LAKEVIEW — Agassiz Elementary School in Lakeview — named for a Swiss American scientist who backed theories used to defend slavery — will be renamed after Harriet Tubman, a formerly enslaved person who helped others escape through the Underground Railroad.
The Chicago Board of Education will vote Wednesday to authorize the school’s name change to Harriet Tubman IB World School, according to the board’s agenda.
This will make the Lakeview elementary school, located at 2851 N. Seminary Ave., the first CPS building to change its name through the district’s review process, which launched after a Chicago Sun-Times review found 30 schools are named after slaveholders.
Agassiz opposed interracial marriage and championed a theory called polygenism, which posits that people of different races do not share a common ancestor. According to the Center for the History of Medicine at Harvard University, where Agassiz taught in the 1800’s, defenders of slavery relied on polygenism to argue people of different races were genetically distinct and “slavery was a natural condition for an inferior race.”
Principal Mira Weber said the building’s renaming is only the “step one” of the larger effort to embed anti-racism into school culture.
“The renaming is the first part of it, but you don’t change philosophy and practice by taking one name down and putting up another,” Weber said. “So while this step is a huge celebration of work and learning, it’s only the kickoff of the real work that has to happen: the deeper conversations around creating a more equitable school community.”
That work includes professional development for its staff, a review of the school’s curriculum to make sure it’s culturally relevant and a revamping of the school improvement plan to include the district’s equity framework, which has guided the school’s renaming process, Weber said.
Parents pushed for the change a few years ago, according to the Sun-Times, but the movement stalled when others worried new signage and merchandise would be too costly. However, efforts to change the school’s name resurfaced after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd last year, which prompted international protests and broader reckoning of anti-Black racism.
The district facilitated a public feedback process for community members to weigh in on what the school’s new name should be.
Weber said the school shortlisted Tubman, NASA pioneer Katherine Johnson and civil rights leader Rosa Parks as part of a months-long process led by students, who researched for historical figures, concepts or ideas that represented their values as a school community.
“Our students learned about racism, anti-racism and social justice, while also learning how to create change in a meaningful, sustainable way in a democracy,” Weber said.
Possible names were submitted through students’ home rooms, and later voted on by the wider school community, including parents, staff and other community members.
In selecting Tubman, the school’s name will shift from honoring someone who pushed to uphold slavery in favor of someone who worked to dismantle it.
“The whole process was truly transformative in the way they are now invested in their own school,” Weber said. “It’s powerful.”
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