I thought, wrongly, that the national argument over changing school names was over. We Americans have never been good at history. How many of us really care about a few long-dead white guys’ bad thoughts and deeds?
But in several regions, particularly the Washington area, the debate is just beginning. Some people want to change the name of Woodrow Wilson High School in the District. The very tricky transformation of Washington-Lee High School into Washington-Liberty High in Northern Virginia’s Arlington County has loose ends. In five minutes of Internet research, I found four Montgomery County high schools in the Maryland suburbs with problematic names that have been mostly ignored, so far.
For some perspective, I have persuaded education researcher, community activist and history buff Joseph Hawkins, a Montgomery County resident, to let me share his bucket theory of how this works. I call it “The Official Hawkins Guide to Renaming Your School.” It helped me sort out my thinking. Maybe it will do the same for others.
“Right now we — and I mean liberals and progressives (I consider myself in this group) — have divided up white famous people into several naming buckets,” Hawkins told me. “Keep in mind all of these white people, technically, are racist. Period. President Wilson was a segregationist, but President George Washington owned more than 100 slaves.”
The Founding Fathers Bucket: “They were all part of institutionalizing slavery, right? Just read the Constitution. Even the ones we claim were abolitionists (such as Alexander Hamilton — you’ve heard the songs) did little to stop slavery. But the folks in this bucket get a free pass when it comes to naming things after them.”
The Abolitionist Bucket: “It includes Abraham Lincoln and the Blair family of Maryland. If you wanted to free black slaves, then you’re okay. But if you dive into some serious history books on the subject, these folks were white supremacists and downright racist in their beliefs about people of African descent. The Blairs, particularly Lincoln’s postmaster general Montgomery Blair, were huge supporters of colonization for slaves — sending them off to Africa or the West Indies. Why? They believed that the United States should be a white nation. The colonization movement led to the creation in 1847 of the African nation of Liberia, where I served in the Peace Corps.”
White Confederates Bucket: “No one even thinks twice about these folks. By joining the Confederacy, they automatically labeled themselves racist.”
Post-Civil War Racist Bucket: “These are the white folks who were firmly on the record supporting Jim Crow and the separation of the races. Wilson is written about in great detail in the book ‘Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital’ by Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove. It took the 20th century civil rights movement to erase what they stood for. Some lived long enough to work in both eras, but time has caught up with them. A Montgomery County middle school was named in 1966 for E. Brooke Lee (1892-1984), a powerful local politician whose support for segregated housing has now caught the attention of school board members.”
As I see it, Hawkins’s buckets are full of people whose names have not yet entered the conversation, but will. Montgomery County has three high schools honoring slave owners: Col. Zadok Magruder, Thomas S. Wootton and Richard Montgomery. Another county high school is named for Montgomery Blair. As Hawkins said, he is in the abolitionist bucket, but a new biography of Frederick Douglass notes Blair’s insults of black leaders and his awful stance on a key issue. He was the only member of Lincoln’s cabinet to oppose the Emancipation Proclamation.
Also, will Arlington get away with removing Lee’s name from a high school, but leaving the name of Washington? I realize one was a traitor and the other a patriot. But the first president owned about 20 times more slaves than the Confederate general.
The father of our country is woven into our culture. Even my newspaper bears his name. But if Woodrow Wilson has become questionable, all four Virginia slave owners who served as president in the early years of the republic may become part of the controversy.