BY DEBRA KEEFER RAMAGE
Janaan Ahmed, a junior at Patrick Henry High School (PHHS) in Minneapolis, is the 2019 student at-large director on the Minneapolis School Board.
The activism for which Ahmed became known, almost a full year before her selection as student representative, was as one of the point people for Patrick Henry High’s #ChangetheName campaign. This is the second major wave of agitating to change the name of a high school that nowadays has a great majority of African-American students to one that doesn’t glorify a slaveowner—a man who stated that slavery was morally wrong on several occasions but nevertheless bought 80 slaves to work the plantation he was given as governor of Virginia, then left them to his children in his will rather than freeing them as he could have done. A City Pages article, “The Trial of Patrick Henry,” from June 2018, phrased it like this:
“ ‘Slavery is detested,’ Henry once said. ‘We feel its fatal effects. We deplore it with all the pity of humanity.’ But those words were but a fraction of a speech in which he urged postponement of emancipation, which would have toppled a Virginia economy built on slave labor. It was the birth of a paradox.”
The first name-change campaign was over a decade ago, and foundered against the rocky shore of nearly violent opposition from the largely white alumnae group and financial assistance foundation. Student and community activists for changing the name still hope it will be possible now, in the wake of other recent local name changes, such as Bde Maka Ska and Justice Page Middle School.
The most recent wave of #ChangetheName was kicked off in late 2017 by Semaj Rankin, then a junior at Henry. He was high in school spirit and had often chanted the name of Patrick Henry in rooting for his high school teams. Then he learned the truth about Patrick Henry. Like most Americans, Rankin only knew about Henry’s fiery “Liberty or Death” speech and assumed he was a freedom fighter. Learning the more nuanced reality left him feeling cheated and disrespected, he said. Rankin first announced the intention to fight for a name change in the local newspaper, North News, then recruited teachers and students to the cause. That part wasn’t very hard, as a large majority of Henry High students echoed Rankin’s feelings of disappointment and disrespect. Their first action was an orderly march to the offices of the school superintendent and a discussion with Chief of School Michael Thomas, who advised them how to proceed, and what barriers they would face. Ahmed and a senior girl named Faryiho Hassan were early recruits to the cause and assumed a major role in the activities that followed: research on Patrick Henry and presentations to all the students; information tabling across the Northside community at supermarkets, farmers markets and the YWCA; distributing #ChangetheName warm-up shirts to teams and supporters; researching the cost of the change and launching a GoFundMe to cover the first year; and many public appearances, including on KMOJ radio.
It’s the 15-member site council of Henry High that will initially vote the proposal up or down. They have met to discuss it at least three times in the past year, the last time in October 2018, and each time have tabled the vote, postponing it to the next meeting. The other major group the campaign has to engage with is the PHHS Foundation, a mostly alumnae-based group that funnels donations to Henry High, a vital lifeblood for this underfunded school serving a low-income population. It is here that Ahmed has really honed her amazing organizing skills. Here is where they face the opposition group, Save the Name, which has sprung up in the community, largely led by the white alumnae, although not exclusively white. A spokesperson widely quoted is Monte Miller, a former history teacher at Henry and a member of the Foundation. He said, “We can’t rewrite history … One of the consequences will be that we’re going to lose the foundation. In other words, don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” His remarks are quite tame and civil compared to some of the comments and tirades in opposition to the change. At the last meeting of the Foundation, though, donations were up rather than down. However, the aging leadership of the foundation is looking to step aside, and let newer, younger people navigate this change that they see looming ahead.
Janaan Ahmed remains upbeat about the #ChangetheName movement. These relentlessly positive comments from her closed out the City Pages article:
“We’re not so worried about the opposition anymore. At the beginning it was us versus them, but now we just want to understand them so they can have a chance to understand us.”
“We are unifying ourselves in greater ways than we think we’re opposing each other.”
“At the end of the day, it seems like people are just afraid of change. But don’t you see change is happening all around us? The earth is turning, the trees are blooming, the clouds are moving. Why can’t names change, especially when the people inside the school are changing?”