George Washington (1732-1799) has been called the father of our country due to the historical roles he played in the American Revolution, creation of the US Constitution, and as the first president of the United States of America.
General Washington became a hero of the revolution with such feats as crossing of the Delaware River and the resulting victory at the Battle of Trenton. As president of the constitutional convention, Washington kept order during the arduous four-month process and became the first to sign one of the most influential documents in world history. President Washington is the only US president to ever win election with a unanimous vote in the electoral college. He actually did it twice.
George Washington’s central part in our nation’s history has not been forgotten. From Washington D.C. to the State of Washington, It would be difficult to live a day in our society without seeing or hearing a tribute to this man. There are 31 counties, 241 civil townships, 29 bridges, dozens of parks, squares, postage stamps, mountains, and over 5,000 streets named in honor of our first president. Washington’s likeness appears on Mount Rushmore, the flag of Washington State, over 500 million U.S. quarters, and nearly 12 Billion one dollar bills.
Memorials to George Washington are also quite numerous among educational institutions. Over two dozen colleges and universities are named for Washington, including the University of Washington and George Washington University. There are 322 primary and secondary schools named after George Washington in the United States. Among former U.S. presidents, only Abraham Lincoln (607) and Thomas Jefferson (350) have more schools named for them.
George Washington owned fellow human beings. He greatly benefited financially from the institution of slavery with over 50,000 acres of land in his portfolio and was the second richest president in US history. Documents show that he supported the beating and mistreatment of those that he owned and enforced all laws against runaway slaves.
George Washington owned 123 slaves on his plantation at Mount Vernon, Virginia. Another 153 slaves also lived there but they were dower slaves from the Custis estate. In his will, Washington arranged for his slaves to be freed after his death, once his wife Martha had died. One year after George’s death, Martha decided to free the 123 slaves but they, for the most part, continued to live nearby and/or became wage earners at Mount Vernon so they could be close to their friends and relatives that were among the 153 other slaves that were not freed.
In January of this year, the San Francisco School Board voted to change 44 school names, about a third of their schools, including George Washington High School. By April, however, they decided to table this action due to massive public criticism that the criteria and research they used to select schools for renaming was fundamentally flawed. The committee on renaming schools came up with the following guidelines…that schools cannot be named after anyone who has:
“engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings; or who oppressed women, inhibiting societal progress; or whose actions led to genocide; or who otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”
George Washington did engage in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings. That being said, he also significantly increased the opportunities many have to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He was pivotal in the world-wide transition from monarchy to democracy. From these guidelines, Washington is both villain and hero.
Currently, on the website change.org, there is a petition that has been signed by 24,984 asking for George Washington High School to be renamed Maya Angelou High School. The petition reads…
Maya Angelou went to George Washington High School in San Francisco. But she was kicked out because she became pregnant, an experience she writes about in her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The high school should be renamed after her.
Maya Angelou (1928-2014) wrote beloved and insightful award winning poetry and memoirs. She was an influential civil rights activist who was friends with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. She also wrote a number of plays, movies, and television programs spanning over 50 years. She currently has 10 schools named after her. She is undeniably the most distinguished alumna of George Washington High School.
Many who want to change the name of George Washington High School to Maya Angelou High School argue that it is to honor her and empower the students. They note that about 90 percent of the people who currently attend the school are people of color. It then follows, they argue, that renaming the school after a very talented person of color who attended the school will encourage students to excel through the use of a role model that they can relate to.
Many of those that oppose the renaming of George Washington High School are alumni that argue that such an action is part of a cancel culture that wants to erase our history and the important role the father of our country had in the founding of our great nation. They also believe that judging historical figures that have been dead hundreds of years by today’s norms is illogical and irrational since they lived in different times with different normative standards.
The students and sports teams at George Washington High School are known as the Eagles. Their school colors are scarlet and gray. On their website they proudly display the saying “Once an Eagle always an Eagle.”
If the school’s name is changed will they still keep the Eagle nickname?
School pride motivates both school name changers and school name retainers. Many of the current students find it difficult to be proud of their school if they are forced to glorify a slave owner and racist on a daily basis. Conversely, many of the alumni want to cherish their memories of school pride by keeping the name and remaining Eagles. Both groups have heartfelt and meaningful reasons for their passionate positions.
Moving forward we need to ask a series of important questions to set up a logical framework to handle future name changes in schools and many other institutions. Which groups should control or have a vote in future name changes? What role should students, faculty, alumni, community members, school boards, historians, foundations, booster clubs, local governments, businesses, and committees play in this process?
How should we evaluate the lives of significant people? Who is worthy of having an institution named for them and who is not? Do we apply a modern day value litmus test to their biographies or do we look more holistically at their over-all impact on the world?
Dave Berger of Plymouth, Minnesota, is a retired sociology professor who taught for nearly three decades at Inver Hills Community College. He also is a regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page.