St. Paul’s Monroe High considers name change
By Josh Verges / St. Paul Pioneer Press on May 17, 2018
St.PAUL—Plans to scrub a slave-owning U.S. president’s name from two school buildings here have rankled alumni of the former Monroe High School.
The old high school is one of two campuses of the K-8 Linwood-Monroe Arts Plus, with buildings in the Summit Hill and West Seventh neighborhoods.
Its namesake, James Monroe, was the fifth U.S. president, one of 12 to own slaves during his lifetime and one of eight to do so while in office.
“It’s a critically important issue that James Monroe was a slave owner, and that doesn’t reflect the kids that go to Linwood-Monroe in the slightest,” parent-teacher organization president Jason Johnson said in an interview.
Thirty percent of the dual-campus school’s students are African-American and about as many are white.
Amid national discussions about monuments and namesakes for public institutions, a Linwood-Monroe parent brought concerns to the PTO about the Monroe name, Principal Bryan Bass said. The PTO agreed the name should go and so did the school’s leadership team.
The timing made sense as both campuses were undergoing major construction projects, which will realign the grade levels next year. Johnson said there’s a desire to find a name that better reflects the school’s arts mission, instructional values and student diversity.
“It’s a convenient time to address how we might become a single school with a shared identity,” he said.
Bass said students are having classroom discussions about slave-owning presidents and name changes and are brainstorming new names for the school.
Board procedures call for extensive community input before the board votes on a name change. Bass said they are meeting with neighborhood groups and alumni, adding it’s unlikely a new name would be in place for the upcoming school year.
Al Hanzal, who graduated from Monroe High in 1960, caught wind of the name-change talk a couple of weeks ago. His online petition to block a name change is approaching 100 signatures.
“Erasing history is not a good way of teaching people about both the good and the bad,” he said.
Monroe in context
Scott Harris is executive director of the University of Mary Washington Museums, which include the James Monroe Museum and Library, in Fredericksburg, Va.
He said that like many of his time, Monroe acknowledged the humanity of African-Americans and that slavery was fundamentally wrong, yet he owned dozens of slaves and did not work toward an alternative.
“Monroe was born into a society and a culture that included slave ownership. He himself was an owner, a buyer and a seller,” Harris said in an interview.
Similarly, Monroe as president oversaw the expansion of white settlement that pushed American Indians farther west.
Monroe also supported the American Colonization Society, whose goal was to relocate freed slaves to Africa — specifically to what became the country of Liberia, whose capital city Monrovia is named for the president.
“He didn’t believe that African-Americans who were freed would find a comfortable or harmonious place in an overwhelmingly white society,” Harris said.
Monroe is best known for negotiating the Louisiana Purchase long before he became president and for the enduring Monroe Doctrine, which warned European nations against colonizing the Americas.
Does Harris think Monroe’s name belongs on public buildings?
“I hate to see the recognition of a positive legacy lost because of the association with a negative legacy,” he said, adding that as a white male he can’t relate to the issue the same way as people of color or descendants of slaves.
The school district’s last major name change, in 2009, dropped an elementary school’s (Daniel) Webster for Barack and Michelle Obama.
Students since have called out middle-school namesake Gov. Alexander Ramsey for advocating the extermination of Native Americans, and two community members have encouraged the school board to drop Warren Harding — whom historians rate among the worst presidents in history — from the East Side high school.
Neither suggestion begat a formal proposal from the school, although the Minneapolis district last year dropped its Ramsey name for retired state Supreme Court Justice Alan Page.
Monroe’s legacy as a slave-owning president is not unique in the school district. A high school is named for George Washington and an elementary school for Andrew Jackson.
Nationwide, there are 35 school districts and about 125 individual schools bearing the Monroe name, according to U.S. Department of Education data, although not all were named for the fifth president.
In Minnesota, the Mankato and Anoka-Hennepin districts have schools named for Monroe.