Nicole Etcheson, a professor of History at Ball State University, spoke to the Naming Committee Wednesday morning to give the committee an in-depth view of who Stephen Douglas was and his role in Abraham Lincoln’s career.
Etcheson broke her “early morning history lesson” into four themes.
Starting with commemoration versus history, she quoted Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement by saying “if you don’t tell it as it was, it can never be as it ought to be.”
Shuttlesworth said this during a meeting with a focus group consisting of prominent Black Americans discussing the planning of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinatti.
Etcheson said that she believes the quote shows a strong case for not eliminating the “ugly parts” of history.
“We have to see the bad so we can know what we ought to be,” Etcheson said.
She added that there is a difference between a museum such as the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and the name of the building, that being the difference between history and commemoration.
Etcheson explained that the Civil War generation put monuments in public spaces with the intention of those individuals being honored.
“They knew the power of commemoration and commemorative spaces. The problem, of course, that we have 150 years later is that we no longer honor the same people and the same values as they did 150 years ago, particularly in the South,” Etcheson said. “We actively reject most of what the Civil War generation chose to honor.”
She recommended the committee view the question of whether they believe the university should continue to commemorate the Lincoln-Douglas debate in Charleston with commemoration and history in mind.
“I know you’re struggling with this issue of is it unhistorical to change the name of a building, but I would recommend that you think about these as two separate issues: what the history is versus commemoration and what we choose to honor in public space,” Etcheson said.
Etcheson then began discussing Douglas more in-depth, starting with a quote from historian Gary Gallagher saying, “nothing is easier than feeling superior to long dead individuals, almost none of whom satisfy our current ideas regarding race and other issues.” She said that quote could be applied to the way people view Douglas.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that Douglas was a racist and I don’t think there is any doubt that racism was very typical of his time and his place, the 19th century Midwest,” Etcheson said.
Etcheson explained how Douglas played a major role in pre-Civil War history and throughout the Civil War.
As a politician, she said Douglas was someone who used race in “ugly ways” to campaign, specifically discussing him frequently saying in all conflicts between the Black man and the crocodile, he favored the Black man but in all conflicts between the white man and Black man he favored the white man.
Etcheson also discussed things said by Lincoln that show the way people spoke at that time and how things at that time are viewed differently today and that many of those things are commonly not accepted by society.
Etcheson moved on to say she believes that the good Lincoln did outweighs the bad and posed the question of if that statement could be applied to Douglas. She shared two things she felt were positive about Douglas but said the committee may feel she was “(giving) with one hand and (taking) away with the other.”
The two things she said was that Douglas “always spoke very eloquently about the rights of the people” and he was a unionist, crediting him as essential to saving the Union. Etcheson quoted Douglas as saying there could only be two parties in the Civil War, patriots and traitors, and that Northern Democrats were going to patriots.
Following Etcheson’s talk with the committee she took questions from committee members.
Naming Committee Chair Angie Campbell, asked Etcheson about cancel culture, “shutting everything down” and “perfecting the people of the past.”
“I grapple with the idea of placing judgement on something that was a part of an accepted culture at that point and then trying to, for lack of better words, erase some of those things rather than taking the time to learn from them and have them as a visible reminder of what went on and to learn,” Campbell said.
She said someone has asked her “what happens when your cancel culture has figured out years from now what you erased was something to be proud of” and asked Etcheson to talk about what comes next after doing something like renaming buildings and taking down monuments.
“Those of us who are writing the books, those of us who are standing up in front of the freshman, are going to talk about Stephen Douglas; he will not be erased from history. He is simply too essential to what was happening in mid-19th century American, nor will Lincoln be erased,” Etcheson said. “The problem with statues and naming of buildings and all of these things are that a particular generation chose at that moment ‘this is what we honor’…”
Etcheson said she understands concerns about cancel culture saying she is worried Lincoln may be next.
Two individuals’ comments were shared during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Ken Wetstein, ex-officio convenor of the Naming Committee, spoke on behalf of Matton resident Jerry Groninger. Wetstein said Groninger was a “great friend of the university with his philanthropy and with his support of EIU.”
Wetstein said Groninger said the name should be retained saying, “history cannot be rewritten and this should not be confused with political correctness.”
Wetstein said he was grateful for Groninger passion and his interest in the topic of Douglas Hall.
William Furry, executive director of the Illinois State historical society, spoke during public comment. Furry spoke for the society who he said has a “vested interest in Illinois history.”
“This is an important conversation for all Illinoisians to have, about how we name our buildings or institutions and how we commemorate history. For many Lincoln and Douglas epitomize the politics of the Antebellum American discourse, they are not the only narrative of course but they are our dominant narratives,” Furry said. “That both men helped saved the Union from destruction should not be lost, that their very public debates foretold the end of slavery in America and anticipated the Civil War is discernable to anyone who reads history.”
Furry spoke on the importance of Douglas during his time and how that lead to residence halls being named after him and Lincoln at Eastern.
“It is a simple fact that Douglas gave his dying breath in service to the Union cause, as did Lincoln; and both were from Illinois. That is why the Lincoln and Douglas Halls were named for them, plain and simple, it wasn’t the debate without the Civil War, otherwise the debates would have been moot,” Furry said. “…Neither Lincoln nor Douglas was a saint but neither were they criminals. They were loyal Americans and both died before their appointed times, Douglas at 48 and Lincoln at 56. Both lived and died in service to an American Constitution that differs sustainably from the one we live under today, a Constitution that I might add is still evolving. Our truth of today will change many times over the next 150 years, it is the nature of history that it changes with time.”
Furry continued with saying he believes there are many other things that need name changes.
“Often so suddenly we fail to notice, we go to sleep today, we wake up tomorrow in another age, in another culture. So we need to listen and to hear each other. I have long advocated for the people of Illinois to rename half of our 102 counties. No county is named to honor a single woman, no African Americans or Asians or Latinos are recognized, many counties are named for people who never lived in the prairie state. Who is to blame for this oversight? We are. It is our failed ability to see our collective history as our greatest strength and seize the moment to institute change. It is never wrong for us to evaluate the reasons and purposes of our historic commemorations.”
Furry said the discussion on Douglas Hall and the many like it happening across the country are vital.
“Look for opportunities not to change the past, but to rewrite the future,” Furry said.
Corryn Brock can be reached at 581-2812 or at [email protected]