District leaders in the Oklahoma City Public Schools will soon head out into the community to ask this question: Should the four elementary schools they believe are the namesake of Confederate generals be renamed?
The origin of that question goes back several weeks. Right after the violence broke out in Charlottesville, Va., Charles Henry, a school board member in Oklahoma City, voiced his concern about the name of Jackson Elementary, which he says had been bothering him for a while.
Initially he thought the school was named after Andrew Jackson, “which I think is equally offensive, personally. And then I looked it up and it wasn’t named after Andrew Jackson. It was named after Stonewall. I researched him, too, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s wrong,’ ” he says.
Jackson Elementary is on the south side of Oklahoma City and Stonewall Jackson’s name is engraved above the door where the school’s students, who are a majority black and Hispanic, enter and exit the building. Henry says he doesn’t think kids should learn in a place named after a Confederate officer who fought to keep slavery legal.
At that same school board meeting, Henry found out he wasn’t alone. School leaders were concerned about the names of other schools in the district: Stand Watie Elementary, named for a Native American Confederate general, Wheeler Elementary and Lee Elementary.
Leaders moved quickly to make an announcement about the names — they wanted the community to help them decided whether to reassign them.
Before long, leaders came to find themselves in an interesting position. City historians turned up at least some evidence to suggest that two of the schools, Wheeler and Lee, might not be named for leaders of the Confederacy after all.
“Wheeler and Lee could be named for very important people in the city’s history,” says Larry Johnson, whose job is to research Oklahoma City for the local libraries. “And if they are, you don’t want to do them a disservice by removing something that honored them.”
Wheeler Elementary, originally thought to be named for Joseph Wheeler, may actually be the namesake of a prominent local businessman, James B. Wheeler, whose name is also on Wheeler Park, a popular Oklahoma City attraction not too far from the school.
Lee Elementary will take some more digging, he says. Right now, no one can locate anything that definitively says, ” ‘We’re naming it Robert E. Lee.’ ”
Across the country, Americans are wrestling with similar realities. That is, faded histories, changed meanings and the question of who decides which monuments of the Confederacy, whether statues or elementary schools, stay or go. In Oklahoma City, does it make sense to change the name of the two schools if there’s a chance they’re named for local leaders?
“The staff is really passionate to keep it Wheeler,” says Deserae Jackson, the principal at Wheeler Elementary. “No one knew who it was named after to begin with and so when I told the staff, everybody was shocked.” There are some staff who’ve been at Wheeler for 30 years, she says, “and nobody had any idea.”
The district superintendent, Aurora Lora, says she doesn’t want to force a name change on anyone — even for the two schools that they know are named after Confederate generals. That’s why the district will go to the community for their input.
But so far the community seems divided. Some say the names should be changed. Others say no one cared until the district began looking into it.