These Oklahoma City Schools Are Named For Confederate Generals ... Or Are They?

Sep 4, 2017
Originally published on September 5, 2017 12:10 pm

District leaders in the Oklahoma City Public Schools will soon head out into the community to ask this question: Should the four elementary schools they believe are the namesake of Confederate generals be renamed?

The origin of that question goes back several weeks. Right after the violence broke out in Charlottesville, Va., Charles Henry, a school board member in Oklahoma City, voiced his concern about the name of Jackson Elementary, which he says had been bothering him for a while.

Initially he thought the school was named after Andrew Jackson, "which I think is equally offensive, personally. And then I looked it up and it wasn't named after Andrew Jackson. It was named after Stonewall. I researched him, too, and I was like, 'Yeah, that's wrong,' " he says.

Jackson Elementary is on the south side of Oklahoma City and Stonewall Jackson's name is engraved above the door where the school's students, who are a majority black and Hispanic, enter and exit the building. Henry says he doesn't think kids should learn in a place named after a Confederate officer who fought to keep slavery legal.

At that same school board meeting, Henry found out he wasn't alone. School leaders were concerned about the names of other schools in the district: Stand Watie Elementary, named for a Native American Confederate general, Wheeler Elementary and Lee Elementary.

Leaders moved quickly to make an announcement about the names — they wanted the community to help them decided whether to reassign them.

Before long, leaders came to find themselves in an interesting position. City historians turned up at least some evidence to suggest that two of the schools, Wheeler and Lee, might not be named for leaders of the Confederacy after all.

"Wheeler and Lee could be named for very important people in the city's history," says Larry Johnson, whose job is to research Oklahoma City for the local libraries. "And if they are, you don't want to do them a disservice by removing something that honored them."

Wheeler Elementary, originally thought to be named for Joseph Wheeler, may actually be the namesake of a prominent local businessman, James B. Wheeler, whose name is also on Wheeler Park, a popular Oklahoma City attraction not too far from the school.

Lee Elementary will take some more digging, he says. Right now, no one can locate anything that definitively says, " 'We're naming it Robert E. Lee.' "

Across the country, Americans are wrestling with similar realities. That is, faded histories, changed meanings and the question of who decides which monuments of the Confederacy, whether statues or elementary schools, stay or go. In Oklahoma City, does it make sense to change the name of the two schools if there's a chance they're named for local leaders?

"The staff is really passionate to keep it Wheeler," says Deserae Jackson, the principal at Wheeler Elementary. "No one knew who it was named after to begin with and so when I told the staff, everybody was shocked." There are some staff who've been at Wheeler for 30 years, she says, "and nobody had any idea."

The district superintendent, Aurora Lora, says she doesn't want to force a name change on anyone — even for the two schools that they know are named after Confederate generals. That's why the district will go to the community for their input.

But so far the community seems divided. Some say the names should be changed. Others say no one cared until the district began looking into it.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Oklahoma City, public school officials have announced they are looking to change the names of four elementary schools that appeared to be named for Confederate generals only to find that important details about some of those schools are a little murky. Emily Wendler from member station KOSU has the story.

EMILY WENDLER, BYLINE: Jackson Elementary is on the south side of Oklahoma City. And it's named after Stonewall Jackson, a Confederate general during the American Civil War. His name is engraved on the side of the building. And that's always bothered school board member Charles Henry.

CHARLES HENRY: Because, at first, I thought it was Andrew Jackson, which I think is equally offensive, personally. And then I looked it up, and it was named after Stonewall. I researched him, too. And I was like, yeah, that's wrong.

WENDLER: Most of the students at Jackson Elementary are Hispanic and black. And Henry doesn't think they should go to a school named after a Confederate officer who fought to keep slavery legal.

HENRY: Where somebody was fighting for legalized rape, legalized brutality, legalized lynching. That's what slavery means to a lot of people.

WENDLER: Henry says he put the issue on the back burner because there were more immediate school problems to deal with. But then the violence in Charlottesville happened, and he declared his concerns at a board meeting.

District leaders had also learned that three other schools could be named for Confederate generals. And within a few days, the superintendent, Aurora Lora, announced that they were considering changing the names of those four schools.

AURORA LORA: These schools are Jackson, Lee, Stand Watie and Wheeler. And what we want to do is find out if the communities have interest in going forward with the name change.

WENDLER: Looking into the names, though, city historians discovered a problem.

LARRY JOHNSON: Wheeler and Lee could be named for very important people in the city's history.

WENDLER: That's Larry Johnson. His job is to research Oklahoma City for the local libraries.

JOHNSON: And if they are, then you don't want to do them a disservice by removing something that honored them.

WENDLER: Johnson says there's a lot of evidence showing that Wheeler Elementary may not be named for the Confederate army leader Joseph Wheeler, but actually a local businessman from the early 1900s. The namesake for Lee Elementary, he says, is going to take a little more digging. Now Oklahoma City is having to ask itself this question - if there's even a chance that these two schools are named for local leaders, does it make sense to change the names?

DESERAE JACKSON: The staff is really passionate to keep it Wheeler.

WENDLER: Deserae Jackson is the principal at Wheeler Elementary.

JACKSON: No one knew who it was named after to begin with. And so when I told the staff, everybody was shocked. And there's some staff member that's been here for 30 years, and nobody had any idea.

WENDLER: The district superintendent, Aurora Lora, says she doesn't want to force a name change on anyone. I wanted to know how people were feeling about the issue. So I headed out to talk to them.

Alejandra Dehuma is waiting to pick up her younger brother from Stand Watie Elementary, named for a Native American Confederate soldier. I asked her what she thinks about that.

ALEJANDRA DEHUMA: For the kids, it's not really a big deal because they just see it as a school. They go and learn.

WENDLER: And she says it just wasn't really a problem until people started looking into it. Moises Duenas, on the other hand, has no hesitation about changing the name of his daughter's school.

MOISES DUENAS: (Speaking Spanish).

WENDLER: He says, if they don't change them, it's like they're supporting the Confederates racism. That's how Richard Pappan says he feels, too.

RICHARD PAPPAN: It's similar to me. I mean, my experience as a young Native American growing up in a school named Columbus.

WENDLER: What if you didn't know that it was Christopher Columbus, and the district had lost the paperwork or something? Would you still be...

PAPPAN: Oh, they're not sure if it's Robert E. Lee or if it's some other Lee? So, yeah, I guess it could go either way.

WENDLER: District officials are working with local historians to nail that down. But even if they can, it's clear that there will be a lot of conversation and disagreement in the coming months about whether to rename these elementary schools. For NPR News, I'm Emily Wendler in Oklahoma City.

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