Learn from the past, don’t just wipe it away

Published 9:28 pm Friday, November 20, 2015

There have been many protests recently on college campuses, for a variety of reasons. I have been most intrigued by those who wish to rename buildings named for historical figures they see as unsavory.

One of the most notable examples of this controversy is at Princeton University, the Ivy League institution in New Jersey. Some college students there have demanded for former U.S. president Woodrow Wilson’s name to be removed from several buildings on that campus. Wilson was a president at the university, in the early 20th century.

The students who want Wilson’s name removed argue that he supported racial segregation as the law of the land during his time as president. He also reportedly excused the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and held a screening of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, an early film with racist themes.

While I can understand being upset about Wilson’s views, I don’t think that removing his name from the campus is the best response. While some of Wilson’s opinions might seem ridiculous in the modern era, they were perfectly normal during his time. After all, the Civil Rights Act would not be passed for more than 50 years.

My question to these student protestors is very simple — where do you draw the line? Any historical figure likely had some skeletons in his or her closet. Christopher Columbus is seen by many as oppressive toward Native Americans; does that mean we should change the name of Washington, D.C. (District of Columbia)? And Washington himself once owned slaves, so should his name be removed from our nation’s capital (and our parish, for that matter) as well?

I am reminded of the recent controversy in Alabama, where some lawmakers wanted to rename the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The argument was that Pettus, a former Confederate general and U.S. Senator, was a white supremacist and Ku Klux Klan member.

I am glad that the measure eventually died in the Alabama State House. To me, the march for civil rights that took place in Selma is made even more poignant by the fact that those marchers were walking across a bridge named for a man who rejected their views. It would have been horrible and short-sighted to destroy that unique juxtaposition.

It is often said that those who do not learn from history, are doomed to repeat its mistakes. But how can we learn anything if we whitewash our history away?

Justin Schuver is the publisher and editor of The Daily News. You can email him at justin.schuver@bogalusadailynews.com.