Anti-racist activist Assata Shakur wrote, “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them,” but I hope this axiom is not true for McDonogh School’s founder.
I started the sixth grade at the Baltimore County school in 2006 and graduated in 2013. I received an excellent education: McDonogh taught me how to understand human rights issues, engage in activism and think critically about power and privilege. From our seventh grade unit on global citizenship to the diversity club’s facilitation training, my entire education was underpinned by the school’s values — honesty, respect, kindness and responsibility.
However, those values are not reflected in McDonogh’s history of racial oppression. The school’s founder, John McDonogh, owned slaves. Yet all students, faculty and staff were expected to stand around the monument to him, sing songs in his honor and give unequivocal praise to the man who could have owned the ancestors of some current students.
Admiration for the school’s slave-holding founder also seeped into the classroom. All ninth-grade students were required to write essays on how we followed McDonogh’s “Rules for Living.” These rules directly contradict McDonogh’s active participation in the violent system of slavery. He wrote that one should “do unto all men as you would be done by,” “remember always that labor is one of the conditions of our existence,” and “never bid another do what you can do yourself,” all while owning human beings he forced to do his work. No teacher or administrator ever acknowledged this dissonance, but students recognized and were hurt by it.
During my time at McDonogh, the school consistently made excuses for its founder’s complicity in slavery. The common refrain was that McDonogh freed his slaves before his death, so he was a good person. However, McDonogh required his slaves to purchase their freedom through a 15-year program, through which he would profit both from their forced labor and their will to freedom. Upon his death, most of the 200 or so slaves who had not purchased their freedom were not freed, but were again offered the option to purchase their freedom. (He did in his will call to free 10 older enslaved people who had taken care of him). He used the fortune he acquired through this cruelty to posthumously found McDonogh School in Owings Mills.
We need to move on from the concept of the “good slave owner” so that we can repair the harm done by chattel slavery and end its legacy of deep inequality in the United States. Obviously, there was nothing moral about McDonogh’s participation in the institution of slavery. McDonogh School’s racism didn’t end when its founder freed his slaves. McDonogh didn’t graduate its first Black student until 1971, 17 years after the Supreme Court declared school segregation unlawful in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
Today, McDonogh is an elite private school, and its alumni include a Pulitzer Prize winning author, CEOs, prominent musicians, a U.S. senator, notable academics, professional sports stars, and an adviser to the president of the United States. Undoubtedly, many of McDonogh’s current students will become leaders in their communities as well. They will carry with them the values and contradictions they are learning now.
Instead of honoring him as its namesake, the school could present John McDonogh as an example of the hypocrisy of privilege. Students could reflect on the harm done when someone professes one set of values but lives by another. There are so many valuable lessons to be gained from looking critically at the founding of McDonogh School — we should teach them those lessons rather than venerating the founder with an ahistoric narrative of moral purity.
If, as Head of School David J. Farace told The Sun, “McDonogh is committed to being a diverse, equitable, and inclusive community,” the school must actively teach its students these values, including the capacity to learn from our most shameful mistakes. McDonogh must demonstrate this commitment by changing its name to reflect its principles. Perhaps it could be called The Honor School, to call attention to the values-based education it provides to its students. In order to earn that name, the school must lead age-appropriate discussions with all students about the legacy of slavery and the impacts of racism on the health, wealth and well-being of people of color today.
By educating tomorrow’s leaders to be anti-racist, McDonogh has the capacity to have a real impact on the structures of inequality it claims to oppose. Attending McDonogh was an immense privilege. However, in order to feel proud of my alma mater, I need the school that taught me so much to live up to its professed values as its founder did not. Please, change the name.