Latinx activists in an Illinois town oppose renaming Thomas Jefferson Middle School after the Obamas
Residents of one Chicago suburb are divided over how to rechristen a school named for a founding father who enslaved hundreds of Black people.
A majority of residents in Waukegan say they don’t want the district’s Thomas Jefferson Middle School to keep its name. But they haven’t yet been able to agree on someone else to name the school after.
One leading contender is Barack and Michelle Obama Middle School. For some in the community, though, that alternative doesn’t work either.
Several Latinx activists and community members in Waukegan, Illinois, voiced their opposition to the proposal at a school board meeting on Tuesday, pointing to the former President’s record on deportations.
“I want to urge the school board to drop the names of Barack and Michelle Obama from consideration,” said Oscar Arias, a Waukegan native and graduate of the district’s schools. “Barack Obama’s presidency was filled with hostility against the immigrant community.”
The other two options before the community are John Lewis Middle School and Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez Middle School. School officials are also aiming to rename Daniel Webster Middle School.
Latinos make up a majority of the student body
During his tenure, Obama developed a reputation among immigration advocacy groups as the “deporter-in-chief” — a label also deployed by demonstrators at the recent school board meeting. While Obama’s record on immigration is complicated, millions of people were indeed removed from the US under his administration.
About 78% of the students in Waukegan Public Schools are Hispanic or Latino, as are about 55% of Waukegan residents. About 30% of the city’s population is foreign-born, Census data shows.
Those who oppose naming the school after the Obamas said the former President’s actions had personally affected families in Waukegan, and the name would conjure up painful memories for some in the community.
“We feel that Barack Obama disserviced us. He denied us. And he didn’t stop the deportations the way he promised us,” said local activist Julie Contreras at a protest outside the meeting’s doors.
She continued, “If you’re removing the name of Thomas Jefferson, one oppressor, the name of Obama is another oppressor. And our families do not want to see that name.”
Some community members who spoke at the meeting recommended that the board instead select John Lewis.
“As a famous congressman and civil rights activist who marched alongside Dr. King, John Lewis is a much better representation for the community and truly embodies the progressive and multicultural spirit of Waukegan,” said Arias.
Wygenia Brisco said that as an African American, she supported naming the school for the late civil rights icon, too.
“I think if we take a look at what he stood for, as far as the true meaning of what he stood for, to me it’s appropriate to name the school after him,” she said.
The board will vote on the name next month
The Waukegan board of education began to consider name changes for two district schools after George Floyd’s death while under arrest by Minnesota police last year, says board president Brandon Ewing.
A group of students and community members presented a petition to the board last summer to rename Thomas Jefferson Middle School, and the board decided in November to consider name changes for that school and also for Daniel Webster Middle School, Ewing told CNN. Webster, a congressman and senator who became secretary of state in 1850, was complicit in allowing the institution of slavery to continue in the South.
Committees for each school solicited new name suggestions from the community and eventually narrowed a list of 300 names down to six. Students, parents and staff at the schools voted on those options and narrowed it down to three choices.
The three proposed namesakes for Daniel Webster Middle School are Edith Smith, who fought to desegregate Waukegan schools; Katherine Johnson, the famed NASA mathematician; and Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman in space.
The Waukegan board of education will officially decide whether to rename the two middle schools at its next meeting on April 13. If it chooses to move forward, the board will then vote on the proposed options and the first moniker to receive four votes will be the new name, said Ewing.
“Even though there’s some differences with one of the names, I think the community should be proud of the work that was done and the thought and care that went into this process,” Ewing said.