Historical revisionists are hard at work today, not just in California but all over America. In some places, this practice has merit, but it’s expensive and often seems unjustified.
In Virginia the other day, a local school board lifted the names of past Presidents Woodrow Wilson and John Tyler from elementary schools. Wilson, the first Southerner to become president after the Civil War, was not dishonored for leading America into World War I or for doggedly promoting the former League of Nations, for which the Senate rejected U.S. membership.
Rather, the onetime head of Princeton University, wrote a textbook praising both the slavery-centered Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan. The school formerly bearing his name will now be called Manor High School. At about the same time, Princeton removed Wilson’s name from two of its institutes.
Tyler, the 10th president, also later sided with the Confederacy and briefly served in its House of Representatives. His namesake school is now called Waterview Elementary.
Those renamings, done so that Black children would not have to attend schools called after men who worked to keep their forebears enslaved, look justifiable in the modern era. Slavery is not open to much debate.
But the revisionism in California can sometimes become ludicrous. For every justifiable effort to remove the recently sainted Junipero Serra’s name from streets and schools because the chain of missions he founded in the late 1700s survived through Native American forced labor, there are multiple others without much merit.
Even Abraham Lincoln and current U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein have been targeted. Lincoln, often credited with freeing the slaves via his Emancipation Proclamation (which officially freed only slaves in Confederate states), is now targeted by some Native Americans and their allies. These efforts are nowhere stronger than in San Francisco, where 42 schools see their current monikers challenged for the alleged sins of their namesakes.
Was Abe Lincoln a bad guy, despite struggling to hold the Union together and letting most slaves go free? Well, note some, he enabled the U.S. Army to carry on the Indian Wars. That, of course, ignores the fact that Lincoln would have been ridden out of Washington, D.C. on the proverbial rail if he had not provided men and resources to protect white settlers during America’s expansionist era.
If he had not done this, of course, the shape of the modern world would be quite different from today, in ways no one can know.
So, should his name disappear from all those Lincoln High Schools and middle schools? It’s an open question. The same for George Washington, long recognized as “the father of his country,” but also a slave owner. Washington, admired for refusing to become king of America when he could have after his two terms as the first president, instead retired to his Mt. Vernon plantation where he was served by scores of slaves.
Should his name become anathema because he was born into wealth in an English colony? Just how much rebellion against his day’s norms can we expect from him? It’s another open question.
Feinstein has been condemned by the San Francisco school system for her alleged role in evicting 150 elderly Chinese and Filipino residents of a hotel that was demolished in 1977 — a year before Feinstein became her city’s mayor. The school board also calls her out because a Confederate flag once flew at City Hall during a design exhibition — years before she was mayor. Trying to hold Feinstein responsible for these episodes looks like unfair historical revision.
Other activists around California want to remove the names of poet James Lowell and pioneering conservationist John Muir from schools and buildings because they were insufficiently supportive of Black equality in their turn-of-the-20th-Century era, when very few whites were active in that cause.
It’s all supposed to give schoolchildren proper heroes to admire and emulate. But because most humans live in their own times and don’t know the future, it’s hard to assess how politically correctly we can expect anyone to have behaved in prior eras.
Or maybe, suggested one wag, we should give our schools numbers, as in New York City. Anyone for P.S. 19 instead of Lincoln High?
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].
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