Washington, D.C. council members voted unanimously Nov. 16 to rename a Petworth-area elementary school after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) (H ’15) to honor the legacy of his civil and human rights achievements.
Joseph Rodman West Elementary School will be renamed in honor of Lewis following a recommendation from the District of Columbia Facilities and Commemorative Expressions (DCFACES) Working Group. Formed in 2020 by D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser (D), DCFACES evaluates government-owned facilities and recommends changes if the facility’s namesake is inconsistent with D.C. values, or either encourages the oppression of Black Americans and other communities of color or contributes to the United States’ history of systemic racism.
The bill renaming the elementary school is now up for mayoral review, with Bowser expected to codify the act into law.
DCFACES’ report, released in August 2020, recommended renaming 21 District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) schools and school buildings, including West Elementary. Their report’s recommendations stemmed from multiple sources and community engagement methods, including a virtual town hall.
In DCFACES’ web survey completed by 2,300 residents, 80% of respondents strongly supported renaming government-owned buildings named after figures whose legacies do not promote the District’s core values of equity, opportunity and prosperity, according to the DCFACES report.
West Elementary enrolled over 317 students during the 2020-2021 academic year, more than half of whom identify as Black. The school is currently named after Joseph Rodman West, a former U.S. senator, Union general and executive in the District.
Based on the DCFACES report, Bowser sent emergency legislation to Mendelson in July requesting the council to rename the Petworth-area school, given West’s history.
“DCPS finds that John Lewis, a lifelong champion for justice, is a far superior role model for students in the nation’s capital,” Mayor Bowser wrote in her legislative introduction. “Despite numerous attacks, injuries, and arrests, Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the civil rights movement and nonviolence.”
West’s legacy carries harm toward minority communities because he ordered the torture and murder of Apache chief Mangas Coloradas, who had arranged a meeting with West to discuss potential terms of peace. West also gave away public land to private railroad companies in an attempt to reduce debt, according to the bill’s Racial Equity Impact Assessment.
Lewis served 17 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He passed away July 17, 2020, after battling stage four pancreatic cancer. Lewis helped organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and co-led the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, where he was attacked by state troopers as a peaceful protester on Bloody Sunday.
Lewis’ passing was a significant loss, but his legacy continues to inspire those who feel called to fight for justice, according to D.C. Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto.
“The late Rep. John Lewis was a fearless champion for civil rights, fervently dedicated to ensuring that racial justice and equality prevailed in our democracy,” Pinto wrote in an email to The Hoya. “By establishing the John Lewis Elementary School, we not only honor the history of John Lewis, but we inspire D.C.’s next generation to follow in the footsteps of this great American hero and role model.”
The elementary school’s renaming will encourage students and teachers to further educate themselves on the important history of Lewis’s work, according to Mendelson.
“The name of the school can be inspiring, it can serve as a role model, it can serve as a point reference for teaching,” Mendelson wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Perhaps decades from now, students will be interested in who was this person John Lewis, and learn his history and realize he’s someone to be emulated.”
During the first council hearing on the legislation, Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George expressed pride in the elementary school’s work to preserve Lewis’s legacy.
“Growing up, kids often are told to stay out of trouble,” Lewis George said during the hearing. “But at the John Lewis Elementary School, we can probably encourage students to create good trouble, righteous trouble, courageous trouble and trouble in pursuit of justice and in defense of the rights of all people.”
The names the District chooses to honor matter in determining who students look up to as role models, according to Lewis George.
“Reckoning with the atrocities of our history can be a messy and uncomfortable process, but is essential for paving a path to a more just and more right future,” Lewis George said.