Should the names of Confederate figures be removed from public places of honor?

I did a cursory search and did not find this topic addressed. If I missed it, please forgive me.

Anyhoo, the school board of the Austin (Texas) Independent School District has voted to rename the campus of Robert E. Lee Elementary School. They have not yet chosen a new name. Many people in social media call this “changing (or erasing) history.” They claim that it would be impossible to find anyone who is utterly faultless to honor with the naming of schools, parks, etc. Those in favor of the name change argue that Lee himself is a poor figure to honor with the naming of a school and that his name on the building creates a hostile environment for African-American students, and perhaps other ethnic minorities.

So, should Lee’s name be removed from elementary schools? Should it be removed from other public properties, such as high schools, parks, freeways, etc.? Is such renaming of these things constitute revisionist history?

In my opinion, Robert E. Lee is a terrible person to honor with the name of a school or other public space. Lee was a traitor. He took up arms against the very army that trained and commissioned him. He championed the states’ right to allow slavery, which, even for the 1860s, was unconscionable. The issue of slavery was settled in Western thought at the time, with the United States being among the last to ban its practice. Lee knowingly aligned himself with a “peculiar institution” that was clearly going to be extinct. His name should absolutely be removed from public schools, parks, highways, etc.

However, Texas is also home to Lee County. Renaming a county is somewhat more problematic. Perhaps a compromise would be to find some other worthy person named Lee and claim that, from here forward, Lee County will forever be known to honor Penelope Lee, a woman of obvious beauty and contribution to society.

But what of Jeff Davis County? This county is not merely “Davis County”, but Jeff Davis County. It would be harder to find a worthy person with that specific of a name.

Back in Austin, folks have suggested renaming Sidney Lanier High School (of which I am a graduate). Lanier was a poet and musician. During the Civil War, he served in the Confederate Army, but he did not have any notable accomplishments. His notability comes from his poetry and music. However, some of his poetry is quite offensive to modern sensibilities. To me, his case is somewhat different. He was not a leader of the Rebel cause. He, like many people, simply got caught up in the tide. His morality was typical of many Southerners at the time (and even today, sadly). Renaming Lanier High School would be more trouble than it’s worth. He is not in the same league as Lee or Davis.

Austin is also the county seat of Travis County. Travis was named for Col. William Barrett Travis, hero of the Alamo. Travis could also be characterized as a traitor, leading a rebellion against Mexico. However, Travis has one important attribute that Lee and Davis do not: his cause WON (though Travis himself died in the effort). Shouldn’t that matter?

Yes, unless they are being honored for things outside their traitorous service to the CSA, such as Sidney Lanier.

Of course, battlefield monuments should still mention their names, etc. Let’s not get carried away.

Nathan Bedford Forrest I think has his name on more stuff than anyone, and that’s mainly due to the fact that he was the Founder of the KKK. It’s a way to spit in the face of Black people while saying you’re honoring the General.

I’m all in favour of removing figures from places of honour who’ve said or done something that today would be considered horrible. Not only Confederates. The usual example in these things is Jefferson owning slaves; that, to me, is enough to not want to commemorate the guy, though not being American likely plays a role in my lacking any cultural awe at the guy. If you want to recognise some great achievement or deed that that person committed, then celebrate that achievement or deed, not the person. It’s much the same reaction as I have to people wishing to fly flags associated with the Confederacy; if you’d like to celebrate some cultural issue or point of history, don’t pick a symbol which stands for lots of other things too. Celebrate what you want to celebrate. Discard what you don’t.

If removing the names of people from buildings or parks or whatever is sufficient enough to wipe them from history, then either they weren’t important or interesting enough to remember, or the problem is with the education system in that country. Not a name.

Politics and human nature are always more complicated than such dichotomies. Lee himself was no great advocate for slavery; years before the war, he wrote, “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.” He supported his wife’s efforts to free slaves and repatriate them to Liberia, for example. However, he as much as Lanier was a product of his time and was someone caught up in the struggles of his age (which at least for him had at least as much to do with loyalty to Virginia as the peculiar institution–he is known to have struggled with the decision, and in early 1861 was still denouncing secession as a betrayal of the ideals of the Revolution).

So if the Confederacy had won, the evils of slavery would not have been a barrier to honoring Lee? (After all, Travis was a slave-owner, and one of the grievances the Texas rebels had against Mexico was the fact that Mexico had abolished African slavery.)

I’m all for changing the names of government buildings and parks. But don’t go destroying art. Sandblasting Stone Mountain is as bad as Al Qaida destroying ancient Buddhist statues.

Related thread, plus one of multiple threads on the Confederate flag.

