Activists Set Sights on Schools Named for Slave-Owning Founding Fathers

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There are probably thousands of public schools across the United States named for American heroes like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  But in New Orleans, where 90 percent of the public school students are African-American, the names of those historic figures are slowly being replaced.

That's because Franklin, Washington and Jefferson, as well as many other prominent Americans of their time, owned slaves, and black activists believe black students shouldn't have to attend schools named for slave owners.

"Benjamin Franklin -- not only was he a slave owner, but he sold slaves out of his general store," said Carl Galmon, who's been spearheading the effort to change the names of public schools in New Orleans. "He chained slaves to the wall and sold them."

Galmon's on a crusade, and it's a crusade slowly spreading across the South. It's also a crusade that is making some people uncomfortable.

Historian Norman McRae said recasting George Washington as a villain, or suggesting that he cannot also be a hero to black children, is the wrong approach. 

"To say that George Washington as a slave owner should be stricken as an icon of American history, to me, seems a bit ridiculous when you look at other things he has done," McRae said.

Galmon launched his campaign in 1991, and has so far succeeded in having the names of 26 schools in New Orleans changed. George Washington Elementary School, for example, is now named after Dr. Charles Richard Drew, an African-American surgeon who pioneered techniques to preserve blood plasma.

There are still 51 schools in the city named after slave owners. In fact, so many were named after John McDonogh -- a prominent local philanthropist, education benefactor and, coincidentally, slave owner -- that the city has numbered them.

Opposition to Galmon's movement is also coming from some educators, who worry that money spent changing band uniforms, school signs and logos in the name of sensitivity and political correctness could be better used educating children. Several schools named for McDonogh have elected not to change their names, not to buck tradition.

New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial has supported Galmon's effort to rename the schools because, he said, schools are simply being asked to make the decision themselves. But he also said it was important people do not become distracted by the issue.

"The name of the school is important but what goes on inside the school is even more important," Morial said.