Advocates seek to change school names with racist histories

Woodrow Wilson Middle School (Courtesy of the Philadelphia School District)

Woodrow Wilson Middle School (Courtesy of the Philadelphia School District)

This article originally appeared on The Notebook.

Educators and community members across Philadelphia are calling for the renaming of several schools with problematic namesakes in the midst of the protests for racial and social justice.

Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and Henry Sheridan schools are among the examples of institutions that honor historical figures with questionable pasts.

Education advocate Dana Carter is supportive of the effort as a member of Parents Organized for a Better School District of Philadelphia and the Racial Justice Organizing Committee, which wants the late Congressmen John Lewis and Elijah Cummings to be among the first ones to be honored.

“We have to go back to history. When did these schools get their names? Who was in control of telling the story at the time?” Carter said. “The same people who were in charge of naming these schools were the same people who oppressed the Black children in schools. It’s not surprising they chose not to uplift the names of many Black people, and specifically Black women, when they named the schools.”

Civil War General Philip Henry Sheridan is notoriously known for saying, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Sheridan became commander of the Division of the Missouri and used starvation tactics and violence to remove Native Americans from their land and force them onto reservations throughout the southern plains. His campaign utilized surprise attacks and urged for the killing of buffalo, a major food source in the southern plains.

He justified his violence against Native Americans by saying, “If a village is attacked and women and children killed, the responsibility is not with the soldiers but with the people whose crimes necessitated the attack.”

Sheridan Assistant Principal Julio Nuñez expressed his support for the renaming effort in an email to the Notebook. “I think school buildings should be named after individuals who represent a beacon of hope, and are role models to the student demographic of that particular school — individuals who have advanced the fight for freedom in those communities,” he wrote. “I believe a student should be proud to say, ‘My school is named after an individual who fought for my rights.’ Not one who fought to oppress me.”

Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, was a slave owner. He is infamously known for the Trail of Tears, which forcibly removed Native Americans from their homelands.

For this reason, a petition to name the Andrew Jackson School instead after Fanny Jackson Coppin is currently circulating and gaining traction. Coppin was a Black educator, who, unlike Andrew Jackson, actually resided in Philadelphia. She was an Oberlin graduate who advocated for both Black and female higher education.

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president, is associated with resegregation of the federal government and was an open supporter of the Klu Klux Klan. Both Princeton University and Monmouth University recently removed Wilson’s name from their campuses.

Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber wrote in a message to the Princeton community, “Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time. He segregated the federal civil service after it had been racially integrated for decades, thereby taking America backward in its pursuit of justice.”

Princeton’s decision to remove Wilson’s name from the school is made more significant by the fact that Wilson served as the university’s president from 1902-1910.

There also have been calls to rename Benjamin Franklin High School. Franlkin condemned slavery and became a prominent abolitionist as he grew older. However, like some of the other founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin owned two enslaved people in his earlier years. His newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, also served as a bulletin for the sale and purchase of enslaved workers.

For this reason, students and educators are advocating to change the name of Benjamin Franklin High School to honor prominent civil rights activist, Malcolm X. The removal of Franklin’s name from the school has been discussed since 1969, when student protestors met with Philadelphia’s only Black school board member, Rev. Henry Nichols.

The move failed. Nichols believed Malcolm X was too controversial a figure to gain the necessary support of the school board and Mayor Frank Rizzo, and the name was never changed.

Schools across the country are grappling with the histories of their namesakes, including schools in Spokane, Wa., also named for Sheridan and Wilson. The school board in Spokane has promised to review renaming schools as part of its work to improve racial equity.

In Philadelphia, the process of changing a school’s name is not a simple one and can take a couple years. Community efforts are a starting point, but the principal of each school must then review the community’s recommendations and present them to the Board of Education.

“If schools want to change their names, they should start the process now,” Carter said. “The information must be sent to the School Board of Philadelphia for consideration by Nov. 30. This is a conversation that needs to happen now. They can reach out to us (Parents Organized for a Better School District of Philadelphia) or people in their community.”

If approved, there is a cost associated with rebranding and new logos. The District estimates that cost to be about $10,000-$15,000 per school. Parents Organized plans to create a fund, with the help of other local organizations, that will assist schools in the process.

Some argue that renaming schools erases history, or is a waste of resources when institutions could focus on educating the community on their namesakes’ distasteful histories.

Nuñez of Sheridan School thinks differently. He noted that other countries grappling with dark periods in their pasts, such as Germany and South Africa, educate about the atrocities and have gone through a process of renaming schools and public places. “Having the names on school buildings of white supremacists, confederate generals, or slave owners, is not a necessity to progress. Not having them is,” he wrote. “Otherwise, reconciliation is beyond reach.”

Carter spoke on the counter-argument as well: “In addition to educating about the racist names, we also have to remember that names are powerful. And these are names that children see everyday. If we examine these names and deem them problematic, then we have a duty to name the school after someone that embodies something that we want to see in the children, holistically. So we can’t have someone who is racist. Because what kind of model is that?”

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