No longer memorializing problematic figures, some Madison schools rename for better symbolism

No longer memorializing problematic figures, some Madison schools rename for better symbolism

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson are two of the most well-known U.S. presidents and Founding Fathers. Often memorialized for their revolutionary principles, ideas and contributions to American democracy, they have had countless towns and cities named after them, including Madison, Wisconsin’s capital city. 

Buildings, counties, streets, parks, statues, hospitals, hotels, libraries, artwork, schools and universities have been named after them as well.

But both of these men also owned slaves, and in recent years, the commemoration and celebration of these historical figures has been challenged by many, including students and community leaders in Madison. 

Vel Phillips Memorial High School, Madison. Photo provided by Madison Metropolitan School District.

In September, Thomas Jefferson Middle School on Madison’s west side officially became Ezekiel Gillespie Middle School. This is the most recent of four school name changes that have occurred in the Madison Metropolitan School District since 2020. 

Led by students, staff, community members and ad hoc committees, these changes have swapped out the remembrance of slave owners for the names of diverse activists, trailblazers and leaders at both the state and local level. These efforts are part of a trend that can be seen nationwide that aims to correct past harm while improving representation for children who want to see themselves reflected in their schools.

According to Soly Rodriguez, co-chair of the citizens’ ad hoc committee that pushed for the change at Gillespie Middle, the idea for a new name began when a student voiced that they did not feel comfortable in a school named after a slave owner, especially one who had fathered children with a woman he had enslaved. Rodriguez said the murder of George Floyd in 2020 opened more people’s eyes to the need for change. 

Gillespie, who lived from 1818 to 1892, was an African American civil rights and community leader who won a landmark case that secured voting rights for Black men in Wisconsin. 

“Especially for our students of color…when they see Ezekiel Gillespie’s picture, they see themselves,” Rodriguez said. “They get to see themselves in somebody that did something great for this nation, and did something great for them.” 

Barbara Osborn, secretary to the Board of Education who oversaw all four of the district’s school name changes, said the renaming processes have been open to the public for feedback, suggestions and criticism in an effort to involve the community as much as possible. 

“As far as input, the Madison community is very outspoken, and they don’t have any problems with letting you know exactly what they think,” Osborn said. “And that’s why our process is so public and takes a while.” 

Gillespie Middle’s official renaming process took one year and didn’t come without criticism and pushback from the community. 

A program from the renaming ceremony at Ezekiel Gillespie Middle School this September. Photo provided by Madison Metropolitan School District.

In emails and feedback submitted by members of the public following the proposal, some argued that renaming would be useless and there were “more important issues to address” in the school community. Others said the name should be kept “to honor one of our greatest presidents.” Another said, “if we denigrate the authors of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, their words will be forgotten.” One said there are effective ways to teach Jefferson’s problematic history to the students, “instead of just changing the name and feeling smug.” 

But according to Rodriguez, there was also significant support for the change, especially within the school itself. 

“Yes, there were some teachers that didn’t agree to it, but there were so many that did,” Rodriguez said. “That motivated us, and it made us feel so good that we were doing something good for our community and for students to come.” 

In 2021, not long before the renaming process of Gillespie Middle began, the Board of Education voted for James Madison Memorial High School to be renamed Vel Phillips Memorial. Phillips, who died in 2018, was a civil rights leader who became the first Black judge in Wisconsin and was the first female and African American to serve as Wisconsin Secretary of State. 

According to Julian Walters, an alumnus of Memorial High who was chair of the renaming committee, the inspiration for the change again came from a student who raised concerns about the memorialization of James Madison and the message it was sending to students of color. 

“There was definitely pushback, and there were actually some good concerns raised,” Walters said. “They asked if we change this, then are we going to change everything? The city of Madison is named after James Madison.” 

Walters said some community members accused them of being too “woke” and “overly liberal” in a society that is growing “soft.” But much like the renaming of Gillespie Middle, the change was still received well by many. 

Walters went on to be the keynote speaker for the first graduating class of Vel Phillips Memorial. He saw firsthand how much pride the students took in the new name. 

“Some of those students who shook my hand were super appreciative of the name change and how it makes them feel,” Walters said. “They feel confident and seen and recognized with the name change, so that was cool to hear direct feedback from those who walked those halls.” 

According to Osborn, there are five or six more renaming proposals on the Board of Education’s waitlist right now. But these name changes are not only picking up within their own district. Osborn said she can already foresee surrounding school communities using the Madison Metropolitan School District as a model for their own renaming efforts. 

 

Ezekiel Gillespie Middle School, Madison. Photo provided by Madison Metropolitan School District.
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