Newspaper column: Remember history, don’t erase it

Confederate memorials and statues all across the South are being torn down or moved out of sight. 

In dozens of states the Democratic fundraising dinners once called Jefferson-Jackson dinners have been renamed because Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and Andrew Jackson was an Indian fighter. 

There have even been demands that Washington’s face be removed from our coinage because he was a slaveholder. 

A gubernatorial candidate in Georgia has called for sandblasting the giant etching on Stone Mountain depicting Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. 

There have been petitions to rename Jeff Davis Peak in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park. 

Books by Mark Twain — including “Roughing It,” which is about his tenure in Nevada — are being pulled from libraries and classrooms because they contain an ethnic slur common, nay, ubiquitous in his day.

This past week a statue erected in 1894 was taken down in San Francisco because it depicted a vaquero and a priest standing over an American Indian sitting on the ground.

Now, a committee at the University of California Berkeley School of Law is calling for the name of a one-time Nevada miner, lawyer and judge to be excised in all its many iterations because he was opposed to Chinese immigration. 

Up until 2008, what is now referred to as Berkeley Law was called Boalt Hall, after John and Elizabeth Boalt. After John Boalt’s death his widow gave the money that eventually led to the construction in 1911 of “Boalt Memorial Hall of Law.”

John Boalt

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, there is now a Boalt Hall instructional wing, Boalt Hall Alumni Association, Boalt Hall Fund, Boalt Hall Student Association, Boalt Environmental Law Society and even the Boalt Hall Committee on Human Rights. The school’s Facebook page is called “UC Berkeley School of Law, Boalt Hall.” Alumni call themselves “Boalties.”

The deed that warrants the proposed erasure of the Boalt name is that in 1877 he wrote a 16-page pamphlet titled, “The Chinese question: A paper read before the Berkeley Club.”

According to a Berkeley Law article about the school name, Boalt argued in the paper for restricting Chinese immigration, saying two “non-assimilating races” could not live harmoniously together because the two races were too physically and intellectually dissimilar. 

“The two races are further separated by fundamental differences in language, in dress, in customs, in habits, and social peculiarities and prejudices,” Boalt declared. “In all these respects, the Chinese differ from us more than any known race.”

It was not an uncommon position. In 1879 the voters of California approved an initiative to prohibit Chinese immigration, and in 1882 Congress passed The Chinese Exclusion Act. 

John Boalt may well have come by his animus for the Chinese while living in Nevada. He and his wife moved to Nevada to seek their fortune in the Comstock Lode, which also attracted a number of Chinese laborers. 

In many areas the Chinese were prohibited from staking mining claims or working in the underground mines. They were segregated into what was dubbed Chinatown.

Boalt Hall, dedicated in 1912

Dan De Quille, a staffer at the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City during the mining days, wrote in his book “Big Bonanza,” “The Chinese are a curious people and have curious notions on all subjects. They are like Europeans in nothing.”

Twain, a contemporary of De Quille in Virginia City, wrote in “Roughing It” of the Chinese, “They are a harmless race when white men either let them alone or treat them no worse than dogs; in fact they are almost entirely harmless anyhow, for they seldom think of resenting the vilest insults or the cruelest injuries. … Any white man can swear a Chinaman’s life away in the courts, but no Chinaman can testify against a white man. … As I write, news comes that in broad daylight in San Francisco, some boys have stoned an inoffensive Chinaman to death, and that although a large crowd witnessed the shameful deed, no one interfered.”

We wonder how those who wish to eradicate the names of people who behaved contrary to modern standards would have comported themselves had they been born in another era and lived in a culture with a different way of thinking.

We should learn from past mistakes, not blot it from memory. I was once advised that when writing about someone that I should include warts and all, but not all warts either. Shortcomings, by current standards, are a part of the whole story. 

It seems paradoxical that these censors are effectively shouting: “We will not tolerate intolerance.”

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.


13 comments on “Newspaper column: Remember history, don’t erase it

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’m guessing you had, or wouldn’t have had if you’d have been a citizen of various countries where despots were revered at one time, taking their memorials down from the public square right?

