- Caleb Walsh illustration
My brother, who resides in McLean, Virginia, has been keeping me up to date on the weird goings on in my old home state. And their troubled governor isn't the only issue dividing Virginians. Consider the memory of Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee. I, along with my two brothers, graduated from Washington-Lee High School, located in Arlington. Recently, the Arlington County School Board voted to rename the school. No longer will it be Washington-Lee; now it will be known as Washington-Liberty High School.
My other brother views the airbrushing of Robert E. Lee to be just one more exercise in politically correct overkill. And, apparently, so too do a large number of W-L graduates who are now weighing in.
As it turns out, Robert E. Lee isn't the only Virginian to come under attack. The Harry Byrd Middle School near Richmond also underwent a name change. The board down there renamed the school Quioccasin (which means "gathering spot"). Byrd was Virginia's longtime, most openly racist senator, who back in 1955 led what became known as the South's "massive resistance" to Brown v. Board of Education. Rather then integrate the schools, Byrd saw to it that Virginia shut down many public schools across the state for upwards of two years. Finally the state's Supreme Court declared the action unconstitutional.
The fact of the matter is that institutional efforts to clear up historical records in order to reduce racism, sexism and all other "isms" through name-changing has been underway for some time now.
Consider: Years back, the University of Utah, their teams known as the "Utes," took a reasonable approach: They went to the tribe and asked for permission to continue to use their name. Permission was granted. However, as part of the deal, the university changed the mascot from the image of an Indian to a Red Tailed Hawk. Closer to home, Eastern Washington University, in 1973, changed from the EWU "Savages" to the EWU "Eagles."
Here in Spokane, we no longer have any high school or college that runs afoul of naming problems. We do, however, have a notorious street — Fort George Wright Drive.
Spokanites are familiar with the sordid story: Col. Wright, his troops garrisoned at what today is Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute in hopes of ending the Indian War, invited Chief Qualchan to come in under a white flag for a powwow. Instead, he was arrested. His father came to sort things out and talk, but instead of a powwow Col. Wright hung Qualchan out along Latah Creek. And then, according to one history, things then got even worse:
Qualchan's death was only the beginning of what could be considered a hanging spree by Wright. ... Wright was a busy man for the month of September as he had almost 1,000 horses and at least seven men murdered for the cause of westward expansion.
So it is that today we have Hangman Valley Golf Course. We also now have another named the Creek at Qualchan. If my reports are correct, this course was named after the chief only because the late Bob Dellwo, then a member of the Park Board, demanded that if we can name a course after the hangman we can at the very least name a course after the chief who was hung.
If anyone deserves to have his name airbrushed from history, it has to be George Wright — he was a murdering rat, no doubt about that.
As for Washington-Lee-Liberty High School? At the very least the Arlington board should have come up with a name that made sense. Washington-Liberty is an awkward dodge — a clumsy way of holding on to the W-L nickname.
How about Washington-Lincoln High School? That would work — the former the "Father of our Country," the latter the president who saved the nation from all the Robert E. Lees. ♦
Robert Herold is a former professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University.