By David J. Kent
Tuesday, February 23, 2021
Noted historian Jonathan W. White took exception to San Francisco's recent targeting of Abraham Lincoln and other historical figures, voting to remove their names from the city's schools. He explained his reasons in a recent article on the Smithsonian blog.
The premise used by the San Francisco Unified School District is faulty, noted White. They argued that Lincoln "did not show through policy or rhetoric that black lives ever mattered to them outside of human capital and as casualties of wealth building.” All historians know that this statement is absurd. When asked why the committee hadn't consulted with historians, its chair responded, "What would be the point?" When the chair further suggested "we don't need to belabor history in that regard," White argued back, "But the point should be belabored."
In fact, he writes, that's exactly the point. San Francisco and other jurisdictions contemplating such actions are doing so without adequate knowledge of the history they no longer want to honor. Ignored were Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, push for the 13th Amendment, and relationships with African Americans. Frederick Douglass, for example, noted that Lincoln welcomed him to the White House “just as you have seen one gentleman receive another.” Also ignored by the committee were the voluminous messages from African Americans expressing their gratefulness and enamor of Lincoln. White describes many examples.
Lincoln's associations with Native Americans, an oft-cited complaint in recent years, are equally complex. While the discriminatory policies largely continued as Lincoln focused on the existential crisis of the Civil War, he did take steps to make changes and promised colleagues he would address the need for reform in his second term once the war was over. He was assassinated before that could happen.
White ends the article with Frederick Douglass's impressions of Lincoln inviting African Americans into the White House. "It was saying to the country," Douglass noted, that "I am President of the black people as well as the white, and I mean to respect their rights and feelings as men and as citizens."
For Lincoln, White says, black lives certainly mattered.
[Jonathan W. White's article appeared on February 10, 2021 at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/black-lives-certainly-mattered-abraham-lincoln-180976963/; Image from the article and Library of Congress]