The Collegiate School ‘Woke-Over’ connections to black affinity group, U.S. Capitol protests and Georgia politics
In January 2022, Collegiate School, an elite Manhattan all-boys prep school founded in 1628, announced changes to its motto, seal and mascot. The existing motto “Unless God, then in vain” was replaced with “Community, Wisdom, Humaneness,” in Latin. The school’s seal was changed to reflect the new motto and to remove the “A.D.” designation from the school’s founding date. The mascot was updated from a drawing of a Dutch colonial figure with a peg leg to a modernized faceless Dutchman holding a lantern. According to the school, the changes were made to “remove the two explicit religious references” and make the mascot “more inclusive.”
But with connections to the school’s black affinity group established in the 1960s, U.S. Capitol protests and even Georgia politics, was the change really about “inclusivity”?
The effort to change the motto, seal and mascot started with an “open letter” to the Collegiate community published in the February 2019 edition of the school’s newspaper. The letter was written by two Collegiate upper school students—both members of Collegiate’s Jamaa program—and signed by 28 upper school students.
The affinity group
The Jamaa program at Collegiate—the word “jamaa” means “family” in Arabic—was founded as a black “affinity group” by alumnus Kenneth McClane (the second black student admitted to Collegiate) in 1969 when he was a senior at the school. His parents, a doctor and painter, were friends of Martin Luther King, Jr. (the family hosted King at their vacation home in Martha’s Vineyard in 1959). McClane is now professor emeritus at Cornell University and the author of Walls, in which he writes about his experience as a student at Collegiate. At the time of its founding, Jamaa was controversial as it was only open to black students. Jamaa is now called the “Jamaa Boys of Color Affinity Group.” McClane currently serves on the board of trustees at Collegiate.
The open letter
Collegiate’s open letter was written in response to a video that surfaced in January 2019 of two neighboring Poly Prep Country Day School middle school students donning blackface at a sleepover in 2016. Collegiate’s open letter was similar to other open letters written after the the video came to light, including a letter written by students from Stuyvesant High School’s “Black Students League” in January 2019. Stuyvesant’s letter mentioned “Umoja, the organization for students of color at Poly Prep” and included eight steps Stuyvesant’s administrators should take in response to the video.
Collegiate’s letter included nine “demands” and began with the claim, “Collegiate must address its own problems with racism and intolerance.” It criticized the school for making conversations about the Poly Prep incident “optional” which, according to the letter, “stunts the emotional and social education of all students at Collegiate.” The letter went on that “these are conversations that we must all be a part of.”
Included in Collegiate student’s open letter’s list of demands:
- “Curate a faculty and administration that more accurately reflects the diversity of the student body in terms of race, religion, ethnicity, gender expression and identity, political affiliation/alignment and sexual orientation.”
- “Admit more students of color.”
- Create a “Student Academic Committee that will work with teachers to ensure a deeper and more inclusive curriculum.”
- Create a “block during the academic day for students to” have “conversations about race, gender and sexuality, sexual assault, etc.”
- Initiate a “serious reevaluation” of the school’s mascot.
“It is detrimental to every student when their education lacks the frame of reference and point of view of teachers who are not cisgender heterosexual White men, especially in the humanities.”Collegiate student’s Feb. 2019 “open letter”
The task force
In April 2019, Collegiate’s board of trustees convened a 17-person “History and Symbols Task Force” to evaluate the school’s mascot as well as its motto, seal, nickname and colors. Task force members included six trustees, seven faculty/staff, three upper school students and the school’s chaplain, Michael Bos, who teaches Islam at the school and serves as the senior minister of Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. The school a member of the National Association of Independent Schools and does business with the diversity, equity and inclusion consultancy, The Glasgow Group.
The task force was co-chaired by school trustee Rev. John Vaughn, father of a co-author of the February 2019 open letter. Vaughn currently serves as the executive pastor at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta—Martin Luther King Jr.’s church at the time of his assassination in 1968—where he works alongside the church’s senior pastor, U.S. Senator Rev. Raphael G. Warnock. In 2015, Vaughn participated in a Black Lives Matter protest in the Longworth House Office Building at the U.S. Capitol, and he has been an outspoken proponent of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Black Lives Matter movement is doing what many of our faith communities are still struggling towards. They have created radically inclusive, welcoming communities and are striving to live up to the principles that we more seasoned leaders have taught them. They are committed to living out their values, intentional about developing leadership, and are opening the door to the diversity of who we are as the Black community.Rev. John Vaughn, The Huffington Post, Aug. 5, 2016
The task force began meeting on May 29, 2019, and sought input from students, alumni, parents, alumni parents and faculty and staff through meetings and surveys. Constituents were asked to respond in light of Collegiate’s statement of beliefs, as adopted in 2017:
We believe that we are at our best when all members of the school community conduct themselves with respect, kindness, and integrity. We believe that the traditions and values of this old but not old-fashioned school can inspire boys to develop their individual capacities for personal and academic excellence.
Respondents were asked to rate their “feelings and responses” to the symbols and rate whether the symbols reflected the “values and qualities” of the school’s statement of beliefs on a scale of one to five. Survey results showed broad support for retaining the traditional symbols. One parent commented, “If you take away the tradition you should change the name of the school to the ‘New School.’” But across the board, the constituency group most in favor of change was faculty and staff.
The 407-page report
However, on June 17, 2020, just three weeks after George Floyd was killed and one week after Collegiate had sent a community-wide letter promising to refocus efforts “to combat within Collegiate the institutional and other racism that pervades so much of our society,” the school’s headmaster at the time, Lee M. Levison, released the task force’s 407-page report and indicated that the board was adopting the task force’s unanimous recommendation to replace the school’s motto, seal and mascot. One question left unanswered was how the task force had come to a unanimous decision that differed so dramatically from survey results. The headmaster, who had given notice in December 2018, retired just 12 days later on June 30, 2020.
According to Levison’s June 17 letter, “the Board voted to update the school seal, so as to remove the two explicit religious references (the “A.D.” and the Latin motto) in light of the school’s legal separation from the Collegiate Church over the last several decades” and redesign the school mascot as “the image is considered by many in our community to be exclusionary and inconsistent with our Statement of Beliefs.” Critics of the mascot had complained about its apparent depiction of Peter Stuyvesant, the first governor of New Amsterdam who is now vilified by some as an “unrepentant racist.”
Levison further explained that the school’s history and symbols were “flashpoints” for such topics as race, religion and gender” but that the changes “should not be viewed as an effort to erase history, but rather to reflect our commitment to being a more inclusive and welcoming community.”
In the fall of 2020, Rev. Vaughn and his task force co-chair announced the process to “identify a new Latin phrase” and “update the image” of the mascot, which would include “community-wide input.” He then handed the project off to a group of faculty to revise the motto and the “updating mascot committee” to work with a design firm and illustrators to “to determine a new visual representation of the Collegiate Dutchman.”
Three years after the February 2019 open letter was published, Collegiate School unveiled its new symbols. “Community, Wisdom, Humaneness” was the new motto. God and Stuyvesant were gone.