OPINION: Calling Grady a ‘white supremacist’ pins 2020 donkey’s tail on man who died in 1889

Protesters walk down Marietta Street on June 13, 2020, past a statue of orator and journalist Henry Grady, during a rally over police shootings. There are increasing calls to erase Grady's name from buildings, including Grady High School.   JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Protesters walk down Marietta Street on June 13, 2020, past a statue of orator and journalist Henry Grady, during a rally over police shootings. There are increasing calls to erase Grady's name from buildings, including Grady High School. JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Historian and Grady High grad warns against litigating past in terms of present

The Atlanta Board of Education spent hours Monday night listening and discussing the concerns of parents, alums and students about a recommendation to rename Henry W. Grady High School in Midtown for investigative journalist, educator, and civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells, who died in 1931.

A chief complaint: A student survey expressed a preference for renaming the school Midtown High School. The board is now going to allow Grady students to vote on the committee’s top three choices, which, besides Wells and Midtown, includes Piedmont High. In light of the controversy, the APS school board delayed a vote on renaming Grady High School, agreeing to take it up next month after student votes come back.

A native son of Athens, Ga., Grady was an acclaimed orator and journalist whose views are now castigated for being steeped in white supremacy. Grady became managing editor of The Atlanta Constitution. His life was short; he died at 39 of pneumonia but still gained national prominence as an eloquent proponent of what he dubbed “the New South.”

Carter V. Findley, Humanities Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Ohio State University Department of History, suggests another option: Pause before stripping Henry Grady’s name from the high school to see a fuller picture of the man and the times.

A Grady High graduate, Findley went on to earn degrees from Harvard and Yale. He co-founded Ohio State’s world history program. His 2010 book, “Turkey, Islam, Nationalism, and Modernity,” won the Joseph Rothschild Prize of the Association for the Study of Nationalism.

“Henry Grady was not a one-dimensional character whose merits and demerits come down solely to what he thought about race. His views on that subject are not what we want today, but that is not all there was to him, and he was – for better or worse – in step with his times," said Findley.

Repositioning historic figures with a 2020 moral compass has become controversial in many communities, including some in Georgia. The University System of Georgia now has a committee examining campus buildings and programs named for historic figures who owned slaves or espoused racist views. Some graduates of the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication are seeking to rename the program for its first African American graduate Charlayne Hunter-Gault

Findley believes these debates must include the historic context. Here is Findley’s letter to the APS board, which he shared with me:

To the Members of the Atlanta Board of Education and All Who May Read This,

The renaming of Grady High School lays a fig leaf of consultation over the nakedness of a predetermined outcome. I am a 1959 Grady graduate. Of the short list of alternatives, it is plain to see that neutral choices had more support. What has happened would make sense if one person, or a few, had self-interested motives to pick the name of Ida B. Wells out of the blue and make it the winner. Maybe somebody wants to run for mayor. Or maybe Ida B. Wells popped up as the furthest opposite to the distorted internet image of Henry Grady.

Like it or not, one thing we have in common with Henry Grady is that we are people of our times, just as he was. The idea that Henry Grady was a “white supremacist” pins a 2020 donkey’s tail on a man who died in 1889. Instead of looking Grady up on Wikipedia, where anybody can post anything, digitized versions of his and his contemporaries' writings are not hard to find. If you do that, word searches can show you what he did write.

Before we spend too much time dancing on his grave, let’s pause to look at the fact that his newspaper was The Atlanta Constitution, not the “Militia,” or anything like that. As a proponent of the “New South,” he opposed nostalgia about the past and advocated reintegration into national life (the “constitution”).

One of the things he was most eloquent about was moving beyond the South’s “comparative advantage” in agriculture in order to industrialize. This included advocating the founding of Georgia Tech (1885). The debate over comparative advantage was at the cutting edge of economic policy debates internationally. On race, he did believe in “separate but equal,” but so did people all over the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court, right up until Brown v. Board of Education. When that was decided in 1954, I was a Grady student, and Grady had been dead for 65 years. By then, Ralph McGill was the editor of the Constitution, and Atlanta would again show its readiness for a new reality.

Historian Carter V. Findley
Historian Carter V. Findley

Credit: A.J Zanyk Photography 2017

Credit: A.J Zanyk Photography 2017

Atlanta in 1865 was a burned-out town of 10,000. It was not even the state capital yet. When Grady died in 1889, the population would still have been under 100,000. It is hard to put ourselves in the shoes of people who lived through that. Ida B. Wells was important elsewhere but not in working for the “resurgence” that became Atlanta’s motto. Henry Grady was.

ExploreIda B. Wells: Journalism Giant

Grady High School may be the only Atlanta public school housed in a building of architectural distinction. Did you know that? For a kid interested in architecture, I got a jolt from seeing buildings like Techwood Homes, the main C&S Bank at Five Points, the Georgia Academy of Medicine on West Peachtree, The Temple, or the Emory campus. And weren’t there similar details at Grady High, with the pediments and urns at either end of the main façade? It turns out there were. Years later, I learned that a man named Shutze designed all those buildings and many others. That includes the main building of Grady High, although the most ambitious part of his design was omitted, probably to save money. (See Elizabeth Meredith Dowling, “American Classicist: The Architecture of Philip Trammell Shutze,” plate 272 on page 230).

One hallmark of the Atlanta I grew up in was civic pride. True, people in other parts of the country mocked our accent, and we had to explain where Atlanta was. It went without saying that there were no major-league sports teams, no art museum to speak of, no big name stores like Saks or Tiffany, for sure no subway...But there were things that gave the city character, like those buildings I mentioned, and like Auburn Avenue and Peachtree. We also had a hospital named after Crawford Long — believe it or not, a rural Georgia doctor who pioneered the surgical use of anesthesia. Of course, a name like that had to go, and so now it is Emory Midtown.

No less a figure than Andrew Young argues that the past ought not to be litigated in terms of the present. Categorizing Henry Grady as a “white supremacist,” which brings up images of the violence in Charlottesville or of the goons who threaten intervention in this election, is a grotesque example of litigating the past through the lens of the present.

It’s easy to throw out your heritage, especially if you believe everything you find on the internet, or didn’t even know you have a distinguished heritage. If y’all have got to rename Grady High, why don’t you at least show him the courtesy that Crawford Long got and call it Midtown, or one of the non-person names. The politics that has gone into the recommendation to name it for Ida Wells stinks, and it would only make sense if Henry Grady was a Charlottesville-style “white supremacist,” a grotesque under-estimation of his multifaceted legacy.

And don’t forget; you all are people of your times, as much as he was. Were you really going to decide this issue a day before the most fraught presidential election in living memory? Particularly given the way one of the presidential candidates has run his campaign, the anger and grief over the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, plus Georgia’s own Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery, are enough to whip up the war dance on Henry Grady’s grave. If y’all want to vote on something, how about voting for president and tabling this issue for reexamination?


Carter V. Findley

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