Why tear up the past?


A destroyed statue of Ulysses S. Grant, why?

We’re in the midst of a rapidly changing reaction to perceived and actual police violence against unarmed black males which has gone beyond its original purposes to protest against that violence.  It has morphed into protest against many features from our past that were connected in one way or another to the issues of slavery and race in our history and present.

All dramatically changing  movements will include excesses, an example from the 1960s includes: https://sites.google.com/a/lakewoodcityschools.org/womensrights_1960/home/women-s-protests

Freedom trash cans were places set up by some women to dispense of women’s garments and included bra burnings.  In 1968, radicalized women protested the Miss America pageant as exploitive of women.  Some of us remember those days.  Those protests didn’t last long, but the fact that they took place illustrates the point made in this blog.

Now, we have statues, monuments, and place names associated with the Confederacy and/or racism being torn down or changed.  This has gone too far, in this author’s view.

Why was a statue of Grant torn down?  Allegedly because his wife’s family owned slaves.  The folks who did this displayed their ignorance of what Ulysses S. Grant did as commander of all the Union Armies to destroy slavery.  Later as President, he helped push for the 14th and 15th Amendments to protect the rights of African Americans.  He also used federal power to break the KKK.  He did what he could.

The alleged defacing of the Lincoln Memorial is a hoax.  See: https://www.factcheck.org/2020/06/statue-in-lincoln-memorial-was-not-defaced-by-protesters/

Why tear down or deface statues and monuments of Confederate leaders?  Because the great majority of them were put up usually by white women’s organizations who raised the funds and then got permission from public authorities to put them in public squares to help enforce white supremacy in the 1880s into the 1920s and again in the 1950s.  They were not put up primarily to honor those leaders.  General Lee, for example, specifically opposed any statues or monuments to supposedly honor him.  His explicit wishes were later ignored.  That was dishonorable.

Here, we MUST draw a distinction between those statues and monuments as opposed to those put up on Civil War battlefields to honor the men who fought there.  Surely, we can make that clear. Those put up much later should be moved to museums or at least used as teaching devices where they are; or, perhaps moved to Civil War battlefields to join those already there.  They ought not be destroyed as they ARE part of our history that should be remembered.   My long experience in college teaching has been that few of my students were aware of when and why and by who these statues were created. What do you think?

Well, what about President Woodrow Wilson?  Here, it gets complicated.  He segregated the U.S. Government and had the White House host a showing of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation which was designed to show that the KKK redeemed the South and with it the nation from radical reconstruction and blacks.  It is a false narrative (though an innovative film in its techniques), but Wilson believed it and said so.  There is no question that he was a racist. His legacy has been seriously debated at Princeton more than once before the current discussion.

And, yet, he was a Progressive Reformer.  He eventually pushed for women’s suffrage though only under pressure to do so.  See the film Iron Jawed Angels but with serious caution: https://teachinghistory.org/nhec-blog/25483.  But, he helped get it done. 

His lasting legacy is hard to quantify but it has been immense.  Please consult: https://millercenter.org/president/wilson/impact-and-legacy.  Also:   https://www.biography.com/us-president/woodrow-wilson.

Do we toss him into the dustbin of history and change key parts of Princeton named after him?  Try this from Princeton’s current President: https://www.princeton.edu/news/2020/06/27/president-eisgrubers-message-community-removal-woodrow-wilson-name-public-policy.

This author issues a qualified dissent.  If you look at his academic career, it was stellar and had a lasting positive impact on Princeton.  Overall, after his stay at Princeton, his legacy is without question of great significance.  So, which is more important?  His impact on Princeton?  His overall legacy?  His racism?  The changes made to remove his name at Princeton strike this author as a bit of an overreaction, but what do you think? Teach about his legacy.

I’ll end with a food for thought from our experience in Presov, Slovakia.  Suzanne, my wife, and I were teaching at Presov University in 1996-7 while on leave from Black Hawk College in Moline.  Of course, we noticed the hammer and sickle memorial in the town center.  What was that Soviet emblem there to represent? 

It turns out that after Communism fell and the Soviet tanks left there was a serious discussion on whether or not to tear it down.  The decision was to leave it as is because it was part of their history since the Red Army had liberated Presov from the Nazis, at great cost in lives at Dukla Pass  https://www.warhistoryonline.com/war-articles/tank-battle-dukla-museum-at-svidnik.html. 

Yes, Soviet communism was awful, but that emblem needed to be taught about, and it has been.

Suzanne and I think that’s a good role model.