The muddy legacy of John H. Reagan

JHRegan.jpgThose living in the Heights community in Houston have no doubt already heard of the controversy surrounding the potential name change of Reagan High School. If some living there haven’t heard of it, it will likely be unavoidable now that HISD narrowly passed a measure ordering the renaming process to begin, joining several other schools as well.

This has caused an uproar among current students and alumni alike, with many framing this as a case of political correctness gone wild. At first glance, it seems a bit absurd to go after a school named for someone who only served as Postmaster General for the Confederacy, but the reality is the nature of who John Reagan really was and what he stood for is far more complex than supporters might realize.

To establish context, HISD began examining the idea of potentially renaming several of its institutions named in honor of Confederate figures following the Charleston church shooting which made national headlines. There was a national movement to remove or otherwise alter imagery related to the Confederacy and many schools and universities have taken similar steps to HISD to remove imagery that celebrates those that supported the cause of secession.

HISD selected Reagan along with other schools, including Henry Grady, Richard Dowling and Thomas Jackson middle schools and Robert E. Lee High School. The latter schools had their name change proposals pass earlier this year, and a month later in February voted to rename Lanier Middle School, Sidney Johnston and Jefferson Davis High School.

While sitting in on the meetings addressing Reagan High School, people were quick to praise the legacy of John Reagan and quick to denounce HISD as politicizing education and engaging in frivolous spending and poorly representing the students. There have been heaps of praise for Reagan as a man who denounced slavery at the end of the war, who supported African American slaves and their freedom at the conclusion of the Civil War, and a man loyal to his country.

But after spending weeks reading about Reagan, the most I can say is that the man was never clearly for the rights of black slaves but was most definitely against them more often than not. That being said, let’s try to weigh the good and the bad.

The Good

An article by Philip J. Avillo the East Texas Historical Journal, described Reagan as one who “epitomized the American ideal of the self-made man.”

“At the age of sixteen. although he remained in Tennessee, Reagan left home to seek his fortune. For the next four years he supported himself through various jobs and pursued an education in his spare time. In 1838 Reagan ventured to the newly created Republic of Texas, where for the next several years he worked at different times as a surveyor, farmer, and teacher. Dissatisfied with these occupations, Reagan began to study law in 1846, and one year later plunged into politics.”

Reagan would go on to be a successful politician with a career that lasted until 1903, serving as a US Congressman, Postmaster-General of the Confederacy, post-Civil War leader of the Democratic Party in Texas and Texas’ first Railroad Commissioner.

In 1897, Reagan helped establish the Texas State Historical Association, and, according to the organization’s website, he served as a delegate to the Texas Constitutional Convention that framed the Constitution of 1876. He was also responsible for the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887 while chairing the Committee on Commerce in Congress.

Reagan also accepted defeat while in a Union jail, urging cooperation with the Union and denouncing secession. His name is commemorated in numerous places across Texas.

The Bad

At one point in 1860, Reagan essentially advocated for the potential genocide of African Americans, because, should they be granted freedom, their bloodthirsty desire for revenge would eventually lead to white Americans culling them from the Earth. But don’t let me steal Reagan’s thunder. In his own words in a letter written Oct. 19 1860:

“The people of the Southern States now own near five millions of these negroes, and they are worth to them near three millions of dollars. They constitute an important element in society as well as the wealth of the Republic, and are the chief producers of more than two-thirds of the foreign exports of the Union. They are and ever have been, under all circumstances, and probably ever will be, incapable of free self-government. They are now more intelligent, better fed, better clothed, and more contented and happy than any other equal number of that race in any other part of the world, whether bond or free. The success of the republican doctrines would liberate among us this large number of negroes, would strike down our agriculture and commerce, involve us inevitably in a war of races, which would result in the murder of many of the white race of all ages and of both sexes, and in the burning and destruction of a large amount of property, and in the ultimate extermination of the negro race among us.”

Before this, he also just straight up says slaves are property and the Constitution wasn’t intended to cover African Americans:

“The Constitution of the United States was made by white men, the citizens and representatives of twelve slaveholding and one non-slaveholding State; and it was made for white men.”

