Tyler parent Aaron Kershaw grew up in Newport News, VA, not far from William and Mary College. So, growing up, he’d heard all about John Tyler, the tenth president of the United States (1841-1845), who was educated there and later served as chancellor of the college.
“Pretty unremarkable man,” Kershaw said. “Treason, bigotry, the works.”
But when a friend told him that Tyler Elementary (1001 G St. SE), the school attended by Kershaw’s three children, was named after the former president, Kershaw was surprised.
“I didn’t even realize it,” said Kershaw, who is Black, “because it would never cross my mind that in Washington, DC they would name a school after someone that was president, but joined the confederacy –the only president not recognized in death by the federal government.”
Abraham Lincoln, the President at the time of Tyler’s death, didn’t publicly acknowledge Tyler’s passing, as Tyler was considered a traitor at the time of his passing in 1862.
“And yet somehow, his name is plastered on a DC school for a hundred years,” Kershaw adds, incredulously. “I do not want my children to walk into a school named after someone who did not think they should learn to read, someone who thought they were less than human.”
Since Kershaw made the connection, the school made a decision to fully undertake the renaming process. In 2019, they launched a community consultation process, holding extensive conversations, eventually forming a committee to lead the discussion.
The process has resulted in a final list of four people. The school community will vote for their choice from that list, passing the winner on as a recommendation to DC Council, who must pass legislation to make a name change official.
It has been a long process to come to these four choices. Discussions began immediately in 2019 when Kershaw, then an officer of the Tyler PTA, first learn of the school’s eponym. But the renaming process was shortly hindered by COVID, which refocused attention onto the health and education of students during the pandemic.
However, the PTA still presented a resolution on renaming to Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B in July 2020. The ANC passed the resolution, which called on DC Council to change the name of the school, as well as that of nearby Robert Brent Elementary (301 North Carolina Ave. SE) “as soon as possible.”
“The views, actions, and perspective of Robert Brent and John Tyler were abhorrent in their time and do not reflect the community values of ANC 6B to this day,” reads the resolution.
A new Tyler PTA executive was elected in 2021. Nick Burger was elected PTA President that year. With Kershaw’s continuing support, he said, they continued the renaming efforts.
Under the newly-elected PTA, the school held community meetings discussing the legacy of John Tyler, putting out surveys in 2021, 2022 and 2023 to collect ideas from students, families and community members. The Tyler Renaming Committee met on April 12 and 20 of this year to review 121 suggested names. They removed those that were ineligible for naming under DC Code, mostly because the person was alive or had not been deceased for two years.
The remaining names were scored according to seven criteria: historic significance; contribution to Black History; significance to Hispanic History; contribution to the arts; notable woman in history; District relevance; and contribution to social justice. Four nominees received a perfect score. Those were selected for final consideration.
A Better Reflection
Tyler Elementary serves just under 500 students in grades pre-K3 to 5. The greater proportion of these children are people of color; 65 percent identify as Black and 15 percent as Hispanic/Latino in 2021-22. The school offers dual language Spanish immersion, arts-focused integration and specialized instruction.
Following the lengthy engagement with the school and community, in early June the School Renaming Committee presented the four possible names. They include: DC-born artist, activist and teacher Elizabeth Catlett; seven-term Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (NY-D), who also ran for the Democratic 1972 Presidential Nomination; DC native and jazz legend Shirley Horn, nominated for nine Grammy Awards; and literary legend Toni Morrison, who was the first Black woman to earn the Nobel Prize in Literature for her work describing the realities of Black experience and racism in the United States. (Read about each nominee here.)
Those names will better reflect the students and their life goals, Kershaw said. “We’re going to have kids that are going to walk out that are going to have similar stories,” he said, noting that many of the four women proposed were born in DC, lived in Mexico and spoke Spanish. “The school’s name is going to represent kids that are coming out of it,” he said. ”I feel like that is more important.”
Name Change Process Under Revision
In 2020, when ANC 6B passed the Tyler/Brent resolution, DC Public School Naming Policy stipulated that any person or organization may submit a proposed change of name, together with a community engagement process and the costs and timeline of a name change. The chancellor was then to review the request, rendering a decision in 30 days. The mayor had the final decision on name changes.
However, in 2023, the renaming policy has become somewhat unclear. Somewhere during the process undertaken at Tyler, Kershaw notes, the initial guidelines disappeared from the website, replaced with a notice dated March 29, 2021 saying that “DCPS’ School Naming Policy is currently being revised.”
