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What’s in a name? For Minnesotans confronting the legacy of racism, a lot

Thursday evening’s “Monumental Conversations: Lessons from Charlottesville” event at the Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota had already yielded many nuggets of wisdom, hope, knowledge and truth from a panel of academics and students who’d gathered to rip scabs off the scars of racism. But two hours in, everything went up another level when Janaan Ahmed leaned into the microphone.

What happened next gave everyone in the room chills, and drew the night’s lone long round of applause.

Patrick Henry High School junior Janaan Ahmed
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Patrick Henry High School junior Janaan Ahmed
A junior at Patrick Henry High School in North Minneapolis, Ahmed has led the most recent charge to change the name from the school’s current slaveholder and segregationist namesake, but the opposition has been too strong from Henry alums, some of whom come to meetings and put their fingers in their ears to shut out recitations of the true history of Henry’s legacy. After a long and serious discussion about racism, white supremacy and the genocides that America’s foundations are built on, mediator/moderator Kelly Wilder asked the panel how we the people go about changing hearts and souls. Ahmed, flanked by two academics from Charlottesville, spoke from her heart and soul.

“When we first started this campaign, it was the end of the school year, [my] freshman year, and I saw a poster on the wall that said ‘Change The Name,’” said Ahmed, surrounded by a roomful of change-makers who have borne witness to the end of racist statues and monuments in Virginia, and in the renamings and would-be renamings of Bde Maka Ska (formerly named for John C. Calhoun), Justice Page Middle School (formerly named for Alexander Ramsey) and Coffman Union (named for Lotus Coffman) in Minnesota.

“It had a little brief history of who Patrick Henry was, and I hadn’t known who Patrick Henry was. I’m walking into this facility of education every day not knowing who this person is, but every time I fill out an application, every time I let someone know what school I attend, I always say ‘Patrick Henry,’ but I could not name one thing Patrick Henry did, except that he did something for our country.

“So you being a student of color and a student whose history is only told in one chapter in our history books, and the title is just ‘Slavery,’ it hurts, knowing that you come to school to learn every single day and your history is being denied. Walking into a school every single day, eight hours a day, five days a week, knowing that the history’s not being told as complete. It’s heartbreaking. It’s a wide circle of trauma.

“Patrick Henry was a slave owner, and slavery is inhumane no matter how long ago or how current it has been occurring, and I think it’s important for us to analyze our history as corrupt and inaccurate. We’re trying to change the name to something that better represents the community, the students, our visions, our missions, because I think a person who was a lawyer and governor of Virginia whose whole role in the slave trade and slave system outweighs what he did good for our country.

“I’ve actually seen people cover their ears, 50-years-old-plus, while me, 16 years old, is speaking. That just goes to show the ignorance that people want to hold on to rather than the humanity that they would rather grasp. It is very frustrating seeing grown folks covering their ears while you’re speaking, and you invited them to the school you attend that they attended 30 years ago.

“For me, I think the name change last year, as a sophomore, it really hit and touched my own mind and soul first. Last year, I was giving a presentation for the name change and afterwards a senior came up to me and said, ‘Oh my goodness, Janann’ — she remembered my name, and how I presented myself — ‘When you were speaking, I got chills. It’s outrageous that we have to continue to come to a school and not learn our whole history.’

“So knowing that I inspired not only myself but my peers to make a change is empowering, and I think the name change is so important because at our school, the majority is people of color. So you have black students walking into a school and an institution named after their oppressor, someone who could have oppressed my own ancestors, human beings chained up and named as property, as cattle. The historical trauma that we have to face every single day on a daily basis is outrageous and something needs to be done and we start with the name change. So that’s what we’re doing for souls, and minds, and bodies.”

“Lessons From Charlottesville” panelists
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
“Lessons From Charlottesville” panelists, from left: Dr. Frank Dukes, Janaan Ahmed, Dr. Selena Cozart, Hawa Ibrahim, E’Rayah Shaw, Dr. Mattie Harper, Peter DeCarlo, Kelly Wilder.
Presented by the 35-year-old New Hope-based non-profit Community Mediation & Restorative Services, Inc., the “Lessons Of Charlottesville” seminar felt monumental, indeed, given the news cycle of the day. No better time than the present to confront racism in America, and to somehow come to grips with the lessons learned from last August’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, which left Heather Heyer dead and a nation wondering if the melting pot had finally calcified.

“I think there are a lot of spaces where public history is told and it continues to reinforce white supremacy in many ways and indigenous stories are marginalized,” said Dr. Mattie Harper of the Minnesota Historical Society, who co-authored a piece for MinnPost with fellow historian and panelist Peter DeCarlo about the wayward Christopher Columbus statue on the Minnesota state capitol grounds. “I think it’s important to think about: Why is that monument still there? Why is it uncontested? Why do we just accept the perpetuation of these statues and monuments that reinforce this idea that Native Americans were savages and progress came with Columbus and other Euro-Americans?”

