‘They made a promise,’ but CPS slow to act on changing slaveholder school names

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Maurice Swinney, the Chicago Public Schools ‘ interim chief education officer, at a news conference at Ombudsman Chicago South Alternative School in West Englewood on Aug. 30.
Maurice Swinney, the Chicago Public Schools ‘ interim chief education officer, at a news conference at Ombudsman Chicago South Alternative School in West Englewood on Aug. 30. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

A top schools official vowed to make changes after the Sun-Times revealed 30 Chicago schools were named for slaveholders. A year later, one school has been renamed.

When the top Chicago Public Schools official for racial equity learned that CPS had 30 schools named for slaveholders, his immediate reaction was surprise and outrage.

“It’s dehumanizing, and it’s something that we have to work on and change,” Maurice Swinney said when presented with the Chicago Sun-Times findings, acknowledging that he hadn’t known how many school names were linked to slavery. “And we got to disrupt it, we got to stop it, we got to change it.”

Swinney said he would lead an effort to change the names of schools named for anyone involved in slavery. People of color would be involved in those discussions. And the system-wide rules for schools considering changing their names would be updated and be brought before the Chicago Board of Education for approval by the start of the new school year — even amid the coronavirus pandemic.

And then CPS also might look at schools named for 35 other historical figures who publicly embraced racist or misogynistic views.

Swinney said that, beyond changing the schools’ names, what was important was “making sure that people of color are prioritized in the process of changing the name, so the name change isn’t cosmetic and people still feel harmed by the process that should have been empowering,”

That was one year ago.

Since then, one Chicago school with a name linked to slavery has shed its slaveholder namesake. And the Board of Ed has yet to be presented with the rules change that Swinney, who since has been promoted to CPS’s interim chief educational officer, said would come months ago.

Swinney has declined interview requests made through a CPS spokeswoman beginning in mid-November about the slaveholder school names and the changes he promised 12 months ago were coming.

The spokeswoman says the delays are because of the coronavirus pandemic, which hit the United States in March 2020, shutting down schools and putting a wrench in all but essential operations, and a change in administration that saw Janice Jackson resign in May as the school system’s chief executive officer officer. Jackson was replaced in September by Pedro Martinez.

“Dr. Swinney and the equity team are still working on the policy that will go before the board and public comment, and so we don’t have a lot to share right now,” CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus said. “It hasn’t been because it hasn’t been important, but, with COVID and reopening schools and everything, that did take the priority.”

Swinney became CPS’ first equity officer in October 2018, handed the job of “ensuring that all students, especially our most vulnerable ones, get what they need in order to be successful beyond high school,” as he wrote on LinkedIn.

After Jackson and two top aides left CPS, Swinney was promoted over the summer — and given a $60,000 raise that boosted his salary to $230,000 a year — to be the second-ranking administrator of a school system serving 327,000 students.

Swinney had embraced the idea of schools dropping slaveholder names and was in the process of helping guide a name change at a Lake View school that was named for a white eugenicist when presented last year with the Sun-Times’ findings. The analysis found that, of Chicago’s 652 public schools, 30 were named for people who owned or traded enslaved Black or indigenous people.

Among them are well-known Southern plantation owners including Presidents George Washington and James Madison, and also Northerners, including John Hancock and Alexander Hamilton. The schools span the city. They include campuses that serve almost entirely Black student populations: John Marshall Metropolitan High School in East Garfield Park and an elementary school in Washington Heights that’s named for Washington’s plantation, where hundreds of people were held in bondage.

Swinney said in 2020 that CPS officials hadn’t realized how many schools remain named for slaveholders. Nor, he said, had they been aware that schools named for white people outnumber those named for African Americans by four-to-one, Latinos by nine-to-one and indigenous people by more than 120-to-1 in the nation’s third-largest public school system, in which nine of 10 children identify as Black, Brown or indigenous.

CPS officials say that, although the pandemic has slowed their efforts, they are pushing ahead with reviewing school names.

“We are committed to a comprehensive review process to consider new school names when a school is named after individuals who do not represent the values of our students, families, faculty, and support staff,” they said in a written statement after declining to make Swinney available for an interview.

They point to actions including having “hosted two community meetings, an alumni focus group and two POC town hall meetings to revise two district equity policies.”

That’s not enough, say students who have pushed unsuccessfully since March to rename John Hancock College Preparatory High School. They had hoped to get that slaveowner’s name removed from their school before moving to a new building on the Southwest Side in August.

The young women leading that effort say they don’t know where their proposal stands and have waited long enough for Hancock’s name to be changed.

