Boomer Voices: Where do we draw the line?

When we baby boomers were growing up, we didn’t give much thought to the dark side of some of the historical figures we were taught to honor. Christopher Columbus is a good example. But at what point is there more light than dark? That’s a question that must be considered as America’s “cancel culture” gains traction. As a Boomer Voice, BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs believes it’s not considered nearly enough.

Was George Washington really a great man? At the Board of Education in the City of San Francisco, evidently the answer is no. In a survey of schools named after historical figures and bygone events, conducted to determine which names to keep and which to cancel, the board used just two words to describe the Father of our Country: “Slaveowner, colonizer.”

George Washington

My answer, on the other hand, is yes. In fact let me be more emphatic: yes, absolutely. George Washington was a hero in our war for independence, he presided over the creation of our Constitution, and at the end of his two terms as America’s first president, he pronounced himself something less than a monarch and willingly walked away from the job, setting the tone for our proud tradition of peaceful transfers of power. That legacy never seemed more important than it seemed last month.

How about Abraham Lincoln? By my measure, another great man. He fought the Civil War to keep our one nation united, he emancipated the slaves, and he spoke those immortal words that underscore the wonder of our democracy: “A new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Abraham Lincoln. (Photo by David Henderson)

But greatness is in the eyes of the beholder, and the beholder here is the school board. In its spreadsheet listing the names to be replaced, the beholders wrote, “Abraham Lincoln is not seen as much of a hero at all among many Native American Nations and Native peoples of the United States, as the majority of his policies proved to be detrimental to them.” It cites the Homestead Act adopted by Lincoln’s administration that attracted white settlers to the West, and the transcontinental railroad that carried them there, all of which led to the oppression of Native Americans. And, a mass execution at the end of the Dakota War, which some called the Sioux Uprising, in which 38 Native Americans were hanged.

At least they gave Lincoln more than just two words.

By the measure of the board of education, notwithstanding the great things they did to create this nation and keep it whole, neither George Washington nor Abe Lincoln was great enough. So the long-established names of San Francisco’s Washington High and Lincoln High, along with the names of 42 others— a third of all the schools in the district— will be cancelled.

The school board’s definition of who would be dishonored was, those “who engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings; or who oppressed women, inhibiting societal progress; or whose actions led to genocide; or who otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those among us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

I can’t argue with that. But I can add to it. Do you put the whole of a person’s life on a scale and see whether the positives or the negatives weigh more, or do you weight down the scale solely with the negatives? Isn’t there a difference, for example, between Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis? Lincoln fought to fortify his nation, Davis fought to fracture it. One man gave his all— and eventually his life— to form a more perfect union. The other gave his, to destroy it.

Lowell High School in San Francisco.

I was born and raised in San Francisco myself. I went to Commodore Sloat Elementary, Aptos Junior High, and Lowell High School. Aptos has survived the purge because the word is from Spanish for “suitable,” which is a suitable way for it to survive. But that makes me only one-for-three. Commodore John Sloat of the United States Navy claimed California from Mexico in 1846. In the spreadsheet, his descriptor is, “‘Claimed/Stole’ ‘California’ from ‘Mexico,’ Colonizer.” Cancelled.

James Russell Lowell was neither a conquerer nor a politician. He was a poet, one of the first among Americans in the 19th Century to rival the poets of England. The spreadsheet concedes that on slavery he was an abolitionist, but goes on to say, admittedly with evidence, that “his commitment to the anti-slavery cause wavered over the years.” Cancelled.

Then there’s Sherman Elementary, named after the general who did much to win the Civil War for the North. But he went on to “finally ‘subjugate’ all the Native nations of the Plains.” Cancelled.

And Paul Revere K-8 School. You know, the Paul Revere who warned patriots on his midnight ride, “One if by land, and two if by sea.” But it turns out, he also is “connected to the colonization” of a Native American tribe in Maine. Cancelled.

Jefferson Elementary is named after the man who merely wrote our Declaration of Independence. But on the spreadsheet there’s only one word to sum up his legacy: “Slaveowner.” Cancelled.

