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You learn something new every day

Deray McKesson, of Black Lives Matter fame, and I, have something in common. We both went to Bowdoin College. Today he tweeted that he was proud of Bowdoin for taking down a plaque honoring Confederate alumni. I guess I’m proud of the college too, but I have to say I’m also a little embarrassed.

When I went there I knew very little about Bowdoin’s Civil War history. I can’t recall ever seeing the plaque in question. I think at some point I heard something about Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, one of the heroes (on the Union side) at Gettysburg. I think I even had a seminar in his former home. But the Vietnam war was raging, and Chamberlain was more known on campus for being the college president that mandated that every student had to participate in the 1870s equivalent of ROTC. The students actually went on strike, something that didn’t happen again until the nationwide student strike after Kent State.

Anyway, I was shocked to learn that the plaque in question was placed in 1965, at the end of the Civil War centennial. I assumed it had been erected back in the mists of time. Look, you might say, even back in 1965 people, especially white people, weren’t sensitive to the issues that are being debated today. Times were different. All true. But, gag, guess whose name is on that plaque along with the other traitors? Ready?

Jefferson Davis!

My alma mater gave him an honorary degree before he betrayed his country in order to preserve slavery. So, technically, he was an alum, but even in 1965 you’d think they’d think twice about putting his name on a plaque up in the northernmost state in the continental U.S. Did it never cross their minds to simply rescind the honorary degree, or conveniently forget about it? They should have done that in 1861.

But to quote Mr. Dylan: “ who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears, take the rag away from your face, now ain’t the time for your tears.

Yes, indeed, this would all be bad enough, but consider this. The college will replace the current plaque:

This panel will update and replace a previous panel installed in the Pickard lobby in the fall of 2015 that explained Bowdoin’s connections to the Civil War and described the College’s relationship with Davis. It was at that time that the Bowdoin Board of Trustees agreed unanimously to discontinue an award in Davis’s name that had been presented annually from 1973 to 2015 to a student or students excelling in constitutional law, and to return the full value of the award’s endowment to the original donor, the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

In 1973, the year after I graduated, the College started giving an award in Davis’s honor for, of all things, excellence in constitutional law, paid for by a group of racists. And they kept giving it until 2015! There are deposits of irony there that I simply can’t mine. It’s hard to believe they were able to get away with it back in ’73. There was already a fairly active and outspoken African American society and 60s radicalism had not yet been totally squashed. In all those years, did it never happen that the winner of that award was a person of color, who by Davis’s lights should have been toiling on a plantation? How do you give an African American an award named after Jefferson Davis? Maybe they handed it out in the dead of night, and never told the honoree about it. Maybe they just called it the “Davis” award, and left out the “Jefferson”. Whatever.

Well, I’m still a loyal alum, and like McKesson I’m happy that Bowdoin did the right thing, but absolutely stunned that it had the need to do so.

Oh, one more thing. Fondly do I hope, fervently do I pray, that the college does not see fit to give a degree to the current occupant of the White House.

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