WASHINGTON — Many are familiar with the The Gunnery school, but few probably know about the man behind it.
Frederick Gunn was a noted abolitionist, helping countless slaves escape to their freedom up North and speaking out against slavery. He was an avid outdoorsman credited as the founder of recreational camping in the U.S. and a pillar of the local community, establishing the town’s library.
In an effort to better honor its founder and his ideals, The Gunnery changed its name this week to Frederick Gunn School.
“We are today recommitting our school to the ideals that Frederick Gunn lived and taught 170 years ago because they remain inspiring today,” said Head of School Peter Becker.
Gunn became an abolitionist in the 1840s, following in the footsteps of his older brother and becoming a leader on the Underground Railroad — actions that forced him to leave town for a few years. At the time, Washington favored the country staying together over supporting the abolition of slavery. He was able to return in 1849 when public opinion changed and opened a school on his land the following year.
Not only did his early classes have children of prominent abolitionists, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, but Gunn also welcomed girls, African-Americans, Native Americans and international students, going against customs at the time.
Today, it’s a college preparatory school that has 310 boarding and day students.
“He was a principled man, who stood up for what he believed in, even when it cost him dearly,” said Patrick Dorton, the board of trustees chairman.
Gunn, who graduated from Yale University with a degree in botany, was also an avid naturalist and outdoorsman, something he shared with his students. He walked all the way from Washington to Milford with his students in 1861, creating what is believed to be the country’s first camping program. The school also has one of the first photos of baseball games being played, illustrating his commitment to athletics.
Becker said the board of trustees unanimously approved the name change in January but had been considering it for more than a year as a way to better honor Gunn and clarify his vision. He said there wasn’t a particular event that spurred it, but the change resonates today, including the global pandemic and the re-examination of race in America.
“Frederick Gunn modeled both resilience in the face of unanticipated challenges and a willingness to stand up for the rights of all people,” Becker said. “His message is a message for our time, and for all time.”
He said there has been some confusion about the school under the previous name, including a military connotation, though that wasn’t the driving factor for the change.
“We have many alumni who serve in the military and we are incredibly proud of all that the military does for our country,” Becker said “At the same time, we are very excited to explicitly honor our founder with our new name.”
Jon Tisch, a 1972 alumnus, said the school has always been named for its founder, so this change just removes the uncertainty for those who might not be familiar with the man.
“At first, this may feel to many alumni like a departure,” he said. “In reality, it’s the opposite.”
The new name coincides with cultural and physical changes at the school, including a new dining hall, dorms and athletic fields, as well as the creation of the college counseling center and the Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center. Other building projects are also in the works.
The school is also making the Outdoor Program a cornerstone of the school experience and launching the Center for Citizenship and Just Democracy. It recently established an innovation track that lets students explore robotics, engineering and technology.
“We are proud of our history and will always celebrate The Gunnery,” Becker said. “We’re changing the name but our history, our principles and our mission will always guide us.”