The Wake County Board of Education in Raleigh, North Carolina, has voted unanimously to rename Daniels Middle School to Oberlin Middle School, after a local historically Black business district.
Josephus Daniels, after whom the school was originally named, was born at the end of the American Civil War and was a staunch white supremacist all his life. He owned the Raleigh newspaper News and Observer, which he used as a widespread platform to campaign against Black rights with yellow journalism and vicious political cartoons, claiming that giving black men the vote was causing a breakdown of all progressive civilization in America.
He and some of his friends, including Alfred Waddell, led the Wilmington Insurrection in 1898, in which 2,000 white supremacists marched on a black business district in Wilmington, North Carolina; torched the entire district, killing between 60 and 350 people; then proceeded to disband by threat the elected government of the city. They forced the mayor, aldermen, and chief of police to resign at gunpoint. Daniels used his newspaper to make certain that the nation saw it as a black-led race riot that had to be quelled by his men and helped ensure Waddell was re-elected as mayor twice more.
Despite this bloody history—or possibly because of it—Daniels rose in power after this. Woodrow Wilson appointed him Secretary of the Navy in World War I. Franklin D. Roosevelt, his assistant in that position, made Daniels Ambassador to Mexico in 1933. He was honored for his support of public schools and women’s suffrage and his government service. There is a Navy destroyer named after him, a statue in Raleigh, and a middle school, Daniels Magnet Middle School, only a two-hour drive from where Daniels and his friends set out to kill “every damn n***er in sight.”
“It is entirely fitting to reopen Oberlin School to make a bold statement that we must be anti-racist, that education is the great equalizer, and we must make it so,” said school board member Jim Martin.
Oberlin Middle School isn’t the only former monument to Daniels that is being deconstructed or renamed. Recently, Daniels’ family removed a statue of him from Raleigh’s Nash Square. The statue had been in Nash Square since 1985, 37 years after Daniels’ death.
Daniels only gave a “tepid” recantation of the violence he had caused, said school board member Christine Kushner. “Working for justice, we cannot be tepid,” she added. “We cannot be neutral. We are compelled to teach our students and our employees and our community that Black lives matter.”
“Changing the name of a school is purely symbolic,” said Keith Sutton, chair of the Wake County Board of Education, of the change from Daniels Middle School to Oberlin Middle School. “But I hope it signals our commitment as a school district to confront the wrongs of the past, and to work harder than ever to undo them.”