Cleveland's Louis Agassiz School students learn about history and racism in forum on renaming school

This was the second of four meetings held at Louis Agassiz School. [Gabriel Kramer / Ideastream Public Media]
This was the second of four meetings held at Louis Agassiz School. [Gabriel Kramer / Ideastream Public Media]
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Louis Agazzis School in Cleveland is named for a 19th-century scientist who believed in polygenism, the discredited theory that different races are different species. Because of that, the school, along with three others, are being targeted for a name change by the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

The district held the first of three public forums Wednesday evening at the school on Cleveland's West Side. Their aim was to solicit feedback about the name and discuss criteria for a new name. 

Dr. Trent Mosley, CMSD’s Chief Strategic Implementation Officer, led the meeting. He said his office will share the feedback with the CMSD Board of Education, which must sign off on school names. The CMSD website states that the board "will not consider the names of persons who have a documented history of enslaving other humans, or have actively participating in the institution of slavery, systemic racism, the oppression (the inequitable use of authority, law, or physical force to prevent others from being free or equal) of people of color, women, or other minority groups, or who have been a member of a supremist organization."

Mosley said hearing from the school community was crucial.

“What’s important is that we’re being thoughtful about getting the input from all stakeholders — community members, parents, students, faculty, anybody that’s tied to any specific community of Louis Agassiz, we ask them to be here to help drive that conversation,” Mosley said.

Wednesday's meeting started with Mosely reviewing suggested names from a working group session last week. Suggestions included former U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes and Cleveland baseball Legend Larry Doby, the first Black player in the American League.

Attendees then filled out a from ranking the suggestions and had the chance to suggest other names. This process will be repeated at the next two meetings. Each of the schools involved in the name-change process will have three public forums for stakeholder input.

Sample form to suggest a new school name. [Gabriel Kramer / Ideastream Public Media]

CMSD released a list of school naming criteria in September.

About two dozen people attended the session Wednesday, most of them students.

“They are what’s possible. They create change,” Mosley said. “This is just one step in that direction where you can visibly see that they’re part of the change movement and they’re leading it. We’re just facilitators.”

Louis Agassiz School students submit forms ranking suggested new school names. [Gabriel Kramer / Ideastream Public Media]

Louis Agassiz School principal Angela Boie said the re-naming process is a good opportunity for students to learn about the full history of the school's namesake, and the process of changing a school’s name.

“I’m very proud of the kids. They’re very interested. They have a lot of enthusiasm and ideas,” Boie said.

Agassiz, a 19th century biologist and geologist, held several posts at Harvard University, including dean of the Lawrence Scientific School, the predecessor to the university’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He also founded Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

He also was a proponent of polygenism – the discredited theory that races come from different species. 

Agassiz used racist reasoning to support polygenism and he argued that non-white people were inferior to white people.

Historians suggest that Agassiz’s work was often used by racial purists to support white supremacist ideals.

Meetings at Louis Agassiz School and three the other schools whose names have been identified as problematic will be continue through March. 23. The other schools are Albert Bushnell Hart and Patrick Henry elementary schools and Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy.

Cleveland City Council has urged the district to the change the names of of all four schools.

Hart believed Blacks were an inferior race and that mixing of races would lead to the delince of civilization. Henry and Jefferson, both founding fathers, were slaveholders.

A Chicago school named after Agassiz changed its name to Harriet Tubman Elementary last year.

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