Montgomery Public Schools in Alabama’s capital city paid a $50,000 fine to remove names of Confederate leaders from two of its high schools, where the student body is more than 80 percent Black.
The school board initially voted in summer 2020 to change the names of two schools—one named after Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general during the Civil War, and another named for Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy from 1861 to 1865. The vote came after a statue of Lee outside his namesake high school was damaged by protesters who were demonstrating against the use of Confederate names on public school buildings and other racial inequities.
This month, the name changes went into effect.
But a 2017 Alabama law requires districts or local governments to pay a fine for changing the name of “historically significant” buildings or roads.
Each name change incurs a $25,000 fine, according to the law. When the name changes were finalized, Montgomery Superintendent Melvin Brown received an email from Alabama’s attorney general notifying him of the owed amount and asking if he had any questions.
“We do not have any questions at this time as we fully understand and accept the penalty for said action in providing for safe, inclusive, and accepting environments for our students,” Brown responded, according to a copy of the email text he sent EdWeek.
The district has received donations to cover the amount of the fine already, Brown said.
The two schools will be renamed for civil rights leaders
Montgomery was the birthplace of the civil rights movement, starting with the Montgomery bus boycott that lasted from December 1955 to December 1956. The bus boycott is regarded as the first large-scale protest against segregation.
The bus boycott started when Rosa Parks was arrested for her refusal to give up a seat for white passengers on a segregated bus in 1955. That sparked a boycott of public transportation in Montgomery which ended when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Montgomery’s segregated buses were unconstitutional. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the president of the organization that coordinated the boycott, called the Montgomery Improvement Association.
In recognition of that rich history, the two schools have been renamed for civil rights leaders from Montgomery.
Lee is now Dr. Percy Julian High School for a civil rights leader and chemistry researcher born in Montgomery, who pioneered the synthesis of medical drugs from plants.
Davis is now JAG High School, representing three figures of the civil rights movement: Judge Frank Johnson, a white federal district judge who ruled in favor of Parks and was the first to declare Montgomery’s segregated buses as unconstitutional; the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, who collaborated with Martin Luther King, Jr. to establish the Montgomery Improvement Association; and the Rev. Robert Graetz, a white pastor with a Black congregation who supported the bus boycott.
The schools’ orginal names when they were built in the 50s and 60s were intentional and made a statement, Superintendent Brown said. Lee High School was named directly after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which desegregated schools nationwide, the superintendent said, and Davis was named in 1968, after school integration was enforced.
“Some communities are going to continue to be attached to those names because they think that, by taking names down, that you’re erasing history, which is asinine to me,” Brown said.
“I don’t really understand that,” he continued. “The history still exists about those people but removing a name from a building doesn’t impact that goal.”
Changing school names of Confederate-named buildings in Alabama is complicated
Alabama is one of two states—the other is South Carolina—where districts face major barriers to changing the names of buildings or monuments named after Confederate leaders.
The 2017 Alabama Memorial Preservation Act directs local governments to obtain state permission before renaming historically significant buildings, or monuments that date back more than 40 years. Every name change costs $25,000 without a waiver from the state, which Montgomery Schools did not get.
Alabama still has 30 schools named after Confederate leaders, even after Montgomery Public Schools decided to change its two school names. That is the third highest of any state. Texas has 82 schools named after people associated with the Confederacy, and Georgia has 61, according to an Education Week database that tracks Confederate-named schools nationwide.
Since June 2020, 53 schools have made similar name changes to schools, although there are still approximately 340 schools in 20 states named after Confederate figures.
“I’m hoping that because we were able to pay it, maybe someone else won’t have to,” Brown said about the fine. “I’m hoping they realize that funds that could help schools are paying for ... legacy oppression and non-inclusion.”
Brown said he hopes that Montgomery’s example will start gathering enough public support against the law that politicians take notice.
“And despite any people that might contest that change, I’m proud of the board for taking that act,” he said. “And I was proud to go forth and make it come to fruition.”
Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.