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Source: San Francisco Chronicle
Date: February 16, 2004

Schools Shouldn't Forget About Our Heroic Presidents

Around the country today, millions of workers and children will have a day off from work and school to celebrate President's Day. We no longer celebrate George Washington's and Abraham Lincoln's birthdays separately, thanks to congressional action in the '70s. Instead, we have a bland holiday dedicated to all presidents — think of it as a national "Every child is an honor child" bumper sticker.

The denigration of Washington's and Lincoln's achievements starts at an early age in our public schools. At the early grades, rather than disparage the two men, the schools simply forget them.

When our daughter was in kindergarten in the Oakland public schools, we kept waiting for homework or projects to come home with her that referenced Washington or Lincoln. After the school celebrated Martin Luther King's birthday during January, we expected similar treatment of Washington and Lincoln.

Instead, their birthdays were ignored. President's Day was treated as simply another Monday holiday, and the only discussion of Washington and Lincoln was at home. My husband sat down to read my daughter a book about Lincoln on his birthday and prefaced it by saying, "This is a book about a great man."

My daughter interrupted him, saying, "No, Daddy, he couldn't be great. He wasn't poor."

My husband quickly told her that, in fact, Abraham Lincoln was not only very poor growing up but was also a great figure in our nation's history.

But it makes you wonder what the public schools, especially here in Oakland, are teaching our kids. That white people are never poor? That only poor people are great?

Why are Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays — and, hence, their achievements — being ignored?

It all comes down to slavery.

According to the historians at Mount Vernon, George Washington was the only Founding Father to free his slaves. At age 11, he inherited 10 slaves from his father. By the time he died, more than 300 African Americans lived in slavery at Mount Vernon, 123 of whom belonged to Washington. However, his attitude toward the "peculiar institution" changed as he grew older. According to historical records, in his will, he emancipated the slaves he owned, and his estate paid for the education and care of some of his former slaves for decades.

Today, every right-thinking person knows that slavery was a shameful part of American history. However, Washington's achievements cannot be written off simply because he, like nearly every Southern white man of means of his time, owned slaves. Decades before the slaves gained their freedom at the national level, Washington emancipated his.

Washington's tremendous contributions to the creation of our country should not be ignored. As commander in chief of the Continental Army, he led the troops through years of tough battles, eluding the efforts of the British to capture him and keeping his men's spirits high. When Britain's forces surrendered, Washington's allies prevailed on him to take control of the new nation, but he resisted and went home to live a private life. However, when it became clear that the young states needed to be unified, he was asked to preside over the Constitutional Convention, where our Constitution was drafted and the world's most enduring form of government was created.

Washington, after being drafted to be our nation's first president, served two terms and created a fledgling bureaucracy to serve the new nation's needs. Soon after his death, the nation's capital was named after him to honor his memory.

For years, his name has also been given to streets, as well as schools and other public buildings. But as the forces of the political-correctness movement became more powerful, an effort was begun to take Washington's name off such monuments because he owned slaves.

For example, in 1997, a school board in New Orleans, following a policy that prohibits school names honoring "former slave owners or others who did not respect equal opportunity for all," voted unanimously to change the name of George Washington Elementary School to Dr. Charles Richard Drew Elementary School, named after an African-American physician who created the first blood bank and pioneered blood-plasma preservation.

One activist, Carl Galmon, who led the campaign to change school names, told the New York Times, "To African Americans, George Washington has about as much meaning as David Duke" (referring to the openly racist former Louisiana congressman).

Others objected, arguing that Washington stood apart from most slave owners of the time.

William B. Gwyn, a retired professor of political science who taught at Tulane University, said, "The fact is that with Washington, he opposed the institution and ultimately freed his slaves."

Today, there is a debate raging in Philadelphia about whether a memorial will be built honoring eight slaves who lived with Washington during his residency in that city.

While Washington's sin — owning slaves — should not be ignored, I believe it must be considered within the context of the time. Despite his status as a slave owner, Washington led the revolutionary forces to victory and helped created the foundation for our modern-day democracy.

But the attack on Abraham Lincoln is even more scurrilous than the criticism of Washington.

Lincoln's chief critic, one who spends a great deal of energy tearing him down, is Lerone Bennett Jr., executive editor of Ebony magazine. Bennett has written multiple books and articles about Lincoln, describing him as a racist who really did not want to free the slaves. In fact, Bennett has written that Lincoln was "incidental" in the nation's quest to end slavery and that he "did everything he could to avoid the end that immortalized him." Others have joined Bennett in this effort to discredit the Great Emancipator.

Bennett and his ilk are just plain wrong. Lincoln, like the country he led, evolved in his view of slavery, and, by the time he was assassinated, he was dedicated to ending the ugly practice.

It is true that Lincoln's goal, when he led the nation into the Civil War, was not specifically to end slavery, but to keep the South from seceding. However, he not only drafted and signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, but, by the end of the war, he had also endorsed the idea of voting rights for soon-to-be-freed slaves. John Wilkes Booth, a Southern sympathizer and racist, killed Lincoln three days after his speech marking the end of the Civil War. In that speech, Lincoln endorsed the new government of Louisiana, which "adopted a free-state constitution, giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white and empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man."

It is important to teach today's children about our nation's history, with its triumphs and its flaws. The very young can learn the simple details about the people for whom we dedicate national holidays: George Washington was the Father of Our Country, Abe Lincoln kept our nation united and Martin Luther King Jr. fought to ensure that all people are treated equally.

In later grades, they can learn the details of these heroes' lives — the good and the bad.

But we can't judge life in the 1700s or 1800s by the values and beliefs of modern-day America. There is no doubt we have come a long way in guaranteeing rights for both African Americans and women. But in their time, Washington and Lincoln devoted their lives to the creation and unification of our great nation. Lincoln set this country on its path toward civil rights and equality for all. Our children should be taught about these great men, from kindergarten through college.


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