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Historian Annette Gordon-Reed: The Culture Wars, Juneteenth, and 1/6

Credit: Tony Rinaldo Photography

Nationally renowned American historian Annette Gordon-Reed has been everywhere this past year speaking out on history and the culture wars. Actually she has not been anywhere except for her home in New York City.  It just seems that way because during the COVID pandemic she has been everywhere virtually without having to leave home. That also means I have had the opportunity to hear her virtually without having to leave home either (and read her as well).

This blog is dedicated to highlighting a year of Gordon-Reed. I do not claim to have watched all her performances, read all her articles, or articles about her, but there are enough examples to provide a good insight into the thinking of one of America’s foremost historians discussing some of the hot-button cultural war topics of the times. To include all her performances would make for a very long blog.

Spoiler alert: Annette Gordon- Reed speaks normal.

July 2, 2020: Erasing History or Making History? Race, Racism, and the American Memorial Landscape 

The AHA executive director James Grossman hosted David W. Blight, Yale University, and Annette Gordon-Reed, Harvard University. The interview is available online.

In this blog, I will focus on the comments of Gordon-Reed and given the space limitations will not be able to cover everything. One notes that the interview occurred shortly after the murder of George Floyd.

She commented that the culture war fight over monuments shifts attention from economic and social concerns. While that is true, symbolic acts are important, too. For example, the toppling of the statue of King George III in lower Manhattan after the signing of the Declaration of Independence was not simply a mere “symbolic” act. The challenge is to use the symbolic to further the other issues and not diminish them.

Gordon-Reed took great issue with the lumping together of the founders of the United States of America and the founders of the Confederacy. The founding documents of the Confederacy typically are overlooked compared to the military exploits of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Although the names of two political entities are similar and both share the American Revolution in common, the values expressed in the two sets of founding documents are not the same.

One could go one step further than she did. If England had ever freed the colonies on its own initiative as it later did Canada, it is quite possible that it would have divided the colonies into multiple nations. Without the shared experience of the American Revolution and leadership of George Washington, little held the 13 colonies together in 1776 beyond the previous allegiance to England. The Confederate Constitution provides us with a glimpse of how the South might have been governed as an independent country right from the start if there had not been a United States.

She considers July 4, 1776, to be the birthday of the country. She said there was nothing inevitable from the arrival of the English in 1607 in Virginia to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. She adds that 1776 also unleashed the anti-slavery movement (although it took until Juneteenth for it be fulfilled nationally). Although she did participate in The New York Times 1619 Project, her comments indicate she does not support replacing 1776 with 1619.

On the subject of memorials, monuments, and flags, Gordon-Reed said we need to have this kind of discussions [referring to the vote in Mississippi on changing the state flag] because people do terrible things. She opposes taking down monuments outside the law but supports the Jeffersonian idea of having periodic discussions about the monuments we do have. For the statue of Teddy Roosevelt at the American Museum of Natural History, she favors the removal the two people on his side due to the impact on children who see it. Personally, I favor adding a (white) Rough Rider of the same size and musculature as those two.

October 29, 2020: Jefferson: Then and Now (Massachusetts Historical Society)

The reputations of all of the founders have changed dramatically over the course of American history, none more than that of Thomas Jefferson. Historians Annette Gordon-Reed, Harvard University, and Peter Onuf, University of Virginia, will discuss the implications of recent political and social developments for our image of the slave-owning author of the Declaration of Independence, emphasizing the importance of situating Jefferson in his own historical context for a better understanding of the history and future prospects of democracy in America. Online here.

Sometimes, Gordon-Reed really tells it like is us with no sugarcoating. For example, there could not have a United States of America without slave states – get over it. This observation may be too real for people who prefer two-dimensional history. She comments that in the real world, Jefferson didn’t know what to do about slavery. He had faith in science and the enlightenment. Change would continue. We had defeated the most powerful nation on earth and there was an optimism that good things would happen as time went on. The idea of infinite possibilities seems naïve today but not then – the Founders thought things could become better.

One telling comment rings especially true: we need to believe in a shared past.

Gordon-Reed, as a biographer, tends to think of Thomas Jefferson as a person and not a cliché. He was both a slave-owner and author of the Declaration of Independence. Both aspects are part of who he was an individual human being. She suggests we think of him as a complex person who wanted to make a mark in the world and did.

