Slavery's shadow

December 09, 1997|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Few people outside of Orleans Parish, La., took much notice when the school board decided in 1992 to strip the names of former slave owners off its public schools.

Nobody much cared for five years, until they decided to change the name of an elementary school named after that great Virginia slave holder, George Washington.

A pioneer

That's when the stuff hit the fan. It is now the Dr. Charles Richard Drew Elementary School, in honor of the black surgeon who pioneered blood banks during World War II and opposed racially segregating donated blood.

That's progress. We go from a man who, historians say, did not hesitate to whip blood from either his soldiers or his slaves, whenever he felt they needed it, to a man who saved blood and was willing to give it to whoever needed it.

That, in my view, is a pretty good message for kids.

But not everyone sees things my way. As soon as word got out that Washington's name was no longer politically correct in New Orleans, the repercussions rattled nationwide.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune quickly got hold of James Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon, the late general's landmark estate in Virginia. He thought the name change was ''an absolute outrage.''

''George Washington lived in a different time and place,'' Mr. Rees said. ''To lift his life of accomplishment out of context and judge him by our standards today is completely unfair.''

Well, so was slavery. Remembering this sad fact puts Washington's accomplishments and those of other slave holders like Thomas Jefferson into context.

The controversy stems from a 5-year-old policy that opposes any school name that honors ''former slave owners or others who did not respect equal opportunity for all.''

More than 20 public schools have been renamed since. They include Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, and Robert E. Lee, Confederate Army commander. The former Lee School was renamed for Ronald McNair, an astronaut killed in the 1986 Challenger explosion. The school formerly named for Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard has been renamed for Thurgood Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice.

A black slave owner

And, as if to ease the minds of those who suspect some kind of thinly veiled assault against dead white males is afoot, the board also took away the name of Marie Couvent, a prominent black woman who founded an orphanage but also owned slaves.

Ultimately, we should care less about whose name goes on the school than on what kind of learning goes on inside the school. Students need to know that history is complicated. They need to learn about history as real people and events, warts and all, not as fairy tales dreamed up by apologists.

But, when it comes to such niceties as the naming of schools in our communities, I see no reason why we African Americans should be called narrow-minded if we would prefer not to hold in highest esteem those people who held people like us in bondage, who bought and sold our ancestors like property and bred them like animals.

The very fact that anyone sounds surprised, hurt or outraged that any of us take offense at this notion only shows the depth of some people's ignorance and denial about race and racism.

Spoils to the winners

History, it has often been said, is written by the winners. The renaming of schools, streets and other public places expresses many significant things. Among them are the growing political clout of new groups that are coming of age as full participants in America's dynamic ethnic stew.

Someday, who knows? The Charles Drew school could become the Benito Juarez School or the Roberto Clemente School or something else that honors the ancestry of whatever ethnic group happens to be gaining. Neighborhoods change. So do interpretations of history. So, we should honor Washington and the other founders for setting up a system that has endured and prospered, thanks to their wisdom -- and in spite of their flaws.

Clarence Page is a Chicago Tribune columnist.

Pub Date: 12/09/97

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