Generations of school children in the United States have been taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America, that the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving with joyful native neighbors and that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776.
Except none of those statements are true.
And those falsehoods and embellishments — and many others — have been handed down through the years and embraced as historical and factual.
So what should we do?
A meaningful comprehension of our present requires an honest assessment of our past — a notion often met with reluctance or outright opposition.
Columbus, an Italian explorer, actually shares “discovery” credit with countryman Amerigo Vespucci (hence “America”), both of whom came along 400 years after Norse explorer Leif Erikson, and all of whom arrived about 10,000 years after humans crossed over a land bridge from modern Russia into what is now Alaska to begin populating the New World.
That first meeting between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe did occur in 1621, historians say, the year after the Mayflower landed at “Plymouth rock.” And there was a feast where the settlers celebrated their first harvest. But the thanks on the natives’ side was short-lived, and soon they were dying off from new diseases or wiped out by a flood of English colonizers.
Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux, said in a 2016 Time magazine story: “Thanksgiving tells a story that is convenient for Americans.”
As for the Declaration of Independence — and our July 4 national holiday — well, should we let the facts get in the way of our fireworks and hot dogs?
In his 2001 biography of Founding Father John Adams, author David McCullough — he who published “The Johnstown Flood” in 1968 — notes that the second president believed July 2, 1776, would become an important day in history since that’s when the Continental Congress actually declared independence from Great Britain.
In a piece he wrote just last year, McCullough further challenged our foundational July 4 beliefs when he noted that the signing of the Declaration of Independence didn’t even start until Aug. 2, 1776, and went on for months, as individuals made their way to Philadelphia. That means the great painting hanging in the U.S. Capitol — titled “The Declaration of Independence, Fourth of July, 1776” — and called the most viewed piece of art in U.S. history, is not an accurate depiction.
The notion of an open-minded review of history is the crux of current heated national debates over what we teach in our schools and how we remember those who came before us.
Columbus, as you may have heard, was active in the slave trade — not a fact I recall seeing in my scholastic textbooks but certainly significant, especially as we attempt to come to grips with our country’s history of violence and oppression through the practice of slavery and well after. So a statue of Columbus standing in a Pittsburgh park, or the words “Columbus Day” on your calendar, might represent a soul-searching moment.
The Valdosta Daily Times, a CNHI-owned newspaper in Georgia, has been reporting on a push to remove the name of Confederate general and slave-owner Nathan Bedford Forrest from streets and other public areas. Forrest was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, from 1867 to 1869, and ran a cotton plantation while owning and trading slaves before the Civil War.
The Action Sociology Anthropology Club at Valdosta State University gathered signatures in a push to have Forrest Street renamed Barack Obama Boulevard. The group has a Facebook page (“Change the Name of Forrest Street”) and a GoFundMe account to support its efforts.
“People say, ‘Change a street, what is that going to do? It’s not going to change the thing,’ ” Action group member David Jonathan “D.J.” Davis told the Valdosta Daily Times. “No. It’s going to do a lot, because it changes them mentally — that this can be done.”
The group plans to go before the local town council on July 22 and formally call for the removal of Forrest’s name from the street — and might keep right on advocating for change. Although Valdosta residents are nearly 53% Black or of mixed race, many streets are named for individuals associated with the slave period and the Confederacy.
Davis asked the obvious question: “So, what does that mean for Black folks who are living in the city that we are honoring all these people who did really horrible things?”
Back in our schools, “critical race theory” is a political lightning rod as society wrestles with how honest we should be about teaching kids about our history — and lingering problems in our present.
The concept is not new — dating to the 1970s, inspired by the Civil Rights movement but actually a reaction to a perceived lack of progress during and after that period.
The Associated Press wrote in an explainer of critical race theory that the perspective is “a way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of racism. ... It centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people in society.
“The architects of the theory argue that the United States was founded on the theft of land and labor and that federal law has preserved the unequal treatment of people on the basis of race.”
Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum, called the approach “simply about telling a more complete story of who we are.”
As the AP reported, there is little evidence that critical race theory is actually being taught in public schools — even as some states take steps to control how racism should be learned and understood.
What are we afraid of? The truth?
Shouldn’t history be a mirror in which we see ourselves clearly and honestly, dressed in the context of our past failures and successes, eyes open to real path behind and the right road ahead?
Or should we just keep lighting sparklers as we think of those Founding Fathers declaring independence and putting quill to paper on July 4, 1776?
Chip Minemyer is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat and TribDem.com, and CNHI regional editor for Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia. He can be reached at 814-532-5091. Follow him on Twitter @MinemyerChip.