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Presidents Day

February 20th, 2012 by Darci Congrove

Accountants and bankers spend a fair amount of time together. We share client relationships, work collaboratively to develop and share financial data related to those clients, and often refer clients to one another. So, in general, we like bankers. In fact, last Friday, I tried to set a meeting with a banker for this morning. And that is when I remembered that I don’t like bankers on Presidents Day. Today, accountants are at their desks while bankers are enjoying a three-day weekend. That caused me to do a little digging online about Presidents Day, and to do some thinking about the current presidential campaigns and the “presidential-worthiness” of the candidates.

A federal holiday honoring George Washington was originally implemented by an Act of Congress in 1879 to honor the accomplishments of the man known as “The Father of his Country.” The first federal holiday to honor an American citizen, it was celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, February 22, and was officially named Washington’s Birthday. In 1971, the federal holiday was shifted to the third Monday in February by the Uniform Holiday Act, which places the date between February 15 and February 21. An early draft of this Act would have renamed the holiday to Presidents Day to honor the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, which explains why the chosen date falls between the two. This proposal failed and the bill that was signed into law in 1968 kept the name Washington’s Birthday. By the mid-1980s, with encouragement from retailers and advertisers, the term Presidents Day came into vogue.

As a kindergarten student in 1976, I distinctly remember cutting out silhouettes of both Washington and Lincoln and pasting these to red and blue construction paper on Presidents Day. I probably remember it well because the silhouettes had a lot of curves and details, a task that was not easy with those blunt, dull scissors permissible for use by 5-year olds. So, Mrs. Brown obviously missed the memo along the way that the holiday was really about Washington, not Lincoln. As a result, I have spent my entire life to this point believing that Presidents Day was intended to celebrate both men, and honestly, I’m disappointed, because I’ve always favored Mr. Lincoln.

I’ve given a lot of thought to Lincoln lately because I just finished reading The Warmth of Other Suns, an Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Isabel Wilkerson, which chronicles the largely-untold story of the migration of almost six million African-American citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities in a quest for a better life for themselves and their children. This “great migration” took places between 1915 and 1970 and changed the face of America as we know it today. A professor at Harvard University, Ms. Wilkerson spent fourteen years researching and writing the book, and by the time it was done, she had interviewed 1,200 people. I had the opportunity to hear Ms. Wilkerson talk about the book last fall at the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s annual Gala, and without question, she delivered the most impressive discussion that I have ever heard from an author.

This book caused me to question the validity of my education as well. I certainly remember learning about Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery in 1863. I remember learning about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. What I don’t remember is learning much of anything about what happened to African-Americans between 1863 and 1964, most of which was disgraceful, and today seems beyond imagination in a country known as the “land of the free.”

Perhaps it was because I grew up in an all-white farm community that these issues were not widely discussed, but I wonder how many of us have ever really given much thought to these chapters of our American history. I also wonder how many of us are paying attention right now as we watch Presidential debates and listen to incessant politicking and media spin. While certainly there is some truth (again) to the notion that “It’s the economy,” there are a lot of other agendas on the table, many of which involve debate about basic civil rights for women and minorities.

On this Presidents Day, let’s commit to paying attention, to informing ourselves, and to showing up when it’s time to vote. It would be great to choose a President that could be honored, along with Washington and Lincoln, by the generations who follow.

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