Fargo School Board takes first step toward renaming Woodrow Wilson High School
FARGO — The Fargo School Board has taken a first step toward renaming Woodrow Wilson High School by unanimously passing a motion to begin the process of renaming school buildings Thursday, Aug. 11.
Following that action, however, a different motion by board member Seth Holden to temporarily rename the building to Fargo Community High School or refer to the building as a plant number failed to pass by a tie vote.
Administration already has a process on naming school buildings, but not for renaming them, Superintendent Rupak Gandhi said. Many board members felt public input was vital before a name change.
Nikkie Gullickson, a board member, wanted to change the name temporarily to show the community that action was being taken.
“If this is inflammatory and this is concerning, I’m not sure we should wait,” Gullickson said. "When I hear it's been three years, I knew it had been some time, but the events of recent (times) have pushed us to be responsive. There's been no one who has said, 'please keep this name.'"
Barry Nelson, the past chair of the Fargo Human Relations Commission, and school board President Rebecca Knutson were also concerned about a temporary name because the school board might be setting precedents that cannot be taken back, she said.
"We don't need to dream up a new name today, and I think it's a mistake for us to do it," board member Jim Johnson said. He also said renaming policies must be clear because other district schools such as Washington, Madison, Lewis and Clark, Ben Franklin, Jefferson and Kennedy could also face criticism.
Newly elected board member Tracie Newman said she was ill-informed about Wilson’s name up until three or four months ago, but now there “is more than enough evidence” to change the name.
“It is not a question for me, and I believe the urgency is here,” Newman said.
“We have a responsibility as a school district … to make sure that we are showing that we don’t tolerate racism and we don’t tolerate prejudice,” Gandhi said, adding that administrative standards need to be completed quickly.
Before the board voted, they heard from the public. Nobody spoke in favor of keeping the Woodrow Wilson name.
“I imagine there has been some difference of opinion on the Woodrow Wilson issue, but nobody has denied Wilson’s brutal racism or defended it. Some might say Wilson was just a product of his times. The trouble is, he was not,” Forum columnist Jim Shaw said.
“Wilson used his powers to take racism, hatred and white supremacy to another level, and that’s why the focus is solely on Wilson,” Shaw said.
“Right now we are at a very teachable moment," he said. "The horrors Woodrow Wilson inflicted upon African Americans cannot be overlooked any longer. I am asking you today to make a strong and powerful statement against bigotry, hatred, white supremacy and racial violence and in favor of racial justice, tolerance and equality for all."
Nelson spoke as a citizen and alumni of the Fargo School District.
“At age 68, I am learning for the first time an accounting of U.S. history that was never told to me, and maybe I missed school that day and didn't hear it. So I am urging you to remove this horrific name that does not represent Fargo and does not represent the United States,” Nelson said.
Faith Dixon, a Black Lives Matter organizer, said Wilson took America backward, and the time is ripe to remove the name.
“He segregated the federal civil service after it had been racially integrated for decades. He used his office to spread his views of hate and racism,” Dixon said. “In a nation that continues to struggle with racism, this city and this school of public education must stand clearly and firmly for equality and justice.
"We should not sit back quietly in ignorance and allow our students to learn about Wilson’s atrocities while attending a school in his honor. We also believe that Roosevelt should be removed, as well," Dixon said.
Matuor Alier spoke on behalf of the Fargo Human Relations Commission, of which he is the chair.
“We are not here to erase history or change history; we’re asking to take away the bad names and start conciliation as one body to make Fargo a better place for all," he said.
John Rodenbiker, a former Fargo School Board member, spoke as a parent and citizen.
“Locally, this issue was brought to the board’s attention three years ago. This is not a knee-jerk reaction to current events that are happening in the past week; this is a discussion that could have been happening over the past years,” Rodenbiker said.
Ruth Buffalo, a legislator, said she wouldn’t give her home address because she’s been physically targeted for advocating similar issues. She said the community has a responsibility to change Woodrow Wilson’s High School name.
“I am a 100 generation North Dakotan, some might say that I am a 1,000 generation North Dakotan. I am here to ask you to change the name,” Buffalo said.
She also asked for a survey of school buildings to discover how many places are honoring women.
“Women are nurturers, we are life givers, and that is the epitome of educating each other and our communities,” Buffalo said.