Robert Louis Stevenson Elementary is on the list too, because the author of some of our culture’s most treasured literature apparently also wrote “a cringeworthy poem” containing prejudice, and sometimes was “racist in word.” Cancelled.

Even Francis Scott Key Elementary is on its way out, named for the man who inspired countless millions over the years to sing with patriotic pride, “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” His listing? “Slaveowner and wrote pro-slavery verse in national anthem.” A friend of mine, a classmate from my soon-to-be-renamed Lowell High School, wrote me and asked, “Should we stop singing his song at every game?”

There are, of course, judicious and passionate arguments on the other side of this issue. Another old friend named Noah Griffin, who graduated sixty years from Washington High School, is quoted in The New York Times: “What Washington did didn’t benefit people who look like me.” Noah is black. “The stain of slave-owning is something I cannot ignore.”

I wouldn’t either. But nobody’s advocating that.

Another Lowell alum wrote in an email exchange, “If someone in another culture or community feels pain, I don’t think any aspect of someone’s actions should be trivialized if they are hurting others.” She said it’s all “a good reminder that as a white person I can’t possibly know the experience of a black person in these United States and how the name of a pancake mix or high school might affect them and not me.”

I would never belittle that reasoning. I am saddened if a single citizen is offended. But at the same time I would say in response, Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t seem offended when he spoke his immortal “I Have A Dream” at the Lincoln Memorial. Not a bad endorsement of our 16th president.

Should we say anything good about incontestably bad men? No. Al Capone opened soup kitchens during the Depression, but that doesn’t historically wipe out all his violence against those he literally wiped out. His legacy in this nation is not worth honoring. The legacies of those who left the nation a better place are.

Al Capone soup kitchen during the Depression Era.

To be sure, history has been unconscionably incomplete. Should the full story of these historical figures be part of every student’s study of history? Absolutely, and no doubt as our culture grows more sensitive to such concerns, it will be. But where the contributions are greater than the sins, the legacy should not be erased.

Should schools yet to be built— and libraries, airports, cultural centers, rec centers, sports arenas— be named in the future after figures from our nation’s past, even if flawed? Maybe not. There are plenty of names of incontestably good people that can be plastered on any new school front.

But where do you draw the line? The answer is, every one of us might draw it in a different place. The beauty of America is, we all have the right to draw it where we like. But don’t forget: that’s thanks in no small part to the legacy of some of these historical figures who San Francisco would like to cancel.

Correct. Clarify. Don’t just cancel.


  1. Greg, as the myth goes, when Zeus gave Pandora a box as a wedding gift he warned her never to open it. Alas, here we are.

  2. If there was no pandemic, all students had the same opportunities, and all teachers were above average, then maybe this could be a viable task. But right now, and in the future, this seems like a huge waste of time and money

  3. Excellent piece, Greg. I will add, as your friend wrote “can’t possibly know the experience of a black person”, we also can’t possibly know the experience of Washington or Lincoln. We can read about it and try to understand. But, 1. Our lens is clouded by our own life experiences, and 2. Our history of those days and times is not all-encompassing; some of the nuances of everyday life are missing, I believe. Both men, and more of their time, lived in a time when, from our perspective, life (and the country) was changing rapidly, and the results could only be speculated on.

    And on the cancel culture front: if it’s not canceled, in 50 or so years politicians will be getting canceled because they once owned a gasoline-powered car or (shudder) a diesel truck! (Hopefully not true, but stranger things are happening right now!)

  4. Greg, thoughtful piece. The pendulum is swinging wildly and the polarization of our society is in full bloom.

    I like the idea of clarifying, not cancelling. There are some cases where we cannot celebrate some figures for obvious, heinous reasons, but those who were doing good things and simply living in the society they found themselves in, might get called out, but not cancelled.

    Revisionist history is not the answer. History is history. The characterization of that history is important and involves judgement and is written by people viewing the past through the lens of a different time and place.

    Here’s to more rational, moderate behavior in 2021 !

  5. “… where the contributions are greater than the sins, the legacy should not be erased.” I think you pretty well summed it up!

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