Last year, Education Week found 180 schools that are named for figures from the Confederacy. These schools and other public structures honoring Confederates have become part of heated debates in recent years about how the Civil War and the nation’s history of racism should be remembered. But the arguments, and the difficulties, do not stop with those buildings.
In a new reporting project, Corey Mitchell and I look at schools named after post-Civil War politicians who opposed the desegregation of public schools and civil rights for black citizens in general. For his story, Corey visited a school named after Strom Thurmond, the longtime U.S. senator from South Carolina who made the defense of segregation a key part of his political legacy. In addition, I wrote an overview of these schools and shared various perspectives about the politicians they commemorate.
The project focuses mainly—though not exclusively—on U.S. lawmakers who signed what’s known as the Southern Manifesto in 1956. They wrote and signed the document in opposition to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling from the Supreme Court that outlawed the de jure racial segregation of public schools. Broadly speaking, many powerful politicians upheld segregation and anti-black racism in the decades after the Civil War. We chose to highlight the manifesto’s signers because the document, published more than 90 years after the end of the Civil War, dealt specifically with Brown, race, and public education.
Compared to the number of schools we located last year that are named after figures from the Confederacy, the number of schools named after Southern Manifesto signers appears to be relatively small. They commemorate politicians like Allen J. Ellender, Bob Jones, and Richard Russell—some of them are better known than others. But some of the same issues arise around both types of schools. Schools that commemorate men like Thurmond tend to excite less debate than buildings named for Confederates, although they have occasionally spurred local disagreements.
And in Thurmond’s case, there’s a South Carolina statute forbidding officials from changing the name of Strom Thurmond High School. Who signed this prohibition into law? Former South Carolina Gov. Richard Riley, a Democrat who went on to serve as President Bill Clinton’s education secretary.
Thurmond was a “master of constituent service” who also did not recant his support for segregation and resistance to civil rights the way other politicians did in subsequent decades, Kevin Kruse, a Princeton University professor of history, told me. Other lawmakers have different post-manifesto records on relevant issues, as in the case of J. William Fulbright, a Democrat and U.S. senator from Arkansas. Many of these politicians, like Fulbright, made their mark in fields such as foreign policy and investigations into organized crime that aren’t directly related to their views and actions on race.
Tom Gentzel, the executive director and CEO of the National School Boards Association, said he’s talked occasionally with local school board members about this general issue of controversial school names. He said it’s important for local leaders to prioritize a community’s interest, but also be sensitive to the fact that there often isn’t just a single interest in a community.
“This is sort of the essence of local decision-making. This is why we elect local officials,” Gentzel said. “What’s healthy about our process is that we are willing to revisit those decisions.”
It can be difficult to declare where the clear lines are around this issue. Ansley Erickson, an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, pointed me to an anecdote from her book on desegregation about the construction of what became McGavock High School in Nashville—the school is named for a slave-owning family that used to own a 1,100-acre plantation in the area. When officials were evaluating the construction site, an administrator asked a surveyor to check “to see if there are any bad sinkholes or good n----rs buried there.” The surveyor replied, “All clear.”
“Equivalent stories are probably all over the South. They sometimes intersect with famous people’s stories. But more quietly, I think they are all over the South,” Erickson said. “They’re just part of the local landscape.”
Photo: The entrance to Strom Thurmond High School in Johnston, S.C. (Gerry Melendez/Education Week)