It began with just one student in Jackson, Mississippi.
After having learned about a prominent Confederate leader and discussing his lasting legacy on the world, the student raised a good (if not painfully obvious) question to her mom at home: Why in the world would her school be named after a guy like that?
Yes, Jefferson Davis International Baccalaureate Elementary School is named after that Jefferson Davis — a president of the Confederacy in the mid-19th century.
After the girl’s mother brought the issue to the school’s PTA, the conversation surrounding a name change began making waves among community members. More and more people — including the students at Davis Elementary — agreed: The school’s name needed to go.
PTA president Janelle Jefferson told NBC News the young students were well aware of who the school — which has a student body that’s 96% black — was honoring through its name and what it meant for kids like them: “They know who [Davis] was and what he stood for.”
“Jefferson Davis, although infamous in his own right, would probably not be too happy about a diverse school promoting the education of the very individuals he fought to keep enslaved being named after him,” Jefferson expressed to the school board earlier this fall.
In September, the district’s school board voted in favor of giving the PTA the authority to change the school’s name.
So, as Jefferson explained to Mississippi Today, the PTA gave students, teachers, and community members two weeks to submit ideas on who the school should be named after before a public in-person vote on Oct. 5.
Before ballots were cast, kids from each classroom gave a presentation on who they believed should have the honor.
Barack Obama — notably, the students’ favorite — won.
Starting next school year, Jefferson Davis International Baccalaureate Elementary will be Barack Obama International Baccalaureate Elementary.
“We really wanted to know what they thought,” Jefferson said of making sure to include the students’ input. “They could relate to Barack Obama because of his achievements, because he looks like them.”
The school’s name change comes amid a heated national debate over the place of Confederate monuments in public spaces.
In August, white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in protest of the college town’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee. The march unraveled into chaos, as one white supremacist reportedly ran over peaceful counter-protester Heather Heyer with his vehicle, killing her.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attack, a number of communities — including Baltimore and Tampa Bay, Florida — made moves to rid prominent Confederate monuments from public places. Although there’s ample resistance from many people — including the president — that falsely argue removing these statues “erases history,” advocates for change are finding where there’s a will, there’s a way.
It’s a lesson students at Jefferson Davis (soon to be Barack Obama) International Baccalaureate Elementary School have learned well.
“The history you have to come to terms with is not the easiest thing to think about or talk about, especially with kids,” Jefferson said. “But the positive came for me that our kids can see that there’s a process to it. They saw something wrong, and now they know they can change it.”
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