Column: Harriet Tubman will take the place of racist scientist’s name on Lakeview’s Agassiz Elementary School

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Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune
·4 min read
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Agassiz Elementary School, the Lakeview school named for a Swiss scientist whose racist, discredited teachings were used to dehumanize Black people and justify slavery, will be renamed Harriet Tubman IB World School.

The Chicago Board of Education is scheduled to formally approve the name change, which includes its International Baccalaureate designation, at Wednesday’s meeting.

“I’m overjoyed,” said Tina Holder King, who helped lead the yearslong effort to change the school’s name. “I am energized and even more so, I’m hopeful.”

Parents, students and community members have been trying to get Agassiz’s name off their building since 2017, when the Local School Council turned down a proposal by a 7-5 vote, arguing that the cost of changing the name was prohibitive and would damage the school’s name recognition and brand.

In July, a group called CARE, Chicagoans for Anti-Racist Education, renewed the push to pull Agassiz’s name, reasoning that the historic movement for social justice underway last summer was a logical time to revisit the issue.

“The anti-Blackness we see today is so much more evident to so many more people,” Chirag Mehta, who was also part of the 2017 push to remove the name, told me at the time. “It’s easier for people to see the trajectory of how you get from a person like Agassiz, trying to use science to justify racist ideologies, to where we are today.”

Louis J. Agassiz lived from 1807 to 1873. He worked as a professor at Harvard University and is celebrated for his contributions to the study of natural science. He also believed and argued that Black people were a “degraded and degenerate race” and strongly opposed interracial marriage. His teachings, which held that African and African American people were genetically distinct from and inferior to white people, were repeatedly used to justify slavery.

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“He was an important figure in laying the groundwork for the anti-Blackness that fueled the anti-abolitionist movement, that fueled the backlash against Reconstruction, that fueled the Jim Crow era,” Mehta said. “He played a pivotal role in providing pseudoscientific justification for a lot of the racism we see and experience today. He wielded power as a scientist, and he used that to provide cover and justification for white supremacy. That they put his name on a school, an institution of education, is all the more reason for us to interrogate his history. And it’s all the more reason for us to take the name off the school.”

In August, after an impassioned and occasionally contentious two-hour meeting, the Local School Council voted to move ahead with a proposal to change the name. Students then researched new names and presented a list of 20 options — one per homeroom — to the LSC, who whittled down the list to three to send to the Chicago Board of Education.

The finalists were Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist who guided enslaved people to freedom on the Underground Railroad; Katherine Johnson, the mathematician whose orbital mechanics calculations for NASA contributed to numerous space missions; and Rosa Parks, the civil rights leader who, among other things, helped ignite the Montgomery Bus Boycott when she refused to give up her seat to a white man in 1955.

Holder King was pulling for Harriet Tubman all along.

“I look forward to the students’ learning journey about our school’s namesake,” Holder King said Monday. “For so long she’s been left out of the classroom. I’m looking forward to future generations learning that while she is a part of Black history, she is also a part of American history that everyone should learn.”

Holder King said she and her daughter, a seventh grader at soon-to-be Harriet Tubman, will watch Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting together.

“It really brings tears to my eyes,” Holder King said. “For the students who are there now, I think that because the journey was taken as an opportunity to have them so keenly involved and for them to have so much ownership, I think it provides an invaluable lesson in civic-mindedness, accountability, responsibility, pride in what you put out into the community. This accomplishment is primarily theirs, for sure.”

Holder King said she hopes their result inspires other schools to start the name-change process if the student body and school community don’t feel fairly represented or proud of the current name.

“I’m not naive enough to think there will be all Kumbaya moments from here on out,” Holder King said. “But this is an important step and important message to the community at large and to other schools. We kept our eyes focused where they should be.”

And now the students learning and creating and problem solving at the corner of George Street and Seminary Avenue will do so under the heading of a woman who repeatedly risked her life for humanity, rather than a scientist whose teachings degraded it.

That’s a win for all of us.

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hstevens@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13