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Changing slaveholder school names is a chance to confront history

Ideally, CPS — and the city — would seize the moment as a chance for Chicagoans to delve deeply into the truth about our country’s ugly legacy of slavery and racism.

With all the pressing challenges Chicago Public Schools is facing — from pandemic disruption to plummeting enrollment to students traumatized by gun violence, to name a few — it’s not surprising that a promise to get rid of slaveholder school names has fallen far down the priority list.

We hope to see that change in 2022.

Only one slaveholder school name, from among the 30 names the Sun-Times’ Lauren FitzPatrick identified and reported on in December 2020, has been changed: Andrew Jackson Language Academy, named for the president who enslaved hundreds of people and supported “Indian removal,” was renamed the Chicago World Language Academy in May.

CPS says the pandemic and a change in administration are to blame for the delay, as FitzPatrick reported last week. The district plans to present a new policy on the matter to the Chicago Board of Education next spring.

Since 2003, CPS has required a school to formally propose any name change through its Local School Council, hold two community meetings and suggest three new names. The council chair and school principal then make a recommendation.

Any new policy must make it clear this is about substance, not surface. Decisions about renaming a school — or, perhaps, keeping a name because a school’s “brand” is stronger than any link to a slaveholder, as one John Marshall High School alumnae suggested to us earlier this year — must be more than quick-fix gestures.

Ideally, CPS — and the city — would seize the moment as a chance for Chicagoans to delve deeply into the truth about our country’s ugly history of slavery and racism. This is a chance for all of us to confront the inescapable fact that society memorializes what it values and excludes what it doesn’t, which too often has meant people of color and their achievements and histories have gone unrecognized.

It’s a chance to heal wounds and move forward.

In the wake of controversy over Confederate monuments, this editorial board suggested the creation of a permanent advisory committee to identify racially problematic public monuments and make recommendations on the future of those works — including proposals to rename streets, bridges, parks and now schools. Such a process would give communities a major say on picking new names.

That idea still has merit.

Chief Education Officer Maurice Swinney, who has been a supporter of the plan to scrap slaveholder school names, said it best earlier this year, “it’s something that we have to work on and change.”

Change is due.

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