In the same article by Avillo Jr.:

Besides, Reagan added, he found Negroes so incapable of self-government and survival that if emancipated “they would fall into such. . idleness and vice as would render it necessary for the security of society, to exterminate the greater portion of the race. “

He was also completely unapologetic about the war. From an address in Fort Worth, TX on April 19, 1903:

“During the war, 1861 to 1865, and ever since there has been a studied, systematic effort on the part of those who were our adversaries to pervert and falsify the history of the causes which led to that war….”
“Their (the North’s) pretense was that They were fighting to save the Union, and they made thousands of honest soldiers believe they were fighting for the Union. Their leaders knew that the Union rested on the Constitution, and that their purpose was to overthrow the Constitution. The Union the soldiers fought for was the Union established by the Constitution. The Union the leaders sought was only to be attained by the subversion of the Constitution, the annulment of the doctrine of State rights, the making of a consolidated central republic, abolishing the limitations prescribed by the Constitution and substituting a popular majority of the people of the whole Union in their stead, and to open the way for individual and corporate gain through the agency of the government….”
“Our people were not responsible for the war; it was forced on them. They were not rebels or traitors. They simply acted as patriots, defending their rights and their homes against the lawless and revolutionary action of a dominant and reckless majority.”

Of his letter written while still in prison, what he calls the Fort Warren letter in his own memoirs, Reagan makes it clear that he understands the South would continue to fight even with their leaders in chains, but he is also aware of what sort of treatment lies in store for the southern states during restoration. However, his idea of submitting to the Union comes with his own ulterior motive:

“I determined to point out to our people at home the demands which I knew would be made of them, as a condition to the rehabilitation of the Southern States, and to advise them to make such concessions as we would inevitably be required to make, as the only means of avoiding the establishment of military government in the South and to save us from universal negro suffrage.”

Things get worse when you actually read the Fort Warren letter and see what he proposed regarding the treatment of African Americans:

And, second, by fixing an intellectual and moral, and, if thought advisable, a property test, for the admission of all persons to the exercise of the elective franchise, without reference to race or color, which would secure its intelligent exercise. My own views would be: First, that no person now entitled to the privilege of voting should be deprived of it by any new test. I would recognize m this the difference between taking away a right heretofore enjoyed, and the conferring of a right not heretofore exercised. Second, that to authorize the admission of persons hereafter to the exercise of the elective franchise they should be, 1st, males; 2d, twenty‑one years of age; 3d, citizens of the United States; 4th, should have resided in the State one year, and in the district, county, or precinct six months next preceding any election at which they proposed to vote; 5th, should be able to read in the English language understandingly; and, 6th, must have paid taxes for the last year preceding for which such taxes were due and payable, subject to any disqualification for crime, of which the person may have been duly convicted, which may be prescribed by law.

The ones in particular that stand out is his fifth and sixth suggestions – Rich Heyman wrote in an article for the American-Stateman that this falls in line with the strategy in the South following the Civil War of establishing literacy tests and poll taxes, thereby disenfranchising African Americans and lessening their democratic power.

There are other candid comments Reagan makes about race throughout his letter, and when it comes to whites treating blacks with any form of dignity or grace socially, well…

“First, it would remove all just grounds of antagonism between the white and black races. Unless this is done, endless strife and bitterness of feeling must characterize their relations, and, as all history and human experience teach us, must sooner or later result in a war of races. We know from sad experience what war is between equals and enlightened people. But of all wars, a social war of races is the most relentless and cruel. The extermination or expulsion from the country, or enslavement of one or the other, being its inevitable end, where they are left to themselves; or the loss of liberty to both races, when they are subject to the control of a superior power, which would be our situation. I speak of course of the legal rights and status of the two races. Their social relations are matters of taste and choice, and not subject to legislative regulations.”

That last line is not exactly a shining example of compassion and understanding.

He really doesn’t mince words when it comes to his continued support of the disenfranchisement of African Americans following the war. He opines that many former slaves will go to other countries seeking equality (which they’ll never truly get from people like Reagan) and he supports policies that would prevent them from “becoming an element of political agitation, and strife and danger.” This reflects the idea that former slaves were inherently dangerous not only to the democratic process, but to whites as well.

