How Do We Reckon With George Washington? | Opinion

While the Presidents' Day holiday prompts many of us to think, if only briefly, about the lives and contributions of our presidents, the actual birthday of George Washington at this moment of national racial reckoning leads me in a much more personal direction.

Moving into the office of any new job invariably induces an odd confluence of feelings that drags me right back to the first day of elementary school, but my latest move is particularly loaded with additional meaning and history as I settle into my office in George Washington Hall as the Head of School at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.

While I was prepared for the combination of hopeful anticipation, a healthy dose of fear, real excitement, and mild anxiety, I was not expecting to confront conflict and personal consternation over the name of my new office building.

I have no doubt that Washington would have been at the very least surprised by my selection for the position, as I am the first African American and the first openly gay head of school in the academy's 242 years of existence. His failure to put his name and reputation behind the elimination of slavery is significant and will cause many to refuse to ever see him as great—and I understand that. Even he knew that this was a major moral failure.

George Washington had deep ties to Phillips Academy. He was a friend of Samuel Phillips, the school's founder, and visited the school in its first year and again in 1789 as a part of his tour of New England—if I lean a bit in my desk chair in my home office and look out of the window, I can see the very spot where he addressed the student body.

I realized upon my start in this role that I knew little about the country's first president; to learn more, I read a biography and a more recent book that focuses on his ties to slavery. My conclusion was that he was a morally flawed man, but I can understand why he is also considered a great man by many. His leadership as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the long and far-from-smooth war of independence from England and later as president of the new nation was notable and had lasting impact. He also knew at some point that slavery was wrong and evil, and set terms in his will for granting freedom to the slaves he directly owned after his wife's death.

When the building where my new office is housed was dedicated in Washington's honor in 1925, it must have seemed an infallible choice. But we evolve and change, as individuals and institutions and nations, and neither George Washington nor the school I work in is an exception.

That in 2020, my school has employed an African American gay man in the role of head of school is a reflection of that change.

In spite of the deep divides that characterize this country, my appointment is notable but not extraordinary. Prior to coming to Andover, I completed 10 years as President of Grinnell College, where I was also the first African American and first openly gay president. My appointment to that position, prior to the Supreme Court's decision recognizing gay marriages, drew much more attention. Seen in the context of our upturned pandemic world, my race and sexual orientation have received much less commentary than the fact that I brought to the position my training as a public health physician with significant management experience.

In many cases, institutions throughout the country are thinking about the messages that are inherently conveyed by the names of buildings or schools and by statues and other monuments of people who were deeply engaged in and personally profited from the dehumanizing institution of slavery and the legally sanctioned racial discrimination that followed its ending.

I suspect that for me there will always be a degree of discomfort with George Washington's legacy. As unsettling as this sometimes is, it is not a new discomfort for me or even a large one compared to many others of this general nature. My discomfort is one that most African Americans experience regularly when we honor our ancestors and ourselves by simply recognizing the distance separating the lofty ideals of equality that formed the basis of this democracy and the reality of the legacy of unequal treatment experienced by African Americans, which persists to this day.

My discomfort is diminished whenever I leave George Washington Hall through doors that open onto Greener Quadrangle. Greener Quadrangle, the site of commencement and other ceremonies at Andover, was dedicated in 2018 in recognition of Richard T. Greener, who was the first African American graduate of both Andover and Harvard. He led a remarkable life including being one of the first black graduates of a southern law school, dean of Howard University Law School, and U.S. diplomat representing the country in Vladivostok. Greener Quad is the site of the ultimate symbol of our elite institution: the credential earned by our graduates. On every invitation to commencement, Greener's name is present and each time a degree is conferred, Greener's legacy is remembered and celebrated by Phillips Academy.

The juxtaposition of Washington and Greener reminds me of what is best in this extraordinary yet deeply flawed country: its movement—in fits and starts and with regular set-backs—toward its ideals, its capacity for change and growth. Even 30 years ago, it would have been inconceivable that an African American man with his legally recognized husband and their children resided in the stately 200-year-old Phelps House, the home of the Andover head. Taking on this position as a person of color at time when our nation is still confronting the legacy of slavery and racial inequality creates its own complexity, and not always to my benefit. One result of being me in this type of position is that I become a symbol to some, either of undeniable progress used to deny continued racial and LGBTQ inequality, on one extreme, or, on another extreme, of a certain type of compromise and engagement within existing institutions of power that is seen by some as evidence of complicity with a racist society. I reject both of those characterizations. I believe that most see me simply as evidence of movement forward on our nation's long journey toward true equality, a journey that is far from over.

Our country is once again in a period of racial reckoning marked by, among other things, growing objections to tributes honoring historical American figures who were slaveholders, including George Washington. When I was introduced to the community at the All Schools Meeting a year ago, I recognized my husband and children from the podium and I intentionally chose to frame my comments around a photo of one of my ancestors who was born into slavery. I chose to bring slavery into that majestic chapel both its horror and the ability of my people to survive that horror as thinking, feeling, creative, loving humans, even if their full rights continue to be denied to this day.

Our capacity to rethink and reconstruct our lives and our institutions is being tested in so many ways, but we have been here before. We have done it before. That passage from one space named for an owner of slaves to another space recognizing the accomplishments of a descendent of slaves is a kind of proof. And, for now, it is enough.

Raynard Kington is the Head of School at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.