David C. Henley: Removing history

Across Nevada and the nation, monuments, statues, university and high school athletic teams, mountain peaks and airports that honor historical figures and symbols which civil rights activists charge are racist and legacies of injustice are being torn down, destroyed, toppled or, in many cases, renamed.

In Nevada, activists calling for racial justice for African Americans following the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer last May, are targeting Francis G. Newlands, an avowed racist who represented Nevada in the House of Representatives from 1893 to 1903 and then in the U.S. Senate for three terms.


Criticized for supporting the repeal of the 15th Amendment which granted voting rights to African American men (women were granted the vote by the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920), Newlands also advocated that the education of Blacks be limited to domestic and menial work. Activists are now demanding the renaming of Newlands Park in Reno’s Old Southwest district and the tearing down of a monument in the park that honors Newlands.


In the nation’s capital, there is a move to remove Newlands’ name from a large memorial fountain located in a traffic circle at the border of Washington, D.C., and Chevy Chase, Maryland. Newlands, despite his racism, has been held in esteem in Northern Nevada because, in 1902, he sponsored the Reclamation Act which provided funding for the construction of dams along the Carson and Truckee rivers that brought much-needed water to a parched state.


One of these dams was the Lahontan Dam in Churchill County, and its building, which brought many construction workers to this area, led to the founding and growth of the city of Fallon and its subsequent naming as the Churchill County seat.


There are also demands for the renaming of Jeff Davis Peak in the Great Basin National Park that honors Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and Magruder Mountain in Esmeralda County that is named for Confederate Gen. John B Magruder.


Many university and high school sports teams in the United States are being confronted with accusations that their names and mascots are offensive to African Americans and Native Americans.


One of these is the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which, under pressure by students, faculty and civil rights leaders, has removed the “Hey, Reb!” statue from campus, and the school’s mascot bearing the same name also may be changed. Advocates for retaining the “Rebel” name deny it denotes racism, stating it represents a rebel who is a “mountain man,” pathfinder and rugged individualist.
There also are calls from civil rights representatives that the Elko High School athletic teams’ nickname and mascot “Elko Indians” be changed because it is allegedly a stereotypical and derogatory depiction of Native American peoples and their cultures. When the Elko School Board communicated with the Elko band of the Te-Moak tribe, however, it responded that it did not consider the nickname degrading or offensive.


In a much earlier case involving the word “Indian” in the naming of athletic teams, Stanford University in 1982 replaced its “Stanford Indians” nickname with “Stanford Cardinal.” (Yes, the folks at Stanford call their teams “Stanford Cardinal,” not “Stanford Cardinals.)


There have also been charges that the name “Carson,” which denotes Kit Carson, the legendary explorer of the American West, frontiersman and U.S. Army general whose name was given to Carson City, Carson Valley, Carson Pass, Carson Sink, Carson River and Carson Mountain Range, is offensive and racist because it honors a man who killed many Native Americans during his lengthy career. A life-size bronze statue of Kit Carson atop his horse that was sculpted by Buckeye Blake stands in the mall between the Legislative Building and the State Capital in Carson City.


Along with more than 200 others, I attended the unveiling of the statue on June 10, 1989, following its completion. Despite criticism by some, Kit Carson is praised for guiding John C. Fremont’s expedition when it passed through the largely unknown Great Basin in 1843 and 1844 and for his courage in leading American forces that defeated the Mexican Army during the U.S.-Mexican War in the late 1840s.


Undoubtedly the most newsworthy and recent renaming in Nevada occurred just last month, when the Clark County Commission voted unanimously to rename McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas as Harry Reid International Airport in honor of Reid, a Democrat and the former U.S. Senate majority leader who retired in 2016 after serving 30 years in the Senate. The all-Democratic Clark County Commission, which overseas the airport and is the final authority for a name change, has directed the airport staff to file the change with the Federal Aviation Commission which must process the measure before it becomes official. The renaming also was supported by both Nevada U.S. senators (also Democrats), Nevada’s three Democratic congresspersons, University of Nevada, Reno President and former Gov. Brian Sandoval (a Republican) and UNLV President Keith Whitfield, whose political affiliation I am unaware of.


 “The Las Vegas airport is one of the great public resources in our state, and it is visited by millions from around the world. Sen. Reid’s exceptional accomplishments on behalf of the airport have helped Nevada become a great global destination,” the two university presidents said in a joint statement endorsing the name change.


Nevada U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran, for whom the Las Vegas airport was named in the early 1940s, was also a Democrat who served in the Senate from 1933 until his death in 1954. He also was a racist, an anti-Semite and had a major role in the McCarthyist communist witch hunts of the 1950s. But he was a champion of labor rights including support of the eight-hour workday and the building of the Las Vegas Army Air Base (now Nellis Air Force Base) and the Hawthorne Naval Station, which is now an Army-run facility. It was his racism and anti-semitism, though, which drew the ire of civil rights leaders.


In fact McCarran died in Hawthorne after suffering a heart attack following his speech endorsing Nevada Democrats running for political office. On the day he died in 1954, he had been driven to Hawthorne from his apartment at Reno’s Riverside Hotel via Fallon, where he stopped at a Maine Street barber shop for a shave, shoeshine and haircut. But there were several other men in line ahead of him, and he was in a hurry. So McCarran went up to the first fellow in the line and said, “I’ll give you $10 if you let me take your spot in the line.” The man replied, “good idea,” McCarran got barbered in a flash and he and his driver-aide arrived in Hawthorne in time for his speech. But he died in Hawthorne and probably was returned to Reno via Fallon in a hearse.


David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.

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