I’ve mentioned before that one of the great good fortunes of my life was that I was able to meet and become a casual friend of the remarkable Coloradan John Denver. John’s music was an inspiration to me as I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I loved the songs of the mountains and life in the West. I enjoy John’s music to this day, and I miss my old friend, whom we lost in 1997 in a plane crash.
John’s legal last name was not, in fact, Denver. He was born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., the son of a legendary Air Force pilot, but that lengthy last name was not likely to fit on too many record labels, and so John chose “Denver,” as it echoed his love of the state of Colorado and our wonderful vistas. The city of Denver was itself originally founded as Auraria (meaning golden) before being renamed after territorial governor James Denver. Names are often connections to our past or our place, and what we name things (including ourselves) matters.
Which, of course, brings me to Governor Polis’s executive order of July 3.
In that order Polis set up the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board, which was created in the wake of various social awakenings around our state and nation. An excellent article in Colorado Politics recently highlighted the work of the board and the many challenges faced by its members.
And, as it has in other areas of the U.S., the issue of which things should be named after which people presents some difficult choices. I have spent time on Fort Carson located just outside Colorado Springs and I have passed through Kit Carson county. But, as noted in the aforementioned article, history informs us that the actual Kit Carson was involved in rather horrific policies toward the native peoples of Colorado. And the name Evans, which graces other venues in our state, is tied to a territorial governor tied to the Sand Creek Massacre, a very dark stain on our history. Should the names Carson and Evans and more be eradicated from our history?
The philosopher Confucius is said to have noted, “the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names.” But therein lies the rub. History is filled with individuals and events that cast complex shadows. Certainly, I hope, we can all agree with the German government that, following World War II, removed the name “Hitler” from every bridge, park, building or other edifice which bore that name or the names of other Nazi leaders. But one need not look outside our borders for offensive names.
The new commission has a daunting challenge, in that it must seek to both appropriately honor our history while also not honoring the un-honorable. This issue is hardly unique to Colorado. Nationally we have seen a broader recognition of the importance of names and symbols. As a retired military officer myself, I cannot understand how we can possibly have military installations named after traitorous confederate generals. And, if you really study the man, it becomes tough to support having a holiday named after Christopher Columbus (suggestion: cancel “Columbus Day” and instead make Election Day a national holiday).
So, what are we in Colorado to do? We should never seek to erase our history, good or bad. But neither should we place reprehensible people in places of current honor. For example, I’m deeply offended by the so-called “Confederate Flag” (the “stars and bars” are not actually the real confederate flag, but that’s for another day), and I want it removed from all official governmental facilities. But it is part of our history and that vile flag does belong in museums and other places that teach our history. Closer to home, the name “Stapleton” is being removed from the neighborhood that sits where the old airport once was, due to the namesake’s connection to the KKK. Our history should not ignore the fact that the area once bore the name Stapleton, but the full story (including the removal of the name) should be readily available in our local histories.
I have spent the past 25years or so doing a one-man show as Alexander Hamilton. And I am proud of Hamilton’s then-progressive views on race during an era of our history when slavery was a normal part of the culture. Yet Hamilton, for all his enlightened views, likely never even thought about the idea that women should be able to vote. It isn’t so much that Hamilton was a particularly bad misogynist, but rather that in that time and place, the idea of women voting simply wouldn’t have come up as a possibility, any more than in our age the idea that, say, a 10-year-old should be able to vote would come up. But let’s say it is 500 years from now, and in that distant era it is widely accepted that the voting age should be 10, shall that generation look back on us as horrible age bigots, or would we hope that the lens of history helps them understand that, in our time and with our understanding of human nature, kids voting seemed silly?
I wish the commission the best. I hope that we can, in fact, remove from places of honor those names that should be relegated to history. It will not be an easy task, but it is an important one. And I hope that our era’s actions can stand up to the eye of history in the generations to come.