The cultural firestorm over statues, flags and other symbols of the Confederacy, ignited by a violent clash of white supremacists and their opponents in Charlottesville, Virginia, would seem far removed from California.
California became a state in 1850 largely because of pre-Civil War political maneuvering over slavery and the fear among northern politicians that its riches, especially gold, made it a tempting target for southern sympathizers, who were quite numerous in the soon-to-be state.
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Just in the last couple of years, the larger conflict flared in a successful effort to remove Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s name from a school in San Diego and an unsuccessful effort to compel Fort Bragg, a small town on the North Coast, to change its name. Its namesake, Braxton Bragg, was a U.S. Army officer who later joined the Confederacy.
Now attention has turned to other symbols of other historic events, particularly what happened to native peoples after North America was discovered – or invaded – by European explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Last week, the Los Angeles City Council voted to strike Columbus Day, which honored Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, from the city’s calendar of recognized holidays, and replace it with a commemoration of “indigenous, aboriginal and native people,” thus endorsing the increasingly popular view of him as a symbol of oppression.
The action was taken at the behest of Native American organizations and over the vehement objections of Italian-American groups.
Chrissie Castro, vice chairwoman of the Los Angeles City-County Native American Indian Commission, told the council that they needed to “dismantle a state-sponsored celebration of genocide of indigenous peoples,” adding, “To make us celebrate on any other day would be a further injustice.”
“We’ve been erased from education. We’ve been erased from the history books,” Joseph Quintana, development director for United American Indian Involvement, told the council.
“On behalf of the Italian community, we want to celebrate with you,” said Ann Potenza, president of Federated Italo-Americans of Southern California. “We just don’t want it to be at the expense of Columbus Day.”
In the same vein, California’s new social science “framework” eliminates the long-standing practice of celebrating California’s early Spanish missions. Constructing model missions has long been a traditional bit of homework for the state’s fourth-graders.
“Building missions from sugar cubes or popsicle sticks does not help students understand the period and is offensive to many,” the framework says. “Missions were sites of conflict, conquest and forced labor.”
The Sacramento Bee quoted Nancy McTygue, executive director of the California History-Social Science Project, which has been conducting training on the revised approach, as saying, “The mission project has outlived its usefulness. I feel we can do better. We can do it in a way that is respectful and accurate.”
Given changing cultural attitudes, one wonders about the fate of other venerable symbols, such as the giant statue of Father Junipero Serra, the missions’ founder, that looms above Interstate 280 near Hillsborough, the many schools and other public buildings named for him, or the statue of Christopher Columbus with his patron, Spanish Queen Isabella, in the Capitol’s rotunda.
Erasing symbols does not change the history they represent. What happened, happened. And while California’s youngsters should not build mission models any more, the pedagogic pendulum should not swing too far the other way either.
California’s children don’t need propaganda of either stripe but rather accurate lessons in its rich history – the good and the bad – to understand why it is what it is today and their role in its continued evolution.