The site council of Patrick Henry High school postponed a vote Thursday on whether to change the school’s name after two hours of heated debate.
“I believe we need more time to review if the process was followed by those for the name change,” said Yusuf Abdullah, school principal and site council member.
Abdullah’s announcement came after the alumni opposing the name change, which was put forward by students and staff, said due process was not followed. The site council vote is a key step forward in the multilayered name-change process.
A group of students and staff has raised objections to being associated with Patrick Henry — a Revolutionary War-era political leader and a slave owner. Another group representing school alumni is opposing the name change, arguing that “one cannot rewrite history” and citing the “heavy cost” involved.
At least 10 members, or two-thirds of the site council members, must vote in favor of the name change for it to be approved. If the change is approved, the council needs to send at least three proposed new names along with a cost plan to Minneapolis Schools Superintendent Ed Graff for his approval or disapproval. Topping the list of possible names: Unity, Liberty, Victory, Freedom and Union. Graff would then send no more than three names to the Minneapolis school board for a final decision.
This was the second time the vote was delayed. At an earlier meeting, the site council pushed the vote to Thursday after alumni said they hadn’t been informed about the proposal.
Reckoning with history
More than 250 people packed the school’s gymnasium for the meeting Thursday, with speakers taking turns arguing that the move was either an unnecessary burden or an important change that would distance the school from a slaveholder.
“We all agree it [slavery] was wrong,” said Kathleen Harasyn, a 1985 graduate of the school and opponent of the change. “But why are we changing things because of something that happened in the past?”
The debate sometimes grew emotional, with both sides saying the other had bullied them. Those opposed to the change said proponents had not followed proper procedures or produced accurate surveys of the student body.
Ibrahim Oduniyi, a staff member at the school in favor of the change, said, “There is right and there is wrong. The person after which the school is named was a slave owner, is wrong. There is no going back on that.”
The name change demand at the school reflects a nationwide movement to expunge from school buildings and public places the names of controversial figures from U.S. history.
Recently, Alexander Ramsey’s name was erased from a south Minneapolis school over his infamous call to drive American Indians out of Minnesota. The school was renamed for Justice Alan Page, Minnesota’s first black state Supreme Court justice.
Some of those who favor the name change said they did not want to be identified with Henry, a slave owner. Though well-known for his declaration “Give me liberty, or give me death” in 1775, Henry was a slaveholder throughout his adult life.
“There have been name changes across the United States. I don’t know why it is taking time for Patrick Henry,” said Kerry Jo Felder, a school board member who supports the change. “We need to take a conscious decision.”
Monte Miller, one of the opponents and a member of the Henry Foundation, argued that one of the consequences of having a different name would mean losing the foundation named after the controversial leader. An online petition by Joe Robeck, a 1978 Patrick Henry High graduate, to save the name already has collected nearly 950 signatures.
Questions about cost
Some opponents of the name change argue that it carries a hefty price tag, estimated at $50,000. The school has started a GoFundMe campaign and has raised $6,000 toward their $10,000 goal.
Patrick Henry High’s renaming, if it happens, would be different from Ramsey’s because it would involve changing the high school mascot, the Patriots, as well.
Also, it would be costlier because it would include rebranding the high school uniform, sports club jerseys, scoreboards, etc.
“Unlike Ramsey Middle School, high schools have sports clubs and teams which need more branding,” said Nan Miller, director of policy development at Minneapolis Public Schools.
The site committee’s next meeting is in June, but Abdullah said he hopes to have another public meeting before then to discuss the name change.