Gratuitous Harms

“The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it.” Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

Hopefully a majority of Americans agree that the time has come to change administrations in Washington. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will usher in a presidency of competence and dignity. Howard University, where Harris did her undergraduate work, is proud of her selection as Joe Biden’s running mate, and Howard alumni are bursting with pride. This ticket is honestly historic.

Still . . .

I am troubled by the trumpeting of Senator Harris’ connection to Howard University as positive while other historic figures are dismissed for living their lives within the constraints of their time. Please don’t misunderstand. A number of “dead white guys,” from the past have it coming, committing gratuitous harms beyond the scope of humanity and justice. Slavery was and is such an abomination, but not America’s only sin. 

That is where General Oliver Otis Howard comes in. A Civil War general, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, and one-time president and namesake of Howard University.   

Born and bred in Maine, Oliver Otis Howard opposed slavery as did many Americans north of the Mason-Dixon Line. A West Point graduate, Howard entered the Civil War commanding a volunteer unit from his home state— leading his men from the First Bull Run, to Antietam, to Gettysburg, and on to Sherman’s March Through Georgia.

His work with aiding newly emancipated blacks after the war brought attention to Howard’s concern for civil rights, leading to Howard’s appointment as Commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau, and later President of Howard University, a traditionally black institution.

However . . .

By 1874 this same General, O.O. Howard returned to the regular Army, where he was sent out West as the Commander of the Department of the Columbia. That was where General Howard who, in 1877, set out to vanquish the Nez Perce in what is today Central Idaho. 

The General doggedly pursued Chief Joseph and his 250 followers through what is now western Montana. Joseph succeeded in evading Howard and his forces for nearly eleven hundred miles, where the Nez Perce were finally stopped within 40 miles of freedom across the Canadian border. Exhausted, the Nez Perce were forced onto the reservation in Idaho. 

Following the Nez Perce episode Howard set out to apprehend the Bannock and Piute nations further south.

Why was this actively Christian man and abolitionist kind to newly freed blacks, and a killer of Natives? The answer is simple-Indians had land to confiscate, and freedmen had nothing. 

It is perilous to celebrate or reject historic figures outright for one facet of their lives. Not one of us can pass scrutiny based on the moment of our worst actions. While General Howard showed admirable humanity with one underclass of Americans, that behavior did not transfer to another.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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