I grew up in Gettysburg, Pa. As a young boy, we played Yanks and Rebel games as we had a real battlefield as our playground. Those who know me may find humor in this as I am Chinese, but, as I have just now discovered, there were a few Chinese soldiers in both armies! As a child, I learned that General Robert E. Lee was a gentleman, a top graduate of West Point and a reluctant leader of the Southern cause, having chosen to follow his home state of Virginia after its succession. A quick web search refreshes those history lessons from childhood and provides additional detail.
Lee was an exceptional officer and combat engineer for 32 years in the United States Army prior to becoming senior military adviser to Jefferson Davis and, eventually, taking command of the main Confederate army. After the Civil War, he supported reconciliation.
Accounts of Lee's views on slavery and the Confederacy are complex and nuanced. He was a slave owner through inheritances and there are reports that he directed the whipping of runaways. But there are also letters to his wife expressing slavery to be a "moral and political evil." He was opposed to the secession of the South but could not bring himself to raise arms against his home State of Virginia.
Few individuals carry the same symbolic weight as artifacts such as the Confederate flag and other images do. Shall we change the names of all of the institutions that bear reference to Thomas Jefferson, a known owner of hundreds of slaves?
At 23rd and Madison Avenues in New York City, there is a statue of Chester Alan Arthur, 21st president of the United States who signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibiting the immigration of Chinese to the United States and denying citizenship to those that were here. It was a law that remained in place for 60 years. Its effect was to isolate men who helped to build the first transcontinental railroad and contributed to the development of American industry and wealth from their families in China. Were I a descendant of one of those immigrant families, I should find his image highly offensive. Yes, there is a school named for him, and I bet there are Chinese students there.
What the shootings in South Carolina should inspire is greater awareness and consideration of our collective history and culture, not reactive historical revisionism ("City legislation would rename Robert E. Lee Park," July 17, 2015). Furl the Confederate flags and move them to the museum, but before renaming parks, schools and removing statues, take a deep breath and consider what is to be gained, or lost, in knowing who we are and where we came from as a nation.
Peter Doo, Towson