Some say there are no heroes any more. Others might claim that there never were. Agree or not, it’s clear that we live in an age where everything and everyone is fair game for re-evaluation. In an earlier post (“The Yearbook of Living Dangerously,” 3/2/19) I reflected on how institutions, their leaders, and the rest of us might fairly assess offensive yearbook posts by their alumni. This issue has superficial similarities to another controversy roiling cities, states, and schools: tributes to famous people with tainted legacies (statues, buildings, honorary degrees, and even the names of institutions).
The issue of misbegotten honors, however, is fundamentally different from the yearbook problem. Statues, building names, honorary degrees, and institutional names – unlike yearbook pages – represent conscious and presumably carefully considered decisions by organizations with mature leadership to honor individuals who represent the organization’s values.
These decisions do not always stand the test of time.
Sometimes, information not available at the time reveals that the honoree was undeserving. Few (if any) of the seventy or so colleges and universities that awarded Bill Cosby honorary degrees would have done so if they had known he was a sexual predator. Many have now revoked those degrees.
Sometimes, historical perspective changes and society grows increasingly uncomfortable with heroes who were lionized in earlier eras. Nathan Bedford Forrest, long revered by some Southerners as a brilliant Confederate cavalry tactician, is now widely reviled as a pre-war slave trader, war criminal (for his slaughter of surrendering Black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow), and post-war Grand Wizard of the KKK. Removal of his name and statues from public areas in southern states remains controversial.
In 2017 Yale changed the name of Calhoun College, named in 1931 for the white supremacist champion of slavery John C. Calhoun (Yale class of 1804).[i] But this decision followed an initial decision to retain the Calhoun name after a University “Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming” published a list of four principles that, in retrospect, seem only partially helpful. (https://news.yale.edu/2017/02/11/yale-change-calhoun-college-s-name-honor-grace-murray-hopper-0).
The leadership of Washington and Lee, where the veneration of Robert E. Lee and bequests from slave-owners are inextricably bound up with the College’s name, culture, and several signature campus buildings, confronted even tougher problems. A “Commission on Institutional History and Community” recommended comprehensive steps to contextualize this problematic history, including the renaming and repurposing of some campus buildings and thoughtful editing of representations of “President” (no longer to be called “General”) Lee (https://www.wlu.edu/presidents-office/issues-and-initiatives/commission-on-institutional-history-and-community/report-of-the-commission-on-institutional-history-and-community/appendix-d-recommendations).
Other campuses have grappled with analogous problems - and will continue to do so in the coming years.
Is it possible to develop reasonable guidelines for addressing these challenges? Well, it’s not easy but we can try.
Let’s consider the case of an equestrian statue in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, honoring John B. Castleman. The statue was unveiled in 1913, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997 when it was included in a list of Civil War Monuments in Kentucky. In his early twenties Castleman served in the Confederate army, but after the Civil War enlisted in the U.S. Army and fought in the Spanish American War, attaining the rank of Brigadier General. In addition to his military service, he played an instrumental role in the development of Louisville’s public parks, donating the land for one, selling half of his estate to develop another, and eventually becoming known as the “Father of the Louisville Park System.” He also founded the American Saddlebred Horse Association and the statue depicts him in civilian (not military) dress riding his favorite mare. The statue has been defaced repeatedly in recent years by those protesting public placement of Confederate monuments.
According to one of the original Yale principles on renaming, the Castleman statue would seem to be acceptable because the name and the statue itself (which has become an icon for the Highlands/Cherokee Park area in which it is located) “play a substantial role in forming community….” The Washington and Lee guidelines would also seem to judge the statue acceptable, since it depicts Castleman as a civilian and honors his substantial civic accomplishments in addition to his military service.
Can an individual who participated in a morally reprehensible cause be redeemed by later contributions to society? Answers to such a question are not simple. How prominent a role did the person play in the reprehensible cause? Castleman was a Confederate officer, but considerably less important than Robert E. Lee. How great were the person’s subsequent civic accomplishments? Washington and Lee decided that Lee’s leadership of the College in the post Civil War period merited keeping his name on the University and various campus buildings. I suspect Lee’s accomplishments during his five-year presidency pale in comparison to his service as Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, which made him a secular saint for most southerners until comparatively recently. Is referring to him as “President Lee” and banning depictions of him in Confederate uniform an adequate response? Can any amount of historical contextualization justify his prominence in the name and culture of the University?
Two of the Yale principles on renaming asked: “(1) whether the namesake’s principal legacy fundamentally conflicts with the university’s mission;[and] (2) whether that principal legacy was contested during the namesake’s lifetime.” The second principle is related to the objection by monument-preservers that “we cannot erase our history.” Calhoun would fail both of these two tests, Lee would fail the first and pass the second (at least in the South). Castleman would pass both tests.
So what rules would be useful to educational institutions and communities in determining what to do with such monuments?
The first of the Yale Principles is a good place to start: determine “whether the namesake’s principal legacy fundamentally conflicts” with institutional mission or community values. Hopefully most Americans would agree that slavery is evil. And, despite the unwillingness of some southerners to admit it, the historical evidence is conclusive and indisputable that the Confederacy’s major purpose was to preserve the institution of slavery. If service to the Confederacy or the cause of white supremacy represents the individual’s “principal legacy” -- as is the case with Calhoun, Forrest, and, arguably, Lee – then it is inappropriate to “honor” these individuals. This doesn’t mean their names and deeds need to be “erased from history” – but it does mean that they should not be held up as public examples of our current values. Castleman’s “principal legacy” would seem to be more benign even though, like most white people of his generation, he believed in segregation. What of Founding Fathers like Washington and Jefferson who were slave-owners? Their “principal legacy” is the creation of the United States – a more noble enterprise, despite its – and their - imperfections. Elijah Parish Lovejoy, an abolitionist and America’s first martyr to freedom of the press, published anti-Catholic tracts that most would find objectionable today– but again, that is not his principal legacy.
Washington & Lee’s insistence on contextualization is also a worthwhile guideline for these situations. Most nations, including ours, are not very good at self-criticism, but we need to be honest about our past if we are going to fashion a brighter future for our country. It is difficult but worthwhile work to understand how even our heroes have fallen short of our ideals.
Finally, it’s important to remember that, in the case of public monuments, we the living decide who we should honor and how. Those decisions should be made thoughtfully, with broad consultation, and with a due regard for history and historical context. Is it too much to hope that, as institutions and communities, we can debate these issues civilly, without resorting to labeling each other as “fascists” or “libtards”? We need not demand perfection of our heroes, but we also are not compelled to live with the mistaken judgments of earlier generations. And we should be humble enough to remember that later generations may not agree with our decisions. This is a fine. It is important for each era to reflect on its values and the messages it communicates by choosing its heroes.
As institutions and communities we will get through this current time of controversy. It will not be easy – reconsidering deeply held assumptions never is. We will likely make mistakes. But future generations will have the right and the duty to reconsider the choices we make.
[i] Calhoun College was renamed Grace Murray Hopper College, honoring “A trailblazing computer scientist, brilliant mathematician and teacher, and dedicated public servant.”