Al McCombs

Al McCombs

History is taking a beating, probably because of the frustrations brought on by the coronavirus, the pending national election, and specifically the action of a rogue cop in Minneapolis and others like him. Probably all three, and if not them then something else waiting to upset our apple carts and test our beliefs.

It seems that I’ve been misinformed by my educators from the time I was born. I was taught how great people like Christopher Columbus, Father Serra and John Sutter were to national and California history. Now it seems like they are tarnished people as was my education, because bad stuff was covered up. No worse than with some other heroes whose legacies have been affected by changing attitudes about our cultural values.

It’s kind of the early sixties all over again, when “newly enlightened” young people rebelled against a system they had been brought up to love. With the help of some manufactured stimulants their parents had been taught to hate.

I don’t mean to infer that we shouldn’t be reexamining some the information that’s being taught. But teaching ethics doesn’t mean we have to reverse our knowledge of what good people have done within the confines of their cultural restraints, as in the case of Washington and Jefferson, who seem to be among the targets of demonstrators. Or at least their statues and even their legacies are.

Carried too far, a move to erase respected idols can return to bite us. In fact, some names based on people found to be intolerant by current standards are just too engrained to erase. An example is our national capital. “Columbia” is the accepted poetic name for the United States, and before that for the British colonies. It is also the nation's female personification of Christopher Columbus. Without the explorer, who is currently condemned for his treatment of indigenous peoples, there would be no Columbus, Ohio, or Columbia University. New targets include Washington and Lee University and the city of St. Louis, Missouri. 

Princeton University is faced with obliterating references to Woodrow Wilson. USC and Cal Tech are taking a beating from people who want the names of important founders removed from important areas because their pre-World War II beliefs in eugenics (the improvement of society through breeding) are “at direct odds with current values.” But doesn’t name changing violate the terms of money left in endowments and bequests by many people, dead and alive?

Will people like those going after Washington and Lee University in Virginia, to disown Lee, decide to go after William and Mary College in the same state, or its historic city of Williamsburg? I wonder what will happen at my own alma mater, which dumped its Indian mascot in 1972.  Leland Stanford, the university founder was one behind the Central Pacific Railroad, then state governor and senator. His company certainly was hard on the Chinese. But the school is safe. It’s named Leland Stanford Junior University in memory of the Stanfords’ son  who died as a teenager.

Hopefully Herbert Hoover, Stanford’s most prominent alumnus who founded on the campus the prestigious Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, a public policy think tank and research facility with its own imposing tower, will remain clean in the eyes of the revisionists. But how about his namesake dam at Lake Mead, for which the name was changed to Boulder by FDR, then back again.

If you want to get closer to home, we might have Richard Gird, E.J. Marshall and a number of our Hall of Famers at risk if we dig too far. I know of at least three schools here named for people with clouds over their names in certain questionable areas.

Meanwhile we can commiserate with the problems facing residents and business owners of Fort Bragg in Northern California and those of us who think Mount Rushmore in South Dakota is a national monument of great worth.

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