“The name is so closely tied to racism and stuff like that and not only us being a school of minorities,” says Dayanara Murillo, 16, part of the Social Justice Club at Hancock pushing school leaders to sever ties to the Founding Father who kept enslaved people on his Massachusetts estate. “But even if it was not minorities, it’s still such an ugly thing that I feel like it doesn’t need to be associated with students that are attending the school.”

Andrea Castillo, 17, who heads the Social Justice Club and serves on Hancock’s local school council, is critical of CPS officials’ delay.

“They made a promise,” Castillo says. “And I think it’s our right to ask for it to be fulfilled.”

Hancock High School junior Andrea Castillo has been pushing to change the name of the school. “They made a promise,” Castillo says.
Mengshin Lin / Sun-Times
Hancock High School junior Andrea Castillo has been pushing to change the name of the school. “They made a promise,” Castillo says.

Earlier this year, students and staff at the former Andrew Jackson Language Academy dropped the name of the seventh president, who enslaved hundreds of people and supported “Indian removal” efforts. In May, the Near West Side elementary school was renamed the Chicago World Language Academy.

A Lake View elementary school that was named for a proponent of “scientific racism” was renamed to honor Harriet Tubman, a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad who helped many others escape slavery.
A Lake View elementary school that was named for a proponent of “scientific racism” was renamed to honor Harriet Tubman, a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad who helped many others escape slavery.

In March, after years of debate, another elementary school dumped the name of Louis J. Agassiz, a Switzerland-born proponent of “scientific racism.” Following a months-long review process involving Swinney, school leaders and community members chose to rename the school for Harriet Tubman, the Black abolitionist who had escaped slavery. That means 17 public schools citywide are named for a Black woman.

After those two changes, 425 Chicago schools are named for men, 76 for women and eight for a woman and a man. The remaining 143 public schools in the city are named after their neighborhoods or to reflect a particular academic focus.

Of the 500-plus Chicago schools named for people, more than 360 memorialize a white person, 83 a Black person, 39 for Latinos and three for indigenous people.

The push to reconsider school names has gained momentum amid the national racial reckoning that’s followed the 2020 killing by a white Minneapolis police officer of George Floyd, a Black man.

In Chicago, that movement also has seen the former John Marshall Law School drop its namesake — it’s now the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law — and shelve its portrait of the Supreme Court chief justice, who had hundreds of Black slaves. Statues of Christopher Columbus, who enslaved and raped Indigenous people, have been removed. And Lake Shore Drive has been renamed to add the name of Chicago’s Black founder Jean Baptiste Point DuSable.

Two Chicago elementary schools named for the slave-owning Daniel Boone and for George McClellan, a Civil War general known for racist writings, are “early in the process” of adopting new names, according to CPS.

Fergus says the new rules for name changes are expected to be ready sometime in the spring, following public comment and “pending an ongoing legal review of CPS equity policies.”

Since 2003, CPS has required a school to formally propose any name change through its Local School Council, hold two community meetings and suggest three new names. The council chair and school principal then make a recommendation. Schools can’t be named for anyone who primarily was a religious figure or was related to anyone on staff at the school or to anyone on the LSC. Those nominated must have made “significant contributions to society” and have been dead for at least six months.

The Social Justice Club at John Hancock College Preparatory High School handed out buttons that proclaim “United Against Hancock” to show support for dumping the school’s namesake, who owned slaves on his Massachusetts estate.
Provided
The Social Justice Club at John Hancock College Preparatory High School handed out buttons that proclaim “United Against Hancock” to show support for dumping the school’s namesake, who owned slaves on his Massachusetts estate.

Hancock’s Social Justice Club has unofficially suggested: pilot Bessie Coleman, musician Curtis Mayfield, Shirley Chisholm, who was the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, journalist Daisy Bates and gay rights activist Marsha P. Johnson, who would be the first transgender namesake of a CPS school.

“We’re really hoping for a name of a person of color or minority who has done something inspirational and is part of history but doesn’t really get recognized,” says Violetta Fajardo, a sophomore at the Southwest Side high school, whose students predominantly identify as Latino. “We really want to choose someone who represents our school.”

The club organized a boycott of the school store to oppose the sale of merchandise bearing John Hancock’s name, passing out “United Against Hancock” buttons and stickers, and its members say they’ll present their case to the Board of Education in January.

“We would demand this name change,” Andrea Castillo says. “This is something that needs to happen.”

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December 23, 2021 at 02:14PM

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