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"From the old historian" - John Samuel Tieman`s article

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12 Punto 14 Punto 16 Punto 18 Punto presents the article "From the old historian" by John Samuel Tieman.

Was Abraham Lincoln a racist? Good question.

This brings me to my hometown, University City, Missouri. I live in an inner-ring suburb of St. Louis. One current project is the proposed renaming of street names that commemorate folks who are now considered racist. Pershing Avenue is named for Gen. John Pershing. He supported the U. S. Army's policy of keeping Black troops “separate but equal”. Wilson Avenue is named for Pres. Woodrow Wilson. Among other things, Wilson excluded Blacks from federal appointments, and he segregated federal agencies. Ten of our streets are named after slave owners.

This is a national debate. San Francisco, as just one example, wants to rename its Lincoln High School. Much of the debate focuses on racist attitudes. However, when we look back several decades, or one or two centuries or more, it is impossible to find anyone who conforms to contemporary standards concerning race.

Consider Richard Henry Pratt (1840 - 1924), the founder of the Carlisle Indian School. This school has often been criticized, in recent times, for its destructive impact upon Native culture. There is much truth to that criticism. However, Pratt was also part of the movement in progressive education that included folks like John Dewey, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Marie Montessori, and Booker T. Washington. Pratt penned the first recorded use of the term “racism” in his 1902 attack upon racial segregation. His adaptation of the Common School was in no way different from the education of Italian or Irish immigrants. One of his models was the Tuskegee Institute. He felt that Native Americans were worthy of full inclusion in society, this at a time when a common sentiment was that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Of course, that full inclusion meant the full and complete erasure of authentic Native culture. I don't excuse the destructiveness. I caution that Pratt's educational vision was the liberalism of its day. In his own lifetime, and for a long time thereafter, Richard Henry Pratt was viewed as progressive. His tombstone reads, “Friend Of The Indian”. Today, his work is often viewed as cultural genocide.

Do we judge someone by their worst idea? Woodrow Wilson was a racist. That's true. He also was largely responsible for founding the League Of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations. I don't excuse his racism. I merely point out that virtually all historical figures have a mixed legacy. Put a different way, does a person's best idea outweigh their worst? It's a difficult measure.

Then there's Abraham Lincoln. His attitude toward race is a vastly complicated subject. Let me simply say this. By some standards, he began his public life as a narrow-minded racist. However, he made a remarkable transition that eventually helped free four million Black folks from bondage. Throughout his life, he changed and grew. That's all we can ask of anyone. Lincoln was many things, but static was not among them.

One other observation from the old historian. For anyone choosing to rename a street, park, school, I would give you to consider what I think of as the historian's “Fifty Years Rule”. When considering an event, until everyone concerned has been dead for fifty years, it's a current event. There is nothing unusual about striking revelations thirty years into the future. I caution hesitancy about naming anything after anyone involved in recent events.

I am not a wise man. I offer observations, cautions, but little in the way of wisdom or solution. But this one last thought I can say to a certainty. If you are looking for a flawless hero or heroine, history is not your field of study.

2021.05.03 / 17:13
John Samuel Tieman
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