Woodrow Wilson was a leading progressive who campaigned for workers’ rights and was a seminal force in the creation of the League of Nations.
He was also a segregationist. And a racist.
“Wilson was a racist for his time,” said Eastern Washington University public history professor Larry Cebula. The 28th president’s term ended in 1921 and he died in 1924. “In a racist age, he was particularly racist,” Cebula said.
That legacy prompted a Tacoma man to ask Spokane Public Schools recently to change the name of Wilson Elementary on Spokane’s South Hill.
The board will consider the request, but the likelihood of a change is slim, a district spokesman said.
“The board is harder-pressed with other items right now,” spokesman Kevin Morrison said. If it became an issue locally, he added, “it would certainly motivate us to move more quickly.”
Dan Hasty, of Tacoma, said he lives near that city’s Woodrow Wilson High School. The former president’s policies and views on race have bothered him for years, he said.
“You know it just isn’t right,” Hasty said. “As a black kid you have the choice of sitting down in a building that honors this individual, or not going to public school.”
While in office Wilson segregated the federal government, effectively barring African-Americans from serving in government positions. He also showed “Birth of a Nation,” a movie that glorified the Ku Klux Klan, at the White House and idolized the Old South, Cebula said.
“There is a legacy there that is very troubling,” Hasty said.
So, he sent an email to the Tacoma school district, and then decided to send a similar email to the Spokane district asking both to change the schools’ names.
“I just thought, you know, if it’s unjust in Tacoma it’s unjust wherever it’s happening,” he said.
Susan Chapin, vice president of the Spokane school board, asked Morrison to respond to the email. In that response Morrison said, in part, “please know that the board and Spokane Public Schools superintendent leadership team will give it the thoughtful consideration it deserves.”
That means the issue will be considered at the next superintendent leadership cabinet meeting, which is scheduled for Monday. Any name change would originate at the board level, Morrison said. The exact process for changing the name is unclear. As far as Morrison knows the Spokane school district has never changed a school’s name.
However, Morrison said the most likely way for the change to happen is if there is pressure from Wilson Elementary-area residents.
The principal of Wilson Elementary, Tony Ressa, said in an email that in his eight years in that job he’s never heard of any criticism of the school’s name.
“In that time no parents, staff member, or citizen has approached me regarding steps necessary to rename the site due to the president’s flawed views and policies,” Ressa said.
The school was given that name in 1922.
Naima Quarles-Burnley, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, said she was unaware of any effort to change the name.
Tacoma Public Schools spokesman Dan Voelpel said the district will not change the name of the high school there. A similar call was made by a teacher in Portland to change the name of Woodrow Wilson High School there, with similar results.