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COMMENTARY: School renaming highlights importance of acknowledging history, peaceful protesting
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COMMENTARY: School renaming highlights importance of acknowledging history, peaceful protesting

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Woodrow Wilson

Kannapolis City Schools voted unanimously Monday to rename Woodrow Wilson Elementary School to North Kannapolis Elementary School after a student started a petition to change the name citing the 28th President's racist rhetoric.


The Board of Education’s decision to rename Woodrow Wilson Elementary School this week was a polarizing one. On the district’s Facebook post alone, there were 450 reactions, 503 comments and 391 shares.

On two separate stories on this subject on the Independent Tribune website, there have been 435 reactions, 378 comments and 163 shares. This is a subject that ignited a reaction — and you know what? It should.

But it also should be an example for how these types of issues should be approached. There was no tearing down of property, no defacing of images and no violence to be seen. This truly was peaceful. Someone wanted change, brought the issue to a group who could make the change, and they acted accordingly.

Our country could learn a lot from how this was done, but at the same time, this doesn’t mean the conversation should end. This is a nuanced discussion, and one that should just be beginning.

About Woodrow WilsonI love history. I considered becoming a history major in college, but I wasn’t quite sure what I would do with it, so I decided on journalism instead. I love to read about the past and learn how one thing affected another and incited differences down the line.

However, I haven’t taken a history class in about a decade. So, honestly, when I heard about the petition started to change the name of Woodrow Wilson Elementary because he was a “racist man,” I honestly said, “Wait, what?”

This is something I either didn’t remember or was never even presented as a student, and it caught me off-guard, but it also did something good for me — it made me take a step back and look at what I thought I knew.

So I went and looked up Wilson’s record and did see some of the negatives that came along with his presidency. However, that simply took a short dive into his Wikipedia page — and let’s be honest, that might not be the most perfect source of information — so I wanted to get news from a better source.

In studying journalism in college, two things truly stuck with me: 1. Always be skeptical and 2. If someone can say something better than you, let them say it.

You guys don’t care what I say about Wilson, but if I could get someone of authority to talk about him, then that would carry some weight. That’s why I took a shot in the dark and reached out to John M. Cooper who — literally — wrote the book on Wilson.

A simple discussion with him was enlightening, but it also reinforced the fact that we should know the whole story and that there is always nuance to history.

Cooper told me about how Wilson’s administration tried to formalize segregation in the workplace and he essentially let them try it out. That alone would be enough — in my mind — to consider not honoring him with the name of a school. However, remember that I mentioned nuance, and there is nuance to this point in history.

For one, it wasn’t Wilson’s idea. It was actually people in his administration, and it was a bit of a carryover from Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft’s times as presidents. This is an important distinction. But, what is also important is that he didn’t do anything to stop it, and that is something that cannot be forgotten.

“In racial terms, it’s a bad era in American history,” Cooper said. “The abandonment of civil rights and of Black rights generally was there. And people operated in that veneer.”

But the way Wilson dealt with this actually gives a glimpse into the man and how he operated as president. And for that matter, it gave a glimpse into how the North treated segregation at the same time. Spoiler alert: While everyone bashes the South for segregation and racism, this did not preclude the North from the same sins.

Wilson was born in Virginia and was the first president from the South since Zachery Taylor in 1848. His family moved to Augusta, Georgia, when Wilson was 2 years old and then to Columbia, South Carolina, when he was 14. He went to Davidson College for a year before moving to New Jersey. He spent the rest of his life in the North. “This shaped much of his thinking,” Cooper said.

“The best way I’ve been able to characterize Woodrow Wilson on race is that he was really a Northern white man of his time,” Cooper said. “They make much too much out of him having been born and raised in the South. He lived his entire adult life in the North for one thing, but the distinction there is not to take Northerners off the hook and say they weren’t racist — they were — that’s the trouble.

“When you look at white America at that point, it’s kind of ‘who wasn’t?’ Yes, of course, there were some good, enlightened people who weren’t, but by and large, racial stereotypes and all of that stuff, that was the way it was. The difference is between a Northerner at this time and a white Southerner of this time is, for the white Southerner, race is always lurking somewhere. White supremacy is a cherished value, a cherished ideal, a cherished state that’s got to be defended at just about all costs and they always, kind of, have their antennae quivering to any threat of white supremacy.”

