In the U.S. and in Europe, monuments, memorials and historic names are being removed from public places because of their associations with colonial expansion, racial bigotry and discriminatory public policy. In this country, initiatives are under way to redesignate military bases that honor Confederate generals, rename buildings that celebrate those with racist attitudes and actions, and remove statues of elected officials who not only enslaved people but fought to keep them as slaves. Princeton University is removing President Woodrow Wilson’s name because of his racist views and policies.
There are those who want the statue of President Theodore Roosevelt removed from in front of the American Museum of Natural History because it features two smaller figures on either side of him representing colonial expansion and racial discrimination. Others advocate the removal of Christopher Columbus statues because of the harm he did to others.
Monuments and memorials are expressions of a nation’s, a region’s or an institution’s values. They are erected or named to commemorate people who are seen as exemplifying those values. They are a form of mythmaking and political posturing to honor the past. In some cases, such as the naming of military bases for those who fought against the Union in order to preserve the system of slavery, even to the point of death, they were an attempt to heal the wounds of war and defeat. They were also a mistake.
History is an essential subject, but it is given too little attention in schools and colleges. History is an examination of memory in all its forms in order to study what came before, whether in politics, norms of behavior, or science and technology. History is necessary to understand art and social policy as well as law and philosophy, because history is the study of context as well as text.
What should we do with the monuments that celebrate those who fought to preserve the slave system, an essential element in the development of American capitalism? Are preservation as is or removal of historical statues and memorials our only options?
To hide these monuments will not erase the stress and trauma of racism that Black Americans face every day. To bury them will not deep-six the memories of segregation, slavery and Jim Crow that have resulted in great disparities in health, wealth and opportunities for Black Americans. The statues and monuments should be put in museums or stored and represented in books for teaching the truth about our country, its trials as well as its triumphs. They can be used to teach about evolution in law, morality and ethics — and what equality means.
In each case, it can be explained that there was vigorous opposition to slavery; not everyone condoned it, even if popular figures benefited from it. During George Washington’s first year in office as president, the Society of Friends — the Quakers, previously led by abolitionist Benjamin Franklin — petitioned the U.S. government to ban slavery, an initiative they had started in 1696. One hundred six years before Woodrow Wilson segregated the federal workforce, Britain had passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act.
There were slave rebellions and acts of civil disobedience that belied the notion of the “happy slave.” There was also an active abolitionist movement and lecture circuit, with Frederick Douglass, a former slave, a popular speaker and author. His 1852 speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July,” for the Rochester, N.Y., Ladies Anti-Slavery Society, was one of many that helped dispel the notion that Black people lacked intelligence.
The fact that many people, including those elected to high office, benefited from the slave system did not mean there was no active and public opposition to it throughout the land.
We need a national reconciliation with the truth if we are to fulfill the ideal “to create a more perfect union,” stated at the founding of our nation. The truth might hurt, but should be cited in honor of the ideals of democracy. These truths are neither unpatriotic nor politically correct. They acknowledge that historical accuracy is a virtue, and that our country was founded on ideals that were virtuous in aspiration if not in action.
America was founded by people seeking freedom who then proceeded to deny freedom to others. We must own up to this past. The study of history helps us think in terms of time, to understand how societies change. We must know our history — and teach it well.
Robert A. Scott is president emeritus of Adelphi University.