If anyone represented what a Detroit High School student could become with the proper dedication and focus, it was Ben Carson — or so the thinking went.
He graduated from Southwest High School in 1969, two years after riots in Detroit began to paint the Motor City as an dreary symbol of urban decay. He went on to become a world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon, operating on fetuses inside the womb and separating twins conjoined at the head.
As Detroit was crawling out of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, Carson was launching a bid for the nation’s highest office. He is a Presidential Medal of Freedom awardee and the current U.S. secretary of housing and urban development.
But it’s that last act — Carson’s foray into politics and his association with President Trump — that has Detroit school board members calling for someone to pry the letters off the high school that bears Carson’s name.
“It is synonymous with having Trump’s name on our school in blackface,” Detroit school board member Lamar Lemmons told The Washington Post, when asked why is he leading the charge to remove Carson’s name.
Carson “is doing Trump’s bidding, and he has adversely affected the African American community in Detroit as well as the nation with his housing policies,” Lemmons said. "And he’s allied himself with a president that says he is a white nationalist and sends dog whistles that even the deaf can hear.”
Lemmons said the neurosurgeon’s name was plopped onto the school while the city was being overseen by an emergency financial manager following the 2013 bankruptcy, skirting the more ponderous process for determining whose name should grace a Detroit school.
It wasn’t always this way for Detroit or for Lemmons.
When Carson came to speak at a Detroit church nearly two decades ago, Lemmons brought his granddaughter and took a photo of the surgeon holding the baby. For a time, Lemmons said, it was a cherished family memory.
And shortly before Carson launched his ultimately unsuccessful bid for president in 2015, he showed up at his namesake school and spoke to students, according to the Detroit News, imparting a lesson on resilience.
“People are always going to tell you what you can’t do,” Carson told the assembled students. “But you don’t have to accept that.”
But now, Lemmons said, community members regularly send him letters asking the school board to rename Dr. Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine. And if Carson makes a trip to Detroit, there will be no laying of hands on the Lemmons children.
"Had he stayed in medicine, irrespective of his political philosophy or how he voted in private, we would have been happy to put his name on a school.” Lemmons said. “We looked at him as an honored son. He has since, in many of our eyes, disgraced himself.”
Carson could not immediately be reached for comment. In the past, he has defended Trump’s treatment of minority issues.
“He wants to find out from a lot of different sources what people perceive the problems to be and what they perceive the solutions to be,” Carson told NPR in 2016, while reflecting on Trump’s outreach to African Americans. “And he also wants to hear about things that have effectively moved people out of the position of dependency and put them on a ladder to success.”
“What really bothers me is he is a person that grew up in poverty and took advantage of all the social service safety nets that allowed him to have some semblance of normality and get an education,” Lemmons told The Post. “And he’s one that‘s now removing that ladder, that rung in the ladder for others to excel as he did. He is a person who advocates pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, but now he is removing the boots and the strap.”
Lemmons claims there is widespread support for renaming the school, and perhaps even more support for a new policy that leaders hope will prevent the school district from ever being in a similar situation: No one gets their name on a school until they are dead.