Thankfully, something like healing was offered Thursday — a day in America when four more white supremacists were arrested on riot charges in Charlottesville; pipe bombs were delivered to Trump critics on the East and West coasts and a race-related murder took place in Louisville, Kentucky.

Nikil Badey and Natasha Sohni
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Coffman Union name-change proponents Nikil Badey and Natasha Sohni
“We are two of many who authored the legislation for renaming Coffman Memorial Union,” said University of Minnesota student Nikil Badey. “With the papers that have been uncovered with a lot of the racism that the institution has had, as well as just history that’s just been swept under the rug, it’s really [an action] to see that this history is there and that this history has to be accepted. It’s a taint, yes, but we should also acknowledge that Dr. Coffman developed our student union. That is to be acknowledged, but at the same time our student union is home to many different cultures, many different ethnicities, many different identities. It’s a statement of ‘we all belong here,’ which he was against, so commemorating a space under his name is not something we should be engaging in as a public land-grant university of Minnesota.”

“We authored the Rename Coffman resolution that took place last year after we had seen the [“A Campus Divided”] exhibit in Anderson Hall,” said University of Minnesota student Natasha Sohni. “Along with Coffman, it showed a lot of the other problematic folks who have been leaders at this university and the things that they have done. Through his practices of surveying students and segregating housing, along with what a lot of other universities are doing across the country and renaming their buildings, we thought it would be best to promote the inclusivity that the University Of Minnesota strives to communicate to prospective students.”

Justice Page Middle School students E’Rayah Shaw and Hawa Ibrahim
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Justice Page Middle School students E’Rayah Shaw and Hawa Ibrahim
“We changed our school’s name from Alexander Ramsey Middle School to Justice Page Middle School,” said Hawa Ibrahim, a student at Justice Page Middle School. “Patrick Henry is trying to change their name, too, and after they were denied, I believe that everyone has the right to change their name. At our school, a student brought up the idea of changing it, the school took it under consideration and taught it in classes, and we were helped to change the name. I feel like Ramsey’s name was made into a patriotic name, but after all the horrible things he’s done, he doesn’t need to be held up. Yes, he was the first governor of Minnesota, and that’s an important part of our history, but he has to be held accountable for the things he’s done.”

“I think it’s great that it was a student-led process and that we’re named for [Alan] Page,” said E’Rayah Shaw, a student at Justice Page Middle School. “He’s still alive, he’s a Supreme Court justice, he played for the Vikings, number ‘88’, he comes to our school every Friday, and I feel like it’s way better and the community’s way happier.”

Minnesota Historical Society historian and author Peter DeCarlo
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Minnesota Historical Society historian and author Peter DeCarlo
“The difference between ‘Fort Snelling’ and ‘Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote’ is big,” said Peter DeCarlo, a historian with the Minnesota Historical Society and author of  “Fort Snelling at Bdote.” “The purpose of the book was to bring different historical narratives together and tell a broader history and bring multiple perspectives to the history of the site. So [Fort Snelling] has normally only told the military history, and predominantly white people, and the site when we think about it beyond the walls of the historic fort, it’s really the history of that whole space. Calling it ‘Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote’ — that word, ‘bdote,’ is a Dakota word, and it refers to the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, which come together right at the base of the fort, and that space is a sacred space for many Dakota people. It’s a place of creation, so we try to tell all that history at the site.”

Dr. Frank Dukes
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Dr. Frank Dukes
“Don’t be like us, don’t be Charlottesville. Charlottesville is a cautionary tale,” said Dr. Frank Dukes, a teacher and lecturer on race, equity, and problem-solving from the University of Virginia, who led Thursday’s seminar. His presentation traced the history of white supremacy in Virginia, and he talked passionately about why dishonoring some of his home state’s past is necessary for reparations.

“Communities that don’t pay attention to their past, to the harms of their past and the way that they’re represented and taught and enacted in racial disparities and other things aren’t going to be as whole and as resilient, and I think Charlottesville is an example of that. We did not do the work of ever acknowledging our legacy of slavery and segregation and discrimination, and the impacts that continue today. We have very deep racial divisions and disparities, so when we started to do some of that work and the white supremacists and white terrorists came and attacked and murder and injuries and so forth… we’re not recovering from it very well. So I don’t know that there’s been much healing. As a community, we’re having a very hard time talking to each other.”

Janaan Ahmed, Dr. Selena Cozart, Hawa Ibrahim
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Janaan Ahmed, Dr. Selena Cozart, Hawa Ibrahim
“People have to acknowledge what they’re actually afraid of,” said Dr. Selena Cozart, of the University of Virginia. “It’s really easy to point the finger and say, ‘Something’s happening over there and it makes me afraid.’ Well, everybody doesn’t look at that and feel the same fear. So it leaves you, as people who have identified as white, feeling like these are turbulent times. Why is inclusion ‘turbulent’? That’s a question that only an individual can answer, or a community can answer, because that’s internal.”

