What’s in a name? Plenty, it turns out

Ni­cole Stock­dale ex­plains the evo­lu­tion of the ed­i­to­rial board’s stance on Con­fed­er­ate memo­ri­als

The Dallas Morning News - - Viewpoints - Ni­cole Stock­dale is deputy ed­i­to­rial page ed­i­tor of The Dal­las Morn­ing News. Email: nstock­dale@dal­las­news.com

More than 150 years af­ter the end of the Civil War, and Dal­las re­mains mired in Con­fed­er­ate con­tro­versy. The di­vi­sions are deep, and the ed­i­to­rial board has worked dili­gently to re­flect that on our View­points op-ed page. We’ve pub­lished a near-equal num­ber of com­men­taries on ei­ther side — the count is cur­rently 11 “keep the mon­u­ment” op-eds vs. 12 “re­move them” col­umns.

The job of the ed­i­to­rial board, how­ever, is not sim­ply to re­flect the com­mu­nity’s views or mir­ror ma­jor­ity opin­ion, it is to un­der­stand the dif­fer­ent points of view and rec­om­mend in its in­sti­tu­tional edi­to­ri­als which course of ac­tion would be best for our com­mu­nity.

Con­sider the ques­tion of whether to re­name William L. Ca­bell Ele­men­tary School, just as Dal­las ISD of­fi­cials are do­ing this week. Which side are you on?

Ca­bell was a Vir­ginian work­ing in Arkansas as a com­mis­sioned of­fi­cer in the U.S. Army prior to the Civil War. When the South se­ceded, so did Ca­bell. He rose to the level of brigadier gen­eral in the Con­fed­er­ate Army and took part in the in­fa­mous Bat­tle of Poi­son Springs in April 1864, where wounded black sol­diers were ex­e­cuted in the field af­ter the bat­tle.

At this point, many of you have picked a side: Re­name the school and re­move any stat­ues in his honor, or you’re en­dors­ing the white su­prem­a­cist roots this city was built on.

But con­sider his post-Civil War ca­reer. Ca­bell came to Dal­las in 1872. He served three sep­a­rate terms as mayor af­ter the fall of the state’s Re­con­struc­tion-era gov­ern­ment, ush­er­ing in ad­vance­ments in elec­tric­ity, tele­phones and ed­u­ca­tion.

Dal­las Morn­ing News ar­ti­cles in the 1950s, when Ca­bell Ele­men­tary School was built, re­fer to him as “the fa­ther of Dal­las pub­lic schools.”

Ca­bell’s son and grand­son would go on to serve as Dal­las may­ors, as well. (It was Ca­bell’s grand­son, Earle, who was mayor when John F. Kennedy was as­sas­si­nated; in the late 1950s, he was a prom­i­nent busi­ness owner and chair of the Crime Com­mis­sion.)

Maybe it was those civic ac­com­plish­ments, not white supremacy, that put Ca­bell’s name atop an ele­men­tary school. Some of you might be say­ing: To re­name this school or re­move this statue just be­cause of his Con­fed­er­ate past is po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness run amok, an at­tempt to white­wash his­tory.

These are the types of dis­cus­sions our ed­i­to­rial board has had over the past few months, and they have been ro­bust.

Times change. Our opin­ions as an ed­i­to­rial board do, too. But they aren’t al­tered on a whim.

In July, we came to the con­clu­sion that the Robert E. Lee statue in an Oak Lawn park should come down. Last week, we sup­ported (again) Dal­las ISD’s de­ci­sion to re­name schools named af­ter Con­fed­er­ates. But there have cer­tainly been dif­fer­ences around the ta­ble on how this should play out.

Over the years, our ed­i­to­rial per­spec­tive has evolved. In May 2015, for in­stance, when the Univer­sity of Texas was em­broiled in a de­bate over re­mov­ing stat­ues on cam­pus, we noted: “The lin­ger­ing un­der­stand­ing of the Con­fed­er­ate South should not be of some agrar­ian idyll cham­pi­oning states’ rights. The most trou­bling truth about that so­ci­ety was its em­brace of the empty and cor­rupt ide­ol­ogy that sup­ported a racist sys­tem of slav­ery, at the root of painful di­vi­sions cut­ting at this coun­try’s core even now.”

Still, we called not for re­moval of this pub­lic art­work — but for the ad­di­tion of plaques “to add his­tor­i­cal con­text and mean­ing.” (Con­fed­er­ate school names, how­ever, should be re­moved, we said.)

By this spring, as the sim­mer­ing statue con­tro­versy started to boil again in Dal­las, the plaque so­lu­tion no longer seemed suf­fi­cient. We’d seen, in June 2015, Dy­lann Roof try to start a race war by slaugh­ter­ing nine peo­ple at a his­toric Charleston, S.C., church. South Carolina had re­moved the Con­fed­er­ate flag from its State­house. New Or­leans had re­moved four Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues.

