Rewriting History Now

 

The movement to rename Haight Elementary School after someone less racist appears to be growing. The next suggestion is that our city’s first park named for President Andrew “Indian Killer” Jackson needs a new name.

To put the renaming and statue pulling movement in some context here in Alameda, we’d like to remind local residents of the following:

  • George Washington, our nation’s first president was a slaveowner.
  • Abraham Lincoln, the president who freed the slaves, also authorized the largest mass execution in American History, of the Lakota Sioux.
  • A statue of William McKinley, a president accused of “expansionist racist policies” was recently removed from the plaza in Arcata, Calif., on Feb. 23.
  • Educator and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has been accused of portraying Native Americans from a racist perspective. His references to the “noble savage” and that their beliefs are merely perverted forms of Christianity reflect this viewpoint.
  • Each of these men are clearly morally compromised by today’s standards and yet, has a park named for him in Alameda. But from the historian’s perspective, this is a fallacy. Let’s take some other ideas into consideration. 
  • General William Sherman marched indiscriminately through Georgia, destroying American homesteads regardless of whether or not the family owned slaves.
  • The mighty oak has long been used by the white man to make tools to oppress browner people. 
  • The eagle was a symbol of fascist ideology in Italy. 
  • Alameda founder Gideon Aughinbaugh kept a Chinese cook in his employ. It’s unclear how well that cook was paid. 

Each of these has a street name in Alameda. But do these grounds for removal seem reasonable? If not, chances are we’re dealing with a fallacy.

As local historians, we feel the need to describe ways in which historians can fall into the fallacy trap. The historian’s fallacy assumes that decision makers in the past viewed events from the same perspective and with the same information as those later analyzing their decisions. 

Presentism projects present-day moral standards onto past actions and decisions. It judges people who acted in the past using standards pertinent today that were not pertinent or did not exist in the past.

The very fact that we can suggest that Eagle Avenue projects a fascist agenda sounds ludicrous. Yet we can continue to pursue this presentist fallacy to that extreme. Is that where we need to take this discussion? In our opinion, we are falling into the trap of judging our past through the lens of the present. It doesn’t change what happened. 

Schools, streets, parks and other public facilities should be named (or renamed) to honor someone, not renamed to dishonor someone honored in the past.