    I mean, would you have been against a push to take down statues of Stalin, or Hitler, or Idi Amin, or anyone based on the same objections people are voicing today to remove confederate leaders?

    I’m sure they had warts, but weren’t all warts right?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Should be “wouldn’t have had a problem” taking down these memorials.

  3. Steve says:

    In Patrick’s world, Asians aren’t important enough to warrant toppling hypocritical records.

  4. Bill says:

    History is history, unless it is written by a dishonest scrivener.

  5. […] Remember history, don’t erase it Confederate memorials and statues all across the South are being torn down or moved out of sight. […]

  6. Rincon says:

    History is fact. Memorials are voluntary. Let people choose for themselves. The majority rules, as it should.

    Is it the Conservative belief is that all propaganda, including memorials, should always remain in our faces? To be consistent, wouldn’t you also have to agree that the Confederate flag should hang from all southern state government flagpoles into perpetuity? Times change. Move ahead.

  7. Bill says:

    af anyone can read Mark Twain’s piece on the Chinese as anything other than as an ironic and sarcastic condemnation of the prevailing white “majority” of the times, then they are need to go back and read it again. It is not a condemnation of the Chinese but a condemnation of how white (majority) society treated the Chinese at the time. So too, should they go back and re-read the exchange between Jim, the slave and Huck Finn as a sarcastic syllogistic argument against the white (majority) belief of the times that Negroes were inferior intellectually to whites. And, least someone feel aggrieved by the use of the term Negro, that was the term in vogue at the time. Tearing down monuments and erasing history does nothing but destroy the history and without history there is not a culture. We have come a long way as a Nation and as a people and have achieved much in terms of enlightenment. What purpose does erasing history serve?

  8. Steve says:

    Bill, they weren’t slaves. They were people who were enslaved. West Africans enslaved their own and sold them to Eastern Europeans who then sold them all along the shipping routes.
    That history has scarred both sides of the Atlantic.
    It’s simply too bad many do not realize this reality.
    At least Asians came here voluntarily.

  9. Bill says:

    Steve, they were slaves no matter that it might have been other tribes and nationalities (Arabs) that captured or bought them in Africa for service, primarily in the New World. You cannot assert or relate any part of the history of African slavery before they arrived in the New World. Neither can you talk about the prevalence of world wide slavery and indenture at the time of founding our Nation and Constitution. Nor can you talk about the existence of present day slavery and indenture that exists in the world today. Why? Because it you cannot distract or interrupt the narrative that then Alt-left and those who would divide us are promulgating.

  10. Steve says:

    Nevertheless, calling them slaves is not accurate. They were free people who were enslaved. Conscripted doesn’t fit either. Indenture is a much better description of slavery. In that case some kind of contractual agreement and exchange of value are part of the act of becoming a slave.

    Again, at least Asians came here voluntarily, under indenture in many cases. What happened to them here is almost as disgraceful as what happened to enslaved Africans.

  11. Rincon says:

    Referring back to Bill’s original piece, the curriculum of most schools is decided upon by a group of people. If that group decides on Huck Finn, that’s just fine. If, on the other hand, they decide that other books are far more suitable, then why insist on Huck Finn? I have nothing against that book at all, but there are far too many so called classics for any one student to read. Groups of educators decided that Huck Finn was a classic. Groups can also demote it, but I do frown on outright bans.

    As for memorials, they are not history. They are mere caricatures of historic figures or events and are of no use except to honor the figure or concept depicted and to remind people of them. I have no more need to honor or be reminded of say, Jefferson Davis than I do of Rocky the squirrel, so who cares if some decide to remove them? Removing a monument is not the removal of history. It is the removal of an honor. So why is it important to continue honoring Jefferson Davis?

    Almost nobody flies the old flags of the original colonies, but a very large number of people feel the need to fly the Confederate flag. Both are reminders of times past, but only the Confederate flag is favored. Why? The answer isn’t very appealing.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I wonder why memorials aren’t considered “forced speech” in violation of the first amendment rights of the citizens who do not approve?

    And, according to Thomas at least, forced speech is one of those things the Constitution prohibits.

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