Grady High, Brown Middle schools renamed by Atlanta board

Two Atlanta schools named for 19th century men who held racist views have severed those connections through name changes.

The Atlanta Board of Education on Monday unanimously approved renaming Henry W. Grady High School and Joseph E. Brown Middle School.

Grady’s new name is Midtown High School. The middle school’s name will change to Herman J. Russell West End Academy.

The class of 2021 will be the last graduates to have the Grady name on their diplomas. The name change is expected to take effect next school year.

The move ends months of debate, including disagreement from some alumni. But board Chairman Jason Esteves said the time had come to distance the schools from the men’s legacies.

“It was a lot of work, but I also want to make clear that it’s necessary work. People say what’s in a name? Well, there’s a lot in a name. We can’t do the work around equity and not address the name of buildings,” he said. “This is just a small piece of that, but it’s an important piece.”

Atlanta Public Schools is one of several metro districts to take a closer look in recent months at who their buildings honor. Earlier this year, Esteves formed committees to review the Brown and Grady names.

Joseph Brown was a secessionist Georgia governor who opposed slavery’s abolition.

Grady was a managing editor of The Atlanta Constitution who died in 1889. He promoted a vision of the “New South” while also speaking about the supremacy of the white race.

The Grady committee initially recommended the high school’s name be changed to honor the late Black journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells. But instead of approving that name, the board in November asked Grady students to vote on their favorite of three proposed names.

Midtown High School won the most support from students, and the committee changed its recommendation from Wells to Midtown to align with student input.

Part of the public pressure came after Audrea Rease, whose daughter attends the middle school that feeds into Grady High, launched an online petition signed by more than 2,000 people. It called for the board to reject the Wells’ name.

Last week, she thanked officials for reconsidering the Midtown name and urged Grady alumni to remain involved with their alma mater.

“I continue to believe that a place-based name is the best option given that it’s relevant for past, present and future students. It offers the best chance to pull the community together,” Rease said.

The middle school’s new name pays tribute to both a prominent Atlanta entrepreneur and the West End location in which it sits.

Board member Aretta Baldon, who led the Brown renaming committee, described the area as a “vibrant community known for its diversity.” Herman Russell was a well-known Atlanta real estate and construction businessman and philanthropist who died in 2014.

Baldon called him a “home-grown, born-in-Atlanta” man who rose to national prominence.

“Let us be inspired by the fact that Herman J. Russell expected the best for himself and demanded the best for ourselves and for our students,” she said.

Other metro Atlanta school districts also have wrestled with questionable school names.

The Cobb County school board recently disbanded a committee that would have reviewed names. The committee was created at the urging of several Wheeler and Walton high school students.

Wheeler is named after Confederate General Joseph Wheeler while Walton is named after George Walton, who signed the Declaration of Independence and served as the second governor of the Peach State, according to the National Governors Association. The petition for renaming that school, which opened in the 1970s, said Walton came from a slave-owning family “and spent his political career championing white supremacy in Georgia by stripping Native Americans time and time again of their land,” said creator Joseph Fisher.

Cobb high school students continue to push board members to restart the renaming process.

Last month in Clayton County, school board members voted to rename Tara Elementary School and Lee Street Elementary School.

Tara is named for the plantation in the novel “Gone with the Wind.” Lee Street came under scrutiny because of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

The Clayton district sent out a survey about what the schools’ new names to be. The deadline to respond is Friday.

Reporter Kristal Dixon contributed to this article.