What does it say about a country that still names its schools after those who kidnapped black people and chained them right in their backyard?
This is the twenty-first century, and schools named after slave owners have been allowed to remain way past their due date. Case in point: George Washington High School.
Matt Haney, the president of the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education — who happens to be white — received threats after he suggested that the school named after the nation’s first president be renamed in honor of Maya Angelou.
Angelou, America’s poet laureate, was once a student at George Washington H.S. — a school named after a slave owner.
Washington, the so-called father of our country, owned a lot of black folks — 123 slaves, to be exact. Some of Washington’s slaves ran away, including his chef, Hercules, who escaped from the presidential household in Philadelphia. This is a man we continue to honor on our money and who knows how many schools around the country.
Students at the high school were disturbed that the school had a mural depicting Washington with slaves, and so Haney suggested that there should be a name change.
“No schools named after slave owners,” he said.
During a year when the national anthem is coming into question for its glorification of slavery, the time is ripe for a discussion on this, maybe even a national protest. This debate is one that should be happening across the country.
At Yale University, students unsuccessfully pushed to rename Calhoun College, named in honor of 19th-century politician and white supremacist John C. Calhoun, who believed freedom and the American Dream depended on the enslavement of African-Americans. In light of student protests, Harvard Law School decided to change its insignia, which came from the family crest of Isaac Royall, Jr., the head of a prominent slave-owning family and benefactor of the school.
Last year, Georgetown University announced it would rename two school buildings named after school presidents who arranged for the sale of hundreds of slaves to pay off the college’s debts. And at Clemson University in South Carolina, the faculty and students voted to keep the name of a building called Tillman Hall. Ben Tillman was a white supremacist who sought the suppression of the black vote after the Civil War and was one of the ringleaders in the 1876 assassination of Simon Corker, a black state senator.
“Some of our historical stones are rough and even unpleasant to look at,” said Clemson Chairman David Wilkins in a statement. “But they are ours and denying them as part of our history does not make them any less so. For that reason, we will not change the name of our historical buildings.”
But we do have a choice.
If it is that unpleasant, then change it. There is no reason why there are nearly 200 schools across the nation named after Confederate leaders. Paying homage to white supremacists, immortalizing them almost as if to erect monuments in their name, makes no sense and is indefensible.
If we condemn these people for their role in slavery and the oppression of black folks, then what exactly are we saying when we keep their names on the building anyway? And if we excuse their deplorable legacy because they reflected the times in which they lived, what does that have to do with us today?
Meanwhile, in Frederick, Maryland, there is a push to remove the bronze bust of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney from the city hall grounds. Taney, a slave owner, wrote the Dred Scott decision, declaring black people were non-citizens who “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
This comes as activists who forced the renaming of the University of Maryland stadium — which honored segregationist and former university president H.C. “Curley” Byrd — are calling for a statue of Harriet Tubman at the Maryland state house. In the mid-1990s, a statue of Thurgood Marshall was added to the state house grounds as a compromise to keep a statue of Taney remaining.
We can imagine the pushback and the retaliation if those white people who cling to the past are forced to give up their most beloved heroes — not just the Confederate leaders but the founding fathers as well. In the U.S., where white supremacy is normalized and remains the glue that holds so many things together, a multicultural and multiracial society has emerged and is not going away. Already, a majority of the children in America’s public schools are black and brown and make up a majority of the babies born in the United States.
Sadly, that reality bothers some people.
They say history is told from the vantage point of the winners. But if we keep the name of George Washington and other slave owners in our children’s schools, we all lose.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove