At every basketball and football game at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis, student Janaan Ahmed would proudly chant “Henry! Henry!”
But now Ahmed is among a group of students and teachers fighting to erase that name from the school.
Ahmed, 15, became galvanized to push for a new school name after learning that Patrick Henry, a Virginia politician and Revolutionary War-era leader famous for saying “Give me liberty or give me death,” was also a slave owner.
“That [slave] could have been my great-great-great grandmother,” she said. “I want to go to a school that represents me in a respectful manner. I don’t want something that triggers my historical trauma.”
The local #ChangeTheName movement at Patrick Henry reflects a nationwide push to expunge the names and images of controversial historical figures from school campuses and other public places.
Just recently, a group of students and teachers in south Minneapolis removed Alexander Ramsey’s name from its middle school, replacing it with Justice Alan Page, the state’s first black Supreme Court justice and a Minnesota Vikings Hall of Famer. They argued that Ramsey called for the extermination of the Dakota people.
In January, the state Department of Natural Resources approved changing the name of the largest lake in Minneapolis from Lake Calhoun to its original Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska.
On Thursday, supporters and opponents of the Patrick Henry name passionately argued their case before the school’s site council.
“We can’t rewrite history,” said Monte Miller, a name change opponent who taught social studies at the school and is a member of the Henry Foundation. “One of the consequences will be that we’re going to lose the foundation. In other words, don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
An online petition to save the name has collected nearly 800 signatures.
The 15-member site council — made up of community members, business owners and parents — had been set to vote Thursday on whether to approve a name change, but the vote was pushed back to May 17 because many alumni said they hadn’t been informed about the proposal.
If a change is approved, the school would then send the proposed new name and a plan for how to cover the $20,000 to $30,0000 in rebranding costs to Minneapolis Schools Superintendent Ed Graff. If he approves the change, he would then present it to the Minneapolis school board for final approval.
Topping the list of community suggestions for a new name: Unity, Liberty, Victory, Freedom and Union.
This is not the first time Patrick Henry students have lobbied for a name change. They tried and failed nearly a decade ago. Members of the new movement say they’re picking up where others left off, and making it known that a slave owner is no longer deserving of glorification.
Students and staff met in the fall to carve out a plan for their campaign. They established social studies lessons, making rounds in every class to educate students about who Patrick Henry was. They launched a GoFundMe campaign to help with the rebranding costs. So far, they’ve raised $6,000 toward their $10,000 goal.
Those who favor a name change say that anything in the school bearing Henry’s name makes them feel oppressed. More than 90 percent of Patrick Henry students are kids of color. Nearly half the students are African-American.
Opponents of a name change argue that it carries a hefty price tag and could pose challenges for alumni who hold Patrick Henry diplomas. Others say they hold a sentimental tie to the prominent founding father of this country.
Minneapolis school board Chairman Nelson Inz said the board will support a change as long as the request has the community’s consensus.
“I’m sure the board will support whatever the site council comes forward with,” said Inz, who supports a name change. “But there’s no guarantee.”
Board Member KerryJo Felder, who represents the area that includes Patrick Henry, also supports a new name.
“We have a lot of slave owners’ names floating around in the country,” she said. “I don’t know why it’s taking so long to change the name over in North. We should do what’s consciously right.”