The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion George Washington University needs a new name

George Washington University in D.C. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Caleb Francois is a senior at George Washington University.

Last year, George Washington University’s Cloyd Heck Marvin Center — named for a segregationist — was renamed the University Student Center in response to student calls for a name change. The name change streamlined with calls for racial justice in a modern era in which students across the country are demanding change. As our nation’s history of slavery, Jim Crow, red lining and other discriminatory policies toward African Americans has never been fully addressed or atoned for, these pleas for racial justice are a reflection of a shifting paradigm in American politics in which compromise and intolerance are no longer an option. However, the renaming of the University Student Center falls short in addressing the main issues of systemic racism and inequality still present on campus.

Racism has always been a problem at GW. At the university’s founding in 1821, enrollment was restricted to White men. In 1954, then-university president Marvin employed numerous efforts to preserve segregation, arguing for a “homogenous” group of White students. In 1987, Black students organized to demand more visibility in a predominantly Black city where Black students were outnumbered by huge majorities. Today, with Black enrollment at about 10 percent, Black students on campus continue to struggle for community. Despite alleged efforts by administration to enhance diversity, the admissions office continues to fail to ensure a student body with adequate minority representation.

Black professorship also remains low, especially in the university’s International Affairs program. Limited Black professors teaching African and African American courses and the continued neglect of Black academia and Black professorship create a campus culture in which European studies and White perspectives are favored over Black perspectives. No African languages are taught at the university, and calls for reforms are often ignored.

These problems are rooted in systemic racism, institutional inequality and white supremacy. There are at least four ways the university could achieve progress: Decolonized university curriculum, increased Black enrollment, the renaming of the university and the selection of an African American President.

In the university’s 200-year history, GW has never had an African American president. The search for a replacement for interim president Mark S. Wrighton is the perfect opportunity for the university to dissociate with its racist history by selecting a strong Black leader. An African American at the helm would reflect a new chapter in university politics. Such a decision would demonstrate the university’s commitment to strength through diversity and serve as a reflection of the university’s pledge to racial justice.

But it’s not just the university’s name that’s a problem. Just blocks from the main campus is the Mount Vernon Campus, named for George Washington’s former slave plantation. Every day, hundreds of Black students walk on a campus named after an enslaver of men and study at a site named after dark parts of history. Such sites, among other locations and buildings, are touted as glorified mementos here at GW. The indignity and injustice of such sites remain overlooked. The racist visions of James Madison, Winston Churchill and others are glorified through building names, programs, statues and libraries that honor their memory.

The controversial Winston Churchill Library must go. The university’s contentious colonial moniker must go. Even the university’s name, mascot and motto — “Hail Thee George Washington”— must be replaced. The hypocrisy of GW in not addressing these issues is an example of how Black voices and Black grievances go ignored and highlights the importance of strong Black leadership.

Frederick Douglass, a statesmen, political scientist, diplomat, feminist and abolitionist, is a perfect example of a possible namesake to replace George Washington. His work for social reform and equal justice make him an ideal candidate for a new name. Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Malcom X, among many others, transformed the United States by fighting for the liberation of Black people here and all over the world. Heroes such as these should be celebrated and represented here at GW.

The work of this university to uplift the ideals of universal humanism and break its ties with white supremacy and systemic racism must be done with effort, dedication and painstaking excellence.

It’s time to fully dissociate with problematic patterns of indifference to racial injustice. An African American president faithful to the vision of the many Black forefathers and forewomen who fought and died for the great ideas of universal freedom, would be a step toward a new university chapter. A new name would cement the university’s dedication to racial justice and affirm its commitment to change. It’s time to take action.

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