Rasheed Shabazz, a writer and longtime Alameda, California resident, hadn’t given much thought to how his home schools got their names until the debates about Confederate symbolism after the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. When he attended Henry Haight Elementary School, he found that the school’s namesake – a former California governor – held white supremacist views and disenfranchised non-white Californians.
“It wasn’t a very long search,” said Shabazz. “I went to the second page on Google and checked out his Inaugural Address from 1867, and he went further on the inferiority of the black, Asian and Indian populations. “
On the 150th anniversary of that speech, Shabazz emailed the Headmaster and PTA at Haight Elementary School, pleading for the school to be renamed. Soon after, Shabazz, parents, and students began a school renaming process that resulted in Haight becoming Dear elementary school.
Tim Hannapel, a Washington, DC-based attorney, helped organize the name change Woodrow Wilson High School, his alma mater in town. Hannapel had finished school and knew nothing about President Woodrow Wilson’s racism as it had not been taught in any of his classes. As a result, he finds institutional renaming useful in reshaping public memory.
“White supremacy is so insidious and powerful that it has to rewrite history to make whites feel comfortable,” said Hannapel. “You have to reject the lies of history.”
Municipalities have taken a variety of approaches to evaluating school names. While some school districts have identified individual names as particularly problematic, others have chosen to systematically review all school names in a district to see which ones should be changed. For example, Washington, DC and San Francisco opted for a comprehensive evaluation of all schools in their districts, using community members, educators, and students to conduct research and make recommendations.
“We would look at names and specific criteria that have to do with whether those names suppress a particular community or perpetuate racism,” said Ameyalli Ordonez, a student representative on the San Francisco School Name Advisory Committee. “Many of these schools represent people who raised the ideas of the white supremacists, and I didn’t know that until I did the research.”
In some school districts, students play an important role in determining new namesakes. After a citizen-led movement in Brookline, Massachusetts pushed for the renaming of Edward Devotion, a K-8 school named after a slave owner, community members were invited to submit name ideas. With adult support, a group of third to eighth grade students narrowed the list and presented their four most important decisions to the school committee, which voted to rename the school after the black civil rights activist and educator Florida Ruffin Ridley.
“To me, a public school represents hope, future, equality and equal opportunity for the people, the very values that Florida stood for,” said Interim Superintendent James Marini at the Florida Ruffin Ridley School renaming ceremony in February. “She had courage, she had perseverance, she was a forerunner for justice. What better symbol could you give children to children than the name of someone who stands for it? “
Some participants in the renaming effort recognized the success of these campaigns and still found problems with the processes. Malcolm Cawthorne, a member of the Brookline Naming Committee, believes his school district was inconsistent in its approach. Brookline agreed to rename the Edward Devotion School due to public pressure, but did not use common standards to evaluate other schools. For example, Heath Elementary, named after the street where the slave-own Heath family once lived, has not been renamed.
“The school district did what was easy to do,” said Cawthorne. “The only thing that came up was this one school. It was really public and you could change the name and make things go away. There are others that schools are named after that have complicated names that we did not pursue. For me, our district allows this. “
Certain decisions have been examined by critics of the renaming. In January, the San Francisco School Board got into national controversy over its decision Rename 44 schools, and the district recently decided to do so Scrap his renaming plan. Much of the opposition in San Francisco and other communities has focused on decisions to record the names of presidents and other historically important figures.
“WHO could pass the board test? “wrote Charles Lane in a Washington Post op-ed Criticism of San Francisco’s decision to rename Lincoln. “Barack Obama’s development on gay marriage is similar to Lincoln’s own two steps forward and one step back on slavery and race.”
Shabazz countered that the “nobody is perfect” mindset is a flawed argument that evades the problem.
“Someone can do something that isn’t the most positive social behavior. But does that mean human trafficking? Land theft? Colonization? Mass murder and genocide? I don’t think so, ”he said.
Opponents of the San Francisco renaming decisions have also been criticized his trial of penalizing the district for lack of community involvement and a lack of professional review of the renaming committee’s historical research. Other school districts received similar criticism. However, it is not clear whether school community involvement and formal professional review in school name selection have historically been the norm. Before the 2000s at least, there was little evidence that professional advice was a common practice for naming schools. In addition, white women and BIPOC were often excluded from civic life until the mid-20th century, after many schools that currently exist had already been named.
There are real sentimental ties to old names and gullible criticism of random trials. However, much of the opposition to school renaming still reflects the belief that white men of historical fame have the right to have their names on buildings. In contrast, the historical significance of marginalized people must be shown to be worthy of widespread consent, regardless of whether their contributions have been systematically hidden and deleted.
The real value of renaming committees could ultimately come from their role in reconstructing our storytelling. Shabazz believes that the meaning of renaming is not the names themselves, but the conversations created by grappling with difficult questions: What parts of our history have been forgotten? What do our monuments and building names show about the values of our community? What Makes a Person Worthy to Be Remembered?
“Processes can be more transformative and effective than the specific outcome,” said Shabazz. “You can learn about local history, build relationships with people, and express our values.”
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