His proposal comes as residents debate a name change for Woodrow Wilson High School in Northwest Washington because of the 28th president’s support for segregation and efforts to block African Americans from working for the federal government.
Last year, the city changed the name of Orr Elementary in Southeast, which honored Benjamin G. Orr, a slave owner who served as mayor from 1817 to 1819, to Lawrence E. Boone Elementary in honor of the school’s African American principal for more than two decades. Maury Elementary in Northeast was named after John Maury, a D.C. mayor from 1852 to 1854 who also owned slaves.
“This stuff has come up on an ad hoc, community-based fashion in many instances,” McDuffie said. “We’re trying to make sure the executive is more intentional about identifying some of those markers and names that might be offensive to people today that perhaps wasn’t the case when the name was established decades ago.”
Similar debates have played out in Virginia — the onetime heart of the Confederacy — and Maryland, where a statue of Roger B. Taney, the U.S. chief justice who wrote the Dred Scott decision, was removed in 2017 from State House grounds.
But many D.C. government properties were named in modern times and after African American leaders. The city hall building was renamed after the late D.C. Council chairman John A. Wilson, for example, and the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center honors the civil rights activist who was an aide to President John F. Kennedy. A statue of the late “Mayor for Life” Marion Barry was installed in front of the Wilson Building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW last year.
McDuffie and his office cited several examples of potentially offensive names on local government property, including the schools and Columbus Circle outside Union Station.
A commission could help identify ones that have flown under the radar, he said.
“We won’t have perhaps the same fights they had in Virginia, and perhaps there won’t be much to fight about,” said McDuffie.
Some of the more contentious pieces of public art in the nation’s capital are on federal property. Outside RFK Stadium, a memorial to George Preston Marshall honors the founder of the Washington football team who refused to integrate his roster. A statue to Confederate Gen. Albert Pike in Judiciary Square requires congressional approval to take down, but it has been mired in a debate about where to move the statue.
The commission proposed by McDuffie would have up to 17 people, a mix of government officials and representatives from the city’s eight wards. It would be asked to conduct a 90-day review that includes public forums and surveys before submitting recommendations to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the 13-member council.
A similar task force in Alexandria recommended renaming Jefferson Davis Highway and keeping a Confederate memorial statue in Old Town.
McDuffie also is reintroducing legislation to erect new statues to African Americans and women in the city’s eight wards. He says he was inspired by a conversation with his young daughter, who asked why there were statues of slaveholders but not people who looked like her.
“Here in the District of Columbia, we are not attempting to erase history,” he said. “We are attempting to write history and to recognize that there’s a whole segment of our history with individuals who have not received recognition for their contributions.”