Paul Sommers teaches Minnesota history to sixth-graders at Ramsey Middle School in southwest Minneapolis. As part of the curriculum, students discuss the school’s namesake, Alexander Ramsey, who served as both the first governor of the Minnesota Territory and the second governor of the state. Ramsey later became a U.S. senator and secretary of war.
In class, students talk about Ramsey’s accomplishments as a state leader, but they also discuss the impact of his policies on indigenous people. Ramsey led the fight against the American Indians, proclaiming that “the Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.”
“The kids would come back and say: We named the school after him?” said Sommers. “We should do something about it.”
So, in August 2016, they did.
Many of the students showed up at an open house wearing stickers that said, “Rename Ramsey.” That began a yearlong effort to change the name of the school to something more welcoming. But first they wanted to learn more about Ramsey, and brought in guest speakers from the Alexander Ramsey House and the Minnesota Historical Society, as well as Dakota elders.
As the campaign grew, even Gov. Mark Dayton expressed his approval, as did new Minneapolis School Superintendent Ed Graff. The Minneapolis school board will vote June 13 on whether to keep Ramsey, or rename the school to the winner: Justice Alan Page Middle School in honor of the state’s first black state Supreme Court justice and Minnesota Vikings legend.
To settle on Page, however, the students conducted an impressive campaign to collect a wide variety of potential names, from familiar famous people like Prince, to more obscure leaders, places and indigenous names. While Prince was popular with many students, some adults were wary because of his controversial nature, and the Prince estate politely declined.
Elissa Cedarleaf Dahl, an art teacher who worked with the students, said the kids saw need for the change. “The kids are seeing a more multicultural city now,” she said. “We have different morals and different values. The time is always right to do what’s right. If your name on the building is not welcoming to everybody, it doesn’t belong there.”
“I didn’t anticipate how much support there would be,” Cedarleaf Dahl said. “It’s been very empowering for the kids.”
The teachers say they are not trying to erase Ramsey’s name from the books, nor from the building’s exterior. “We’re going to keep the sign,” said Sommers. “I don’t believe in whitewashing history.”
Instead, they will continue to use Ramsey’s life as a lesson on how the state grew, and the ramifications on the people who lived here.
Eighth-grader Olivia Bordon said of her desire to change the name, “Ramsey may have done some positive things, but he was responsible for the treaties that tricked the Dakota. That’s stealing someone’s home.”
Bordon will move on to high school, so won’t be around to experience Justice Alan Page Middle School, if it happens. But she is still excited.
“The really cool thing about him is he appeals to a lot of people,” said Bordon. “Some people know him for his football, but other people can connect to him for being the first black Supreme Court judge. He also gives scholarships so kids of color can go to college.”
The group set up the criteria to judge each potential name. Did it reflect the goals and values of the school? Did the person have an impact on the area? They even turned to advertising experts to discuss branding, how the name would resonate now and 20 years from now.
Some kids loved the possibility of naming it after Martha Ripley, a suffragette and founder of the Maternity Hospital of Minneapolis, not only because of her accomplishments, but because of some nice alliteration with the school mascot.
The Ripley Rhinos, everyone agreed, sounded pretty cool.
As part of the process, the kids polled everyone at the school, then held community meetings. A student survey found 75 percent of students were in favor of renaming the school, with only 10 percent against.
Page’s name grew in popularity the more the kids learned about him, often from their parents, said Cedarleaf Dahl. The top three were Page, Ripley and Bde Ota, the Dakota name for Minneapolis (“lake” and “many”).
“It’s a high honor to be even included in that group of people,” Page said. “Well, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Page said the process of investigating names and talking to the community “is what it’s all about.”
“I’ve been impressed; it gives me hope for the future,” Page said.
Ambe McKenzie thought the debate was valuable, “especially being able to reach out to the community and find out people have very different opinions, and you have to listen to all those opinions.”
“Hearing people’s opinions made our campaign stronger,” said student Erin Thill. “If they had a specific problem with a part of the campaign, that’s something you could change.”
“What I liked about him is that he is a man of color who used his leadership for positive things,” said student Anyia Jackson. “He makes a difference, and that’s what our school is about.”
“At first we thought, we’re just kids, we can’t do something as big as renaming a school,” said Bordon. “It makes me happy that people really do want to know what we think. This has kind of made the year for me.”
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