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In Framingham, calls to drop a president’s name from school

The Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Framingham, where school officials are considering a name change for the building.
The Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Framingham, where school officials are considering a name change for the building.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Framingham officials are considering a proposal to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from a public elementary school over criticism of the former US president’s racist policies while he was in office.

About 900 people have backed a petition supporting the name change, pointing to similar efforts at other educational institutions, including at Princeton University, to drop Wilson’s name.

Adam Freudberg, chairman of the city’s School Committee, said the current moniker is inconsistent with the school’s basic educational mission.

“It is a big statement to get rid of a name that is now woefully out of date and does not reflect what we value,” Freudberg said.

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The Framingham petition calling for the change said it was needed because of Wilson’s “deep and devastating” racist policies.

“If Framingham Public Schools truly believes in their mission to foster ‘a system that understands and values our diversity’ then we must remove this racist namesake from our school,” the petition said.

Spurred by Black Lives Matter protests demanding an end to violence against Black Americans and other people of color, the school renaming effort in Framingham follows similar proposals in other communities to reconsider longstanding tributes honoring historical figures and local organizations through the lens of racial justice.

In Boston, the city removed a statue of Columbus after it was vandalized, and the city will take away a statue of Lincoln -- standing over a freed slave -- over criticism it is demeaning to Black Americans. Plimoth Plantation announced earlier this month it would choose a new name that is inclusive of Indigenous history.

And across the region, local school districts like Quincy and Braintree are facing a reckoning over the use of racist Native American caricatures for team mascots, as critics say the time has come to replace them.

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In Brookline starting in September, the former Edward Devotion School will officially be renamed for Florida Ruffin Ridley, a civil rights leader, suffragist, and newspaper editor. That effort predates the current climate of demonstrations, and comes nearly two years after Brookline removed the name of Devotion, who was a slave owner, from the school.

In Medford, a debate similar to the one in Framingham occurred last month, when school leaders voted to change the name of the Columbus Elementary School. Melanie McLaughlin, a Medford School Committee member, said the city had declared racism a public health crisis, and the move to change the name was a chance to take action against it.

She said it was appropriate to remove Columbus’s name from the building because of his bloody treatment of the Indigenous people he encountered.

“It really started this dialogue about what is going to happen in our city, and showed a commitment to work on anti-racism in our community,” McLaughlin said.

In Framingham, Jonathan Rivers, who organized the petition with his 13-year-old daughter, Layla, to rename the Wilson school, said city’s schools prioritize diversity and inclusion -- and the former president does not represent that ethos.

The school was originally named for Wilson in 1924, the year he died. The school now enrolls about 540 students in kindergarten through grade 5. More than half of the students enrolled there are white, while one-third of students are Hispanic, and another 10 percent are African-American, according to state data.

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Wilson served two terms, led the country through World War I, and helped negotiate the peace after hostilities ended. But his legacy in recent years has come under increased scrutiny: As president, Wilson segregated many federal workers and his racist views affected his foreign policy, a Princeton University review found.

After years of criticism, the university has stopped using Wilson’s name, President Christopher L. Eisgruber said in a statement last month.

“Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time,” Eisgruber said, and added to the persistent practice of racism in the United States that “continues to do harm today.”

In Framingham, Freudberg said a School Committee subcommittee is studying whether to change the name, and is expected to report back its recommendations next month.

He said he hopes the group will support a change, and lay out a plan to solicit current students and alumni about a new name for the school.

“A name matters, it reflects who we are,” Freudberg said.

Framingham Mayor Yvonne M. Spicer, in a statement, said she supports the proposal; she said the city has “evolved greatly” in nearly 100 years since Wilson’s name was chosen for the school.

”It’s unfortunate that President Wilson’s administration did not do well by African-Americans, who were actually worse off for decades after his two presidencies,” Spicer said. “A name change for the school is an opportunity to reflect on the diversity, equity, and inclusion that we believe in and value in the City of Framingham.”

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On social media, some opposed changing the school’s honorific for Wilson, dismissing the move as unnecessary.

“It’s getting to the point we are going to have to start naming schools and buildings ‘Framingham School A’ & ‘Framingham School B’,” wrote one commenter. “Somewhere down the line any name you pick will sadly be labeled offensive to someone.”

Another argued that changing the school’s name would mean ignoring the past: “Just because I get offended over something didn’t mean I can Destroy statues and erase history.”

Rivers, who helped organize the petition, doesn’t have a personal connection with the Wilson school, though he’s seen the name in passing printed on school materials. It was his daughter who spurred the renaming effort for the building.

Rivers and his daughter recently learned that President Wilson screened the early silent film “The Birth of a Nation” while he was in the White House. The film is known for its blatant racism and support of white supremacy.

They researched Wilson, and discovered issues have been raised about the former president’s attitudes about race, he said.

Keeping Wilson’s name on the school whitewashes the former president’s legacy, Rivers said. It also helps support a simplified, and incomplete, version of history that leaves out his racist past.

The school should be named for someone who represents efforts to promote inclusion at the school, he said.

“It’s about being honest. We’re not looking to erase history, we don’t want him taken out of the history books,” Rivers said. “But the namesake of the school should be someone that all the kids can aspire to be like.”

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John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.