In San Francisco a small, but vocal, minority is seeking to erase a part of the country’s history. Last month the SF Board of Education voted unanimously to whitewash 13 murals that depict the life of George Washington.
These murals have hung in a high school named for Washington since 1935. They were commissioned by FDR during the Great Depression under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. As some of you may know, the WPA was a creation of the New Deal. It was tasked with creating jobs for the unemployed, which, at its peak, reached 25%, so the basic idea of the murals was to do some good.
The murals show scenes that represent the history of America – both good and bad. So, among the murals are depictions of slaves toiling in the fields and a dead Native American. All of a sudden, after 80 some years some students and their parents are finding these murals offensive. The Board has caved to the pressure from these people and agreed to whitewash the murals.
Roberta Smith, reporting in the “NY Times” opined that the offended persons “assume that their feelings about the murals are permanent and paramount… and that they have the right to decide for everyone, now and in the future” what is acceptable and accessible art. I see a strong parallel between these people and the Taliban and ISIS terrorists destroying art and artifacts they found objectionable and the Nazis burning books they found objectionable. (Wow! Did I just compare a group of PC activists to terrorists and Nazis? I guess so.)
I think a little history lesson is in order to put this in perspective.
1. Virtually all wealthy landowners in colonial Virginia owned slaves. Like it or not, slaves were economically necessary to maintain the viability of the plantations and farms throughout the South.
2. According to Wikipedia six presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson and Van Buren) and most of the Founding Fathers owned slaves. Washington, in particular, owned 317 slaves at the time of his death in 1799. In his will he freed all the ones he could legally.
3. According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. one of, if not the, leading authority on AA history and slavery, many free blacks owned slaves beginning in 1654 and right through the Civil War. And not just in the South. Free blacks owned slaves in the North as well, for instance in Boston (an abolitionist hotbed) and Connecticut. Some free blacks even owned white indentured servants.
So, like it or not, slavery, objectionable as it may have been on many levels, particularly with respect to the mores of 21st century America, was an integral part of our history. The same is true of our interactions with Native Americans.
I strongly object to what I call revisionist history. It reminds me of the George Orwell novel, “1984.”
America’s history is what it is, both good and bad. I believe it is necessary to educate ourselves about our history, all of it, including the bad elements. Most historians agree that if you ignore historical mistakes you are doomed to repeat them.
The current trend of removing certain names from landmarks is insidious. First, it’s taking down statues and plaques; then it’s removing Jackson from the $10 bill; then it’s changing the names of schools, sports names, parks, bridges and tunnels; then it’s destroying works of art. Where does it all end? Who decides what is acceptable for all the rest of us as well as future generations? Once you whitewash the murals they are gone forever. That, like the “Times” article said, is not only presumptuous, it’s just plain wrong.
My comparison to the Nazis, ISIS and the Taliban is apt. Cover the murals up if you must, but don’t destroy them.