Gordon-Reed adds a personal note on her attraction to Jefferson.  She became Jefferson fan in school. She learned that life and people are not simple. Jefferson had to have had a curious mind and that appealed to her. Yes historical researched shows people are flawed people but that does not eliminate the human need for heroes. We can recognize the importance of people and commemorate them without the adoration. She predicts that if we can revive a civic sense of democracy, then Jefferson will be an important figure.

She considers patriotism to mean being critical and telling the truth. After all, you can love your children without believing everything they do is right.

May 4, 2021: Black America’s Neglected Origin Stories (Atlantic, online, print June issue)

She begins her article with the revelation that she took Texas history in the fourth and seventh grades. I wonder how many states teach state history even once. In a book review on her new book, On Juneteenth, University of Texas Professor H. W Brands notes that the 7th grade teaching of Texas history to Texans occurs at the same age Catholic children are confirmed and Jewish kids are bar- and bat-mitzvahed (NYT May 9, 2021).

In those grades, she learned about the period of Spanish exploration in Texas. In particular, she recalls “stray references to a man of African descent—a ‘Negro’ named Estebanico—who travelled throughout Texas. She calls him “one of the first people of African descent to enter the historical record in the Americas.” Estebanico’s facilities with languages garners additional attention leading to more generalized comments about Africans as language-learners in American history. She notes that the 1520s is roughly a century earlier than when the most popular stories date the arrival of Africans. Gordon-Reed devotes a paragraph to observing the Virginia origin story [meaning 1619] leaves out this earlier time.

Next she turns to the origin stories of Jamestown in 1607 and Plymouth in 1620. She recognizes the importance of origin stories for individuals, groups, and nations. While these two stories include interactions with the local people, she laments the absence of Africans in either one. Gordon-Reed suggests St. Augustine, Florida, beginning in 1565, to be added to the mix.

Her next point is more crucial. In her studies of American history, the British and its colonies tend to be privileged in the narrative. Spain, France, and the Dutch tend to be historical footnotes, ignored or minimized. England was the winner in all these relationships. The implication of Gordon-Reed’s observations is that beside the traditional issue of the role of Africans in American history, there is separate issue of the privileging of English or Anglo history in American history. I would refine that further to privileging the New-England-Massachusetts-Harvard perspective based on where these histories were written. White people from New York to the Confederates can be shortchanged in these histories as well.

May 9, 2021: Texas on Her Mind (NYT)

In the aforementioned book review, Brands makes a telling point about her. He cites the story she would have learned about Cynthia Ann Parker. This staple of the 7th grade class tells of “a white girl stolen by Comanches on the Texas frontier and adopted into the tribe. She bore a son, Quannah, who became the last great warrior of the Comanches.”  He quotes Gordon-Reed realizing “that so many wrong things were packed into this one narrative.” Such as the Comanches “defending from the whites … land they had seized from other Indians. She discovered that Indians held slaves, with some [of them] for this reason siding with the Confederacy during the Civil War.” Kidnapping girls to make them brides also offended her.

I would comment that for Gordon-Reed, the curious individual growing up in this milieu in Texas of Africans, Comanches, Confederates, Indians, Spanish, and (white) Texans helped prepare her to tackle a subject like Thomas Jefferson. She has the perceptive ability to see beyond the two-dimensional stereotypes. She was blessed with encountering to many of them they could not all be true.

June 18, 2021 On Juneteenth — A Virtual Discussion with Annette Gordon-Reed (American Philosophical Society)

Her new book, On Juneteenth, combines history and family memoir of her life in Texas. As a child, Juneteenth was a fun day of drinking soda pop to excess, fire crackers, visiting family and friends like July 4 is a national holiday. Gordon-Reed identifies family as the essence of the holiday and separation of family as enslavement.

Given all the current fuss about the Alamo and slavery, she comments that it is impossible to teach Texas history and the Alamo without including slavery. The Texas Constitution differs from the U.S. Constitution in that it is explicit about slavery and racism. Mexico had outlawed slavery. The Texas slaveholders wanted to be part of the Cotton Kingdom with slavery and not Mexico without it. Mexico’s desire for a buffer with the Comanche often is overlooked as well.

