30 public schools in Chicago are named for slaveholders; surprised CPS promises changes
The Sun-Times also found that schools named for white people — mostly men — outnumber those named for African Americans by 4-1, Latinos 9-1 and indigenous people 120-1.
One of the city’s oldest public high schools — once heavily Jewish and for decades home to a nearly all-Black student body — it boasts fiercely proud alumni and a reputation for powerhouse athletics.
It’s named for the fourth chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, widely regarded as the most influential leader of the nation’s highest court, honored with his face on postage stamps and his name on law schools in Chicago and elsewhere.
Marshall also was a slaveholder his entire adult life, with at least 200 Black slaves on his Virginia plantations.
That part of Marshall’s history didn’t keep an all-white Chicago Board of Education from naming the school on West Adams Street in East Garfield Park for him when it opened 125 years ago.
“That’s our heritage,” says Anyiah Jackson-Williams, Marshall’s valedictorian from the class of 2020. “I’m African American. It really was a shocker to me. He’s one of the people that was a slave owner.”
Across the city, at least 30 public schools are named for people who owned or traded enslaved Black or indigenous people, according to a Chicago Sun-Times review of every public school name in Chicago.
Some, like Marshall, were Southern plantation owners, among them Presidents George Washington and James Madison.
Others, perhaps surprisingly to some, were Northerners — like John Hancock, William Penn and Alexander Hamilton.
They span the city. One South Side elementary school in Washington Heights that’s named for Washington’s plantation — where hundreds toiled in bondage — today has a student population that’s 98.7% Black.
Chicago Public Schools officials say they weren’t aware of how many schools remain named for slaveholders until shown the Sun-Times’ findings.
They also say they didn’t realize before being asked about those findings regarding the nation’s third-largest public school system, in which nine of 10 children identify as Black, Brown or indigenous, that schools named for white people outnumber those named for African Americans by a ratio of four-to-one, Latinos by nine-to-one and indigenous people by more than 120-to-1.
One public school — a government-funded but privately run charter school — is named for an Asian American woman and her Italian American husband. The couple donated money for its new building.
Now, amid the nationwide racial reckoning sparked by the violent death of George Floyd, an African American man whose death in late May was caught on camera as a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, Chicago school officials say they are reviewing school names and that changes will be made.
“It’s dehumanizing, and it’s something that we have to work on and change,” says Maurice Swinney, the top CPS official for racial equity. “And we got to disrupt it, we got to stop it, we got to change it. And, for me, it’s important that all of this work be through a process that really starts to teach what this history really means, that starts to reckon with racist ideas and that helps people to really have conversations with race that are not generally happening outside of friend circles.”
Swinney says he’ll lead an effort to change the names first at those schools named for anyone involved in slavery, with people of color at the center of the discussions.
He says CPS might then look at schools named for 35 others known to have publicly said or done racist or misogynistic things.
“I stand around changing the names and making sure that people of color are prioritized in the process of changing the name, so the name change isn’t cosmetic and people still feel harmed by the process that should have been empowering,” Swinney says.
One publicly funded charter school also might be renamed. The privately managed charter school network Acero Schools has a school named for a Spanish priest who was known as an advocate for the rights of slaves — but only after owning slaves himself. Acero says it will ask community members if they want to change it.
CPS changes part of a national reckoning
Across the nation, there’s been a growing sentiment that problematic symbols and names of public institutions need rethinking:
- Confederate flags and statues have been removed.
- Other school districts are in the process of renaming schools, with San Francisco’s school board considering replacing the names of one-third of its schools.
- In Chicago, statues depicting Christopher Columbus were taken down to protest the treatment — including torture and rape — of the indigenous people he and his crews found in the New World.
- CPS erased Columbus’ name from the October holiday long marked in his honor, instead celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
- The Chicago City Council is debating a proposal to rename Lake Shore Drive for Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, Chicago’s first non-indigenous settler and de facto founder.
- What was until 2019 Congress Parkway now bears the name of pioneering Black investigative journalist Ida B. Wells.
But Columbus didn’t come down without a fight. And proposals to rename Balbo Drive, named for an Italian fascist pilot, have stalled after some Italian American groups pushed back.
CPS, established in 1837, has been changing school names for one reason or another for more than 100 years. Board of Ed rules require that the school community approve the change and that any namesake already be dead.
In Lake View, Agassiz Elementary School plans to retire that name because Louis Agassiz, a prominent Swiss scientist, also championed a belief that God created human “races” as separate species. The North Side school’s leaders plan to rename it after one of three Black women recently chosen as finalists: the Underground Railroad’s Harriet Tubman, NASA pioneer Katherine Johnson or civil rights icon Rosa Parks.
That would add to the ranks of Chicago schools named for women. Today, for every Chicago public school named for a woman, nearly six are named for a man.
But a similar proposal, in 2017, ended up being voted down by Agassiz’s Local School Council, wary of costs topping $20,000 for changing signs and such. The council also was hesitant about relinquishing the positive associations people have for “Agassiz Elementary” even if they’re disgusted by Agassiz’s beliefs.
