Our Students Deserve Spaces Not Named After White Supremacists

On June 5 of 2020, a few friends and I attended a Black Lives Matter rally right outside of Jackson Square, in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter. We were fortunate to rendezvous with some of my former students. At the rally, protesters silently sat along the Mississippi River to reflect on the recent killings of Black Americans at the hands of police. After reflection, many of us returned to Jackson Square, named after Andrew Jackson, and joined the calls to remove the iconic Andrew Jackson statue overlooking the square.

Protesters gathered around Jackson Square, New Orleans, on June 5, 2020. (Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune — The Advocate. @DavidGrunfeld)

There we faced a small group of armed counterprotesters, around five or so, wearing bulletproof vests and ready to “defend” the statue. The protesters and counterprotesters angrily exchanged words, which seemed to eerily satisfy the counterprotesters. One of my former students, Leandre Shaw, decided to approach a counterprotester to engage in dialogue. During the conversation, the counterprotester told us he wanted to protect the statues and asked why we were so concerned with them. Aronisha Mickel, another former student, said she’s not just concerned with them; rather, she wants to create a better world for her future children to be safe. Her response caused him to pause.

I interjected to ask the counterprotester some basic history to gauge his understanding. He was unaware that Andrew Jackson owned at least 150 people and committed genocide. He had never heard of the Indian Removal Act or the Trail of Tears. He was unaware that some of the Native Americans forced out settled in Louisiana. He was unaware of Jackson’s campaigns into Florida, which resulted in the burning of Seminole villages and relentless attacks on sanctuaries where indigenous and Black communities successfully resisted white supremacy and slavery. He had only known Jackson as the hero who won the Battle of New Orleans, and the hero of the city because of all the schools and statues erected in his honor.

Protesters meet counterprotesters outside of Jackson Square on Friday, June 5, 2020. (Photo by Chris Dier)

After we explained some of this history, he said that he wasn’t taught any of it in school and that he understands why people wouldn’t want Jackson sanctified in that manner. He then said that if the city voted to take it down, he would support the measure. He removed his bulletproof vest as a symbolic gesture. This is the consequence of historical illiteracy. It results in armed people showing up to peaceful protests with bulletproof vests to protect an inanimate object they don’t comprehend. A mere fifteen-minute conversation resulted in him removing the vest and questioning his understanding. To be clear, I’m not giving him any credit as he had no reason to be this ignorant in 2020, but he is not alone. Education may not be the perfect panacea in a deeply inequitable system, but it does show how one’s understanding of history, whether from textbooks or internalizing how our society glorifies historical figures, dictates a person’s decisions today — decisions that have grave, dangerous implications.

This man’s mentality isn’t atypical for white people, especially white Southerners. I attended Andrew Jackson High School in Chalmette, a working-class suburb outside of New Orleans. Throughout my tenure there, we had only known Andrew Jackson as a hero and a savior to New Orleans. The name of the school or his egregious crimes were never discussed. Growing up, I played at parks named Kenilworth, Bournemouth, Versailles, and Rebel — all of which are named after plantations except for the latter, which was named in honor of the Confederacy. I rode on Judge Perez Highway, St. Bernard Parish’s main thoroughfare, which was originally named after archsegregationist and anti-Semite Leander Perez. Perez claimed desegregation efforts were traced “back to all these Jews who were supposed to have been cremated at Buchenwald and Dachau.” Going to these schools, playing in these parks, and seeing these street names seemed normal to me as a kid. This normalization is the inevitable result of our society’s intentional glorification of white supremacy.

Names are vital. They give us our identity and define who we are. Names of institutions are symbolic of what we value as a society. The naming of schools and parks and the erecting of statues in honor of white supremacists was for an intentional purpose. That purpose was to send a clear message to Black, Indigenous, and people of color: never forget your place. Those responsible wanted to solidify white supremacy for posterity as they simultaneously enforced racist Jim Crow laws, profited from the neoslavery convict-lease system, suppressed voting via poll taxes, “literacy” tests, and grandfather clauses, and allowed lynch mobs to terrorize any who dare to question the system. These schools were named to let certain students know that regardless of how much they learn, they mustn’t forget the most basic ideal spouted by white supremacists — that they will never be equal.

It sends a clear message to white students as well. It tells white students that our ancestors, no matter their crimes and treatment of those different from us, were merely acting on the moral standards of their day and deserve the utmost praise for their achievements. White students deserve to attend schools without these harmful myths instilled in them that they have to later unlearn. To be clear, emphasizing this point shouldn’t center the conversation around whiteness, but it is solely mentioned to simply highlight another negative repercussion of having spaces named in honor of white supremacy.

The movement to correct these transgressions isn’t new in my home state of Louisiana; however, it has recently gained steam. Take ’Em Down NOLA has worked to rid New Orleans of racist statues and has made significant gains. In 2017, New Orleans removed four statues glorifying white supremacy due to their activism. Gary Chambers Jr., a community activist in Baton Rouge, lambasted East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member Connie Bernard for online shopping during conversations regarding renaming Lee High School. His fiery speech went viral. The school board resolution to rename the school was unanimously approved after the meeting. Chambers and others are raising concerns about Nicholls State University, named after Francis T. Nicholls, a Confederate general who later implemented racist policies as governor. Lusher High School is considering a name change as it was named after Robert Mills Lusher, a former Louisiana State Superintendent who allied himself with the Confederacy, fought desegregation, and believed in “the supremacy of the Caucasian race.” These efforts aren’t limited to Louisiana. Recently, the Mississippi state legislature passed a bill to replace the state flag, a flag with the Confederate battle flag embedded in it and displayed in classrooms. These are all meaningful gains in a movement to right historical wrongs.

However, this movement should not solely exist in school board meetings, state legislatures, or on the streets. It should be happening within school classrooms, virtual or otherwise, because “Connies” exist in school buildings as well. Educators, administrators, school board members, and all directly engaged in educating our youth must advocate for the renaming of all spaces honoring white supremacy if we truly want to build an environment where all students can better flourish.

Those in education who don’t engage in this work send a clear message to students. Their hands-off approach may be comfortable, but it is not neutral. Elie Weisel, author and Holocaust survivor, famously said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” Educators and administrators can’t claim to care for Black, Indigenous, and students of color while allowing their schools to be named after slaveholders and white supremacists. It is a cognitive dissonance that perpetuates a system that is harmful to students.

The history of Louisiana is rich with people who advocated for positive change and did not cause detrimental harm to other people. Those are the historical figures worthy of recognition. In 1868, Oscar James Dunn was the first elected Black lieutenant governor of any state. After his death, over 50,000 people lined the streets of New Orleans; it was described as the largest funeral in New Orleans’ history. He was replaced by PBS Pinchback, a writer and Union Army officer. Pinchback became the first Black governor in United States history. Louisiana is also home to some of the world’s most famous musicians and iconic chefs. The options are truly endless for Louisiana and the entire country. Students deserve to walk in hallways named after historical figures who inspired. They deserve to hear stories of hope when they inquire about the names of schools and parks.

P. B. S. Pinchback, the first Black governor in the United States, 1870s. (Library of Congress)

To be clear, the critiques that suggest simply renaming spaces is not enough are accurate. These moves are merely a step towards reconciliation and healing. Creating spaces where students aren’t forced to attend schools named after their oppressors should be the bare minimum.

What our students truly deserve is a world free of white supremacy. However, such a world is an impossibility if we continue to allow their spaces to be named to glorify the most ardent white supremacists

2020 Louisiana Teacher of the Year & National Teacher of the Year Finalist. Author of “The 1868 St. Bernard Parish Massacre: Blood in the Cane Fields.”