The trial of Patrick Henry: Generations collide over renaming a North Side high school

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Pierre Ware

I. The Spark

Semaj Rankin was already a junior by the time he learned that Patrick Henry, U.S. founding father and namesake of the largest high school on Minneapolis’ north side, was a slaveowner.

Patrick Henry High had been Rankin’s second home. He’d chanted Henry’s name at football games. He’d worn it proudly across his chest, believing the man famous for uttering the words “Give me liberty or give me death” was synonymous with freedom fighting.

The truth left him feeling cheated and disrespected.

“I was more upset when I found out that Patrick Henry not only owned slaves, but did nothing to abolish slavery,” Rankin says. “To know something’s wrong and then do nothing about it, when he had the power to speak his mind, I think that’s more ugly.”

So he decided to do something about it. Rankin threw away his school shirts and went to North News, the community newspaper, and announced his intention to change Henry High’s name. He recruited teachers to advise and students dedicated to the cause. By December, they were marching on district headquarters.

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Patrick Henry (1736-1799) American attorney, planter, and politician. Engraved by E. Welmore Getty Images/iStockphoto

This was to be a mission of discipline. They gathered at a bus shelter across the street, listening in rapt silence as Mac Campbell, a Henry graduate who went on to Howard University, set the tone for a movement to come.

“Everybody is a young adult. You need to carry yourself as such,” she said sternly. “They already have all these preconceived notions about kids from the North Side, and I don’t need you guys to go in there and prove them right.”

If the superintendent’s office expected a rowdy rabble, they didn’t get one. And if students thought they’d face blowback from district leaders, it never came.

Instead, Chief of Schools Michael Thomas shared some pragmatic guidance.

The removal of historic monuments and names elsewhere had been attended by white supremacists, ad hoc vandalism, and flamethrower discourse. Henry students would be held to a higher standard.

In place of slash-and-burn protest, they’d have to follow district rules the way Justice Alan Page Middle School had, successfully expunging the name of Alexander Ramsey—Minnesota governor and Indian killer—from its building the year before.

It wouldn’t be easy, Thomas warned. Mascots and jerseys must be replaced. Signs, scoreboards, and murals repainted. Every book in the school library refitted with a fresh barcode. They’d lose the powerful enrollment slogan, “PHamily,” which instilled Patriot pride in north Minneapolis kids as early as kindergarten.

More pressing: The district was already facing a $33 million budget deficit. Students would have to raise the money themselves.

Changing a name would be easy, he said. But changing hearts and minds? That would be more difficult than anyone could predict.

II. The Birth of a Nation

Save for his “liberty” proclamation, Americans know little about Patrick Henry. He preserved few of his personal writings. Most of what historians know comes from his rousing speeches.

In the days before the Revolutionary War, three events would launch his fame.

As a young lawyer, Henry took on a case known as the Parson’s Cause. A drought had decimated Virginia’s crops, causing the value of tobacco to skyrocket. Clergy, who were compensated in pounds of tobacco, expected a windfall. That wasn’t fair in such times of crisis, the Virginia legislature decreed, passing a law to limit their pay. Preachers complained to London, which overruled the state.

Henry fought the clergy in court by raving against the tyranny of King George III. This was decidedly treasonous, but it made him a folk hero.

Later, the British enacted the widely hated Stamp Act, a tax on everything made of paper. Legend has it that Henry, who’d since gotten elected to the legislature, went to a tavern and drafted seven resolutions on a beer receipt. Each was more radical than the last, ranging from asserting colonists’ rights to branding those who supported the Stamp Act as enemies of Virginia. The legislature adopted the four meekest resolutions, but the newspapers ran with all seven. He became wildly popular throughout the 13 colonies.

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When the redcoats eventually moved in with force, agitated colonists debated taking up arms. Henry lent his fire: “Give me liberty or give me death!”

Bloodshed commenced. A country was founded. Afterward, Henry was elected the first governor of Virginia, complete with his own plantation. He would end up buying a roster of slaves, which seemed to clash with everything he believed.

“Slavery is detested,” Henry once said. “We feel its fatal effects. We deplore it with all the pity of humanity.”

But those words were but a fraction of a speech in which he urged postponement of emancipation, which would have toppled a Virginia economy built on slave labor.

It was the birth of a paradox.

III. The Teenage Insurrection

As freshman Janaan Ahmed waited for the bus one day, paging through an issue of North News, she fell across a story about Semaj Rankin’s call to change Henry’s name.

The fact that a majority African American school venerated a man who kept black people in bondage was one thing. The bigger deception, she says, was that most students spent four years at Henry without realizing it.

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Opponents of the name change criticized students’ behavior, financial plans, and survey methodology. Alumni did not produce their own survey data.

Ahmed joined Rankin’s Change the Name committee. The group studied the life of Patrick Henry, then put on presentations showing fellow students how to embark on their own discovery. When they sampled nearly half of the student body, they found that 77 percent of students and 90 percent of staff supported the change.

