Students fight to change Patrick Henry name


Patrick Henry High School students feel that because of his history as a slave owner, the school is due for a new name. Because the school’s student body is largely African American, this topic connects emotionally with many at Patrick Henry. “I don’t want [the name] on my diploma.” Said Keyara Nnezille, a senior at Patrick Henry. Photo: Tannen Holt

Patrick Henry High School was established in 1937 as a prime choice for Northsiders living in or around the Camden neighborhood. The school takes its name from Patrick Henry, a founding father who played a large part in the first continental conference and Gunpowder Incident, was the 1st and 6th Virginian Governor, and was a colonial lawyer. Henry was the colonist known for yelling, “give me liberty or give me death,” during the 1775 Second Virginia Convention.

However, students are now making an effort to change the name of their school because Patrick Henry was a slave owner who ironically managed to consider himself an abolitionist.

He wrote in a letter to John Alsop on January 13, 1773, that slavery was, “inconsistent with the Bible, and destructive to morality.” He was described by Thomas Jefferson as being, “even more determined in his opposition to slavery then the rest of us.”

“Years back, early 2000s, maybe late 90s, [the issue] was brought up by a student,” said Semaj Moore-Rankin, a senior at Patrick Henry. “He was in an article bringing up how Patrick Henry owned slaves and why we should have a name that’s suitable to the student body. My sophomore year I found out who Patrick Henry was, and I was so upset about it.”

Moore-Rankin says the root of the issue is the fact that a school with a large population of students of color is named after a man who owned slaves. Students aren’t fighting to erase Patrick Henry from history, or antagonize him, they just want a name that fits with the character of the school and the students who attend it.

They want to send a message that slavery isn’t something that should be endorsed by naming a school after someone who contributed to it.

“Patrick Henry owned slaves, and that’s not something that should be represented at the whole, diverse school. Half the population at this school is African-American and Hmong. We have a name that reflects no one at this school,” said Moore-Rankin.

“People are always like ‘why do we want to change the name, that happened in the past,’” but a lot of that is still affecting [black people], because why would we want to go to a school named after a slave owner, when the whole system is not made for people of color,” said 12th grader Eliana Branch, who currently goes to Patrick Henry.

“[Having the name] gives [the system] more power when most of the students who go to Patrick Henry are people of color. It’s kind of oppressing still, and it’s a bad environment to be in, is what a lot of people are saying,” Branch said.

Moore-Rankin says the top options for new names are Liberty High or Unity High.

Above is the Save the Name table at the site council meeting on the 17th. The organization is made up by alumni and other community members hoping to prevent the changing of Patrick Henry’s name. Photo: Madeline Mahoney

On Thursday, May 17th, there was a large site council meeting at Patrick Henry, with approximately 200 people in attendance. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the status of the name, and whether or not to actually change it.

The meeting had a large number of people in defense of the name, dubbed the “Save the Name” movement. Many people were wearing shirts with “Save the Name” written on them, and proposing their various arguments for why not to change the name.

The main argument presented by Save the Name was money. They said that the changing of the name would require money the school can’t afford to spend. “We can’t dismiss the dollars. MPS has a 33 million dollar deficit,” said a speaker advocating to save the name.

“A common misconception is that the school pays for the name change. They’re not paying for it at all, actually. Since the students are pushing for the change, we’re the ones doing fundraising to get the amount of money to actually change the name,” Moore-Rankin told me, about a week before the meeting.

“If there’s one thing that we all have in common, it’s that we take pride in this building, in the things that happen in this building, the educaction we’ve received,” was the opening line of the speaker.

“It is our shared history… So why do we care [about the name of the school]? Those are some of the reasons. This school has been in existence for over 80 years. As alumni of the school and members of the community, we care about the success of the students,” said the opening speaker.

“I did some very basic math, 10,000, a grossly underestimated number. If the school is approximately 80 years old, and we have even just 125 students in each graduating class, that is what got me to 10,000. That’s how I got that number. I didn’t have time to look up all the graduating class numbers, so I just put that very conservative number,” said the speaker. “That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of people who care about the community.”

The speaker made it very clear that one of the biggest reason for opposing the name change is the attachment the name has to alumni because of their connection with the school and its environment.

Those for the name change argue that, because the school is 80 years old and the environment changes every school year, it may be time for a name change.

“There are emotions on both sides, but sometimes some of the behaviors that are used, the ‘means justify the ends,’ but I’m not so sure that should be allowed. Because how we treat people matters in life,” said a speaker for the ‘Save the Name’ group.

Regardless of what your stance is on this issue, it cannot continue to be ignored. It’s a conflict that involves more than just facts; feelings, oppression, and history.

The decision as to what will actually happen to the name will most likely be made next school year. After another series of sight council meetings and discussions, a decision has not yet been made.