Historian: Reflect on America’s racist past to move forward

2020 Protests

"We're struggling right now, we need our history."

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — We tend not to question the traditional history lessons we learn as school children about the rise of America. By the time we are adults, rough historical timelines linger vaguely for many, along with classic images of pioneers and war heroes.

The Black Lives Matter movement has reignited America’s attention on its racist past, after enslaving people from Africa for centuries, followed by laws intentionally excluding black people from equal civil rights.

Now, as historical statues are being taken down by cities, or torn down by protesters, historians are using these monuments as a moment to start a new, living history lesson.

“We’re struggling right now, we need our history,” said Patricia Schechter, professor of history at PSU. “Because slavery is given a relatively small space in the typical US history textbooks, we both forget that George Washington and Jefferson held slaves and we also forget that Washington freed his slaves.”

By minimizing the African American, Native American and enslaved people’s experiences, she said we miss the negative things that happened.

“We also miss the wonderful moments where people do change their mind,” Schechter said.

While we sometimes forget our presidents were former slave owners, we also sometimes forget what sparked the civil war.

“It’s a mixed story,” she said. “Like anything else in history, it’s multifaceted.”

It started with a decades-long political and economic controversy over slavery and how to manage it as an institution. The civil war was fought because 11 states succeeded, fearing President Abraham Lincoln would abolish slavery.

While some people acknowledged the wrongness of enslaving people for moral reasons, others Schechter explained, were pro-slavery for economic factors.

“One of the exacerbating features of the first half of the 19th century was that industrial development was very uneven,” she said. “Massachusetts was the Silicon Valley of its time and completely moved away from slavery, no longer needing it to run its economy.”

The Emancipation Proclamation was the perfect storm.

“It was a military edict, but of course it came out of a context in which, huge groups of people, namely enslaved people in the South and anti-slavery activists in the North and in the Republican Party said now is the time to end slavery,” Schechter said.

Today, there are many statues of Lincoln standing over a person in chains, liberating them and portraying him as a great protector.

“I think that’s a fanciful version of the emancipation proclamation,” she said.

Throughout his lifetime, it’s documented that Lincoln was against slavery, recognizing its wrongness.

“He also had to change his mind over time,” Schechter said.

It’s also well documented that enslaved people were a huge part of battling in the Civil War and fighting for their own freedom. Schechter said many in the Black community have celebrated Lincoln for his role for years, but they also celebrate what their ancestors sacrificed as well.

The exciting part about revisiting history, she said, is that we get to recognize our past leaders for their greatness and for their flaws.

As she teased about kids being bored in history class, she said no one should feel bad about being uninterested by textbooks. Historians have done many studies and found how important public spaces and historical monuments are for learning.

“They far exceed people’s grasp of history versus what they got in a textbook in elementary and middle school,” Schechter said. “When you visit a monument, you talk about it, you have a memory of the whole experience around it.”

While we cherish these memories and monuments from over the centuries and decades, she reminds students that they also have to look at the whole picture of how it got there and what the creator’s intentions were.

Who had a choice? Who had a voice? And who didn’t? She said there’s so many questions we all need to consider when putting these statues and stories into context.

“What I see as potentially rich about challenging the monuments that we received from previous generations is where can we look for other stories?” she said. “What can we say about the land that these monuments were on? What can we say about the people who built the neighborhood around the monuments? Can we honor them? What was that story about? Can we go back and learn about who put the monuments up originally?”

For example, the Joan of Arc sculpture at Northeast Glisan and Caesar E. Chavez is something people circle around on a daily commute, in Portland’s Laurelhurst neighborhood.

“It’s glorious, it’s golden, it’s a goddess,” Schechter said as she described it.

But what does a medieval Catholic peasant girl have to say about the Portland community in the present?

Turns out, sometimes Joan of Arc is remembered as a woman who transgressed the gender norms of her day. She served in a military context when it was highly unusual.

“But in fact, she was not put up in Portland as a feminist heroine,” Schechter said. “She was put up by a local businessman and doctor who said that World War I soldiers in France took inspiration from young Joan in their own military.”

In a sense, it is a very conventional war memorial. So while in 2020, people may interpret a new meaning, Schechter said we have to still remember the history behind it and understand that wasn’t the creator’s intention.

As families cherish their trips to Mt. Rushmore and significant battlefields, she said the American culture does depict a triumphant ideal.

“Those memories of being on the same page and feeling uplifted and feeling a sense of peace about your country, your history–there’s value in that. That’s very human,” Schechter said. “At the same time, when we are a little uncomfortable, when we ask questions, when we’re curious, we have an opportunity to bond in a different way.”

“If we are all nodding in agreement, it feels good. It’s what we’re used to feeling as positive, but it’s also perhaps somewhat passive and perhaps, we’re leaving some people out.”

She said this moment in our lifetime is about looking hard at the signs, symbols and figures that have been erected.

“We want to humanize the past and see it for all its complexity, but there are certain figures and certain symbols that are clearly creating harm right now,” she said. “So that’s where it gets a little more difficult and uncomfortable for some.”

She suggests we make room to showcase examples from our past and our present of people making peace with one another.

“Making community with one another, and reaching an understanding of brotherhood and sisterhood and citizenship,” she said. “I think that’s what now is about.”

To learn more about our American and Oregon history, Professor Schechter’s is offering these book recommendations:

Remembering War the American Way, by Kurt Piehler

A highly readable history of how the United States has never had a one-size-fits-all approach to public history or monuments, but instead sees its history as a work-in-progress, much like our democracy itself.

The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story

An unforgettable North Carolina tale of Cherokee slave owners and the embattled African American community that lived and worked at the plantation. The author recounts the ongoing struggle to remember these lives fully and accurately in the present.

Remembering the Power of Words: The Life of an Oregon Activist, Legislator, and Community Leader

Avel Louise Gordly tells her story of growing up in Portland after World War II. Racial segregation and inequality in Oregon took its toll while a strong family and church helped lift her to success, becoming the first Africa in American woman elected to the Oregon State Senate in 1996.

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