Slavery in Texas predates slavery in Virginia. It began in the 1500s (1528) with Spain. The story was not one of plantation but exploration. One African even reached the Pacific as one of four survivors.  Gordon-Reed wonders what the impact would be if these Spanish/African memories were added to America’s origin story that didn’t privilege the English and Virginia. She wants such an adjustment to be considered.

July 12, 2021: Jan. 6 was a “turning point” in American history

 Interview by Chauncey DeVega, Salon

Gordon-Reed sees January 6 as “potentially a turning point in the country’s history….The whole concept of democracy and the republic are at stake. Confederates have not abandoned the “Lost Cause.” The defenders of Confederate statues have not repudiated that past. They have not changed.

Strangely enough, the Confederates actually seem to have won the cultural battle over the Civil War. When Gordon-Reed was growing up in Texas, she only occasionally saw a Confederate flag. Now she sees them more than she ever had in her entire childhood. In the constant battle for power, she points to the plantation weddings as an example of how white people today can block out the real meaning of plantations in American history. She might have added that to some extent that has been going since the book and the movie Gone with the Wind in the 1930s  Just because people admire the chivalry, nostalgia, and romantic setting of a medieval castle does not mean people want to live in the Middle Ages.

July 4, 2021: Between Juneteenth and the Fourth of July (NYT)

Let me conclude this overview with her own words:

Almost as soon as they were published, Jefferson’s soaring words in the Declaration’s preamble took on particular meaning to African Americans: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”,,, Every major Black leader or commentator on Black life in the United States, from the 18th century until today, has used the Declaration to analyze and critique the status of Black Americans.

What does all this mean as the Congressional investigation of 1/6 is set to begin? Gordon-Reed is right to point out the importance, I would say necessity, of having a shared story for the country. Obviously we do not have one. The January 6 Commission will show for the record that we live in two separate countries making little pretense that we are united. Whether or not we can create that shared narrative by July 4, 2026, is highly problematical. But if the history organizations want to contribute to that effort, then Annette Gordon-Reed would be an excellent choice to spearhead that effort.

[F]ortunately, the Declaration does not belong solely to historians. Like all good writing, the words took on a meaning outside the context in which they were written.

The notion of equality referred to in the Declaration has become an animating principle in American life. Indeed Jefferson, by the end of his life, understood that his words on the subject had taken on a larger meaning. They even influenced Gen. Gordon Granger and, thus, played a role in Juneteenth….

It may be hard for some to do this in our fractious times, but both holidays should be used to reflect upon the common value that Juneteenth and the Fourth have come to express: the recognition of the equal humanity and dignity of people the world over.

To Topple or Not to Topple Statues: The Battle between “Come Let Us Reason Together” versus “Abso-fricking-lutely!”

To Topple or Not to Topple, That Is the Question (Alex Waltner – Swedish Nomad)

To topple or not to topple, that is the question. Statues have become the latest battleground in America’s Third Civil War. At this point, it is impossible to determine which statue will be our Fort Sumter. It is reasonable to assume that just as one could not predict that it would the George Floyd murder as the straw the broke the camel’s back, one cannot know which attack on a statue will be the trigger for violence.

In the meantime, last month, Bret Stephens and Charles Blow, columnists for The New York Times, offered quite contrary views on the question of “to topple or not to topple.”


In his column “After the Statues Fall,” (June 27, 2020, print), Stephens posits four familiar words as a template for answering the topple question: A MORE PERFECT UNION.

Stephens suggests for any given individual, the question should be asked whether that person contributed to the effort to create a more perfect union in the United States. If the answer is “no,” and he includes all Confederate-related figures here, then the person fails the test. The statues should come down and the buildings and military installations should be renamed. Stephens mentions some other examples of non-Confederates who don’t deserve a public building and non-Confederates who do deserve honors on net because of what they contributed to making a more perfect union.

Then he turns the big two: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. These two slaveholders who were instrumental to the creation of the United States. He doesn’t mention it, but the latter provided the words or ideals upon which we declared our independence and the former made it possible for that declaration not to be stillborn or a dorm-room manifesto. Eliminate them and there is no country. Stephens writes:

If their fault lay in being creatures of their time, their greatness was in the ability to look past it. An unbroken moral thread connects the Declaration of Independence to the Gettysburg Address to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. An unbroken political thread connects the first president to the 16th to the 44th. It is impossible to imagine any union, much less the possibility of a more perfect one, without them.

