It is said of famed newspaperman Douglas Southall Freeman that he would salute the Robert E. Lee statue everyday on his way to work. His ghost might not have that opportunity for much longer.
His along with many other voices of the Lost Cause have now faded to the point that my generation is no longer willing to defend their ideologies. The damage of the Virginia Way and the lies it engendered are written in the history of our city. We now have the opportunity to push the narrative into modernity.
I am a proud graduate of Douglas S. Freeman High School in Henrico County. I am the son of two parents who are also proud graduates. I wore the blue and silver, sang the songs and proudly declared myself a Rebel. However, the time has come for the school and the larger “Freeman Family” to address not only the mascot, but also the namesake.
I know for many this opinion will come as sacrilege. We are a school steeped in history and tradition. There are many like me with proud family lines and happy memories. But today I ask the members of the community to examine the evidence with an open heart and mind.
Freeman, who served as editor of The Richmond News Leader from 1915 to 1949, was a prolific man who helped build Richmond. What today we would call a workaholic, he made the act of journalism his life’s mission and in 1935 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his behemoth biography of Robert E. Lee.
However, in doing so, he directly contributed to the propagation of the Lost Cause and indirectly to the strife we experience today. While his work was of the moral status quo for his time and social class, it is no longer useful in modern Richmond and it serves only to harm current and future generations.
Of course, the act of biography is inherently neutral, but we must acknowledge that Freeman’s works went beyond documentation and into the realm of celebration. This idealization of the Southern cause obscures the horrors of slavery and provokes undeserved sympathy.
My proposal is thus: Replace the name Douglas Southall Freeman with another newspaper man, John Mitchell Jr.
Also a Richmond native, Mitchell rose from birth in slavery to become editor of the Richmond Planet, city alderman and founder of the Mechanics Savings Bank. As one story goes, Mitchell was threatened by a mob to not step foot in Charlotte County because of his reporting on the lynching death of Richard Walker.
Instead of giving into the threats, Mitchell armed himself and traveled there, defying the mob and displaying his resolve for the truth.
In the past I would not have spoken up to make such a suggestion. But I now believe that those of us who can speak must do so. It is time to replace apathy with empathy.
Despite the small controversies surrounding the school’s mascot in the past, I cannot recall Freeman’s name ever becoming a sticking point. I’d chance a guess that many students and alumni don’t even give the man behind the name a second thought.
I am not proposing to erase the history books and rid the school of its proud traditions. Rather, the community should continue to embody its role as the leader in Henrico’s education system and embrace a larger social movement towards enfranchisement, equality and unity.