La. board strips Washington's name from school Parish policy forbids honoring anyone who owned slaves

November 12, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW ORLEANS -- By the reckoning of John Riley, the historian at Mount Vernon, there are about 450 schools in the United States named for George Washington.

Now there is one less.

Following a policy that prohibits school names honoring "former slave owners or others who did not respect equal opportunity for all," the Orleans Parish School Board voted unanimously Oct. 27 to change the name of George Washington Elementary to Dr. Charles Richard Drew Elementary.

The new name pays tribute to a black surgeon known for developing methods to preserve blood plasma and for protesting the Army's practice of segregating donated blood by race.

The renaming of the 74-year-old school in the city's Bywater neighborhood, the 22nd such name change in New Orleans in five years, is the latest milestone in a concerted effort by blacks across the South to assert their vision of a biracial history that has traditionally been defined only by whites.

Since the school board's policy was adopted in December 1992, New Orleans schools have purged the names of Confederate generals, slave-owning governors and even the black founder of an orphanage who, like Washington, happened to own slaves.

A school once named for Robert E. Lee, for instance, is now named for Ronald McNair, a black astronaut killed in the Challenger explosion in 1986.

But never before, either here or apparently elsewhere in the country, has a school shed the name of a figure as central to the national identity as Washington.

And that has raised questions about whether efforts to broaden history, if taken too far, may sometimes distort it as well.

Opponents of the decision, and there have not been many in this city in which blacks are in the majority, argue that it does not account for the totality of Washington's achievements or the mores of his times.

But in a school district where 91 percent of the students are black, and where the school board is controlled by a five-to-two black majority, the decision underscores the maxim that history is written by those with the power.

"Why should African-Americans want their kids to pay respect or pay homage to someone who enslaved their ancestors?" asked Carl Galmon, a longtime civil rights leader in New Orleans who has led the campaign to change school names.

"This was the most degrading thing that ever happened in North America, and Washington was a part of it.

"To African-Americans, George Washington has about as much meaning as David Duke."

Those on the other side of the debate contend that by the standards of the day, Washington was moderate on slavery, pointing out that he provided for the emancipation of his slaves after his death.

"What I find objectionable," said William B. Gwyn, a retired professor of political science at Tulane University here, "is the rather unhistorical approach to changing these names, that anyone who ever owned slaves is to be dishonored by the New Orleans school board without looking at the circumstances with which the slaves were held.

"The fact is that with Washington, he opposed the institution and ultimately freed his slaves."

Pub Date: 11/12/97

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