LAKEVIEW — Harriet Tubman Elementary School students and staff commemorated their building’s new marquee Monday, capping a years-long process to rename the North Side school.
Hundreds of students and their teachers gathered in front of the sign, which towers in front of the school at 2851 N. Seminary Ave., cheering and jumping with joy as they took in the visual of their school honoring the abolitionist who escaped slavery and helped dozens more find freedom.
“It is amazing that the new name of our school is a woman of color,” eighth grader Addison King said. “Having a woman of color as our school name is reflective of the community that we are.”
Mikiah Bounds, another eighth grader, said she hopes the sign sends a message about the kind of community that exists at the school.
“We are an inclusive school, and our name now sends that message,” Bounds said. “The name Harriet Tubman is very important in terms of Black history, considering she was one of many who helped fight slavery in this country. She’s an inspiration to many, and it’s so amazing we can honor her.”
The school took its new name in March. It had been named for Louis Agassiz, a Swiss American scientist, who backed theories used to defend slavery.
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 1800s, 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.”
In dropping Agassiz’s name, the Lakeview elementary school became the first Chicago Public Schools building to change its name through the district’s review process, which launched after a Chicago Sun-Times report revealed 30 schools in the majority Black and Latino district are named after slaveholders.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez praised the Harriet Tubman community for trailblazing in that process and demonstrating how students can be engaged in and help make decisions affecting their schools.
Students chose Harriet Tubman as their school’s namesake after a months-long process in which they researched historical figures, concepts or ideas that represented their values as a community, Martinez said.
“What I love about the process is it wasn’t just adults deciding a name for our students,” Martinez said. “They researched and looked at historical figures who made many contributions to our society, … so the process was very strong.”
Tina Holder King, who is on the school’s local school council, is part of a group who began pushing for the name change years ago. That effort stalled because some worried about the cost of signs and merchandise and the potential loss of name recognition.
But the movement to change the name got a boost after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in 2020, which prompted international protests and broader reckoning of anti-Black racism.
“Thank goodness for determination to do the right thing,” Holder King said. “Thank goodness for the students, parents, staff and community members who refused to let hope that the right thing could be done be extinguished.
“As LSC chair, a parent and a Black woman, I was invested in this process on many levels. And throughout the name-change journey, I was repeatedly inspired by student work and the heart, effort and pride with which they did the work to rename their school.”
Eighth grader Kendrick Burnett said the process filled him with a similar sense of pride.
“It makes me proud to be part of this school,” Burnett said. “It’s a name that speaks strength and honor.”
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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