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Commentary: Where do we stop when it comes to which names to erase?

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I have followed with interest the controversy over the removal of Bishop Robert Smith’s name from a student award and donor society at the College of Charleston.

Smith was a hero of the American Revolution, the first Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina and the first president of the College of Charleston which began in his home on Glebe Street. Indeed, without Smith, the College would not exist.

The College of Charleston created the Bishop Robert Smith Society to recognize donors who give $1 million to benefit the College. The website says Smith “gave his personal finances to ensure the College’s financial future.” (www.give.cofc.edu as of Nov. 15, 2020).

That was then. This is now.

The College has removed Smith’s name as well as Gov. William Aiken’s name because they were slaveholders, now referred to as “enslavers.” The College’s president says the reason is Smith and Aiken perpetuated “a paternalistic culture in which one group of people subjugated another.”

In defending the College’s decision, Bernard Powers, Julia Eichelberger and Harlan Greene wrote in an op-ed that Smith’s name should be removed because he was a slaveholder who enslaved 201 human beings, sold enslaved people, advertised for the return of runaways and was an apologist for slavery. In other words, he was a man who, like many others, benefited from slavery.

According to the president and the op-ed, the reason Bishop Smith’s name has been removed is because the College is “committed to diversity, equity and inclusion” and aspires to “create a welcoming environment for our entire community.” In plain English, Smith and Aiken were enslavers so their names must be erased.

My concern about erasing names and removing monuments is that there’s no end to it. There are no criteria or rational rules for which historical names are banished in shame and which can remain. If a bishop and a founder of a college is not worthy of a memorial, no enslaver is worthy.

At first, the argument was that Confederate monuments alone must be banished, because Confederates were traitors, racists and enslavers, so all Confederate monuments should be removed. But the first monument taken down in Charleston was John C. Calhoun’s who died 10 years before the Confederacy was created, so clearly that was not the true criteria.

Monuments, we were told, were going to museums where they would be respected, preserved and presented in context, but all over the country museums have refused to take them, so the monuments are also erased.

The college’s actions demonstrate that the criteria is simply that all enslavers (slave owners) are evil and therefore unworthy of being remembered. The authors of the op-ed dress up the decision by adding that Bishop Smith sold slaves, argued in favor of slavery, and tracked down runaways, but of course, this is true of most, if not all enslavers. George Washington owned more enslaved people than Smith and also recaptured runaways.

The only standard, rule or criteria I see in this decision is that there should be no memorials for any enslavers, regardless of their contributions to society. As Margaret Garrett wrote in her Nov. 6 op-ed, “C of C’s Decision to Ignore Robert Smith’s Vast Contributions,” “The unmistakable intent is to cast Robert Smith as a man whose entire life was of no value because he owned slaves.” Under this criterion, almost every historic name in Charleston must be erased.

Charleston was the capital of Southern slavery. A very high percentage of white Charlestonians (three-fourths of all heads of families) owned slaves, as did hundreds of free people of color. If a street, place or building was named for a Charlestonian before the 20th century, it is almost certain that person was an enslaver or supported the institution of slavery. The first board of trustees of the College met in 1785 and included William Moultrie, Daniel De Saussure, Arnoldus Vanderhorst, John Rutledge, Thomas Heyward Jr., Arthur Middleton, Charles Pinckney, Thomas Bee and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, all of whom owned slaves.

Of course, Charleston itself is named for King Charles II, who literally began the British slave trade by issuing a royal charter to the Company of Royal Adventurers of England Relating to Trade in Africa, 1663. King Charles II, therefore, did more to create and maintain slavery than Smith or Aiken or indeed any Charlestonian. The College of Charleston itself is therefore named for an enslaver.

The op-ed quotes with pride Yale University’s claim that “A great University will rightly decide what to commemorate and what to honor.” But Yale is a perfect illustration of the utter hypocrisy and futility of selective retroactive punishment of randomly chosen historical figures. Yale made a well-publicized statement and solemnly removed John C. Calhoun’s name from one of its residential colleges. It adopted a “Principle of Renaming” and said Calhoun’s legacy “fundamentally conflicted with Yale’s mission and values.” Yet Yale itself is named for a notorious international slave trader, Elihu Yale. Most of its colleges are still named for enslavers: John Davenport, Jonathan Edwards, George Berkley, Jonathan Trumbull, Ezra Stiles, Timothy Dwight and Benjamin Sillman.

However, it was obviously inconvenient and embarrassing for Yale to change its name back to the Collegiate School, which was its original name before the evil and corrupt Elihu Yale gave money acquired from human trafficking to Cotton Mather, a slaveholder himself and president of Yale. So, the notorious slave trader’s namesake, Yale, remains. Apparently, he reflects Yale’s values.

The truth is that, tragically, slavery, slave ownership, and racism were part and parcel of the very fabric of American history. I am not sure what erasing, hiding and removing this history from the public sphere will accomplish. Future generations will learn less, not more, from hiding things away. The facts themselves do not change. Bishop Smith still founded the College of Charleston, which was built, in part, by enslaved people.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s crusade against monuments began with Robert E. Lee and Pierre G.T. Beauregard. Their statues are gone. Now his acolytes at “Take ‘Em Down NOLA” are engaged in a war on Andrew Jackson. A dozen presidents were enslavers, including Washington, Jefferson and Madison, not to mention numerous men who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Both the College of Charleston and the city of Charleston currently have committees busily at work looking for more names to erase and monuments to hide in storage sheds. I hope they find that elusive magic formula of righteousness, fairness and accuracy to determine which names should be erased and which may remain.

If the experience at Yale and of the College of Charleston so far is any guide, we are not headed for diversity, equity and inclusion, but simply exclusion. The goal of diversity and inclusion, however, can be achieved by erecting monuments to African American heroes like Harriet Tubman, Robert Smalls and the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and naming awards and donor societies for Charlestonians J. Arthur Brown, Bernice Robinson, Septima Clark, Marjorie Amos Frazier, Mary Moultrie, the Pollitzer sisters, Esau Jenkins and other civil rights leaders.

Robert Rosen is a lawyer and author of “A Short History of Charleston.” Both of his parents graduated from the College of Charleston, where he also taught American history. His father was president of the College of Charleston Alumni Association.

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