When a group of parents embarked on a failed attempt to rename Chicago Public Schools’ Agassiz Elementary three years ago, the pushback was about money and name recognition.
Those who opposed a change understood Louis Agassiz was a Swiss American biologist who promoted eugenics, the belief that some characteristics and races are inferior to others and should be bred out of humanity. But many couldn’t look past the approximately $20,000 it would take to change signs and merchandise, or the positive associations with the school’s name that proud parents would lose.
This year, after the country’s strongest racial justice protests in half a century, those excuses weren’t acceptable anymore, said Tina Holder King, a parent representative on the Agassiz Local School Council who, with other parents and community members, has pushed for a name change.
“The starting point is not whether or not we should do something about it,” Holder King said. “The starting point is what are we going to do about it.”
Through a process facilitated by CPS, the Lake View school’s leaders decided this year to rename it for one of three Black women: the Underground Railroad’s Harriet Tubman, NASA pioneer Katherine Johnson or civil rights icon Rosa Parks. A decision is expected in March.
The undertaking at Agassiz is likely to be the first of dozens of efforts at schools that honor racists, CPS officials said after a Chicago Sun-Times report found 30 schools are named after slaveholders.
Maurice Swinney, CPS’ top official for racial equity, said name changes can’t be a one-time fix and have to be followed by other forms of educational justice.
“Even though you might have looked at Agassiz and think, ‘He’s racist, and we know he’s racist,’ we might also still be perpetuating it in our daily interactions, and that is what I’m seeking to disrupt,” Swinney said. “If we want to transform outcomes of young people, we have to focus on the student experience in schools.”
Until a recent move to the east coast, Alex Lopez’s three kids attended Agassiz, where discussions about the school’s namesake often whitewashed his racist history, he said.
“What has ended up happening is . . . that my Afro Latino second grader is repeating back to me with pride that her school is named after someone who was really smart but not very kind,” Lopez said. “That’s not the definition of Agassiz’s work, his legacy and anti-Blackness that I want my daughter growing up with.”
Lopez applauded Swinney’s work at Agassiz. But as other schools look to emulate this process, Lopez said CPS needs to offer more support and training, so educators can hold nuanced racial justice conversations with students.
While some might view a name change as only cosmetic, Holder King said she sees it as the beginning of a cultural shift to address greater inequities.
“If we were OK to leave that name on the building, how am I as a Black parent or my child as a Black child supposed to really feel that my race or my worth would not come into play in a detrimental fashion?” Holder King said.