The kids set up informational booths outside North Market, Cub Foods, and the YWCA. They talked to fans at basketball games and convinced teams to wear Change the Name warmup shirts. They went on KMOJ. They got out of bed early and stayed late after class, consulting feeder schools and the teacher’s union.

They came up with alternate names that celebrated values such as “Liberty” and “Unity.” By March, they were ready to engage Henry High’s alumni.

The school has been around since 1927, built in a neighborhood that’s seen radical demographic change over the past 90 years. White elders were certain to hold differing views. Their first public forum would test the students’ knowledge, passion, and decorum.

An unexpected guest was 71-year-old Dr. Jack Schaffer of St. Paul, a member of the Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation board, an educational nonprofit. He’s also a fifth-generation great-grandson of the original patriot.

Seated in discussion with a number of black students and their young teachers, Schaffer stuck out in his tweed suit and glasses. He was nervous, given his ancestry, that others would recoil at him. Instead, he was shocked at how curious they were to hear what he had to say.

Henry’s hypocritical calls to liberty, while keeping slaves of his own, remain the most enigmatic thing about him. Schaffer’s best guess is he’d been moved to leave wealth to his 17 children so their descendants might maintain their station in upper society.

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Janaan Ahmed became a leader on the Change the Name committee during her sophomore year, presenting the students’ views at many community gatherings.

“All of that led to me being born into the family I was born into with the advantages I had,” he says. “All of that counts, going back generations and generations. The people who say slavery was so long ago, I think are people who have no concept of history and the impact that history has.”

From today’s perspective Henry was clearly racist, Schaffer says. But he also believes that were Henry alive today, he’d admit his failures because “he was not that interested in his legacy, and I think he was really interested in people.”

A retired psychologist more adept at problem-solving than taking sides, Schaffer is impartial to the name change. Yet he’s impressed by the dedication of these young students.

“There was one student who spoke very eloquently about how disenfranchising it felt for her, a black 16-year-old, to walk into a school knowing it’s named after a slave owner. And I think if Patrick Henry had been at that meeting, he would have said, ‘I think you should change the name.’”

IV. The Loyalists’ Assembly

Word of the students’ mission soon reached the ears of another Patrick Henry descendant, Brian Sheffey of Boston.

Sheffey, who’d spent most of his life in London, is the host of Genealogy Adventures—a popular blog and YouTube channel that began with a quest to reconnect with his American roots. He’s mapped a family tree of more than 100,000 names.

One ancestor was the mixed-race child of Henry’s grandson William Henry Roane—a staunch champion of slavery—and Elizabeth Henley, an enslaved woman. Their son, George, was sold.

Sheffey wouldn’t call himself a defender of Henry, but he does believe in the importance of moral relativism. His forays into genealogy have made one thing clear: Anyone with deep enough roots in America is genetically connected to millions of strangers of every race and religion.

The news of Henry High’s push bothered him on a personal level. His 80-year-old father had come of age during the Jim Crow era, forced to sit in the back of the bus and drink from segregated water fountains even while wearing the uniform of a cadet on the USS Patrick Henry.

Still, the old man had been proud to discover the relation, Sheffey says. His 20 siblings and first cousins agree that the name of the school should stay. Their instinct says a change would amount to little more than a cosmetic coverup of deeper injustices.

“Be the change agents,” Sheffey wrote to the school. “Insist upon a teaching of an unvarnished and un-spun history of the United States. ...That would be in keeping with the spirit of Patrick Henry. Start us down the road to accomplishing the task that he could not.”

Letters flooded Henry High, echoing similar reasons for opposition. Alumni said they’d feel disconnected. They wondered what would become of all the Minnesota landmarks named for fallible founding fathers. They argued that change would drain donations needed in the classroom.

Change the Name presented its proposal to Henry High’s site council, a body of parents and educators with the power to make recommendations to the superintendent. One man implored the students to empathize with alumni, who also grew up underdogs in the blue-collar neighborhoods of the North Side.

“This school and the experiences here, more than any other part of my life, shaped who I am more than I could ever describe,” he said. “So why do I care? It’s personal to me. It hurts.”

But behind the scenes, many pushed the boundaries of civil disagreement.

In an email to the fiercely neutral Principal Yusuf Abdullah, opponent Michael Harasyn wrote, “I dream of the day when we make a law so we can lock up anti-Americans such as you.”

“Slave owners were not bad people, in fact they probably provided better quality lives than their ‘slaves’ might have otherwise had,” wrote Nova Boughton. “Thomas Jefferson was also a slave owner and in fact loved one of his slaves very much!”

The Save the Name Facebook page teemed with comments like Lynn Favre’s: “These kids are all Muslim. That’s there goal. Change everything.” And Jeri Lindquist’s: “Just another move to make the Twin Cities a utopia for minorities and transplants from other states in the U.S. and other parts of the world.”

