By Brian R. Merrick
During the Cold War Americans mocked the Soviet Union’s creation of “non-persons”- prominent political or military persons who disappeared, not just from the Kremlin wall at the May Day Parade, but also from the newspapers and even the next edition of the history books.
We seem to be treading that path as some academics and journalists seek to erase references honoring major historical figures because their views on race did not conform to our much more evolved modern understanding.
John C. Calhoun, Yale class of 1804, ardent nationalist at the beginning of the War of 1812, U.S. Senator from South Carolina, Vice President and participant in the great Senate debates on states rights, but a southerner and defender of slavery, is one of 8 distinguished Yale alumni for whom its residential colleges are named. A move is afoot at Yale to change the name of Calhoun College because of his pro-slavery views.
Woodrow Wilson, faculty member and President of Princeton University, went on to become Governor of New Jersey, President of the United States during World War I and a founder of American internationalism by his advocacy of the League of Nations. Princeton honored him in 1930 by creating the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Wilson was born in ante-bellum Virginia, raised in the Confederacy and had decidedly segregationist views all his life, as did nearly all southern politicians through most of the 20th Century. Some students and faculty at Princeton want the Wilson name removed from the school because of his racial views.
On the local level some people in Boston want to rename “Yawkey Way” adjacent to Fenway Park, named for the South Carolina plantation owner, Thomas A. Yawkey, former owner of the Red Sox, because his reported racist views made the Boston Red Sox the last team in the major leagues to integrate its players. Yawkey was honored for his philanthropy supporting the Jimmy Fund and funding the Yawkey Foundation.
Even the fictional Atticus Finch, hero to generations of lawyers in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” has been excoriated when revealed in a “Go Set A Watchman,” written earlier but describing the same man 20 years older, to be a racist, facing a mortal threat from the Supreme Court and the NAACP to his well ordered segregationist world.
Some biblical heroes practiced polygamy. St. Thomas More burned heretics at the stake. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners. Abraham Lincoln was prepared to countenance slavery to save the Union. Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans for no reason but their race during World War II.
Historical figures must be judged as men in their own time and place. It is a loss to history to hold them to the values and standards of the 21st century. They should not be Photoshopped out of our knowledge of history or their achievements diminished by their views on race, however benighted and shameful we now know them to be.