It’s Time To Rename All The Schools Named After Slave Owners

If you attended Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, MD, you are more likely to have learned an infamous story about Tori Amos, its most famous graduate, than pretty much anything about Richard Montgomery. Montgomery’s life was not all that aspirational, as far as namesakes are concerned: The Irish major general is most known for leading the unsuccessful 1775 invasion of Canada during the American Revolutionary War. But, a recent historic examination by a couple of students from another local high school revealed that Montgomery was also a slave owner. Now, the school’s name is in the spotlight, and current and former students are petitioning for the school board to change it to that of somebody who did not own other humans.

RM’s name-change proposal comes amid a long-overdue national conversation about names and monuments, which is happening as a result of the mass civil rights and racial justice uprising sparked by the police killings of Black people, including George Floyd in Minneapolis. It’s far from the only school or institution where change has come or is imminent: From Aunt Jemima to the Washington Redskins to the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, brands and institutions are being asked to reckon with their racist roots. In Berkeley, CA, the school board recently voted to rename schools named after George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Princeton University will remove President Woodrow Wilson’s name from the school, citing his “racist thinking and policies.” In Florida, a school board is discussing changing the names of several schools that contain the word “plantation.” Then, there are the removals of monuments: A statue of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson recently went down in Richmond, VA, along with other Confederate statues. Jackson, MS, voted to remove its statue of President Andrew Jackson, a slave owner who initiated the Trail of Tears, from City Hall. Is the name of the city next?

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There is a good chance that the schools you attended, the town where you live, and possibly even your street are named after slave owners, or otherwise tinged with our history of imperialism and violence. After graduating from the aforementioned Richard Montgomery High School, I went to George Washington University, in the city of Washington, both named after our first president — who established the U.S. Constitution and federal government, but also had no qualms about treating humans as property until the very end of his life. Just across the river, practically the entire state of Virginia is named after Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee. You take Lee Highway to Leesburg Pike to get to Leesburg, and your child attends Lees Corner Elementary School. And the relatively little-known Richard Montgomery? There are numerous counties, including the one RM is in, and towns in different states named after him, most notably Montgomery, AL, the city where Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger.

The names of people who participated in and advocated for a system of forced labor and violent oppression are part of our narrative, a steady drumbeat in the background of our lives. In repeating them daily, we also repeat the most violent parts of our history in casual conversations with our friends, family, and neighbors. With their repetition, these names risk becoming meaningless; their ubiquity negating the horrors that Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color have experienced in this country. So why not honor those who have made a positive difference in their community rather than those who perpetuated white supremacy? While renaming schools and highways is not a replacement for justice, it can be part of it.

“A great analogy that I’ve seen is: Would you force Jewish students to go to a school named after Adolf Hitler? No. It’s atrocious. So why is it normalized for Black students to go to schools named after people who didn’t see us as human?” RM alum Crystal Foretia '19 told Refinery29.

Would you force Jewish students to go to a school named after Adolf Hitler? No. It's atrocious. So why is it normalized for Black students to go to schools named after people who didn't see us as human?
crystal foretia, class of 2019

The push to change RM’s name started when students from the school’s Super Political Activism Club (Super PAC), founded after the 2016 election, posted a petition calling for the Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education to consider the move. “We strongly believe that celebrating a slave owner is contradictory to the community of diversity and inclusion we’ve fostered,” reads the petition, which has been signed by almost 4,500 people as of publication. The petition recommends three namesakes that better represent the community’s values, all Black women: Emily Catherine Edmonson, who was born into slavery and unsuccessfully attempted to escape onboard a cargo ship, was finally freed, and became an outspoken abolitionist working alongside Frederick Douglass; Lillian Beatrice Brown, a granddaughter of slaves who was an accomplished teacher despite teaching at a segregated school with few resources; and Gladys Young, known as the “Harriet Tubman of Montgomery County,” an NAACP leader who campaigned for housing, voting, and employment rights for Black people through organizing voter registration drives and securing home ownership.

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“We don’t feel like that represents our community anymore,” Isabelle Scholes-Young ‘20, a cofounder of Super PAC, told Refinery29 about the name Richard Montgomery. She said the petitioners are hoping for the school board to vote on whether or not to rename the school in the first place, and then, if it votes yes, it will open a committee and solicit community feedback. The committee could still pick a different name from the three suggested, but Scholes-Young said the students tried to offer a mix of people who “represented the community, who were active advocates and passionate leaders.” She added that the decision-making is still in its early stages. “At this point we don’t even know if there will be a vote, although we are hopeful.” 

