Riding a wave of new awareness that women and people of color have been unjustly ignored by prominent institutions, the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail (BWHT) is advocating that some schools in the Boston school system be renamed for accomplished women and/or people of color.
An audit done by BWHT shows that about 10 public schools in the city are named for women, 80 or so for men, and 40 have generic names.
Representatives of BWHT plan to ask the Boston School Committee to support a logical, important repair effort during public comment time at the School Committee’s June 6 meeting. BWET will suggest that generically named schools adopt a human, historic identity of a notable woman and/or person of color instead.
Two of JP’s 13 public schools are named for women: Margarita Muñiz Academy, and Mary E. Curley, half of the mother-son team with Mayor James Michael Curley for whom the Curley K-8 is now named.
One, the Rafael Hernandez School in Egleston Square, where Margarita Muñiz was principal for years, is named for a person of color.
Two schools in JP have generic names that might be good candidates for change: the West Zone Early Learning Center in Hyde Square and Community Academy in Parkside.
The other schools here are named for white men. BWHT is not suggesting that those names change at this time.
JP resident Mary Smoyer, a founding member of the BWHT and a long-time board member, pointed out in a recent interview that Community Academy was formerly the Margaret Fuller School for a long time. The elementary school was named for a leading thinker and editor connected to the transcendentalist movement. Fuller lived in JP in the first half of the 1800s.
Smoyer suggested the school community of Community Academy might consider renaming it for Fuller. Since several Boston schools have the word “community” in their name, it would cause less confusion if the school gets renamed for such a prominent, respected woman of her time.
Smoyer had some other good name suggestions as well, including that the new STEM school in Dudley Square be named for Gladys Wood, the first African-American principal in the Boston Public Schools. She added that JP environmentalist Ellen Swallow Richards might also make a good namesake for that or another school.
JP was home to one of only two women from the U. S. to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize. Emily Greene Balch, socialist and founder of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom who won in 1946, deserves a major memorial for sure.
The Boston School Department process for renaming schools respectfully asks schools to involve that school’s community (parents, staff, students, neighbors, etc.) in considering and selecting any new name and recommending the change to the Boston School Committee. Smoyer said BWHT is willing to go to schools and make presentations about women who would be good candidates for lending their name.
“We want school children to be inspired by the name of the school. The name needs to mean something,” Smoyer said. “Who are the educators? Women.”
“Women voted for School Committee members and served on it starting in 1872—way before suffrage,” historian Susan Wilson, on the BWHT advisory committee, added during the conversation.
BWHT is a nonprofit organization affiliated with BPS since its creation in 1989. In addition to Smoyer, Laura Pattison, librarian at the JP Branch of the Boston Public Library, is on the BWHT board. BWHT came into being when a group of women, including Smoyer, began to work on a Women’s History Trail in Boston to add to the Freedom Trail and the Black Heritage Trail. Since then the group has added other women’s history trails and programs for children and adults.
As part of the BWHT effort, Smoyer has given guided tours, developed neighborhood trails, including one for Jamaica Plain with assistance from the JP Historical Society, and co-authored “Twenty-One Notable Women.” BWHT has an extensive website at bwht.org with more information.
Doing reparations for neglecting women and people of color is getting a lot of favorable attention right now nationally and locally. This spring the New York Times began publishing obituaries of people of color and women they neglected at the time they died.
More than 150 people attended a discussion on “Equity in Memorials” sponsored by BWHT and then Boston City Council President Michelle Wu at the Boston Public Library on Dec. 11. It was clear from Susan Wilson’s presentation that public memorials in Boston favor white men far more than people of color and women. And it was clear that the crowd wanted change.
Renaming generically named schools would repair a long-time imbalance in whom we are told deserve respect. The additional women and people of color who are recognized would inspire more young (and old) people to achieve, as others who are like them have done. Renaming schools could well be the first step on a trail that leads to equity in whose accomplishments get recognized in our city from now on.
Sandra Storey is founder and former publisher and editor of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.