Maybe it’s just me, but it almost seems like there’s a contest going on among the progressive faithful to see who can go the furthest and the fastest when it comes to erasing history. The beginners (or simply the lazy) stick to pulling down statues of Confederate soldiers or possibly Columbus. The more creative ones pick out paintings or statues of the Founding Fathers or other random slave-owners from the 16th through 18th centuries who went on to achieve some level of fame. Special award status goes to the cretins who are trying to cancel the Blessed Virgin Mary.
But let’s keep in mind that those are all statues and paintings and such. You and a few of your friends can grab some ropes and boxcutters, knock back a couple of bottles of Mad Dog 20-20, tear something down and call it a good day’s work done. It takes a bit more concerted effort to convince a college to rename an entire hall or wing that commemorates some sinner from the past. But even then, you’re really just dealing with a single school board for the most part. Those people are all pikers compared to Caleb Gayle. He’s zooming past all of those partial measures in a recent op-ed for Time Magazine.
Caleb won’t be satisfied with the random memorial here and there. He’s got his eyes set on bigger game. He’s unrolling the map of the United States and calling out all of the states, towns, rivers, forests or anything else that was named after something or someone from the distant past who might have been involved with the repression of African slaves, Native Americans or anyone else who isn’t a straight, cisgender white Christian of European descent. He begins his tale with his upbringing near a town called Bixby, Oklahoma. It was apparently named after a man named Tams Bixby who was involved in unfair land allocation (and confiscation) policies when native Americans were being moved west into that region. So that name needs to go. But as he reminds his readers, we shouldn’t be stopping there, either.
The name Bixby had become so common in my area that we didn’t think about where it came from. That’s why we tear down, rename and rethink. We do it to tell the whole story, not just the parts that make us feel good. Perhaps we need to do this not just for statues and monuments and schools and sports teams but for cities and counties too. Perhaps we should begin again with the full weight of history upon which we stand.
It’s not just Bixby, of course. In Oklahoma, Jackson County is named for Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, while Roger Mills County is named for Roger Q. Mills, a U.S. senator who served in the Confederate Army and had ties to the Ku Klux Klan. I’ve driven through both of them without even thinking about the origins of their names. Likewise, Stephens County, Texas, was named after Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederate States, and his boss, Jefferson Davis, has counties named in Texas, Georgia and Mississippi as well as a parish in Louisiana. People who marginalized and oppressed didn’t just affect those who lived at the time–Bixby’s actions, along with so many others’, caused the Creek Nation to lose the jurisdictional power they just, in part, won back–and the places that bear their names should no longer remain without scrutiny.
There you have it. A fair bit of inspection should reveal the sins of the past, whether the people living there today have ever owned slaves, stolen land from Indigenous Peoples, or even uttered a harsh word to or about them. So we need to “tear down, rename and rethink.” With enough effort, some might be led to believe that none of the darker bits of the past ever happened.
But I’ll just point out here that Mr. Gayle has a very big job ahead of him that goes far past just Bixby, Oklahoma, and a few counties in Oklahoma and Texas. I happened to grow up in upstate New York. And yes, that’s yet another area that belonged to Indigenous tribes before the white men arrived with their sacks of trinkets and clever trading schemes. I lived in Schuyler Township, which was named after General Philip John Schuyler, a hero of the Revolutionary War, a member of the Continental Congress, a state senator, and a member of the first Congress. And yes, he was also a slave owner.
I can look at the map near my home stomping grounds and find all sorts of names. Many of them were inherited from the Native Americans who lived there first. Many others, like Schuyler, are named after the colonists who settled the lands. The fact is, that cities, townships, and counties all around the country (though somewhat less on the west coast) have old names. There aren’t all that many new settlements of American people who live in places that were established after the civil rights era. Most of those place names date back centuries in many cases, though the structures have evolved over time.
But let me get back to Schuyler for a moment and explain why that’s important to this discussion. Remember when I listed all of the accomplishments of Philip John Schuyler? Full disclosure: other than recalling that he was a general in the Revolution, I couldn’t have told you a damn thing about him without going back and looking it all up on Google. And I can assure you that’s the same for the vast majority of people. Even Mr. Gayle admits that he knew nothing at all about Tams Bixby until he began researching a book.
With that in mind, I would like all of these tear-down proponents to answer me one question. How much are we really “honoring” the long-dead people who most of these places are named after unless they went on to have immortal fame like the actual founding fathers? Does the author think there’s some secret society of white people walking around Schuyler Township and flashing hidden “Okay” Q-Anon hand signals about Philip Schuyler and smugly whispering, “Hey… Schuyler. Amirite? Quite the slave owner, eh? And these rubes have NO IDEA we’re toasting his evil racism! HA HA HA HA!”
Please, spare me the indignation. These are just the names that places have, the meaning behind much of which is only available to hard-core history lovers and librarians. Yes, they reflect the experiences of all of our ancestors, but they aren’t symbols of oppression propping up the straight white patriarchy of the 21st century. And if you want to rename 70% of the entire country, you may as well just scrap the entire project. Maybe we can all go live in Antarctica. That’s probably the only land that wasn’t stolen from somebody at some point and the only place where slavery wasn’t practiced.