School names matter, students say
That’s the trick — getting rid of a name associated with slavery or racism without losing what a school’s name means to its community, Reggie Bridges says.
“Marshall” matters, says Bridges, class of 2020 at the West Side school.
“I have family members who graduated from Marshall as well,” says Bridges, who lives nearby while home from college. “If anybody would say, ‘I went to Marshall,’ everybody knows what Marshall is, what Marshall was all about. The name is a part of the school.
“We represent,” he says. “It’s always John Marshall. We always represent to the fullest, and us not knowing who the person really was, it’s disturbing now that you told me that.”
Unlike Bridges, his classmate Jackson-Williams remembers learning in class about Marshall owning slaves, which was a shock to hear. But she’s unsure about the possibility of changing the name.
“We have one of the biggest alumni associations,” Jackson-Williams says. “Marshall was a really big-time school back in the day. It would be, like, too late to change the name. The name is already stuck with the school and the school history also.”
Bridges wishes he’d known about Marshall’s plantations sooner.
“I feel like they should have talked about him more,” he says. “Honestly, Marshall, that is an all-Black school. To be there representing Marshall, the person that we’re praising is someone who didn’t really care for us, was a horrible person … ”
The 18-year-old stops to consider the names of the people behind the four other schools he attended since kindergarten.
“So crazy,” he says, that all but one — James Weldon Johnson Elementary — were named for white people.
By the time John Hancock affixed his giant signature to the bottom of the Declaration of Independence, enslaved people he inherited were taking care of him in Massachusetts, a state most Americans don’t associate with slavery.
“I’ve always known that a lot of people that signed the Declaration were slave owners,” says 15-year-old Tamara Ward, a sophomore at Hancock College Prep High School. “It doesn’t change how I think about my school.”
Hancock College Prep is the only test-in school on the Southwest Side, the last part of the city to get such a competitive program. That designation, as her classmate Adrian Salazar puts it, boosted the pride of Hancock’s students “like you earned your spot there, so you want to represent it and show everybody.”
About 92% of students at the school in West Elsdon identify as Latino, with a smattering of white, Black and Asian American students.
“The community that this school is in is mostly minorities, and most students support the Black Lives Matter movement and are anti-racists,” says Ward, who’s African American and Puerto Rican. “So the name of a slave owner goes against what we stand for and doesn’t represent us at all.”
The inequities she sees are a bigger problem for Ward than who John Hancock was.
“Compared to other selective-enrollment schools on the North Side, we don’t have a pool or a park, so it seems we’re less privileged than other selective-enrollment schools,” she says. “It makes me a little bit angry. The Brown neighborhoods have less than the white neighborhoods, and it really shows the institutionalized racism in our city.”
To Cortez Stewart, a senior who’s recorded a podcast about being Black at Hancock, school names are “just another reminder” of the gap between America’s ideal vision of itself and reality.
“We still have George Washington on the single dollar bill and stuff like this,” says Stewart, 17, one of about 20 Black students at Hancock. “It definitely makes me think about how this country can still celebrate these figures with so much knowledge of what they have done in the past.”
A history lover, Stewart searched out his ancestors’ stories on his own.
“I wasn’t taught about how people owned slaves until I looked it up myself and did research,” he says. “In U.S. history, I had to bring up these topics in history. In our textbooks, the horrific details of our founding fathers weren’t brought up.”
He says the school was lax about celebrating Black History Month and Kwanzaa, too, until he and others spoke up. Now, he says, “We finally got them to put up posters for African American History Month.”
Kids see these signs, says Jerry Rosiek, a University of Oregon professor who has studied the effects of racism on students.
“I don’t think the fact that a slaveholder or somebody who was a confederate or a member of the Klan alone is an impact all by itself,” Rosiek says. “It’s the fact that they’re in a context where symbolically the lesser status of their schools is marked in all kinds of ways. Things like the names on buildings contribute to the sense that the inequity is not accidental. What that then communicates to the students is they’re moving into a school system that is systematically hostile to them.”
So change them all, Rosiek says.
“Nothing about this history of George Washington is harmed by not having his name on a school,” he says. “Our national discourse is advanced by having a conversation of what that name means.”
Most of the problematic names date back decades or longer. Since then, more schools have been named for people of color and women.
That “does make me feel better, but, at the same time, now we have more information, and now that we have access to it, it feels like we should make a change,” Hancock student Salazar says. “We’re named for somebody who did some good for our country but mistreated people of color just because of their race.”
CPS names reflect city’s history
In Chicago, schools have been named for influential Jews in North Lawndale and other areas heavily settled by Jewish families. Czech immigrants who settled in Pilsen celebrated the 1903 opening of Joseph Jungman Elementary. Scandinavian immigrants in North Center named a high school after Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.
Schools also commemorate the owners of the land they’re built on: Northwest Side beekeeper Laughlin Falconer, North Side cucumber farmer and pickler Lyman Budlong, South Side rancher Thomas Morgan, the Southwest Side’s John F. Eberhart. Two schools built before they were brought into the city’s school system honor saloon keepers Luke O’Toole and Matthew Gallistel.
