Two years ago, Peoria Public Schools renamed Woodrow Wilson Primary School to Dr. Maude A. Sanders Primary School. Now, District 150 Board of Education Vice President Gregory Wilson has asked his fellow board members to support name changes for facilities currently honoring Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Benjamin Harrison, Calvin Coolidge and Charles Lindbergh.
Board president Doug Shaw agreed with the need to examine who is being honored, and the district’s Building Committee began discussing the matter Thursday. WCBU’s Joe Deacon spoke with Gregory Wilson about what prompted him to initiate the action, individuals he has recommended for consideration as new school names, and the possibility of resistance to removing the current names.
Gregory Wilson: I've been thinking about it for quite some time now. It was something that I felt, you know, as a board member, we have the opportunity to make public remarks. So, what I did was take the time to make my remarks asking that the process begin to rename the schools that have ties with individuals that are racist and/or slave owners. So, the process really started at the board meeting. However, this was something that I thought long and hard about for a while now.
Joe Deacon: What was your method for determining which buildings should be renamed?
Gregory Wilson: Honestly, I looked at all of our schools--we have 27 total--and looked at each of the names to see which schools were named after who, and kind of did my research that way along with several historians as well. I definitely did my homework to ensure that the schools that I chose, that those individuals definitely fit the criteria as having either racist ideals, (was a) slave owner, or held certain prejudices against other cultures.
Joe Deacon: Who are some of the people that you're recommending for consideration and why do you believe they are worthy of consideration?
Gregory Wilson: Rev. CT Vivian, I think, goes without saying. He is a prominent civil rights leader. He led some of this first protest/sit-ins here in the city of Peoria, Illinois. He is recognized nationally as a prominent African American that has fought for our rights. So, I'm proud that he has ties back here to Peoria. Jane Elliott, an amazing author, that goes without saying as well. For years, she fights against prejudice against African Americans. She's one of my favorite authors.
Annie Malone, the first black female millionaire, went to Central High School, Peoria High. So, she has ties to Peoria, and just her story coming from Peoria to make it to be the first black millionaire, African American, female to accomplish that--along with Madam CJ Walker--while selling hair supplies. I think that's definitely something to look up to.
John F. Kennedy, another goes without saying. A very unfortunate way that he passed, but I believe if he wouldn’t have passed that he would have done a lot of great things for our country. Henry C. Gibson, another person with ties to Peoria--the first African American police officer in Peoria. I'm very excited about that selection.
Bishop Harold Breon Dawson Jr., who led New Life Church. I had the honor of attending his church many times, and also seeing the great works that he does with the kids in the community. Then you have Dr. Ellen Ochoa, who is the first Latina to transcend into space; she was an astronaut. That's an amazing feat and something to look up to.
In changing the names, I looked for influential people that I believe that we all can look up to. And these are just recommendations; the proper vetting process and name selection, all of that's going to go through the Building Committee. However, I believe in having some type of solution if we're going to address the problem, so I wanted to provide these names and get these names on the forefront of people's thoughts.
Joe Deacon: Do you anticipate getting any push back from people who may not want these changes, that want to keep the tradition of the buildings that have held these names for years? What would you say to those people?
Gregory Wilson: My message to them is change may not necessarily be agreed upon. We very well may have a difference of opinion. However, take Thomas Jefferson: black students and children would not be able to walk those halls if Thomas Jefferson was alive, and I feel like that needs to change. We need to change the name of the schools to reflect the current times that we're in.
I love a great conversation, and I'm open for that conversation. So, I will never say anything negative to anyone that feels like this isn't the right time. People have differences of opinion all the time; this is going to be no different. I'm prepared to have that conversation. Period. Let's have the conversation.
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