Long Beach community split over petition calling for Woodrow Wilson High School’s name change

Woodrow+Wilson+High+School+is+located+on+E.+10th+Street+in+Long+Beach.++It+first+opened+its+doors+in+1926.

Photo via Woodrow Wilson High School's Instagram

Woodrow Wilson High School is located on E. 10th Street in Long Beach. It first opened its doors in 1926.

A petition created on June 7, aimed at changing Wilson High School’s name has been getting support and creating controversy within the local community.

The high school located in the Alamitos Heights area of Long Beach was established in 1925, and was named after Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States.

A Change.org petition lists many reasons for the change, among them is the President’s “symbolic alignment” with the Ku Klux Klan by requesting a private screening of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation film, known for its racism, with its depiction of Black people as savages and the KKK as enforcers of “a just and human racial order.” Wilson’s segregation in the federal government during his tenure as president is also listed.

A lot of those opposing the name change included many individuals from families who have attended Wilson for generations and alumni who have consistently made financial contributions to the school.

Katie Rowe is one of those individuals to whom Wilson’s name carries a strong reputation. It also carries a generational tradition.

“As a fifth-generation Long Beach resident, and a third-generation proud Wilson graduate, I implore you to keep our school name Wilson,” Rowe wrote in public comment during the Monday, June 15 Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education meeting.

“94 years of graduating classes have ‘Wilson High School’ on their diplomas and our name is known nationwide as having a reputation for excellence both in the classroom and in athletics, Rowe said in her public comment. The group represents every race, creed, gender and belief, and we all wear the Wilson ‘W’ with pride.”

Rowe went on to describe how her grandmother was a 1933 Earthquake Class graduate and her love of the school was deep, attending her 60th-year high school reunion. “Changing the name does not change history,” Rowe said.

Some alumni even went on to state that they will sever any future financial donations to the school if the name is changed.

“If you do change our name please take my wall of fame plaque down,” Terry Kassien submitted as a public comment. “Burn it, trash it, shred it, it will not matter to me, my pride will evaporate. And I will never donate, associate or and be involved with any new school name fundraiser or event.”

Kassien, who spoke of his love for the school and his time playing varsity baseball, suggested finding a way to honor all of the students who have walked Wilson’s halls and honor their pride.

Karen Berry Autry, an alum from the class of 1979 also carries the Wilson name with pride.

“While I would never condone or support any form of racism, Autry said in a statement to the Signal Tribune. “I would urge the LBUSD to seriously consider the ramifications of reacting to this request.”

“While I cannot say I speak on behalf of every Wilson alum, I can say many are very proud of the legacy and wear their “Bruin pride” with honor,” Autry said.

The change.org petition, started by a person identified as Jacob B., had over 3,300 signatures of its desired goal of 5,000 as of publication time.

Some Wilson alumni believe that people could use this as a teachable moment to learn from the mistakes made by the 28th United States President Woodrow Wilson and perhaps as a teaching tool with the current student body.

“We should learn from history, not hide it,” Theodore Dwight Bunce wrote in for the board’s public comment. Bunce listed Wilson’s “accomplishments” as a president such as his commandment of the military during World War I and his advocacy for the League of Nations.

“Wilson was not an advocate of civil rights for African-Americans,” Bunce said. “Wilson was a man of his time to the mixed record of presidential success, naming of the high school for him shows high regard, in which he was held after his death, but before the era in which we now live. Please do not change the name of my high school alma mater.”

LBUSD Board Vice President Jon Meyer who has represented District 4 which includes Wilson High School, since 2003, believes there are things to take into consideration when it comes to Wilson’s name change.

John Meyer (via LBUSD)

“I am emphatically for every Black Life Matters,” Meyer said in a statement to the Signal Tribune. “I taught in the Long Beach Unified District for many years, I taught at Poly High School. I was a teacher there during the race riots, I was put on special assignment to try and create a better atmosphere and feeling among our students and school. I have long been committed to the goal of equity of all of our students and I believe very strongly in that. However, I think there is a real difference between pulling down the statue of Robert E. Lee, of John C. Calhoun and wanting to rename a high school whose namesake Woodrow Wilson, among many other things fought very hard for world peace in the League of Nations.”

Meyer also noted the president’s guidance through the amendment that gave women the right to vote, something Rowe also mentioned in her public comment.

Meyer believes we need to view Wilson through the historical context of his time. Wilson was president from 1913-1921.

“It is certainly true that he was not an advocate for firm racial equality,” Meyer said. “But remember when he was president every one of the states in the United States had a presence of the Ku Klux Klan, so those were troubling times.”

Meyer said anytime he is asked about the subject, he refers people to John Meacham’s “The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels”

“I think that is where we’re at right now. We are in a battle for our better angels and it can best be done by locking arms and moving through our institutions, our schools, our business world and everyone proclaiming the imperative of equity.”

According to a 2012 article from the Press Telegram, both Meyer and his wife attended Wilson High School, as did his two children and Meyer’s own father. The article also stated that at the time Meyer had one grandchild at Wilson, with two more on the way, marking the 4th generation of Meyer’s to attend Wilson High School.

“We’re definitely a Wilson family,” Meyer stated in the 2012 Press Telegram article. He graduated in the class of 1953.

Meyer has worked for more than 40 years in the LBUSD as a teacher, coach, principal and school board member. This includes working as a teacher, principal and football coach at Wilson High School. Wilson’s football stadium is named after Cliff Meyer, Jon’s father who was considered a “Wilson legend” by the 562.org. Cliff Meyer was the captain of the inaugural 1926 Wilson football team and went on to be Wilson’s football coach from 1942 to 1967, according to an article from the LA Times. Jon’s son Scott Meyer also played for the Wilson football team and graduated in 1983 and worked as an assistant there in the late 1990s and early 2000s according to the Daily Breeze. He went on to coach at other schools, including Jordan High School before returning to Wilson as a defensive coordinator for their football team for one season in 2010.

