A stalled campaign to rename Benjamin Carson High School of Medicine and Science is moving forward again as school board members respond to complaints about its namesake’s connections to the Trump administration.
Carson is the Detroit neurosurgeon-turned-politician who endorsed candidate Donald Trump in 2016 after ending his own presidential campaign. He served as Trump’s secretary of housing and urban development from 2017 to 2021, during which his agency rolled back federal efforts to fight housing discrimination.
Board member Sherry Gay-Dagnogo said that she has “received so many requests” from community members about Ben Carson’s name based on “many of the disparaging remarks he made from the administration that he clings to.”
She said she asked the board to renew the name change process at Carson so that “we don’t have a direct affiliation with that mindset, especially as it relates to people with challenges, housing needs, etc.”
Several board members requested the name changes at Carson, as well as East English Village Preparatory Academy, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti during a Sept. 23 meeting of the school board’s finance committee.
The start of the formal renaming process for the two schools still needs to be voted on by the full board at its Oct. 11 meeting.
The Detroit Public Schools Community District has been entertaining more school name change requests in recent years as officials sort out the legacy of consolidations and closures during the era of emergency financial management from 2009 to 2016, and seek to strengthen connections with alumni networks.
Last school year, at the urging of alumni, the board approved a decision to restore the name of Northwestern High School, which had been renamed the Detroit Collegiate Preparatory Academy at Northwestern in 2013 under an emergency manager.
Carson High School opened in 2011, also during emergency management, at the site of the Crockett Career and Technical Center near the Detroit Medical Center and Wayne State University’s medical school. Also during that period, Jared W. Finney High School on the city’s east side, named after a former U.S. attorney, was shuttered and merged into East English Village Preparatory Academy along with another school bearing the Crockett name.
At the time, Carson was widely held up as a role model for Black youth. As a candidate for president, he cast his life as a story of success against the odds, and he launched a scholarship program that encouraged children to follow in his path.
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Community calls for a name change at Carson arose around the time he was selected as Trump’s housing secretary and peaked in the following years amid a campaign to restore the building’s previous namesake, Dr. Ethelene Crockett, the first African American woman in Michigan to become board certified in obstetrics and gynecology.
But the board never went through with a change, in large part because of mixed opinions among students and community members, Vitti said.
“We don’t have a large Ben Carson alumni base, like we do for East English Village, and definitely as you saw for Northwestern,” Vitti told board members Friday.
“A lot of the majority of the voice on whether the name should change or not really comes from the students” at Ben Carson, he added. “We’ll do our best to try to engage alumni that graduated from the school.”
Under district policy, a request for a school building name change must come from a school board member, the superintendent, a school’s student body, or other community stakeholders such as parent or alumni associations. Once the full board signs off on the request, individual schools can begin conducting community meetings and surveys to gauge interest in changing their school’s name and what the new name should be. A vote by the board is needed before the new name is finalized.
Not all current students favor a name change.
Ninth grader Kenya Powell didn’t know about Carson’s legacy before attending the school, but said he’s heard from his peers and students at the school about his medical accomplishments and opposes the change.
The narrative of Carson’s life — from growing up in Detroit, earning an Ivy League education, and becoming the first surgeon to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head — has been inspirational for students like Antavia Ellis, a Carson junior.
“That’s the whole reason I came to this school, because I want to become a surgeon,” Ellis said.
Carson is currently retired from neurosurgery. After leaving HUD in 2021, he founded the American Cornerstone Institute, a conservative think tank. This past year, he co-authored a book about race with his wife, Candy.
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Carson did not respond to requests for comment sent through his scholarship fund and his think tank on Tuesday.
Gay-Dagnogo, the board member, said a name change has been an ongoing issue for the alumni associations of both Crockett and Finney.
“When you change the name of social institutions — longstanding institutions — names that had greater significance, you strip that away from even the younger generations that will no longer know their history,” she said.
Keenann Knox, senior pastor of Detroit’s Impact Church and a 1989 alum of Finney, understands that history. For nearly two decades, he has partnered with Finney/East English Village to host homecomings and alumni events. Knox said he was there when emergency management told Finney alumni that the school would keep its name, a decision they later abandoned, leaving many students with a “sour taste” in their mouths.
Restoring the school’s name to Finney, Knox said, would help “bridge the gap between the older alumni and our children” who currently attend East English Village.
“It’s an opportunity to restore the legacy and to bring back the pride of the east side,” he said.
Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at firstname.lastname@example.org.