Cobb students continue push to remove Confederate general’s name from school

Students at the center of the campaign to change the name of Wheeler High School aren’t ready to give up their fight even after Cobb County Board of Education members pulled the plug on their proposal.

The students said they will continue lobbying board members to rename their school, which opened in 1965 and was christened after Confederate Army officer Joseph Wheeler. The board last month voted to disband a committee created over the summer to review names of schools across the district.

The creation of the committee, which never met or made any recommendations, grew from calls by students and community members to rename Wheeler as well as Walton high schools. Two petitions were created to rename Walton and Wheeler, both of which were signed by thousands of people.

The Wheeler students who spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said they were disappointed in the school board’s decision, but are not backing away from the cause. Caroline Hugh, an 18-year-old senior, said students have been in contact with Wheeler alum and Boston Celtics star Jaylen Brown, who has expressed support for the name change.

“It’s been a really good step in letting people know that the school board is not listening to us,” Hugh said, adding a survey they conducted got more than 1,200 signatures in support of the change.

Jake McGhee, 17, also a senior, said Wheeler students have reached out to Democratic school board members Dr. Jaha Howard and Charisse Davis, who said they supported the movement. Zoe Shepard, a 16-year-old junior, said the students have created a website with information about the campaign.

Shepard said they want to hold school board members accountable and start a dialogue with board members who voted to break up the committee. Republican board members Republicans Brad Wheeler (no relation to Joseph Wheeler), David Banks, David Chastain and Randy Scamihorn all voted at the Nov. 19 meeting to disband the committee while Davis and Howard opposed the proposal.

The students talked Wednesday with Brad Wheeler about their campaign. Wheeler, who said the meeting went well, added the topic could come back to the board for consideration. He reiterated his position on disbanding the committee, saying the renaming schools should be decided by the board.

The push to remove controversial names from schools was more effective in Atlanta. Its Board of Education on Monday unanimously voted to rename Henry W. Grady High School and Joseph E. Brown Middle School. Both institutions were named after 19th century white men who held racist views. Grady is now known as Midtown High School and Brown’s new name is Herman J. Russell West End Academy.

Joseph Wheeler served as an officer in the Confederate Army. After the South was defeated in the Civil War, he served as a Congressman from Alabama and in the U.S. Army in the Spanish-American War and the war in the Philippines, the National Park Service states.

One thing the students want to stress is that Wheeler High School opened in 1965 and was named after the Confederate Army officer the same year Cobb County schools integrated. Matthew Norman, a 17-year-old Wheeler senior, said the timing of the naming indicates it was not about honoring the Civil War, but to intimidate Black students and other students of color during a pivotal moment in the county’s history.

“I think that diverse perspective is so important to who we are as a school and to have that name emblazoned across the front is a kick in the face,” Hugh added.

Board member Howard, who voted against disbanding the committee, said he’s been impressed by the students’ campaign to change Wheeler High School’s name.

“It warms my heart when we find great examples of leadership that come from our students,” he said. “The adults in this district have a lot to learn from them.”

Howard said he’s also been informed that the name of at least one other school in the district could be seen as controversial. According to its website, Russell Elementary School in Smyrna opened in the 1960s on land donated by the family of Richard B. Russell Sr., who served as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia. He is the father of Richard B. Russell, Jr., a staunch segregationist who served in the U.S. Senate from Georgia from 1932 to 1971.

The Richard B. Russell Federal Building in downtown Atlanta, which is home to the U.S. District Court and Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia, is named after the former senator.

Howard said he is “disgusted” by his colleagues’ refusal to empathize with how harmful it is for students of color to attend a school named after someone who advocated for white supremacy.

“I’m calling on the community to form its own committee and please share the research that you find with us,” he said. This is a public entity and the public will have to lead here if the district leaders won’t.”