The Magazine

ERASING GEORGE WASHINGTON

Dec 15, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 14 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
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CHANGE THE NAME of the nation's capital and of the bridge that spans the Hudson? Remove the statues of our first president from Boston Common, Wall Street, the state capitol in Richmond, and hundreds of town squares? Close Mount Vernon? Level the Washington Monument and the famous square that bears his name at the base of Fifth Avenue, for which a Henry James novel is named? Kick him off the quarter and the dollar bill?


These measures may not be far away if the latest venture in political correctness becomes a national fad. This fall, the Orleans Parish School Board in New Orleans voted unanimously to re-name George Washington Elementary School for Dr. Charles Richard Drew. The action conforms with a board policy that forbids naming schools in honor of slave owners. It is the twenty-second name change under the policy in the past five years.


To be sure, Dr. Drew deserves to be honored. A respected scientist, he served his country well in World War II, first by devising ways to preserve blood plasma and then by protesting the army's policy of segregating plasma by the donor's race. Like Thurgood Marshall and Ronald McNair, an astronaut killed on the shuttle Challenger, whose names also replaced those of slaveholders on New Orleans schools, Dr. Drew is a worthy role model for children.


But those earlier name changes sparked less controversy. Marshall and McNair replaced Confederate generals. One might argue that Generals Lee and Beauregard fought to dismember the union and continue the enslavement of what was then one eighth of the population. If so, they offered children attending schools named after them examples of valor, but valor in the service of preserving and extending slavery. Marshall and McNair were heroes to all Americans.


What about Washington? Is the man who did more than any other to win American independence and create institutions that provided the basis for both emancipation and civil rights in the same league as ardent segregationist " states rights" politicians and former members of the Ku Klux Klan?


The local activist who led the campaign to rename the schools thinks so. He says that, "to African Americans, George Washington has about as much meaning as David Duke."


In fact, Washington ranks with George Mason as one of the few founders who actually freed their slaves. In his will he manumitted them upon the death of his wife and provided funds for the education of the young and the care of the elderly among them.


Furthermore, unlike many of his contemporaries, Washington did not tolerate the taking advantage of women slaves in his care, a policy that caused a visiting foreign officer to complain. Nor would Washington sell a slave against his or her will. He refused to break up families at the auction block. Given that some persons were defined by their race as property, he made those decisions at financial sacrifice. Northerners such as Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin, abolitionists from the start, could remain true to their consciences without incurring political, personal, or financial risks. Washington could not.


But the moral-absolutist position of the school board spares students and teachers the burden of considering the dilemmas Washington confronted. Nor will their school's name invite students to ponder the relevant questions: Would the South have entered the struggle for independence if forced to abandon slavery? Could independence have been won without the South? Which was of greater concern to the one third of colonists who favored separation from England -- independence or slavery? Would slavery have been ended without independence?


For that matter, what drew 25,000 African Americans into the ranks of Washington's army? How were they treated while they served, and how did they affect the outcome of the war? What did they think of Washington?


Do not suspect for an instant that removal of Washington's name from an elementary school in New Orleans will prompt such discussion. Published accounts to date suggest the contrary. Meanwhile, hold on to your dollar bills. They could become collectors' items.




Alvin S. Felzenberg, director of a House subcommittee, has lectured at Princeton University and written widely on the presidency.