John C. Calhoun was a South Carolina senator and later vice-president who is best remembered for touting the morality of slavery as being a “positive good.”
He famously supported the Fugitive Slave Act, part of the Compromise of 1850 between slave-owning and “free soil” states in the Union. The law compelled all free Americans to capture and return all fugitive slaves by giving rewards to those who captured them, and fining and arresting those who did not.
Calhoun spent his dying days fighting the ethos in our Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and, in fact, felt the Compromise of 1850 did not go far enough toward protecting the institution of slavery. His legacy as a statesman was achieved not in spite of his views on racism, but because of them.
His alma mater, Yale University, recently renamed its Calhoun College in an effort to respect those who were disenfranchised by his views and efforts. When asked to explain his change of heart after a previously failed attempt to rename the college, Yale President Peter Salovey said he was initially “concerned about erasing history,” but “these are exceptional circumstances.”
When questions of renaming our own John C. Calhoun Expressway in Augusta came up after the domestic terrorism events in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend, Mayor Hardie Davis Jr. urged the city to “look to the future.” Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams said, “You can’t rewrite history and you can’t erase what happened; you just have to live with it, including living with these reminders.”
I respectfully remind our city leaders that we do live with “it.” Every day. We live with the fact that nine African-Americans were gunned down in a church in 2015. We live with the fact that 20 people were mowed down by a white supremacist in a car this past weekend. We live with the fear that if enough good people do nothing, we may relive our history rather than learn from it.
We don’t need to memorialize racists to preserve our history any more than we need to erect a monument of Adolf Hitler to remind us of the Holocaust.
Instead, monuments should be reserved for monumental people – individuals who advance the cause of humanity and inspire others to do the same. While John C. Calhoun died in 1850, recent events serve as a sobering reminder that we have a lot more work to do to rid this country of racism and intolerance.
I caution our elected officials to not rewrite history and recognize that this man’s legacy should no longer reflect or represent the ideals of Augusta. The expressway should be renamed more appropriately on behalf of the community it serves.
Lavanya Viswanathan, M.D., M.S., F.A.C.P.