COMMENTARY: This opinion piece is written by Ed McKeon who is one of the founders of The Middletown Eye, and a Common Council member. This is McKeon's individual opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of any other elected official, or the City of Middletown.
To say I am disappointed is an understatement.
I am shocked. I am angry. And I am disgusted.
Yesterday I found out that a former Common Council member had filed a request to gather petition signatures for referendum item to rename the new middle school for President Woodrow Wilson.
|Amos G. Beman|
Despite being president, there is no historical doubt that Woodrow Wilson was a self-avowed segregationist and a racist.
Don't get me wrong, any citizen has a right to petition the government, by our charter (though there is still some consideration in this case whether the petition request is legal). Such a petition is required to acquire signatures from 10% of the registered voters in town by a deadline 60 days before the election. All petitions, and the signatures thereon, are public information.
In this case, considering the facts, I can only come to a single conclusion.
If you are gathering signatures to honor a racist. It's a racist act.
If you sign a petition to honor a racist. It's a racist act.
I'm shocked that proponents of the "Wilson" name are still beating a dead horse.
The name was vetted by a Board of Ed naming committee, approved by the committee and the Board of Education, was approved by the City's Public Works commission, was given a public hearing according to charter by the Common Council, and was voted in a unanimous majority by the Common Council (with one abstention).
The opposition offered a number of arguments in opposition (though they did not, with a very few exceptions, show support at the Common Council public hearing). Some arguments were more convincing than others: alumni had sentimental attachment to the old name (perfectly understandable); alumni had been promised the Wilson name would remain on the school (no evidence was offered); the minority, Republican party was not included on the original naming committee (a Republican member was appointed, but didn't or wouldn't show up to meetings, and even though he is chair of the local party, did not find a replacement); that bonding was somehow at risk (it wasn't and isn't); that there was more public support for the "Wilson" name than for Beman Middle School (there wasn't): and that "the process" was "not fair" or "not adequate" or "not thorough" (after nearly a year of research, consideration, debate and open, public decision-making, this argument is just silly).
So this last ditch effort to strip the school of a name honoring a prominent Africa-American Middletown family and to resurrect a name honoring an old bigot, is just a puzzle and a terrible shame.
Here's what I said the night the Common Council voted to accept the Beman name.
We live in terribly divided times. Today, our country has been saddled with a president who is a racist, and worse still, consistently encourages other racists to spew their bigoted hatred. I’m afraid we can’t view this controversy through any other lens.
Woodrow Wilson was a racist. He was a self-avowed segregationist. As president, he implemented Jim Crow segregation in federal offices by saying he was: “seeking, not to put the Negro employees at a disadvantage but ... to make arrangements which would prevent any kind of friction between the white employees and the Negro employees.”
Imagine that, separate bathrooms. "Because it was good for them." Separate water fountains. "Because it was good for them." Separate pay scales. "Because it was good for them."
You’ve heard it before, right?
Separate schools. "Because it was good for them." Separate seats on the bus, in the back. "Because it was good for them." Separate voting rules. "Because it was good for them."
You and I know what Woodrow Wilson, and every other bigot who followed him through the 20th century was really saying. Not, "it’s good for them." They were saying "it’s good for us.”
Legally sanctioned segregation no longer exists, but the shadow is long, and the prejudices and fears still scar our country. So, we will not again, name a school after a racist. Because if we did, we’d be honoring a racist. And when a community honors a racist, that community will be seen as racist. And we will not allow this for Middletown.
It is not rewriting history. It is “righting” r-i-g-h-t-i-n-g history. Making it right. Making it correct. Making it true.
And that’s what we’ll do tonight when we name the new middle school after the amazing Beman family. A family whose patriarch Cesar Beaman named himself after he found freedom fighting in the American Revolution.
Talk about a founding father. He help found the country. He found his freedom. He found himself. He founded a community. And he founded a family name. Beman, because he would no longer be a slave. He would no longer be someone else’s property. He would no longer be overlooked, and powerless. He would Be A Man.
Beman. It’s a powerful name.
And his family, they were soldiers, and merchants, abolitionists, preachers, entrepreneurs, teachers, founders of a prominent Middletown Church, Cross Street AME Zion, founders of a free black community, respected fighters for the rights of African American men and women.
As I said, it’s a divided time. But we’re on the verge of important changes. We have been shocked, as a nation, into a realization that we must fight racism wherever we find it. We have come to a realization that Black Lives Matter, and that it’s time to stop talking and to take action. So tonight we will take action. And tonight we will recognize, finally, the Beman’s place in Middletown history, and the history of this country. We will bestow an appropriate name on a school so that every child can be proud learning in a school named for true giants in the history of fighting for freedom.
With that being said, I encourage my fellow Middletown resident to withdraw the request for petitions. And, if such petition goes forward, I request my neighbors and community members not to sign.
And I make a vow to spare no energy in my opposition to any referendum that supports racism in Middletown.