Removing monuments to even the most harmful historical figures is usually met with opposition, and journalist Henry Grady is still revered by many for his impact on the South during Reconstruction. That’s why a south Georgia county, a major Atlanta hospital and my high school carry his name.
The arguments for keeping Grady’s name may appear strong on the surface. Some teachers say his name is a reminder of our past and removing it would erase a small piece of history. Many alumni argue the school has become dissociated from its namesake and “Grady” no longer even represents ole’ Henry. Others argue that Grady, compared to other late 19th-century Georgia leaders, was progressive.
Henry Grady is an important figure, and his impact on our city should never be forgotten. However, plastering his name across school buildings, while teaching little about him in the classrooms within, creates a false narrative. In fact, the debate over renaming our school has afforded me and my peers a much more complete and nuanced understanding of our school’s namesake.
On the opposing side of this debate is a group of Grady alumni who graduated between 1956 and 1963. Presenting a petition to the board, a member of the class of 1959 argued the school's reputation would be stained by a renaming.
I think it is relevant to point out that the class of 1959 graduated two years before Grady admitted its first black student and during an era in which white students donned blackface under the guise of school spirit.
Yes, Henry Grady is long gone, and many people don’t link our school with his name or his deeds, but the structural racism and segregation he supported are still very much alive.
While Grady now has a very diverse student body, it houses lunch tables and classrooms that remain largely segregated along racial lines, an uncomfortable truth that Henry Grady would likely celebrate if he were alive today.
Becoming an owner of The Atlanta Constitution newspaper in 1880, Grady crusaded to bring business to what he dubbed the “New South.” However, Grady’s cause was built on lies that depicted a South much more equal and just than it was, and, in his political activities in Georgia, Grady himself was complicit in cementing the racist systems that still undermine the state today.
While Grady’s speeches to Northern investors portrayed the post-war South as being home to racial harmony, his actions as a journalist and political figure told a different story.
In a speech in 1886 in New York, Grady said, “The relations of the Southern people with the Negro are close and cordial.” Yet, just months later, his paper was printing headlines endorsing racial violence, including, “Lynching Too Good for the Black Miscreant Who Assaulted Mrs. Bush: He Will Be Lynched.” Reuben Hudson, the man referenced in the headline, was lynched days later by a white mob in Dekalb County.
Grady’s support for white supremacy extended beyond his newspaper. As a powerful political playmaker, he worked closely with lawmakers to promote oppressive systems such as convict labor and segregation. He laid the groundwork for the Jim Crow laws that would haunt the South for decades to follow.
There were many white Georgians during Reconstruction whose progressive views on race deserve acclaim, such as Gov. Rufus Bullock. As 46th governor of Georgia from 1868 to 1871, Bullock supported and pushed for equality for blacks, which led to him being run out of the governor’s mansion and the state. Henry Grady was not among the progressives. In fact, Grady spent much of his career opposing them.
Grady remained firm in his support for white supremacy, once telling a crowd at the 1887 Texas State Fair that “the supremacy of the white race of the South must be maintained forever.” Now, more than a century later, racism persists in Atlanta, the South and across the nation, evidenced by disparities in education, wealth, criminal justice, housing and health care.
So, why change a name when there are many greater problems to address? Because we cannot expect to dismantle the inequities in Atlanta if we still honor people who were complicit in creating them.
We ought to remove Henry Grady’s name from our high school and place it in its proper historical context, one of remembrance but not reverence.