RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In Oklahoma City, public school officials have announced they are looking to change the names of four elementary schools that appeared to be named for Confederate generals only to find that important details about some of those schools are a little murky. Emily Wendler from member station KOSU has the story.
EMILY WENDLER, BYLINE: Jackson Elementary is on the south side of Oklahoma City. And it's named after Stonewall Jackson, a Confederate general during the American Civil War. His name is engraved on the side of the building. And that's always bothered school board member Charles Henry.
CHARLES HENRY: Because, at first, I thought it was Andrew Jackson, which I think is equally offensive, personally. And then I looked it up, and it was named after Stonewall. I researched him, too. And I was like, yeah, that's wrong.
WENDLER: Most of the students at Jackson Elementary are Hispanic and black. And Henry doesn't think they should go to a school named after a Confederate officer who fought to keep slavery legal.
HENRY: Where somebody was fighting for legalized rape, legalized brutality, legalized lynching. That's what slavery means to a lot of people.
WENDLER: Henry says he put the issue on the back burner because there were more immediate school problems to deal with. But then the violence in Charlottesville happened, and he declared his concerns at a board meeting.
District leaders had also learned that three other schools could be named for Confederate generals. And within a few days, the superintendent, Aurora Lora, announced that they were considering changing the names of those four schools.
AURORA LORA: These schools are Jackson, Lee, Stand Watie and Wheeler. And what we want to do is find out if the communities have interest in going forward with the name change.
WENDLER: Looking into the names, though, city historians discovered a problem.
LARRY JOHNSON: Wheeler and Lee could be named for very important people in the city's history.
WENDLER: That's Larry Johnson. His job is to research Oklahoma City for the local libraries.
JOHNSON: And if they are, then you don't want to do them a disservice by removing something that honored them.
WENDLER: Johnson says there's a lot of evidence showing that Wheeler Elementary may not be named for the Confederate army leader Joseph Wheeler, but actually a local businessman from the early 1900s. The namesake for Lee Elementary, he says, is going to take a little more digging. Now Oklahoma City is having to ask itself this question - if there's even a chance that these two schools are named for local leaders, does it make sense to change the names?
DESERAE JACKSON: The staff is really passionate to keep it Wheeler.
WENDLER: Deserae Jackson is the principal at Wheeler Elementary.
JACKSON: No one knew who it was named after to begin with. And so when I told the staff, everybody was shocked. And there's some staff member that's been here for 30 years, and nobody had any idea.
WENDLER: The district superintendent, Aurora Lora, says she doesn't want to force a name change on anyone. I wanted to know how people were feeling about the issue. So I headed out to talk to them.
Alejandra Dehuma is waiting to pick up her younger brother from Stand Watie Elementary, named for a Native American Confederate soldier. I asked her what she thinks about that.
ALEJANDRA DEHUMA: For the kids, it's not really a big deal because they just see it as a school. They go and learn.
WENDLER: And she says it just wasn't really a problem until people started looking into it. Moises Duenas, on the other hand, has no hesitation about changing the name of his daughter's school.
MOISES DUENAS: (Speaking Spanish).
WENDLER: He says, if they don't change them, it's like they're supporting the Confederates racism. That's how Richard Pappan says he feels, too.
RICHARD PAPPAN: It's similar to me. I mean, my experience as a young Native American growing up in a school named Columbus.
WENDLER: What if you didn't know that it was Christopher Columbus, and the district had lost the paperwork or something? Would you still be...
PAPPAN: Oh, they're not sure if it's Robert E. Lee or if it's some other Lee? So, yeah, I guess it could go either way.
WENDLER: District officials are working with local historians to nail that down. But even if they can, it's clear that there will be a lot of conversation and disagreement in the coming months about whether to rename these elementary schools. For NPR News, I'm Emily Wendler in Oklahoma City.
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