Some middle school students are taught about Francis Scott Key, learning how he penned what would become the national anthem after watching the stars and stripes wave despite British bombardment during the War of 1812.

In Montgomery County Public Schools, however, they’re learning that Key was just a racist slave owner whose time has come to get canceled.

Activists are pushing to rename Francis Scott Key Middle School in Maryland, one of several schools in the district identified as being named after slave owners.

In 2019, MCPS launched a review of all school names in the county so that the school board could determine if any of them were problematic. The school system identified six such names: Magruder, Thomas S. Wootton, Richard Montgomery, and Montgomery Blair high schools and Francis Scott Key and John Poole middle schools. This November, the school system concluded listening sessions on whether to act on a petition to rename Magruder High School. Key could be next.

According to the school system’s criteria, however, it ought to push for bigger change. Local outlet MoCo360 reports, “Montgomery County also is named after Richard Montgomery, who historians believe acquired slaves when he married into his wife’s family.”

How can changing the name of Magruder or Richard Montgomery high school matter if they still exist in Montgomery County? For that matter, how can any of these changes be significant enough when crowds still sing Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” at football games? (At least the football players can still
kneel during the anthem.)

When it comes to Key, the Montgomery County bogeyman, he had a complicated relationship with slavery. Key owned 12 slaves shortly before his death, though he freed seven slaves during his life. As a lawyer, he represented both slaves and slave owners. Even at the time, he faced significant criticism: Abolitionists mocked “The Star-Spangled Banner” by calling America the “Land of the Free and Home of the Oppressed.”

Since then, not much has changed. The Baltimore Banner reports that “protesters have destroyed statues of Key in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., Houston and San Francisco.” In addition to the proposed renaming of Key’s namesake school in Montgomery County, “a similar effort is underway to re-christen Francis Scott Key Hall at the University of Maryland.”

Yet Key was no one-dimensional villain.

“He was a paradox: an enslaver who abhorred the slave trade, and a man who helped Black Marylanders sue for their freedom but couldn’t countenance a world with free Black citizens,” journalist Rona Kobell wrote.

Author Jefferson Morley said Key’s contradictions were “very typical of liberal-thinking Americans of his time” and that “he is a very representational figure in his racism and in the politics of slavery.”

Removing Key’s name from the public sphere may make some affluent white parents feel good about themselves, but it won’t do young students learning history any good. Key, like any of his contemporaries, was full of contradictions, leaving a mixed legacy. Today, activists want to commemorate only people with ideological purity. But once they go down that road, they will find they’re left with no one at all.