Lauren FitzPatrick, Chicago Sun-Times, December 30, 2020
John Marshall Metropolitan High School is a West Side institution.
One of the city’s oldest public high schools — once heavily Jewish and for decades home to a nearly all-Black student body — it boasts fiercely proud alumni and a reputation for powerhouse athletics.
It’s named for the fourth chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, widely regarded as the most influential leader of the nation’s highest court, honored with his face on postage stamps and his name on law schools in Chicago and elsewhere.
Marshall also was a slaveholder his entire adult life, with at least 200 Black slaves on his Virginia plantations.
That part of Marshall’s history didn’t keep an all-white Chicago Board of Education from naming the school on West Adams Street in East Garfield Park for him when it opened 125 years ago.
“That’s our heritage,” says Anyiah Jackson-Williams, Marshall’s valedictorian from the class of 2020. “I’m African American. It really was a shocker to me. He’s one of the people that was a slave owner.”
Across the city, at least 30 public schools are named for people who owned or traded enslaved Black or indigenous people, according to a Chicago Sun-Times review of every public school name in Chicago.
Some, like Marshall, were Southern plantation owners, among them Presidents George Washington and James Madison.
Others, perhaps surprisingly to some, were Northerners — like John Hancock, William Penn and Alexander Hamilton.
They span the city. One South Side elementary school in Washington Heights that’s named for Washington’s plantation — where hundreds toiled in bondage — today has a student population that’s 98.7% Black.
Chicago Public Schools officials say they weren’t aware of how many schools remain named for slaveholders until shown the Sun-Times’ findings.
They also say they didn’t realize before being asked about those findings regarding the nation’s third-largest public school system, in which nine of 10 children identify as Black, Brown or indigenous, that schools named for white people outnumber those named for African Americans by a ratio of four-to-one, Latinos by nine-to-one and indigenous people by more than 120-to-1.
Now, amid the nationwide racial reckoning sparked by the violent death of George Floyd, an African American man whose death in late May was caught on camera as a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, Chicago school officials say they are reviewing school names and that changes will be made.
“It’s dehumanizing, and it’s something that we have to work on and change,” says Maurice Swinney, the top CPS official for racial equity. “And we got to disrupt it, we got to stop it, we got to change it. And, for me, it’s important that all of this work be through a process that really starts to teach what this history really means, that starts to reckon with racist ideas and that helps people to really have conversations with race that are not generally happening outside of friend circles.”
Swinney says he’ll lead an effort to change the names first at those schools named for anyone involved in slavery, with people of color at the center of the discussions.
He says CPS might then look at schools named for 35 others known to have publicly said or done racist or misogynistic things.
“I stand around changing the names and 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,” Swinney says.
One publicly funded charter school also might be renamed. The privately managed charter school network Acero Schools has a school named for a Spanish priest who was known as an advocate for the rights of slaves — but only after owning slaves himself. Acero says it will ask community members if they want to change it.
School names matter, students say
That’s the trick — getting rid of a name associated with slavery or racism without losing what a school’s name means to its community, Reggie Bridges says.
“Marshall” matters, says Bridges, class of 2020 at the West Side school.
“I have family members who graduated from Marshall as well,” says Bridges, who lives nearby while home from college. “If anybody would say, ‘I went to Marshall,’ everybody knows what Marshall is, what Marshall was all about. The name is a part of the school.
“We represent,” he says. “It’s always John Marshall. We always represent to the fullest, and us not knowing who the person really was, it’s disturbing now that you told me that.”
Unlike Bridges, his classmate Jackson-Williams remembers learning in class about Marshall owning slaves, which was a shock to hear. But she’s unsure about the possibility of changing the name.
“We have one of the biggest alumni associations,” Jackson-Williams says. “Marshall was a really big-time school back in the day. It would be, like, too late to change the name. The name is already stuck with the school and the school history also.”
Bridges wishes he’d known about Marshall’s plantations sooner.
“I feel like they should have talked about him more,” he says. “Honestly, Marshall, that is an all-Black school. To be there representing Marshall, the person that we’re praising is someone who didn’t really care for us, was a horrible person … ”
The 18-year-old stops to consider the names of the people behind the four other schools he attended since kindergarten.
“So crazy,” he says, that all but one — James Weldon Johnson Elementary — were named for white people.
By the time John Hancock affixed his giant signature to the bottom of the Declaration of Independence, enslaved people he inherited were taking care of him in Massachusetts, a state most Americans don’t associate with slavery.
“I’ve always known that a lot of people that signed the Declaration were slave owners,” says 15-year-old Tamara Ward, a sophomore at Hancock College Prep High School. “It doesn’t change how I think about my school.”
Hancock College Prep is the only test-in school on the Southwest Side, the last part of the city to get such a competitive program. That designation, as her classmate Adrian Salazar puts it, boosted the pride of Hancock’s students “like you earned your spot there, so you want to represent it and show everybody.”
About 92% of students at the school in West Elsdon identify as Latino, with a smattering of white, Black and Asian American students.
“The community that this school is in is mostly minorities, and most students support the Black Lives Matter movement and are anti-racists,” says Ward, who’s African American and Puerto Rican. “So the name of a slave owner goes against what we stand for and doesn’t represent us at all.”
To Cortez Stewart, a senior who’s recorded a podcast about being Black at Hancock, school names are “just another reminder” of the gap between America’s ideal vision of itself and reality.
“We still have George Washington on the single dollar bill and stuff like this,” says Stewart, 17, one of about 20 Black students at Hancock. “It definitely makes me think about how this country can still celebrate these figures with so much knowledge of what they have done in the past.”
Kids see these signs, says Jerry Rosiek, a University of Oregon professor who has studied the effects of racism on students.
“I don’t think the fact that a slaveholder or somebody who was a confederate or a member of the Klan alone is an impact all by itself,” Rosiek says. “It’s the fact that they’re in a context where symbolically the lesser status of their schools is marked in all kinds of ways. Things like the names on buildings contribute to the sense that the inequity is not accidental. What that then communicates to the students is they’re moving into a school system that is systematically hostile to them.”
So change them all, Rosiek says.
“Nothing about this history of George Washington is harmed by not having his name on a school,” he says. “Our national discourse is advanced by having a conversation of what that name means.”
Yet, of the 510 Chicago schools named for people — more than 140 others have names tied to geography or the school’s purpose — more than 360 memorialize someone who was white and 82 for someone Black, 39 Latino and three indigenous.
CPS, with more than 4% of its students Asian American, has no school named for anyone Asian.
Black children make up 36% of CPS’ student enrollment, yet just 12% of schools are named after Black people.
And there’s a dearth of schools named for Latinos even as Latino kids account for 46% of public school students.