New Englanders have watched the controversies over statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from a seemingly safe remove: Having never put up any such monuments to racist traitors at our own courthouses or in our own town squares, there’s no need to agonize now about whether to take them down. The only known Confederate monument in Massachusetts is not a statue, but a small stone marker on Georges Island commemorating the Confederate prisoners of war once housed there. Even that modest, out-of-the-way memorial was recently boarded up.
And yet, the region still has its own dark legacies to confront.
The Commonwealth may never have erected monuments to treasonous generals, but it does have a park named after Christopher Columbus. The state’s flag shows an arm with a sword looming over a figure of a Native American. Many prominent New Englanders profited from the slave trade, including the namesake of Brown University. Some of the patriots were also anti-Catholic bigots. And, as Red Sox owner (and Boston Globe publisher) John Henry has pointed out recently, the City of Boston has a street named after former Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, whose legacy is forever tainted by his racist actions. The Red Sox were the last major league baseball team to field black players, and Yawkey infamously passed up an opportunity to sign Jackie Robinson. What’s more, a horrific sexual abuse scandal occurred on Yawkey’s watch.
Henry has called for renaming the street, which runs along one side of Fenway Park. At the same time, though, it’s also worth a broader examination of the other problematic figures New England institutions and governments choose to honor publicly.
Raising the question is not intended to suggest any moral equivalence with Confederate statutes: statues of Lee and Jackson were racist statements by design, erected to send a message of white supremacy, just as statues of Lenin were put up in Eastern Europe to remind oppressed people who was in charge. There was no similarly malign intent when the City of Boston named a street after Yawkey. The Ivy League school in Rhode Island didn’t name itself Brown because it wanted to celebrate slavery.
But simply because those honors weren’t intended to be harmful doesn’t mean they are always still appropriate.
There is nothing wrong with updating public spaces when times change. Boston renamed King Street and Queen Street after the American Revolution. In other cases, adding context to historical markers would be sufficient.
The purpose of renaming Yawkey Way, or considering changes to public monuments, isn’t to erase history, the misleading accusation of some supporters of Confederate statues. The question is who and what deserves to be honored now, and that answer will always be changing with the times. As David Ortiz — incidentally, one of the candidates to replace Yawkey — put it so well, “This is our. . . city.” The past isn’t changing. But the choice of street names, and of whom to honor in public, rightly belongs to the present.