Houston, we may still have a problem here.
School board members for Houston Independent School District, the largest school district in Texas, voted on Thursday to rename four schools with Confederate names.
One of them is named after Georgia’s own Henry W. Grady. The Houston middle school was added to the list of schools proposed for name-changing earlier this month along with Sidney Lanier Middle School. Lanier school was named after the Georgian better known for his work as a poet and musician than as a hardcore rebel even though he served at age 19 in the Confederate army.
The Lanier renaming is on hold until school officials can have further discussion, but Grady isn’t so lucky. A committee at the school will suggest a new name and offer a proposal to trustees. The decision raises the question, what exactly is the litmus test for whether a name should be removed from school buildings?
This most recent movement to rename schools named for Confederate supporters began in earnest after nine African-Americans were killed by a white supremacist in the mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. But similar efforts had begun at least a decade earlier.
How to balance history with the desires of the modern populace is a complicated issue. It requires a delicate handling that no one seems to have mastered.
“On one side there is the preservation of history and we don’t have enough things that teach us about our past…but on the other side, there is the way it resonates with people today, particularly groups of people who have been hurt in the past by the individuals or the movement. How you balance that is a complicated question and a case by case thing,” said James L. Roark, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of American History at Emory University.
Henry Woodfin Grady got caught in the crosshairs despite the fact that he was too young to have actually fought in the Civil War. The orator and journalist, who was part owner and editor of the Atlanta Constitution, did however believe his vision for the New South depended on maintaining white supremacy.
“Henry Grady was a racist. A mild racist for his time,” said Roark. But it was a rare white person who had no racial prejudice during that period of American history.
“The danger is to measure everything by today’s values and principles. Measured by that, almost everyone will come up short. If the solution to finding sin in the past is obliteration– changing names or moving monuments – we are really in trouble. We have to find a way to make this thing instructional,” Roark said.
Henry W. Grady’s legacy is on view throughout Georgia. There’s Grady County, Grady Memorial Hospital and the statue of Grady at Marietta and Forsyth streets not far from the former offices of this publication. As for schools, there is Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia and Henry W. Grady High School in Midtown.
Charles N. Davis, dean of UGA’s Grady College said “What I know for a fact is this university decided to name this college to honor the spokesperson for the New South. The man who worked tirelessly until his early and tragic death to improve relations between races in the deep south.”
Davis said he wonders if there should be some margin for error. “Can someone mature and grow in their philosophy with regard to anything, including racism, and be recognized for that or is it just ‘On page 12 of the speech you gave in 1874, you said this?'” Davis said. “I feel very comfortable because I do at least know the history of my university’s naming was for [Grady’s] work in uniting the county, not dividing the country.”
An analysis by Vocativ shows that at least 188 public and charter K-12 schools nationwide are named explicitly for prominent Confederates or for places named after prominent Confederates.
Founded in 1959, the school was named after Stuart, a Confederate general in protest of the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision. Supporters now want to rename it Thurgood Marshall High School. The petition is about 400 votes shy of the desired 35,000 and so far, the name stands.
It is one thing to move a flag or a monument to a less prominent location, but schools names just aren’t that easy. Since you can’t hide a school name or just pair a Confederate name with a Union name and call it a day, what do you do?
“We have got to remember and learn lessons we want to teach from it,” said Roark. “I’m not sure politically that will satisfy constituents who feel oppressed by these names.”