RM Principal Damon Monteleone said that he will not take an official stance on the name change, but that he is in regular communication with Super PAC and is meeting with Scholes-Young to discuss developments this week. “I absolutely applaud, respect, encourage, and support the initiative and vision for this change,” Monteleone told Refinery29. “But I wouldn’t want my perspective, regardless of where I fall, to influence what the community wants. … I’m a steward of the school. It’s the community’s school.” He added: “The thing I love about this school is that, demographically, it’s a microcosm of the county, and very few schools are that. I’m anticipating an interesting and healthy dialogue that may be a precursor of what occurs in the country.”

Current and former students agree that honoring one of those three women, rather than a slave owner who never even set foot in the county named after him much less made any difference in the local community, would be a step toward progress. “Lillian Brown was my Sunday school teacher. She was a Montgomery County educational icon. My family would be over the moon to have the school named for her,” Kathryn Walters wrote in the comments section of the petition.

RM, which is about 17% Black, is a large suburban school half an hour outside of Washington, D.C., on a huge road called Rockville Pike (or 355), behind a Marlo furniture store and amid scores of strip malls with names like Wintergreen Plaza and Congressional Plaza. (Someone joked on Facebook that it should be renamed Wintergreen Starbucks High School.) Across the Pike is the Catholic graveyard where F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are buried; students sometimes visit after reading The Great Gatsby and lay flowers or books as a tribute. Until 1935, the school was called Rockville High School until it was renamed Richard Montgomery High School to distinguish it from Rockville Colored High School during the segregation era — another point in its history that makes it apparent a name change is necessary.

While the renaming movement feels both overdue and inevitable, it is also meeting resistance. And it doesn’t help that our president is constantly stoking cultural divisions and political tension, calling the words “Black Lives Matter” a “symbol of hate” and discouraging the removal of Confederate monuments. It’s no wonder that amid this political climate, the discussion on the Richard Montgomery High School Alumni Facebook group has gotten heated, with some posts about the name change being deleted or not allowing comments. It’s also no wonder that there are a few very vocal — although occasionally incoherent — voices against the change of the name. Many of them are using the same defense as those who want to keep Confederate statues: It would “erase history.” Never mind the fact that, much in the same way that a lot of those Confederate statues were put up in the 20th century, during other moments of racial tension, the high school’s name has only been in place since the 1930s. Still, over 450 people have signed the petition to keep the name of the school, calling themselves the “silent majority” and decrying the name-change crowd for throwing “temper tantrums” and make them live in a “socialist,” “communist” “dictatorship.” 

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“I am sick of all this stuff!! All lives matter!!!!” Phyllis Winchester commented on the petition. “Ok snowflakes, if you want to do this then you'd better change the name of Montgomery County next!” wrote “Emily S.”

The idea “Emily S.” mentioned is not as absurd as she probably imagines it to be. And, it is exactly the type of big, bold objective that could potentially help transform a lot of communities for the better. “I really do think we have to be open to these ideas,” Dr. Raul Fernandez, the Associate Dean for Equity, Diversity & Inclusion at Boston University's Wheelock College of Education & Human Development, told Refinery29. “Folks on the right talk about the need to not be afraid of ideas, about the importance of the First Amendment, all the time. Well, this is an idea, and there should be an opportunity to debate it. We have to be willing to interrogate systems that are resulting in disproportionately negative outcomes for Black people, for other people of color, for Indigenous people.”

“We are not bound for all eternity to maintain a name or a sculpture,” he added.

To understand why people feel passionate about changing these names, you have to first consider why institutions and landmarks have names in the first place. Generally speaking, it is people with power and privilege who get to name schools, buildings, and streets, explained Dr. Fernandez. These names are not just about “history,” they are honorifics. So why, exactly, are we honoring slave owners on every corner?

Located in a very blue county in a blue state, RM has a liberal, politically active face and prides itself on diversity as much as it does on its signature International Baccalaureate (IB) program, its sports teams, and its drama club. But as we’ve seen lately with many institutions that boast about their diversity and inclusivity, racial inequality is also part of its fabric. Following the stories about racism at many schools and companies around the country, students at RM started the Instagram account @BlackAtRMHS, documenting issues such as that there aren't many Black students in IB, that Black students are disciplined for infractions administrators often overlook with white students, and that the history curriculum is Euro-centric; they also share stories of slurs and microaggressions. 

