George Washington University will soon choose a new nickname for its athletic teams, dropping “Colonials” after years of pressure from students who said the name was entangled with violence toward Native Americans and other colonized people.
The campus community, in the heart of the nation’s capital, has narrowed a list of 10 replacement candidates to four finalists: “Ambassadors,” “Blue Fog,” “Revolutionaries,” and “Sentinels.”
The university will hear feedback until April 28 throughout what it is calling “Moniker Madness” and a new nickname will be announced by the end of the semester, said Ellen Moran, the university’s vice president for communications and marketing.
The school’s mascot will remain George 1 — George Washington’s head, which a uniformed student wears.
The change comes amid a reckoning of the fraught history of team names across the American sports landscape. It comes after a push by students and a victory for Native American activists last year when the NFL team in Washington became the Commanders, shedding a name that was a slur against Indigenous people.
“The more we engage and the more we help the community envision what the new moniker options might look like and give the community a chance to try out what the future might look like, we’re getting a lot of positive engagement,” Moran said.
The Colonials name has been part of the university’s identity since 1926, replacing the Hatchetites, Hatchetmen, Axemen, and Crummen (for Henry Crum, a football coach).
Opposition to the Colonials nickname erupted in 2019, when the student body voted to remove it, and the “Anything But Colonials Coalition” was formed, according to a report a university moniker committee released in 2021.
The next year, student organizations delivered a petition to the university president’s office seeking a name change
“Colonials were active purveyors of colonialism and were complicit in militarized and racialized violence, oppression and hierarchy,” the petition read. “Colonialism has been historically and contemporaneously built upon usurping land, labor and autonomy from racialized communities through dehumanizing violence and suppression.”
Some alumni, however, remain attached to the university’s old name, Moran said. Survey respondents with an affinity for the Colonials associate it with revolutionary spirit and fighting tyranny, according to a report.
Proponents, especially older alumni, have argued that it defines Americans during the British colonial era, said Denver Brunsman, an associate professor of history at the university who is a member of a committee that was formed to discuss the name.
Opponents view it as synonymous with violent colonizers, said Brunsman, a George Washington scholar. The term is also historically inaccurate, he said, because the first US president and his contemporaries would not have identified as colonials.
“It was a term that he associated with narrow-mindedness, with a certain provincialism,” Brunsman said.
In 2022, after the committee released its report, the university announced it would discontinue its nearly 100-year-old nickname. “The moniker can no longer serve its purpose as a name that unifies,” the report said.
High schools, colleges, and professional sports franchises have been grappling with racially charged nicknames and mascots for decades.
In 2010, the University of Mississippi replaced its longtime mascot, a Southern plantation owner known as Colonel Reb, with the Rebel Black Bear. The movement to drop team names and mascots based on Native American and Confederate imagery accelerated after the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
George Washington University had previously renamed some spaces and events, such as its Colonials Club, Colonials Weekend, and Conversation with a Colonial, the moniker committee’s report said. A health center and a student support center still bear the nickname.
Hayley Margolis, who graduated in 2020, discussed the checkered meaning of colonialism with athletic and administrative leaders while advocating a new moniker as a student leader.
“The idea of a colonial just by definition is something that is built on exclusivity and hierarchy, let alone racism in its most violent form,” she said. “So those are things that I didn’t think should unify a college campus and excluded a lot of people on the campus from school spirit.”
As a white person with Indigenous ancestry, Georgie Britcher did not feel represented by the nickname. She was part of the committee that recommended a change to the board of trustees.
“There were students who felt uncomfortable with the Colonial moniker and were not proud to be Colonials,” said Britcher, who was a leader of the university’s Students for Indigenous and Native American Rights group.
In 2022, the university’s student body was about 46 percent white, 10 percent Hispanic, 10 percent Black, 12 percent Asian, and less than 1 percent Indigenous; 13 percent of students were classified as international students.
In the past, the buzz around the university’s moniker was whether to change it to a hippo, said Kyle Boyer, who graduated in 2010. The animal has been an unofficial mascot since 1996, when a statue of a hippopotamus was given as a gift to the class of 2000 by Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the university president at the time.
“I think the winds of social change that have affected things like the Washington Commanders had not yet risen to the point where moniker change was a serious conversation on campus,” said Boyer, who has since become a high school administrator and a pastor in the Philadelphia area.
Now, he and the alumni he remains in touch with understand the change, he said.
“There are things that sometimes are required to really unify an organization or a community,” he said, “and I understand the decision to change the moniker.”