Amid the national reckoning about racism that followed the killing of George Floyd, Ms. Bowser appointed a committee to review the namesakes of schools, buildings and other government-owned facilities in Washington. District of Columbia Facilities and Commemorative Expressions (or DCFACES) spent two months looking at more than 1,300 government-owned assets — schools, recreation centers, public housing — to identify those with names that are “inconsistent with D.C. values and in some way encouraged the oppression of African Americans and other communities of color or contributed to our long history of systemic racism.” Using criteria that included participation in slavery, the committee concluded that about 150 individuals who have something named after them were “persons of concern” and recommended that dozens of sites — including 21 schools — be renamed.
Most of the controversy over the committee’s report centered on the initial inclusion of federal properties: It recommended that Ms. Bowser urge federal authorities to add plaques providing context about slave ownership or other oppression of people of color to the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial and other famed locales in the capital. But more problematic was the use of bright lines to disqualify people seemingly with no regard for the whole of their lives. Benjamin Franklin, for example, seems to have been targeted because he once owned slaves; never mind that he signed the Declaration of Independence, was the first postmaster general and later renounced slavery and became a leading abolitionist.
Ms. Bowser was right in wanting to start an assessment of namesakes, and the committee did valuable work in compiling an inventory. (Who knew there is a school named after a principal who founded a private school because he opposed integration, or another bearing the name of a Union general said to have ordered the execution of a Native American chief seeking peace?) It will be up to the mayor and D.C. Council to decide whether the committee’s recommendations have merit and should be implemented. Let’s hope it is a thoughtful discussion that includes the expertise of historians and input from the communities that use these public places.