The Colonials moniker should not represent today’s GW

Phillip Troutman is an assistant professor of writing and of history and the director of Writing in the Disciplines. 

It’s time we finally abandon the Colonials moniker. It’s been almost three years since students voted to drop the term and nearly two years since the Board of Trustees approved a framework for renaming and commissioned the Special Committee on the Colonials Moniker. Last semester, the Board of Trustees announced that they would make a decision about whether to rename the moniker this academic year, so it’s possible that the decision could come soon.

Our use of “Colonials” is damning, embracing a celebration of the North American colonial project, including the enslavement and murder of Africans and genocidal wars against Native American nations. Its adoption by GW in 1926 made no logical sense, and its use by GW thereafter reveals its racist origins. And in the international context of GW’s research and teaching, its continued use is entirely inappropriate.

George Washington never used the term “colonial” to describe himself or his Continental Army. To him, “colonial” was a pejorative term describing British power over Anglo-American subjects who thought of themselves as British citizens. Nor did the 1821 founding of Columbian College, nearly 40 years after independence, have anything to do with the colonial era. In fact, some early donors hoped it could fulfill George Washington’s vision of a national university in the nation’s capital. This was a forward-looking, nation-building idea, not one that looked backward to the colonial past.

So, how did GW become the Colonials? It has only been our nickname since 1926, more than a century after our founding and 22 years after we became The George Washington University in 1904. And it was done more or less by administrative fiat.

In 1926, then-University President William Lewis was unhappy with the various sports nicknames used by students, including Hatchetites, Hatchetmen and Axemen, according to the 1970 history of the University by Elmer Louis Kayser, a GW historian who was also a top-level administrator. Lewis found them “obnoxious” due to “their lack of any euphony,” – that is, they weren’t pleasing to Lewis’ ear – so he instructed Kayser to “find a better name and try to get it accepted” by students. The name Kayser chose was Colonials. On Oct. 27, 1926, The Hatchet – which was not yet independent of the University – declared that GW’s moniker going forward would be the Colonials. There was no broader student discussion or input – unlike the 2019 referendum. And because The Hatchet’s 1926 announcement parroted Kayser’s language–complaining that the prior names “were not entirely euphonious”–it’s possible that Kayser even wrote the announcement himself.

But why Colonials? If Kayser and The Hatchet’s editors at the time were celebrating General Washington and his army, then why not choose, say, Revolutionaries or Continentals? The answer lies in the early 20th-century Colonial Revival, a cultural movement that glorified and mythologized British North America’s colonial era as a golden age of white, Christian homogeneity. Historians have linked the movement to elite and middle-class white populations’ fears of an increasingly urban and diverse United States being reshaped by ethnic immigrant communities and African Americans who were increasingly mobile, both geographically and socially. Organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution romanticized colonial “heritage” in architecture, antiques, arts and crafts, historic preservation, monument building, history and literature. Paradoxically, the 1920s revivalists conflated their vision of stability and gentility with one of revolutionary patriotism. In their minds, the “colonials” were, somehow, simultaneously revolutionaries.

The Hatchet’s editors made this colonial/revolutionary slippage in 1926, asserting that GW’s colors, “the Continental Army buff and blue,” were “the colors of Colonial America.” They went on to assert, with tortured logic, that “George Washington University, in its antecedents, is a colonial school. Dating back to very early post-Revolutionary days, it was founded when the term ‘colonial’ still applied to an era which was then passing.” No one in 1821 would have thought we were a “colonial school,” but in 1926, being a “colonial” was fashionably nostalgic. GW students seem to have understood the violence of colonization implicitly. For the football team’s 1946 homecoming game, for example, fraternities and residence hall associations decorated their public lawns with life-size papier-mâché caricatures of GW “Colonials” slaughtering William and Mary “Indians” in various fashion. This is what colonization means, as GW’s Students for Indigenous and Native American Rights and many international students understand.

Colonials is a term that was chosen by administrators to replace more organic nicknames used by students. It was imposed without general student input. The logic used to impose it was nonsensical. It represented a nostalgic vision of a lily-white golden age, romanticizing genocidal war and slavery. And today it does not represent the values of GW students or the University as a whole. It’s past time to change it.

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