In the months following George Floyd’s murder and subsequent nationwide movement for Black Lives to finally Matter in this nation, there’s been a call to remove Confederate flags and statues, rename stadiums, schools, and sports teams, and pressure to also remove statues of our Founding Fathers because they were slavers.
The political right cried out, “They’re trying to erase our history!” Quite loudly and repeatedly. To which I say: bullshit
US History has been whitewashed for far too long. Grade school students (and even many university students) learn half-truths about those Founding Fathers. The horrifying history of US Slavery and the depth of racial inequality to this day are minimized if not completely omitted. Those who decide to remove pertinent historical information in this curriculum are the ones trying to erase our history, for it is possible to both admire a person for their genius and condemn them for their choice to own slaves.
The creators of the US Constitution have been long-admired for their foresight, as their political experiment has stood the test of time (thus far) for nearly 250 years. Much to their discredit as human beings, US citizens are taught to utterly revere these men without question, almost worship them. Any shortcoming is turned into a charming anecdote (chopping down cherry tree) or completely rewritten (Washington had wooden teeth, rather than dentures made from the teeth of slaves).
The horrific truth is that the Founding Fathers were almost all slavers. Most of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were slavers. By 1799 at the time of his death, Washington owned over 300 slaves. Although Jefferson called slavery a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot,” he owned over 600 slaves during his lifetime. At least one of those slaves, Sally Hemings, he habitually raped for years, likely fathering many of her children. And, yes… it was rape, even for those who insist Sally loved Jefferson. It could only be rape since she was not free to consent.
The atrocious truth is that slavery was socially acceptable at that time. It not only was acceptable, but it wasn’t also expected for men of means to own other human beings, as a kind of status symbol. (I feel sick just typing those words.) People of means felt entitled to own other people, and there was a war to defend their “right” to do so.
Make no mistake, it was as horrendous and repugnant then as it is now, but that doesn’t change the fact it was socially acceptable.
a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.Thomas Paine, Common Sense
If we learned our Founding Fathers were not only remarkable people who established arguably one of the greatest forms of government in world history, but they were also deeply flawed human beings who felt entitled to own other people, then we learn about the entire person without dehumanizing them in an effort to make them appear flawless. When we learn about the genius along with the horror, it not only serves the memory of the countless slaves but it also teaches each of us the importance of that part of our history and how we must strive every day to tear down any remnant of it, including the Confederate Flag and statues of slavers.
George Washington will always be the first president of the United States. He will always be an honored general in the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson will always be the author of the Declaration of Independence. There is no erasing of those truths. In actuality, we enrich our history by teaching, learning, and accepting the full truth of US history and its founders.
We must honor our Founding Fathers without celebrating slavers.
I’m ashamed to say I never realized they were slavers until I was 34 years old, such is white privilege. It was 2004 when a black man named Jackson Hamiter, a producer for my first documentary, enlightened me. He took some bills from his wallet and said he had to look at slavers every day when he bought food. Their names were on the sides of buildings and street signs. Around every corner was a reminder that his ancestors were worth less than. An inescapable reminder of the criminal injustice that extends to this very day.
We can learn history without celebrating men who owned other human beings, without revering rapists like Thomas Jefferson and Christopher Columbus, among many others. We can acknowledge their genius and condemn their behavior. We can tear down their statues and rename schools, all while learning why we’re changing who we celebrate. It becomes part of history—the part where nearly 250 years after its inception, the United States finally says enough. Black Lives are more important than a statue or street sign or any property. Black Lives are important enough to learn the truth about the USA’s deeply racist history and white privilege. We will no longer tolerate white supremacy in any of its forms, past or present.
It’s time to tear down statues of privileged white men from over two centuries ago and replace them with others who embody the spirit of the very nation those Founding Fathers created.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
George Washington Carver.
…the list goes on….
Let’s celebrate people who deserve to be celebrated. Raise statues of these people, put them on our currency, and name schools after them. Let our Founding Fathers remain an integral and permanent part of our history in textbooks and through tourist attractions, where we learn of their genius along with their horror.
It honors them.
It honors Black people.
It honors the United States of America.