The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At a Mississippi elementary school, Jefferson Davis is out and Barack Obama is in

A statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue in Richmond. (Steve Helber/AP)

Almost all of the students at Jefferson Davis International Baccalaureate Elementary School are black, and the irony of the situation is not lost on many of the children or their parents: Their school honors a man who waged a war to keep their ancestors enslaved.

“Jefferson Davis . . . would probably not be too happy about a diverse school promoting the education of the very individuals he fought to keep enslaved being named after him,” Janelle Jefferson, president of the school’s parent-teacher association, said at a recent Jackson Public Schools board meeting, according to the Clarion-Ledger.

In the latest salvo in an intensifying debate over the commemoration of Confederate leaders in public spaces, Davis IB Elementary is getting a new name: Barack Obama IB Elementary School.

The name change will take effect next school year, when the Jackson, Miss., school will join at least 21 others across the nation named “Obama,” including two named for former first lady Michelle Obama.

As The Washington Post’s Moriah Balingit and Emma Brown reported in August, “at least 138 public schools nationwide in 2015-16 were named after Confederate leaders or for counties that bear the name of those leaders, including Lee, Jackson and Davis. They are largely concentrated in the South.”

The process started a few weeks ago after one of the elementary school students had a conversation with her mom about Jefferson Davis.

The parent brought the issue to the PTA as word spread throughout the school, one of 38 public elementary schools in Mississippi’s capital city. Students made presentations, and their parents contacted school board members. The PTA and other stakeholders voted Oct. 5 to rename the school. They took their recommendation to the school board, which approved the change Tuesday.

“It consisted of the student recognizing that our school is named for a person who didn’t agree that they should thrive educationally — or any way in life — or really be considered a human being,” Jefferson, who is black, told The Post.

The name change comes as the school system could be facing immense change. In September, the Mississippi Board of Education asked Gov. Phil Bryant (R) to declare that the Jackson public school system is in an “extreme emergency,” and the state could soon take control of the area’s schools, according to the Associated Press.

Civil War’s legacy hangs over a plaque honoring Confederate soldiers

The state board asserted that some seniors have graduated without meeting requirements, teachers are providing ineffective education and the schools are unsafe for the capital city’s 27,000 students, the AP reported. The school’s interim superintendent argued that the district has improved and should have more time to address problems.

The state board of education is holding a special work session Thursday to talk about Jackson public schools. Bryant is expected to make a decision this month on whether the state should wrest control from local officials.

The name change is the latest argument in the nationwide debate about whether U.S. communities should honor Confederate leaders.

Opposition began to coalesce after nine black churchgoers were killed June 17, 2015, at a church in Charleston, S.C., in a racially motivated massacre.

The killer, Dylann Roof, was seen on one website holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate flag in the other.

The debate intensified in August after deadly protests in Charlottesville, which began when white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members protested authorities’ decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public park.

The controversy is playing out across the South, where most — but not all — Confederate monuments are. But the debate doesn’t just involve Southern states, or monuments for that matter. In the past few months, people have debated renaming a dining hall at Oregon State University and an intersection in California called Confederate Corners.

The removal of Confederate windows at National Cathedral was no cause for celebration

And the debate is still playing out in Jackson schools.

The district has two other schools named after Confederate leaders: George Elementary and Lee Elementary. Committees are evaluating whether those schools should be renamed, according to the Clarion-Ledger.

It’s unclear what will happen at those schools, but students there have already gotten a civics lesson from the students at the soon-to-be renamed Jefferson IB Elementary.

“Having these conversations is hard,” said Jefferson, who has three children in the school district and another who will be starting soon.

“The history you have to come to terms with is not the easiest thing to think about or talk about, especially with kids. But the positive came for me in that our kids can see that there’s a process to it. They saw something wrong, and now they know they can change it.”

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