I was vaguely aware of the horrendous 1917 race riot in East St. Louis, Missouri before commencing with research for the book Murder and Mayhem on the Main Street of Route 66: Tales from Bloody 66. But as I studied the incident one question began to dominate my thoughts. How can a tragedy of this magnitude be so obscure?
The answer was relatively simple. History had been censored. It had been expunged from the historic record. It was an ugly truth that did not fit into the acceptable narrative of the era. It was a national embarrassment.
And so it was not included in the text books used by students. As a result, with the passing of years and of the witnesses to the events, it this national tragedy became a forgotten footnote to history.
If in school you had been taught about the heinous atrocities committed during an event know as the Fort Pillow Massacre, would your perception about what the Confederate battle flag represents be different? Would this education have fostered a less romanticized view of the Confederacy?
If you knew that poor Irish immigrants that had died during construction of the railroad had been buried without ceremony in a mass grave in Funks Grove, Illinois, would your views about the settlement of the west be different?
How would your perception of manifest destiny and the settlement of the American west have been altered if you knew of the conflict between the Yavapai and Hualapai, or how the Apache warred against other tribes?
When we censor history because it is uncomfortable, because it is offense to modern sensitivities, we stifle progress. We also deprive future generations of context. Even worse, we become a society that feels honor bound to protect future generations from offense. As a result we become a colorless society. We become a people without comparatives.
The recent uproar over Dr. Seuss books makes for an interesting case study. Some titles in a series of books that have helped generations of children learn to read, and to make memories with parents that read to them, have been deemed offensive. And as a result they are to removed from view. Perhaps they should be burned to ensure that people do not have their sensitivities offended in the future. Obviously I am being facetious.
Yes, some images in the books are racist and insensitive when viewed from modern eyes. But this modern ability to recognize racism or offensive imagery was derived from historic context.
The demand for removal of statues and memorials to heroes of the Confederacy are another example of our increasing hunger to sterilize history. These memorials should never have been erected, but they were. Removing them will not correct the offense. It will, however, deny future generations of needed context.
Would we not be better served if the monuments, the statues were transformed into educational tools that help us better understand why they were erected, who these people were, the decisions that they made, and why they fought to maintain the institution of slavery? Then these memorials would become an instrument of long overdue healing rather than tools for the fostering of divisions. Then they would become milestones that measure our progress as a people.
History must be taught as it was. It must be taught with context. And it must be taught with sensitivity, a respectful awareness that what was once deemed socially acceptable is often now offensive. But how do we know that behavior of the past is offensive? It is because we have context. We owe it to ourselves, and to future generations, to preserve history, no matter how painful.