Symbolizing the evils of slavery, the Confederate Talbot Boys Monument stirred a public outcry in Talbot County. After seven years of controversy, it found a new home at the Cross Keys Battlefield in Virginia.
Johns Hopkins University has voluntarily revealed on its website the slaveholding by its founder, tarnishing the acclaimed beneficence of the Baltimore merchant and investor.
Georgetown University, a highly regarded Jesuit school, has admitted it owned slaves and sold a few hundred to bolster the institution’s financial structure.
Harvard University, considered the most academically elite school in the United States, has admitted that many of its early donors owned slaves and accumulated fortunes on the backs of a severely repressed people.
These citadels of higher education are trying not to cleanse but expand its histories, opting for honesty and forthrightness. These efforts are commendable demonstrations of social conscience.
My concern, albeit controversial and open to misconception, is to what degree do we Whites take responsibility for horrific and crippling conditions in our nation. After reading “Caste,” I examined my own behavior and found flaws and errant thinking, as others should. I take responsibility for my thoughts and inadvertent behavior.
What worries me is our modern perspective of our Founding Fathers. Most, if not all, had slaves, paying them little and treating them brazenly. The counter argument that these men were simply creatures of their times seems to draw little sympathy these days. That is regrettable.
I am not suggesting that these imperfect men get a free pass. I am not suggesting that these men were innocent of blasphemous treatment of other human beings different only because of their skin color.
I am positing that name changes can go too far and invite charges of intolerance. The generosity of Johns Hopkins created an excellent university and world-class hospital. Call him a racist but do not ignore his philanthropy. Mind you, I have heard no rumblings about a name change.
When Princeton University erased President Woodrow Wilson’s name from the school of public and international affairs to the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, it made a mistake. Was Wilson a segregationist? Of course, he was, shamefully imposing segregation on the federal bureaucracy. He also served as president of Princeton, governor of New Jersey and president of the United States. He helped lay the basis for the United Nations by seeking and failing to gain approval of Congress of the League of Nations.
Just like that, Wilson’s name is gone to the detriment of the university. His legacy deserved a better fate at Princeton than relegation to ostracism through removal of his name from a building that exemplified his leadership.
Truth be known, I worry that the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, may decide to disassociate itself from its founder and icon, Ben Franklin. He had slaves. He supported slavery before he changed his mind toward the end of his life.
Three Franklin statues adorn this urban campus. He is my hero. His achievements as a scientist, inventor, statesman, patron and community leader are unmatched by other founders. He accepted the abhorrent norm of slavery so prevalent among the upper classes before he invested time at the end of his life in condemning it.
Name changes are understandable at times. When Yale University removed John Calhoun’s name from one if its college dorms, it did the right thing. He was an outspoken, unapologetic supporter of slavery, an influential disciple of imprisoning people’s souls and bodies on plantations.
Erasure is one way of condemning slavery. Being tolerant and understanding of the good and bad, as should have been the case with Woodrow Wilson, is another option.
Names matter. They signify a brand. They personify a legacy, which sometimes includes injustice and bias. Do a legendary figure’s good deeds outweigh his or her misdeeds? The question is complicated, open to bitter disagreement.
Princeton was wrong. Yale was right. Penn, like Hopkins, must acknowledge the failings of its founders. Ben Franklin‘s views on slavery warrant full disclosure—but not erasure from the campus and the school’s history.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.
Letters to Editor
Chip Heartfield says
Gosh, I see Wilson in the exact opposite light. Those from colonial times were imperfect but there is clear context for their behavior and attitudes and that should be taken into consideration, as has been done by Hopkins, Harvard and others. Wilson, on the other hand, was a throwback, a virulent racist and an active re-segregationist at the very highest levels a full century-plus later. His name should have been the first to be expunged and it would have been rank hypocrisy on Princeton’s part to have tried to excuse him any longer.
Stephen Schaare says
Hi Chip, Let us not forget Wilson’s pledge to stay out of WWI.
Once elected, he could not get the U.S. in fast enough. Thank you-Steve
Stephen Schaare says
Dear Howard, Can you please explain paragraph six?
“Whites”” responsible for horrific and crippling conditions in our own country?”
