|Benjamin Franklin High School, New Orlenas, Louisiana|
As I explained in earlier posts, the Orleans Parish School Board is engaged in a process of renaming school buildings bearing the names of people who owned slaves, were officials of the Confederate States of America, or who promoted segregation. I earlier wrote to the school board and composed a letter to the editor of The Tiimes-Picayune about this process. It now appears that the renaming of the building in which Benjamin Franklin High School is housed is inevitable. What I hope is not inevitable is the renaming of the charter school itself, something that the governing board is contemplating, perhaps even advocating. In the hope of derailing any change of the name of the school, I wrote the letter below to the Head of School, Dr. Patrick Widhalm. (I have no idea why Dr. Widhalm is not called a principal.) I wanted also to address the President of the Board of Directors, Ms. Alea M. Cott, but I did not have an e-mail address for her.
Dear Dr. Widhalm,
I attended the April 15 AAEE board meeting via Zoom. It was not a comforting experience. Parliamentary procedure was lax, allowing vague motions and unstructured and prolonged debate. But it was the board’s apparent indifference to the name “Benjamin Franklin” that was most upsetting.
I would have liked the board to have voiced opposition to the renaming of the building, but circumstances suggest that it would have been to no avail. Perhaps silence was the wiser course.
But the suggestion that the name of the program should be revisited if the building is renamed, as it seemingly will be, seems a cowardly response to the foolishly inflexible policy of the OPSB. This craven notion was in evidence in the letter sent to school stakeholders on April 26: “Moving forward, Benjamin Franklin High School will implement a plan for engaging our community in a robust, meaningful dialogue about our charter school’s name, independent of OPSB’s process.” I cannot imagine what constituency such a plan is intended to placate. Such a “dialogue” can only increase the anger and anxiety of legitimate school stakeholders, who have overwhelmingly expressed their support for the school’s traditional name.
I admit that I never thought deeply about my high school’s name while I was a student. Reluctantly, I must thank the OPSB for motivating me to investigate the life of Benjamin Franklin. What I discovered is that Franklin, surely an imperfect human being, as are we all, accomplished more in one lifetime than most “famous” or even admirable” people. One can hardly find a better rôle model for curious and motivated New Orleanian adolescents than Benjamin Franklin, who was equally interested in personal self-improvement and in that of the body politic.
Although I would prefer that the school’s building not be renamed, I care less about that than I do about the name of the charter school itself. If the only criteria for an appropriate eponym for the building are that the person so chosen not have owned slaves, helped run the Confederacy, or promoted segregation, many of history’s greatest scoundrels will qualify. Let the school board pick one of these or, better still, name the building without reference to any person at all. Call it, for example, the Lakefront Academy Building.
Irrespective of the actions of the OPSB, there is no reason to rename Benjamin Franklin High School. Its name is ideal, and I am disappointed that the board of AAEE cannot see that this is so. No public dialogue on the matter is called for. Instead, the board should acknowledge the school board’s right to choose the building name, while concurrently reasserting the propriety of the charter’s present designation.
Lionel E. Deimel, Ph.D.
Class of ’64