Now is your time, Beckley, to mark a new beginning too long in the waiting. It is time to remove the scar of a racist and segregated history that reflects poorly on this City of Champions and, simultaneously, reach out to Black voices here that for too long have been dismissed or simply and conveniently ignored.
On Saturday, the state of Mississippi and Princeton University, separately, showed the temerity to confront the false heroes and hateful symbols of our shared and ignoble history, embrace a new day and pave a way that all can travel.
Princeton will remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public policy school and one of its residential colleges. The school’s governing board decided that the former president’s “racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school or college whose scholars, students and alumni must stand firmly against racism in all its forms,” Princeton’s president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, said in a statement, according to various news reports.
Meanwhile, in Mississippi, a Republican-controlled Legislature decided that its state flag – the only state banner left in the country with an overt Confederate symbol – would be replaced.
The concurrent messages, from one of our nation’s most elite universities and the darkest recesses of the old South, were clear. It is time to stop hating and to fully wrap our arms around the founding principle of our nation that all are created equal here in America – and all should be treated as such in all manners of life.
Now, it’s Beckley’s turn to take a small step in that same direction. Woodrow Wilson High School needs to be renamed.
Woodrow’s history of how it came to be is not all that complicated, but does provide a casebook example of institutional and systemic racism.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that school segregation based on race was unconstitutional. Slow to react and resistant to change, Beckley school and civic officials got around to integrating its separate white and Black high schools, Woodrow Wilson and Stratton respectively, in 1967.
The new school would adopt all of the history, culture and preferences of the old Woodrow – same name, same mascot, same school colors.
Even Woodrow’s old athletic trophies were saved and are now prominently displayed. Likewise, many white athletes from back in the day are immortalized in the Woodrow Wilson Hall of Fame. Not so for those athletes at Stratton High. And their trophies? Good luck in locating them.
Despite all of that, Black students at the new Woodrow overcame and excelled. In addition to class valedictorians and student body presidents, in addition to homecoming queens and quarterbacks, in addition to earning their diplomas and heading off to some of the nation’s finest schools, Blacks at Woodrow distinguished themselves by any and all measures.
And, yet, they always walked in the shadow of a U.S. president who did not believe whites and Blacks belonged on equal terms. Wilson all but nationalized the Southern view of politics, turning the federal government, for decades, into an instrument of white supremacy. As president, he had overseen the resegregation of federal government offices, including the Treasury Department. In a meeting in the Oval Office with a civil rights leader of the time, Wilson said, “Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit.”
As president of Princeton, according to a New York Times story in 2015, the Virginia-born scholar discouraged a Black prospective student from applying, calling it “altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton.” His textbook “A History of the American People” referred to Reconstruction-era efforts to free the South from “the incubus of that ignorant and often hostile” black vote.
Just four years ago, confronted with campus protests, Princeton trustees voted to keep Wilson’s name on the campus building. But times are different, now – and opinions are shifting quickly underfoot. The majority of Americans side with the Black Lives Matter movement and recognize social and economic inequities along race lines. We see the vast differences of how minorities and whites are treated in the hands of justice. The recent killings of Black men and women have served as tragic reminders.
We can’t change the system if we don’t first acknowledge that the system is all messed up. Folks all across the country, from Princeton, N.J., to Jackson, Miss., are now owning up to the facts.
Beckley needs to step forward, too. We have delayed this moment for too long. But a new day, a new opportunity, has arrived.
There is so much that is messed up in these turbulent times, but this is one thing that we can fix together. Let’s give the largest high school in southern West Virginia a name we can all take pride in, that we can all support.
The time is upon us. Let’s stop being dismissive to what is so painfully obvious.