CPS’ Agassiz Elementary — named after a racist biologist — to be renamed for Harriet Tubman

The Lake View school will be the first Chicago Public Schools building to receive a new name — but likely not the last — through a review process officials are undertaking.

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A Lake View elementary school will be renamed after Harriet Tubman, honoring the late civil rights icon.

AP

A Lake View elementary school long named after a Swiss American biologist who promoted racist ideologies will be renamed for abolitionist and civil rights activist Harriet Tubman after years of protest from families at the school.

The soon-to-be-former Agassiz Elementary School — to be called Harriet Tubman IB World School — will be the first Chicago Public Schools building to receive a new name through a review process officials are undertaking, but likely not the last. The nation’s third-largest district is planning to consider changes at dozens of schools after a Chicago Sun-Times review last year found 30 schools are named after slaveholders and more after other racists.

The namesake of the school has been Louis Agassiz, a believer in eugenics, the idea that some characteristics and races are inferior to others and should be bred out of humanity.

A group of parents pushed for a change three years ago but failed when others worried about the cost of new signage and merchandise, plus the loss in name recognition in social circles.

The efforts were revived last year after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis spurred the nation’s strongest racial justice protests in five decades and prompted institutions across the country to revisit the impact of their racist histories.

Parents of color spoke of the impact on their elementary-aged children going to a school honoring a racist and how they had to explain his history to them. In the end, the Local School Council voted unanimously to change the name.

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Agassiz Elementary School at 2851 N. Seminary Ave. in Lake View on the North Side, Monday afternoon, March 22, 2021.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The Lake View school’s leaders, through a CPS-facilitated engagement process, decided to rename it for one of three Black women: the Underground Railroad’s Tubman, NASA pioneer Katherine Johnson or civil rights icon Rosa Parks. Tubman was ultimately chosen.

The Board of Education plans to finalize the change at its monthly meeting Wednesday.

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Tina Holder King, a parent representative on the school’s LSC who was part of the group pushing for a name change, said “it’s hard not to get emotional” about the culmination of those efforts.

“I’m so happy for our students and the outcome of their engagement and the opportunity for them to take a stand and put the work in and to be such a good example for the city,” she said.

“As an African American, I’m so happy to see Harriet Tubman’s name on an institution representative of the community at large. ... Those African American historical figures deserve to be mainstream, just like non-Black historical figures.”

Holder King said there’s more work to be done to combat educational racism, but she’s happy to have reached this point with a cohesive school community this time around, even if some people still disagree with the outcome.

As other schools embark on the same journey this school is now completing, Holder King said it’s important to keep students at the forefront of the process — including teaching them about antiracism and why these changes are happening.

“The voices of the most-harmed need to be most prevalent,” she said. “That is not to say that only people of color get to make the choice. That’s not what I mean. But there needs to be the understanding that this is a correction of harm, an addressing of harm. And so you can only find out the harm from the community that was harmed.”

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