Added Diana Holt in a missive about the principal: “So a minority is telling me I have to change the name of my school and be okay with it he is the one spearheading this whole thing and he isn’t even from our country??!!”

The venom offended those straddling the fence.

Denny Vanvick, a 1960 graduate, couldn’t understand why students felt so strongly. He frequently wrote the Change the Name campaign to express his misgivings. But he would eventually switch teams due to the vitriol of opponents, which came as a shock.

“It’s illustrative of the level of bias and racism in the underbelly of our culture, what goes on behind closed doors, what people are whispering,” he says.

“The change doesn’t affect the alumni,” Vanvick has come to believe. “It’s just the name on the school. So when you drive by, it won’t change your standing in the class, your yardage record. We still have our copies of the yearbook. We still have our everything.”

V. Money Talks

Alumnus Monte Miller posed a unique challenge to the students.

Miller, class of 1954, coached football and wrestling for decades. He now serves on the Patrick Henry High School Foundation board, which raises thousands of dollars a year for scholarships, supplies, healthy breakfasts, hygiene products, and other necessities. His words had weight, as evidenced by the handful of alumni who relinquished their own public comment time so he could speak longer.

He admonished students for what he felt was their failure to grasp long-term consequences. One of the effects of a name change, Miller warned, was that alumni would no longer donate to the foundation.

“In other words, don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

Since the start of the school year, many alumni have threatened to withhold their support. Some said they’ll never give another dime. Two board members have resigned. Today, the foundation is split.

Like the school and the neighborhood surrounding it, it’s witnessing a transformative moment. The lion’s share of the donations come from graduates of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, says Chair Paul Chermak. If younger generations don’t step up and give, the foundation may cease to exist.

“If there’s any school that needs tools and assistance, it’s Patrick Henry High School,” Chermak says. “It’s not like an Edina, a Minnetonka, with the huge donations and kids whose parents buy them the best football fields in the world.

“I will continue to donate no matter what the name of the school is, but that doesn’t mean that others feel the same way.”

One muggy afternoon in May, the dozen members of the foundation board gathered in a classroom for their final meeting of the school year. Principal Abdullah was present, along with teachers, parents, and alumni. In this intimate space, with the windows thrown open to exuberant sounds of children at play, they talk like old friends despite the turmoil of the preceding months.

The happy news is the treasurer’s report shows donations have actually increased. However, there aren’t enough officers left to elect a new board.

“Speaking for myself, I feel it’s time for some of us to go out to pasture,” said Miller, softly and more contritely than he had during the public forum. He assured the others he’d stay on until younger replacements are found.

“I am not going to leave it in the lurch or anything. I’ll make sure there are new people on the board who are good people.”

VI. Olive branches

About 200 people packed Henry High’s lower gym on the night of the site council’s vote. The room was split between Save the Name supporters in red, Change the Name proponents in black.

Save the Name put up a fight, presenting its best financial arguments.

Students estimated the cost of new signs to be $50,000. They planned to raise $10,000 the first year and $20,000 each of the following two. Yet by the time of the meeting, their GoFundMe stood at just $4,000.

The alumni jeered Principal Abdullah as he sat in stony silence, wearing the conciliatory red shirt of a Henry High Patriot. Then they cheered as he was called upon to vote “no” in accordance with their “overwhelming opposition.”

Save the Name also accused students of bullying. They said proponents labeled those who disagreed with them as “racists” and “white supremacists.” They claimed kids indifferent to the name change were badgered, that the “negative” and “divisive” campaign caused rifts among friends.

Most of these claims were supported by neither detail nor evidence.

Ultimately, the site council voted to postpone its ruling. The meeting adjourned in a heated flurry.

With the question left overhanging the school, this year’s seniors graduated with Patrick Henry diplomas.

Janaan Ahmed is upbeat. The campaign showed her a wide world of seemingly intractable differences. Yet it’s only enriched her to watch how every individual differs in the way they reason, in their ability to listen.

She’s learned how to accommodate those contrasts and to speak in ways that reach earnestly for strangers’ hearts.

“We’re not so worried about the opposition anymore. At the beginning it was us versus them, but now we just want to understand them so they can have a chance to understand us.”

Ahmed wants others to realize that people who otherwise had little reason to come together have ultimately spent hours gathered in the stuffy basements and worn auditoriums of the school they all loved. That they’ve learned more about the real Patrick Henry than they may have ever wanted to know.

She wonders if her opponents ever had their minds changed, even a little bit, through the process of organizing in democratic fashion. She hopes so.

“We are unifying ourselves in greater ways than we think we’re opposing each other,” Ahmed says.

“At the end of the day, it seems like people are just afraid of change. But don’t you see change is happening all around us? The earth is turning, the trees are blooming, the clouds are moving. Why can’t names change, especially when the people inside the school are changing?”


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