Three years ago, I watched a documentary on PBS about World War I and President Woodrow Wilson. I was shocked with what I heard. Wilson had brutal racist policies and cracked down on American constitutional rights. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were arrested, interrogated, and imprisoned for allegedly criticizing the government. Dozens of newspapers and magazines were shut down.
I then read 25 articles about Wilson. After what I heard and read, I knew Wilson did not deserve to have a Fargo school named after him. I called on the Fargo School Board to drop the name. Of course that effort faced several obstacles. Virtually nobody else knew of Wilson’s horrific record, and Fargo had never dropped a school name before. The effort didn’t connect.
Then came last summer, and the fight for racial justice. Princeton University dropped the name of Woodrow Wilson from its public policy school. Other schools followed. I knew it was time to try again. This time, I would leave no stone unturned. I spoke at Fargo Human Relations Commission and Fargo School Board meetings. I constantly communicated with commission members, board members, and school administrators.
Best of all, I found many members of the community who shared my passion about this issue, and wanted to help. I received lots of hate mail, and criticism from other columnists, but nothing was going to stop me this time. I was fighting against honoring racism, and on behalf of Wilson’s many victims.
Among those making impressive speeches to the School Board were Black Americans, a Native American state legislator, religious leaders, former Woodrow Wilson students, members of the Human Relations Commission, a former school board member, and a local author/historian.
Opponents argued that Wilson was just a product of his times. Not true. Wilson used his powers to take racism to a new and frightening level. That is why the focus was on Wilson.
When Wilson was president of Princeton, he imposed a policy of refusing admission to Black Americans and rescinding admission to previously admitted Black students. As president of the U.S, he segregated the federal government decades after it had been integrated, fired dozens of African Americans and replaced them with white people, and did nothing to stop white mobs from murdering thousands of innocent Black Americans.
Some said we were erasing history. That’s not possible. We were acknowledging history, and created a very teachable moment.
After the School Board’s vote to rescind the name, two Fargo African Americans had tears in their eyes and hugged me. That made this whole effort so worthwhile and gratifying. I know how painful it was for them for Fargo to have a school named after someone who terrorized people who looked like them. Unfortunately, this change would never have happened if it wasn’t for the senseless and tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and so many other Black Americans.
The School Board’s thrilling decision makes a strong statement for racial equality. I am proud to have taken the lead on this issue.