How do you wipe slavery from school buildings?
I am all for burying the Confederate battle flag in the back room of a museum and requiring remedial education for politicians who persist in denying – or downplaying — the historical fact that the South’s shameful passion to preserve slavery was what caused the Civil War.
Following the recent, racially motivated murders in South Carolina, I also understand why some people in the Old South, including Texas, want to consider renaming schools that bear famous (or infamous) Confederate names. But that task may be more complicated than it seems.
Renaming schools may or may not be easier than, say, removing the Confederate monument on the state Capitol grounds. But where do you start – or stop?
Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and General Robert E. Lee may be among the first targets of people trying to wipe Confederate names from schools and other public entities. But Texas also has a Jeff Davis County and a town named Robert Lee. Do we also rename them?
Other Confederate names are lesser known but still widespread.
The Reagan state office building that sits a stone’s throw from the state Capitol is not named for President Ronald Reagan, but for John H. Reagan, a former U.S. senator from Texas and the first chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission. John Reagan also was postmaster general of the Confederacy, and high schools in Austin and Houston also are named for him.
And, if we are going to wipe the names of armed defenders of slavery – which is what the Confederacy and Civil War were all about – from schools and other public buildings, what about the names of prominent slaveholders?
Eight early U.S. presidents – including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – held slaves while they were in office. But no one, including me, is proposing the removal of their names from innumerable buildings and monuments or changing the name of the nation’s capital.
Closer to home, early Texas hero Sam Houston opposed secession and resigned as governor when Texas left the Union, but he owned slaves. Stephen F. Austin recruited slave owners to move to Texas and, according to at least one author, once owned a slave himself. But their names will remain fixed on the Texas landscape.
Two of my children graduated from James Bowie High School in Austin. Bowie, as we all know, secured a place in Texas history by dying at the Alamo. Lesser known, however, is the fact that before he made his way to the Alamo, Bowie was a slave trader. He and his brother bought captive slaves from the pirate Jean Laffite and made thousands of dollars selling their fellow human beings to southern buyers.
Is Robert E. Lee – who as a young officer in the U.S. Army played an important role in the U.S. victory in the Mexican War – any less deserving to have his name on the side of a school building than James Bowie?
I don’t think Texas is going to see an extensive renaming of schools and other public institutions. But what Texas policymakers can – and should — do is quit playing politics by downplaying the role of slavery in our past and instead help educators prepare our school children to thrive in a racially diverse future.