Advocates seek to change school names with racist histories

“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,” said Sheridan Elementary's assistant principal, Julio Nuñez.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

In the midst of the protests for racial and social justice, educators and community members across Philadelphia are calling for the renaming of several schools that have problematic namesakes.

Andrew Jackson Elementary, Woodrow Wilson Middle School, and Henry Sheridan Elementary are among the examples given of institutions that honor historical figures who have questionable pasts.

Education advocate Dana Carter supports 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 U.S. Reps. John Lewis of Georgia and Elijah Cummings of Maryland to be among the first people to be honored in renamings.

“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.”

Philip Henry Sheridan was a general in the Civil War and later fought Native Americans. He is notoriously known for saying, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” although he disputed that quote. 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 used surprise attacks and urged the killing of buffalo, a major food source.

He defended 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 (1829-1837), was a slave owner. He is infamously known for the Trail of Tears during the 1830s, when the federal government removed Native Americans from their homelands and made them walk hundreds of miles to their new “Indian territory.”

For this reason, a petition to rename Andrew Jackson Elementary School after Fanny Jackson Coppin instead has been circulating. Coppin was a Black educator, who, unlike Andrew Jackson, resided in Philadelphia. She was an Oberlin College graduate who advocated for both Black and female higher education.

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th U.S. president, is associated with resegregation of the federal workforce and was an open supporter of the Ku 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 university 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 he served as the university’s president from 1902 to 1910.

There also have been calls to rename Benjamin Franklin High School. Franklin condemned slavery and became a prominent abolitionist as he grew older. However, like some of the other founding fathers, he 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.

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

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.

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

In Philadelphia, the process of changing a school’s name is not simple and can take a couple of years. District policy states that the superintendent shall review all requests for the naming or renaming of a school building and make recommendations to the Board of Education School Naming

“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 $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 about 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, have educated residents about the atrocities and 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 reacted to 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 every day. 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?”