Patrick Henry High students would prefer school not be named after a slave owner

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Patrick Henry would rather die than remain a colonist. Students at Patrick Henry Senior High in north Minneapolis would rather rename their school than keep commemorating a guy who owned 70 slaves. Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

It was a U.S. citizenship test question for years: Who's the guy who said, "Give me liberty or give me death?"

The credit goes to Patrick Henry, a revolutionary provacateur famous for his bold utterances of classic liberal principles, though lesser known for the hypocrisy with which he built his fortune as a tobacco farmer with nearly 70 slaves.

Today this founding father's namesake high school in north Minneapolis is composed of 97 percent students of color, with 50 percent African American students. It's more than a little awkward that they should attend a school named after one of the wealthiest slave owners in 18th century Virginia, students say.

After watching Ramsey Middle School transform into Justice Page and Lake Calhoun into Bde Maka Ska, most now support renaming Patrick Henry. Since classes started in the fall, there's been a push by a core committee of about 20 students and staff to lobby the Minneapolis School Board for a makeover.

It's not the first time the school's heard a name-change proposal. About seven years ago, 2014 graduate Dino Jones published an article in the student paper about Henry's private life. Jones, who'd been inspired by a Black History Month lesson to determine whether Henry ever owned slaves, found that while the wealthy colonist believed a time would come to abolish the "lamentable evil," the abolitionists of his own time could never convince him to free his own slaves.

"Not far from where Patrick Henry lived a slave tried to escape and the slave owner petitioned the local court to have that slave's foot cut off. That area is known as Negro's Foot," Jones wrote after studying "Patrick Henry, First Among Patriots," by Thomas Kidd. "Reading about this makes me angry. I want to snap out, because it makes me feel like I am getting my leg cut off."

At the time, there were talks about renaming the school, but there wasn't enough momentum to see that through, says teacher Jocelyn Lovick. This year, when she and co-worker Etihan Yarbrough helped students Semaj Rankin and Janaam Ahmed resurrect the subject, they had the support of 78 percent of students and 90 percent of staff, according to a December survey, as well as Justice Page Middle School's blueprint to follow.

But when it comes to a school with more than 1,300 students, a long history in Minneapolis, and a robust alumni network, the hurdles may be higher.

Minneapolis youth worker Kable Reid says that although students have been diligently campaigning at basketball games, setting up informational booths to tell people about athletes' "Change the Name" warmup shirts, some alumni have taken to Facebook to quarrel about political correctness and whether slavery is still relevant.

A listening session with alumni will take place Wednesday from 5-6:30 p.m. in Henry High's lower gym. Afterward, students and staff will have to agree on a new name, submit their proposal to the school board, and raise about $20,000 to replace all signage.

 


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