When schools shed names: Erasing history or correcting it?

Activists say students of color shouldn’t learn in buildings named for people who denigrated them
Grady High School became Midtown High School in June.

Credit: Midtown High School Facebook

Credit: Midtown High School Facebook

Grady High School became Midtown High School in June.

As a student at Henry Grady High School, Royce Mann urged the Atlanta Board of Education to change the school’s name, arguing that, while the famous 19th-century orator and journalist promoted Atlanta and the new South, Henry Grady also espoused white supremacist views.

The efforts of Mann and his peers succeeded. Grady High became Midtown High in June. The APS school board action came after Mann’s 2020 graduation, but the 19-year-old said he’s OK with seeing Grady on his diploma.

“It is a reminder that we, as a community, are growing and progressing … that we can have wonderful memories of Grady as it existed, but recognize there are ways we can improve it,” said Mann, now on leave from Emory University to run for an at-large seat on the Atlanta school board.

The name change was about more than a name over a door; it was about what the name stood for, said Mann. “If we are going to be able to address the social and racial inequities that exist at now Midtown High School, we had to first address the basic things that uphold these inequities and that includes the name. It was one of the easier things to change.”

The change is not proving easy in Cobb County. Students at Wheeler High School, named for a Confederate general, have been working hard but have not persuaded the Cobb school board to embrace a name change, making it one of 45 schools in Georgia still honoring someone who fought to protect slavery.

“We are still working to hear back from the Cobb County board. Over the summer we launched a four-week email campaign sending emails three times a week the whole month of July,” said Wheeler High student Zoe Shepard. “Though we had planned to speak at the August board meeting, we were unable to gain a spot with the new online sign-up process. We are, however, hopeful that we will be able to speak in the upcoming board meeting. We have also been in contact with other organizations doing similar work and plan to do another town hall in the coming weeks.”

After the 2015 shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in which nine African Americans were murdered by a gunman radicalized by white supremacist websites, the Southern Poverty Law Center began to catalog all the Confederate symbols in public spaces across the country. In an update last month to its “Whose Heritage?” report, the center counted 1,747 Confederate monuments, place names and other symbols still in public spaces, including 195 schools. Georgia leads the nation in schools named for Confederates, followed by Texas with 40 and Alabama with 22.

The SPLC inventory revealed the effectiveness of a campaign by United Daughters of the Confederacy to rebrand the events of the Civil War as heroic, especially through the naming of Southern schools. “These names are living symbols of white supremacy, and there is a difference between remembering history and showing a reverence for it,” said Lecia Brooks, chief of staff for the SPLC, during a recent media briefing. “Removing namesakes that celebrate a revisionist Confederate past does not erase history; it corrects it.”

The propaganda machine intensified after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision when the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. “Renaming anything they could after the Confederacy was one of the ways to remind Black folks that white supremacy still reigned,” said Brooks.

There is a negative impact on students of color from attending schools that still bear the names and imagery of Confederate political and military leaders. “Educators can’t be expected to teach students that being openly racist is wrong as they are forced to encourage outsized statues and learn in buildings named for men who epitomize racism,” said Brooks.

“This state is filled with worthy Georgians whose names schools would be proud to carry. But at least 45 of Georgia’s public schools stand firmly on the wrong side of history, elevating men who fought to keep the U.S. divided,” said Brooks. ”Adding insult to injury, many of these namesake schools are located in communities serving a majority of people of color, honoring men that denied them an equal education. What lessons does this teach our children?”

Schools are not only where students learn the history of their schools and their communities. It’s also where they are taught how to be good citizens, said historian Kimberly Probolus, who studies education and racial inequality in the United States. She is a fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, where she researches and analyzes the history of Confederate monuments.

“Schools named after Confederates, people who fought against the United States to preserve the institution of slavery, undermine attempts to teach true and accurate histories of the Civil War,” said Probolus. “A school named after a Confederate is limited in its ability to teach an honest and difficult history of race in America.”

Jacksonville activist Ben Frazier led the movement to remove Confederate names at six schools in that Florida city, using the slogan “Stop playing games. Change the name.”

Frazier said the grassroots campaign — organized at barbershops, beauty shops, grocery stores and house to house — emphasized this was not an attack on Southern culture. “We wanted to let the opposition know that our battle was not against Southern heritage. No, folks, not against cornbread, collard greens, not against mac and cheese and yams,” he said. “We had to make clear that our battle was against Confederate heritage, which represented racial hatred, which represented lynchings, racism and destruction of the Black family.”

“We will never live into our high ideals without reckoning with the past,” said Brooks of the SPLC. “Part of that reckoning is to move away from honoring people who sought to continue the inhumane system of slavery in the U.S.”