During a recent conversation with a gentleman last week he mentioned the he had attended the George A. Custer Elementary School in Detroit as a child. Now I knew that Detroit has a street named “Custer” in honor of the soldier but wasn’t aware of the school so named. “Oh yes,” he said. “I went there as a kid, but its name has been changed.” He went on to state that the Detroit School Board changed the name in the early 1990’s to the Thurgood Marshall Elementary School. “Why?” I asked. “Because he (referring to Custer) was racist.” Our conversation ended as he had to leave. Afterward, I looked it up online. It was true what he told me.
The conversation left a “bad taste in my mouth.” The “Custer” name was removed because he was racist? It was unsettling to think about. I felt that “political correctness” and “revisionism” had reared their ugly heads once again. I also gave thought to the notion that if his name was removed for that reason then how many other names would and/or could be removed from schools, streets, and other places of honor-if the same standard were applied? Further, I had not heard about Custer, in particular, being a racist.
John Gibney wrote an article Brothers in Arms: George Armstrong & Thomas Ward Custer in the May/June edition of Michigan History. In it he mentions that Custer was from Ohio but made Michigan, specifically Monroe, his home. He cites that he was a West Pointer (albeit last in his class). He cites the gallantry of the soldier and the love his men had for him. Custer so impressed the Commander of the Union forces-George B. McClellan-that he was asked to join his staff. He notes how quickly Custer rose in rank, from Captain to Brigadier General. And of course, he talks about the many battles and engagements Custer participated in, including Gettysburg. Gibney also informs the reader that Custer was at Appomattox to witness the surrender of Lee to Grant. Finally, the article contains Custer’s “congratulatory letter” to his troops, which reads, in part:
“During the past six months, although in most cases confronted by superior numbers, you have captured …111 pieces of field artillery, 65 battle flags, and upwards of 10,000 prisoners of war, including 7 general officers…”
Custer’s Civil War accomplishments were greatly significant in a cause that saved the Union and resulted in resulted in freedom for enslaved African-Americans. He was hailed as a hero then. Speaking of Detroit, Custer was present when the downtown Soldiers and Sailors Monument was dedicated. So why did the school board vote to remove his name from the school? Surely, it wasn’t because of his Civil War record. Was it Little Big Horn? Regardless of what thinks of his “generalship” in that battle-which resulted in his death and the destruction of his command-it has to be remembered that he was serving the government of the United States under orders. But was that the action that defines Custer as “racist?” By the way, I’m not saying Custer wasn’t racist. I don’t know if he was or wasn’t. I’m just looking for some knowledge that would help me understand how this soldier Custer went from national hero to one undeserving of keeping a public school named after him.