On Renaming Lake Calhoun

In the aftermath of the rampage at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last week, there have been calls to remove the Confederate flag from government buildings and all state grounds. While for some the Confederate flag might be a banner of state’s rights, to many others it symbolizes a culture of slavery and oppression. Online retailers like eBay and Amazon have responded by banning the sale of those flags and related memorabilia from their websites. Similarly – since it is named after a man who argued vociferously that slavery was a social good – there has been a movement in Minneapolis to rename Lake Calhoun. Although it started in 2011, this movement has picked up considerable steam in the last week. But just because something is opportunistic does not make it wrong: if it plausible that the Confederate flag can carry uncomfortable racial connotations, so can a name. I know I would be uncomfortable suntanning on the beaches of Lake Hitler.

That being said, I don’t think this is so cut and dry. If we start prosecuting our ancestors for modern crimes, where do we stop? George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both owned slaves. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was at the head of a campaign to persecute gay sailors when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Hell, pick a celebrity at random and we can probably find some reprehensible act in their past. Are we morally obligated to hate the music of Led Zeppelin because Jimmy Page kidnapped a teenage girl? How much good does it take to offset the evil in a person’s legacy? For now, we might overlook Washington’s slave-owning sins because he was a leader of the American Revolution and our first president. Likewise, for some people, the fact that John C. Calhoun sent the expedition to find a site for Fort Snelling – and, as a result, Minnesota became the state that it is today – will be enough of an offset. That won’t be true for everybody.

I think I prefer a third option. Rather than renaming Lake Calhoun – and dealing with the logistical fallout of renaming Calhoun Square, normalizing a new name for the area, and every other headache that comes with it – I think we should use the name to transform Calhoun’s legacy. I think we should find a way to acknowledge the insidious nature of Calhoun’s views on race and slavery with the caveat that those repugnant views don’t snuff out the rest of his contributions. Rather than sweeping our state’s ties to the man under the rug, I would prefer to see Lake Calhoun become a beacon of diversity and inclusivity – moreso than it is already. There’s a certain poetry to the concept, too. It’s as though we are collectively saying, “You helped get us here, but you will not find us how you left us.”

John C. Calhoun, apparently the most unhappy man in the history of the world

John C. Calhoun, apparently the most unhappy man in the history of the world