The revision could have been related to the “Commemoration Task Force Act of 2020,” a bill passed in 2021 that was to create a task force to review commemorative works and public space names and to provide recommendations to DC Council. However, the task force does not appear to have been appointed and the policy remains under revision more than two years later.
A spokesperson for DC Public Schools (DCPS) said they defer to DC Council’s authority over the naming of District public schools. “If Council presents and approves a school name change, DCPS will work to incorporate and socialize the new name across District systems, including communication channels and directly in our facilities,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
The spokesperson also expressed support for the work in the school community. “For some time, the Tyler school community has expressed their desire to change the name of the school, as the namesake of the institution does not represent their values,” the statement continues. “DCPS supports Tyler’s decision to engage students, parents, and families and follow the official renaming process.”
According to a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, following the May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd, more than 160 Confederate symbols were removed or renamed throughout the US before the year was out. In the same month that ANC 6B passed the renaming resolution, Mayor Muriel Bowser created the DC Facilities and Commemorative Expressions (DC FACES) Working Group, tasked with evaluating named public spaces and recommending actions –either removing, renaming or contextualizing buildings, public spaces or monuments.
In 2020, the Working Group recommended Tyler on its list of 19 schools that should be renamed to reflect contemporary values, based on the first condition that disqualifies an honor: that the person it is named after was an enslaver of people. Robert Brent Elementary and John Walker Maury Elementary were also on the list. While the latter initiated the renaming process in 2018, it was not completed.
The Tyler process aligns with many of the recommendations in the DC FACES report, including that diverse candidates are identified to honor. The report notes that 70 percent of assets, or District properties, are named for White men –many of whom did not even live in the District. It also suggests that a robust engagement process be followed and that recommendations promote DC Statehood and preserve DC History.
Burger said that robust community engagement has been key to the school’s renaming process.
He knows they can’t reach everyone with a connection to the school, but they are trying. Tyler’s social media has publicized the process and the choices and the school has reached out beyond the present student body to alumni. That includes students now at Jefferson Middle School Academy as well as those more removed from their elementary school years, such as John “Peterbug” Matthews, who attended Tyler in the 1950s.
“I hope, I expect, that when we get to the point of going to council, we’ll be able to have a robust set of people from our school community stand up and say, “yes, we were involved, we participated, we voted,” Burger said.
A Matter of Law
DC Code indicates that DCPS can offer approval or support for a name, but cannot unilaterally change the name of a school. That must be undertaken via legislation passed by DC Council, partly due to the costs. Renaming costs vary according to school type and size, the report notes, but are generally between $50,000 and $250,000 for an elementary school and increase to between $500,000 and $1 million to rename middle or high schools.
That means that a DC Councilmember needs to put forward a bill to officially change the name, requiring a majority of votes from the 13 members. Representatives from the Tyler PTA say they have support from Council.
Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6-D) said he was aware of the efforts. “This process must take place in, and work through, the community first and foremost,” Allen said via email.” When that process plays out, I’ll certainly be following to see what the next steps might be and how I can help fulfill the community’s decision.”
In the past, DC Council has approved legislation to change the name of Woodrow Wilson High School to Jackson Reed, considering Wilson’s discriminatory policies. A school named for Joseph Rodman West, a Union General in 1863 who, under the premise of a peace conference in 1863, ordered the torture and murder of Apache Chief Mangas Coloradas, was changed to John Lewis Elementary School Elementary School; and Benjamin Grayson Orr Elementary, named for a slave holder who was also the fourth mayor of Washington, was renamed for Lawrence E. Boone, a DC native who led the school from 1973 to 1996. (Aiton Elementary was also renamed, but the bill specified that the desire to change the name to Lorraine H. Whitlock was not meant as any reflection on Aiton’s legacy, but rather to honor Whitlock’s contributions to the District of Columbia and Ward 7).
Kershaw, who has written several opinion pieces on the topic, said that the Tyler community intends to see the process through to the end. “We got to fight for our kids,” Kershaw said. “I feel like this small thing, if we can make this small thing happen, I think my kids will see: “wow. I can really create change.”
“If you believe it, you need to be willing to breathe some life into it.”
The Tyler community will hold a vote on the new name by the end of June. For more information, visit the Tyler PTA website, www.tylerelementary.net/pta