Woodrow Wilson’s ‘racist’ views spur student push to rename Dallas high school

Dallas, Texas – Some students say former President Woodrow Wilson shouldn’t be honored with his name on their Dallas high school because of racist ideals he seemed to support.

A petition to change the name now has more than 1,300 signatures. It urges the Dallas school board to act, saying Wilson’s policies deliberately and intentionally destroyed Black middle-class communities.

“Because of the Black Lives Matter movement, it really made me think about why Woodrow Wilson — despite his racist thinking — is on our school, which is a mostly minority majority school,” said Cameron McElhenie, a senior at the high school who describes himself as half Hispanic and half white.

The high school opened in 1928 and was named after the 28th president, who was in office during World War I and received the Nobel Peace Prize for being the architect behind the League of Nations effort that sought to maintain peace throughout the world.

McElhenie said he was doing research when he stumbled upon references to Wilson’s more complicated legacy, which included support of expanded and formalized segregation of the federal workforce. Wilson also allowed Birth of A Nation, originally titled The Clansman, to be the first movie screened at the White House even though it celebrated the Ku Klux Klan.

McElhenie started the petition shortly after Princeton University trustees voted last week to remove Wilson’s name from the university’s public policy school and residential college.

“We have taken this extraordinary step because we believe that Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school whose scholars, students, and alumni must be firmly committed to combatting the scourge of racism in all its forms,” Princeton officials said in a statement.

Dallas ISD trustee Dustin Marshall, who represents the part of Dallas that includes the high school, pointed to the district’s established process for seeking name changes.

“I applaud student advocacy and activism in all forms,” he wrote in a text message responding to questions about the name. He added, “I will work to engage local community members to get feedback on the matter from all interested groups.”

In general, DISD policy allows for renaming a school after 50 years. Wilson opened in 1928. Recommendations should come from a panel from the community of the school in question, which could include at least one member of the site-based decision-making committee, a parent-teacher group or a member of the administration.

Proposed changes must be submitted to the board by April 1 each year, with trustees reviewing information the following month and voting on any recommendations at their June meeting, according to DISD policy.

The board could appoint a committee to study proposed name changes and suggest possible names.

Following the national outcry over the killing of George Floyd, who was Black, by a white police officer in May, Princeton joined many institutions in taking another look at names and symbols in their systems.

In 2015, students at Princeton, where Wilson was a graduate and one-time university president, protested over the frequent use of his name on campus. A committee formed in response did not recommend removing the name but instead focused on ways the university should be more inclusive.

The committee analyzed works about Wilson by scholars and biographers and noted in its report that it was clear Wilson held “racist views and took or permitted racist actions.”

The panel credited Wilson for transforming Princeton into a renowned institution but noted that he opposed the idea of admitting Black students.

The committee’s report goes on to highlight some of his accomplishments, such as advocating for women’s right to vote, creating the Federal Reserve System, enacting labor laws and leading the country during World War I, as well as proposing the League of Nations.

But the report also noted that he presided over expanded and formalized segregation in the federal workplace and brought “racial views to issues of foreign policy.”

Last week, Princeton trustees revisited the use of Wilson’s name and decided to scrub it from the policy school but keep it on an alumni honor that was created as part of a gift to the school with the legal obligation to name the prize.

“As our nation wrestles with its history in this moment, it is important, especially at institutions committed to seeking the truth, that we recognize the complexity of historical figures and that we examine the entirety of their impact on the world,” the trustees wrote in their statement.

Dallas has previously renamed schools with ties to Confederate leaders including Stonewall Jackson, William L. Cabell, Albert Sidney Johnston and Robert E. Lee.

Earlier this month, the Birdville school board in Tarrant County voted to remove the Rebel mascot from Richland High School after hundreds of students marched in protest over the continued use of the symbol with Confederate ties.

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