As Agassiz School is rechristened Harriet Tubman, Chicago looks at how to deal with other buildings, some named after slaveholders

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Hannah Leone, Chicago Tribune
·5 min read
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CHICAGO – An eighth-grade student at what will now be known as Harriet Tubman Elementary in Chicago said she’s proud the school was just renamed for an abolitionist.

“The pure and righteous work of Harriet Tubman to liberate Black people from the gross evil of American slavery is ultimately remarkable because of the viciousness of the white slaveholders,” the student told the Chicago Board of Education, before members voted unanimously to approve the name change.

Her school was named after racist scientist Louis Agassiz, who placed white people at the top of a discredited intellectual hierarchy and called African American people a “degraded and degenerate race.”

People are still “forced to suffer from the fabrications of Western European pseudo-scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries who created the social construct of race to rationalize their greed or that supported gender bias to validate their masculinity,” she said.

Another eighth-grader said he was excited take part in the renaming.

“I felt responsible to pick a good name not only for younger students that currently go to Agassiz but also for future students,” he said. “I like to leave things better than I found them, and with this process I felt like I was able to do that.”

Carrie George said she was on the Agassiz Local School Council both when it approved a new name in 2020 and when it voted against moving forward with the renaming process in 2017.

“When the 2017 LSC took on the charge of exploring the renaming process, we were blindsided by how quickly it polarized our school community,” George said. “... As a council, we were neither prepared nor equipped to contain the spiraling differences that threatened to divide our community.”

This time around, George said, the process was inclusive and worked well, citing work by Principal Mira Weber, CPS Chief Equity Officer Maurice Swinney and the district’s Office of Equity.

At the Board of Education meeting, Swinney discussed Agassiz and lessons learned over the past year that are guiding his office in writing a new, student-focused school renaming policy. Students learned about Agassiz and how to prevent perpetuating his beliefs, then researched and suggested new names, voting on one per homeroom. From there, the Local School Council chose three finalists to submit to the school board.

Swinney presented steps toward a new policy intended to establish “necessary oversight” of school naming to align with the district’s broader equity goals. The renaming process should require inclusive work with school communities that prioritizes students and centers on people affected by structural racism and oppression, he said.

“We want to make sure that we’re viewing it not only with an equity lens, but we’re giving special attention to the people of color who are most impacted by the experience of this summer, and also Black and brown people within the city of Chicago and within our country,” Swinney said.

Swinney said it’s important for schools considering a name change not to stop there but to continue working on culturally responsive and anti-racist practices, as Agassiz is doing.

“The name change, if only centering on the name change, will only be cosmetic if it doesn’t improve the student experience,” Swinney said. “... We realized as an equity team, it is important we listen to those who have institutional memory, those most impacted, which include students and families and those responsible for implementation, meaning the people who work at the school.”

In December, The Chicago Sun Times identified at least 30 city schools named after slave owners or traders and reported on the inequitable racial breakdown of school names, with more than half of schools named after white people — mostly men — in a district where most students are Latino or Black.

The schools named after slaveholders are all over the city, including John Marshall Metropolitan High, John James Audubon Elementary, George Washington elementary and high schools, and Daniel Boone Elementary.

Swinney referenced a student effort to rename John Hancock College Prep, whose namesake had slaves.

“There has been some communication with some schools who potentially are interested in doing their name-change process,” Swinney said, adding that changes “should happen in waves, so that principals are in community with other principals.”

“Some schools might want to consider it based on the controversial history of a particular person,” Swinney said.

The current policy starts with a public LSC meeting where the name change is on the agenda, then two community meetings to seek input, followed by another LSC meeting where members approve three names to recommend. The LSC chair and principal then send a letter of recommendation to the network chief.

While Swinney’s team aims to strengthen the policy, he said it includes important guidelines: prohibiting names of primarily religious figures, or relatives of school employees or LSC members; requiring a person to have made “significant contributions” to society and to have died at least six months ago; and stipulating that a new name can’t be changed for at least 10 more years.

The Office of Equity plans to present a revised policy to the board for a vote in August after incorporating public comment on a draft slated for release in June. The revision process incorporates public meetings, surveys and focus groups based on an assessment of districtwide school names.

Board members applauded the work done to rename Agassiz and to come up with a new policy for the district.

“Who we memorialize and who we don’t is very important,” said member Elizabeth Todd-Breland.

In a letter to families after the vote Wednesday, principal Weber called it a “historic day for our school community and the Chicago Public Schools at large.”

“It was incredibly powerful to hear from our very own students and parents as they shared their experiences with our renaming process and to hear ...how our process will shape the districts work for others,” Weber wrote.