It’s time to rename government facilities named after Confederate war heroes
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare famously asked in Romeo and Juliet, when writing about the path of the two star crossed lovers from rival families.
Well, as it turns out, the answer is a lot, particularly when it comes to government facilities, such as those within the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that still bear the names of Confederate generals and sympathizers.
Although from Juliet’s point of view, “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet;” when it comes to military bases and VA hospitals, calling them by any other name would send an important message of unity and acceptance during a time of increased awareness surrounding racial inequality and the unfortunate prevalence of white supremacy, particularly among military members and veterans.
This month, which is the 45th anniversary of Black History Month, is an excellent time to focus on the renaming issue by demonstrating a commitment to more concrete action on the part of the DOD and VA rather than just the mere lip service and symbolism often seen in years past.
Few people realize that Black History Month itself has a direct relationship to military service. In 1915, historian Carter G. Woodson, “the father of Black history” founded the precursor to Black History Month, “Negro History Week,” to specifically celebrate the achievements of African Americans and celebrating their role in U.S. history.
Woodson’s father, James Woodson, was a Civil War veteran. The elder Woodson was a run-away slave who then joined the Union Army, fighting for the freedom of African Americans nationwide. The younger Woodson credits his father’s stories of slavery and serving in the Civil War with sparking his interest in promoting African American history.
Woodson also credits Oliver Jones, a Black Civil War veteran who Woodson met while working in the mines of West Virginia, with inspiring him to further the cause of Black history. Jones was illiterate but learned when other miners, such as Woodson, read to him and also shared his own perspective from serving in the Civil War. Woodson regarded Jones as “the embodiment of a well-educated man, the antitheses of the college-educated people” he regarded as “mis-educated.”
Fast-forward to today and, unfortunately, Woodson’s message hasn’t yet fully resonated with our armed forces. Although Congress recently created a commission on renaming military bases named after Confederates, which is expected to brief Congress in October 2021 and issue a formal plan by October 2022, this begs the question of why so many Confederates’ names remain on military property so long after the Civil War was lost, as well as why it will take so long to implement the changes.
Indeed, as noted by retired Army Gen. and former CIA Director David Patraeus, “For an organization designed to win wars[,] to train for them at installations named for those who led a losing force is sufficiently peculiar.”
Similarly, the VA has several facilities named after former legislators who supported segregation, including a hospital named for a Confederate physician. As of December 2020, VA leadership stated that there were no plans to change the name of these facilities. Although VA leadership has changed hands due to the new administration since that time, there has been no mention as to whether renaming these locations will be a priority to the VA’s new leadership.
One way to honor Black History Month is for those in leadership at both VA and DOD to speak up about this issue. Particularly with regard to VA, where there has not been any recent discussion on the naming issue, newly confirmed Sec. Denis McDonough can send a strong message to veterans that they are all welcome across the department by removing the names of those who took up arms against the United States in the name of slavery and segregation from its facilities.
Moreover, both VA and DOD are struggling with other race-related issues that extend far beyond the names of certain locations.
At VA, for example, the work environment for Black employees was recently described as “plagued by a pernicious and oppressive culture of prejudice,” prompting the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to launch an investigation into systemic racism at VA facilities nationwide.
In addition, a December 2019 GAO report confirmed that VA health care facilities showed racial disparities in healthcare outcomes, mirroring trends seen across the U.S., but the extent of which remained unknown due to a lack of mechanisms to measure progress and track outcomes for results.
Moreover, DOD is struggling with white supremacists infiltrating its ranks. An October 2020 report released by the Pentagon noted that military personnel and veterans are “highly prized” by such extremists groups. Although Lloyd Austin, the new Defense secretary, has vowed to tackle the subject, at this point, it is unclear how he plans to do so.
Against the backdrop of these more pressing and systemic issues, renaming certain DOD and VA facilities may seem like a small and even insignificant gesture. However, it is a tangible action that can be taken almost immediately and set the tone for more conversations around inclusivity going forward, particularly during Black History Month.
Parting may be “such sweet sorrow,” but parting ways with the nation’s complicated past as it relates to the Confederacy should be an easy and obvious decision.
Rory E. Riley-Topping is the founder of Riley-Topping Consulting, where she continues to work with various veterans organizations. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.
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