We’re at it again. The name of Patrick Henry, known for his Revolution-era service to the nation, is about to be stricken from our local collective memories because he owned slaves, just as John C. Calhoun’s name was drained from a lake. That doesn’t change history. I guess it makes a few white Americans feel better. (“Patrick Henry may get the boot: Group seeks to rebrand school named for colonial leader who owned slaves,” April 27.)
We do this frequently — obliterate physical presences in order to make ourselves feel righteous — never mind that it makes us poorer in other areas.
Look at Washington Avenue. Once it was the home of the iconic Metropolitan Building and other structures, some of which attracted questionable people. The ruling class of Minneapolis didn’t approve of the Persian Palms and other “low-class” bars and rooming houses, so we got rid of them in favor of a plain, uninteresting street that looks like a thousand others in cities across this land. Now, also in Minneapolis, there is talk of renaming Patrick Henry High School.
We probably ought to get rid of streets, parks and everything else named Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and others who did things we now consider bad, despite their overall heroic positive positions in the nation’s history. Those actions won’t remove the bias and racism that remains in our lives.
Let me be perfectly clear here. I never attended a Minneapolis high school, but I knew a lot of people over the years who did. One, a black porter who worked for Northern Pacific, worked hard and long with me to achieve his college degree in social work so he could leave the rails and help others in his Rondo neighborhood. He did that. Why isn’t there a plaque or a statue in St. Paul for him?
Instead of renaming and tearing down statues of our long-gone heroes because our sensibilities have started to shift, why not better recognition of other important citizens? How about a statue or plaque to James Armistead, a loyal member of the Revolution, or Ignatia Broker, an Ojibwe writer and community leader from Minneapolis who wrote a wonderful book about her race called “Night Flying Woman”? Where is our recognition of Julia Alvarez, a towering Latina author? What about Cesar Chavez or Brig. Gen. Joseph Medina, a decorated hero? And let’s not forget the code talkers of the Navajo, Choctaw and Cherokee. How many Minnesota servicemen did they save?
Walk the State Capitol grounds in St. Paul. How many statues recognize the achievements of the black women of NASA or Rebecca Lee Crumpler? On Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis stands a statue of Mary Tyler Moore that celebrates her media stardom. OK, so where is our statue of Malcolm X or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or the Rev. Robert Hickman?
Leave Patrick Henry High School with its historic name. Work instead to name other buildings, streets, plaques and statues for people of all races, genders and status. None of us is perfect, nor will we ever be. Obliterating the names of those with whom we now disagree will not change our history.
Carl Brookins lives in Roseville. He grew up in St. Paul and graduated from the University of Minnesota. He is an author of crime fiction.