Tonight’s Houston ISD board meeting will address a resolution to re-name eight schools that currently bear the names of Confederate heroes: Henry Grady Middle School, Richard Dowling Middle School, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson Middle School, Albert Sidney Johnston Middle School, Sidney Lanier Middle School, Jefferson Davis High School, Lee High School, and John Reagan High School.
The names need to change. I’ve written about it before, but would like to address concerns that have been raised this week about one school in particular, Lanier.
Two teachers who are held in high regard by several people I know and respect object to the renaming of this school.
Jim Henley points out that Sidney Lanier was a Confederate only reluctantly, came to regret his allegiance, and is worthy of the honor of having a school named for him for his accomplishments as an author and poet.
Mike Bordelon echoes what Henley says, and goes on to raise additional issues: not enough notice was given, he felt, to the Lanier community; the brand equity the school has built; and the danger of “placing our current morals on the past.”
The school’s brand is only as valuable as the next group of students entering it. HISD parents who send their children to Lanier will seek out the school no matter its name—from what I’ve seen of these parents, they would ferret out a good school even if it had no sign over the door and were hidden behind a hedge of prickly shrubbery. And as long as students in the school, and faculty, continue to excel, there will be brand equity almost immediately in a new name.
Renaming the school does not diminish Lanier’s accomplishments, nor does it mean that teachers can no longer use his poetry to inspire writing, art, and dialogue. In fact, renaming it provides an excellent opportunity for middle school students to tackle the complexities of American and Confederate history. After all, art is as much about the shadows as it is about the light, and the most interesting conversations happen when they start with it depends.
It is also very healthy and powerful for students to learn that heroes are not infallible. Just as not a single one of those Confederates was entirely evil, no person is entirely good. Children need to know that it is OK to talk about good adults doing bad things.
Bordelon may not believe the school community had enough notice, but his complaint that they had only a week’s notice rings hollow. The crescendo of community voices last summer calling for exactly this change put our city, and our school district, on notice. And last summer is not the first time this issue has arisen in the public discourse.
What’s more, there are some decisions that get made without everyone’s input and agreement. If we’d waited for everyone to agree to integrate Houston schools … well, even with integration by fiat, we’re still not there.
Adults know, and children can benefit from learning, that sometimes, leaders have to make difficult choices. Often, the process isn’t perfect, and sometimes, not everyone’s voice gets equal weight or equal time. For every person who thinks that it is too soon, there are others wondering, with pain and resignation in their hearts, why it has taken this long.
So, we come to the risk of imposing modern morals on earlier eras. Is that really a risk?
That stance ignores the fact that at the very time Sidney Lanier was alive, many people already shared the “modern” sensibility that slavery was wrong, and believed treason was something to be punished rather than celebrated.
It ignores the fact that the school was named in 1926, a time in United States history when racism was very much in fashion and the Ku Klux Klan reached its peak membership. It is less likely that the school’s name was selected to honor a poet from Georgia than it was selected because of the connection to the Confederate past. Reagan opened the same year, and their architecture suggests that at least Davis and Jackson opened in this era as well. What are the odds that a passel of schools received Confederate names just by coincidence?
This argument, finally, once again implies that we are somehow turning our backs on the history and refusing to acknowledge it. That’s not what we’re doing by changing the names of these schools.
Children are tough. They can confront that history in books, in class discussions. Sadly, they will likely confront that history, in some manifestation, in the streets and throughout their lives. We aren’t changing the history, and we’re not erasing it. We’re putting it in its place: in books and in class discussions where it can be considered critically, rather than etching it in stone over the doorways we ask the children to walk through every day when they come to a place that is supposed to be safe and welcoming.
It will be tricky finding new names, and we might get it wrong. We might find ourselves reconsidering the new names in 20, 40, or 60 years. That’s OK, though, and it isn’t any reason not to make this particular change at this point in time.