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What’s in a Name? The Struggle Over What We Call Public Institutions.

From sports teams to high schools, we’re in turmoil about what we consider a deserving name. But we shouldn’t rewrite history as a byproduct of ignorance.

A black and white image of the front of Seattle’s Caspar W. Sharples School, now known as Aki Kurose Middle School.
Seattle’s Caspar W. Sharples School: Sharples was an admired local leader in the 1920s, but by the late 1990s hardly anyone remembered who he was and the school was renamed.
(Seattle Public Schools)
The town of Hanover, N.H., has been in turmoil lately over how to identify its school sports teams. Ever since 1951 they have competed proudly as the Marauders, but in the last year or so students and school officials have come to consider that nickname and its mascot excessively violent and historically offensive.

So they began taking votes at public meetings to choose a substitute. Eventually they settled on two finalists: the Hawks or the Bears. But the consensus was that the replacements weren’t original enough, so after three contentious meetings, they are back to the drawing board.

It’s not hard to see why Marauders would bother people. One dictionary defines a marauder as a person who “roams from place to place making attacks and raids in search of plunder.” Worse than that, the term was used for Confederate terrorists who rode through Virginia in the Civil War, seeking out defenseless Union installations. Why should a public institution in a liberal New Hampshire town feel comfortable identifying that way?

Actually, there has been a small outbreak of mascot revisionism elsewhere in northern New England. Not long ago, the high school in Rutland, Vt., stopped calling itself the Raiders, and another Vermont town, Randolph, concluded that it didn’t want its high school team to be the Galloping Ghosts, citing a connection between that nickname and Ku Klux Klan terrorists in the 1870s.

It can be hard to know where to stop. Nashville’s professional hockey team is the Predators, and the word, while most frequently applied to an animal, has been defined in some American jurisdictions as “a person who has been convicted of a sexually violent offense.” I personally wouldn’t want to be connected with that name, but there’s no evidence that many people in Tennessee are upset about it. In any case, the hockey team, unlike the Hanover football team, is a privately owned enterprise.

Some diligent research a few years ago by Leada Gore of the website AL.com turned up a long list of questionable high school mascot names that would be in trouble if they existed in New England. The players in Laurel Hill, Fla., are called the Hoboes. The ones at Yuma High School in Yuma, Ariz., are the Criminals. I can see a grain of justification for a team calling itself the Hoboes; a hobo, aside from being a lawbreaker, has carried a whiff of romance through more than a century of American history and literature. Criminals seems indefensible on any ground, although school officials insist that the name relates to an episode in 1913 when the school was forced to meet in the local jail. They’re just lucky they aren’t in Hanover.

The deeper you dig into all this, the more it becomes a complicated and decidedly non-trivial business. Sometimes public schools and other institutions change their mascot names for no reason except utter forgetfulness. Years ago I wrote about the Caspar W. Sharples middle school in Seattle. Caspar Sharples was an utterly irreproachable and universally admired local leader who built a public hospital in the 1920s. The choice was entirely fitting. The only problem was that by the late 1990s, hardly anyone remembered who Caspar Sharples was. So local officials wiped his name off the building and renamed it after one of the school’s recent favorite teachers. I found this offensive, and still do. Not all of us can have perfect historical memories, but erasing a tribute to a genuinely significant role model is not the way responsible local governments ought to behave. The Sharples family fought the change but lost.

ONE LESSON THAT COMES THROUGH PRETTY CLEARLY is that public name changes ought to be considered on a case-by-case basis, not on a basis of historical ignorance or undifferentiated ideology.

My children, as it happens, attended three public schools in Arlington, Va. The elementary school was named after Zachary Taylor, the 19th-century general and president. Then came the Claude Swanson Middle School, whose name commemorates a Virginia native who was governor, U.S. senator and secretary of the Navy early in the 20th century. The high school they graduated from had been known since the 1920s as Washington-Lee.

