerful new member: none other than President Eisenhower, who bought property in the Eldorado Country Club in 1957. Lobbyists in the Coachella Valley leveraged their golf connection to put their proposals directly to the President’s ear.

In the last year of his term, Eisenhower changed Bureau of Indian Affairs policy to allow the partitioning of Agua Caliente reservation land to individual members of the band, and to allow those individuals to lease their land for up to 99 years. Developers in the Coachella Valley made full use of the change in policy, and signed several long-term leases with Agua Caliente over the next decade to build courses, hotels, and homes. Band members, however, were rarely paid the full worth of their land; conservators & guarantors took, on average, 44% of the profits promised by developers.

Another political triumph for Southern California country clubs came in 1960 when the state passed a ballot proposition lowering the taxes on golf course property. The proposition would exclude golf courses from “highest use” taxation—meaning their taxes would not increase as urban development occurred around them. Bob Hope, an avid golfer and Coachella Valley booster, was the primary lobbyist and the “face” of the proposition. In his ballot argument for the tax break, Hope wrote that “Proposition 6 is designed to save these courses and their benefits to you and your family as wooded, planted open space areas giving greenbelt breathing space to California’s growing cities.” However, the law, in effect, benefited private country clubs whose gates were barred to the vast majority of the public. The proposition’s most immediate impact was in Los Angeles, where “highest use” value was greater—but, over time, it allowed golf development in the Coachella Valley to continue unabated by rising taxes.

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Bob Hope & Son, Palm Springs Villager October 1956. Palm Springs Historical Society

The growth of golf courses in the Coachella Valley is a curious case. In many ways, their proliferation across the valley was a continuation of a wider settler-colonial project; it involved the disenfranchisement of Native peoples; land, power, and capital falling under white control; and a narrative of carving out Paradise from an arid wasteland. However, the settlement of the Coachella Valley was also a novel form, in that the primary goal was not access to material resources or agricultural land. Instead, it was fun, leisure, and the opportunity to create and maintain a homogeneous culture of the white and wealthy.

Golf in the Coachella Valley thus offers a fascinating avenue to think about power as it has played out upon the landscape in American history. As an environmental project, golf courses sought to replace one version of nature—a desert ecosystem seen as a wasteland—with one that was more comfortable and accessible to its users. As a social project, they were both a site of power themselves, in deciding who did and did not have access to the courses, and also a site that linked together wider networks of the powerful, as with the lobbyists who had Eisenhower’s ear while on the course. Both the environmental and social aspects of these country clubs have had long-reaching effects, in the Coachella Valley as well as in the wider world.


Stan Fonseca received his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. He joined the PhD program of the USC History Department in the fall of 2017. His interests include cultural, social, and environmental history in 20th century America.

By Gary Stein

Graduate school is a marathon. There are numerous “markers” along the way, certain mementos of the necessary hills to climb in order to reach the finish line, PhD in hand. There is finishing coursework, becoming a TA, passing your qualifying exams, honing in on a Prospectus for your dissertation, and finally, completing the dissertation – in many respects the final lap and main event and group relay all rolled into one.

I am currently in my 2nd year, so I am almost done with coursework and am in the midst of my 2nd semester as a TA. I also came to USC with an MA in History, so I have been holding the baton for some time now and am working on crafting a dissertation topic. In this post, I hope to articulate some of the ideas brewing in my head at this moment (though as many grad students know, one week can bring an entirely different set of ideas, hopes, doubts, dreams…than the one before it). I will share some of my experiences that have led me to this point and have (for the most part!) enhanced this long and winding process.

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“River cabin,” built by former communard at Salmon Creek Farm in Albion, Mendocino County, CA. Photo taken by author.

“Building a Communal Environment: Back-to-the-Land in Mendocino,” my Master’s Thesis, analyzed the 1960s-70s back-to-the-land movement in Northern California, particularly in the coastal rural towns of Mendocino County. A key intervention of the thesis was highlighting the contributions of back-to-the-landers to the modern environmental movement and their role in heightening the ecological consciousness of mainstream society. It argued that back-to-the-landers, like those in Mendocino, did not merely “drop out” and live communally for a short, insignificant period of time. They remained politically and socially active and committed to ecological principles and working cooperatively within a group. I looked at back-to-the-land communes that lasted for over 20 years, contributed to the proliferation of food co-ops, the availability of organic foods, and the fight against agribusiness and corporate agriculture. These migrants helped shape the culture that endures in the North Coast region. They built their own unique dwellings using as little of the earth’s space and resources as possible and succeeded in legalizing their structures. They fought to save local forests from clearcutting, over harvesting, and the spraying and injecting of herbicides, and they continue to fight for these and other environmental initiatives today.

