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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Evolving standards risk erasing history

So a fellow from a county named for the forgettable Franklin Pierce in a state named for slaveholder George Washington wants the school district in Spokane to rename a school because Woodrow Wilson was a racist.

Tacoma’s Dan Hasty also wants Wilson High School in his town renamed, but apparently the Washington and Jefferson elementary schools in his city have escaped his political antennae. If there’s an important distinction between owning slaves and being racist, it’s lost on us.

The problem in overlaying today’s standards of racial justice on bygone figures is that it erases important history and context. Did President Wilson do anything that bears remembrance? Yes, much more than President Pierce, as a matter of fact.

In 2009, C-SPAN polled presidential scholars to come up with a ranking of presidents. Wilson finished ninth, though his lowest score was in “Equal Justice For All.” Still, it was higher than Pierce’s near-bottom showing in that category. Overall, Pierce was deemed the nation’s third-worst president. (Have we mentioned there’s also a Franklin Pierce School District in Tacoma?)

Abraham Lincoln was ranked first. Washington was second. One wanted to free the slaves, and the other owned them for more than 50 years before letting them go. The issue of who is deserving of historical recognition is more complicated than weighing racial attitudes. Wilson was unquestionably bigoted. He barred African-Americans from serving in federal government positions. He was sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan.

But the issue itself has evolved greatly. When future generations discover that the first 43 presidents were against equal rights for gay citizens, will they whip out the erasers or will they place that opposition in context?

There is value in preserving historic names, though Pierce may not have been deserving in the first place. He served from 1850-54 and was a strong advocate of the Fugitive Slave Act, which compelled states to return fleeing slaves. He also signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which created new territories where slavery could potentially expand.

Time to rename the county? Should Mr. Hasty move? That’s none of our business.

Before Hasty fired off his letter to Spokane Public Schools, there was no inkling that Wilson Elementary had a problem. Its principal has been there eight years and never received a complaint.

Racial injustice is an enormous stain no president has fully escaped. Expunging the names of every historical figure who was implicated means erasing history itself.

It’s up to local jurisdictions to decide when that’s appropriate, and they ought to tread lightly.

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