Under Bowser’s proposal, West Education Campus in Northwest Washington would be renamed John Lewis Elementary School. The D.C. Council must approve the name change.
D.C. Public Schools “finds that John Lewis, a lifelong champion for justice, is a far superior role model for students in the nation’s capital,” Bowser wrote in a July 6 letter to the D.C. Council. “Despite numerous attacks, injuries, and arrests, Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the civil rights movement and nonviolence.”
Last September, a D.C. government committee released a report with more than 150 public properties with names that should be reconsidered, including 23 school buildings.
Some of the names, including West, have not been controversial because residents knew little about the namesakes.
But the report revealed to many that West is named for Joseph Rodman West, a Union general during and after the Civil War who went on to serve as a senator from Louisiana. In 1863, Apache leader Mangas Coloradas reportedly told U.S. troops that he wanted to make peace and approached West under a peace flag. West is said to have ordered the Native American leader killed.
Other schools on the list include Thomson Elementary, named for 19th-century D.C. principal Strong John Thomson, who reportedly resigned and founded his own school because he did not want to integrate the public school; Stoddert Elementary School, named for Benjamin Stoddert, the country’s first Navy secretary who reportedly enslaved people and barred Black men from joining the Navy; and Tyler Elementary School, named for President John Tyler, who enslaved people while in office.
The change for West has moved faster than other campuses in the renaming process because the school is under renovation and using a temporary campus. City officials said they have included the anticipated spending for new signage in the renovation spending plan.
DCist first reported the mayor’s proposed name change.
To rename a school, city officials must gather public feedback on possible names. Aisha Alexander, a parent at West Elementary and a member of one of the school’s parent organizations, said residents submitted possible names and officials then gave them finalists to on which to vote. Among the most popular: Lewis and author Zora Neale Hurston.
Alexander said she believes the city should change the school’s name, but is disappointed the mayor is not pushing to honor someone with strong ties to local D.C. She said Lewis rightfully has many buildings and monuments honoring him and this was an opportunity to educate West students — the majority of whom are Black — about inspiring people from the District.
Last year, the Fairfax County School Board voted to rename Robert E. Lee High School after Lewis.
Alexander said she submitted several Black D.C. women as potential namesakes, but none of them was selected as finalists.
“D.C. has its own culture, its own heroes,” Alexander said. “Especially at a time when we are seeking to be the 51st state, I think it’s a great opportunity to honor our home.”
In April, city officials proposed renaming Woodrow Wilson High after playwright August Wilson in response to a years-long push from residents to change the school’s name. Wilson High, named for Woodrow Wilson — who fought to resegregate the federal workforce and promoted policies that pushed Black Washingtonians out of the now predominantly White neighborhood where the school is located — was also on the D.C. committee’s list of buildings whose names should be reassessed.
The community group that spearheaded efforts to rename Wilson High criticized the city’s choice, arguing that the school should be renamed after a Black educator with ties to the school and the District.
The D.C. Council has not yet voted on whether to approve the change to Wilson High.