People ultimately get to decide which historical figures they think are deserving of public honor by having localities, streets and public buildings named after them. The citizenry certainly was not always consulted when these things were named in the first place. It is not “erasing history” to rename them, unless you’re also clearing out museums and refusing to teach about Confederates in the schools.

Where the line of equilibrium ultimately lies on renaming stuff honoring public figures will (hopefully) be up to rational folk to decide.

What really does it accomplish? What they did was done and over.

Every HS U.S. history textbook still covers the Civil War, and probably says more or less the same things about it as a textbook from 20 years ago. All that is being erased here is expressions of Confederate pride, which should be erased, and it’s hard to believe anyone is still actually arguing over that point in this day and age. I wouldn’t touch the Stone Mountain memorial or any of the various Confederate war memorials or statues of generals, those have their own historical (and in some cases artistic) value as memorials, but school names are fair game, and so are any Confederate battle flags not incorporated into memorials.

Well, I don’t think that slave ownership is a barrier to honoring George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and a host of other folks. As you point out, the human experience is a complex one. No man is without sin and we won’t find anyone to honor who is utterly pure in every way. It is also not useful to view historical figures through the lens of modern sensibilities. If the Confederacy had won, I have no doubt there would be even more memorials to the likes of Lee and Davis. However, as Lee clearly knew, slavery was a lost cause that was eventually going to end with or without his involvement.

The folks who argue in favor of leaving Lee’s name on things like schools often point out, correctly, that Lee was no great fan of slavery. The also frame Lee’s rebellion not as being a traitor, but as being loyal to Virginia. That is also true, from a certain perspective. At the end of the day, Lee threw his lot in with the South and with those who advocated for the states’ right to hold others in bondage. That is an inescapable fact. He joined the side that was doomed to lose. Even if 1865 had gone better for the South, slavery and all that went with it was going to end sooner or later. Lee went with later. To me, you don’t get to throw in with “later” and then get to be honored when it all goes to hell.

I would be all for honoring Robert E. Lee with his name on schools, parks, highways, counties, towns, and whatever else if he had instead said that the pull of Virginia was strong, but that he cannot align himself with a state that will allow human bondage and will tear the country asunder to make it happen. Sadly, that is not what he did.

Where do we stand on cemeteries?

Some people take the past seriously, and find that it affects their lives, or use it to affect their lives, today.

Whilst I too am not in favour of destroying art commemorating those I despise, even that famous sculpture of Iron Felix, I would take issue with describing most Confederate memorial as ‘Art’ — although I still wouldn’t tear it down.
The statue honouring Nathan Bedford F in Nashville wasn’t done by Hamo Thornycroft.

We should strip the names of those traitors off of anything named after them, and re-name them after southern heroes of the Civil War (of which I’m sure there were plenty). Note that I said “heroes”, not “villains”: I speak of those who maintained their loyalty to their nation in putting down those who committed treason in the name of slavery.

I don’t care what Mr. Lee said about slavery. The fact remains that, when push came to shove, he was willing to sacrifice his honor and risk life and limb for the sake of defending it. If he truly opposed slavery, or were even merely indifferent about it, such acts would be inconceivable.

Like slavery, which they feel has gotta be taught in the schools.

It’s so past tense.

As long as we can, in preference to under them.

Then what is the point in even having war memorials, or naming schools after historical figures, or, for that matter, teaching history in the schools?

Lee was never a traitor, the local meme here notwithstanding. He resigned that commission first. He declared his new allegiance openly and honorably.
That said, renaming an elementary school–built long after the War and Lee’s death, and with no particular connection to either–is not changing or erasing history. Plenty of memorials to Robert E. Lee still stand.

Emphasis added. Do we dynamite Mt. Rushmore? Take a wrecking ball to the Jefferson Memorial in DC? Rip up the Declaration of Independence?

Washington owned slaves, too. Do we need to change the name of our Capitol? Hey, we’d get a 2-fer on Mt Rushmore since we could probably dynamite him and Jefferson at the same time!

What if he was indifferent to slavery, but believed that honor meant defending his native land? In fact, that’s pretty much what he did believe, with the understanding that native land = Virginia. Why would it be inconceivable that patriotism trumped his beliefs about slavery?

In this century, we usually define patriotism as love and support of your COUNTRY, with the state or region being a distant second. In Lee’s time, however, it was still a fairly common belief that you were first and foremost a citizen of Virginia or Massachusetts or Kentucky, and only secondarily an American. Building an American national identity, as one nation rather than merely a collection of states, is one of the major themes of the 19th century, and certainly the Civil War helped that process along.

Depends, really. Artistic exemption? Personally speaking, I would be entirely fine with those decisions.

Given that it’s actually part of your legal system, that would be a bad plan.

These all sound like excellent ideas. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no way they’d actually happen. But I’d find it embarrassing if my nation’s capital was named for a slave owner, especially since it’s so needless.