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Saturday, December 09, 2023

Facing criticism for honoring U.S. president who owned slaves, Madison high school under pressure to change name

A student-led petition demanding that Madison Metropolitan School District change the name of one of its high schools honoring U.S. President James Madison, who owned slaves before the Civil War, has received more than 1,100 signatures since it began circulating online earlier this week.

Mya Berry, a James Madison Memorial High School senior, created the petition Wednesday. Although the petition doesn’t state what the new name should be, Berry went before the MMSD School Board Monday to request that “James” be dropped from the school name.

Noting the fourth U.S. president’s active participation in slavery, as well as an already hostile racial climate at her school, Berry argued the name has a negative impact on black students.

“With all the injustice I and others face in James Madison Memorial High School, do you truly think it's appropriate to glorify a man that enslaved my ancestors?” she said in the petition letter. “With the education disparity between black and white students being a huge concern in the Madison Metropolitan School District, and if you truly care about black students, you would change the name of Memorial high school.”

Berry also said several racial incidents that allegedly took place at school prompted her to demand the name change, including being called the N-word multiple times and having an individual threaten to lynch her.

School faculty began looking into these incidents after the petition was released, but they were not previously reported, James Madison Memorial High School Principal Jay Affeldt told The Daily Cardinal in an email.

Berry told the Cardinal that while changing the name of James Madison Memorial is her top focus right now, she also wants to address the school’s racial climate.

“I don’t want James Madison representing me and the education I’ve received at the high school,” Berry said. “But ultimately, I also want the school environment to be safe for all students.”

Affeldt said he is looking to clarify with the district what the formal process would be to request a school name change.

It is also unclear how much a name change would cost the district. Affeldt said he doesn’t yet have any estimates for the project, but that he will be working with MMSD Building Services to determine costs associated with changing signage.

The City of Madison is named after James Madison as well. Berry said although changing the city name is not a priority right now, it’s something she would like to work on in the future.

“I just want to do one step at a time but ultimately I don’t want any of these people representing me or where I live,” Berry said.

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The proposal would likely have to go before the Madison Metropolitan School Board for a vote. School district spokesperson Rachel Strauch-Nelson could not be reached for comment.

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