Stephens contrasts thinking critically about the past for the sake of learning from it with behaving destructively toward the past with the aim of erasing it. He concludes in favor of debate on whether to topple or not to topple:

An intelligent society should be able to make intelligent distinctions, starting with the one between those who made our union more perfect and those who made it less.

By coincidence such an intelligent discussion was held a few days later. The American Historical Association (AHA) held an online presentation with David W. Blight and Annette Gordon-Reed entitled “Erasing History or Making History? Race, Racism, and the American Memorial Landscape” moderated by AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman, on Thursday, July 2. Whether or not they had read this column I don’t know. If not, then the discussion was even more fascinating. They expressed many of the same concepts that Stephens did. They used the term “criteria” instead for the judging of people on an individual basis with Confederates not passing muster. They even thought several hundred people listening to the online event would volunteer for a national commission.

There you see the problem. Stephens’s template for the evaluation of people works well in an academic setting. It is great for high school or college debates. It could work at some academic conferences. However, the evaluation process is bound to be subjective. There would be legitimate differences of opinions even if everyone agreed on the template. Obviously, it ignores the emotional component. Stephens proposes a solution for an intelligent society in a “come let us reason together” setting. That has nothing to do with where America is right now nor is there any political leader proposing a “come let us reason together” approach. This scenario is great on paper but is not possible in the real world as it exists now.


By coincidence, the next day, Charles Blow offered a significantly different perspective full of emotion. The title is:

Yes, Even George Washington: Slavery was a cruel institution that can’t be excused by its era (June 28, 2020, online).

In case there was any doubt, the opening line is:

On the issue of American slavery, I am an absolutist: enslavers were amoral monsters.

The very idea that one group of people believed that they had the right to own another human being is abhorrent and depraved. The fact that their control was enforced by violence was barbaric.

Blow’s template is a very direct one: if you owned people you were “abhorrent and depraved.” Period. There is no other evaluation needed. No netting of the good the people-owner might have done elsewhere. If you own people, then case closed.

There is no room for doubt. No uncertainty. And no exception.

Some people who are opposed to taking down monuments ask, “If we start, where will we stop?” It might begin with Confederate generals, but all slave owners could easily become targets. Even George Washington himself.

To that I say, “abso-fricking-lutely!”

Blow presents an all-or-nothing evaluation with removal as the one option.

I say that we need to reconsider public monuments in public spaces. No person’s honorifics can erase the horror he or she has inflicted on others.

Slave owners should not be honored with monuments in public spaces. We have museums for that, which also provide better context. This is not an erasure of history, but rather a better appreciation of the horrible truth of it.

Blow’s analysis is intensely emotional for him unlike the Stephens column. It also is easy to apply.

But Blow leaves many unanswered questions. If these people like George Washington are so horrific for what they did that they do not deserve public monuments in public spaces, what about the other ways in which such people are publicly honored. What about

The state of Washington

The city of Washington

The mountain of Washington

The university of Washington

The bridge of Washington

The parks of Washington

The dollar bill of Washington

The neighborhoods of Washington.

Dismantling the Washington Monument is challenge enough, but how do you get demolish half of Mount Rushmore?

And let’s not forget that without Washington there would be no United States of America?

Blow doesn’t address these issues. His end game remains undefined. He feels good about toppling the monuments and statues to George Washington but leaves all the other public expressions of him unmentioned.

In my blog Schuyler Owned People: Should Schuylerville Change Its Name? June 18, 2020, a lifetime ago), I raised a similar issue with the Mayor of Albany’s decision to remove the statue of Philip Schuyler. What about all the other public Schuyler examples from a state-owned house, federal owned house, municipality named after him, county named after him, and his role in American history at Saratoga?  As a mayor, her jurisdiction is limited. I did note that one councilmen wanted the removed of all the people-owner names of streets and parks which in Albany means Washington Park. Blow had the option of going where the Mayor could not. As a columnist, he could have advocated for the full cleansing of Washington from the public arena. The logical extension of Blow’s argument means consign everything Washington to a museum, rename it, or demolish it.


Considered these toppling examples.

The toppling of the statue to Saddam Hussein signified the end of his rule.

The toppling of the statue of Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, signified the end of the Soviet Union.

The toppling of the statue of King George III signified the declaration of independence from British rule, a declaration after a long war which proved successful.

Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that the toppling of the statue of George Washington, father of the country, signifies that the topplers are calling for the end of the United States, the end of a country based on the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that he won for us and he then held us together as a country.

Is that what Blow wants? While I don’t doubt that among the woke there are people desirous of exactly such an endgame. They reject not only the symbols of the founding of the country but the founding itself. Blow does not appear to one of them. His call to relocate statues from public spaces to museums (presumably private ones with no public funding), suggests he is not advocating for the overthrow of the United States. But his call for the removal not toppling of statues and monuments of people-owners is simply a feel-good baby step that ignores the larger issues. He has an obligation to explain to the American public what his end game is. He has an obligation to explain to We the People where he would draw the line and why on the issue of the public display of the name of Washington among others. He has an obligation to explain his end game because if he doesn’t, others will do it for him.

P.S. The damnatio memoriae (or “condemnation of the memory”) was tried in ancient Egypt on Queen Hatshepsut and King Akhnaton. Will we now have to erase the names of Pharaohs who had slave labor including Nubians and demolish their buildings or is that up to Egypt? What should we teach about these “abhorrent and depraved” people like Tut?


Universities and the Legacy of Slavery (SHEAR Session)

Universities and the Legacy of Slavery: A Roundtable

This session was a new one added at the conclusion of the conference. It was not in the program booklet and may have been overlooked. The panelists spoke about the situation in their own school. Background material plus some developments since the conference have been added.

Annette Gordon-Reed, Harvard University

Her comments focused on the Harvard Law School and not the entire university. As a result she suggested, the scale of the conflict may have been smaller than incidents at other colleges particularly if undergraduates are involved elsewhere. She contrasted the situation in dealing with older law school students and teenage undergraduates perhaps away from home for the first time. Gordon-Reed may have been referring to events at Yale addressed by another panelist (see below).

As reported in The Crimson, according to the traditional view, Isaac Royall, the founder of the law school in 1817, inherited the wealth to fund it from his slave-trader father.  The Harvard committee commissioned to study the situation discovered that he had died in 1781, he bequeathed money to the college and not to the law school, and that the shield was created in 1936 without awareness of any potential connection to slavery.

The Royall family crest contains sheaves of wheat which became part of the Harvard Law School shield. It had been part of the campus and of tours for years without incident. Now it has become an existential crisis for many African-American students. She personally is opposed to changing it, the decision made by the University. In her dissent [available as a PDF] to the committee recommendation, Gordon-Reed wrote:

…the burning question for me has been, “What would be the best and easiest way to keep alive the memory of the people whose labor gave Isaac Royall the resources to purchase the land whose sale helped found Harvard Law School?”

She suggested a contextual approach which as it turns out was a recurring theme in how to approach this type of problem. She wrote:

Maintaining the current shield, and tying it to a historically sound interpretive narrative about it, would be the most honest and forthright way to insure that the true story of our origins…

Gordon-Reed contrasted the Law School shield with the Confederate flag: the former was not created and has not been viewed as a symbol of slavery whereas the Confederate flag [in its various forms] represented a people at war with the Union over the issue of slavery. Wheat as a symbol evokes no such connotations. Nor does it exalt a specific individual the way a statue does.

Instead the current issue and pending bicentennial provides Harvard Law School with an opportunity to take a leadership position:

We are coming upon our 200th anniversary. This would be a perfect time to re-dedicate the Law School and the shield—making explicit our debt to the enslaved and our commitment, in their memory, to the cause of justice.

Historians in particular have a special role to play in this process:

Thanks to historians, we have “new knowledge” that we are joined in history to a group of people entrapped in the tragedy of the Atlantic slave trade. This also joins us to the larger American story of slavery. We should take this knowledge and run with it, not away from it.

In the panel session itself, Gordon-Reed acknowledged the need for people to feel at home while at school. She offered no resolution to the situation since she doesn’t have one. Her advice is for the people involved to keep talking to each other.

An example of such conversation including with her just occurred when the Thomas Jefferson Foundation hosted a public event, “Memory, Mourning, Mobilization: Legacies of Slavery and Freedom in America” at Monticello which drew 2000 people. The meeting featured commentaries from a dozen participants, including historians, descendants of those enslaved at Monticello, cultural leaders and activists engaged in several far-ranging conversations on the history of slavery and its meaning in today’s conversations on race, freedom and equality. My impression from the report by the University of Virginia is that these conversations were more preaching to the choir than an attempt at “come let us reason together” among different constituencies. At the meeting, Marian Wright Edelman, Children’s Defense Fund, asked, “How can we close the gap between creed and deed?” Did the public event generate any suggested resolutions or were the participants as stumped as Gordon-Reed as to what to do in the real world when confronted with people who disagree with them?

