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Darlene M. Hancock Memorial High School favored among public speakers for renaming of Memorial High

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The renaming process for James Madison Memorial High School cleared another hurdle Thursday as the ad hoc committee charged with the task concluded a public hearing that was rescheduled in September because of technical difficulties.

Three community members spoke before the committee Thursday. Community members also submitted 35 pages of written testimony with 155 public comments on the name change before the meeting.

The committee sought feedback on four finalists: Vel Phillips Memorial High School, Darlene M. Hancock Memorial High School, Bruce Dahmen Memorial High School and Memorial High School.

Of the three people who spoke during the meeting, two favored Darlene M. Hancock Memorial High School and supported Bruce Dahmen Memorial High School.

Tyler Dahmen, the son of Bruce Dahmen, a longtime principal of the school who died in 2014, spoke before the committee in favor of renaming the school after his late father.

“My dad spent so much time at Memorial, it was like a second home to him,” he said. “He literally gave his life to Memorial. ... He helped transition Memorial from what it was to what it is.”

Emily Foster Hill and Ashley Brown, both graduates of Memorial who were students at Stephens Elementary when Hancock was principal there, spoke in favor of renaming the school after her. They noted Hancock’s ability to lead Stephens with strength, inclusion and warmth as reasons for their support.

Brown pointed out that Bruce Dahmen Memorial High School did not place in the top four finalists determined by a list of criteria and the ranked choice voting system.

“This makes me a little concerned with the integrity of the overall process,” she said.

Shortening the existing name to Memorial High School appeared to receive the most support in the written comments, followed by Bruce Dahmen Memorial High School and Darlene M. Hancock Memorial High School, followed by Vel Phillips Memorial High School.

Phillips, former Wisconsin secretary of state, was the first African American elected to statewide office. She also was the first Black woman to graduate from the UW-Madison School of Law, the first Black woman to win a seat on the Milwaukee City Council and the first to become a judge in Wisconsin. She died in 2018 at the age of 95.

Hancock was the Madison School District’s first female Black principal when she started at Memorial High School in 1974. She retired from Stephens Elementary in 1996 but remained active in several organizations before she died in 2012.

The committee will meet once more to discuss the outcome of the public hearing before taking the names to the School Board for a vote.

The School Board committee charged with selecting a new name for James Madison Memorial High School sought public feedback after a list of selections was narrowed from 24 to four in September.

The potential name change is the latest of several decisions spurred by Black students pushing for a racial reckoning in Madison. Former Memorial student Mya Berry called on the board to rename the school in August 2020 because James Madison, the fourth U.S. president and the city’s namesake, was a slave owner.

“Madison was a person that benefited off of the exploitation of Black bodies, and those who embarked in such acts of racism should have no influence in today’s culture,” Berry wrote.

Memorial High School is the third Madison school building to undergo a monthslong renaming process within the past two years.

Dr. Virginia Henderson Elementary School, formerly Glendale Elementary, underwent a name change in early 2020 to honor a longtime Madison Schools employee who was a psychologist at the Southeast Side school for 15 years, and who helped to establish the African American Ethnic Academy — an after-school program to teach Black children about African American culture and heritage — outside of the district.

Milele Chikasa Anana Elementary School, formerly Falk Elementary School, also celebrated the renaming of the building to honor the magazine publisher, prominent civil rights activist and the first African American to be elected to a public school board in Wisconsin, at the beginning of September.


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