What’s in a name? Continentals, Revolutionaries, Riverhorses and, of course, Hippos – these are just some of the contenders vying to replace the Colonials moniker now that the Board of Trustees has decided to retire the University’s branding backbone by the 2023-2024 academic year. The moniker has been an indisputable part of GW’s culture and community for nearly a century, but it’s also excluded Black, Indigenous, international and other students who have explicitly said GW’s moniker makes them uncomfortable. They’re right to challenge the University’s Colonials brand, which became official as early as 1926. Colonials isn’t an homage to George Washington’s bravery – it’s a rose-tinted celebration of the racist violence of colonial America that began amid the nadir of American race relations during the 1920s.
The moniker and what it represents is a disservice to an institution with a self-proclaimed global outlook and progressive student body. A desire to preserve the moniker out of some sense of tradition or nostalgia for a “colonial” America replete with tricorn hats, muskets and patriots can’t trump what we know about that period nor supersede the need for students to feel welcome at this University. History has saddled GW with a brand that fails to reflect its values, and changing the Colonials moniker now would rectify that grave mistake. Moving past the Colonials moniker represents a massive step forward in creating a campus culture and spirit that can make all members of the University community proud.
First, a quick recap on how we got here. The Board made its decision following years of student activism and behind-the-scenes discussion. A student-led petition in 2018 called on officials to change the moniker and rename several University buildings, claiming that the moniker hurt GW’s reputation and was offensive to international students who have experienced the effects of colonialism. The following year, a narrow majority of students supported a Student Association referendum that reiterated the original petition’s goals. The Board and former President Thomas LeBlanc then outlined a framework for two renaming committees in 2019 and 2020, including one devoted to the Colonials moniker. The Board used the committee’s recommendations to reach its final decision to retire the moniker, taking us back to the present.
Just like the renaming committee, we should consider the moniker’s past to better understand it in the present. Sandwiched between an article admonishing the freshman class for wearing high school insignias and advertisements for typewriters, The Hatchet – which was not independent of the University at the time – unceremoniously announced what would become GW’s new moniker in a 1926 article. “Colonials,” with its direct appeal to the bygone era of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, would come to replace a series of disparate nicknames like “Hatchetites,” “Crummen” and “Axemen” that students had previously used.
Yet the notion that the Colonials moniker stems from some “precious heritage” of the late 18th and early 19th centuries wasn’t true then, and it certainly isn’t true now – there’s no real historical basis to the Colonials moniker. The nickname stems from the contemporary Colonial Revival movement, a conservative movement in art, architecture and culture that looked toward a mythologized version of America’s past amid the changing 1920s. Coinciding with this movement and the creation of the moniker was – as with much of American history – a widespread acceptance of white supremacy. In 1925 and 1926, tens of thousands of members of the Ku Klux Klan paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue, and Cloyd Heck Marvin – who would go on to defend and enforce the University’s policy of racial segregation (which the KKK supported) – became GW’s president in 1927. This is the atmosphere in which the Colonials moniker came to be.
All of that is to say that the Colonials moniker coincided with a popular interest with America’s colonial past, which involved the brutal conquest, subjugation and slavery of Indigneous and African peoples. Would that have occurred to GW students and officials at the time? Maybe, but given the contemporary tolerance for and even celebration of white supremacy during the 1920s, they likely supported, or at the very least ignored, the complex legacy of the storied “Colonials” whom they used to model themselves.
To avoid any misinterpretation, purposeful or otherwise, let me be clear – owning a Colonials t-shirt or other merchandise, singing our fight song or preferring our current moniker does not make you an avowed white supremacist. But we can’t ignore what the Colonials moniker was meant to represent nor the context in which both officials and students endorsed it.
That’s why my fellow peers, staff, faculty and alumni are right to challenge the Colonials branding as a deeply out of touch and unpleasant celebration of colonialism both in the United States and abroad. Because while other members of this community have been able to look past the moniker’s history and incorporate it as part of a shared identity – through no fault of their own, by the way – it’s simply too divisive for many people to rally behind. Students who supported the 2018 petition said it was hard to take pride in something so offensive and it completely undercut GW’s attempts to recruit students from outside the United States and Europe. They were right then, and they’re still right now.
We should be proud to be at GW, but we do not – and increasingly should not – take pride in being “Colonials.” Whatever personal attachment I or anyone else has to the moniker and its very, very complicated past shouldn’t outweigh the fact that every member of the University community deserves a moniker that embraces them and their heritage, not one that drives them away.
Ethan Benn, a rising junior majoring in journalism and communication, is the opinions editor.