The national movement to erase the names of historic figures from buildings and places for sins related to race has reached St. Paul — this time with a U.S. president at the center of the debate.
Linwood Monroe Arts Plus, a district magnet school, has two buildings, one being the former Monroe High named after President James Monroe.
Monroe was a slave owner, and the school’s PTA, privy to research on the subject, decided unanimously in May to pursue a new name for the school, which celebrates its diversity with a playground sign reading, “All Are Welcome Here.”
The school graduated its last high school class in 1977. But it has persevered at the elementary and middle school levels — thanks in no small part to West End neighborhood pride. Many 1960s-era alumni want to keep traditions alive. Some local residents do, too.
“The school symbolizes success in the face of adversity,” community organizer Emily Northey said recently.
Northey, who is new to her position at the West 7th Street/Fort Road Federation, worked with the St. Paul Foundation to set up a “community dialogue” about the school and its community — “a chance to tell our stories,” the Facebook notice for Monday’s meeting reads.
A name change, as such, could be months away. But putting a U.S. president to the test is new to Twin Cities conversations.
In Minneapolis, a proposal has been put forward to rename Patrick Henry High because the Revolutionary War-era hero was a slave owner, too. Gov. Alexander Ramsey’s name was removed from a south Minneapolis middle school at the start of the 2017-18 school year on the basis of his call for the extermination of the Sioux Indian tribe. The school now is named after retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page.
A defense of James Monroe has yet to be advanced in the West End area. In fact, those who advocate to keep the name, and who as of last month gathered 650 signatures on a petition, note in a mission statement: “The school name is Monroe School, NOT President James Monroe School.”
But the group’s website does list facts about Monroe, too, including his support for the repatriation of freed slaves to Africa. Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, is named after him.
Elsewhere, the argument has been made that the sacrifices and accomplishments of the nation’s Founding Fathers should not be diminished by attention to their failure to rise above their time and place when it came to slavery.
“Slavery and discrimination cloud our minds in the most extraordinary ways, including a blanket judgment today against American slave owners in the 18th and 19th centuries,” the late historian Stephen E. Ambrose wrote in Smithsonian magazine. “That the masters should be judged as lacking in the scope of their minds and hearts is fair, indeed must be insisted upon, but that doesn’t mean we should judge the whole of them only by this part.”
The debate is new to the St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS), but student leaders have raised the issue before.
Mechanics of change
In December 2016, the Student Engagement and Advancement Board recommended that the St. Paul school board create a new policy “that prohibits, and reverses, naming SPPS facilities after people who have violated human rights through: enslavement, internment or genocide.”
Mentioned at the time was Ramsey, who also has a St. Paul school named after him.
Neither the policy change nor a move to scrap the Ramsey name has been forwarded for action, however.
Name changes require school board approval. First, however, the school community weighs in with a vote of its own. In 2009, when the district renamed Webster Magnet Elementary, changing it to Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning Elementary, the Obama name came away with roughly 60 percent of 854 votes cast.
That change was made to reflect the school’s shift in focus to a service learning program. Similarly, Monroe, which became a community school after the high school’s demise, now is part of a two-campus program that uses music, drama, dance and the visual arts to educate kids.
Construction projects are nearing completion at both Monroe in the West End and the Linwood building in the Crocus Hill neighborhood.
“I think there’s a real opportunity to brand [the school] for what it is today,” Principal Bryan Bass said recently.
As for a new name, PTA President Jason Johnson said community members, including Monroe High alumni, have suggested the names of St. Paul artists and that of Clarence Wigington, the nation’s first black municipal architect, who designed St. Paul’s Harriet Island pavilion.
Johnson wants students to take the lead in identifying candidate names. The eventual decision, he said, may not come until later this year or early next year.
Two months ago, four students appeared before the board to say their school should not be named after a slave owner. They and their classmates, they said, are taught to treat everyone equally and respectfully. Some have cognitive disabilities, and some are new to the country, they added.
“The name should be about all the things that make us a great school today,” said Joelle Hochuli, who was in first grade at the time.
A month later, Pat Fleury, a 1966 Monroe High graduate, told board members that the “Monroe Green Wave” was a family, “no matter where we land in life.” Al Hanzal, a 1960 graduate, said he had moved back to the West End neighborhood from Eagan, and that the community should be heard on the issue.
Monday’s session is up next, and while the neighborhood group has yet to take a position, Denise Wickiser, a federation board member whose twins just graduated from eighth grade at Linwood Monroe, said she values the inclusivity represented by the sign on the playground fence.
“It’s a great school, with waiting lists, and personally I’m really proud and satisfied with the direction the school is going,” she said. “Change can be hard, but I think we should do what is best for all kids moving forward.”