Their main objective of moving to the country was effecting change through lived experience, making the personal political. The idea proved central to the activism of the 1960s and is an important component of modern environmentalism, in addition to the more familiar legislative and institutional gains. This work led me to think about different conceptions of the environmentalist ethic and how different modes of living causes, or becomes, conscious efforts to preserve and/or improve the landscape. I am interested in analyzing who gets to be included in those decisions as well as the groups that have historically been excluded or disregarded.

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Poster for “hike-in” protesting Disney’s proposed development of Mineral King. Courtesy of USC Special Collections, collection no. 0037, Mineral King Development Records.

I continue to be fascinated by people’s relationship with, and perceptions of, nature. I have previously written about the Civilian Conservation Corps, post-WWII suburbanization, and the development of natural and historic preservation in the 20th century. In our Western History seminar with Professor Bill Deverell, I wrote about the formation of the Pacific Crest Trail, a “wilderness way” connecting the borders of Mexico and Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington. I then looked at the fight over Mineral King, a proposed ski resort by Walt Disney in Sequoia National Forest in the mid-1960s. The Forest Service had traditionally adhered to Gifford Pinchot’s “wise use” model, prioritizing timber and other commodity resources. But I argue that this began to shift in the 1930s, in part due to the work of the CCC and the formation of the PCT, which opened up numerous national and state parks and forests and contributed to greater wilderness preservation efforts and a growing appreciation for outdoor recreation. This pushed the Forest Service to value non-commodity resources such as outdoor recreation. But it also led the Service to utilize the “wise use” model for recreational development, such as Disney’s plans for the massive ski resort. The proposal was protested by the Sierra Club and young environmentalists who incorporated the values and grassroots activism of the movements of the 1960s to their fight to save Mineral King. The proposal was eventually defeated and Mineral King became part of Sequoia National Park, under the supervision of the Park Service.

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CCC enrollees receiving a lesson in the use of the saw. Reforestation camp, unidentified location, 1933. Courtesy of USC Special Collections, collection no. 7000.2, Hearst Corporation Los Angeles Examiner photographs, negatives, and clippings.

As I consider and prioritize larger questions within my own work, some or all of this could become central to my dissertation, or I could end up going in another direction. That, in part, is the process of graduate school. It can be exciting, enlightening, frustrating, and daunting. But I have gained a lot from the entire experience, and though I still have a long way to go, I can sense the final lap on the horizon. I am grateful to have worked in Western Environmental history, examining how people are shaped by their environment as much as they shape the world around them. And as a native of Queens, NY, I am thrilled to continue learning about the culture and environment of the American West and its integral place in American history.


Gary Stein received his undergraduate degree in history from Queens College, a City University of New York (CUNY) and his Master’s in History from Claremont Graduate University. His Master’s Thesis received the Center for Communal Studies Graduate Paper Prize in 2017. Stein joined USC’s Ph.D. program in 2016. 

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Photo of Governor-elect Jerry Brown at his Los Angeles campaign headquarters in 1974 is courtesy of
UCLA Library’s Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library.

By Miriam Pawel

On April 7, 1895, the Los Angeles Herald ran a story to celebrate Otto von Bismarck’s eightieth birthday, noting that “a world shouted as he crossed this rarely touched milestone of time.”

On April 7, 2018, another long-standing ruler, master politician, and statesman of Prussian ancestry marks the same milestone: Edmund G. Brown Jr. turns eighty. Eighty is no longer quite as noteworthy as in Bismarck’s day, of course, and even Jerry Brown cannot match the Prussian leader’s reign of almost three decades.

But Brown has certainly left his mark on California, breaking records along the way: The youngest California governor in modern times when he first took office in 1975; the oldest ever when he returned as governor in 2011; the longest-tenured governor in state history; and the only governor elected four times. Between Jerry and his father, Pat, the Browns will have ruled California for 24 out of the past 60 years.

Bismarck was in good company, the Herald noted in its birthday tribute, offering a round-up of other octogenarians: Pope Leo still wrote Latin sonnets, William Gladstone wrote essays, and Verdi had just received acclaim for Falstaff. Brown will leave office at the end of this year. Given his classical education and eclectic interests, there’s no telling what he might compose in his next act.


Author of the 2014 book “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez,” Miriam Pawel is an author, journalist, and independent scholar. She is currently working on a book about four generations of the Brown family in California.

By G.W. Feldshue, Special Features, Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West

“We don’t really know what we’ve found with this one,” says dig site’s top scientist.

