Your View: History in the unmaking

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Your View: History in the unmaking
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By John C. Nalls, Alexandria (File photo)

To the editor:
Would Lee Street smell as sweet by another name? Gen. Robert E. Lee is an imminent and essential character in our nation’s history. Without Lee, the American Civil War would have been very different, if a war at all, but a yearning for political correctness could remove his name from the street signs and highway markers in Alexandria.

I myself have been stopped by visitors to Old Town, some of them from foreign nations, and asked where Lee’s boyhood home is located. Our town is rich with historic persons of interest and the places associated with them, and this is one of, if not the main draw of tourism into our area. There is a quaintness and nostalgia of living in a town so tightly bound to our nation’s history and its founders. We have every reason to be proud of our town and its history.

Because of this, residents of Alexandria should look to the newly formed Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Confederate Memorials and Street Names with a healthy skepticism. Thus far, city council and City Manager Mark Jinks have prudently sought to be transparent and forthright in dealing with a potentially sensitive issue that affects the entire Alexandria community. City councilors voted unanimously to establish this advisory group, and Jinks has recommended nominees to council.

The group has been charged to “bring community values, knowledge and ideas into discussions and considerations of issues related to Confederate memorials and street names in Alexandria.” This mandate, unfortunately, neglects the need for historical perspective and the requirement for preserving that history, both the good and the bad.

The prudent, bureaucratic steps by city council follow a string of recent events driven by movements seeking the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol because of its association with the southern slave states during the Civil War, and a call for the removal of former President Woodrow Wilson’s name from the college and buildings at Princeton University over his position on segregation. The public discourse on current and past race relations caused by these controversies is good and needed in most communities today.

But is erasing these kinds of symbols and names from the historical record really what we want? If we decide to remove or change these markers and reminders, we are discarding both the good and the bad that we can learn from history. These monuments are there to commemorate, not necessarily celebrate these periods of history or the actions of those in our past. War memorials are dedicated to the remembrance of the men and women who fought in these conflicts, not the conflicts themselves.

If we avoid everything that could offend any member of the community, we are likely to have a city devoid of culture, color or any sort of character. If we search far enough into our past and with a bent with this perspective, we can find a young man that participated in hunting down and killing Native Americans, who was a slaveholder himself, and who defied the established government by raising and leading a revolutionary army.

But we would lose a larger perspective of a man who was the first to demonstrate that a powerful, popular leader could abide by a written constitution of the people, and leave the office of the President of the United States after only two terms — something that has forever remained the standard.

And what of Fairfax Street and the Fairfax House, whose Lord Fairfax ordered General Braddock and his British troops to move west from Alexandria and subdue the Indian “savages” at the colony’s frontier? Interestingly, a Colonial officer by the name of George Washington served under Braddock’s command during this counter-insurgency campaign, which was formative in his thoughts on fighting and waging war during the American Revolution.

Political correctness is constantly evolving, but it is nearly always driven by the “acceptable” majority opinion. Giving the majority reign can lead to a great deal of trouble, particularly if we, collectively, decide to cover, gloss over or refuse to acknowledge our past misdeeds and transgressions. If we do this, we fail to see a broader, more complete picture of who we are and how we came to be at this point in time – our history. The majority opinion will change the barometer of political correctness in the future, but it should not change the historical truth we seek to preserve.

I encourage city council, the advisory group and my fellow citizens to soberly reflect on what we are attempting to do with this effort, and to ensure that we are promoting knowledge and awareness rather than just bowing to the whims of political correctness. We owe it to our children to ensure that our heritage, both the good and the bad, is there for all of us to reflect on. How else will we be able to truly say, “Never again?”

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