A History Lesson

The Union League, an historical institution, honored a man who is trying to keep history from being taught in his state this week. The irony isn’t lost on me.

Most of us have probably walked by the Union League’s clubhouse on South Broad Street and haven’t really thought a whole lot about it.

We do that because let’s be honest. It’s a place we’ve never thought to go into. If you remember the movie “Trading Places” with Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd, it’s the kind of place where Mortimer and Randolph Duke would meet Clarence Beeks to try and fix the orange juice market while drinking Manhattans.

(Since “Trading Places” was actually filmed here, I checked to see if the Union League was an actual location. It wasn’t. But the Wells Fargo building across the street was. I’m like Arby’s. But instead of the meats, I have the trivia!)

But while most of us will never enter the building — mostly because it’s a private club that costs $6,700 to join and $5,000 a year to be a member of — it’s historic like most things in Philadelphia. The club was created as a place where folks who supported President Abraham Lincoln as he tried to preserve the Union during the Civil War.

Which is why the fact that they honored a guy this week that wants to see a significant chunk of American History, specifically the parts that talk about how Black folks actually got to America and how we were treated when we arrived, made a bunch of folks pretty mad.

The Union League, which ironically unveiled a portrait of abolitionist Frederick Douglass a couple of years ago, honored Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis with the Gold Medal, the organization’s highest award, on Tuesday night. Lincoln was the first person to ever receive the award in 1863.

Meanwhile, DeSantis, who is being touted as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2024, has forced the College Board to reconsider it’s Advanced Placement African American studies course because he rejected it on Florida’s behalf.

To conservatives, you see, all history has to be taught in a way that places the possible discomfort of White students hearing what their ancestors did to create this country over the history itself. Like, for example, you can talk about the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, but you can’t necessarily talk about what brought him to Memphis in the first place or what he said beyond the “I Have A Dream” speech.

(And you really can’t teach about King’s issues with “White moderates” or the fact that a Black, gay man, Bayard Rustin, actually organized the March on Washington because in Conservative History World, that’s doesn’t belong in a history class.)

Activists called on the Union League to cancel the event. Heck, over 100 of the league’s own members called on them to cancel the event because an organization founded to preserve the Union probably shouldn’t be giving an award to a guy that thinks Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election.

(Yep. DeSantis is an election denier.)

But while DeSantis, who never met a voting restriction he didn’t want to pass, being feted just blocks away from the statue of Octavius V. Catto was bad enough, those of us who have been following the Union League over the years weren’t surprised by it. The club didn’t admit Black folks until 1972, and that’s because former President Gerald Ford’s Secretary of Transportation wanted admission privileges. It didn’t let women become members until 1986.

This isn’t the most progressive group of people to begin with. I mean, the only time that Donald Trump came to Philly in 2016, it was an appearance at the Union League. And it was the only time that I saw that many people of color in the building, other than when the Philadelphia Tribune holds it’s annual Black History Month there. I’ll talk about how weird that is at another time.

But what’s going to be interesting is to see how the Mayoral candidates handle this. One of them, Derek Green, took part in the protest on Tuesday. Others issued statements decrying the DeSantis event.

Meanwhile, Allan Domb, who is obviously a member because he can do this, is having a fundraising event there, apparently. I wonder if he’ll keep that date.

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