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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

America’s Schools Are Named After Some Horrible People

By Rick Hess — July 01, 2020 4 min read
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The last several weeks I’ve been doing a lot of listening and reflecting on the police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests. Important issues have come to the fore relating to policing, criminal justice, education, and more. At the same time, I’ve been increasingly troubled by what strikes me as the excesses of a self-righteous mob. It seems to me that this should be a moment for careful distinctions, not kow-towing to neo-McCarthyite agendas nor petulant refusal to support overdue measures. In that spirit, over at RealClearPolicy, my AEI colleague RJ Martin and I recently offered some thoughts on schools named for Confederate figures. I thought it worth sharing those here.

—Rick Hess

We’re in the midst of a public reckoning when it comes to monuments and symbols that honor the Confederacy. Statues of Confederate generals are being removed—or defaced and toppled by protestors—across the country. NASCAR banned the rebel flag. The Army is considering whether to rename 10 Southern bases named after Confederate generals.

And schools are very much in the middle of this. Last week, Education Week reported that 185 schools across 17 states are named for Confederate leaders. While that may account for less than 1 percent of the nation’s schools, and while the number is steadily shrinking, one can still find Confederate-named schools as far west as California and as far north as Washington state. More to the point, protesters are right that not even a single child should have to attend a school named for those who took up arms against our nation in defense of slavery.

At the same time, assessing how and if long-gone leaders should be honored in society today requires judgment and principle, not capitulations to the sentiments of the mob. Moral failings should not automatically negate an individual’s contributions, else we would have no statues, and all our schools would be named after trees and marine life. But there’s a difference between making room for imperfection and going out of our way to honor those who fought against American values.

Start with Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose name appears on eight U.S. schools, more than all but five other Confederates. In the six years before the Civil War, Forrest sold around 7,500 people, making a net profit of over $1 million (not adjusted for inflation). His cruelty knew few bounds. In 1859, he advertised for sale an enslaved female who “is said to be of the class known among the dealers as a ‘likely girl,’ ” callously emphasizing her vulnerability to rape. Forrest’s Civil War career was marked by similar cruelty. At Fort Pillow in April 1864, his men massacred about 300 African American soldiers after they surrendered. Once the war ended, Forrest became the first grand wizard of the KKK, which terrorized African Americans across the South.

Another of the Confederate leaders most commonly found as a school namesake is Zebulon Vance, a North Carolina slaveholder and colonel in the Confederate army. Before the Civil War, Vance called the idea of emancipation “utterly absurd,” arguing that everyone “recoils in disgust and loathing from the prospect of intermingling the quick and jealous blood of the European with the putrid stream of African barbarism.”

After the war, his views on race didn’t moderate much. In 1878, shortly after being inaugurated a third time as North Carolina governor, Vance spoke to a parade of African American citizens celebrating the anniversary of emancipation. He opened by saying: “You cannot of course expect me to join with you in celebrating” the anniversary of emancipation, an act which “I struggled so long to prevent” and “an act of unconstitutional violence.”

There are eleven schools named for Jefferson Davis, who before the Civil War praised slavery for maintaining the “presence of a lower caste” of people, thereby creating “an equality” among white males. As president of the Confederacy, he personally approved the execution of African American prisoners-of-war and the white officers who commanded them, and supported the enslavement of all free African Americans. Years later, he showed no remorse, saying in 1884 that he wanted no pardon from the United States because “I have not repented,” and that “if it were all to do over again, I would again do just as I did in 1861.”

Thousands of children go to schools named after such men. Especially offensive is that most of these children are minorities: Sixty-two percent of students in schools named after Confederate leaders are nonwhite. One needn’t embrace the wilder critiques voiced by the woke brigades to agree that this is repugnant and has been too long ignored.

If these schools were named in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, as a tribute to veterans returning home, that would at least complicate the story. In truth, most Confederate schools received their names over a century later, as part of the massive resistance to desegregation. State and local leaders were especially active in renaming schools during the civil rights era—among Confederate-named schools where data are available, nearly half (53 of 117) received their names in the 1950s and 1960s.

None of this means that public officials should cater to Jacobins, allow rioters to tear down statues, or cave to Twitter mobs. But surely America can do better. Schools are places where every student should feel safe and valued and a place where the best of our country’s leaders are held up as role models. This isn’t a call for moral perfection in those we name schools after, but it is a recognition that the segregationist naming of schools for those who took up arms against the nation to defend human bondage is not reflective of the values we want our kids to learn. There’s plenty for us to debate, but this shouldn’t be too tough a line to draw.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.