Sherwood’s Notebook: What’s in a Name…

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Maybe we should rename the Washington Monument. After all, the father of our country was a brutal slave owner.

Even the official Mount Vernon site notes that despite disputes about how he really felt about slavery, “What is clear is that Washington frequently utilized harsh punishment against the enslaved population, including whippings and the threat of particularly taxing work assignments.”

He also banished slaves to the West Indies, ripping apart families, as was then common.

This came to mind this past weekend. An op-ed in The Washington Post urged the U.S. Senate to strip the name of Richard B. Russell from the oldest Senate office building on Capitol Hill and rename it for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

“So we believe,” they authors wrote, “Congress has a choice for the big beauty at the corner of Constitution and Delaware: Keep the name of an avowed segregationist who stood in the way of racial progress? Or rename it for a consummate senator — a liberal lion, civil rights champion and bipartisan deal-maker. The choice is clear: It’s time to christen the Edward Moore Kennedy Senate Office Building.”

The writers are David Bennett of Syracuse University and his son Matt, a co-founder of the D.C. think tank Third Way.

Your Notebook won’t argue a single word in defense of Russell’s appalling anti-civil rights record. Nor will we roll out 50 years of good stuff — supporting President Franklin Roosevelt, literacy, highways, agriculture and water conservation, military readiness and the 1946 National School Lunch Program — to defend him.

What the Notebook wants to defend is recognizing history. Let’s learn from the past, not eradicate it. Find something worthy and different for Sen. Kennedy. And make sure the whole history is told.

The Russell Building was so named after Russell’s death in the early 1970s. Whether it was a good idea or a bad idea, it simply was done. And anyone reading an ounce of Russell’s history — including Congress’ official version — can’t miss the ugly civil rights history.

The same is true locally and around the nation.

The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., for example, is named for a man who was a Confederate general, U.S. senator and Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. The nation just observed the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” on that bridge, where armed riot police viciously beat peaceful civil rights marchers.

Some want to change the name. But many others more wisely want it to stand as a testament to a better America that began there, including the push for the 1965 Voting Rights Act that became more powerful than billy clubs. Both sides of the bridge should have markers explaining the site, but the bridge — named a national landmark in 2013 — should remain in all its infamy.

Also recently, the Chevy Chase advisory neighborhood commission discussed whether to recommend changing the name of the fountain within Chevy Chase Circle. It’s named for developer Francis Griffith Newlands, who strongly desired that the area “be forever racially segregated.” Maybe to his dismay, it wasn’t. But people should remember the development of this beautiful area as well as the ugly thinking behind it.

The same is true of “Appomattox,” the controversial Confederate statue that sits in Alexandria traffic, first erected in 1889. In 1988, when the statue was damaged by a vehicle, then-Mayor James P. Moran suggested it be removed. It wasn’t. And it provides a history lesson each time someone new passes by and says, “Who’s that?”

Back in the District, the statue of Albert Pike stands adjacent to police headquarters at 3rd and D streets NW. On the National Register of Historic Places since 1978, it’s the only Civil War statuary in the District commemorating a Confederate, although it was erected by Scottish Rite Masons to mark his 32 years of leadership of its southern jurisdiction. There was a brief D.C. Council effort in 1993 to have it removed. It’s still there.

Also in the city, when then-Mayor Sharon Pratt took office in 1991, she had Marion Barry’s name removed from the Reeves Center at 14th and U streets NW even though the building’s construction during Barry’s mayoral tenure had been crucial to the rebirth of the area. Again mayor in 1995, Barry put his name back and it remains.

Especially in the Washington region, our history is all around us. Let’s not make it a sanitized Disneyland, but learn from all of it, the good and bad.

■ But what of football names? Before anyone writes a letter or misunderstands, this column does not address the controversy over the name of the NFL team that plays in suburban Maryland. That’s a business, not a monument — no matter how much some cheer for it.

■ A final word. We end the column back at the Washington Monument and the death this past week of influential architect and designer Michael Graves.

It was he who draped the monument in dramatic sheathing and lighting in 1998 and inspired the more recent renovation wrapping. There are so many positive things to say about him and the brilliant St. Coletta’s school he designed on Capitol Hill. The Notebook will be mentally dimming the monument lights for Graves the next time we ride by. Thank you.

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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