Atascadero shouldn’t hide from its past

It appears that some Atascadero historians would just as soon forget — or at least gloss over — an important piece of the community’s past.

As reported in Saturday’s Tribune, some members of the Atascadero Historical Society are unhappy that a speech about the town’s founder, E.G. Lewis, included information about a whites-only clause inserted into early land deeds.

Lon Allan, a local historian and journalist who writes a weekly column for The Tribune, gave the speech at a symposium last fall. Following harsh criticism of his talk — Tom Lewis, a descendant of E.G. Lewis, likened the presentation to “throwing a basket of dirty laundry on our efforts ” — Allan resigned from his post as the society’s historian.

The controversy over Atascadero’s history has added significance because 2013 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of Atascadero. The centennial celebration will put the city, and its history, in the spotlight.

We agree that the centennial should be a happy, upbeat celebration; it is, after all, a birthday party. At the same time, this is an excellent opportunity for the community to reflect on where it’s been and where it’s going — and that should include acknowledgement and discussion of past injustices.

Many Atascadero residents already are engaged in that discussion.

For example, Vision Atascadero, a promotional group, posted this question on Facebook: “ how can we get past this “Whites Only” issue? Should our City Council vote on an official proclamation to address this issue? Or should we continue to try to avoid even talking about it?”

Among several thoughtful responses: “Avoidance only makes the issue fester!”

We agree completely. Ignoring or downplaying episodes that are painful or embarrassing to remember would imply that the Central Coast was somehow magically immune from racial discrimination.

It wasn’t. Episodes of discrimination have been all too common throughout the county, and sadly, they persist to this day.

We agree that the policy of “whites only” should be put into context, so the audience understands that such deed restrictions were not only legal, but also common 100 years ago.

But don’t downplay or ignore the injustice, simply because it was accepted behavior at the time.

Sanitized versions of history deny us a clear understanding of where we came from, how we’ve changed and how much more we have to accomplish. Acknowledging that racial discrimination occurred will not diminish Atascadero’s centennial celebration. Rather, it will encourage the community to reconnect with the past and learn from it.