Controversial ‘slave-owning’ Scot believed to be ancestor of Hollywood star Reese Witherspoon

An 18th century Scottish minister, whose name has been axed from a prestigious school in America because of his links to slavery is believed to be an ancestor of Hollywood actress Reese Witherspoon.

More than 1,500 people signed a petition calling for the John Witherspoon Middle School in Princeton, New Jersey, to be renamed.

Born in East Lothian in 1723, Rev Dr John Witherspoon, served as a minister in Beith, North Ayrshire and Laigh Kirk, Paisley, Renfrewshire.

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He emigrated to New Jersey in 1768 to become president of Princeton University, and became one of the founding fathers of the United States.

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The protestant figure is believed to be the first cousin nine times removed of Legally Blonde and Walk the Line star Reese Witherspoon.

The New Orleans-born actress is said to take great pride in her Scots heritage and is also understood to be able to claim protestant reformer John Knox as her 12th great-grandfather through her familial ties with John Witherspoon.

For decades Rev Dr John Witherspoon's name adorned the public school as a tribute to his achievements in his adopted homeland.

Reese Witherspoon is believed to be descended from Rev Dr John Witherspoon, an 18th century Scot with links to the slave trade.

But a campaign, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, called for the school to be renamed after students said it honoured the 'slave-owning and anti-abolitionist'.

Witherspoon is said to have owned slaves to help farm his 500 acre country estate, and both lectured and voted against the abolition of slavery in New Jersey.

The school is now known by the temporary name of the Princeton Unified Middle School until a new, permanent title is chosen in summer 2021.

Geoffrey Allen, a former pupil of the school, started the petition which read: "In the midst of the ongoing support of the Black Lives Matter movement, this has created the opportune moment for John Witherspoon Middle School to rid itself of its slave-owning and anti-abolitionist namesake, John Witherspoon.

"The town of Princeton has made clear demonstration of their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and Princeton Public Schools has issued multiple statements claiming to counter racism for the sake of all Black employees, students in the district, and the rest of the community.

"This change is imperative, as the school's name and Witherspoon's legacy creates a hostile environment for both the middle school and district's racially diverse student body."

Jason Burr, the school's principal, has said that students and the wider community will help decide on a new name, with a vote expected in June.

Witherspoon legacy sparked a debate at the world renowned Princeton University earlier this year, after 350 faculty members signed a petition calling for a statue of him to be removed.

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