This story originally appeared in The Philadelphia Tribune
When elementary students at the Chester A. Arthur School started to learn more about the namesake of their school, they were concerned by what they found out.
Chester A. Arthur became the 21st president of the United States after James Garfield’s assassination in 1881. He signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which restricted Chinese laborers from entering the country for 10 years.
A K-8 school in Southwest Center City, the Arthur school is committed to academic excellence and diversity, equity and inclusion, according to school leaders.
“Chester A. Arthur was an oppressor who had no direct ties to Philadelphia,” said sixth-grader Luca Samson. “He was considered the first person to exclude a country from coming to America by signing the Chinese Exclusion Act,” Luca said.
“The name of our school should reflect who we are as a school and what we stand for. The name of our school doesn’t reflect that,” Luca said.
Arthur’s background led students to start the process of changing the name of their school.
The school renaming process in the School District of Philadelphia consists of five phases, including a school name request submission, name request review, community engagement and name proposal, superintendent review and the approval of the Board of Education, which is the school district’s governing board.
The school board unanimously approved changing the name of the Chester A. Arthur School to Marian Anderson Neighborhood Academy, after the renowned opera singer and civil rights activist, at its June 29 meeting.
“It was a great experience to be at the meeting and see the school board vote on the name change for our school,” said sixth-grader Zareen Ali. “It was exciting to see our hard work pay off.
“I learned so many positive things through this experience including how to raise your voice about something you are really passionate about,” Zareen said.
A Philadelphia native, Anderson grew up and spent her life in the neighborhood surrounding the school at 20th and Catharine streets.
She broke barriers as the first African American to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
She toured the world with her music, sang the national anthem at the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and served as a delegate to the United Nations.
In 1924, she purchased a row home at 762 S. Martin St. in South Philadelphia. Today, the property serves as a museum and a home to the Marian Anderson Historical Society.
“I’m really excited that our school is named after Marian Anderson,” said sixth-grader Malachi Grogan. “She was someone who was passionate about civil rights and broke barriers.
“She inspired so many people and the community here really loves her. The school needed this change and the community needed this change. This is something that will definitely stay with me for the rest of my life,” Malachi said.
The renaming comes after several months of engagement with students, families, the community and the school district through a series of meetings, focus groups and surveys.
In March, the school naming council, which consisted of students, parents, community members and council advisors from the school district, narrowed the list of submitted names to 60.
From the pool of 60 names three finalists were selected. In addition to Anderson, the other two finalists were Nellie Rathbone Bright and Caroline LeCount.
Bright was born in Savannah Georgia and moved to Philadelphia in the early 1900s as part of the Great Migration.
She taught in Philadelphia public schools and became a principal in 1935 and served in that role until her retirement in 1952. After her retirement, she continued to teach courses to other teachers on Black history.
LeCount was the first Black woman in Philadelphia to pass the teaching exam and was an educator for nearly 50 years. Historians often called the Philadelphia native “The Rosa Parks of Her Time” for her early efforts to desegregate public transportation in the 19th century.
She was part of a group of women who supported the Union in the Civil War. As part of their efforts, they rode streetcars to deliver supplies to troops.
LeCount, along with her fiancé Octavius Catto and abolitionist William Still, also made petitions and lobbying efforts toward desegregation.
“I’m so proud of our students,” said Marian Anderson Neighborhood Academy principal Mary Libby. “They saw something that they didn’t like at the school and not only did they speak up about it, but they took the initiative to make a change at the school.
“Having our school named after Marian Anderson not only reflects our core values and our past, but also our future,” Libby said. “We’re looking forward to celebrating this accomplishment at the beginning of the school year.”