Posted on February 24, 2022

The Battle Over Race, Tradition and an Elite Private School’s Mascot

Corey Kilgannon, New York Times, February 19, 2022

The national reckoning over race and privilege that has caused upheaval at schools across the country arrived at Collegiate, one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools, when a group of students of color publicly demanded that the 400-year-old institution “address its own problems with racism and intolerance.”

In response, Collegiate officials created a 17-member task force, which a year later produced an exhaustive 407-page report on the school’s “history and symbols,” filled with graphics, survey results, and feedback from scores of people connected to Collegiate.

Then in January, three years after the students’ call for change, the study’s end result arrived in an email to parents and alumni: Collegiate’s mascot had gotten a makeover.

In recent years, schools across the United States, from private schools like Collegiate to public high schools to Ivy League universities, have struggled to adapt to rapidly changing norms on race and privilege by diversifying faculties, broadening curriculums and adopting antiracism guidelines.

Many of Collegiate’s exclusive private school counterparts in New York, which guard their privacy fiercely, have faced their own controversies. {snip}

At Collegiate, it was the school mascot — a winking, peg-legged caricature of a Dutch settler — that emerged as a flash point. The decision to change it was met, predictably, with some outcry — but on both sides.

Some people lamented that what they saw as an important part of Collegiate’s heritage was being erased. They considered the Dutchman mascot as an inoffensive embodiment of school pride and a fond link to tradition at the boys-only institution on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

There were others who supported the initial call for changing the mascot, which was viewed by some as offensive, from its Eurocentric and racist overtones to its crude depiction of a disability, a peg leg. But they saw the result of the extensive research project as a mere makeover that did not confront the broader issues of race and inclusion at Collegiate.


A main objection to the mascot was that it was known to many as “Peg Leg Pete” and widely believed to represent Peter Stuyvesant, the wooden-legged 17th-century Dutch leader of New Amsterdam whose legacy has come under growing criticism because of his ownership of slaves, support for slavery and antisemitic policies.


The Collegiate controversy began in February 2019, when the organization for students of color, Jamaa, said in a letter published in the school paper that “Collegiate must address its own problems with racism and intolerance.”

The Jamaa letter, which was signed by 28 students, called for a more inclusive, less Eurocentric curriculum, and greater diversity among teachers and administrators beyond “cisgender heterosexual White men.”


Among the nine steps the students asked the school to take was No. 5: “a serious re-evaluation of our school mascot.” The letter called Stuyvesant “a vehement antisemite” who “ruled by hate and racism.”


The report said the task force — which included students, staff members and Collegiate trustees — had “embraced an anti-racist mission and sought to have students and teachers wrestle with whiteness, racial privilege and bias.”


Finally, after three years of study and redesign work, a modernized image of the Dutchman was sent out to thousands of parents and alumni last month.

Gone were aspects that some people had called offensive, including the original character’s peg leg and even his identity: The new figure is shown in silhouette, with his face obscured.


The report also recommended addressing other offensive parts of Collegiate’s history, including a fight song printed in a 1964 school handbook that the task force said was “worth re-examining.” The song hails Collegiate’s colonial forefathers, “those sturdy Old Dutchmen” who arrived in America and “announced to the wandering red men, ‘You’ve got to get out of the way.’”