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/26/2018 - 03:45 pm.

    The article didn’t fully explain the objections to “Coffman Memorial Union,” so I looked up Coffman’s biography, since all I knew was that he was a former president of the University of Minnesota.

    While he presided over the growth of the faculty and student body and the building of several major campus buildings, he also prohibited black students from living in the dorms, tried to keep the number of Jewish students down, and considered anyone who protested these or other measures to be a “dangerous radical.”

  2. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 10/26/2018 - 03:59 pm.

    As a past board chair of Coffman Memorial Union, I support changing the name. I attended the Campus Divided exhibit at the Anderson Library and the U’s history of racist policies (often enacted by its mid-20th century presidents, except Ford) is egregious. Changing the name of the building is the least the U can do.

  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/27/2018 - 11:47 am.

    Wait a minute.

    “…some of whom come to meetings and put their fingers in their ears to shut out recitations of the true history of Henry’s legacy.”

    Is that true? Or metaphorical? Did it happen on more than one occasion? And about how many people did that?

    It’s a small part of the story, but very important. If this really happened, it is incredibly disrespectful and un-civil. I might say that anyone who does this at a public forum where issues are to be debated in a civil, respectful manner, they should be removed. At minimum, they should be ignored, and not allowed to speak. A dialogue is not a one way street.

    • Submitted by Cathy Lombard on 10/28/2018 - 04:37 pm.

      PHHS Class of ‘82 here ~ I didn’t attend any meeting, so not a witness ~ but I can tell you that several of my classmates have lost their minds over the possibility of no longer honoring a man they know nothing about. The number of people who “screamed” at my Facebook comment supporting a change was embarrassing. I have no doubt at least two of them would have done that.

      We get no benefit in the holding the PHHS name, but it uncomfortable and even painful for current students (and really, we should all be unhappy honoring him) so why not change it?

  4. Submitted by Roy Everson on 10/28/2018 - 09:22 am.

    Raising Charlottesville as a scare tactic might be seen by some as an attempt to intimidate. Many of the Confederate memorials were put up generations after the war as a means to assert white dominance in the Jim Crown era. That doesn’t seem to apply to the local examples with the possible exception of Fort Snelling.
    That being said, debating Patrick Henry’s worthiness for glory might be compared with George Washington’s. If we agree that George’s contribution to the country outweighs his slave-holding status, then we can ask if Patrick’s contribution was enough to qualify. And if not, how much would be enough?
    And if we have such a discussion then people would discover that encyclopedias and libraries exist to satisfy the curiosity of, among others, teens who are troubled by not getting enough in class.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/28/2018 - 10:38 am.

    A modest proposal–
    Do not name buildings after people.
    Name them for their function, their location, or the groups that they serve.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/29/2018 - 09:46 am.

      I don’t have a great source for this, but I read somewhere that Rochester Century High School was deliberately not named after a person to avoid any controversy.

      Would you be opposed to naming a school after Dr. Martin Luther King? How about a street?

      I get your point. But on the other hand, I see Dr. King as one of the greatest Americans ever, if not the greatest American ever. And to not have anything named after him would be an absolute travesty. I say this knowing that he was not always a good and faithful husband. He made America a better place for all of us. And rather than acting from a position of institutional strength, he acted with virtually no institutional or government backing.

      It’s a pretty broad brush to say we should never name schools after any person.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/29/2018 - 04:56 pm.

        I agree that MLK would be pretty uncontroversial (although some of the White Power types might object), and I believe that there is a street in Chicago named after him.
        However, if this is the price for avoiding the inevitable unpleasantness that the practice of naming places after people it would be worth it.
        Even Washington DC could easily be known as THE Federal District. Lincoln NE might be more of a problem, though.
        The question, is the status quo worth its acosts?

  6. Submitted by John Webster on 10/29/2018 - 04:36 pm.

    MLK was definitely a great American, and I regard him as the last of the Founding Fathers – he is deservedly revered. But his contributions aren’t even close to those of George Washington, even considering Washington was a slaveowner in keeping with the times. Washington risked his life and large fortune in an incredibly risky war that by all odds the Americans should have lost. He willingly laid down his immense powers – twice – setting the greatest example of democratic restraint in history. His prestige was absolutely necessary for the Constitution to be ratified over the reluctance of the anti-Federalists. He set an example for Presidential dignity that is still worth admiring. Thomas Jefferson eventually became his political adversary, but Jefferson admitted that the moderation of Washington prevented the American Revolution from descending into chaos and vengeful violence. By all means honor MLK. But Washington is justifiably the most esteemed person in American history, was so during his lifetime, and will be for all time.

  7. Submitted by Peggy Reinhardt on 10/30/2018 - 09:47 am.

    I appreciate this article and learning that there are future leaders stepping up to make changes in our communities. Adults can still learn from the perspective of youth, and this event is a good example.

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