Opinion
Law & Courts Opinion

It’s Time to Teach Our Ugly American History

By Joseph McGill — September 07, 2017 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The preservation of historic buildings is a method of showcasing a history in which we, the American people, take pride. What’s often missing in this story are the people from whom I and many others in our nation derived their DNA: the enslaved.

Since founding the Slave Dwelling Project in 2010, which helps to preserve surviving slave quarters, I have spent nights at nearly 100 slave dwellings in 19 states and the District of Columbia. The purpose of these sleepovers, which I lead for students, educators, and other individuals, is to bring much-needed attention to these buildings. Seeing and entering these physical structures makes it hard to deny the presence of the people who occupied them and provides a much-needed opportunity to learn about chattel slavery.

It's Time to Teach Our Ugly American History: Removing Confederate monuments won't solve our problems

I apply that same thinking to Confederate monuments. As an African-American, my position is rare. Last month’s violent white nationalist rally over the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, in Charlottesville, Va., re-energized the movement to remove controversial statues, monuments, and plaques devoted to the Civil War. Mayors in Baltimore; Gainesville, Fla.; and other cities did just that. And, in some cases, such as in Durham, N.C., protesters pulled down statues themselves.

From the end of the Civil War through the civil rights movement, monuments and other symbols of the Confederacy were erected to commemorate a lost cause and the soldiers who fought for it. They were also used to intimidate African-American citizens.

Despite the controversy, I support leaving them in place.

Here’s why: They tell us a lot about an American history shaped by white supremacy. Just as in my work leading tours of slave dwellings, educating others about this history is our chance to change the narrative. But now that our nation has embarked on this slippery slope of sanitizing our past, where will it stop?

Our founding fathers created a system of slavery far more brutal than any before it. From the time the first enslaved person from Africa arrived unwillingly in Jamestown, Va., in 1619 to the Civil War’s end in 1865, chattel slavery (in which an enslaved individual’s descendants were also property) prospered. Chattel slavery was sanctioned by this nation’s religious institutions, universities, and lawmakers, which ensured its longevity. Forty-one signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave owners, as well as 12 U.S. presidents—eight of them while in office.

All states now have the opportunity to examine the uglier side of all that we hold dear."

Even after the Revolutionary War, when Northern states began to abolish slavery, the residents of these states still reaped its benefits and condoned its existence. Their complicity was in owning the banks, insurance companies, and factories that profited from the cotton picked by the enslaved. Even institutions of higher learning have roots in slavery. Georgetown University, for example, formally apologized earlier this year for its involvement in selling 272 slaves in the 1800s to pay off debts.

Erasing history has always been a part of how Americans have dealt with the atrocities of the past. There aren’t many buildings or statues that denote lynching, the genocide of Native Americans, World War II’s Japanese internment camps, and other horrific actions because we are not proud of them. Some proponents of monument removal would argue that the violent roots of the Confederacy justify why its commemorations should disappear. But I would argue that removal doesn’t solve our problems.

In fact, scrubbing all visible traces of white supremacy from the landscape is nearly impossible and would mean we’d have few historical markers left. A 2016 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 718 Confederate monuments and statues scattered across the country. That number does not include the schools or national holidays that honor the Confederacy in some way. New Orleans, for example, took down four Confederate monuments in April but left in place the statue of Andrew Jackson, the person responsible for the Trail of Tears—the forced removal of Native Americans under the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Representations of the past, from the Jefferson Memorial to the Washington Monument, should instead focus on educating future generations about this country’s complicated history. We need to change the narrative of our nation. Removing monuments won’t do that. We must tell our students the good, the bad, and the ugly of our past. And in the case of those who fought for the Confederacy, we shouldn’t hide the numbers of slaves they owned or the uniforms that they wore.

All states now have the opportunity to examine the uglier side of all that we hold dear. If we’re going all the way, let’s rid ourselves of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Let’s stop singing the National Anthem’s racist third verse. Let’s take the “N” word out of Huckleberry Finn. And anything memorializing the slave-owning white supremacists who signed the Declaration of Independence, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, must go.

If the unfortunate incidents of Charlottesville, Va., are any indication, future generations will soon side with those who believe that all these monuments should be removed from public places. Instead of erasing history, why don’t we educate our students about it honestly?

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Commentaries in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2017 edition of Education Week as We Must Teach Our Ugly Past, Not Erase It

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Building Teacher Capacity for Social-Emotional Learning
Set goals that support adult well-being and social-emotional learning: register today!


Content provided by Panorama
Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Is Censuring a 'Rogue' School Board Member a Free Speech Violation? High Court to Decide
The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to hear arguments on whether official rebukes of officeholders trigger First Amendment concerns.
8 min read
Conceptual image of a board meeting.
A-Digit/DigitalVision Vectors
Law & Courts Critical Race Theory Law Violates Teachers' Free Speech, ACLU Argues in New Lawsuit
The lawsuit alleges Oklahoma's law harms students of color and weakens what all students learn about the state's history.
4 min read
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, above, is named in a new lawsuit alleging that the state's recent law restricting teaching on race and sex is unconstitutional.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, above, is named in a new lawsuit alleging that the state's recent law restricting teaching on race and sex is unconstitutional.
Sue Ogrocki/AP
Law & Courts Parkland Victims' Families Reach $25M Settlement With Broward School District
The largest payments will go to the 17 families whose children or spouses were killed in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
Scott Travis, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
3 min read
In this Feb. 15, 2018, file photo, law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school.
In this Feb. 15, 2018, file photo, law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school.
Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo
Law & Courts Justice Sotomayor Denies Bid to Block Vaccine Mandate for New York City School Employees
The Supreme Court justice's refusal involves the COVID-19 vaccine requirement in the nation's largest school district.
2 min read
In this Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020 file photo, senior Clinical Research Nurse Ajithkumar Sukumaran prepares the COVID 19 vaccine to administer to a volunteer, at a clinic in London. British scientists are beginning a small study comparing how two experimental coronavirus vaccines might work when they are inhaled by people instead of being injected. In a statement on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, researchers at Imperial College London and Oxford University said a trial involving 30 people would test vaccines developed by both institutions when participants inhale the droplets in their mouths, which would directly target their respiratory systems.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Oct. 1 denied a request to block a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees of the New York City school system.
Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP