MINNEAPOLIS — A Minneapolis man has petitioned that Lake Calhoun be renamed, arguing it’s inappropriate that a South Carolina politician who was an ardent supporter of slavery should have his name attached to one of Minnesota’s most popular recreational lakes.
Retired computer programmer John Winters is suggesting that John C. Calhoun’s name be taken off the lake and replaced by the late Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, a former Minneapolis mayor.
Winters, 65, isn’t the first person to take offense at the name of Lake Calhoun, but it wasn’t immediately clear whether anybody else had ever gone to the trouble of filing formal paperwork to launch a process that could take at least two years.
He spoke out at a park board hearing in April, then filed the formal petition with the board this week.
“You find out he was probably the nation’s foremost promoter of slavery in our nation’s history and the foremost promoter of the Civil War,” Winters told The Associated Press on Friday. “… You look him up and you just get outraged.”
Calhoun was a prominent statesman in the early 1800s. He was the secretary of war under President James Monroe, secretary of state under John Tyler and a vice president under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. He was also a U.S. senator and representative from South Carolina. He argued that slavery was not evil, but a positive good. He died in 1850, a decade before the Civil War.
As secretary of war, he ordered the establishment of a fort in the area that became Fort Snelling, and an Army officer who came upon the chain of lakes in what is now Minneapolis named the largest of them after Calhoun, his superior officer.
Humphrey, as mayor of Minneapolis in 1948, gave an impassioned speech at the Democratic National Convention that spurred the party to add a civil rights plank to its platform.
Winters pointed out that Humphrey’s name is fading from some local landmarks. An airport terminal named for him is now usually called Terminal 2. The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome is now billed as “Mall of America Field” and faces an uncertain future as the Minnesota Vikings campaign for a new stadium.
In his petition, Winters said that if Humphrey had failed, the nonviolent civil rights movement might have failed too.
“I think of this as a teachable moment,” he said.
Park board guidelines say name changes to parks and facilities “should not be undertaken lightly or for political or frivolous motivations.” The board is required to hold two public hearings to take comment — one in the next six months and the other two months before the board takes a final vote, which can’t be sooner than two years after the petition was filed.
Walter Edgar, a historian at the University of South Carolina, said Winters’ statement to KARE-TV that Calhoun was “one of the worst people ever born in this country” is “more than a little misinformed.” He said it’s true that Calhoun defended slavery, but he was also considered one of the greatest political thinkers of the 19th century and part of “The Great Triumvirate” of the U.S. Senate in that era with Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.
“When you start looking at the past through the lens of the present, you often distort things,” Edgar said.
And as secretary of war in the early days of Minnesota’s settlement, Edgar said, Calhoun clearly would have played an important role in the state’s history. He also pointed out that Calhoun was a graduate of Yale, where one of the undergraduate colleges is still named for him.
“Are you just going to rewrite history?” Edgar asked.