A so-called renaming committee in San Francisco is erasing the name the 16th president of the United States from a school because Abraham Lincoln lived a life “stained by racism.”
“Uprooting the problematic names and symbols that currently clutter buildings, streets, throughout the city is a worthy endeavor,” Jeremiah Jeffries, chairman of the committee and a first grade teacher in that California city, said. “Only good can come from the public being reflective and intentional about the power of our words, names and rhetoric within our public institutions.”
The president who ended slavery is now being called a racist, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle, which asks if Lincoln’s true character has been “whitewashed” to hide misdeeds toward Native Americans.
The reporter who wrote the piece injects her opinion about the fate of some on the names on the cancel list, including American heroes Thomas Jefferson and George Mason:
Critics have called the effort to rename 44 school sites, a full third of the district’s schools, amateur — citing the committee’s justifications pulled from Wikipedia or selective news sources rather than historical records or comprehensive research — and a waste of time amid a pandemic. It has also received significant support from some communities, whose children wear school sweatshirts emblazoned with the name of former slave owners.
When the committee released the 44 school sites to be renamed, many made sense. Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe were slave owners, and Vasco Nunez Balboa was a murderous conquistador. At least a few names on the list raised eyebrows, including El Dorado, literally translated to City of Gold, and Dianne Feinstein, who landed on the list because as mayor in the 1980s, she replaced a vandalized Confederate flag in front of City Hall.
But perhaps the most controversial on the list was Lincoln. Honest Abe. The Great Emancipator. His inclusion exemplifies the struggle in San Francisco and across the country to balance the good and the bad, in this case, the hero and the 19th century man with many faults.
“I have so many reactions in the sense of looking at his entire record and the fact of what (Lincoln) did for Africans and slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation,” Sherry Black, who worked for more than 40 years in Native American economic and community development, said in the Chronicle article. “Considering the time period, it’s so difficult to understand how things were at the time. How do you make these decisions?”
“Yet the renaming of Lincoln High School was a slam dunk for the committee, which didn’t even discuss it, according to video of the meetings,” the Chronicle reported. “The members of the committee, appointed by the school board, deemed whether a person’s actions or beliefs met the criteria for renaming, and moved on. The committee’s spreadsheet with notes on their research listed the federal treatment of Native Americans during his administration as the reason.
“The discussion for Lincoln centered around his treatment of First Nation peoples, because that was offered first,” Jeffries said. “Once he met criteria in that way, we did not belabor the point.”
But while Lincoln, whose grandfather was killed by a Native American, oversaw the hanging of 38 Native Americans he also saved the lives of 265 others, according to a Lincoln scholar.
“He saved the country from dividing and ruin,” said Harold Holzer, a Lincoln scholar and director of the Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. “He was more progressive than most people. There was pretty rampant hostility (toward Native Americans) and I think Lincoln rose above it.”
“Nobody is going to pass 21st century morays if you’re looking at the 18th and 19th centuries,” Holzer said.
But committee chairman Jefferies agrees with the idea that Lincoln’s legacy is “pop-culture myths.”
“The history of Lincoln and Native Americans is complicated, not nearly as well known as that of the Civil War and slavery,” he said. “Lincoln, like the presidents before him and most after, did not show through policy or rhetoric that Black lives ever mattered to them outside of human capital and as casualties of wealth building.”
Despite criticism of the renaming effort because officials should be focused on the coronavirus, the committee is expected to formally recommend renaming the 44 school sites in January. Jeffries and other members of the committee will come up with alternate names, according to the Chronicle.
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