Perhaps I’m drawing a little too much on personal experience, but I think there’s a lesson in each of these situations.

Zachary Taylor had a distinguished military career. He was a southerner and a slaveholder, but as president he opposed extending slavery into the territories. That’s one mark in his favor. On the other hand, he had absolutely nothing to do with Arlington County. I think it would be justifiable to take his name off the property on grounds of irrelevance.

Claude Swanson is a much different case. He was a progressive governor who cracked down on railroad price gouging, beefed up the state Board of Education and established a brand-new department of public welfare. He was undeniably a member of a segregationist Democratic political machine, but so was virtually every public official in the state. Putting all these pieces together, I would argue that his sins were not egregious enough to justify erasing his name from the school. My daughter disagrees with this.

Finally we come to Robert E. Lee. Many consider this an open-and-shut case, since he commanded troops in a rebellion against the United States. It seems to me a bit more complicated. Lee, by all accounts, was a decent, honest, generous and deeply reflective man. He owned slaves to provide for the comfort of his family, but he wrote that slavery was “a moral and political evil in any country.” He freed all of his slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. He didn’t believe in secession and denounced it as “nothing but revolution.” I think this is a closer call than other people do, but still, in the end, my vote would be to remove his name. However honorable you may be in your personal life, conducting a war against your country is not a reason to have public institutions named after you.

This is certainly what the state and the county of Arlington have concluded. The main east-west thoroughfare in the county is no longer called Lee Highway. It is now named after John Langston, a Virginia civil rights pioneer. The high school my daughters attended is now called Washington-Liberty. The statue of Lee that used to adorn Monument Avenue in Richmond has been taken down.

WHEN THIS RENAMING PROCESS is not handled with a modicum of common sense, it can make fools of those who promote it. You may have read that earlier this year in San Francisco, the school board voted to erase the names of Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein from two of the city’s public schools. Feinstein’s offense was that, as mayor of the city in 1984, she returned a Confederate flag to a public building after protesters had removed it. Lincoln’s offense, if I understand it, was to have been complicit in the execution of Native American insurrectionists during the Civil War. This school board action quickly became an object of anti-leftist national ridicule. One local parent called it “a caricature of what people think liberals in San Francisco do.” It’s hard to disagree with that. The action was repealed a few months later.

That ultimately brings us back to the larger issue of honors deserved and undeserved. A name like Marauders or Raiders is, in the end, an abstraction. No individual human being is involved. It does no harm to change the name of a football team from the Marauders or the Raiders to practically any substitute — maybe not the Criminals, but just about anything else. But a monumental statue or a nameplate on a school is a physical object that residents have to look at every day.

There are some obvious but not very helpful rules about the sorts of statuary we have a right to demolish. Brutal dictators must not be immortalized. The statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad had to come down. So did the Stalin statues that fell in eastern Europe following the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Autocrats of proven cruelty should suffer the same fate.

So should convicted criminals. When Louisiana Gov. Richard Leche was sent to prison in 1940 for corruption, the state made an effort to remove all traces of his name from its structures and institutions. Legislators argued against naming anything at all after a living public figure. Perhaps that was going a bit too far. Or perhaps it wasn’t.

We are still left with the issue of slaveholders who otherwise conducted exemplary public lives. The only fair approach is to examine each case individually. On balance, I don’t think Robert E. Lee belongs in the protected category. But George Washington and Thomas Jefferson haven’t suffered the same fate, at least not so far. When Lee’s name was stripped off the façade of my daughter’s high school, Washington’s remained. That seems to me the right decision.

Finally, there are the examples of historical personages whose names are dishonored through sheer forgetfulness. The case of Caspar Sharples is an example, if perhaps not an earth-shattering one. We should not rewrite the history of our country or our communities as a byproduct of ignorance.

It’s important to re-examine our national history, warts and all. Most of the time, erasing it is not the right way to do that.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at ehrenhalt@yahoo.com.
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