Craig Steven Wilder, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

His presentation addressed the wider issue of the community. He noted the widespread connections between the slave trade and colleges during the early republic. Even the later founding of MIT in 1861 was part of this process as cotton manufacturers required engineers to improve productivity and profits. In general, he observed that the antebellum image was a popular one for colleges in the 20th century.

Today, there is an increased divide between the campus and the surrounding community. He witnessed increased policing on campus. He called for an inclusion of staff and the surrounding community in the discussion of what MIT should do.

Calhoun College (Courtesy of Washington Post)

According to a published report on the situation at Calhoun College, that is precisely what did not happen at Yale:

But if Menafee’s broomstick broke the historical silence, is a voice missing from the planning process? As historian Craig Steven Wilder noted on Democracy Now!, while alumni and administrators have led debates on addressing controversial symbols on campus, “Excluded from the conversation have been the people who actually clean our offices, cook our food, move the campus buses around. But they actually spend a lot more time being impacted by those sort of visual reminders of slavery than most of the rest of us do.”

Julia Adams, Head of Calhoun College, Yale University

On April 26, the student survey results were reported in favor of a name change for Calhoun College.

On April 28, Yale decided to retain the name Calhoun College. As reported in the Yale News

University President Peter Salovey said the:

University will keep the name so that the community remembers “one of the most disturbing aspects” of its past, rejecting the demands of student activists who argue that the name honors a white supremacist.

He continued:

Erasing Calhoun’s name from a much-beloved residential college risks masking this past, downplaying the lasting effects of slavery and substituting a false and misleading narrative, albeit one that might allow us to feel complacent or, even, self-congratulatory.

Yale did not support the erasing of history, an argument similar to what has been voiced in the South regarding the Confederate history.

Julia Adams, the panelist in this SHEAR session, said she anticipated a period of reconciliation within her college during which students and administrators will work to heal deep-seated divisions over the naming dispute. Adams invited Calhoun students to an evening meeting at her house to discuss the issue, but the session was attended by just a couple dozen students and ended after only half an hour.

“I remain really proud of the Calhoun students for the way they handled this over the course of the year,” Adams said. “They lent real depth to the discussion, and I think it’s made a difference to the seriousness with which the decision’s been made.”

On April 29, the Yale students held a renaming ceremony for Calhoun College.

In the panel session, Adams reaffirmed her opposition to dropping the name “Calhoun” from the college. She again proposed “Calhoun-Douglass” as a more fitting name given the “dialog” between the two of them. [Note: she means Frederick and not Stephen.] She also drew on the favorable imagery of the antebellum way of life which had been redefined in the 1930s as the “Lost Cause,” a lifestyle violently disrupted by the Civil War. The renaming of Calhoun College would be just one step in an ongoing process of re-evaluating the legacy.

Gordon-Reed asked why the college was even named after Calhoun in the first place. My personal reaction is that the desire to name the college after someone southern probably preceded the selection of the individual name.

Yale’s decision to retain the name was not received favorably by the faculty who made their displeasure known. The school has now established a panel to review the situation. Historians figure prominently in its membership. As reported:

John Witt, the committee chair and a professor of history and of law, said the panel is strengthened by faculty members who have spent their careers studying race. Instead of having to produce a recommendation on a specific building, he said, they can think about the implications of such names in broader terms.

“It’s the promise of scholarly expertise and serious engagement with questions about history and questions about historical memory,” he said. “We’ll be in a pretty good position to be able to step back, away from the political controversy of the moment, and identify principles that might be enduring and last for the university.”

Mr. Witt said he hoped that the committee would create a model for other colleges.

The effort will include contextualizing the process whereby buildings were named excluding those buildings named directly after the donor who made the building possible where the context is obvious.

Merritt Parkway (Courtesy of the State of Connecticut)

In response to a question from me, Wilder contrasted the use of a racially provocative name versus names which have a racial heritage. This distinction seems important to me. For example, I drove to the conference on the Merritt Parkway. The Merritts owned slaves but the name is hardly associated with slavery. Should the parkway be renamed because students driving to Yale may be traumatized? The answer is “no” based on the comments by Gordon-Reed and Wilder.

