On July 8, I was privileged to participate in an online LNP | LancasterOnline discussion with Gettysburg College history professor Michael Birkner, Franklin & Marshall College history professor Maria Mitchell and Lancaster City Council President Ismail Smith-Wade-El.
We discussed the current push to change the names of some public buildings and remove statues of historical figures deemed by some to be unworthy of public display because of their association with slavery and racial injustice.
For me, the conversation was a learning opportunity since by profession I am not an historian. History is my hobby but German language and culture were my profession.
Though an amateur historian, I have served for several decades on the board of LancasterHistory, and I’ve spent more than 15 years as a member of the Black History Advisory Committee of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
I’ve also proudly served for the past five years as president of the African American Historical Society of South Central Pennsylvania. I was a founding member of the society, and I was among those who revived the organization and expanded its scope almost two decades ago. It is our mission to identify, interpret and highlight institutions, individuals and events that have contributed to African American history in this region.
Why should Black history be studied or for that matter highlighted? Because it is American history.
Two points made during the online discussion touched me: History is a narrative, and it is essential to what anthropologist Benedict Anderson called our “imagined community.”
Monuments are attempts to freeze history. But history is something that must be discussed and evaluated — not chiseled in stone and forever excised from its true context.
The removal of Confederate statues and the defacing of other monuments dedicated to men who owned slaves have reignited a cultural war that in the 1960s pitted the younger generation against the establishment. Now those who want to reexamine the historical record are denigrated as revisionists or even anarchists by politicians with ulterior motives.
In Lancaster city, we’re faced with two issues: the changing of the name of Edward Hand Middle School and what to do with a bust of Christopher Columbus near the county courthouse.
An alumnus of Edward Hand, I was not taught that the Revolutionary War general owned slaves at his Lancaster home, Historic Rock Ford. If this fact had been taught, I am not sure I would have had the courage as a teenager to object to the name of my school.
I am deeply impressed by the young people I’ve seen leading the recent Black Lives Matter protests. This country was built on dissent — this is implicit in the phrase “consent of the governed” in the Declaration of Independence.
There are individuals with ties to Lancaster other than Edward Hand whose names seem more appropriate for an educational institution.
Having lived in Lancaster for most of my life, I’ve always wondered why only two city schools were named after women when the overwhelming majority of my teachers were women. Surely they were more deserving than a slave-owning war hero? One possible candidate to replace Edward Hand is the late Hazel Jackson. It was through her that I first learned something about my heritage. Honoring her would honor an aspect of Lancaster’s history that has too long been ignored.
Although public school segregation in Pennsylvania had been outlawed in 1883, no African American teacher was employed full time by the School District of Lancaster until 1964 (that was Fred Reed). Mrs. Jackson was hired in 1967 as the district’s first Black female teacher. And in 1970, she became not only the first African American professor, but the first African American woman to teach at Millersville State University. In that capacity, she started the Black history celebrations that I was later privileged to lead with Rita Smith-Wade-El, another Millersville professor and the late mother of our city council president.
Mrs. Jackson was a jovial and helpful spirit and everyone who met her can attest to those attributes. She was a leader at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and in the community. She never spoke of the indignities and slights she undoubtedly had to endure. She always radiated confidence and care for others. That is the sort of role model that our younger generation needs: someone who despite adversity succeeded and lived without rancor.
As for Christopher Columbus, I can empathize with Lancastrians of Italian descent. But while Italian Americans have contributed greatly to our nation’s progress, Columbus is at best a marginal figure. Far be for me to tell Italian Americans whom they should revere — that is their decision. But there are certainly other individuals not associated with exploiting and suppressing Indigenous populations.
This is an exciting time that gives us all an opportunity to examine our heroes, and their place in our evolving imagined community.
Leroy Hopkins, Ph.D., is a Millersville University professor emeritus of foreign languages.