Over the past few weeks, as protestors have toppled Confederate statues and other racist monuments nationwide, they’ve also kicked off a broader conversation about what it means to truly know our history, whose legacies are worth celebrating, and—most important—how much else we could be commemorating.
Even in stone and brass, the fact is that people like Robert E. Lee and Junipero Serra—a Spanish friar who tortured, shackled, and enslaved Native peoples to build Catholic missions in California—have been taking up space that Black people and non-Black people of color should fill.
And it’s not just traitors and war criminals who need to make room for more representative voices.
Across America, there are at least 322 public schools that bear George Washington’s name—not to mention countless other buildings, dozens of towns, thousands of streets, and statues of all sizes. There are reasons to recognize Washington, but there are also reasons to call into question how and where he’s been memorialized. In the Bay Area, for example, George Washington High School is named after our first president, even though Washington never visited California during his lifetime, and the region didn’t become part of the United States until a half-century after his death.
That’s why, this month, I helped launch a petition to rename San Francisco’s George Washington High School after its most distinguished alumna—the iconic poet, author, and activist Maya Angelou. In just the first three days, more than 15,000 people added their names; since then, the total is almost at 22,000.
Angelou not only attended Washington High during the 1940s—where a yearbook photographer captured the only known image of her as a student—she also wrote about it in her most famous work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The San Francisco School Board should embrace the school’s direct connection to one of the greatest writers of the 20th century by renaming the school in her honor. Replacing Washington’s name, which is already so ubiquitous, should not be controversial.
Or so you’d think.
Even though, in 2020, this proposal has garnered over 20,000 signatures in just one week—and counting—it actually sparked death threats in 2016, when then school-board member Matt Haney first proposed to rename the school after Angelou. Ever since, a small but vocal group of Washington High School alumni have taken a hard line against the change.
But like the racist statue of Theodore Roosevelt—which depicts our 26th president as a triumphant colonialist on horseback, accompanied by subjugated Black and Native American men and which, thanks to protestors, will soon be removed from New York’s American Museum of Natural History—the namesake of George Washington High School matters far less than the specific aspects of Washington’s legacy it chooses to celebrate. For example, consider the 13 murals depicting “The Life of George Washington” that adorn the halls. One shows the school’s namesake standing over the dead body of an Indigenous man. Another features enslaved Black people, hunched over, working the fields of his Mount Vernon estate. Yet another portrays a Native American with a scalp hanging from his waist.
These images are not part of any curriculum or museum exhibition that might situate them in an appropriate context. And without context, they amount to little more than graphic scenes of racist violence on the walls of a public school, where children—including Black and Indigenous children—are expected to learn every day.
Unsurprisingly, this casual relationship with racist violence has seeped into the school’s culture. “Let’s meet under the dead Indian” is a common refrain among students, and Lateefah Simon—a Washington alumna and coauthor of our petition—remembers how the murals took a toll.
“I was the BSU president in 1995. Black students walked up those stairs each day amid images George Washington gleefully adoring the fruits of racial terror,” she told me. “What we are asking is not a rebuke of history, but an evolving acknowledgment of our hero-icons."
Renaming the high school—and removing or covering the murals, as students and activists have been imploring the district to do for years, despite objections and legal challenges from the alumni association—would be an enormous step in the right direction. As University of Missouri professor Ashley Woodson told The Atlantic in 2017, “any racist symbol is a detriment to the wholeness and development of young people as civic agents.” Removing even a symbolic “reminder of the explicit and legally supported subordination of your community…is very powerful.”
Of course, the affirmative case for renaming Maya Angelou’s alma mater is not about the white man she’d be replacing. It is, first and foremost, about her.
We often think of Angelou the writer. But she was also a fearless activist—a pioneer of the civil rights movement and a good friend of both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. As a reporter covering Africa’s decolonization, as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and as a pathbreaking screenwriter and performer, she didn’t just chronicle history; she helped to shape it.
With such a direct, unique, and historic connection to a global icon, it’s inconceivable that—rather than celebrate its most distinguished alumna—the San Francisco School Board has chosen to maintain the 322nd public school in America to be named after a slaveholder from the opposite coast. And this isn’t lost on current and former students.
“As a Black alumnus of George Washington High School, I never had conversations about why we idolized someone who owned slaves and fought to create a country that called Black people three-fifths of a person,” recalls Talia Moore, another coauthor of our petition, who graduated in 2015.
By contrast, Moore says, “seeing Maya Angelou represent the school would show a sense of pride and comfort knowing the place you go to take classes…represents a person in history that the public education system poorly acknowledges and often erases. It would also be a powerful learning tool for non-Black students and staff to center the voices and stories in this country that are often overlooked in and outside of the classroom.”
There’s very little data on how many U.S. schools are named after Black Americans, but it’s clear there are far too few. Fewer still are named after Black women. And although a small handful of institutions across the country bear Maya Angelou’s name—a minuscule fraction of Washington’s 322—there are no schools named after her in San Francisco, her hometown.
It’s time for the school board to change this. It’s time to create a healthier and more inclusive learning environment. And it’s time to honor this phenomenal woman—who once walked these mural-adorned halls—by welcoming San Francisco’s next class of rising freshmen to Maya Angelou High School.
Originally Appeared on Glamour