“The negroes will, it is hoped, gradually diffuse themselves among the greatly preponderating numbers of the whites, in the different States and Territories; many of them will probably go to Mexico, and other countries, in search of social equality, and few or none of their race will be added to their numbers by accessions from other countries. While the steady rapid influx of great numbers of the white races, from other countries, will gradually increase the disproportion in numbers between them and the whites, and so render this new element in society and government innocuous, or at least powerless for evil, if they should be so inclined. But from the general docility of their dispositions we may expect the most of them to be orderly, and many of them industrious and useful citizens. But to secure these desirable ends, it must not be forgotten that it is an essential prerequisite to confer on them their reasonable and necessary rights, and to adopt a policy which will prevent them from becoming an element of political agitation, and strife and danger.”

Again, these are Reagan’s own words. It’s clear he was no champion for the freedom of all men following the war. In fact, his own Fort Warren letter paints a very different picture all of its own – a man desperate to preserve the last remnants of an economy directly built upon slavery.

The Ugly

Here is where I have to look at how HISD handled the situation.

People will naturally get very mad at the first sign of change, and this is doubly true when such change is focused on something as sensitive as what many consider to be their heritage. Many people living in this part of the country identify with former relatives that lived and died under the Confederacy and it’s understandable that they would want to pay tribute to their fallen heroes.

What they must understand is that these are not heroes to most people living in America. In fact many people are ambivalent or have completely unfavorable views of the Confederacy and what it stood for. In my opinion, the high school in the Heights should never have had been named Reagan High School in the first place.

The most frustrating part of this is that HISD completely missed an opportunity to have an honest discussion of what having an institution named after a man like Reagan actually means. Instead of approaching council members and districts and schools with an understanding of what sort of anger the measure would produce, district trustees seemed completely bent on passing these name change measures with little to no input from those in the community.

This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the district was in fine financial shape because it’s apparently not at all. The district is working to make up for a $107 million budget shortfall, with tens of millions of dollars already on the table for cuts, although I have to wonder how much of the state’s own cuts are to blame as that isn’t something I have had time to look into yet.

According to reports, should the cuts be made, each school would lose a little under $200 a student on average.

The total cost for these name changes sits about $250,000 per school. With about 8 schools in line for new names, that number adds up quickly.

On top of this, people are also claiming that by changing this name they are changing history, but I disagree. The history written by Reagan is already there in full view of the public eye and it’s clear from his writings that he doesn’t deserve to have any school named after him – he was in clear support of the oppression of an enormous group of Americans who know make up a substantial portion of our population today.

The people against the name change who argue that this is “taking away their history,” must understand that this history doesn’t belong to any one group. It is our collective history, and unfortunately, it bears the ugly black eye of slavery of which its remnants can still be seen today in the form of institutionalized racism and discrimination from coast to coast.

Hanging the name of John Reagan, a man who supported poll taxes and literacy tests as a way to appease oppressors rather than granting universal suffrage, is an affront to the continued mission of the district in my opinion. Still, one of the issues is that a decent conversation was never held in the first place – instead of opening with community meetings and debates on the place of Confederate images in society, the district kept many in the dark and opted to move forward with little to no details for those who have become enormously invested in their communities. The timing is also poor, as that $250,000 could arguably be better spent elsewhere.

While the district has to bear the brunt of the firestorm it ignited, the anger in question appears to be misplaced. Reagan supporters must acknowledge that simply pointing our racism and symbols of racism is not itself racist, and falling back on this strategy shows an unwillingness to confront the demons of our past. Whether white Americans in the south want to admit it or not, people like Reagan supported a legacy that kept people oppressed for generations beyond the end of slavery and the Civil War.

Perhaps a level-headed conversation could have never happened, given the intense emotions surrounding this situation. I wish people would understand that no one is going to go inside of the homes of alumni and rip their trophies down or use whiteout on their class photos. I can’t speak for others, but my time in high school and college is defined not by the name on the wall, but the education I received, the relationships I forged, and the friendships that have lasted with me for years.

To say that all of those things would evaporate with a new name doesn’t make much sense to me. What makes even less sense is how some in the community are threatening to essentially hold students hostage over any upcoming bond elections.

I understand that HISD is clearly in the pits when it comes to budgeting issues, but let’s not allow the renaming of a few schools dictate what happens for every underprivileged student in the district. The important thing to remember is that voters still have a voice through trustee elections and if people are unhappy about how the district is going should use their democratic power to change things. Saying you’ll vote against any bond initiative simply because they decided to rename a school is the definition of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Perhaps the new name for Reagan High School won’t be quite so controversial.