Guest Column: You can cancel Stephen Douglas or you can cancel Black people

Christopher Hanlon, Guest Columnist

Things got a little weird toward the end of the most recent meeting of EIU’s Naming Committee when committee Chair Angie Campbell described those who favor renaming Douglas Hall as an instance of “cancel culture.” Here’s how she put it: “[T]his cancel culture, you know, shutting everything down, and […] looking at perfecting the people of the past, um, while we know owning slaves at this time period was something of that culture that did change and we learned from that […] I grapple with the idea of placing judgement on something that was part of an accepted culture at that point. And then, for lack of a better word, erasing some of those things rather than taking the time to learn from them […]”

We can be curious about why President Glassman would select someone with such obvious bias to head up the committee that would take up the question of whether to rename Douglas Hall. But instead let’s consider what came out of Campbell’s mouth next: “What happens when your cancel culture has figured out that fifteen years from now, what you erased was something to be proud of?”

Now I’m pretty sure that fifteen years from now, no one’s going to be saying slavery is something Americans should be proud of. No one’s going to say that Stephen Douglas is someone to be proud of either, so those are worries we can take off the table. But in a bigger sense, the most incorrect thing about Campbell’s statement has to do with her notion that “owning slaves at this time period was something of that culture,” that it “was part of an accepted culture at that point.”

Let’s be clear about this. Slavery was indeed legal in some places (not Illinois) by the time Stephen Douglas brought his particularly foul-mouthed rendition of white supremacy to Charleston in 1858. But it was most certainly not “accepted” as “a part of the culture.” In 1858 Lincoln did not “accept” it. Tens of thousands of abolitionists did not “accept” it; rather, they dedicated their lives to crushing it. It was most certainly not “accepted” by the millions of black people slavery devoured. The Illinoisians who voted against Douglas and even burned him in effigy did not “accept” it.

Isn’t it strange that in the United States, there is no national day of remembrance set aside during which Americans would have the opportunity to reflect upon the history and legacy of slavery? Why is that? This institution that has shaped this country all the way down—why no day of remembrance?

Why is there no memorial on the National Mall dedicated to the victims of slavery? Why is there not a memorial to the abolitionists who organized, raised funds, raised awareness, wrote laws, broke others, and generally did everything they could to oppose slavery? There’s a memorial like that in London, right outside Parliament, to honor Britain’s abolition movement—why not here?

Pretty clearly there is desire on some people’s part to cancel history, all right. People who complain about “cancel culture” generally seem just fine with canceling abolition, canceling those who resisted, canceling those who could not, and canceling black people.

The Naming Committee is due to make a recommendation tomorrow. At seven public fora, a clear majority of community members expressed their desire to see Douglas’ name removed. One woman of color I heard began her remarks, “Let me tell you what is feels like as a black person to see that building name.” Over a thousand people have signed an online petition. Eastern’s History Department has recommended renaming, as has the editorial board of the DEN. The Faculty Senate has twice recomended renaming.

But even that doesn’t matter as much as the truth. And the truth is that Douglas was a nothing other than a vile, opportunistic, divisive, racist climber who was honored on Eastern’s campus by people who were uneasy about the Civil Rights movement: people who would later actually strip Eastern’s first Black homecoming queen of her crown when a group of white students complained.

So Eastern can keep canceling Black people if it wants, can decide once again to side with Stephen Douglas. (Unlike the University of Chicago, which took his name off a building he actually helped pay for.) Or it can tell a new story, one that tells the truth about history and honors those people instead.


Christopher Hanlon

Professor of United States Literature

Arizona State University