Historical revisionism — that’s the only term to describe what’s happening today in the naming of public schools and parks. Who led what, who created what, whose ideas and ideals resulted in today’s world, these things mean less with each passing week and each renaming.
Admittedly, it makes no sense to lionize persons like Braxton Bragg, the commander of the Confederate Army of the Mississippi during the Civil War and the recipient of three brevet promotions during a single battle in the Mexican-American War about 18 years earlier.
The Northern California outpost and later city of Ft. Bragg took his name after he returned from Mexico with a hero’s reputation, and city officials say they’ll keep the name even though Bragg had little connection to the area.
There’s good reason for African Americans to resent naming any city after Bragg and little reason for anyone else to support honoring his name.
But that’s very different from the likes of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, for whom schools, parks and cities have long been named all over America. No one ever claimed these seminal figures in United States history were saints, but things they did shaped America for the better in definite ways.
No doubt Washington was a major slave owner, his sumptuous home and lifestyle at Mt. Vernon near what is now Washington, D.C. enabled by exploitation of the labor of human beings he owned. But Washington led the Continental Army with daring, inspiration and courage in the Revolutionary War. He also refused offers to become king of this country around the time he left office after two terms as the first president. For a contrast, imagine how Donald Trump might react to such an offer.
For his remarkable actions and his refusal of monarchic status, Washington deserves massive recognition despite enslaving others. Yes, he had flaws, but he shaped American ideals perhaps more than any other individual. Removing his name from schools — as the San Francisco school Board now contemplates — or from cities would amount to renouncing some of the best of our history.
The same for Lincoln, whose Emancipation Proclamation freed almost all slaves in America. Yes, he conducted Indian wars against Native American tribes and even drank some alcohol. Lincoln, thus, was also not saintly, but he remains a seminal figure in American progress and national survival. Erasing his name amounts to an attempt to erase history.
The list goes on, especially in San Francisco, where officials are considering renaming schools called after Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere, Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the Alamo, US Sen. and former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, naturalist John Muir and early San Francisco Mayor Adolph Sutro.
In no case, are or were any of these figures perfect human beings, which apparently is required to satisfy revisionist standards of political correctness. In each case, the individual or institution was a product of contemporary times and morality.
It might be appropriate to consider renaming the many Mission schools in San Francisco and other parts of California because of the enslavement of Native Americans by Spanish monks who led the European exploration and colonization of Mexico and then this state.
But there can be no argument that the mission system, with its churches and attendant farms neatly placed a day’s journey apart had a major part in California’s development, even to the placement of major cities. Denying that history invites nothing but ignorance.
It’s not merely schools that are under pressure now to change names and thus attempt to downgrade the history and contributions of past leaders and institutions.
There’s also a move afoot to change names of state parks, most of which already carry names of locations and not people. Example: Two former state park commissioners suggested in an op-ed the other day renaming parks in Los Angeles after African-descended soldiers who accompanied the Spaniards who founded Los Angeles. But that expedition was not their idea, nor did they decide how it was conducted. Their leaders did.
Naming parks and schools for folks who were along for the ride but not shaping events would mislead and misrepresent history, with potential consequences no one today can foresee.