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A lesson in equity: Many Chicago public schools might need renaming

School names matter, particularly now, given a new civic re-examination of the people and historic moments that this city and the country have chosen to honor over last century.

City crews removed the Christopher Columbus statue from its pedestal in Grant Park in July 2020.
A city committee tasked with making recommendations on problematic public art, such as the Columbus sculpture removed from Grant Park last summer, could also address controversial public school names.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Most of us probably haven’t given too much thought to the names of Chicago public schools.

With the exception of really big names — presidents, Chicago mayors and the like — most of the monikers slip into the back of our minds after awhile, if they ever registered at all.

But a fascinating story by Sun-Times reporter Lauren FitzPatrick shows that we might do well to pay more attention. She found that 30 public schools in this majority minority northern city are named for slaveholders.

For example, John Marshall Metropolitan High School, a predominantly Black school on the city’s West Side, was named 125 years ago for the U.S. Supreme Court’s fourth chief justice — who enslaved 200 Black people on his Virginia plantations.

In addition, schools named for whites outnumbered those named for Black people by 4-1. And the ratio is even more lopsided when it comes to other racial minorities and people of color, with nine times as many schools named for whites than Latinos. Schools named for indigenous people were outnumbered by those named for whites by an astounding 120-1.

School names matter, particularly now, given a new civic re-examination of the people and historic moments that this city and the country have chosen to publicly honor over last century. The discussion picked up steam across the planet after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, an unarmed black man, last summer.

Monuments to slave owners, confederate officers and Christopher Columbus were either defaced or removed during Floyd-related protests, amid calls for more monuments in honor of Black people and other individuals of color.

Chicago’s Stephen Douglas park on the West Side was renamed for Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his wife Anna last year. Chicago’s aldermen last month began considering whether to rename Lake Shore Drive in honor of Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a Black man who was the city’s first non-native settler.

Of course Chicago’s schools were largely named when it was a majority white city. And as the city grew more diverse, so did some school’s names. There are high schools named for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and baseball player Roberto Clemente among many others.

But there is still John Hancock College Prep, a predominantly Latino school on the Southwest Side, named for the famed signer of the Declaration of Independence who also was a Massachusetts slaveholder.

Which isn’t to say every school named after a white person — or even every white slaveholder — would or should be renamed. Marshall High School, for instance, has a “brand” that far exceeds any connection to its slaveholding namesake.

“Marshall was a really big-time school back in the day,” Marshall graduate Anyiah Jackson-Williams said. “It would be, like, too late to change the name. The name is already stuck with the school and the school history also.”

It is an inescapable fact, though, that a society memorializes what — and whom — it thinks is important. And it excludes what it doesn’t, which far too often has meant people of color and their achievements and histories.

The city last year formed an advisory committee to examine and identify racially problematic public monuments and make recommendations on the future of the works. As we’ve suggested before, this temporary committee should be made a permanent commission tasked with handling any proposal to rename streets, bridges, parks — and now schools.

Done the right way, the process would give communities a major say with the commission on picking new names, or whether to rename a school at all.

It’s a big issue that not only affects statues and public monuments but the also the names of the streets we walk and the schools where we send our children. Change is due.

“It’s dehumanizing, and it’s something that we have to work on and change,” Maurice Swinney, the schools official in charge of racial equity, said, promising change. “And we got to disrupt it, we got to stop it, we got to change it.”

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