I recently wrote about the proposed renaming of my high school by the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), one element of what is officially called the NOLA Public Schools Facility Renaming Initiative. The objective of the project is to rename facilities bearing the names of slaveholders, Confederate States of America officials, or segregation proponents. It was never clear how absolute were the board’s criteria, but the involvement of professional historians suggested that other considerations might be taken into account. Additionally, public comments were solicited on the project,
Because Benjamin Franklin once owned slaves, the OPSB had put the name Benjamin Franklin High School on the chopping block. In my own citizen comment on this matter, I defended Franklin, arguing that he was much more than what is now seen as his one unforgivable sin. (That contribution may be read in the blog post referenced above.)
What had not been clear when the renaming process began was that the school board was not proposing to rename the school, a charter school with its own governing board, but the building in which the school is housed. That building is owned by the school system. Only the governing board of the charter, Advocates for Academic Excellence in Education, Inc. (AAEE), can rename the school itself. There is no bar to a school’s having a name different from that of its building. It has become obvious that even the members of AAEE did not originally recognize the limits of the OPSB initiative. In any case, renaming the building honoring a well-known patriot and ideal rôle model for New Orleans adolescents seemed gratuitously stupid.
The public comment period was scheduled to end on April 30. However, the OPSB voted tentatively on April 20 to rename 20 school facilities, including Benjamin Franklin’s. The board took a final vote to move forward with the renaming on April 22. Both votes were 6–1. Remarkably, the board argued that the name changes were obligatory, given the policy adopted in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. Apparently, modifying an inflexible policy that demands outrageous acts by the very body that adopted the policy was not considered an option.
On April 27, in response to the OPSB action, I wrote the letter below to the editor of The Times-Picayune. To date, it has not been published.
The Orleans Parish School Board’s desire to purge the names of known racists from its school buildings is commendable. That it has chosen to do so in the case of Benjamin Franklin High School and to make that decision before the end of its own declared public comment period, however, illustrates that the board is operating in bad faith and using bad logic. It clearly does not care what the public has to say in this matter.
Benjamin Franklin, a scientist, diplomat, philosopher, founding father, and civic activist, could hardly be a better inspiration to New Orleans students aspiring to both academic and personal excellence. But according to the board’s inflexible criteria, Franklin’s having once owned slaves justifies the excision of his name from any Orleans Parish school building. That Franklin repudiated slavery and worked to eliminate it, eventually becoming president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, apparently is irrelevant to the board. As I wrote in my own public comment, “[t]o deny Franklin’s value as a rôle model because he once held views we today find odious, despite his eventually repudiating those ideas, is to deny the value of repentance and rehabilitation, perhaps even the value of education itself.”
It is to be hoped that the Orleans Parish School Board will review its ill-considered decision regarding Benjamin Franklin High School. And, should Franklin’s building be renamed, the board of the charter school housed there should proudly retain the school’s name.