As Black people and immigrants of color came to the city for work and the promise of a better life, the school system heeded their wishes to honor heroes who mean something to them.
The name of Puerto Rican baseball phenom and humanitarian Roberto Clemente replaced that of a white judge on the high school in the city’s Puerto Rican stronghold at Western Avenue and Division Street. Chicago teenager Emmett Till, whose murder in Mississippi sparked the civil rights movement, replaced the name of a Scottish president of Princeton University on a grade school in Woodlawn, where he and his mother lived.
CPS has schools celebrating pioneering Black doctors, judges and inventors in Chicago — Sarah Goode, for instance, was the first Black woman granted a U.S. patent. Schools honor civil rights activist and teacher Al Raby, West Side social worker Nancy Jefferson and Mother Consuella B. York, who ministered to Cook County Jail inmates.
Closings since 2013 also have erased the names of at least seven other prominent Black figures.
New schools have commemorated people their communities want to remember. Chicago television journalist Michele Clark died in a plane crash. Socorro Sandoval and Maria Saucedo were young teachers killed in tragedies. Officers Irma Ruiz, Donald Marquez and Eric Solorio were killed in the line of duty.
Yet, of the 510 Chicago schools named for people — more than 140 others have names tied to geography or the school’s purpose — more than 360 memorialize someone who was white and 82 for someone Black, 39 Latino and three indigenous.
“It just shows the roots of segregation within the city that still exists,” says Layan Nazzal, a junior at Taft High School. “It’s like what Chicago’s built on, and the lasting effect is really harmful. Schools on the South Side are not getting the same attention schools on the North Side get.”
CPS, with more than 4% of its students Asian American, has no school named for anyone Asian.
Black children make up 36% of CPS’ student enrollment, yet just 12% of schools are named after Black people.
And there’s a dearth of schools named for Latinos even as Latino kids account for 46% of public school students.
“Considering this is the fact that these communities are really what make Chicago up, that’s really sad,” says Nazzal, 16. “We always give significance to the white people in the city. Irish and German immigrants worked hard and manufactured the city to what it is today. But Black and Brown communities also did that.”
Fifteen of 39 schools named for Latinos that Chicago taxpayers fund are part of Acero Schools. One of Chicago’s largest charter chains, Acero added the names of four more notable Latino figures in 2017: Victoria Soto, a teacher killed during the shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Mexican American journalist Jovita Idár, early Mexican feminist and scholar Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Clemente.
Unlike charter chains that name schools for wealthy, often white donors, Acero and its predecessor UNO Charter School Network let its school communities choose who will be honored, Acero spokeswoman Helena Stangle says. Two have chosen local soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That means it will be up to the Bartolomé de las Casas school community to decide whether to keep that name, Stangle says, given his history of enslaving indigenous people before he turned to advocating for them but replacing them with African slaves.
No timeline, but fixes ‘won’t be ignored’
With the addition of a single “s,” what long was called Douglas Park on the city’s West Side cast aside the racist legacy of Steven Douglas, instead honoring abolitionists Anna and Frederick Douglass, while keeping confusion to a minimum.
Perhaps Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice, could provide a similar fix for the West Side. Black leader and educator Booker T. Washington could switch in for the first president since Mayor Harold Washington already has a grade school. And maybe singer Aretha Franklin takes the place of Benjamin Franklin.
“For some cases, that might be the thing,” CPS’s Swinney says. “Sometimes, it can seem that simple. For other people, it may be more complex.”
The goal, he says, is “that the name really represents a core set of values and beliefs that we know generationally won’t be questioned.”
Given the impact on the schools of the coronavirus pandemic, Swinney says “I want to give a timeline [for changing school names]. But I feel like that would be a mistake to do that. But I will say it won’t be ignored.”
CPS is looking at how the Agassiz change plays out as a model.
“If we don’t engage people of color in this process, it will only be cosmetic,” Swinney says.
CPS doesn’t make schools post biographical information on their websites or identify namesakes in any way, so it’s not clear at many schools just who they were. Dozens of schools have opted to explain on their own, though none has mentioned slavery.
Cuffe Elementary in Auburn Gresham, whose student population is 98% Black, has embraced little-known historical figure Paul Cuffe as its mascot. Born to a Black and indigenous family in 1759, he was a wealthy ship’s captain and whaler.
“We call ourselves ‘The Captains,’ so everything relates to the captains,” says Lakita Reed, Cuffe’s principal, who changed the color of the school uniforms to a sailor’s blue and gold and whose newsletter is called the “Captain’s Update.”
An animated Captain Cuffe, cheery and muscular in sailing garb, tops the school’s website. Each Jan. 17, everyone sings “Happy Birthday,” and students learn during Black History Month about his extraordinary life as a merchant and whaler.
“One thing I always tell them when we start talking about Cuffe — a lot of Blacks don’t know how to swim,” Reed says. “You can learn how to swim because Cuffe did. To be the captain, you have to be strong. You have to be a leader.”
Contributing: Caroline Hurley, Nader Issa