Along with the Zika virus and the ever-present spectre of terrorism, there is another threat to society which seems to be gaining momentum. For want of a better term, I shall call it “historical overlay-ism.”
Historical overlay-ism — which also could be known as politically correct overlay-ism — occurs when people use the standards and viewpoints of 2016 to judge everything that has occurred since the U.S. was founded in 1776.
Basically, they take modern beliefs and apply these to other periods in history — which is where the “overlay” part comes into play.
Public officials and others who lived 100 or 200 years ago are then scrutinized according to that 2016 overlay, which fails to take into account the historical context in which they operated during their times. The process simply condemns those folks and their accomplishments as being unworthy if they don’t match up to today’s standards.
The latest casualty is Charles B. Aycock, who served as North Carolina’s governor from 1901 to 1905, which anyone would agree was a much different time than today.
As have other such figures, Aycock has been honored by having schools and other buildings named after him, including Aycock Middle School in Guilford County.
However, the Guilford Board of Education recently voted to rename that school because members are disturbed by certain elements of Aycock’s life. While Aycock became known as the “Education Governor” for his support of public schools — with one campus supposedly constructed in the state for every day he was in office — Aycock also was a white supremacist.
So he undoubtedly fails the 2016 historical overlay-ism litmus test.
I don’t want to argue that Charles B. Aycock was a perfect person (who is?), but I find this move by the Guilford school board to be deeply disturbing.
For one thing, Aycock apparently was well thought of enough in past times to have had not only Aycock Middle School named for him, but the auditorium at UNC-Greensboro and dormitories at UNC-Chapel Hill and East Carolina University. There also is an Aycock high school, further reflecting his educational legacy.
Another disturbing thing is that the Guilford school board voted to drop Aycock’s name in opposition to public opinion on the change, which is expected to cost taxpayers about $23,000.
A poll among citizens revealed that a majority favored leaving the school’s name as is (which I would suspect was a big surprise to board members who likely were counting on the opposite result, given the knee-jerk politically correct climate existing today).
So they went ahead and changed the name anyway. School officials are said to now be surveying the public on replacement names, which I hope is handled better than the first poll.
But the question is, where does this historical overlay-ism end? When you apply it to other figures in the past, I know of very few who would meet today’s politically correct standards — and that includes Abraham Lincoln.
In Charles B. Aycock’s case, here was a man (born in 1859) who lived during a turbulent time in American history, the post-Civil War Reconstruction period when many atrocities were perpetrated against white people along with blacks. While his white-supremacist views certainly can’t be tolerated, they can be somewhat understood when considering the times in which Aycock lived.
And while we’re at it, the same historical overlay might be applied to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers because they owned slaves. Could or should their names be removed from schools, streets, bridges, etc., and even the nation’s capital for that matter?
In the case of Lincoln — who is hailed as a race-relations hero — he similarly could be condemned for telling newspaper editor Horace Greeley in the early stages of the War Between the States that “my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery.
“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave,” Lincoln added, “I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”
It doesn’t sound like Old Abe would pass the 2016 historical overlay litmus test, either, yet I don’t think his picture should be taken off $5 bills, pennies or names of insurance and financial institutions — any more than Aycock’s name should be removed from a school.
Let’s exercise some common sense in such matters — for a change.
Tom Joyce is a staff writer for The Mount Airy News. He may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.