4.1.2018

LOS ANGELES.  Scientists at the La Brea Tar Pits have announced the discovery of an odd fossil that has them scratching their heads.  The bone in question, some kind of giant lizard-like jawbone, surfaced in one of the museum’s ongoing excavations adjacent to Wilshire Boulevard in late 2017, but scientists kept the discovery quiet until they had time to study the surprising find.  What they have learned is peculiar and mysterious.

“Hundreds, if not thousands, of snakes and lizards have, over the millennia, become trapped in our asphalt seeps,” says Assistant Curator and excavation site director, Dr. Emily Lindsey.  “But we have never seen a bone like this.  It is the biggest squamate bone that I have ever seen.  But we don’t really know what we’ve found with this one.”

Tar Pits excavators discovered the fossil in the asphalt-saturated sediments.  Thinking at first that it belonged to a young horse or camel, they were bewildered to flip it over and find teeth unlike any known in mammals.

Once the new find had been completely prepared – a process that, Lindsey says, took several months – the peculiarities of the bone became clearer.  “I have never seen anything like it in my career,” Lindsey says. “It looks like a kind of lizard, given the shape of the jawbone and the teeth.”

Asked to describe the bone, which the La Brea Tar Pits Museum (formerly the Page Museum) would not allow us to photograph, Lindsey hesitated.  “Imagine if a house or garden lizard got stuck in the tar and left behind its bones.  The jaw looks like what would belong to that lizard.  Except that it is huge.  The size is similar to a human mandible, but we know that there weren’t ever some strange ‘lizard people’ inhabiting subterranean Southern California.”

By Carlos Francisco Parra
cparra@usc.edu

At the close of the 2010s, Univision KMEX Channel 34 and Telemundo KVEA Channel 52 regularly competed for the highest ratings among all television viewers in Los Angeles according to the Nielsen ratings service. KMEX and KVEA’s high ratings — beating the long-established big three English-language networks — speaks to the demographic growth and vitality of the Spanish-speaking Latino American communities of the greater Los Angeles region. The ratings bonanza currently enjoyed by the local Univision and Telemundo stations is a dramatic counterpoint to the relatively humble but significant technical origins of Spanish-language television in the U.S. and in Southern California more than half-a-century ago.

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An official advertisement placed by KMEX Channel 34 in a September 1962 issue of La Opinión. Variations of this advertisement were placed in billboards around Los Angeles that fall.

The first Spanish-language TV transmissions in the Southland occurred as the result of transnational broadcasting developments in the Mexico-U.S. border region. One of the most significant investors and proponents of Spanish television north of the border was Emilio Azcárraga Vidaurreta, the founder of one of the first TV stations in Mexico and the dominant partner in a network he formed through an alliance with his former competitors, Telesistema Mexicano (now Televisa). Azcárraga Vidaurreta recognized an opportunity when he started XETV Channel 6 in Tijuana as a means of serving San Diego-area TV viewers. As the first TV station in northwestern Mexico, XETV began broadcasting in April 1953 primarily in English and was financially successful among San Diegans, who only had XETV and one other TV channel to choose from at the time. Channel 6’s success compelled Azcárraga Vidaurreta to launch Tijuana’s XEWT Channel 12 as a Spanish-language station broadcasting his Telesistema programming to attract Spanish-speaking TV viewers not only in that Mexican border town but also in the San Diego area.

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An advertisement for a UHF converter device sold by Thrifty Drug Stores (Los Angeles Times, 1962).

Encouraged by XETV and XEWT’s reception, Azcárraga Vidaurreta attempted to enter the larger U.S. market by distributing popular Telesistema shows to U.S. broadcasters. The Mexican media magnate found a willing partner in Raoul Cortez, a Mexican immigrant who in 1955 founded KCOR Channel 41 in San Antonio, Texas as the first Spanish-language TV station in the continental United States. Cortez, who had also founded the first full-time Spanish-language radio station in the U.S. southwest, welcomed the Telesistema’s programming to fill Channel 41’s airtime. Although popular among Mexican San Antonians, KCOR Channel 41 operated at significant financial losses and struggled to stay on the air due to Anglo advertisers’ indifference. Again recognizing a rare opportunity, Azcárraga Vidaurreta worked with his longtime U.S. business associates to purchase the station from Cortez in late 1961. Relaunched as KWEX Channel 41 in February 1962, the San Antonio station became the U.S. flagship of the new Spanish International Network (S.I.N.). With momentum building, the group of transnational investors set about tapping the largest Spanish-speaking audience in the border region: Los Angeles.

