A multi-year effort to shed a Confederate name from one of St. Louis’ top public elementary schools, Kennard Classical Junior Academy, is gaining momentum.
Both parents of Kennard students and alumni of St. Louis Public Schools’ gifted program are lobbying district administrators to pick a new namesake because the current one belongs to a former Confederate States Army soldier.
In 2014, a parent discovered Kennard school is named for Samuel M. Kennard, a secessionist supporter and later a member of St. Louis’ wealthy elite who helped found the Veiled Prophet Organization. The school was built in the North Hampton neighborhood in 1928.
Since then, parents of the majority-white school for gifted and talented children have been reckoning with the city’s past and trying to make it a teachable moment for their kids. They formed an equity task force that’s worked to come up with a new name for the school and foster a more inclusive gifted program in SLPS.
“It’s a good entry point to involve the entire community, and it’s something that’s hard to keep ignoring,” said Jennifer Boudreau, a member of Kennard’s Equity and Inclusion Committee. “And even though it’s something that takes up a lot of our time, we feel it’s urgent.”
St. Louis removed the Confederate Memorial from Forest Park in 2017, joining several communities that have debated the role of monuments and symbols of the secessionist movement.
Kennard’s Parent-Teacher Organization collected nominations for a new name from parents and students last fall. After a preliminary vote, finalists were narrowed to three people:
- Clyde Kennard, a civil rights activist and veteran who pushed for admission to the University of Southern Mississippi. He shares a last name but no relation to Samuel Kennard. He also has no direct ties to St. Louis.
- Mary Meachum, an abolitionist who helped lead slaves along the Underground Railroad from St. Louis to Illinois. She also started a school for black children on a Mississippi riverboat when Missouri outlawed the education of blacks in 1847.
- Betty Wheeler, who founded what was then called Metro High School in 1972 and served as principal until her retirement in 1997. She graduated from SLPS’s first high school for black students, Sumner High School in The Ville neighborhood, and is the daughter of Missouri’s first black state senator. Wheeler died in 2011.
Several alumni of Metro Academic and Classical High School say the obvious choice for Kennard’s new name is Wheeler. An online petition to rename Kennard after Wheeler has nearly 1,400 signatures.
“It would be an honor and privilege to see my mama’s name on the school,” Wheeler’s daughter, Gayle Wheeler-Williams, told St. Louis’ elected school board in December.
Metro alumni who spoke before SLPS' governing board at its January meeting spoke highly of Wheeler.
“Betty was unafraid to challenge her students, unafraid to demand that we push ourselves beyond what we were capable of,” said Joe Bartzel, a Metro alumnus, during the public comment period. “She taught us not to shy away from difficult conversations about politics, about race, about ethics, or whatever the hot-button social issue of the day might have been.”
They appeared to win over one member on the spot.
“If I’d known that, I would have started on that 10 years ago,” said Richard Gaines, who sits on the three-member Special Administrative Board, following the public comments about Kennard’s history.
“I don’t know how these other two folks are going to vote,” Gaines continued, “but you’ve got one vote to start, and I think you’ll be happy with the results.”
Selection of a new school name is pending. The Kennard PTO plans to hold a second vote in the spring within the school community to select its final choice for a new namesake.
No formal resolution to rename the school after Wheeler or anyone else has been brought to the Special Administrative Board.
“I think we’re all working toward the same thing,” Boudreau, a Kennard parent, said, "which is to change the name of the school.”
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Joe Bartzel because of how it was recorded and announced during the public comment period of the SAB meeting.
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