A push to change the name of McKinley High School and remove its towering bronze statue of President William McKinley ran aground Thursday at the Legislature after passionate testimony on both sides.
“With a very heavy and sad heart, we have to defer this measure today,” said Rep. Jeanne Kapela, vice chairwoman of the House Education Committee and one of the sponsors of the resolution.
“While I do understand the reluctance of McKinley alumni to change the name of their alma mater, this issue is at its heart about advancing racial equity,” Kapela said. “Over the last few years, we have watched our nation engage in a reckoning with its troubled racial history, and Hawaii is no different.”
HR 148 would not have had the force of law, but would have “emphatically urged” the Board of Education and superintendent to take action, but it was deferred without a public vote.
Advocates of changing the name decried the former president for his role in the annexation of Hawaii to the United States in 1898, following the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by U.S.-backed forces in 1893.
“There are a couple of problems with the naming of Honolulu High School as McKinley High School,” said Rep. Amy Perruso, a high school history teacher and lead sponsor of the resolution. “The first is that it heroifies a figure who was really instrumental in making sure the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom was solidified.”
“Second, the statue of McKinley on that campus — he’s holding a ‘treaty of annexation,’” she said. “There is no such treaty of annexation, so essentially it’s propaganda meant to make people think there was a legitimate annexation under law when in fact there wasn’t.”
But many people weighed in against the move, including McKinley’s principal, some current and former staff members, and alumni. Former Gov. George Ariyoshi, 95, penned a handwritten letter opposing the change, while McKinley’s student government officers were split on the issue.
“History is the most powerful teacher, and to erase our past is doing a disservice to our country,” Principal Ron Okamura testified. “My question is, When does this end? If we change one, we need to change all places that are named after people to not offend anyone or hurt their feelings. It’s ridiculous. … My students will learn all sides of history.”
In its testimony, the Department of Education pledged to follow up by researching the issue and “ensure all input is received and all facts are analyzed.”
The high school, previously named Honolulu High School, was renamed in 1907 in honor of McKinley, who was president from 1897 until 1901, when he was assassinated.
Laverne Moore, a teacher at McKinley who is also an HSTA teacher lobbyist, advocated for change.
“I started teaching special education at McKinley High School in 2001, and I absolutely love it,” Moore wrote. “But I will always struggle with the name McKinley because I know what he did, how he illegally took away my government and my freedom as a Native Hawaiian. It still hurts. It will always hurt.”
But other teachers opposed the move and criticized the union’s board of directors for taking a public stand without consulting the broader membership — or even staff at the school.
An online petition to change McKinley High School’s name, started in 2015 by Aoloa Patao, was recently reactivated and had 3,675 signatures as of late Thursday. Patao, a member of the Right Our History Hawaii group, said the move is needed because “many, especially Native Hawaiians, find the name McKinley offensive.”
After failing to get Congress to ratify a treaty of annexation, which required a two-thirds majority, McKinley instead pushed a joint resolution that required just a majority vote.
“The name of the school and the statue of William McKinley holding the fabricated ‘annexation treaty’ perpetuates the allegation that people in the Hawaiian islands wanted to become Americans, even though 80% of the adult population signed the Ku‘e Petitions against annexation in 1897,” the proposed HR 149 read.
“On July 6, 1898, President McKinley committed fraud by signing a Joint Resolution of Congress, entitled the ‘Newlands Resolution’ that purported the annexation of Hawaii … even though such a document does not have any power or legitimacy to annex an internationally recognized nation with official treaties in 18 foreign states dating back as far as 1846,” it said.