The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. committee recommends stripping the names of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Francis Scott Key and others from city government buildings

One of the monuments that the committee found objectionable is the statue of Christopher Columbus that stands in Columbus Circle in front of Union Station. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

A committee reporting to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has recommended renaming dozens of public schools, parks and government buildings in the nation’s capital — including those named for seven U.S. presidents — after studying the historical namesakes’ connections to slavery and oppression.

The report drew a torrent of criticism, especially for its suggestion of adding plaques or other context to some of the most famed federal locales in the city, including the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. After a harsh rebuke from the White House, the Bowser administration removed the recommendations dealing with federal monuments on Tuesday evening.

A White House statement called Bowser (D) “the radically liberal mayor of Washington, D.C.” and said she “ought to be ashamed for even suggesting” revisions to the marble monuments dedicated to presidents who were enslavers. “President Donald J. Trump believes these places should be preserved, not torn down; respected, not hated; and passed on for generations to come.”

Amid equally outraged responses from Republicans in Congress — some of which misstated the report’s intentions by claiming the city wanted to tear down federal monuments, rather than “contextualize” them — the 24-page report posted on the D.C. government website shrank to 23 pages. The page listing eight federal sites that the committee identified as needing additional context was missing (though it was still viewable on an earlier PDF as of 10:30 p.m.).

“Mayor Bowser has asked the [committee] to clarify and refine their recommendations to focus on local DC,” mayoral spokeswoman LaToya Foster said in an email, when asked why the page had been removed. She said Bowser wanted to avoid confusion over the working group’s proposal for the federal monuments, which was “contextualizing, not removing.”

The turmoil was the latest chapter in a national debate over how to understand America’s history and pay homage to its founders while also acknowledging their contributions to racist practices and institutions. The committee termed 153 out of 1,330 individuals who have something named after them in the capital city “persons of concern” but did not recommend that all their names be removed. The report calls for the renaming of playgrounds, parks and 21 public schools.

Travis Timmerman, a Seton Hall University philosopher who has researched monument removals, said addressing the scores of places cited by the committee would put the District far beyond most U.S. cities, which have mostly focused on whether to remove public honorifics for Confederate icons.

“They’re going after historical figures that by and large have gotten a pass previously for their moral transgressions,” Timmerman said, noting that the appropriateness of a monument changes over time.

“Thomas Jefferson, for instance, was a vicious slaveholder,” Timmerman said. “But most people think of him as the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. … If that’s what people think of Jefferson, then it’s not necessarily harmful to have a school named after him. If people become more aware of his moral shortcomings, and that’s what they think of when they see Jefferson’s statue or a school named after him, well, then it becomes harmful.”

D.C. Council members, who would have to vote for schools and other buildings to be renamed, reacted to the report with both praise and trepidation.

“I never really thought about Stoddert or Key Elementary as an issue. They were just schools, and that’s their name,” said Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), referring to schools on the committee’s list that are named for early Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert and for Francis Scott Key, the writer of the national anthem. “African American women, civil rights leaders — people ought to know about others. This gives us an opportunity to honor them.”

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he felt the report had been rushed and did not provide enough historical context. “I totally get why someone like John Tyler, even though he’s a former president, is someone we don’t want a school named after. But I don’t get why Benjamin Franklin is someone we don’t want anything named after. I think we need to see the detail,” he said.

The committee chairs — Bowser adviser Beverly Perry and public library director Richard Reyes-Gavilan — said a report fully detailing the committee’s rationale will be published online in the future.

Bowser convened the committee after large-scale Black Lives Matter protests began in the District following the death of George Floyd in late May.

McDuffie suggests task force on offensive school and street names

The committee said in its report that it considered whether the honorees enslaved people or supported the institution of slavery, whether they created laws and policies that disadvantaged women and minorities, whether they belonged to “any supremacist organization,” and whether they discriminated against marginalized groups in a way that would violate D.C. law.

Along with public housing complexes, parks and playgrounds, the committee recommends renaming schools including Eliot-Hine Middle School, named for former Harvard University president and advocate of racist ideas Charles William Eliot; and Brookland Middle School, named for D.C. landowner and Andrew Jackson administration official Jehiel Brooks.

Others whose names the committee would remove include presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Woodrow Wilson and Tyler.

“With Alexander Graham Bell, there was talk about his involvement with eugenics as something that was very, very serious,” Reyes-Gavilan said in an interview, explaining why the inventor was on the list.

Perry cited founding father Franklin’s history as an enslaver and a racist line from his writing in 1751: “Why increase the sons of Africa, by planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all blacks and tawnys, of increasing the lovely white and red?”

Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who proposed a renaming commission last year, said, “We can’t simply accept the positive things, we’ve got to talk about and accept all their contributions, including some that were deeply offensive.”

“Let’s acknowledge Woodrow Wilson, the school I graduated from, was helpful in establishing the United Nations, but he also segregated the federal government and showed ‘Birth of a Nation’ on the White House lawn,” McDuffie said. Changes are needed, he continued, “so young people of color can go to different parts of the city and see images that look like them. We don’t have to simply be resigned to a city that has a statue of White male military heroes almost every couple of blocks.”

Zachary Bray, a University of Kentucky law professor who has researched monument removal, said doing so was much more common before the past half-century. “I am very comfortable with and supportive of reconsidering monuments. That’s in keeping with an old tradition in this country that we ought to get back to,” he said.

The process of deciding which names to change would vary based on the type of government property. To rename a school, for example, the school system generally hosts a “public engagement process” and then makes a recommendation to the mayor, which the D.C. Council must approve. The council can act independently to rename a government building or a street.

Before the report was edited Tuesday night, it asked Bowser to discuss with the federal government eight U.S. monuments that the writers believed needed additional historical context. These included the fountain honoring Christopher Columbus outside Union Station and the Washington Monument, named for enslaver and first president George Washington.

Left unmentioned is the fact that the city of Washington, District of Columbia, is itself named for both of those men.