https://www.nj.com/education/2021/11/nj-district-will-restart-renaming-of-woodrow-wilson-school-says-process-will-be-inclusive.html

Nearly a year and a half after first announcing the change, the Camden school district has restarted the process of renaming Woodrow Wilson High School.

Renaming the 90-year-old school gained traction in the summer of 2020 in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis. But it grew out of concerns expressed by residents long before then, including a Change.org petition launched in 2019 to support the measure.

When officially announced last June, Camden Superintendent Katrina McCombs thanked the community which, “raised the concern about the school being named after an individual who expressed and demonstrated racist values.”

A renaming committee of over 100 members — including parents, local activists, and school administrators — was then formed and met over Zoom to discuss options. Among the contenders for the new name at the time was the late Civil Rights giant, U.S. Rep. John Lewis; former President Barack Obama and late Camden school board president Martha Wilson. East High School and Camden East (or East Camden) High School were also under consideration.

However, the school district paused plans at the end of the summer, saying it had to focus on the new school year given COVID-19 protocols.

During the Oct. 26 school board meeting, district officials said the process will start anew with a 10-person committee led by Elton Custis, board member and chair of the policy and government subcommittee. Anyone interested in joining the renaming committee must fill out a questionnaire, which the district said will soon be available online.

A school spokesman said this past week that, “it’s too early in the process to speculate on specifics names.” A reason was not provided for starting the renaming process from scratch.

“We are proud that our schools represent places of diversity and inclusion, and we plan to increase our efforts to reshape the identity of this venerable and cherished school. We plan to collaboratively work with current Wilson students, parents, alumni, and community leaders on an inclusive process to rename the school,” the Camden school district said in a statement to NJ Advance Media. “The district is grateful for the collaboration and support of the community on these efforts and looks forward to completing this significant project.”

Wilson, a Democrat born and raised in Virginia, was president of the United States from 1913 to 1921. Prior to that, he was the governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913.

The first southerner to be elected president since 1848, Wilson has been both praised and vilified for his time in office. He racially re-segregated parts of the U.S. government. He also made sweeping changes, including launching the Federal Reserve Bank system and helping the Allied powers win World War I.

When Princeton University removed the alumni and former university president from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College last year, the school’s board of trustees said, “we believe that Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school whose scholars, students, and alumni must be firmly committed to combating the scourge of racism in all its forms.”

Yocontalie “Connie” Jackson, a Grammy award-nominated Gospel artist who graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1976, said she was initially split on the decision to rename the school.

“After doing research though, I found out Woodrow Wilson was a very racist figure and I didn’t want my school named after him, so I was and continue to be definitely for it,” said Jackson, a Camden-native.

A member of the initial renaming committee, Jackson said she was frustrated about how the process has panned out so far and hopes the work of the first committee doesn’t go to waste.

“The individuals who were part of that process should be part of this one (too), and my hope is that it is an open process, where people will still be able to vote and contribute …we should not just include the students that went there before but those that are there now,” said Jackson, who noted that she favored renaming the building Camden East High School.

Councilman Chris Collins, who also runs local publication Anointed News Journal, said honoring the late board president in the renaming would be most appropriate.

“Even though Ms. Martha Wilson was a Camden High graduate, she stood for everybody and especially in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death we need to honor someone who stood for all people, for all cultures,” Collins said. “If the school was named after Ms. Martha Wilson, alumni would also still be able to say I went to Wilson.”

Jose Delgado, a former school board member who was also part of the initial committee, said renaming the school could also be a teachable moment.

“When we renamed (Rafael Cordero) Molina Elementary School in North Camden we landed on the name after narrowing it down from a long list and having the top five people voted on. Everyone from the janitor to the principal to the students got a say and it became educational for the kids,” Delgado said. “We could also see this as an opportunity to teach students about the election process.”

Delgado said establishing a thorough and transparent process for renaming the school will be important for posterity – giving insight to future school leaders and community members over how and why the change was made. He also thinks it’s vital the district keeps in mind the majority Hispanic population that inhabits East Camden where the school is located.

Woodrow Wilson High School was built in 1930 as a junior high school and converted into a high school in 1933. Among its prominent graduates include football player Mike Rozier, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1983, and Camden’s former Mayor Francisco “Frank” Moran.

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Steven Rodas may be reached at srodas@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him @stevenrodasnj.

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