Education

Student Petitions School To Drop Slave Owning President’s Name

by Liz Dwyer

June 5, 2017

The removal of monuments honoring the Confederacy has been so controversial that in April, workers in New Orleans took down a statue while wearing masks and bulletproof vests. But as the debate over these symbols rages on, a petition launched in late May by an 18-year-old student in Madison, Wisconsin, serves as a reminder that there are also tough discussions to be had about places named after prominent slave owners among the Founding Fathers—including James Madison, the Father of the Constitution.

“Do you truly think it's appropriate to glorify a man that enslaved my ancestors?” Mya Berry, a senior at James Madison Memorial High wrote in the petition, asking for her school’s name to be changed. She hopes the school will drop the “James Madison” part and let it be “Memorial High School.” Just over 1,500 people have signed Berry’s petition in the week it has been online.

During the summer before her senior year, Berry watched a documentary about U.S. presidents and “I learned that James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, was a slave owner, holding control over more than 100 slaves,” she told GOOD. Taking a new class at the school, Restorative Social Justice, convinced her to do something about her newfound knowledge. For the final assignment, students were asked to create “an action plan to catalyze change in our community,” said Berry. “Already having the name change in mind, I decided that it was a perfect opportunity for me to put my words into actions.”

”Do you truly think it's appropriate to glorify a man that enslaved my ancestors?”

Berry’s petition comes just months after Yale University announced that, after years of protest, it would be changing the name of Calhoun College. The undergraduate residential college was named after former vice president, John C. Calhoun, a notorious white supremacist and slavery advocate. In a statement, Yale President Peter Salovey explained that, “Unlike other namesakes on our campus, [Calhoun] distinguished himself not in spite of these views, but because of them.”

And, in response to student protests, last year Harvard Law School decided to change its seal—which was a modification of the seal of Isaac Royall Jr., a slave owner who donated money and land for the law school. The debate about the seal stirred up arguments that aren’t all that different from what’s said by defenders of Confederate symbols. “I understand why the students are upset, but this is just a fact of the school,” visiting Harvard Law School professor Daniel R. Coquillette told The Wall Street Journal in late 2015. “If we started renaming things and taking down monuments of people linked to slavery, you would start with Washington … a great institution can tell the truth about itself.”

But as student activists at Harvard declared victory, Julia Royall, one of Isaac Royall’s descendants, said she was supportive of the decision to change the shield, and hoped it wasn’t merely a symbolic gesture. “The challenge is to make it more than that,” Julia Royall told The Harvard Crimson. “The challenge is to make it animate the struggle to move forward on leveling the playing field.” 

A classmate would threaten to lynch me on a daily basis.

That sentiment can be seen in Berry’s call for the entire environment at Madison Memorial—where just under 17 percent of nearly 2,000 students are black—to change. “My school has had dress up days such as pimps and hoes, and the girls varsity soccer team had cornrows in their hair, as if my culture is some dress up day, and something to joke about,” she wrote in her petition.

Berry has also been called racist names and been threatened by other students. During her freshman year, a classmate “would threaten to lynch me on a daily basis,” she told GOOD. “I’ve gotten called the ‘n-word’ repeatedly throughout high school, which is highly representative of the message that is encouraged in Madison: Black students are less than.”

What Berry calls a “lack of understanding, encouragement, and respect for students of color at my school,” might be reflected in its academic achievement results. Only about 17 percent of black students at Madison Memorial scored proficient or advanced in English on the most recent state tests, compared to nearly 77 percent of white students. And in math, only 12 percent of black students scored proficient, while 70.6 percent scored either proficient or advanced. “With the education disparity between black and white students being a huge concern in the Madison Metropolitan School District, and if you truly care about black students, you would change the name of Memorial high school,” she wrote in her petition.

A few students and teachers have responded negatively to her petition, and she has received threats online, said Berry, but most folks have supported of her efforts—including the teacher of the restorative social justice class and Madison Memorial’s administrator. “My principal wants to make sure that we address everything that was said in my speech, as well as creating a safer and more inclusive environment to the students at my high school,” said Berry.

A statement from the Madison Metropolitan School District indicates that local officials are listening, too. "We're grateful that our students have brought this concern to our attention. Memorial is continually focused on strengthening its school community, and it's important that students can identify concerns and share their perspectives," the district said. However, the local school board, not the school district, has the power to change the name. To that end, Berry presented her petition at a school board meeting in late May.

In response to the backlash over the removal of monuments in New Orleans, the city’s mayor, Mitch Landrieu, gave a speech that’s gone viral, where he cautioned that, “There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.” Berry is staying in town for college, so she plans to continue to make the Madison Memorial High community aware of that distinction—and she might have her work cut out for her. She’ll be heading to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall, an institution that bears the slaveholding president’s name, because it’s located in a city named in his honor.  

Hero image via Mya Berry

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