Like Eastern Oregon University’s library formerly known as Pierce, my high school is, at the moment, nameless.
From the beginning, its name was problematic. Henry Sibley was an early settler and the first governor of Minnesota. But after the 1862 Dakota War, Sibley presided over the trials of hundreds of Dakota men, many lasting just minutes and in a language that few Dakota understood. Three hundred three men were sentenced to death. That done, Sibley immediately turned to driving the remaining Dakota westward out of Minnesota. For those who knew Sibley’s history, the school’s naming could only be seen as insult on top of century-old injury.
Perhaps it was the too-close murder of George Floyd that finally turned the tide.
In recent years, many people have challenged the significance of the individuals and events we have memorialized, and many monuments and institutions have been removed, demolished, or renamed. Some suggest that this seeks to “change history.” Of course it doesn’t. Removing statues cannot change the fact that Columbus is the first documented European to encounter North America after the Vikings, or that he immediately claimed that land as belonging to the Spanish king and queen. Changing the names of institutions does not change the role Washington played as a revolutionary general or our nation’s first president. A change in names or removal of monuments does not change the facts of history.
Others argue that changing names or removing memorials “rewrites” the past—but we have always been selective, choosing to recognize some parts of history while ignoring others. One example: Wallowa County’s courthouse square contains a plaque that lists numerous “Wallowa County Pioneers,” including B.E. Evans — but Evans was the leader of the 1887 massacre of 34 Chinese miners along the Snake River in Wallowa County. The county continues to celebrate Evans while making no mention of the mass murders he committed.
Does the county presently portray that history fully or accurately?
Memorials can serve other purposes. In recent years, there has been a movement across the South to memorialize the massacres and lynchings of African Americans, which constitute a significant part of Southern history. Sometimes, you know about the markers ahead of time; you brace yourself for them, such as those that tell of the murder of Emmet Till. Others appear unexpectedly: driving down a rural road or walking past a courthouse, you notice a marker placed at the site of yet another lynching. These new memorials are reminders of the human capacity for hatred and brutality. They stand as admonitions. And as warnings.
Monuments can symbolize the values our society considers important, commemorating the principles that we want to pass forward. That raises another issue: People and events can mean different things to different people. To some, Charles Lindbergh was intrepid and courageous, the first pilot to make a solo flight across the Atlantic. Others remember him for his open support of fascism and campaign to keep the United States out of World War II. Similarly, there are over 1,500 monuments to the Confederacy across the South. For many, such memorials represent a glorious lost cause. But I often wonder how it would feel to be Black and to encounter omnipresent monuments to a cause that existed to keep my ancestors enslaved. It would be chilling to know that enough whites considered such beliefs acceptable that monuments have been erected and maintained in their honor. I’m certain I could never feel fully at home in a world where the Confederacy was celebrated.
Phrasing the same idea differently: Can our country be truly inclusive when some people erect monuments that celebrate the subjugation or enslavement of other people who live here? At a minimum, it seems that understanding and respect for other people’s experiences and feelings is a matter of simple common courtesy and basic decency.
Today’s challenges to monuments and institutional and place names spotlight the fact that our history — and our memorialization of it — is far more complex than many of us have been taught.