SAN LEANDRO — Woodrow Wilson Elementary School will no longer be named after the 28th president because he supported segregation and made excuses for slavery, trustees with the San Leandro Unified School District have decided.
The campus at 1300 Williams St. is the latest public place where Wilson’s name has been stripped.
In February 2020, the board of the West Contra Costa County Unified School District removed the former president’s name from an elementary school in Richmond. The school is now named after former First Lady Michelle Obama.
In June last year, trustees at Princeton University, where Wilson served as president, pulled his name from its School of Public and International Affairs, deciding the school should be called the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.
“What do we teach our kids when we stand by and allow someone to stay in a position of power who has hurt their ancestors?” San Leandro school district Trustee Christian Rodriguez said Aug. 31, when the school board decided the campus should get a new name.
“We are a different people now,” Rodriguez added.
In July, teachers and other school staff members asked the district to rename the school, which has about 760 students from kindergarten through fifth grade.
“A school’s name is its identity: it symbolizes who we are and who we represent,” they said in a letter to the district. “By turning a blind eye to Wilson’s racist legacy, we are complicit in supporting what he symbolizes.”
More than 30 teachers and others who work at the school signed the letter.
Wilson’s five-volume “A History Of The American People” textbook is considered by historians to be a non-factual book that romanticizes the Confederacy.
As president, Wilson screened D.W. Griffith’s pro-Ku Klux Klan silent movie, “The Birth of a Nation,” in the White House. Released in 1915, it was the first film ever shown in the White House. Historians say the film helped spur the growth of the Klan in the 1920s, when its membership ballooned.
Historians say Wilson defended segregation within the federal government. But they also note he opposed lynchings and led this nation through World War I — and that after the war he helped establish the League of Nations as a way to promote world peace.
Wilson was president from March 1913 to March 1921.
No new name for Woodrow Wilson Elementary School has been decided. That will happen over the next several months.
Schools can be named after people who have made outstanding contributions to their communities, according to state law. Names with state, national or international significance or that reflect a school’s location also are allowed.
San Leandro Trustee Diana Prola, who opposed the Wilson renaming, said people’s views and actions should be viewed in the context of their time.
Prola also said the district should establish a policy about renaming schools because she anticipated people will call for other campuses to get renamed.
The San Leandro Unified School District, which has about 8,700 students, has eight elementary schools — all named after former presidents. Among them are Washington and Jefferson, both slaveholders.
The district was opening “a can of worms” by renaming Wilson school, said Prola, who cast the lone no vote against changing the name. “There really isn’t an answer to it.”
Trustees voted 4-1 for the removal. The student board representative also supported renaming the school.
Trustees Leo Sheridan and Peter Oshinski abstained from the vote, both saying renaming Wilson school divided the public, including between alumni and those connected with the campus now.
Oshinski also said he thought it was wrong that people who opposed the name change were accused of racism.
“That is not a message I want to send out to the students,” he said.
More details about selecting a new school name, which will include community engagement and feedback, will be available over the next several months, according to the district.
“I want to thank all members of our community, both at Wilson elementary and throughout San Leandro, for their active participation in considering this proposal from all perspectives,” school board President Evelyn Gonzalez said in a statement. “It was incredibly helpful to have a wide variety of viewpoints on this issue to consider in making this important decision.”