We previously discussed the move by some students to drop the long-standing name “Colonials” for George Washington University. The moniker has been associated with GWU for roughly a 100 years. However, this week a panel at GW will discuss the concerns over the use of the name and the possible need to adopt an alternative nickname, including one based on the hippo mascot. Before we embrace GW “hippocrites” or some other nickname, I would like to again voice my support for The Colonials.
The panel will consist of three faculty members and a former Tanzanian ambassador to discuss the history of colonialism. This will include discussions by Fran Buntman, an associate professor of sociology, on her experiences growing up in South Africa during Apartheid. It will also include Dane Kennedy, a history and international affairs professor, on the history and meaning of colonialism. In fairness to the panelists, they do not appear to be addressing the ultimate issue of the school nickname as opposed to the broader meaning of colonialism.
I have great respect for Professors Buntman and Kennedy. However, the emphasis of the panel seems not only a bit one-sided but misplaced. The Colonials is not a general reference to colonialism or a celebration of colonization. To the contrary, the Colonials (including George Washington) fought against being a colony. They fought the British Empire and its belief that you could subject a people to such foreign rule. The term “Colonials” is an obvious and direct reference to those who fought in the Revolutionary War.
They are people worthy of admiration from George Washington to James Madison to George Mason and others. They joined in armed rebellion against being a colony. It was a moment captured by John Adams when he wrote Abigail Adams on July 3, 1776: “Yesterday the greatest question was decided which ever was debated in America; and a greater perhaps never was, nor will be, decided among men. A resolution was passed without one dissenting colony, ‘that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.'”
The student organizers, SA Sen. Hayley Margolis, CCAS-U, is quoted in the Hatchet as saying “When we talk about the Colonial in history, what does it mean? And is that really what we want our school identity to be?” The emphasis however of the panel is the history of colonialism in the world, not the Colonial as a term in the United States. Just as we strive to understand the meaning and traditions of other countries, there should be a modicum of effort to recognize our own meanings and traditions. The Colonials fought against foreign rule. They were not advocated of colonization. For those interested in GW, that is part of understanding our history and our values.
This is not to say that the panel should not be held. Listening to intellectuals like Buntman and Kennedy is always a learning experience. However, the focus seems curiously misplaced if it is a discussion of the GW Colonials.
The meaning of the Colonials has been obvious for over a 100 years at GW and remains clear to this day. As for the Hippo, it was (and continues to be) a lovely joke. The Hippo (or Riverhorse) is a beloved but relatively recent addition. Indeed, it was something of a joke by former George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg in 1996 when he presented the bronze statue as a gift to the University’s Class of 2000. A plaque was placed on the base:
Legend has it that the Potomac was once home to these wondrous beasts.
George & Martha Washington are even said to have watched them cavort in the river shallows from the porch of their beloved Mount Vernon on summer evenings.
Credited with enhancing the fertility of the plantation, the Washingtons believed the hippopotamus brought them good luck & children on the estate often attempted to lure the creatures close enough to the shore to touch a nose for good luck.
So, too, may generations of students of the George Washington University.
Art for wisdom,
Science for joy,
Politics for beauty,
And a Hippo for hope.
The George Washington University Class of 2000.