You Can’t Judge a Historical Figure by Today’s Standards

Some people take it upon themselves to make wholesale changes to history by applying contemporary sensibilities to those who lived in the past.

Matt Haney, San Francisco School Board President, made headlines a couple of weeks ago when he recommended that George Washington High School be renamed due to Washington being a slave owner.  He suggested replacing Washington’s name with Maya Angelou’s.

As much as I admire Angelou, she worked as a prostitute and a madam when she was young, not exactly noble professions.  However, overcoming these obstacles as well as a childhood rape makes her story of survival and success quite compelling.   There should be a school named after her, but not at the expense of removing the name of the father of our country.

Back in the 1770s, wealthy men typically were slave owners.   To his credit, Washington had written in his will that his slaves were to be freed.  The Mount Vernon website states that Washington was “the only slave-holding Founding Father” to do this.

Think of all the schools, streets, and cities named after George Washington.

Since half of Washington, D.C.’s population is African-American, should that region be renamed as well?

It is wrong to judge a person from the past based on current mores.

One could make the case that all historical figures have something in their past that would not pass the 2016 litmus test.

John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, probably would not have been in favor of same-sex marriage in 1960, but that was not even an issue in his time so it is unfair to judge him on it.

Who is to say that something people do now may be viewed as abhorrent 50 or 100 years from now?

Some people protest the teaching of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in schools because of the frequent use of the n-word.   Those ignorant of the book might even label Twain a racist without understanding that what Twain was writing back in 1885—a white boy sharing a raft and a life’s journey with a black man who serves as a surrogate father—was quite progressive in 1885.

Flash forward 130 years later, and people wish to denigrate Twain’s legacy.  However, he was not living in the 20th or 21st century.

This weekend the National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in Washington, D.C. with artifacts about Bill Cosby including a note about the current sexual accusations against the entertainer.

Some people wanted all mention of Cosby to be expunged from the museum.

If he is convicted, should he be wiped out of history?

Evidently there are not enough legitimate issues for the San Francisco School Board to grapple with, allowing them the luxury to raise issues that do nothing but put their district in the news for the wrong reasons.

Ask students what they want from their school and changing the name of it probably does not appear on their to-do list.

Mr. Haney and others like him should cease the high and mighty posture and stop altering with what people did before they were born.  That’s not their job.

Let’s hope removing George Washington’s name from the history books does not appear on the next school board meeting’s agenda.

 

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