Fargo schools could evaluate names of buildings throughout district
FARGO — Citing a lack of clear policy on renaming school buildings, the Fargo Public Schools governance committee has moved the discussion on changing the name of Woodrow Wilson High School to the school board meeting on Aug. 11.
At their meeting on Thursday, July 23, some committee members and Superintendent Rupak Gandhi said the district could evaluate the names of more buildings once it has determined its policy on renaming them.
“We just don’t want to put this on the back burner," he said.
Board member Robin Nelson said receiving more community input and dialogue is critical to the process.
"I would say that we owe our community to have extensive dialogue on this," she said. I'm not comfortable as a board making a decision for one school without extensive community engagement."
School board president Rebecca Knutson agreed with Nelson's call for community involvement.
"As we know, this is a national conversation right now. We need to address the temperature of the city of Fargo," Knutson said. "We need to move forward to have at least community conversations regarding this."
Board member Jim Johnson said setting a specific policy is vital because many of the historical figures the school district's buildings are named after have complicated legacies.
"We have at least six different buildings that Black Lives Matter could take exception to the name," he said. (George) Washington and (Thomas) Jefferson clearly were slave owners, (Theodore) Roosevelt was a white supremacist. None of these people today would be looked at as operating in an ethical manner in our society, but all of them were at the time they were alive."
"If we are going to start judging people in today's lands that existed hundreds of years ago, we better have a policy in order to do it," he continued. "It shouldn't be a knee jerk deal."
Fargo Public Schools took up the building name issue after community members, Black Lives Matter, OneFargo, and the Fargo Human Relations Commission expressed a desire to change the name of Woodrow Wilson High School, which operates inside the Agassiz building, 1305 Ninth Avenue South.
According to 1917 Board of Education minutes, Woodrow Wilson was originally called Longfellow School. After the public was given a list of new names to choose from that included Gen. Ulysses Grant, Mark Twain and Ralph Emerson, Wilson's name took first place with 87 out of 146 votes.
Forum newspaper clippings from May 11, 1915, from North Dakota State University Archives, show that the discussion about naming the school, now an apartment complex at 315 North University Drive, was a "great question." By 1917, the district paid more than $100,000 to have it built.
"The name of Woodrow Wilson has the patriotic touch of the times and was accepted by the board," according to the story published in The Forum on June 16, 1917.
The Agassiz school building, built in 1912, is named after 19th century Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz. Glacial Lake Agassiz, which once covered the Fargo-Moorhead area, is named after him, as are numerous other businesses and nonprofits in the region.
Last month, area metropolitan leaders scrapped the Agassiz name for a planned greenway project along the Red River after receiving public feedback pointing out that Agassiz held racist and white supremacist views.
Then-superintendent W.E. Hoover suggested the Agassiz name, calling it "appropriate being in honor of that great biologist Agassiz after whom Lake Agassiz was named," according to a Forum newspaper story published July 6, 1911.