Last December, the School Board in Falls Church, Virginia—a wealthy D.C. suburb—voted to rename George Mason High School and Thomas Jefferson Elementary due to the fact that these Founding Fathers were slaveholders. The Board tasked two committees, one per school, with recommending five new names for each school.
The committee reports are in, and the first recommendation to replace Thomas Jefferson Elementary is “Mattie Gundry Elementary School.” The report describes Miss Gundry as “a local historical icon of Falls Church City” who was “ahead of her time by advocating for the rights of others,” including by opening a school for special-needs students.
However, the report omits the fact that Miss Gundry advocated for government-run “colonies” to “permanently segregate” “degenerate” individuals. Specifically, around the turn of the century, Miss Gundry served on the “Committee on Colonies for Segregation of Defectives,” and that committee issued a report on this topic, which Miss Gundry signed, for the National Conference of Charities and Correction. The report called for the government to establish “colonies of defectives” for the “permanent segregation of those who have inherited their defective condition from their ancestors and who, therefore, should they become parents, would bequeath a similar condition to their children.” The authors explained that “the wisest course the state can take is to separate all true degenerates from society and keep them in carefully classified groups, under circumstances which shall insure that they shall do as little harm to themselves and their fellows as possible and that they shall not entail upon the next generation the burden which the present one has borne.”
The report notes that the term “degenerates” includeds not just the “chronic insane,” but also “the epileptic, the paralytic, the imbecile and idiotic of various grades, the moral imbecile, the sexual pervert, the kleptomaniac; many, if not most, of the chronic inebriates; many of the prostitutes, tramps and minor criminals; many habitual paupers, especially the ignorant and irresponsible mothers of illegitimate children, so common in our poor houses; many of the shiftless poor, ever on the verge of pauperism and often stepping over into it; some of the blind, some deaf-mutes, some consumptives.” In the authors’ view, no degenerate “should ever be allowed to become a parent,” and “permanent segregation”—as opposed to sterilization—was the kinder, gentler way to accomplish that goal.
Of course, it is perhaps unfair to judge Miss Gundry by the standards of today. And it would be possible to celebrate her accomplishments while simultaneously recognizing her flaws. But by choosing to rename George Mason High School and Thomas Jefferson Elementary, the Falls Church School Board already has implicitly rejected that approach. Instead, we are left with an approach that renders it unsafe to name anything after a human being. The School Board’s unforced error with respect to Miss Gundry highlights that fact.