Magazine Feature

Toolkit for Name Changers

Challenges to school names that no longer represent community values are being heard throughout the South. In this toolkit, students will consider the complexities of naming and name changes and explore a strategy for convincing decision-makers that such changes are needed.

It took years to change the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, named in 1959 for a Confederate cavalry commander and slave trader, to something that's more appropriate for a school in the present day. Similar battles are being fought throughout the South, with mixed results. What's in a name? In this toolkit for "Name Changers," students examine the evidence, consider some theoretical case studies and take action.

 

Essential Questions

  1. What are the consequences when schools and civic buildings are named for leaders who don't reflect the values of the whole community?
  2. How can citizens—including young people—make their voices heard on this issue?

 

Introduction 

Explain to students that they will be taking on the role of school board members in a district where school names have been in the news recently. Community members are voicing objections to the name of a local school and asking that the name be changed. Ask the students to work in pairs in their new roles. Their job is to figure out who would be a good candidate to have a school named after. Because their community demands accountability, they should take notes to explain their choice.

Encourage students to research at least five possible candidates and arrive at one best choice. (If they have trouble thinking of candidates to research, suggest people like: Christopher Columbus, Rosa Parks, Harry S. Truman, Charles Lindbergh, Sonia Sotomayor, Abraham Lincoln or Maya Lin—all people who have schools named for them.)

Research is encouraged. If needed, encourage thoughtful responses by asking questions as you circulate among the students:

  • What do you know about the individual’s accomplishments? About their social beliefs?
  • How does their legacy reflect the values of the community?
  • Were they ever involved in activities that would be frowned upon today? Lauded today?
  • Were they ever involved in the subjugation of another person or group?
  • Who looks up to this person?
  • Who does not look up to this person? Why?

Reconvene the class and ask for each pair to briefly present their chosen candidate. Ask students to share their reasoning, and invite the class to discuss the merits of each candidate. 

Then, ask the following:

  • Was this task challenging or easy? Explain.
  • What do you think decision-makers consider in naming schools?
  • What should decision-makers do when controversies arise over school names?

 

Class Discussion

Distribute copies of “Name Changers” and let students know that many communities have considered questions similar to those they've just discussed. They will read about the controversy surrounding Nathan Bedford Forrest High in Jacksonville, Florida. Ask students to take notes on each section of the article as they read it. After each section, pause and discuss as a class the corresponding questions listed below.

 

Introduction

  • Why did Omotayo Richmond want the name of the school changed?

 

"Names That Send a Message"

  • What does Dr. Leslie Harris mean when she says, "When you choose a name like Nathan Bedford Forrest for a school, it’s clear what value you’re wanting to uphold at that particular moment in time."?
  • What moment in time is she talking about?
  • Why would someone want to uphold it?

 

"What’s in a Name?"

  • What does the author, Sean McCollum, mean when he says that the names of Confederate colonels and Klan leaders are not some romantic leftover of the “Lost Cause”?
  • How would you respond to Harris’ question, “What do we do with these figures?”

 

“Offense vs. Harm”

  • Explain Roger Stumps statement in your own words: “The act [of naming of a school in honor of an individual] is essentially hortatory, calling on the community to follow the path set by the school’s namesake.”
  • What does Robin DiAngelo say are the consequences for students of color if Stump’s assessment is true? 

 

Do Something: Letters for Change (optional)

You may wish to have students write letters detailing reasons to change the name of a school or sports team they consider offensive. For suggestions, see the Do Something student task Truth to Power: Writing Letters for Change.  

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