OPINION: If Cobb cares about students of color, it will rename Wheeler High School

Wheeler senior: How can we expect students to behave out of love and respect when name symbolizes opposite?

I encourage student submissions to the AJC Get Schooled blog, and this is a well-done column by Wheeler High School senior Sydney Spessard. She writes about a timely issue – what to do about Georgia schools named for Confederates and historic leaders who subscribed to white supremacist beliefs.

Sydney is among the Wheeler students pushing the Cobb County School District to change the name of the school. The school is named after Joseph Wheeler, a Confederate general who later served as a general in the United States Army during both the Spanish–American War and Philippine–American War. You can read about petitions in Cobb to change both the names of Wheeler and Walton High Schools here and about setbacks to the effort here.

Sydney is co-president of the Wheeler Magnet Advisory Board, which is unassociated with the Name Change Committee, and has played varsity tennis for two years. And, she says, “I absolutely love being a student at Wheeler.”

By Sydney Spessard

Usually when people find out that I and other students are working to change the name of Joseph Wheeler High School, they respond with support or curiosity, interested in learning more about our cause and why we’ve dedicated our time to it. However, my peers and I — on what we call the Wheeler Name Change Committee — are also sometimes on the receiving end of hate and criticisms from people opposed to the name change.

The most common objection is that a name change would damage alums, whose memories would be tarnished — or even erased — if the building were no longer named after Joseph Wheeler. However, we’ve received support from alumni of various ages and backgrounds, and spoken to 20 and counting, all of whom have told us this is not a concern for them.

They recognize that the value of their memories and accomplishments is entirely separate from whatever name is plastered above the front doors. If there were a name change, many agreed they’d look back at their alma mater with even more pride knowing the building from which they graduated houses a student body that fights for what is right.

Another concern is this idea of erasing history. As someone who deeply appreciates history, burying the past is far from our intent and goal. There is a fine line between acknowledging history and glorifying it. Acknowledging and learning about history is what school is meant to accomplish.

Every student who walks through the doors of Wheeler High School will take U.S. history, among other social studies courses. Considering this, why is there so much concern that history would be blotted out?

What is not appropriate, however, is celebrating a Confederate general by engraving his name on a building where young people are meant to collaborate, learn, and grow together; where students gain confidence in themselves and prepare for the next phase of their lives.

Credit: Special

Credit: Special

We are also frequently reminded that Joseph Wheeler was more than a Confederate. He later served in the U.S. Army and in the U.S. House of Representatives. We are quick to defend this man, aren’t we? I believe this defense is irrelevant as the hatred and racism he symbolizes as a Confederate should be reason enough to remove his name from our school.

The defense that he was more than a Confederate also does not apply to this situation. The first yearbook that can be found online or in the high school library is from 1966 and states on page six: “This is the place which bears the name of the Confederate general, Joseph E Wheeler.” That commentary makes it upsettingly clear which chapter of Wheeler’s life our high school commemorates.

We are also told that we are wasting our time. Though certainly the most patronizing of all the objections we hear, it’s also the least effective. When people tell me the school name is inconsequential and a silly distraction from what really matters, it reaffirms this is a worthwhile fight. When people would rather see a standstill, it proves they are afraid of a step forward.

And that is what this name change would be: a step forward. There is a much longer way to go, but the school board and the community acknowledging that names matter and subsequently proving they care about students of color is a necessary first step. We cannot go any farther until this wall of defense is taken down.

I am proud to be a Wheeler Wildcat. I am proud to be a member of a wonderful community of teachers, faculty, and peers who care about each other. My graduation will be the product of hard work, passion, and compassion from all parties involved. This unique and beautiful assortment of people, all of whom enter through the same doors each morning, exist apart from the name, but are also deserving of one that represents them.

How can we expect students to behave out of love, respect, and kindness when the name of their school symbolizes the opposite? How can we expect students to celebrate their differences and learn from one another? How can we expect them to feel comfortable in that school and feel proud to show off their diploma?

It is a reasonable request of the school board to hear our perspective, do the research, and consider this name change. The students at Joseph Wheeler High School deserve it.