Blacks Strip Slaveholders' Names Off Schools
The New York Times, 12 November 1997«back | home
NEW ORLEANS--By the reckoning of John Riley, the historian at Mount Vernon, there are about 450 schools in the United States named for George Washington.
Now there is one fewer. Following a policy that prohibits school names honoring "former slave owners or others who did not respect equal opportunity for all," the Orleans Parish School Board voted unanimously on Oct. 27 to change the name of George Washington Elementary to Dr. Charles Richard Drew Elementary.
The new name pays tribute to a black surgeon who lived from 1904 to 1950 and is known for developing methods to preserve blood plasma and for protesting the United States Army's practice of segregating donated blood by race.
The renaming of the 74-year-old school in the city's Bywater neighborhood, the 22d name change in New Orleans in five years, is the latest milestone in a concerted effort by blacks across the South to assert their vision of a biracial history that has traditionally been defined only by whites.
Since the school board's policy was adopted in December 1992, New Orleans schools have purged the names of Confederate generals, slave-owning governors and even the black founder of an orphanage who like Washington, happened to own slaves. A school once named for Robert E. Lee, for instance, is now named for Ronald McNair, the black astronaut killed in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
But never before, either here or apparently elsewhere in the country, has a school shed the name of a figure as central to the national identity as Washington. And that has raised questions about whether efforts to broaden history, if taken too far, may sometimes distort it as well.
Opponents of the decision, and there have not been many in this city in which blacks are in the majority, argue that it does not account for the totality of Washington's achievements or the school district where 91 percent of the students are black, and where the school board is controlled by a 5-to-2 black majority, the decision underscores the maxim that history is written by those with the power.
"Why should African-Americans want their kids to pay respect or pay homage to someone who enslaved their ancestors?" asked Carl Galmon, a longtime civil rights leader in New Orleans who has led the campaign to change school names. "This was the most degrading thing that ever happened in North America, and Washington was a part of it. To African-Americans, George Washington has about as much meaning as David Duke."
Those on the other side of the debate contend that by the standards of the day, Washington was moderate on slavery, pointing out that he provided for the emancipation of his slaves after his death.
"What I find objectionable," said William B. Gwyn, a retired professor of political science at Tulane University here, "is the rather unhistorical approach to changing these names, that anyone who ever owned slaves is to be dishonored by the New Orleans school board without looking at the circumstances with which the slaves were held. The fact is that with Washington, he opposed the institution and ultimately freed his slaves. "
Although Washington inherited his first 10 slaves at the age of 11 and died with 316 slaves on his Virginia plantation, his private letters make it clear that he favored a gradual abolition of slavery--"by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees," Washington wrote in 1786.
As President, however, Washington never proposed emancipation. "I think that, to him, union came first," said Mr. Riley, the historian, "and if making a public stand on slavery as President of the United States was going to fracture that union, he was going to keep his mouth shut."
When Washington died in 1799, his will called for the 125 slaves that he owned outright to be freed upon the death of his wife. The rest of the slaves at Mount Vernon belonged to Martha Washington before her marriage to Washington or were the children of unions between the two sets of slaves, Mr. Riley said. She emancipated her husband's 125 slaves about a year after his death.
The notion that any slave owner could be moderate on the issue of slavery strikes some blacks in New Orleans as ludicrous. "It's a huge thing to be owned by somebody, no matter how much they may have accomplished in other areas," said Jeremiah Blount, a black fifth-grade teacher at the newly named Drew Elementary School. "And now we're teaching kids who are descendants of the people who would have been his property."
By Mr. Galmon's count, 49 of the 121 schools in Orleans Parish were named for slave owners at the time the school board policy took effect five years ago. While the policy states that the school board opposes retaining such names, it leaves it to school communities to initiate the name-change process.
The process at Washington, where 98 percent of the 702 students are black, was typical. When a new principal, Lee Caston, arrived in 1996, he learned of the school board policy and raised the issue at a faculty meeting. A committee of faculty and staff members was formed and decided that the policy left them little choice but to change the school's name, a decision that Mr. Caston believes is supported in the community.
With the help of students and parents, choices for a new name were studied and narrowed to three: Charles Drew, Bywater and St. Claude, the name of the avenue that runs by the school. Parents and staff members were then polled and 52 percent voted to change the name to Drew (in secondary schools, students also are allowed to vote). The majority vote forwarded the recommendation to the school board, which approved the new name.
Both Mr. Caston, the principal, and Linda J. Stelly, an associate superintendent of the Orleans Parish schools, said there was virtually no opposition to removing Washington's name from the three-story brown brick school. Ms. Stelly said the school board thought it was important to be consistent about its policy, which makes no allowances for slave owners, regardless of their historical stature.
At Drew Elementary, where the words Washington School are etched into the stone facade, students and staff members are struggling to get comfortable with their new identity. Receptionists still catch themselves answering the telephones "Washington Elementary." First graders at morning assembly have not quite learned to substitute Charles Drew for Washington in the school song.
Mr. Caston has planned additional change to reinforce the transition. The school colors, forme white and blue, will be changed to red and blue, symbolic, he said, of the oxygenated and deoxygenated blood associated with Charles Drew.
© 1997 The New York Times