D.C. Public Schools is preparing to cancel its founder and the city’s first mayor as it moves to rename an elementary school on Capitol Hill.
Brent Elementary School in Southeast — named for Robert Brent, who essentially created the city’s government from scratch in the early 1800s — is among a handful of schools in the renaming engagement process, which aims to erase the names of slave owners and segregationists from school buildings in the 2023-24 academic year.
Born into a prominent Catholic family in the Maryland Colony, Brent served 10 years as mayor of Washington City. He created the public school system, the fire department and the police force and laid out the streets after city planner Pierre L’Enfant was dismissed.
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Corey Holman notes that Brent was a slaveholder who instituted Black Laws that made it illegal for non-Whites to be outside after 10 p.m. and required them to carry identification at all times.
“There’s nothing redeeming about Brent. He doesn’t represent our values, our history or where we come from,” said Mr. Holman, who represents the area around Brent Elementary and serves on the ANC Planning and Zoning Committee. “Clearly, nobody today knows who Robert Brent was, but he was a mayor who instituted Black Laws. He was an actively bad person.”
Brent also served as the paymaster-general of the Army, judge of the city’s Orphan’s Court and president of one of Washington’s first banks.
On renaming Brent Elementary School in Ward 6, Mr. Holman said, “I don’t think it’s controversial.”
A spokesman for D.C. Public Schools declined to comment but offered web links for the renaming engagement process and public input website that confirm the planned renaming.
James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said he hopes the District will consult with historians as well as the community to “provide accurate facts and contexts” for removing Brent’s name.
“People lead complicated lives, and Brent’s life included many important and worthy accomplishments,” Mr. Grossman said. “At the same time, when we put someone’s name on a public building, we are making a statement to our children, to visitors and others about our community’s values and what makes someone worthy of public honor.”
Brent was born in 1764 in Acquia, Virginia, where his family quietly practiced their Catholic faith even when it became illegal. His maternal uncle, John Carroll, was the first Catholic bishop ordained in the United States, and Brent’s father owned the quarry that sold to the fledgling federal government the sandstone that was used to build the White House, the U.S. Capitol and other buildings in Washington.
Brent died in 1819.
Local historian Mark Tooley, author of “The Peace That Almost Was” about the 1861 D.C. peace conference that attempted to avert the Civil War, expressed hesitation about removing Brent’s name.
“I think it’s a bad idea because it divorces us from the past and spreads the delusion that we’re morally superior to the people who have gone before us,” said Mr. Tooley, who serves as president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, an ecumenical Christian think tank.
“It also underestimates the challenge and struggle that people in the past faced and that we cannot imagine confronting today,” he added, noting that Brent’s “unfortunate racial views were sadly commensurate with his time and place.”
Other D.C. schools being renamed are Thomas Jefferson Middle School, Williams Winston Seaton Elementary, Emery School-Choice Academy (named for Matthew Gault Emery) and Excel Academy at Birney (named for James Birney).
Seaton (1785-1866) was the 13th mayor of Washington, Emery (1818-1901) was the 21st mayor, and Birney was a politician and plantation owner who had slaves but later became an abolitionist.
Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor specializing in the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania, said he hopes the city will change its mind about renaming Jefferson Middle School.
“Unlike Brent, Jefferson and Washington were central figures in the creation of the nation and its founding principles of freedom and equality,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “And if we cancel the person who wrote the words, we also insult the brave freedom fighters who invoked them.”
In September 2020, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s District of Columbia Facilities and Commemorative Expressions Working Group recommended renaming 21 D.C. schools and buildings, including Brent and Woodrow Wilson High School.
The D.C. Council this month preliminarily voted to rename the high school Jackson-Reed, for Vincent Reed, the school’s first Black principal, and Edna Jackson, its first Black teacher. The council must take a second vote before it moves to Miss Bowser’s desk. Activists have campaigned for years to remove Wilson’s name from the school because of his racist policies.
• Sean Salai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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