By Anderson Hagler
In 2017, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a motion to officially changed the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, forcing the general public to discursively reassess European conquest in a city originally founded by Spanish colonizers. The name change functions as a symbolic corrective to the atrocities committed by Christopher Columbus and other European colonizers who killed, oppressed, and exploited indigenous peoples throughout the Americas for hundreds of years. As a historian of Latin America, I am especially interested in how events in the distant past affect the lives of modern-day citizens living in places founded by European colonizers. Although this symbolic shift cannot undo the trauma precipitated by European expansion, it reveals that history does not have to glorify systemic oppression. That over 100 cities have now renamed Columbus Day shows us all that history can serve the needs of people living in the here and now.
I personally witnessed the dynamic relationship that history has between the past and the present when the faculty, students, and staff at Duke University successfully petitioned to rename Carr Building. The building itself, which houses the history department, was named after Julian Shakespeare Carr, a wealthy white supremacist who served the Confederacy in the Civil War. Those not familiar with this area of North Carolina should know that the name is ubiquitous—the town of Carrboro being a notable example.
When I arrived in Durham in 2016, Carr’s legacy seemed just as secure as it always had been. I did not know who he was nor did I particularly care. I knew the name was somehow associated with a wealthy dead guy, but, for me, Carr merely functioned as a metonym for my history classes. When I said I was “at Carr,” I meant that I was attending a seminar or meeting with my colleagues. The Carr name seemed unobtrusive and unimportant. Things changed in August of 2017, however, when protests erupted against a group of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. The events in Charlottesville sparked a national debate about the names associated with public monuments in the South. The media attention given to pro-Confederate monuments prompted me to reevaluate how I experienced the spaces with which I came into contact. More importantly, this national outcry elevated my empathy, forcing me to consider how marginalized peoples experienced these spaces. Admittedly, these monuments, and the names associated with them, were around long before 2017. Yet, it took a particular confluence of political and social factors to bring this issue to the national stage.
Like it or not, Pandora’s box had been opened and there was no going back. After having listened to the objections of protesters who called for the removal of Confederate monuments, I began to think differently about the lived experiences of minority groups in North Carolina. While the Charlottesville protests foregrounded racism, the media attention given to the #MeToo movement helped me to see the consequences of ignoring systemic violence committed by elites on women and peoples of color and how apathy can actually distort historical reality.
Part of the outcry against Carr came about due to a reexamination of his life and racist attitudes in North Carolina. Specifically, on June 2, 1913, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Carr commemorated a Confederate monument, sponsored by the Daughters of the Confederacy, known as Silent Sam. During his dedication speech, Carr made his pro-Confederate stance evident by stating, among other things, that Robert E. Lee was the “world’s greatest hero.” Carr also boasted that he violently assaulted a woman of color and that this act of violence was his “pleasing duty.” Since Carr committed this act after returning from Appomattox, the site of Confederate capitulation, I believe that Carr abused this woman of color because he was so upset that the times had changed. Most likely, Carr felt that history should glorify dead white men. When he saw an act of subversion that disrupted this worldview, Carr took it upon himself to violently reestablish the status quo. Carr was upset that the present no longer mirrored his ideal past.
Removing Carr’s name conveys the message to those living in the present that the faculty, students, and staff at Duke University have rejected the race-based subordination of women and men of color by white men. Although opponents of the name change argue that Carr was a complex individual who should not be judged too harshly since he was a man of his time, I object to this line of argumentation because it does not account for change over time. Relativizing contemporary mores ad infinitum creates a static picture of the past, which makes it difficult to narrate history into the present. The renaming of Carr Building to that of Classroom Building conveys a message to those living in the here and how that that racism is not welcome within the confines of Duke University.
In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare famously wrote “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This line has been used to suggest that a name cannot change the essence of the object in question. Although this may seem true at first glance, Shakespeare point breaks down once we consider how labels shape contemporary society’s understanding of history. This is because the genealogy of a name, to borrow from Fredrich Nietzsche, traces points in time in which asymmetries of power converged to create contemporary moralities and sensibilities in society. Names, ideas, and mores do not exist in a vacuum; they have been shaped by powerful individuals in the upper echelons of society who have established social norms over time.
These names, ideas, and mores imposed on the general public by elites become so institutionalized that, over time, they function as metonyms for the spaces themselves. Hence my use of “Carr” to refer to history seminars. Thus, benefactors have secured their discursive legacy by passing their names to the next generation as long as the general public remains sufficiently apathetic. Thankfully, #MeToo and Charlottesville, have made me realize that apathy carries consequences. Both movements highlight how discourse can influence action. The present moment shapes how we as a society interpret past events and historical figures. In order to foster inclusivity, we should listen to the outrage rather than dismiss it. History will continue to be taught. It cannot be erased. It is, however, a matter of debate and (re)interpretation. Although detractors will continue to object to historical whitewashing, this merely shows that the study of history is far too dynamic to remain unchanged. We should not worry about how future generations might judge us, but rather focus on how to shape the present to suit our needs. Let’s use this opportunity to make the here and now better for all.
Anderson Hagler is a Ph.D. candidate at Duke University. He researches the history of colonial Mexico. Specifically, Anderson’s scholarship examines how subaltern vassals have resisted state-led attempts to impose orthodoxy. His article “Archival Epistemology: Honor, Sodomy, and Indians in Eighteenth-Century New Mexico,” published in Ethnohistory, highlights the ways in which Spanish colonial authorities passed judgment on indigenous subjects and the landscapes that they inhabited in eighteenth-century New Mexico. Anderson examines how ethnocentrism shaped the ways in which Spanish colonizers interlinked sin and physical space to make biased value judgments, deeming native peoples as inherently sinful. Anderson’s most recent project analyzes popular magic and shapeshifting in the Enlightenment era, revealing that categories such as “superstition” and “idolatry” persisted among indigenous peoples and those of African descent into the nineteenth century. More information about Anderson and his research can be found on his personal website.
 Green, “Transcription.”
 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016).