Not all community members in Long Beach agree on keeping the Wilson name, however.

For Adriana Carlos, a name change should be considered for not just Wilson but for other Long Beach schools.

“I feel like the Long Beach School District should hear and consider the change. While they’re at it, let’s review all the schools,” Carlos said in response to a Signal Tribune question asking if Wilson High School’s name should change.

Carlos attended Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo High School, located in the West Side of Long Beach which has a large Latino population of 71% according to publicschoolreview.com.

“I can see why one would feel like the name was representative of the community but they missed the mark there. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was a conquistador and according to Wikipedia he was a slave trader and broke up many native families,” said Carlos,

“The Black Lives Matter movement has brought [to] light historical injustices,” Carlos said. “I’m happy that people are trying to learn and move past our racial prejudices. Our community should reflect that growth with the change of the school names.”

Carlos suggested naming the school after some of the “amazing” alumni Wilson has had.

Some of Wilson’s notable alumni include comedian Gabriel Iglesias; musician Bradley Nowell, olympian hurdler Lashinda Demus, olympian swimmer Jessica Hardy, MLB players such as Bobby Grich and Bob Bailey; art director Tom Wilkes, astronaut Bruce McCandless, and dozens more throughout the school’s almost 95-year history.

“Let’s name it after a different Wilson, Nancy Wilson or Brian Wilson, for example, if you are that attached to the name,” Erin Foley said in the petition’s comments. “Or a notable local woman we can be proud of forever, such as Evelyn Knight. We need to stop glorifying racists.”

For Gabi Cascio, a Black mother who lives near Wilson High School according to her petition comment, the name change is something she supports. “It’s harmful to me and my family to keep this name, I will not send my children to a school named after a racist.”

“I support changing the names of the schools, Long Beach resident Julia Switzky said via an Instagram comment on a Signal Tribune post. “Racism goes deep into our society. Names like this are a symptom of white supremacy. The least we can do is change names to recognize the legacy of great black indigenous and POC folks in our city’s past by [renaming] our schools for them.”

LBUSD Board of Education President Felton Williams said in a statement to the Signal Tribune that he acknowledged the interest from members of the community about the renaming of Wilson High School. Williams has represented District 2 of LBUSD since 2004 which includes the West Side where Cabrillo is located, as well as the Wrigley, Washington and central parts of Long Beach, including Poly High School.

Williams grew up and attended schools in San Pedro before attending CSULB and beginning his career in Long Beach, including working at CSULB and LBCC.

Felton Williams

“The comments received by the district represented a reflection of the broad range of interest expressed by members of the community about the renaming,” he said. “This is not the first instance regarding issues of renaming district schools for various reasons. As a result, a committee was formed, consisting of a culturally and economically diverse representatives of the community and LBUSD staff.”

He continued, “The committee worked diligently and crafted a set of recommendations that would be followed during the renaming of schools and related facilities and presented their recommendations to the board. The recommendations were approved by the board and serve as the vehicle by which such matters are considered. That process appears to be working quite well for the district and current questions regarding the renaming of schools or facilities should be trusted to that process.”

In the past couple of years, Long Beach has seen the renaming of some of its schools after attention has been drawn to the namesake’s past.

This brief biography for children was written as a joint project with the Long Beach Unified School District. It is illustrated with family photographs. Herrera worked with Cesar Chavez directing a social service program for migrant farm workers and was the first Mexican American woman to run for the Long Beach City Council. She founded the Centro Shalom in 1977, a social service agency, in Long Beach. (Via HSLB)

In 2016 Robert E. Lee Elementary School, located in the predominantly Latino Zaferia neighborhood in the East Side of Long Beach, and named after a confederate general, was renamed Olivia Nieto Herrera Elementary, after a Long Beach community activist.

According to the Historical Society of Long Beach, Herrera was a lifelong human rights activist dedicated to helping those in need. Olivia taught at the Long Beach Day Nursery, advocated for disadvantaged families, was the first Mexican-American woman to run for City Council in 1970, worked with Cesar Chavez directing a social service program now known as the Campesino Center, for migrant farm workers, and founded Centro Shalom, a social service agency in Long Beach in 1977. She lived and was well-know in the Latino Zaferia neighborhood until her death in 2002

Furthermore, in 2014, the LBUSD Board of Education voted in support of renaming Peter Burnett Elementary in Long Beach, to Bobbie Smith Elementary. Burnett, who served as California governor from 1849 to 1851, backed legislation to keep free slaves out of the state and supported Native American genocide, according to a Press-Telegram article. Bobbie Smith was the first Black LBUSD board member in 1988. She was also president of the LBUSD school board for four terms.

Long Beach residents are not alone in wanting to replace Wilson’s name. As recently as Saturday, June 27, Princeton University announced the removal of the 28th president’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College, after a board of trustees vote, deeming his namesake inappropriate based on his racist views and policies, according to a statement from President Christopher Eisgruber.

A high school bearing the president’s namesake in Dallas also saw the creation of a petition to change the school’s name. Another petition in D.C. with the same request for its high school had over 19,000 signatures at the time of publication and was still receiving support.

Those supporting the petitions often left comments stating they had started their own petitions and asked for mutual support to rename their local schools bearing Wilson’s namesake.

“District of Columbia residents are also trying to change the name of our Woodrow Wilson HS, Ross Mappes commented on the Long Beach petition effort. “Please also consider signing our petition in solidarity.”

For now, the fate of schools bearing the 28th president’s namesake remains unknown.