The Atlanta Board of Education may vote to change the name of Midtown’s Henry W. Grady High School to Ida B. Wells High School at its Nov. 2 meeting.
The move comes after a naming committee was empaneled by the board as communities across the nation re-examined the legacy of racism and white supremacy in the names of its buildings, streets, parks, and monuments. Grady has been the name over the door of the school at the corner of 10th and Monroe since 1947.
Grady was an Atlanta journalist and orator widely praised for helping to promote industrialization and a vision of the “New South” following the Civil War. He was also a white supremacist. “The supremacy of the white race of the South must be maintained forever, and the domination of the negro race resisted at all points and at all hazards – because the white race is the superior race,” Grady said in an 1887 speech.
Ida B. Wells was a pioneering Black journalist, activist, and co-founder of the NAACP. Born into slavery, Wells used her writing and investigative skills to chronicle the plight of Black people following emancipation, with a focus on the practice of lynching in the South.
A survey sent to students, parents, faculty, and alumni offered up five potential new names for the high school and the opportunity to make comments on their choice.
Along with Wells, the other names on the survey included Midtown High School, Piedmont High School, Freedom High School, and Thomas E. Adger High School, in honor of Grady’s first Black principal.
The survey results show that 62 percent of more than 1,600 respondents preferred Midtown High School. So, why did the committee choose Wells?
Atlanta Board of Education member and naming committee chair Leslie Grant said the survey was never meant to be a “numbers game.”
“If you watched the meetings, I did express several times that it wouldn’t come down to a numbers game – ‘whoever got the most votes wins,’” Grant said.
Grant said the surveys were used to inform the decision making and said input received by the committee from all sources was “valuable and considered honestly.” She acknowledged that some in the Grady cluster were displeased with the committee’s decision, while others suggested that renaming the school after Wells was a fait accompli.
“That is not true,” Grant insisted. “All members of the committee were thoughtful, deliberative, honest, and forthright with their opinions about the input they received.”
Grant said the Atlanta School Board’s decision to create a naming committee for Grady was part of its work to “establish a more meaningful consideration of equity.”
“The board has worked to establish a more meaningful consideration of equity,” Grant said in an email expressing her thoughts on the issue. “I know equity is a catchword these days, as is “anti-racists”, but I strongly believe that, especially after much of America got behind the Black Lives Matter movement this year, I should make decisions in a way that listens differently, more equitably, to voices that are quiet and thoughtful in their presentation of equity.”
Grant also noted that renaming the school after Wells was first championed by Grady’s award-winning student newspaper, The Southerner, in 2016. The newspaper reiterated its call to honor Wells in an editorial published in September.
Parent Richard Weinstein, who has a 10th grader at Grady and an 8th grader at Howard Middle School, said he was fine with the name change, but questioned the naming committee’s decision to choose Ida B. Wells when the majority of respondents to the survey obviously favored Midtown High School.
“We knew the survey wasn’t going to be a referendum on the name, but when you see the results, it’s pretty obvious,” Weinstein said.
Weinstein said he was concerned about the brand equity that Grady High School has built, especially with college recruiters, the cost associated with the decision, and questioned whether most people associated the school with its namesake.
“No one ever calls the school Henry W. Grady High School,” Weinstein said. “It’s Grady. I never associated the name with what he said or did, and I think most people do not.”
In a letter to the school board, Weinstein said the “name change has taken on a political posture and is not reflective of the actual community’s wishes.”
“I believe there was a predetermined desire on the committee to do something that is the opposite of Grady,” Weinstein said. “Ida B. Wells is the anti-Henry Grady.”
Grady is not the only campus being considered for a name change in the Atlanta Public Schools system. Naming committees are looking at Brown Middle School, named after slave-owning Civll War era Gov. Joseph E. Brown, and Forrest Hill Academy, which is named after Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest.