Camden School Superintendent Katrina McCombs said the district this summer will rename Woodrow Wilson High School, one of its two traditional high schools, citing the segregationist views and ideas of the former president that in recent years have drastically reshaped his legacy.
McCombs said the decision, announced this week, came in light of the outrage and protests around the country following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis.
“Our students will walk into a new building not tied to a racist past,” McCombs said Friday.
Renaming the school will fall to a committee of current Wilson students, alumni, and community leaders.
The action follows similar steps across the country, as protesters seeking racial justice following the killings of Floyd and other black men have focused on removing monuments honoring figures from Confederate soldiers to Christopher Columbus. Philadelphia took down a controversial statue of former Mayor Frank L. Rizzo.
Rutgers-Camden said this week it would cover up a mosaic frieze on a campus building that depicts Native American figures and that some in the community have labeled racist.
The frieze, titled “America Receiving the Gifts of Nations,” was designed by D’Ascenzo Studios of Philadelphia in 1916. Its message reflects the mistreatment of Native Americans by the federal government, said artist Kimberly Camp. ”It should be covered up and used to tell the story in the right way,” said Camp, who owns Galerie Marie in Collingswood.
A university spokesperson, Mike Sepanic, said the university will obscure the frieze for now and later explore a long-term option. ”Rutgers-Camden is a place of inclusion. The image depicted on this frieze does not reflect those values,” he said.
The decision to honor Wilson with his name on a school is nearly as old. Located on Federal Street in East Camden, Woodrow Wilson High School opened as a junior high school in 1930. It became a high school in 1933.
As president from 1913 to 1921, Wilson was known for progressive policies and leadership during World War I. But he also oversaw unprecedented segregation in federal offices, with workers separated by race. That racist legacy has come to the forefront in recent years.
At Princeton University, where Wilson served as president between 1902 and 1910, students have protested to have his name and image removed from the Ivy League campus. Wilson was also a former New Jersey governor.
Monmouth University said it also would rename a building that had honored Wilson.
McCombs said the predominantly black and Hispanic public school system, which enrolls about 6,000 students, began talking about how to tackle systemic racism after a district-wide day off earlier this month to reflect on Floyd’s death.
McCombs, who was educated in Camden schools, announced plans to rename Wilson during her monthly report to the advisory school board this week.
”Can you really feel valued if you attend a school named after someone with some pretty strong racial values?” asked district spokesperson Alisha Brown.
The superintendent said Wilson is the only school name the district is considering changing. The district has 19 buildings.