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.