George Washington and Tom Yawkey

Press reports advise us that the Red Sox are seeking to rename Yawkey Way, the street leading into the main entrance of Fenway Park, because of Tom Yawkey’s record of racial prejudice during his four-plus decades of team ownership.  (There is a sub-text that the team is not seeking to erase to Morse Code on the scoreboard spelling out the Yawkey name initials, perhaps as the Park itself is on the National Register of Historic Places.)

Common knowledge has it that Yawkey in fact was guilty as charged.  As to that I cannot say, although the absence of patrons of color at Red Sox games is strongly suggestive as current residual evidence.  The entire issue of expunging evidence of history based on contemporary moral judgment is surely an interesting subject.  We have statues removed from Southern cities, team names being changed to delete demeaning references to native Americans, awards and degrees being withdrawn by reason of past actions not being in conformance with current mores.

At the risk of being understood reflexively as defending the actions of those being expunged, I note that we are the people of our own history.  Perhaps some memories are more valuable if left on public display as a reminder.  Tom Yawkey is dead, he was an historical fixture in the City, he achieved what he achieved and failed where he failed, and he left a small fortune now being applied to public use through his family foundation.

What should we be thinking about George Washington,  whose slave quarters have been startlingly restored at Mount Vernon?  Will our government soon be seated in a city renamed North Baltimore?  Frances Scott Key was a racist and not a good person; do we stop singing the Star Spangled Banner?  Let’s get Washington and Jefferson off those bills and coins while we’re at it.

How different is our selective approach to our expunging evidence of our past from the universally disparaged new US law in Poland banning verbal descriptions of “Polish” death camps?

Now there are arguments that certain historical indicia of past evil cause current pain, and I lack the ability or will to reject those arguments.  But there is something to be said for confronting our history.  And learning from it, being reminded by it.  Although the impetus for the naming of Yawkey Way, or of Washington DC, and the impetus for erecting the Holocaust Memorial near Boston City Hall, were very different, why can not all these named sites serve the same purpose: markers of the history of who we were is not the same as a current advocacy for something evil.  Perhaps we are too concerned with creating what looks like a “safe space” and not enough concerned with understanding our nature as a species and as a nation….

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