You cannot get more American than George Washington, the President who adorns the One Dollar bill emblazoned with “In God We Trust.” Yet in 1992 he came under attack when the parents and staff at a New Orleans school succeeded in replacing his name with that of Dr. Charles Drew, a noted black physician. The decision stemmed from a controversial Board policy calling for the renaming of all schools named after former slave owners or others who did not respect “equal opportunity for all.” http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/race_relations/july-dec97/schools_11-25.html
The renaming schools controversy spread quickly to other cities and towns. Across the United States there were then 450 schools named for George Washington, including George Washington University in D.C. Hundreds of other schools were identified because they were named after American presidents who owned slaves, such as Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Mason.
Renaming schools to defrock former historical notables opens up a ‘Pandora’s Box’ and has sparked controversies in many school districts. Social justice advocates and special interest groups are usually the instigators and the “sanitizers” all claim to be “correcting past wrongs.” Charges of racism, genocide, and inhuman cruelty are heaped upon the dead and are too often simply accepted without much scrutiny. Few citizens dare to object, fearing vilification at the hands of the liberal media or retaliation from what remains of the politically correct (PC) vigilantes.
The infamous American school renaming controversy came to a head in a memorable PBS Newshour Special, November 25, 1997, focusing on “Re-assessing Civic Symbols.” It all died down when leading American historians entered the fray and cooler heads finally prevailed.
On PBS Newshour, Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke out strongly against the move to eradicate Washington’s name because it threatened to arouse once buried “tribalism” and failed to recognize that “history is a combination of forces.” Author Haynes Johnson declared that “to equate George Washington to Adolf Hitler is absurd…it’s political correctness run wild.” Even Cornel West, author of Restoring Hope, was uncomfortable with actions than might “demonize Washington” and warned against engaging in “a fetish of symbols.”
Since the late 1990s, school renaming controversies have erupted periodically in the United States more than in Canada. The meteoric rise of Barak Obama in 2008-09 prompted a spate of U.S. schools to appropriate his name. Student Noah Horowitz created a furor in Houston, Texas, in August and September 2009, when he when he lead a spirited campaign to remove the names of six Confederate leaders from HISD schools. http://wn.com/Noah_Horwitz A valiant attempt in January 2011 to rename Rochester High School after U.S. Army 1st Lt. Adam Malson, an Iraq War hero, was blocked because it violated school district policy.
The old controversy is back in the education news. Removing the name of Halifax’s founder, Edward Cornwallis, from the masthead of a South End junior high school is perhaps the most recent and blatant example. http://thechronicleherald.ca/Front/1249921.html The case against Cornwallis hangs on the fact that he issued a 1749 proclamation putting a bounty on the scalps of Mi’kmaq men, women, and children.
On that basis, the appointed Mi’kmaq Trustee, Kirk Arsenault, succeeded in convincing the elected Halifax School Board to remove Cornwallis’ name. No one spoke against the move and a jubilant Arsenault now claims that “anything that’s named after Edward Cornwallis needs to be changed.”
The HRSB’s unanimous decision has not only opened the door to renaming other public monuments and streets, but implicitly endorsed Mi’kmaq author Daniel N. Paul’s 25-year crusade to vilify Cornwallis and the so-called “European ruling classes” for “their efforts to destroy the Amerindians.” http://www.danielnpaul.com/WeWereNotTheSavages-Mi%27kmaqHistory.html
Renaming the school is not a trifling matter. Cornwallis was the British military officer credited with founding Halifax in 1749 with some 2,576 white settlers. He commanded the British forces in the midst of a period of frontier warfare where the British, French and Mi’kmaq repeatedly killed combatants, including women, children and babies. A downtown street, local park, and famous statue also bear his name.
Cornwallis did proclaim a bounty on the scalps of Mi’kmaq men, women, and children. What is problematic, however, is whether such an action, undertaken in a state of brutal frontier warfare, was that unusual and, indeed, whether 18th century military commanders should be judged by modern standards.
Much of the Mi’kmaq claim is presented in Paul’s 1993 book We Were Not the Savages. Paul’s book contends that the British and specifically Cornwallis were guilty of waging “genocide” and then compares Cornwallis’s actions with Adolf Hitler’s “ extermination of most of Europe’s Jews.”
Such charges certainly arouse the passions and draw much-needed attention to the larger historical context. Settling and defending Halifax was part of a European 18th century “conquest” of the Americas, but Cornwallis’s actions were not appreciably different those of other governors who offered “scalp bounties” and committed atrocities in times of colonial frontier warfare.
Paul’s analysis of Cornwallis is incredibly one-sided and enjoys little support among North American historians. Halifax’s founder has been lauded for his choice of the Citadel Hill site, organizing the first government, and setting up a courts system modelled after Virginia. http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?BioId=35941 Such achievements mean little to Arsenault, Paul and the sanitizers.
The Mi’kmaq claim is not supported in John E. Grenier’s 2008 book The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710-1760. In it, Cornwallis is depicted as a British colonial official who used “brutal but effective measures” to “ wrest control of Nova Scotia from French and Indian enemies who were no less ruthless.”
Basing public policy on re-writing history can only lead to further social injustices. The distinguished Canadian historian J. L. Granatstein put it best: “You can’t apply today’s standards to people in the past. That just gets silly.” http://www.macleans.ca/article.jsp?content=n7231269
What motivates the sanitizers in their campaigns to change school names? Why are parents and the public so inclined to accept the “demonization” of historical figures at face value? If we continue to judge past military or civic figures by present-day standards, where will it end?