Given how widespread and intricately intertwined slavery is to American life, excising the name of anyone associated with it probably is a fool’s errand which would result in every road being renamed after a tree or a number. Wilder suggested we learn from the experience of former colonies in how they handled the names carried over from colonial times into independence. He also noted the constant change in demographics. Gentrified whites in Brooklyn don’t necessarily cotton to having streets named after Malcolm X! There are times and people who want to live on streets named after Jefferson Davis and Malcolm X and there are times and people who don’t. Who makes that decision and is it irrevocable?

As it turns out, this precise issue has been playing out in Alexandria, not at a college, but in a parkway as reported in the Washington Post. The Alexandria City Council voted unanimously to change the name of Jefferson Davis Highway and seek permission from the Virginia General Assembly to move a renowned statue of a Confederate soldier in historic Old Town. The pensive and unarmed south-facing Confederate soldier would be moved to a local history museum on the same corner of its present location. Erected in 1889 and owned by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, it bears the names of Alexandria residents who died on behalf of the South. According to a published report:

“If this were on Monument Avenue in Richmond, where it is clearly [celebratory], I’d say knock it down,” said council member Timothy B. Lovain (D). But the statue is a reminder of the costs of war, he said. If it can remain at the same historic corner, with additional context explaining its significance, and be removed as a traffic hazard, the relocation might be politically possible.

Note the use of the word “context” again. The council deliberations and public debate occurred in a chamber where a portrait of Robert E. Lee hangs opposite one of George Washington and where the painted backdrop behind the council is of Alexandria during its Union occupation. The discussion then turned to street names. Various legislative actions at multiple levels may be required depending on the changes requested.

This debate highlights some of the very concerns raised by Wilder and Gordon-Reed in the session. The college debates are not occurring in isolation from events outside the academy.

In the Q&A portion, a dean from a school in Baton Rouge reported on establishing a link with Georgetown in a 2017 class in recognition of the people sold by Georgetown to slaveowners in Louisiana. Perhaps next year there can be an update on how the still-fluid situation with Georgetown worked out. The post-conference developments highlight that an even more contentious issue may be lurking in the shadows than the “simple” action of renaming a building or parkway, relocating a statue, or giving scholarships to descendants. That issue is money.  As the discussions shift to someone paying money to someone else one may anticipate even more intense “conversations” about who is going to get stuck with the bill and what will be done by the recipients with the new-found money.

Another question was raised regarding the increased disparity between the students and the staff. If a college outsources work such as the maintenance of the grounds than the staff is less connected to the college than would have been true in the past, apparently referring to the situation at Yale where precisely such a worker initiated the most recent contretemps.

One person observed that the Calhoun alumni were dedicated to their college by that name. This means Gordon-Reed’s plea that students should feel at home had worked for these graduates. A change in name therefore was a violation of their home. In other words, for alumni, Calhoun isn’t simply a name but a word that conjures up all the associations a graduate has with the college. The name has no intrinsic meaning but it is the name of their college, embedded in their memories, and not to be tampered with. If be it ever so humble there is no place like home, what message are you delivering when you tamper with that home?

The questions raised in the session of course extend beyond the college campus. One person in the audience reported on the presence of Confederate flags in multiple states in New England. How does one teach the historical reality of slavery in a “post-slavery” college? What strikes me is that despite all the actions of the civil rights era in the 1950s and 1960s, for the first time in American history, we actually may be at a point where we can have an intelligent discussion about the role of slavery in the American history, how it enabled others to live the American Dream, whether the descendants of those slaves have the same right to live the American Dream (Martin Luther King) or if they should reject it, and the place of the Confederacy in American history. These developments are occurring at time when the demographics of America no longer neatly divide into black and white (even with the one-drop rule) as there are more and more people here not from Europe and Africa and even the black people here didn’t all arrive via the Middle Passage (biracial Barack Obama). I do not mean to suggest that We the People will have these conversations, only that there is a more realistic chance to have them than has ever existed in American history.

All in all, a rather open-ended session to end the conference on an issue that is sure to be with us a nation for years to come.


(Photos courtesy of the Harvard Law School, Washington Post, and State of Connecticut)