America’s Schools Are Named After Some Horrible People

America’s Schools Are Named After Some Horrible People
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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 ten 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 one 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 non-white. 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 is 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.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. RJ Martin is the program manager of education policy at AEI.  

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