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History takes a beating during the recent unrest over George Floyd

As we survey the vandalism left in the wake of the protests — and riots — prompted by the death of George Floyd, the black Minneapolis resident who died in police custody last month, we notice something about history.

It’s not that it’s bunk, as Henry Ford maintained. It’s not that we’re condemned to repeat it, as philosopher George Santayana argued. Nor is it that it is written by the winners, a thought attributed by some to Winston Churchill but whose origin may never be truly known. 

Rather the problem is, as Sam Cooke once sang, we don’t know much about it. 

The geniuses who are toppling and defacing statues dedicated to our historical figures across the country often don’t know what they’re doing, or who they’re lashing out against.

For example, in Boston, rioters vandalized a monument dedicated to the famous Massachusetts 54th Regiment, an all-black infantry unit that fought for the Union Army in the Civil War under the command of Col. Robert Gould Shaw. That unit included Sgt. William Harvey Carney, who became the first black American to win the Congressional Medal of Honor for combat action.   

Liz Vizza, curator of the grounds where the monument is located, said it “is considered one of the nation’s greatest pieces of public art and the greatest piece to come out of the Civil War.”

In Washington, D.C., vandals desecrated monuments dedicated to Adm. David Farragut and Gens. James McPherson and George Thomas, all of whom were leaders in the Union forces during the Civil War. 

Thomas, a native Virginian who remained loyal to the federal government, stands out because he readily accepted black troops into his units during the war. Thomas commanded forces in Kentucky and Tennessee after the war, and as the Library of Virginia notes, “During Reconstruction, Thomas used his military power to protect African Americans from white violence and economic exploitation and sent troops to safeguard the polls so that freedmen could vote. When local courts refused to prosecute whites for attacking blacks, Thomas tried them in military tribunals. When local city officials adopted discriminatory racial policies, he threatened them with military detention. Thomas recognized early the power and organization of the Ku Klux Klan and tried to stamp out the organization with military force.”

In Philadelphia, vandals defaced a statue of Matthias Baldwin, an early 19th-century abolitionist who opened schools for black children with his own money.  Joe Walsh, a member of a historic preservation group that commemorates Baldwin told National Review, “He was BLM before there was a slogan.” The magazine noted that protesters also vandalized the city’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors monument with “BLM” graffiti, even though its inscription says, “All who have labored today in behalf of the Union have wrought for the best interests of the country and the world not only for the present but for all future ages.”

Said Walsh: “The irony of vandalizing a monument to those who died to end slavery is lost on the morons who don’t know their history.”

Back in Washington, these “morons,” as Walsh put it, also defaced the National World War II Memorial. Yes the U.S. military was still segregated during the war. But as the National World War II Museum notes, “By 1945, more than 1.2 million African Americans would be serving in uniform,” and 10 percent of them fought overseas.

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture are like a tree without roots,” the civil rights leader Marcus Garvey once wrote. The attacks on these statues seem to bear that out.   

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