There has been a chorus of support for renaming T.C. Williams High School to remove the moniker of an arch-segregationist who does not represent our values. Nevertheless, the frustrating claim that removal of these vestiges of praise for discriminatory beliefs “erases history” is a vacuous assertion impeding progress. As Oscar Wilde said: “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” And the dramatist Jean Cocteau forewarned: “History is a combination of reality and lies. The reality of History becomes a lie.” Any monument to one who oppresses another human being creates an aura of dignity around someone who does not share our cultural values and insults the most essential truth that all persons are created equal, endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness upon which the foundation of this country’s principles are built.
Making a contribution to society in one realm does not forgive reprehensibly espousing in another sphere of thought subjugating anyone to servitude and denial of basic human rights. The suffering our forefathers inflicted upon Africans, brought to this country in bondage, and Native Americans, whose home was ripped away from them and their people massacred when not enslaved as well, will never be erased for our museums ensure that we are not destined to relive what James Joyce wrote was a “(h)istory …(that) is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Yet, having derisive monuments foments division and not community. Even Robert E. Lee warned against constructing “monuments as it keeps open the wounds,” while the respected historian Ken Burns, speaking to the Black Lives Matter protest, allowed that “monuments too often celebrate false narratives rather than preserve heritage,” addressing especially the danger in those who “represent the reimposition of white supremacy,” and existentially warning that “the torments of centuries of injustice are bubbling to the surface.” Inevitably, a memorial of any sort that is erected or endowed as a testimonial to one’s duplicitous sense of virtue obscures the truth; consequently, the reality and sins of history must be eviscerated and not revered.
The moniker honoring an entrenched bigot who maintained segregation and, in the process, flouted the law of the land, cannot be ignored. Thomas Chambliss Williams was our school system’s superintendent, administering to essentially three decades of denying African-Americans a quality education — and for that should we be commemorating him? We are better than this person whom we still blindly honor. Our City is recognized for its commendable historical civil rights’ markers in society. Our own Samuel W. Tucker at age 14 in 1927 refused to be marginalized due to the color of his skin by having to surrender his seat on a streetcar to a white person. Later, he organized a “sit-down strike” in our City. Earl Lloyd was the first African-American player and coach in the NBA. President Clinton spoke to the nation from TC’s steps after the Columbine shootings, praising our racial diversity. Barack Obama headed an educational forum at TC, and Michele Obama visited with the Secretary of Education. Later, for TC’s 50th anniversary, civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis spoke. And with much poetic license, Hollywood has eternally inscribed our high school as a beacon for integration.
At TC, 121 languages from 120 countries are spoken, and yet we disparage the majority of our students by continuing to embrace someone who spoke antithetically to the moral rectitude that others fought to sow into our City’s fabric, accepting people of all colors, races, creeds, religion and sexual orientation. It is therefore gratifying that the School Board has taken this up and appears to be on a course to right this long-standing wrong.
Surely, we can come together in honoring those who truly represent us (of which many meritorious alternatives exist upon whom we can confidently reach a consensus, including even combining worthy names so the sobriquet “TC” or “TCW” -and the “Titans”- can remain), and cease brandishing any symbol that is an affront to “equal justice under law.” As the American poet Robert Lowell once said in a similar circumstance: “Their monument sticks like a fishbone in the city’s throat.” We cannot erase our history, but by reckoning with our past history and removing memorials that stigmatize us, we can rewrite our course. However, if we don’t awaken now, we are doomed to repeat that which we abhor.
Gregory L. Murphy, Esq.