GUEST COLUMN: With local history, take the bad with the good


By Peter Huston
For The Daily Gazette

The Capital District region is wonderfully rich in history.
I enjoy history, even have a degree in it, Chinese history, but still history.
However, celebrating history sometimes brings present day problems.
Albany’s statue of Philip Schuyler, local Revolutionary War general, politician and senator, has caused division.
Schuyler owned human beings, Black slaves, back when this was acceptable, even a sign of success.
Otherwise, Schuyler was quite multi-cultural. He spoke English, Dutch, and Mohawk, and understood New York’s Indian nations, important powers in his era.
(FYI: These Indians owned Black slaves, too.)
Relocating the statue is costly.
Obviously, historical problems and atrocities require discussion and thought. And there are many.
If current events is depressing, history can seem like centuries of current events.
And, as someone with a degree in Chinese history, if you think man’s inhumanity to man is unique to “dead white men,” I assure you it’s not.
People’s inhumanity to others, especially those outside “their group,” is universal. The issue is not “dead white men,” but human nature.
And there’s more bad local history.
There’s Sir William Johnson’s frequent affairs with Iroquois women; the Iroquois and Abenaki residents of New York gleefully tortured Indian and White prisoners; Washingon’s drillmaster Von Steuben retired in New York allegedly living in a homosexual relationship; the Rensselaer families’ exploitive rent policies (producing Calico “Indians” who weren’t even Indians but cultural appropriators); local President Martin Van Buren’s complex relationship with slaves and alcohol; up until we get to G.E. Research’s employing atomic bomb developers.
And it is morally complex.
A friend’s local college lecture on the 1779 American expedition against the Iroquois that ended their political power was canceled when an American Indian, an Oneida, objected saying it glorified violence against her people.
My friend raged. “The Oneida provided the expedition with guides and warriors. Her ancestors helped burn those houses and crops!” (Schuyler’s diplomacy kept the Oneidas allied.)
Regardless, emphasize the story of how we, the group of people who live here, learned to live together and overcame problems.
Recognize the darkness and the cynical, but be open to the positive. Emphasize that we ended slavery and decided as a group that it was wrong.
Recognize that while whites owned Black slaves and burned Indian houses, it was part of life at that time, local minorities participated too, and we all ultimately learned to do things better.
In other words, why not just attach a plaque to the statue of Schuyler matter-of-factly stating he did many important and good things, list them, but like many in his time owned slaves.
Then continue with the story of how New York voluntarily ended slavery in 1819, 15 years after Schuyler’s death, 14 years before the British and 44 years before the U.S.
History is many things. One is a process.
Emphasize the history of science and technology.
Celebrate the statue of Steinmetz on Erie Boulevard. And emphasize the many contributions from Jewish, Asian, South Asian and other ethnicities.
The goal should be to speak truth while bringing local people together and empowering them to improve things. Not to divide and argue over whose ancestors were the worst.
(Ultimately, we all have some ugly ancestors, believe me.)
Henry Johnson, African-American First World War hero, is celebrated, but the Rapp Road Community, founded almost 100 years ago when a Black Mississippi congregation sought new opportunities in Albany, deserves publicity.
Celebrate Juneteenth, Chinese contributions, Korean churches, early Hispanic city council members and milestones in Italian-American, local Guyanese-American, or Burmese American history .
Don’t hide things. Don’t revel in ugliness. Emphasize how it was fixed and how we will fix future challenges together.
Peter Huston is a contributor to the Daily Gazette Opinion section.

Categories: Guest Column, Opinion

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