My state of South Carolina, like many other states, has wrestled with the many places, statues, monuments and buildings named for people in leadership roles in what is euphemistically called in the South “the recent unpleasantness.” Or less euphemistically, The War of Northern Aggression. When the General Assembly reluctantly consented to hauling down the Stars and Bars flying over the State House, they also passed the Heritage Act, forbidding any entities from removing monuments or changing names of anything on public property without a 2/3 vote of the legislature. Lest we forget…protect our heritage–.the usual platitudes were trotted out.
I have come to the conclusion that these guardians of Civil War culture may have a point. We don’t need to erase that history. We just need to tell it true. Not the whitewashed (literally!) version. The warts and all version. Every monument, every park, every building should have, prominently displayed, a balanced biography of the honoree’s name.
I will use my own university where I am an emeritus professor to illustrate students my proposal, but it obviously applies to many public institutions and places. Clemson University, for example, may have to tolerate a prominent building named fir a racist violent 19th century governor who led the process of creating a constitution that perpetuated disenfranchisement of black voters and personally advocated and practiced physical and economic violence toward the state’s black majority. He also played a prominent role in the establishment of the college.
In front of that building is a statue of Thomas Greene Clemson, for whom the college is named, He bequeathed the land to the state for a “high seminary of learning for the agricultural and mechanical arts.” Surely his plaudits should acknowledge that neither African-American citizens or– heaven forbid, women–were welcome in its hallowed halls, or that Clemson himself was a slave owner who fought for the Confederacy.
I have mixed emotions about Clemson’s father-in-law, John C. Calhoun, who served in the U.S. Senate and as vice president under both Adams and Jackson. He was the original owner of the land on which the college was built–not counting, of course, the previous inhabitants, the Cherokees, who were sent west on the Trail of Tears to facilitate Calhoun and others access to mining for gold in nearby Georgia. But he also made useful contributions to ending the Mexican war, resisted high tariffs, and contributed to political theory. All three of these men were complex people in which good is mixed with not so good in varying forms and degrees.
.Universities are supposed to search for truth, proclaim truth, protect truth. Truth in historical markers would be a good place affirm that commitment.