School naming as racial resistance: black school principals and critical race pedagogy in 1890 St. Louis.

Author:Lyons, Shante J.
Position:St. Louis, Missouri - Essay


After twelve years of community agitation, the Black public school principals in St. Louis, Missouri, named the twelve elementary schools serving their community in 1890 for famous members of their race (Gersman, 1972). All but one name came from those in William Wells Brown's (1863) The Black Man; three of the men were African American but not from the borders of the United States, and two of those names were well- known to the school principals as leaders of the only successful slave revolt: L'Ouverture and Dessalines. Black children and youth would learn of their potential for racial resistance as they entered schools named for these singular men.

This essay aims to extend the nascent theorizing over school names by cultural geographer Derek H. Alderman (2002) who suggests that such names could serve as "cultural arenas" for memory. The article, moreover, utilizes intellectual historian Stephan G. Hall's (2009) excavation of African-American historical writing to suggest a deep well of meaning that could inform this memory-inspired school naming. Thus, the article will explore how the meanings-rich memory work by the principals can be understood as critical race pedagogy (Jennings & Lynn, 2005) through the creation of "geographies of resistance," the "cultivation of communal and cultural assets," and the "activation of a liberatory consciousness" (Love, 2000, in Sharpe, 2014, p. 5; Pile & Keith, 1997; Yosso, 2005).

In particular, this article will highlight the place of Haiti in the radical 19th century African-American diasporic imagination and at the forefront of the school naming action in 1890 St. Louis, Missouri. Given scant attention in late-20th century American history textbooks (Czemiak, 2006), the Haiti freedom struggle was much better understood by freedom-seeking Blacks in the 19th century as a veritable beacon to Black men schooled during "the dawn of freedom" (Hall, 2009, p. 124). Indeed, two of the St. Louis school principals had clear Haitian connections. One was Arthur Dessalines Langston, the eldest son of a former Minister of Haiti (Cheek & Cheek, 1989), and the other was Obadiah M. Wood, someone who resolutely sought to become Minister to Haiti ("The color line drawn," 1889). Wood's leadership of L'Ouverture School offers a further glimpse into Critical Race Pedagogy for the times. The year after his school relinquished No. 3 as its name, L'Ouverture 8th graders were led by their principal Wood to purchase public library cards for the then princely sum of one dollar. Enough students (and their families) raised the necessary funds that L"Ouverture students had more than half of all library cards held by St. Louis school-aged children and youth (Gersman, 1972). Thus, necessary access to more equal opportunity to learning was championed by Wood, an "American Toussaint" (Clavin, 2007).

Finally, this essay will offer a unique understanding of how Wood and others would utilize cultural empowerment techniques to socialize and acculturate their communities (Rabaka, 2003). Du Bois (1973) inquired, "How can we use the accumulated wisdom of the world for the full development of human power?" (p. 10). These names represent a conscious radical effort to stimulate the historical memories lost by the cultural dislocation of the communities these schools served (Assante, 1987). Educational practitioners can synthesize the lesson given to us through the courage of these men with their call to rehabilitate the value of a holistic experience and liberation of thinking for their future learners. Also, this lesson can be utilized to incite the courage to create a professional discourse centered upon collective leadership efforts to reformulate the present day oasis of critical race pedagogical practice.

Linking the Historical Memory

The construction of racial and nationalistic identity was of grave importance for the formerly enslaved. The collective memory of the African-American community was riddled with remnants of White supremacy, cultural inferiority, and the failed promise of liberty and justice witnessed from the Reconstruction Era. To substantiate cultural relevancy and liberatory ideals, school naming was one of a variety of subversive acts to reinstitute a positive African identity and bolster a collective sense of self-reliant activity. Paramount to Black communities in the late 19th century were acts to reclaim the very humanity stripped by the enslavement of Africans throughout the global diaspora. To reactivate the historical memory and ignite the liberatory consciousness without obstacle, a focused and strategic effort was needed to progress the freedom seeking ideals of the oppressed (Love, 2000). African-American educators during the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries embraced a philosophical and political agenda in their approach to all curriculum, programming, and this instance, the naming of geographies where white supremacy were systematically challenged and Black ontologies were redefined (King, 2015).

The enslavement of African people failed to curtail the desire of an "expanding, educated, and literate population to define itself as more than slaves or circumscribed citizens" (Hall, 2009, p. 18). Invariably, African enslavement...

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