Matthew A. Perry: Judging historical figures by modern sensibilities is a flaw in movement

September 5, 2018

My apologies for the lack of an article in last week’s paper, the beginning of the school year is a mess for teachers and my time management skills left much to be desired. Once again, my apologies.

Back in the saddle this week with a topic that is vital to the historical community of West Virginia.

I am embarrassed to see that my alma mater, Marshall University, has a movement going through the campus to rename Jenkins Hall, a building myself and thousands of other educators toiled our undergraduate years in.

Jenkins Hall was named after Cabell County native and Confederate Civil War General Albert Gallatin Jenkins. This shortsighted movement is just the latest in a rash of historical whitewashing efforts throughout the United States over the past few years.

Now more than ever, it is essential to understand the past so that we can honestly know where we come from, and to understand historical figures.

The major flaw with the modern movement of erasing Confederate history is not only the Orwellian erasing of the past, but also the fact that it completely ignores historical sensibilities and it judges people on our modern beliefs.

If you judge historical figures by modern sensibilities, there would be no figure that passes the test with flying colors. Changing Jenkins Hall’s name would be the least of the worries.

Thomas Jefferson, the crafter of the most beautiful document ever written and a man that was responsible for more than doubling the size of the United States during his presidency, owned slaves.

The Father of our country, George Washington, owned slaves.

The greatest President of all time, Abraham Lincoln, famously at the outbreak of the Civil War said that he would allow slavery to stay in the south if it kept the Union intact.

This article is not an argument that slaveholders from the past get a free pass, but we must understand the American Civil War was fought over a multitude of factors, slavery being the largest, but hardly the only one.

Slavery was an abomination, a true dark mark on our country’s past, but ignoring it entirely or erasing all people who owned slaves makes it more difficult to understand our history.

Now more than ever, it is time to educate our children and ourselves on our history. Our past isn’t always pretty, but merely erasing historical figures we disagree with will do nothing but make the past harder to understand for future generations.

Matthew A. Perry is a history teacher at C-K Middle and writes about the odd side of history at www.theoddpast.com.

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