Fourth in a series of posts examining the controversy in Jacksonville, Florida over the renaming of six schools that bear the names of Confederate figures, one the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis Middle School, the other five Confederate generals (the history of the confederacy is one of war, a failed war of succession; therefore, military persons and events dominate the history of the period): Robert E. Lee High School, J.E.B. Stuart Middle School, Kirby-Smith Middle School, Joseph Finnegan Elementary School, and Stonewall Jackson Elementary Schoool.
Two of these schools were built in the 1920s, when the last of the soldiers who fought in the war were dying off and when many monuments were erected to memorialize the Lost Cause, and the 1950s/early 1960s in the aftermath of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision that schools must desegregate.
As Duval County (Jacksonville, FL) refights the Civil War in the process of renaming the schools, Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) sees the most prominent voices being these: white alumni, decrying ‘cancel culture’ and ‘erasing history,’ whose real objection seems to be the threat they perceive to their privilege that they enjoy from the racism baked into America’s societal structures; and students, decrying the very same things.
What’s in a Name? Do we indulge the feelings of old alumni, sad and angry that their school might change its name, or those of the current students, 70% of whom are black and 82% of whom are non-white, who feel the impact of walking into a school every day named for a man who fought to maintain slavery?
If you think the students don’t care, you didn’t see their posts on social media of video they took during the community meetings of people who showed up to say the most offensive and ridiculous things. They were there. They care.
In fact, the students of Robert E. Lee High School have started a petition to bring the suspended teacher back. If you care to support them, you can add your name.
As children, we used to sing this song: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
We were never more wrong. Names are powerful and important. Names carry the power to inflict long-lasting psychological damage. It’s time for a change, not only in the names, but in the attitudes of those who continue the narrative of white supremacy.
This will be hard for Jacksonville, a city whose mayor ordered the removal of all confederate statues, monuments, and markers in the immediate aftermath of the protests over the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In predawn hours, cranes showed up and removed the bronze statue of a Confederate soldier standing on top of a 50 foot granite column.
The mayor then marched with black NFL players from the city’s team. Good optics. But nothing has changed since then. The column stands like a finger lifted to the sky without purpose. Other historical plaques and monuments remain in place. Bad optics.
Black members of the city council filed legislation to change the name of the central park in downtown from Hemming, the man who donated the Confederate memorial, to James Weldon Johnson, the black man whose many accomplishments include writing the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” with his brother.
The name change went through. May that past be prologue and Jacksonville, Florida find its way to better names for its children’s schools.