Spokane has no Confederates in its closet, but it does have a history that was written largely by the white men who settled the Inland Northwest.
More than a century later, some Spokane citizens would like to revisit that history, to join the rest of the country and have an honest conversation about the power of a name.
Ideally, that discussion will be less about political correctness than the palpable fear of a fourth-grade Native American girl as she walks through the halls of a school named for Gen. Philip Sheridan, the man associated with the statement “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
The girl shared her feelings with Larry Quisano, the principal at Sheridan Elementary School in Spokane.
“She was very transparent with her belief: That when you walk into a school, it means something different to every student who walks in,” Quisano said.
“That’s when I started having conversations,” Quisano said.
At Spokane Public Schools, those conversations have already begun, and none too soon for those who’ve taken more than a cursory look at the buildings’ namesakes.
Or as board member Nikki Lockwood said during a recent meeting, “the demographics of who we name schools after.”
Those demographics aren’t surprising: Of the 45 school buildings in the district, all but five are named after white men.
In some ways, we’re moving backward. Forty years ago, four Spokane school buildings were named after women. Today it’s down to two after two were closed in the 1970s.
Since then, there have been few opportunities to name new schools. None has been built since Moran Prairie Elementary in 1989. However, the district will open three new middle schools after the passage of a capital bond in 2018.
That process was coming along nicely until COVID-19 forced a postponement of the naming process, which had already drawn dozens of suggestions.
Soon after came racial unrest in Spokane and elsewhere following the death of a Black man, George Floyd, while in custody of Minneapolis police officers.
As the Spokane school board moved forward with a racial equity resolution following the protests in Spokane, it also promised to visit the issue of not just naming new schools but possibly renaming others.
We are “using the momentum that we are building with racial equity,” board member Jenny Slagle said.
There will be a process, and it may take a year or two, but it has begun.
“Names are more powerful than most people realize,” Quisano said.
Sheridan’s long ride
By 1908 Spokane was growing so rapidly, new school buildings were going up almost every month.
Naming them was easy because heroes were everywhere – men like pioneer James Glover and territorial governor Isaac Stevens and a lone female, suffragette and Women’s Christian Temperance Union President Frances Willard.
Another easy choice, as seen through the prism of Spokane in 1908, was Sheridan.
Immortalized in the poem “Sheridan’s Ride,” he was a major figure in the latter stages of the Civil War and the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.
High praise came from the top. Commanding General of the United States Army Ulysses S. Grant once said, “I believe General Sheridan has no superior as a general, either living or dead, and perhaps not an equal.”
If only Sheridan had stopped there, Native Americans have wished ever since.
Sheridan went on to play a major role in what was termed the “pacification of the Plains.” He commanded the Military Division of the Missouri, which attacked several tribes in their winter quarters, taking their food, killing those who resisted and driving the rest back into their reservations.
In 1869, Sheridan supposedly told a Comanche chief that “the only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”
Sheridan denied making the statement, but the words were passed on by a U.S. Army lieutenant who was there, and it was honed into an American aphorism: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
Sheridan also urged the slaughter of millions of Plains buffalo, thereby depriving Native Americans of their principal source of food and forcing them into reservations.
Those efforts succeeded, and a grateful nation erected dozens of monuments to the famous cavalryman: statues, boulevards, highways and schools.
The first Sheridan Elementary School in Spokane, two stories of brick with 154 students in eight classrooms, went up in 1908 at Fifth Avenue and Freya Street after streetcars linked downtown to the growing East Central neighborhood.
So much had changed by 1980. East Central became more diverse – and poorer. Today, almost half the student body is nonwhite or multiracial, and more than 90% qualify for free- and reduced-price meals.
Quisano has been fighting an underdog’s battle since he immigrated to Hawaii from the Philippines as a young boy.
He didn’t speak a word of English when the family settled into a tough part of Honolulu. His first job in Spokane was at Rogers High School, but they didn’t always call it that.
“We referred to ourselves as Hillyard High,” Quisano said. “When we started making Hillyard a point of emphasis, we started making progress with student pride.”
For the same reason, Quisano started referring to Sheridan as “East Central Elementary.”
If students’ feelings don’t align with the name of the school, they need to find something else to be proud of, Quisano said.
Taking a closer look
Sheridan may be the low-hanging fruit in any discussion on renaming, but others are within easy reach.
Of the 45 buildings in Spokane Public Schools, 12 are named for their location or neighborhood.
They include North Central High School and 11 elementaries: Indian Trail, Westview, Lidgerwood, Linwood, Woodridge, Lincoln Heights, Garland, Arlington, Regal, Moran Prairie and Ridgeview.
Some of these neighborhoods, however, take their names from people. Lincoln Heights, for example, is named for the 16th American president. Lidgerwood was named by John and Harriet Lidgerwood, who were among those who originally developed the neighborhood in 1889.
Another 16 are named for prominent figures in Spokane and regional history: explorers Sacajawea, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark; doctor and missionary Marcus Whitman; road builder and soldier John Mullan; territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens; Gov. John Rogers; city fathers James Glover and Levi Hutton; educators Isaac Libby, John Shaw and Frances Willard; philanthropists Joel E. Ferris, Eugene Shadle and John Finch; longtime Parks Board President Laurence Hamblen; and James Chase, Spokane’s only Black mayor and longtime president of the local NAACP chapter.
The rest are named for people who have little or no connection to Spokane, unless you count President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit in 1903.
Roosevelt drew the biggest crowd the city had ever seen, and the school district was so impressed, it erected a fine two-story brick schoolhouse in Roosevelt’s honor on the rapidly growing South Hill.
The others are politicians and poets, mostly – presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Garfield, Ulysses Grant and Woodrow Wilson; Benjamin Franklin; literary figures James Fenimore Cooper, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes; generals Sheridan and John Logan; naturalist John J. Audubon; polio vaccine inventor Jonas Salk; and Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa.
When the conversation begins, expect a handful of names to come up, partly because they’ve already been raised in other parts of the country.
Only last week, Princeton University removed the name of its most distinguished alumnus, Wilson, from its school of public policy and a resident college.
Wilson, president of Princeton before being elected U.S. President in 1912, pursued racist policies in both offices, including the exclusion of African American students and the segregation of the civil service after it had already been integrated.
Jefferson and Roosevelt are facing scrutiny for similar reasons.
Although Jefferson authored “All men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence and other works critical of slavery, he was a slave owner and fostered faulty scientific reason to justify laws that protected slavery and white supremacy.
According to James Bradley’s “The Imperial Cruise,” Roosevelt stated that African Americans were a “backward race” and that the “greatest evil” of slavery was that white men and African Americans had to coexist.
In other statements, however, he said whites and Blacks should be treated equally, and he was the first president to host an African American for dinner at the White House. The meal with Booker T. Washington provoked shock and outrage from many whites.
Balboa, the only Hispanic in the group, is one of the most recent honorees. In 1960, when a new school was planned for the Pacific Heights neighborhood in northwest Spokane, the district named it for the first European to view the Pacific Ocean.
However, historians point out Balboa and his soldiers killed hundreds of Native Americans along the way, and that Balboa was driven by his quest for gold, not new lands.
Another man who never set foot in Spokane, John A. Logan, was honored with the opening of an elementary school in northeast Spokane in 1892.
A general in the Civil War, he was the driving force for the establishment of Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day, as a national holiday.
However, decades earlier, Logan helped pass a law in his native Illinois prohibiting all African Americans, including freedmen, from settling in the state.
In 1989, community activists in Lansing, Michigan, persuaded the City Council to co-rename Logan Street as Martin Luther King Boulevard. Logan’s name was dropped completely a few years later.
Perhaps the most complicated, controversial figure of all is Mullan, who overcame all manner of obstacles in building the road from Oregon to the Inland Northwest and into Montana.
A soldier, explorer, civil servant and entrepreneur, Mullan fought Indians near present-day Airway Heights in 1858.
However, he had a reputation for fairness and disagreed with his commanding officer, Col. George Wright, over the hanging of the chiefs at Latah Creek.
He also saved a 14-year-old Indian boy whom Wright planned to execute by promising to be responsible for the youth.
However, a few years later Mullan voiced his displeasure that “negro suffrage was forced upon the people” following the Civil War.
Mullan also believed government was “a white man’s government” and that laws should be written “by white men, for the benefit of white men.”
Time to talk
“What a fun time to discuss social issues,” Quisano said in the wake of recent unrest in Spokane and elsewhere.
He hopes the conversations on renaming will be just that.
That isn’t likely. At North Central, student-led conversations over removing the “Indians” nickname have faced mixed reviews.
A district push for renaming will face several arguments: In a city which is 86 % white, the ratios are just about right; the conversation is being driven because three of five school board members are people of color; and if you dig deep enough, flaws can be found in anyone.
That misses the point, Quisano argues.
“History is how it’s perceived by all people,” Quisano said.
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