We can stop honoring historical racists without rewriting history

    Georgetown University

    Georgetown University's campus in Washington (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

    What if a name has been etched for half a century on some institution of higher learning, despite all we have come to learn (and despair) about its namesake? And what if some people believe it’s time to tip those namesakes off their pedestals.

    What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

    Oh, Juliet. If you only knew.

    What if it’s not a rose, but stinkweed? What if the name isn’t Montague, but Calhoun (as in John), or Wilson (as in Woodrow) or Mulledy (as in Thomas F.)? What if that name has been etched for half a century or more on some institution of higher learning, despite all we have come to learn (and despair) about its namesake?

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    And what if, right now, at this fraught and fertile moment in America’s long saga of race-based oppression, some people believe it’s time to tip those namesakes off their pedestals, strip their monikers from marble facades and find other, more honorable souls to honor.

    Here’s what’s happening: after several months of discussion and a 250-student sit-in, Georgetown University decided to rename two buildings named for school presidents who organized the sale of slaves to help pay off campus debt in the 1830s.

    Let me say that again, in plainer terms: those two men arranged for the university to grow richer — or at least solvent — on the backs of human beings. Black human beings. Cousins, sons, daughters, sweethearts, sold like so many furs or revolvers or railroad ties.

    American truth and reconciliation

    You’ve never heard of Thomas F. Mulledy or William McSherry? Me, neither. It’s a good bet that the slaves exchanged on their watch never knew the names of the fellows who signed the bill of sale. And then, generations of students wandered in and out of those halls without a passing thought to the buildings’ namesakes.

    Until last year. When Georgetown students, along with those on campuses from Amherst to Cal State, began demanding that their schools do something about race-based hostility and become more genuinely inclusive, president John J. DeGioia listened.

    He formed a Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation. In November, he agreed that it was time for some names to go down in history. Way down. Mulledy Hall now bears the interim name of Freedom Hall, and McSherry Hall is temporarily dubbed Remembrance Hall.

    Meantime, at Princeton, students want to redub the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, a call endorsed by the New York Times editorial board, which termed Wilson an “unrepentant racist.”

    And at Yale, my alma mater, there’s a push to rename Calhoun College, one of the university’s dozen undergraduate residence halls. John Calhoun — a Yale graduate who went on to become a U.S. vice president — was raised on a South Carolina plantation. In public life, he opposed universal equality and ardently supported slavery.

    What’s in a name? More, sometimes, than we want to know. And once we know, how can we forget or justify or glance the other way? How can we walk, day after day, through the doors of a building named for a man who thought it was good and right and natural for white people to own black people? How can we sleep soundly in halls named for hatred?

    Not rewriting history

    Yale’s president has invited comment about whether to rename Calhoun — and the 600 responses thus far have run the gamut from “of course” to “not so fast,” including the notion of a hybrid title that would pair Calhoun with the name of a noted abolitionist. While there’s a tinge of gleeful mischief in that forced-bedfellows metaphor, the idea keeps Calhoun (at least partially) in a place of honor he doesn’t deserve.

    Naturally, some are invoking the slippery slope: If we remove the names of those whose beliefs don’t match modern ideals of justice and decency, if we say that we can no longer honor racists even if they also happened to be presidents of the university (or of the country), then how far must we go? Will we rename the nation’s capitol because Washington owned slaves? Must every Jefferson Street from Connecticut to California be re-christened for a different hero?

    But the slippery slope is where we live; it’s the place that universities are supposed to teach us how to navigate. We’re always drawing lines, then re-drawing them, as insight and values evolve: between free expression and hurtful speech; between art and pornography; between— oh, I don’t know — security and freedom from Big Brother rifling through our phone records.

    Others, skeptical of changing the buildings’ names, wave the wary flag of revisionism: If Yale calls Calhoun College something else, isn’t that just altering the past to suit current sensibilities? But no one is suggesting that we redact Calhoun’s name from history books or shred his supremacist papers.

    We should study Calhoun, just as we should scrutinize the Holocaust and the massacre at Wounded Knee and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, because it’s crucial to understand how fear and hate can flame to action, then fuse into policy. How racism becomes redlining; how prejudice abets power.

    We need to study these things because, African-American president notwithstanding, we are not a post-racial society. Unsure about that? Ask the mother of Michael Brown, or the friends of Eric Garner. Ask the descendants of a slave whose raw-armed toil in South Carolina cotton fields put John Calhoun through four years at Yale.

    How long will we shelter racism?

    In the end, this question is bigger than any university building. It’s a question that should make people like me squirm — people whose white skin grants us a daily ease that is too thoughtlessly taken for granted.

    For how long will we continue to honor people whose beliefs sicken us? For how long can we overlook the inequality that streams, like a toxic current, through public and private life — in the mass incarceration of people of color; in desperately underfunded urban schools; in the frightening rhetoric of more than one GOP presidential candidate?

    This debate is really about America’s failure to do what South Africa did with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or what Germany has done by turning face-forward to its anti-Semitic past. It’s about our slowness to acknowledge the pain we’ve inflicted — and still inflict — on others. It’s about our reluctance to part with privilege.

    What’s in a name? Oh, Juliet, darling, just about everything. Next time, instead of sinking that dagger into your own sweet chest, toss it aside and join the other students on the lawn, including the ones whose people hate your people. Listen to them; shout with them. Keep your eyes open. Pay attention in history class. Then, all together, write the next act.

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