By Emma Reilly
Like many colleges and universities in the United States named after historical figures, Washington College is grappling with its association with George Washington.
WC has a long history of confronting its connection to Washington.
At one point, a water tower sat on WC’s campus. According to Director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience Adam Goodheart, student activists decades ago painted the tower so it read “Booker T. Washington” instead of “Washington.”
“I was thinking about that in the context of this debate…to me it shows that the question of George Washington as a symbol and what that has to do with the College’s identity today…is not a new one,” Goodheart said.
By invoking the name of the prominent Black leader, the student activists highlighted the fact that the racial implications of George Washington’s name and image are unignorable.
While Washington was a notable general during the American Revolution and is well-renowned for guiding the nation through the earliest stages of its independence, he was a complicated figure who left behind an imperfect legacy.
“I think of George Washington as a remarkable person and inspiring leader, but someone who also fell short in living up to his own convictions,” Chief of Staff and Vice President for Planning and Policy Vic Sensenig said. “In my mind, he is associated both with the revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality and with this nation’s failure to live up to them.”
WC students and communities nationwide struggle to reconcile Washington’s successes and historical significance with his close connection to slavery.
According to Mount Vernon’s website, George Washington inherited several enslaved people from his father at age 11. When he died in 1799, approximately 317 enslaved people resided on the former president’s Virginia plantation.
“Despite being privately conflicted about slavery, he benefited from and enforced the institution,” Sensenig said.
Recognizing and openly discussing George Washington’s role as an enslaver are the best ways for the WC community to address his indelible — but problematic — legacy.
This recognition can take many forms, but one manner I found particularly moving was Professor Sufiya Abdur-Rahman’s decision to read out the known names of George Washington’s slaves before a reading from her new memoir at a College event last semester. In doing so, Abdur-Rahman humanized the people who were victimized by Washington, drawing the attention away from the oppressor and toward the oppressed.
According to Sensenig and Goodheart, students have varied opinions about Washington and his standing as a locally and nationally important figure.
“[WC History Project members] have heard from people about their pride in being associated with such an iconic figure as well as strong expressions of the need to tell the whole story of this man and this College,” Sensenig said. “I think what we have heard most consistently is: ‘Tell the truth.’”
The College pursued this goal. For instance, Goodheart taught a course, slavery and the American conscience, which encouraged students to engage in honest discussions about Washington and his complicity as a slaveholder.
The College’s more direct connections to slavery have also been brought to the forefront. In association with the Starr Center, Goodheart worked to learn more about a painting that hung in the president’s office titled “A View of White House Farm,” which depicts enslaved people.
Nevertheless, many students remain impacted by the prominence of George Washington’s image and name at the College.
“When I do look around [campus], it does remind me that this institution was created without ever considering that Black people would ever attend higher education,” Black Student Union President junior Mariama Keita said. “As the College showcases George Washington, they should also display images of those from various backgrounds who have made groundbreaking changes to relate to those of various backgrounds.”
In addition to prioritizing transparency, WC should be celebrating and platforming the voices and lives of BIPOC historical figures. The College’s historical character need not be defined solely by its connection to George Washington.
“All students should be aware when they walk around our historical campus that they are walking around in some really historic footprints that don’t just include this one guy who happened to be the first president,” Goodheart said.
By sharing, studying, and displaying the histories and images of people like Toni Morrison, Julian Bond, Gloria Richardson, and Andrew Young — all of whom have connections to WC, according to Goodheart — the College can work toward diversifying its historical ties while coming to terms with Washington’s flaws.
Ideally, the College will use such stories as a means of moving beyond Washington.
“My hope for this is that the administration considers loosening ties to George Washington, which may be difficult to do due to the historical context. But making changes that will better the experience of people from marginalized communities [is necessary],” Keita said.
Elm Archive Photo
Featured Photo Caption: Students raised concerns related to WC’s association with Washington throughout the College’s history.