Seabury’s Legacy

Editor’s tackle the racist history of our school’s name

Lyle Griggs, Copy

Question: As other institutions grapple with the history of their names, what, if anything, should Seabury do about the racist legacy of its namesake?

Several months ago, a pair of student journalists from Seaman High School in the Topeka area set out to write a feature on Fred Seaman, the obscure, long-dead local figure for whom the school is named. After consulting newspaper archives, the journalists found something surprising and disturbing: Seaman was the local leader of the Ku Klux Klan and a vicious white supremacist. Now, students at Seaman are calling on their high school and school district (also named for Fred Seaman) to change their name. No institution, they argue, should celebrate the legacy of such racists as Seaman. 

Reading about this ongoing and crucial effort prompted an important question: what, if anything, should this school do about the legacy of Bishop Samuel Seabury, its namesake?

Although Seabury, the first American Episcopal Bishop, is a major figure in the Church, most know him as the stuffy loyalist who appears in the hit musical “Hamilton.” The Broadway version of Seabury is benign, worthy more of mockery than condemnation. The audience sees the Bishop as a stuffy monarchist fool, and laughs as Hamilton shreds his loyalist arguments. 

But Samuel Seabury was not merely a snooty anti-American Brit; he was also a racist, a slaveowner and a staunch defender of the slave trade. According to Trinity University, which named its central Seabury Hall after the Bishop, Seabury saw the slave trade as a crucial way to maintain economic ties between Britain and its American colonies, and he often defended slavery as a natural consequence of God’s preference for the white race. Seabury was not simply on the wrong side of a war; he was a repugnant, slave-owning racist who used religion to justify brutality.

So what, as members of a community that prizes inclusivity, should we do about the legacy of our namesake? I am not certain that we should change our name. For one, a change would not be an inconsequential decision; it could stymie Seabury’s branding efforts, and it would be costly. More importantly, Bishop Samuel Seabury is only one of the many long-dead racists whom we honor–countless institutions bear the names of leaders like Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, who all either owned slaves or held white supremacist views. Except in the case of recent, radical local racists like Fred Seaman, name changes must be part of a national reckoning.

Still, we should never further honor Samuel Seabury’s legacy or speak of him positively. The portrait of Seabury that once hung in the foyer, for example, should gather dust in a closet, not hang in our halls. And we should change the name of Convocation, officially the Bishop Samuel Seabury Convocation, to honor a different figure. Nor should we make these changes quietly; we should discuss Seabury’s legacy in Morning Meeting, write about it in a Friday Letter and speak about it at the renamed Convocation. As long as we retain the Seabury name, we have an obligation to recognize and investigate the long-dead Bishop’s racist legacy.