He continued: “For the white Northerner: ‘Race? Ah, it’s a pesky distraction, other things are more important.’ And the sense there, too, for Northerners … for them : ‘Race, oh, that’s a Southern problem, let them take care of it down there,’ … so Wilson comes out of that.”

Cooper summed it up perfectly — in my opinion — in this way on Wilson: “In one sense, yes, you can say he was a racist, but the problem is, if you say that, the next question is, and I know this is going to sound like ‘Well, so is your old man,’ but, the next question is ‘among prominent white Americans of that time, who wasn’t?’”

This is — to an extent — why the petition started in Kannapolis was even deeper than some may have acknowledged. While this was about changing the name of this one school, the title says so much more: “Eroding White Supremacy in Kannapolis.”

Whether this was intended, it truly touches on the fact that — while they were simply trying to change one name — there is a much bigger story than that here. Wilson’s time — and the time of many during his era — needs to be looked at in its entirety, as does the time of many of the people we honor.

Wilson did some great things for this nation, but he had some negative effects as well. History is about knowing the entire story, not just what we want to hear. Wilson’s time is the perfect example of that.

How change should be madeThis generation of young people is different. I have learned that over and over in my time as a writer. My first half decade or so out of college was spent as a prep sports writer, and it was a very enlightening time for me.

When I was in high school, I was there to get my diploma, play some sports along the way and get into college. I found in my time as a sports writer that these students want so much more. They want to make a positive impact on those around them and incite change.

Brock Morgan started a petition with the hope of making a change. He did that exact thing, and he did it the right way. He started a petition, got some attention, and the Board of Education listened. They heard what he was asking for and made a change.

This is how change should be made. While there is an argument to be made about removing certain statues in this nation, I personally believe there is a right way to go about it and a wrong way. While the renaming of Woodrow Wilson Elementary was not a statue, the change was made in the right way.

Some statues that have been removed have been done the right way as well, but there is certainly a wrong way. A perfect example came from Wisconsin last week when angry people tore down the statue of Hans Christian Heg.

Heg was an abolitionist who found slavery abhorrent. He was an outspoken activist and part of an anti-slave catcher militia. Out of anger, protesters tore his statue down. They likely didn’t know the man’s story and just wanted to tear things down. This is a perfect example of what not to do.

Morgan set an example of exactly what to do. He found something he believed that should be changed, peacefully came up with a way to ask for it, and those in authority listened.

“These are important issues during an important time, and we need to listen and respond in ways that lead us forward,” Superintendent Chip Buckwell said in a news release. “We, as a district, should reflect our students and community. KCS remains dedicated to our work toward anti-racist, culturally responsive practices.”

Morgan’s actions got this done. And they did so without unrest or anger, but through peaceful, well-thought-out civil protest.

We could all learn something from this.

Not everyone will be happyThere’s no way around it; not everyone is going to be happy about the change. In fact, there were plenty of people who weren’t on both the Independent Tribune’s website as well as on KCS’s Facebook page.

“Glad to see our tax dollars are hard at work erasing national history,” one commenter wrote.

Or, more simply put by another person, “Disagree!!!”

Others were for the change, though, showing the polarizing nature of actions like this.

“PROUD of my former student!! Shout out to you for doing your research and promoting change within our community!” one said.

“When we know better, we do better,” another added.

To me, that is the crux of the point. While some may see this as erasing history, I would personally agree that there might be a danger of that. However, if we move to tell the whole story — including the good and the bad — then I think this can be a good thing.

I know more about Wilson now. I learned something. I learned that he did say some racist things and was probably a racist man. Does that erase all the good things he did? I don’t believe it does. But we can’t talk about Wilson without also acknowledging the bad that came along with his presidency.

Because when we know the bad that people did, we can learn and try to improve ourselves. As a nation, we need to learn from our mistakes. Wilson made mistakes, and we can learn from them.

“When we know better, we do better.”

I’m not sure anyone could have said it better.

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