Dozens of Michigan schools are named after slaveholders or prominent racists, including some whose statues have been toppled and whose names have been stripped from American institutions amid a national reckoning with racism.
Some educators are calling for these schools to be renamed, arguing that it’s wrong to ask students, especially those whose ancestors were enslaved, to attend school in a building that pays tribute to slave owners.
The legacies of historical figures including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison “are deeply rooted in the soil of racism and separatism,” a group of teachers at Cornerstone Schools, a network of charter schools in Detroit, wrote in a letter to the network’s CEO this month.
The teachers pointed out that the school names in question — Washington-Parks, Madison-Carver, and Jefferson-Douglass academies — link slaveholders with the names of prominent Black Americans Rosa Parks, George Washington Carver, and Frederick Douglass. They noted that almost every student at Cornerstone schools is Black.
“We deem it culturally insensitive and historically inappropriate to continue to connect these slaveholding founding fathers to the names of African Americans who fought against the very evils of slavery,” the letter says.
The teachers declined to comment or be identified out of concern for their jobs.
They met for several hours with Clark Durant, CEO of Cornerstone, earlier this month. Durant said that he and the educators talked about their values and their reasons for working at Cornerstone and discussed the names.
He did not say whether the names will be changed. Nor did he defend the decision to link the names of slaveholders with those of prominent Black people.
“We expressed appreciation that we are starting this conversation and doing this work together,” he said. “The group will meet again soon to continue to address these concerns.”
The teachers are part of a growing national movement to stop using schools as memorials to racists. This month, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer, officials in California and Virginia renamed schools to remove the names of slave owners. The upwelling of anti-racist energy has extended far beyond the K-12 education landscape, with leaders of an NFL team and an Ivy League university giving in to long-standing calls for name changes.
Become a Chalkbeat sponsor
Woodrow Wilson, the former U.S. president whose name was removed from several buildings at Princeton University, is also the namesake of two schools in Michigan. Wilson espoused racist views and resegregated the federal civil service decades after African Americans were first allowed to join. At least 33 other schools in Michigan are named after prominent white men who owned slaves or whose policies damaged Black communities.
Attempts to rename schools in Michigan often encounter plenty of opposition from local communities. In 2017, the Paw Paw school board voted to keep the school’s mascot, the Redskins, a word several dictionaries consider disparaging to Native Americans. The board reversed course earlier this year, and dropped the name before the George Floyd protests.
Belden, another community that stopped using the slur, was sharply divided about changing the name of its district mascot.
Pamela Pugh, a member of the state board of education, said she doesn’t want historical figures such as George Washington forgotten because they played major roles in shaping the United States, for good or ill. Still, she said, having a school named after you is an honor, and she supports communities that have pushed to change school names.
“If… this person is being celebrated, then yes, I do think that we have to listen to the voices of those who want to move us beyond … systemic racism,” she said.
Detroit, the Blackest big city in America, has its own, little-known history of slavery. Many of its most recognizable streets and places — Macomb, Campau, Beaubien, McDougall, Abbott, Brush, Cass, Hamtramck, Gouin, Meldrum, Dequindre, Beaufait, Groesbeck, Livernois, Rivard — are named after slave owners.
The city’s conference center was renamed in 2018, removing the name of Alfred Cobo, a racist former mayor who fought to prevent Black people from moving into majority-white neighborhoods. In the city school district, a movement sought to remove the name of U.S. Housing Secretary Ben Carson from a high school on the grounds that his work as a member of the Trump administration has hurt Black communities.
After Floyd’s death, which sparked weeks of protests in Detroit, city officials removed a statue of Christopher Columbus last month.
Weeks later, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer removed the name of Lewis Cass from a government building in Michigan’s capitol. Cass enslaved people himself and helped expand slavery to more states while he was a U.S. senator from Michigan
Whitmer’s move lent fuel to a long-running effort to rename Cass Tech, the elite high school named after Cass. There’s still little chance that the name will be changed, though, due to opposition from its alumni association. The Detroit district accepts name change proposals, but hasn’t received a formal one for Cass Tech.
Become a Chalkbeat sponsor
“The kids are coming to get a great education,” said Monique Bryant, a member of the association and the founder of the Triangle Society, a nonprofit that supports the school and its students. “Nobody is thinking about Lewis Cass. I would think that any memory of Lewis Cass would be overshadowed by what the more than 80,000 alumni have been able to do.”
The Cornerstone schools, all of which opened after 2009, haven’t been around long enough to build large alumni associations. That means renaming the school will fall largely to Durant, a former candidate for U.S. Senate in Michigan with an affinity for the men known as the Founding Fathers.
Arguing that Cornerstone has a chance to be “recognized as a beacon and catalyst for change,” the teachers’ letter suggests that the names of Jefferson, Washington, and Madison be replaced with the names of Benjamin Franklin, Gouverneur Morris, and Robert Treat Paine — key players in early American politics who also, at least eventually, opposed slavery. (The letter points out that Franklin was a slave owner who freed the people he enslaved and spoke in favor of abolishing slavery.)
“It is time to incorporate the names of patriots whose legacy unequivocally endorses the creed that, ‘all men are truly created equal,’” the letter says.
Here is a list of Michigan schools apparently named after people who enslaved other people or whose actions damaged Black American communities.