By July, the ed­i­to­rial board was ready to call for two Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments in Dal­las to be re­moved: “They are stand-alone sym­bols that pay spe­cific trib­ute to the side of the Civil War that fought to keep hu­man be­ings in bondage. Con­tin­u­ing to pay homage to that cause is un­nec­es­sar­ily di­vi­sive and out of touch.”

Weeks later, af­ter watch­ing white su­prem­a­cists use a Con­fed­er­ate statue as a ral­ly­ing point in Char­lottesville, that de­ci­sion was re­in­forced. What would a bronze plaque cit­ing his­tor­i­cal con­text do in the face of scenes like this?

Most of us felt in­stinc­tively that Dal­las’ stand-alone stat­ues — one of Robert E. Lee in Oak Lawn and the Con­fed­er­ate War Me­mo­rial near the con­ven­tion cen­ter — should go. But that was an emo­tional re­sponse; this was a shift in prin­ci­ple for the board, and test­ing the logic be­hind such a move was crit­i­cal.

Should all Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues and name­sakes be re­moved? No, we de­cided. Dal­las’ other two big Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments — both at Fair Park — should stay “be­cause they’re part of a larger his­tor­i­cal pre­sen­ta­tion that places Texas and its role in the Con­fed­er­acy in a broader con­text.”

Does Con­fed­er­ate ser­vice dur­ing the Civil War negate good deeds per­formed years later? Not nec­es­sar­ily. When Texas A&M an­nounced that it would keep the statue of former cam­pus pres­i­dent Lawrence Sul­li­van Ross, de­spite the fact that he had been a Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral, we agreed. Ross was cred­ited with sav­ing the univer­sity, and his statue de­picted him as an ed­u­ca­tor, not a war­rior.

When Dal­las ISD ad­min­is­tra­tors rec­om­mended re­nam­ing four schools named af­ter Con­fed­er­ate gen­er­als, the ed­i­to­rial board felt as if we were on solid ground in fa­vor of re­moval: We’d sup­ported re­mov­ing Con­fed­er­ate names for years. But the more we read, the more we re­al­ized it wasn’t that sim­ple.

Re­nam­ing schools named af­ter Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jack­son and Al­bert Sid­ney John­ston was an easy call. All three were Con­fed­er­ate gen­er­als who had lit­tle rea­son to be revered in Dal­las be­yond their trea­sonous lead­er­ship in the Civil War.

But the fourth? William L. Ca­bell was not as cut and dry. What was the in­tent of civic lead­ers when they named an ele­men­tary school for him?

Was the city’s white power struc­ture try­ing to send a mes­sage, right af­ter Brown vs. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion de­ci­sion, about who was call­ing the shots in this seg­re­gated city?

Or were they sim­ply try­ing to honor a former mayor who played an in­te­gral role in de­vel­op­ing Dal­las’ pub­lic school sys­tem?

It’s dif­fi­cult to fully un­der­stand the mo­ti­va­tion of politi­cians serv­ing to­day, let alone those nam­ing schools al­most 60 years ago. (Per­haps one hint: When Ca­bell died in 1911, vir­tu­ally all of the lengthy Morn­ing News obit­u­ary — 20 para­graphs or so — was de­voted to his Civil War con­nec­tions. It in­cludes just two per­func­tory sen­tences about his may­oral ser­vice, with zero men­tion of any ac­com­plish­ments, pub­lic-school-re­lated or not.)

Back to 2017, where in our 450-word ed­i­to­rial last week on re­nam­ing DISD schools, we said sim­ply, “We have ques­tions about a fourth, William L. Ca­bell Ele­men­tary, built in 1958; Ca­bell was a Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral, but he was also a three-term mayor of Dal­las with real con­tri­bu­tions to the city.”

Just three dozen words on the pub­lished page — but a thicket of is­sues be­hind it.

DISD trustees voted Thurs­day to re­name all four schools. We wish they had held off on Ca­bell. Yes, he was a Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral, with the trea­son and hor­rors of war that ac­com­pany such lead­er­ship. But he was also much more than that to the city of Dal­las, with real civil ac­com­plish­ments un­der his belt.

We don’t know which side of his past of­fi­cials in­tended to honor when nam­ing this ele­men­tary school. In that ab­sence, there’s no need for school of­fi­cials to force a quick re­nam­ing, as they are with schools named af­ter Lee, Jack­son and John­ston. In­stead, let the com­mu­nity de­cide — un­der the reg­u­lar, de­lib­er­a­tive re­nam­ing process.

Louis DeLuca/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

William L. Ca­bell Ele­men­tary is a Dal­las ISD school named for a Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral who later served three terms as Dal­las mayor. Re­nam­ing this school isn’t a cut-and-dried call, says Ni­cole Stock­dale, as Ca­bell con­trib­uted so much to the city of Dal­las.

Re­nam­ing schools named af­ter Con­fed­er­ate Gens. Robert E. Lee (from left), Stonewall Jack­son and Al­bert Sid­ney John­ston was an easy call for the ed­i­to­rial board.

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