Confederates in the school attic

Last month’s killings of nine African-Americans in a Charleston church, allegedly by a young white man hoping to spark a race war, has brought a renewed examination of all things Confederacy. The flag. The carvings on Stone Mountain.

Schools, too.

While some activists have demanded new monikers for schools named after Confederate leaders in Virginia and Texas, there have been no such loud, public demands in Georgia. More than 20 Georgia schools or school districts are named after Confederate military or political leaders, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review found. Two schools are located in metro Atlanta: Brown Middle in Atlanta, named after Georgia’s wartime governor, and Joseph Wheeler High School in Cobb, named after a cavalry general.

Neither the major school districts in metro Atlanta nor the Georgia Department of Education reported receiving complaints from the public about schools named after Confederates.

Perhaps that is because the source of the names is often a mystery to those who live and work in the shadows of these schoolhouses. In many cases, there is only a last name and often the meaning of that name is lost on contemporary residents. The schools in some cases offer no historical information on their websites.

The Georgia list includes county systems, such as the Stephens County School System. The county was carved out of two adjoining counties in 1905 and named after Georgian Alexander H. Stephens, who had been the Confederate vice president and, after the war, a Georgia governor. He declared, “the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

There are a handful of other Georgia schools and districts named after others who died before the Civil War who were virulent supporters of slavery, such as John C. Calhoun.

Many of the school districts were named at the beginning of the 20th century through bills passed by the Georgia Legislature. State lawmakers were still smarting after the Civil War and the federal controls of Reconstruction, and began naming counties, military facilities, schools and school districts to honor the Confederate leaders. It was also a way, some say, to stick it to Yankees at a time segregationist sentiment was high in the South.

“That was a way to soothe the South’s pride for losing the war,” said Nash Boney, a retired University of Georgia history professor and Civil War historian.

For some Georgians, the new national debate has reignited memories of more recent pushes erase Confederate references from schools.

The names of a few metro Atlanta schools were quietly changed in the initial years after the Civil Rights Movement as blacks began assuming leadership roles in government and schools.

Gil Turman was a football coach in Atlanta in the 1970s and remembers it as a time when a rural football team could unfurl the rebel flag at games and when a Georgia Tech band played “Dixie.” Times were changing fast, though, and it was during that period that Turman remembers stumbling upon a school name that shocked him. Turman visited Forrest Elementary School, which he said was located near what is now Freedom Parkway. It was named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a cavalry general who led a Tennessee attack where Confederates were accused of massacring black troops, and who later became the Ku Klux Klan’s first Grand Wizard.

“What the hell is this?,” thought Turman, who is black.

Turman made a call to a school board member. The school was soon renamed, he said.

Turman then moved to DeKalb County, eventually rising in the mid-1980s to principal of what was then known as Gordon High. The school had been named after Georgian John B. Gordon, a Confederate Army commander. Gordon worked to undermine Reconstruction after the war, and it was whispered that he was associated with the KKK in Georgia. Gordon, who had entered business and politics denied it, according to one biographer.

Turman knew Gordon’s history, but didn’t complain because both that school and another, Walker High, were slated to be merged as a high school and a junior high within a year. Both would be named in honor of Ronald E. McNair, a black astronaut who died in the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion. (Gordon became the junior high and is now McNair Middle School.)

Turman, who rose to area superintendent before he retired from the DeKalb County School District, said a lot of names of Confederate leaders were unfamiliar by the late 20th century. Today that unfamiliarity persists.

Case in point, Atlanta’s Brown Middle School. Located in the city’s West End neighborhood, it has a mural in its auditorium of black leaders such as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman. It is an interesting juxtaposition for a school named after the Georgia governor who opposed the abolition of slavery and pushed the state into the Civil War.

Like many who were Confederates for four years, Joseph Emerson Brown shows the complex and multi-layered history that is the South. He reentered American society after the war and served in key positions. He helped start the Atlanta public school system and served on its board for 25 years until his death in 1894.

Joseph Wheeler, for whom a high school in Cobb is named, was elected to high political offices, and returned to military duty as an officer in the U.S. Army during the Spanish American War.

Some near Brown Middle School say they didn’t know anything about the man, others care little or say it depends on how one presents their history.

West End resident Carla Mills, walking her dog past the school on a recent afternoon, said she was aware of some of Brown’s history. Mills, who is black, said she didn’t think much of it when she moved to the area 10 years ago. She said she’s more concerned about the unemployment rate among African-Americans than renaming a school.

“I don’t see what changing names is going to do,” Mills said.

Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie said she would not be surprised if demands to rename some of the schools arise. She said renaming a school because of the objections of some is not always a certainty. Gillespie noted the ongoing resistance to rename Dixie State University in Utah.

Eugene Walker, a former DeKalb County school board member and longtime state lawmaker, grew up in Thomaston during segregation. The all-white high school there was named after Confederate general Robert E. Lee, but that didn’t bother Walker, who is black, because, he said, the community let blacks name their own school. They named it Drake High, after a local educational leader, he said.

“We need to know both black and white history and we need to memorialize some of these black historical figures so we can tell the story of black folks. We do that with white folks,” he said. “We need some sort of parity.”

Former DeKalb superintendent Michael Thurmond, a lawyer who wrote about the racial history of Georgia, said it’s not necessarily offensive to name schools after Confederate leaders. “It depends on which Confederate leaders,” he said. It’s important to know the historical details of each person, “and then you can make a more reasoned judgment.”

Men of the Union Army were sometimes as virulently racist as their white counterparts in the South, said Thurmond, who is black.

He suggested that schools make the history of their namesakes plain, publishing an unvarnished account on the school website and in other materials. If the history isn’t known, the students could research it and discuss it, he said.

Walker, the former school board member, said he is fine with schools named after historical figures some might find offensive but he also said it’s important that the history is clear.

“People need to know that history: the good parts of the history and the bad parts.”

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