The Meaning of McKinley


By Lisa Kaneshiro

The name and statue of President William McKinley has been a point of contention in the community.

Lian Fouse, guest writer

McKinley High School’s location at the heart of Honolulu for the past 150 years has given it a prominent place in our community. This makes it especially important that the school be a symbol of compassion and harmony. Some people argue that the association with President McKinley goes against those values and hurts our community, prompting the creation of bill HR24 in our state legislature that would change the name if passed. Others see the name as having come to symbolize the traditions and values that the school represents. My view is that the McKinley name should be kept because of its essential role in maintaining our school’s rich and unique history.

The debate over our school’s name stems from a clash in interpretations of what the McKinley name means. Those that push for changing the name and removing the statue say that McKinley “represents the illegal takeover of the Hawaiian government and our freedom as native Hawaiians” (Moore). From this point of view, the McKinley name and statue serve as a painful reminder for our community members who have experienced or empathize with the damage to local culture, freedoms, and lives caused by annexation. Those that want the name to stay as it is point to the vast accomplishments of the school’s students and renowned alumni. McKinley alumni and former teacher Raynette Takizawa, in his testimony to the state congress, describes how McKinley was home to key figures like Duke Kahanamoku and Daniel K. Inouye and how our students have been recognized for their excellence in programs like band and drama and the school mathematics team. To build on Takizawa’s point, removing the McKinley name would dissociate the school from its legacy because every news article and trophy created in honor of these people use the name McKinley High School. Without disputing that the actions of President William McKinley enabled the annexation of Hawai’i, opponents of the change believe that these actions are not what resonate with most McKinley students and alumni when we think of our school. For us, the name McKinley symbolizes the values exhibited by role models like our teachers and alumni. Our school’s students continue to bring pride and tradition to the McKinley name every year in academic competitions, creative artwork, and selfless community service projects.

One aspect of the name controversy that is often overlooked is how unique our school’s history is. The renaming of our school has been frequently compared to the removal of statues on the mainland. These include some statues of Christopher Columbus that were taken down because of the suffering he caused Native Americans (Deegan). Another recent example is how 168 Confederate symbols were removed after the killing of George Floyd sparked a racial reckoning (Hawaii State Teachers Association). On the surface, it may seem that Columbus, Confederate leaders, and William McKinley have similar places in history and that their statues should be treated the same.

The difference, however, between the statue of President McKinley and many of the statues on the mainland is where they stand. Individual Confederate statues that were removed had the sole purpose of commemorating what those people fought for. The statue of President McKinley at our high school sits on the oval that is used as a rite of passage for every graduating class. This oval has been crossed by thousands of students over the years, making it an integral part of our school tradition and the values that we uphold. Renaming McKinley High School has also been compared to a recent name change here in Hawai’i: the change from Central Middle School to Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani Middle School. However, Central had a stronger case for being renamed because the school was built on the princess’s palace grounds (HawaiiNewsNow). This doesn’t apply to McKinley High School. Each school’s symbols should be judged in accordance with the unique history and traditions of that school and should not be eliminated as part of a political trend.

While we cannot undo the historical injustices committed by William McKinley, we should appreciate the efforts of the students, staff, and alumni who have transformed the McKinley name into something far greater than the person the school was originally named after. Keeping the name and statue of McKinley High School honors the students and alumni who have earned our school a prestigious reputation in our community.