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Henry High's name-change debate: hubris and hysteria

Marshall H. Tanick

As the 2017-18 school year draws to a close, the movement to change the name of Patrick Henry High School has become imbued with misconceptions. Those erroneous beliefs have been reflected in some of the hubris and hysteria that have characterized the debate over altering the name of the school as it completes its 80th year. The school is now attended by about 1,300 students, nearly all racial or ethnic minorities, in the Camden area of north Minneapolis.

One of the misperceptions is the characterization of the Revolutionary War hero who has been the namesake of the facility since its opening in 1937. In reporting about the proposed name change, media references to Henry as “a slave owner” vastly understate his prominence. The Virginia lawyer, politician, and tobacco grower reportedly held about 80 men, women, and children in bondage. Although a far cry from the 300 or 600-plus owned by fellow Virginians like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, respectively, Henry was one of the largest slave owners in the colony-then-state, with holdings equivalent to other Revolutionary era Virginia-bred political leaders like James Madison and James Monroe, Jefferson’s immediate presidential successors.

Terming him merely as “a slave owner” minimizes his posture in that evil institution.

Self-interest over enlightenment

Similar to these other slave-owning Founding Fathers, he expressed ambivalence about the institution, yet continued to cling to it despite his occasionally expressed misgivings about its propriety or morality, reflecting a triumph of economic self-interest over enlightenment.

Although certainly deserving of credit for helping inspire the War for Independence — his “give me liberty of give me death” was a motif of the Revolutionary spirit — Henry was a staunch opponent of the U.S. Constitution and argued against its ratification. He did so out of fear that it would lead to eradication of slavery by northern politicians and other forces, a prophecy that did, in fact, come about nearly four score years later, as a result of the Civil War.

Those who express hubris in resistance to changing the name of the school, particularly some of its loyal alumni, ought not forget these facets of Henry’s legacy, along with his inspiring patriotic fervor.

Money, a nickname, and a mascot

Other misperceptions that cloud the controversy revolve around finances and frivolity.

Supporters of the status quo hysterically point to the crippling effect a name change could have on the Patrick Henry High School Foundation, a laudable nonprofit organization that raises tax-exempt donations to aid the school. But it is relatively easy to change the name of a tax-exempt foundation without any substantial deleterious impact on money-raising efforts. Those who want to contribute can still do so while placing a different name on the recipient of their donative largesse.

Another illusion is that changing the school’s name would dismantle its beloved nickname, the Patriots, and the patriotically adorned mascot of its athletic teams. Incidentally, at least a couple of other high schools named for Patrick Henry, one in Hamler, Ohio, and another in San Diego, also bear the Patriots motif.

But there is nothing incompatible with the Patriots sobriquet and the alternative names proposed for the north Minneapolis school such as Unity, Liberty, Victory, Freedom, and Union, among others.

One other monetary matter has more merit. The cost of changing school signage would be about $20,000.

How about the foundation holding a fundraiser to raise the money?

Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities constitutional law attorney, historian, and graduate of adjacent North High School in Minneapolis.

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