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When Should A School's Name Get Canceled?

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What’s in a name? That’s a loaded question when it comes to the names of public schools in the U.S., which are commonly named after historical figures. But what if the person your school is named after did something problematic: like owning slaves, being a eugenicist, or an advocate for segregation? Some students across the country are leading the charge to rename schools that are named after people who they think do not reflect the values they want in their school’s namesake. So in this video journalist and host, Myles Bess asks how do you decide if, when, and how to rename a school?

TEACHERS: Get your students in the discussion on KQED Learn, a safe place for middle and high school students to investigate controversial topics and share their voices. Click to see this video and lesson plan on KQED Learn.

What kinds of school names are most controversial?

There are basically two categories of names that tend to be the ones that people want to be removed from schools. The first, is the name of confederate leaders, like Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and the other category is much more general with figures that have some kind of problematic past. For example, other names on the school name chopping block include former slave owners like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, people associated with the KKK, like Nathan Bedford Forrest, eugenicists like Lewis Madison Terman, segregationists like Woodrow Wilson– to name a few.

What are the main arguments FOR renaming schools named after people with problematic pasts?


For schools named after confederate leaders, the main arguments are basically that these figures represent slavery and white supremacy, and these names send the message to non-white students that they are inferior and are not welcome. Plus, the confederacy lost. And when it comes to other historical figures, the main arguments are that the problematic actions from a given figure outweigh their positive contributions; in other words, the bad outweighs the good. A school name basically honors and endorses the actions of the namesake, and proponents of name changes often argue that naming schools after people with problematic pasts undermines core values that schools should represent, such as integrity, equity, and kindness. If a school is named after someone who oppressed groups of people in the past, then that school name is not welcoming to all students– especially the ones who are members of the groups that were oppressed.

What are the main arguments AGAINST renaming schools?

Some opponents think that changing the name of a school is just an empty symbolic gesture that does nothing to actually combat real problems in education, and can end up costing a lot of money. Others feel that it’s unfair to judge historical figures by modern standards; slave owners or segregationists should be forgiven because that was the norm back then. And another major argument is more sentimental, in which school alumni feel a special attachment to their school name. If it was renamed, it would erase a part of their identity and history.


Learning For Justice: Name Changers

New York Times: What Students are Saying about Renaming Schools 

NBC News: Debate Over Renaming Schools Remains Impassioned Almost One Year After George Floyd’s Death 

KUT: Here are the Arguments for and against Changing Confederate Names of Austin Schools 

Equal Justice Institute: The Truth About Confederate Named Schools 

Facing History: How One Student Is Removing His Schools Ties to the Eugenics Movement 

Southern Poverty Law Center: Changing the Name and Narrative: Students Lead Movement to rename Schools Honoring Confederate Leaders

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