This is strong stuff. Can you please expand?
Howard Freedlander says
Steve, who owned the plantations, and who were the overseers?
Jim Franke says
There are doubts about Hopkins owning slaves. “Other investigators challenged the interpretation, pointing to what they call a lack of evidence……Six months after that headline-making news, Van Morgan and retired State Archivist Ed Papenfuse published a study arguing that there are other possible explanations for the presence of enslaved people in a white man’s home.”
Mickey Terrone says
I hope we don’t try to use a broad brush to sweep together all slaveholders’ deeds from different periods of our country’s history. I believe its crucially important to consider the mitigating circumstances and overall contributions of each individual who comes under scrutiny due to their life fame and contributions to society.
For example, Johns Hopkins may have owned slaves at some point but he risked his entire fortune to support Maryland’s efforts to remain in the Union and not participate in the secession movement in 1861. I’d ask if Hopkins ever spoke out for or against slavery, before and/or after the civil war. While it is possible that he believed slavery was safer within the protection of the US Constitution, his actions seemed never to evince devotion to slavery. In fact, Baltimore, to whose development he was fully devoted, was a large and growing city that promoted the labor and involvement of free blacks more than anywhere else in the US from the 1850’s onward – until, of course, Jim Crow Law racism took hold and city leaders started building statues of Lee and Jackson in a city that both of those Confederate generals (and their local confederate cohorts and sympathizers) sought to wreck because it was an integral factor in the Union war effort.
The risks taken by men like Franklin, Washington, Jefferson during that Revolutionary era to create this nation need to be measured against their profiting from the labor of slaves. The issue of other factors, such as the mental, emotional, sexual abuse of slavery in that age need to be contrasted to the brutality of the “industrial” age of mega-plantation slavery in the 1840’s onward through 1865.
Confederates at all levels of wealth have to bear the burden of having sacrificed dearly to support the permanent and nationwide institution of slavery. Wealthy confederates showed no limit of greed profiting from the labor of their slaves while poor whites desperately feared abolition because they feared equality in the workplace and the society in general. Men like Woodrow Wilson, whose father was a member of the Army of Northern Virginia, sought to vindicate and glorify the Confederacy by promoting complete socioeconomic control over blacks, limiting their education, economic opportunities and social status in society.
You brought up the Talbot Boys. They fall into the category of sacrificing for the Confederate enterprise. In their lives after the war, however, I wonder if any individual stood out publicly to advocate for equality for black people or of any of them participated in KKK or other activities seeking to intimidate, abuse or act violently toward blacks who sought equal rights under the law. Did they go to their graves without ever having expressed remorse as unreconstructed rebels?
It is good that we discuss the relative contributions of individuals contrasted against the damage done to society and humanity through the brutality of slavery.
Henry Herr says
History can never be erased. The celebration of a flawed individual can be changed, however. To me, part of the problem is when learning history, people develop thoughts and feelings before learning the full story.
Franklin was a known womanizer his whole life. Should that take away from what he fought for and accomplished? No. But to put up statues and buildings with their names on them, ignoring the complete picture, does more damage to the full history then anything else, in my opinion.
Every human has flaws. The notion that the Founding Fathers are some perfect individuals is inaccurate. Learn from the past, learn the whole story. Honor them how you want. No need to venerate them.
As my mother-in-law says: “The only perfect one was Jesus. The rest of us are just doing our best.”
DANNA MURPHY MURDEN says
Frederick Douglass last visit to St.Michaels he went to see Thomas Auld his one time owner. The owner that you read so much about having him beaten.Now remember at this point in time Frederick Douglass has made a huge presence in this country and others. Mr. Auld was on his deathbed and he apologized to Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass’s answer to Thomas Auld was “we were products of our time”.
That is from the beaten and abused slave. St. Michaels Museum at St.Mary’s Square gives tours about Frederick Douglass. He has been throughly researched by many, one of the past docents is responsible for Rt.33 being dedicated to Frederick Douglass. I have been awed by the comments made by people when told that comment it is not what they expect. Think about it WE WERE PRODUCTS OF OUR TIME spoken by a man who had been a slave. You don’t hear that out in the world today.