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Madison School District receives 24 proposals for new name for Memorial High School
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Madison School District receives 24 proposals for new name for Memorial High School

James Madison Memorial High School sign (copy) (copy)

A Madison Memorial High School graduate wants the school's name changed because former president James Madison was a slaveholder.

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Community members have until the end of the month to offer input on 24 possible names for James Madison Memorial High School as the renaming process continues.

Madison Metropolitan School District officials recently posted the set of name proposals submitted by the April 23 deadline on the district’s website. Those interested can offer feedback via a comment form on the renaming web page until May 31.

Mya Berry, who started an effort to rename the high school for someone other than James Madison because he was a slaveholder, began her efforts while a senior at Memorial. Now in college, Berry proposed renaming the school in honor of Vel Phillips, who achieved many historic firsts for Black women in Wisconsin.

"To have a high school named after Vel Phillips would feel like a step in the right direction for the community," Berry wrote in the email to the Cap Times in March when her proposal became public. "Instead of honoring historical figures that oppressed and enslaved Black Americans, we will have a school respecting the life of a woman who worked toward bridging racial gaps right here in Wisconsin.

"I also think it is significant to credit a Wisconsin leader as the new name, to demonstrate the possibilities that exist to Black and Brown students specifically."

[MMSD will consider proposal to rename James Madison Memorial High School]

A 12-person ad-hoc committee will evaluate the proposals after the community feedback process is complete.

In addition to two proposals for Phillips, the list features historical figures like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis and late local school leaders Darlene Hancock, Milton McPike and Bruce Dahmen.

The proposals for Hancock and Dahmen both have support through online petitions, with more than 2,000 signing on for Dahmen and 133 in support of Hancock.

The list also features a few suggestions that would not honor any specific person, with “Memorial High School” removing the “James Madison” and “Madison Learning Academy” among them.

Another would keep the school "James Madison Memorial High School."

One of the proposals, though unlikely to gain any traction, is “Woke High School,” seemingly a reference to being “woke,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” The word is sometimes used as a pejorative description by people who feel there is too much focus on social or racial justice issues, including when people criticize the founders of the United States for owning slaves.

[Falk Elementary renamed for Milele Chikasa Anana]

The full list can be found on the district’s website.

After the committee reviews the proposals and public feedback, it will determine whether the proposed names meet the naming criteria in district policy. Those criteria include if the person is a prominent national or local person, a locally significant geographical site, a place of local significance or an idea or concept that represents a “broadly respected civic virtue,” and how it is significant to MMSD, specifically.

The committee will recommend up to four names to the School Board, hold a public hearing on its recommendations and then vote on its top choice. The School Board will approve one of the names forwarded from the committee.

[Glendale Elementary will be renamed for Virginia Henderson]

MMSD has renamed two elementary schools in recent years, with the former Glendale Elementary School becoming Virginia Henderson Elementary School and earlier this year Falk Elementary School renamed in honor of Milele Chikasa Anana.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Scott Girard is the local k-12 education reporter at the Cap Times. A Madison native, he joined the paper in 2019 after working for six years for Unified Newspaper Group. Follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.

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