U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., in his office on Capitol Hill. Lewis, who carried the struggle against racial discrimination from Southern battlegrounds of the 1960s to the halls of Congress, died July 17.
The D.C. Council unanimously voted to rename an elementary school in Petworth after U.S. Rep. John Lewis, signing off on a proposal from Mayor Muriel Bowser to honor the trailblazing civil rights leader and Congressman who died last year.
Bowser proposed stripping the name of Joseph Rodman West from West Elementary School and renaming the building after Lewis in July. It is part of a broader reexamination in the District of public buildings and spaces named after figures who enslaved people, or were responsible for oppressing people of color and other marginalized communities in ways that violate the D.C. Human Rights Act.
An emergency measure that expedited the renaming easily passed the D.C. Council on Tuesday. Councilmember Janeese Lewis George, who represents Ward 4, where the campus is located, said the change is supported overwhelmingly in the community.
"John Lewis was an American hero, a stalwart of racial justice, a defender of democracy and a crusader for civil rights," she said during the meeting. "Reckoning with the atrocities in our history can be a messy and uncomfortable process but it is essential."
Lewis, who was first elected to represent Georgia's 5th Congressional District in November 1986, served 17 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
He was a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped organize the March on Washington in 1963. A leader in the march from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate for voting rights, Lewis was among the peaceful marchers attacked by state troopers and sheriffs' deputies in what is known as Bloody Sunday.
Lewis announced he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December 2019. He died months later, at the age of 80.
In a July letter to the D.C. Council, Bowser wrote that it was more fitting to memorialize Lewis than West, a U.S. Senator and chief executive of the District. West, who served as a Union general in the U.S. Army, ordered the killing of an Apache chief who met with West to discuss peace.
"John Lewis, a lifelong champion for justice, is a far superior role model for students in the nation's capital," Bowser said. "His legacy paved the way for the rich diversity of our school district."
During an October hearing about the name change, Abeo Venzor, who grew up in the District in the 90s and attended West, said tears swelled in her eyes when she learned the school could carry Lewis' name.
"Leaders like John Lewis encouraged me to keep succeeding," Venzor said.
Workers fully completed a $77.5 million renovation on John Lewis Elementary over the summer. The building sits at 1335 Farragut St. NW and serves 350 students.
Fifty-one percent of students are Black, 23 percent are white, 21 percent are Latino, 1 percent are Asian and 4 percent are multi-racial, according to city data.
A committee called the D.C. Facilities and Commemorative Expressions Working Group recommended the removal of West's name from the school building. The group was responsible for reviewing the names of city-owned spaces and studying them for connections to slavery and racism.
The committee released a report last year that called for the District to remove or rename dozens of properties, including 21 schools.
The D.C. Council is also in the process of changing the name of Woodrow Wilson High School in Tenleytown. The lawmakers, as well as many current and former students, have long argued it is inappropriate to honor Wilson, a president who advocated for policies that promoted segregation.
In April, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee proposed renaming the campus after August Wilson, an acclaimed playwright who chronicled the African American experience in the 20th Century.
But at the urging of students and other community members, the Council more recently has looked to honor prominent local figures. The panel on Tuesday debated renaming the campus Jackson Reed high, after Edna B. Jackson, the first Black teacher hired at the school, and Vincent E. Reed, the first Black principal at Wilson, who later served as the school system's superintendent.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.