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Local TV stores and repair shops advertise UHF conversion services in this advertisement in La Opinión.

When the transnational S.I.N. investors — which included Azcárraga Vidaurreta’s long-time U.S. associates such as XETV’s general manager Julian Kaufman — set their sights on Los Angeles, they faced the challenge of starting a brand new TV station in a format that most TV sets at the time could not reach. In early television history, TV broadcasters were limited to transmitting their programming on channels 2-13 in the very high frequency (VHF) signal band; channels 14 and beyond (such as KCOR/KWEX Channel 41) broadcast on the ultra high frequency (UHF) band could not be accessed by early TVs without an expensive converter box. While not all U.S. cities had the gamut of VHF channel allocations used, Los Angeles – as the entertainment capital of the world – had all of its VHF channels claimed by the early 1960s. In L.A., as throughout the rest of the nation, investment in a UHF station was considered a foolish waste of money.

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The iconic Sears store in Boyle Heights used La Opinión to advertise UHF-capable TV sets specifically invoking buyers’ ability to then reach KMEX Channel 34. The price of the UHF converter box sold by Sears would cost $145.78 when adjusted for inflation in 2018 while the 19-inch TV console advertised in the bottom would cost $1,622.55 today. Tuning in to watch el canal 34 in its early days was often an expensive investment.

Nevertheless, the S.I.N. business partners pressed on and received Channel 34 as their UHF signal assignation under the call letters K-M-E-X (Mexico), a call sign which clearly asserted the new station’s origins as well as its intended audience. Julian Kaufman, experienced in the technical and advertising challenges of running XETV for a U.S. audience, served as KMEX’s acting general manager throughout the summer and fall of 1962 as its facilities were built. As KMEX’s transmitter went up on Mount Wilson and its studio offices were built across the Paramount studios in Hollywood, Kaufman went about informing Angelenos about the need to purchase UHF converter boxes for their TV sets. Through coverage in La Opinión, the principal Spanish-language newspaper in the region, as well as the Los Angeles Times, KMEX got word out about the impending arrival of California’s first Spanish-language station. Throughout the summer of 1962 local papers throughout the region used the KMEX launch as a marketing technique to encourage consumers to purchase UHF converter boxes. By the time KMEX was ready to debut, various electronic stores and TV parts shops reported a significant increase in UHF converter purchases. Contests and street-side UHF conversion demonstrations held in predominantly-Mexican American neighborhoods by KMEX staff helped prepare viewers for the arrival of la televisión en español in L.A.

 

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A Mexican American-owned TV shop uses KMEX’s debut to offer UHF conversion services via an October 1962 edition of the Corona Daily Independent.

After months of excitement, KMEX Channel 34 beamed onto the Southern California airwaves for the first time with a live ceremony on Sunday, September 30, 1962. Fernando Escandon read the first comments ever aired on KMEX: “Muy buenas tardes señoras y señores, KMEX Televisión Canal 34 inicia en estos momentos sus transmisiones” (Good evening ladies and gentlemen, KMEX-TV Channel 34 is now beginning its broadcasts). The half-hour dedication ceremony was attended by Academy Award-winning actress Rita Moreno, Mexican Consul Luis Orci, L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty, and City Councilman Edward Roybal, the first Mexican American on the L.A. City Council since 1881. Afterwards KMEX aired a two-and-a-half hour newscast of President John F. Kennedy’s state visit to Mexico City earlier that summer followed by bullfighting and pre-taped performances from Mexico’s Palacio de Bellas Artes. Volumes of Telesistema Mexicano programming, sent north daily by Azcárraga Vidaurreta, bolstered the station’s early programming. The initial opening KMEX made in the UHF band significantly encouraged the development of other L.A.-area UHF stations such as KCET Channel 28 which debuted two years later.

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Thrifty Drug Stores worked with KMEX Channel 34 to promote UHF conversion in this La Opinión advertisement.

Much has changed in the TV landscape of Southern California since KMEX Channel 34 first went on the air more than fifty years ago. As a sign of the Latino community’s growth, KVEA Channel 52 hit the airwaves as the second full-time Spanish-language station serving the L.A. area in 1985 in the new Telemundo network, threatening its counterpart’s dominance of the L.A. Latino market. KMEX Channel 34 itself has changed, having since become one of the most important stations in the Univision network, the successor entity to S.I.N. The historical development of Los Angeles’s Spanish-language media is a rich odyssey that greatly reflects the role of the U.S.-Mexican border region’s transnational movement of people and ideas in the formation of community identity and cultural institutions.


By Carlos Francisco Parra is working on his Ph.D in the USC History department.