Change has come just four years after Princeton University trustees voted to keep Woodrow Wilson’s name attached to its School of Public and International Affairs, and the same could happen for other local institutions.
The university released a statement June 26 stating that its board of trustees voted to rename the school, as well as Wilson College—reversing its 2016 decision. The school will now go by the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, and Wilson College will be known as First College.
Princeton Public Schools is also eyeing a similar change, led by resident Geoffrey Allen, whose petition to rename John Witherspoon Middle School has racked up over 1,500 signatures since early July.
“The town of Princeton has made clear demonstration of their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and Princeton Public Schools has issued multiple statements claiming to counter racism for the sake of all Black employees, students in the district, and the rest of the community,” Allen wrote. “This change is imperative, as the school’s name and Witherspoon’s legacy creates a hostile environment for both the middle school and district’s racially diverse student body.”
At the university, the fight to remove Wilson’s name from the school began in 2015. Students urged officials to reexamine his legacy—he served as president of the university, governor of New Jersey and president of the United States, but he also enacted segregationist policies and allowed a racist system to thrive under his administration.
Students protested, including a nearly two-day-long sit-in at Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber’s office, and the school responded by establishing the Wilson Legacy Review Committee. Members examined Wilson’s legacy over the course of a year, and while the conclusion of the process brought a number of reforms to Princeton as a whole, the board ultimately decided in 2016 to keep Wilson’s name on the School of Public and International Affairs.
Change was overdue this year, though, Eisgruber said in a statement issued by the university.
“Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time,” he wrote. “He segregated the federal civil service after it had been racially integrated for decades, thereby taking America backward in its pursuit of justice. He not only acquiesced in but added to the persistent practice of racism in this country, a practice that continues to do harm today.”
Eisgruber specifically cited the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks as motivation to once again reexamine Wilson’s legacy and what his name could contribute to the school.
“When a university names a school of public policy for a political leader, it inevitably suggests that the honoree is a model for students who study at the school,” he wrote. “This searing moment in American history has made clear that Wilson’s racism disqualifies him from that role. In a nation that continues to struggle with racism, this University and its school of public and international affairs must stand clearly and firmly for equality and justice.”
Eisgruber wrote that the distinction between Wilson’s “achievements and failures” will differ between some. He added that while Wilson’s brand of racism wasn’t necessarily as overt as that of other historical figures, like Robert E. Lee, it was still racism, and that is why change was overdue.
“Princeton honored Wilson not because of, but without regard to or perhaps even in ignorance of, his racism,” he wrote. “That, however, is ultimately the problem. Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored, or excused racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against Black people. When Derek Chauvin knelt for nearly nine minutes on George Floyd’s neck while bystanders recorded his cruelty, he might have assumed that the system would disregard, ignore, or excuse his conduct, as it had done in response to past complaints against him.”
A similar reckoning has begun in Princeton proper. Geoffrey Allen, a Princeton Public Schools graduate, and other alumni started a petition to rename John Witherspoon Middle School. Witherspoon owned slaves and opposed abolition, and Allen—and the 1,500 others who have signed his petition—is ready for his attachment to the school district to end.
In response, the school district hosted a remote meeting July 23 to discuss the potential for renaming the school. The meeting lasted for two hours, and over 100 residents participated. The discussion, held over Zoom, was recorded and can be watched on the district’s website.
“There are many members of the Princeton community who deserve to be honored,” Allen said during the meeting. Princeton is home to many figures, such as the activist Paul Robeson. There are even several former slaves, such as Betsy Stockton and Silvia Dubois, who have positively impacted local history. This is the opportune time to highlight these contributions.”
Others suggested first lady Michelle Obama, a Princeton University graduate, and civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis, who died last month. Princeton Public Schools, however, has a policy in place that prevents naming buildings after people.
Princeton Public Schools alumnus Benito Gonzalez, who now teaches and is a member of the Equity Committee at the middle school, spoke at the meeting and thought the policy could use an update.
“I do appreciate the board’s efforts to move on from the name of John Witherspoon, but I do think we should use this opportunity to honor another influential individual from a historically underrepresented group of people,” he said. “It could be a person of color, a member of the LGBT community, another historically marginalized group. I guess these feelings are coming from a lot of different places, whether it’s being Latino, whether it’s being a member of the equity team at JW, being a social studies teacher, a former student. But I just think if we don’t actively name our school after someone from one of these groups and instead choose something plain, direct and straightforward, I think we’re just going to be ignoring the real issue of the relative lack of representation of people of color, Black people, women, LGBTQ, others in history.”
He cited the former Thomas Mundy Peterson Elementary School in Perth Amboy, named after the first Black man to vote in the United States. Gonzalez attended the school and said the name instilled a lot of pride in both students and the city as a whole. This, he said, is possible in Princeton, too.
The meeting, Allen said, was the school board’s largest-ever. He considers it a success, but added that there is more he and his group hope to accomplish. Another meeting was scheduled for July 28, after this edition went to press.
“It has been an honor to be a part of something greater for our Princeton community,” he said. “I look forward to making more ‘good trouble’ with you all.”
Gonzalez expressed a similar sentiment.
“It shouldn’t be the only thing we do to address issues of equity, for sure,” he said. “It’s only one part of it. But I think intentional representation does really matter, and it would be a step in the right direction.”