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Mike Rodgers '02 remembers how hard he and other Black students worked to lobby the school for an African-American History class and finally got one as an elective. Together with another student, he also worked nights and weekends on a Black History Month presentation documenting the rich history of Black music so that it would finally get its moment. For Rodgers and many others, these experiences are part of the same culture that is at best unconcerned about the name Richard Montgomery, and dismantling that culture is a big part of fighting for the name to be changed.

Foretia, now a rising sophomore at Columbia University, said that as a Black student in the IB program, she saw a “culture of toxicity,” elitism, and students not acknowledging their own privilege and then doing things like “casually complaining about affirmative action.” She said one teacher would confuse her with the only other Black girl in the class and the teacher who read her college essays couldn’t remember her name. “It’s just those microaggressions that really add up.”

If we keep the name, we're glorifying a staunch racist — and essentially a well-connected mediocre white man.
mike rodgers, class of 2002

Principal Monteleone said he’s aware of @BlackAtRMHS and has DM’ed them. They subsequently published a letter from the administration that details initiatives the school plans to undertake “to achieve the goal of creating an explicitly anti-racist culture at RMHS.” This includes the development of five anti-racist workgroups, as well as a thorough review of the curriculum and policies.

While she supports changing RM’s name, Foretia said that she hopes the larger, more urgent conversation about structural change doesn’t get lost. She compared the name change to the Black Lives Matter murals being painted on streets recently, such as the one near the White House (criticized because D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser initiated the project but also increased funding for police) and in front of Trump Tower in New York City — which some have labeled performative distractions. “Structural change should not be forgotten and replaced with symbolism,” Foretia said. “As a Black student, I worry that these initiatives will be used as a distraction to obfuscate from deeper issues. Those Black Lives Matter murals? It’s a cultural shift, but it’s not getting to the deep-rooted political and economic changes to make Black lives actually valuable in this country.” 

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Lack of generational wealth, police violence, a high maternal mortality rate, and many other issues affect Black Americans on a daily basis much more than names of schools and streets. Politicians must address these issues seriously rather than focus on cosmetic changes designed to appease people. Still, some people argue that as long as we are working toward larger change, symbolic acts like name changes can and should play a role in the racial justice movement. “You cannot imagine an anti-racist future that at the same time includes racist mascots or the names of Confederate generals and politicians on our buildings and in our public squares,” said Dr. Fernandez. “So at some point, they need to come down. The question is, why not now?”

Now does seem like a good time, given the huge political and activist momentum of the current uprising. It’s been a long time coming, but the larger movement has finally given many people the push to seriously consider that our city, county, and school names are vestiges of a time when it was both legal and socially acceptable to own human beings. By keeping these names intact, we are passively accepting — and mentally sanitizing — all of the brutality that came with owning enslaved people; branding, chains, forcing people to do back-breaking labor, punishing them for running away using the slave patrols that form the roots of today’s police departments. By working to change them, we are actively seeking to build a more just and equitable world. 

Yet some people still have an emotional attachment to these names and claim that we would be “erasing history” by changing them. It’s possible that what they are actually mourning is a perceived loss of their own privilege.

“For some people, the emotions of it overtake the knowledge of how harmful some of these names can be,” Dr. Fernandez said. “I don’t think a lot of people truly care about Robert E. Lee today. But I still think it’s a sense of loss for many of them. That sense of loss is a powerful feeling that can lead to an inability to see beyond their own experience. It could be tied to a larger sense of losing one’s place in society.”

But we should not prioritize the emotions of people who are scared to lose their positions of power over those who are fighting the fact that our schools, cities, and country persist in tacitly celebrating the lives of slaveholders. Besides, it’s hard to argue that many alumni were ever attached to the name “Richard Montgomery” at all.  

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“The older folks are like, ‘Oh, the history, and you're erasing it.’ But if we keep the name, we’re glorifying a staunch racist — and essentially a well-connected mediocre white man,” Rodgers told Refinery29. “[The three Black women] are all really cool options and I’m really proud of our students for starting this. It just shows how different this generation of RMers is from the previous ones.”

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