Now even George Washington's a bum, under lens of political revisionism

January 04, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

NEW ORLEANS -- George Washington was once considere a real hero -- dogged commander of the Continental Army, judicious first president.

But here, in a city reconsidering its Southern past, there has been talk lately about George Washington, the slave owner.

In New Orleans, people are debating whether public schools should be named after anyone who owned slaves. Even Washington.

This kind of re-examination seems to be happening all over as women and members of different races and ethnicities gain political power and raise pointed questions about symbols of old and history's heroes.

Among the subjects of dispute are a Florida festival honoring a Spanish explorer who killed Indians and a Cincinnati street named after disgraced ballplayer Pete Rose.

"There will be more and more of this to come," predicts Isaac Robinson, sociology professor at North Carolina Central University in Durham. "We're moving toward a more diverse society, which is questioning the cultural values and icons and myths that . . . represent an Anglo-Saxon Protestant focus."

That questioning can be clearly heard in the New Orleans school fight.

"You have African-American children, in a 90 percent black district, going to schools named after slave owners, wearing sweat shirts with slave owners' names on them," argues insurance salesman Carl Galmon, who has waged a two-year campaign to get that changed.

History is a complicated matter, however, and the implicit condemnation of time-honored heroes -- some of whom, it is argued, contributed to black causes -- has stirred dissension in New Orleans, as well as eliciting surprise elsewhere.

"I am staggered by the political correctness of that," says Morris Vogel, history professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Still, Washington has plenty of company when it comes to historical reconsideration.

In Florida, there was Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto, who landed in Manatee County in 1539. The county re-creates that historic event every year in Bradenton.

For years, townspeople in feathered hats and black breeches jumped from canoes brandishing Spanish swords and screaming heathen" and "savage" as they pretended to hack down high school students in mock Indian attire.

Three years ago, American Indians took note and protested.

So the event was toned down: No hollering. No stabbing at Indians.

But activists for Indian rights contend De Soto should be reconsidered altogether. This assassin was no hero at all, they argue.

"He totally decimated the Indian population in Florida," says Indian rights activist Sheridan Murphy. "You would think, in all of its history, Manatee County could find someone better to celebrate than a murderer and extortionist."

Much of the dilemma stems from the way names were picked in the first place: very long ago, by the earliest people in power.

In Portland, Ore., for example, street names were chosen to honor railroad tycoons and bankers and businessmen of the city's early decades, says Carl Abbott, professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University.

"These are the symbols we use for our community," says Mr. Abbott, a committee member. "And I can't see much wrong with changing them. Different generations understand their history differently."

In Cincinnati, there have been several name changes: one for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., another for Ezzard Charles, the heavyweight boxing champion who grew up in Cincinnati, and yet another for former president Reagan.

One instructive lesson came after a street was renamed for baseball star Rose, who was later convicted of tax evasion.

"The lesson was, you shouldn't name things after living people because you can't tell what they're going to do next," says Zane Miller, professor of history at the University of Cincinnati.

The most talked about case of this historical revisionism came in 1992 with the Christopher Columbus celebrations.

Columbus was criticized probably as much as he was honored. It turns out that, 500 years after his famous voyage, people are more sensitive about what the explorer did after he discovered islands in the Caribbean -- slaughter Indians.

Of those lesser known who killed, there is Chicago's John Kinzie.

People who know their Chicago history know that Kinzie, a fur trapper, was one of the city's first settlers. There is a street named for him and his pioneering life.

But few remember that Kinzie was also the city's first killer, says Perry Duis, associate professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

It turns out Kinzie killed a personal enemy but escaped punishment in true Chicago style: He used political clout. At the old Fort Dearborn, Kinzie prevailed in his defense that it was justifiable homicide, Mr. Duis says.

"I would think the people on Kinzie Street have no idea," he says.

There could be plenty of revising still to come.

As Lawrence Powell, of Tulane University, says: "By present-day standards, a lot of worthies from the past wouldn't measure up."

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