By Dr. Harold A. Black
The cancel culture has claimed another victim in George Washington University. It has been known as “the Colonials” and the name will continue until a new one is announced. The university said, “For supporters, the term refers to those who lived in the American colonies, especially those who fought for independence and democracy. For opponents, Colonials means colonizers who stole land and resources from indigenous groups, killed or exiled Native peoples and introduced slavery into the colonies.” Obviously, the opponents won. However, for us black southerners, “Colonial” refers to what we called “light” bread which later we learned was properly called “white” bread. We never could figure out why wheat bread wasn’t called “dark” bread.
It’s a miracle that they did not decide to rename the university since Washington was a slave owner. New Orleans renamed Washington Elementary School after Charles Drew, the brilliant medical researcher who developed the first blood banks. Berkeley California’s school board changed the names of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington Schools. Pasadena renamed Washington Middle School after Octavia Butler – one of my favorite science fiction authors. My granddaughter’s high school in northern Virginia changed its name from Robert E. Lee to John Lewis High School. I found it amazing that Virginia would disown Jefferson and Robert E. Lee – although John Lewis was one of my heroes (along with Clarence Thomas, Tom Sowell and Milton Friedman). However, I am completely sympathetic to why black students would not want the name Robert E. Lee on their diplomas. I feel the same about the unrepentant racist registrar at the University of Georgia whose name is on my diploma.
But were Washington and Jefferson unrepentant? In 1786, Washington wrote, “I never mean (unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase: it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by the legislature by which slavery in the Country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptible degrees.” Of course, he never acted on his words but freed his 123 slaves upon his death. Jefferson was elegant in his words about freedom. He authored the Declaration of Independence (all men are created equal) and called slavery a moral depravity. Jefferson said that slavery was the greatest threat to the survival of the American republic and was contrary to the laws of nature. Yet he owned over 600 slaves and did not free them upon his death. Jefferson’s wealth and place in society were dependent upon his ownership of human beings and he was loath to give them up. Still, his words inspire us despite his being deeply flawed.
On the other hand, Washington, despite his slave ownership was a truly great man. He led by example, commanding a rag-tag army of nonprofessionals against the premiere army of his time. He overcame hardships, deprivations, desertions and defeats leading to a most improbable victory against all odds, making him our greatest national hero. He resisted efforts to make himself king and refused to serve more than two terms as president which marked him as a unique leader. His old nemesis, George III remarked “If George Washington goes back to his farm, he will be the greatest character of his age.” Indeed, he gave up the presidency and went back to his farm. Washington was prosperous owning over 8,000 acres and 300 slaves. He could have sided with the Loyalists and not have rocked the boat – I am a direct descendent of one of his soldiers who was killed by loyalists. Yet he accepted being a traitor to the crown to fight for independence. What would have happened to him if he had lost? He would have been fortunate to have died in battle. He certainly would not have wanted to be captured alive. He would have been taken to London and after being tortured, George III would have had him drawn and quartered. That is where each limb is tied to a horse and each horse was simultaneously whipped and run in each direction. I leave the rest to your imagination. Washington knew this and yet to potentially sacrifice everything to establish a new nation built on individual liberty and freedom makes him one whose name should be honored by us all, regardless of color.