A petition is circulating on change.org right now, with the title “Woodrow Wilson was a racist—Let’s find a better person to name a Long Beach school after.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 1,000 people had signed the petition, addressed to the Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education and Wilson principal Kim Holland.
The reason for wanting to lose the name? Wilson was a racist. And not your basic disgruntled neighbor sort of racist but, rather, “extremely racist—even by the standards of his time,” according to a 2015 article in Vox, which was written in favor of a drive spearheaded by students at Princeton University who were demanding that Wilson’s name be removed from all programs and buildings at the university, including the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College, a residential college for undergrads.
The university’s leaders declined to make the changes, perhaps not surprisingly considering that Wilson was its president before winning the 1912 presidential election. He served as the country’s 28th president from 1913-1921.
The ultimate decision to change a Long Beach public school’s name is made by the district’s school board, which, in the past, has been receptive to doing so. In 2014, the board changed the name of Peter H. Burnett Elementary School to Bobbie Smith Elementary, and the following year changed Robert E. Lee Elementary to Olivia Herrera Elementary.
Burnett, the first elected governor of California, was a vicious and violent racist, and Lee was a slaveholder and traitor. Smith and Herrera are beloved local educators.
Members of the public and various alumni of Burnett and Lee (especially Lee) argued that “you can’t erase history,” which is true, and renaming the schools certainly hasn’t done that. Most people will still acknowledge that Lee was a real person and that he fought against the United States. Burnett was largely forgotten even before the name controversy began. He was already sort of pre-erased from history, at least as a person of any note.
There is plenty of evidence that Woodrow Wilson was a racist. Not only was he an enthusiastic supporter of racial segregation, as president he even re-segregated federal departments that had somehow been enlighteningly integrated during Reconstruction.
Upon taking office, he personally fired 15 out of 17 black supervisors in the federal service and replaced them with white workers. Emboldened by that move, other officials in Wilson’s administration took it upon themselves to segregate their own departments.
According to the Vox article, the head of the IRS division in Georgia fired all of his black employees, saying, “There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro’s place is in the corn field.”
There are plenty of other examples of Wilson’s racism, including his fairly full-throated endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan.
Jon Meyer, LBUSD Board of Education member who represents District 4, which includes Wilson High School, is not predisposed to changing the school’s name. Rather, he said, “I would tell people to read (presidential historian) Jon Meacham’s book, ‘The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels’.”
In that book, Meacham doesn’t exonerate Wilson for all of his missteps and wrongdoing, but he does balance his faults with his successes, most notably championing the passage of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing all American women the right to vote.
“Taken in all, Woodrow Wilson and his age are revealing examples of the battles between hope and fear,” wrote Meacham. “The era of suffrage triumph, for instance, was also the age of segregation, of the suppression of free speech in wartime, of the Red Scare of 1919-20 and the birth of a new Ku Klux Klan. The story of America is thus one of slow, often unsteady steps forward. If we expect the trumpets of a given era to sound unwavering notes, we will be disappointed, for the past tells us that politics is an uneven symphony.”
You do some bad, you do some good. The balance is often what determines the length of past politicians’ legacies. Lincoln and Jefferson had many faults, but one ended slavery and the other wrote the Declaration of Independence.
Does Wilson’s support of women’s rights erase his disdain for people of color? In terms of the name of Long Beach’s second-oldest high school, that will be up to the school board to decide.
Is Meyer against the name change? “Oh, very much so,” he said.
Depending on if, or when, a proposal to change the name comes before the board, Meyer, who did not seek reelection and will leave the board in mid-December, or Doug Otto, who was elected to the District 4 seat in March, will be among the board members to vote on the issue.
Otto indicated that he needs to study Wilson’s past more thoroughly before making a determination or a comment on the subject.
In any event, the whole subject of pawing through the pasts of Long Beach school namesakes has the potential to cause an avalanche of name-changing in the district.
In Long Beach, only two major high schools (if we can agree that by “major” we mean schools with a football team), Poly and Lakewood, by dint of the banality of their names, escape unscathed by scandal and bad behavior, and provide a sound basis for just naming our schools numerically, as they do in New York.
Most of the stains are a result of various dalliance with eugenics, a belief that humanity would improve if only people with desirable genetic traits were allowed to reproduce. The once-popular theory contained components of sterilization and anti-miscegenation laws and was a practice later favored by the Nazis. It was a dismal social experiment and one that can be used against David Starr Jordan and Robert A. Millikan—both were committed and influential eugenics enthusiasts, as was Luther Burbank, another Long Beach school namesake.
And you can add to Jordan’s past the deep suspicion that he was involved in the poisoning death of Jane Stanford, who had taken control of Stanford University following her husband Leland’s death. Jane Stanford’s death gave control of the college to Jordan, who had had frequent arguments with her and who had paid a doctor to change her cause of death from strychnine poisoning to heart failure.
So that takes care of Millikan and Jordan high schools, and that leaves Cabrillo. And are you kidding? The explorer Juan Cabrillo, though not notably a fan of eugenics, held the lives of indigenous people in the Americas with less than high regard as perhaps evidenced by the fact that lacking tar, he had the habit of caulking his boats with the rendered fat of slain Indians.
Support our journalism.
Hyperlocal news is an essential force in our democracy, but it costs money to keep an organization like this one alive, and we can’t rely on advertiser support alone. That’s why we’re asking readers like you to support our independent, fact-based journalism. We know you like it—that’s why you’re here. Help us keep hyperlocal news alive in Long Beach.