Daughter and mother spark change in Mississippi school’s name: the president of the Confederacy’s out and Barack Obama’s in

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Ercilla Hendrix and daughter Farah Jaentschke

By David Sheridan

Should Americans continue to honor in our public places people who fought to perpetuate human slavery?

That’s the question bedeviling communities from Columbia, S.C. to Charlottesville, VA.

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But the parents, educators and supporters of Davis Magnet School in Jackson, Mississippi had no trouble deciding to no longer honor Jefferson Davis, a man who once declared “the negro to be inferior and fitted expressly for servitude.” Ninety-Seven percent of the students in Davis Magnet (K-5) are African American, and they are among the highest achieving students in the state.

It was a school community decision, and when it came to coming up with a new name for the school, the Davis Magnet community created a process that was a lesson in democracy—one in which the students played a decisive role.

Here is how it happened.

Four years ago, Farah Jaentschke, then a student at Davis Magnet, chose to read a biography of Jefferson Davis to fulfill a summer reading requirement. After she finished reading the book, it dawned on Farah that her school was named after this guy. She went to her mother, Ercilla Hendrix, and said, “That doesn’t seem right. How can we get the name changed? I just don’t feel like that’s the right name for our school.”

So her mother encouraged Farah to write a letter to the school’s principal, which she did. But the issue faded when Farah left Davis Magnet for middle school.

Jefferson Davis

Fast forward to the summer of 2017. After reading about the protests around the country demanding removal of Confederate monuments, Ercilla Hendrix remembered Farah’s letter, and she sprang into action. She went to the Davis Magnet PTA and proposed changing the name of the school.

“Our PTA meetings are standing room only and people are very engaged,” said Ercilla Hendrix. “They were very supportive. Then, we petitioned the school board and they enthusiastically agreed. Clearly, the time was ripe for change.”

Then the PTA asked students to submit suggestion for new names, with research supporting their picks. Each classroom voted on the nominees and elected a representative to advocate for its selection at a school-wide assembly. After that assembly, students filled out paper ballots. Parents and other community members received ballots in the mail. Fourth and fifth graders helped oversee the vote.

As school principal Kathleen Grigsby told the New York Times; “We mirrored the national, state and local election process as closely as we could. The students got a civics lesson in what it means to be able to vote.”

And the students voted overwhelmingly to name the school after Barack Obama. “Our students are very proud of our first Black President,” said Ercilla Hendrix, who is the wife of Tyrone Hendrix, the Executive Director of the Mississippi Association of Educators.

“Now we are working hard to see if we can get President Obama to join us at the beginning of next school year when the name is officially changed,” said Ercilla Hendrix. “That would be wonderful!”

There are still more than a hundred schools across the country named after Confederate leaders, and over a quarter of those have predominately African American student bodies. For more resources about monuments, buildings and symbols honoring Confederates, click here.

Reader Comments

  1. I LOVE the collaboration between students, PTA, school and school board in this example! This is family and community engagement at it’s finest. No wonder the students are so successful there. The comment about standing room only at the PTA meetings, warmed my heart. When families are engaged as part of the team in their children’s schools, almost every measurable outcome is elevated. I want to know more about how that partnership developed and became so successful. Makes me so happy!

  2. Excellent example of a “teachable moment.” Students learn through relevant examples that occur, relate and affect their daily lives. What better example a student researching the background and beliefs of the individual after which their school is named. Namely, Jefferson Davis, a historical figure who is a complete anathema of what our republic is supposed to represent!

    Bravo Ms.Jaentschke and Ms. Hendrix for your persistence and your efforts. I concur that President Obama, is representative of the best examples of intelligence, compassion, diligence and genuine character that your former
    school can now proudly carry as it’s namesake.

    J.Tulchinsky -School Counselor

  3. As a nation, it’s take so long for us to abandon bigotry and embrace all races and ethnic groups. Now, our job is to keep moving forward to obliterating racism and ethnic hatred — we owe that to all our children!

  4. I think this is just great! As a retired teacher I think it’s just wonderful to see the process at work and more representative of the students!

  5. How do you learn from history if you continue to erase history! This is not a good idea ok honestly because now everybody will change a name when it appears inappropriate.

    1. If it’s that inappropriate it should be changed. Kids grow up thinkings that schools and other public buildings are named after people who should be admired, and honored by having their names used in this way. When a school is named after someone who is not revered, it sends the wrong message.

    2. Changing a school’s name is not “erasing history.” You can still find out all about Jefferson Davis, regardless of whether his name is plastered on buildings. And if a name is inappropriate, and not consistent with the values of the school, why keep it? More names should be changed, and people whose values are consistent with the values schools hope to promote should be honored. Not racist, slave-holding traitors to the Republic.

    3. They are just making new history, not erasing the old. They will never forget this accomplishment and the history involved to make it. You can’t erase history.

    4. The name Jefferson Davis may “appear” racist to you John Doe, but to the majority of students and parents of Jefferson Davis school its’ current name IS racist. L. Jackson , retired teacher.

    5. We learn from History that we have the power to repeal and replace bad laws, and racial segregation is a hideously bad law that disgraced this nation for far too long. Replacing hateful racial epithets with kind, welcoming words is the right thing to do!!

    6. The goal of thinking people is not to “erase history” — it’s to change the status quo so that Americans of all races and creeds will be accepted and welcomed by all.

  6. Well, with involvement like that, maybe all is not lost! What a wonderful lesson for the students; an thank you for not referring to the students as ‘kids’ [I have been frustrated by the use of that word for nearly 20 years. As a teacher of young children starting in the fifties, I was taught that it was incorrect to refer to my students as ‘kids’ .

    I hope your actions spread to the other states that honor these men who not only held Black people as inferior, but also some of them ‘used’ the women.

    Thank you for taking this stand.

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