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.
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.