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Concord Town Meeting members pressure school committee to rename middle school

Meg Woolhouse and Adam Reilly
Concord Town Meeting members pressure school committee to rename middle school
Concord Town Meeting members overwhelmingly voted in favor of renaming the middle school after a Black woman and Civil War era abolitionist Ellen Garrison. Photo courtesy of Robbins House

Concord Town Meeting members earlier this month overwhelmingly voted in favor of renaming the middle school after local educator and Civil War era abolitionist Ellen Garrison, a Black woman.

It would be the first building named for a Black person in the majority-white town, but the school committee rejected the idea in February, with members arguing that calling it the “Concord Middle School” would be more unifying.

Ellen Garrison supporters asked for a communitywide vote on the name, saying the Garrison name would send a welcoming message to students and families of color.

“In the birthplace of our democracy, it would be a bad look to be undemocratic,” said Michael Williams, a Black doctor who raised four biracial children in Concord. “We’re making as much noise as we can.”

The school naming has driven a deep wedge in this affluent suburb of Boston. Proponents of the change have put up “Why Not Ellen?” signs all across Concord, and said that the vote – even if only symbolic – would be a referendum on the community’s values.

Concord residents raise their voting slips to show support for renaming the middle school during a Town Meeting on April 30, 2024. SCREEN CAPTURE FROM MINUTEMAN MEDIA NETWORK

Advocates began lobbying the school committee during the merger of two schools and construction of a new $104-million building. The town’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission brought the question to a nonbinding vote, with any town resident of voting age eligible to weigh in.

“‘Concord Middle School’ is a courageous name valuing all voices, all types. [It shows] we value everyone equally,” said School Committee co-chair Alexa Anderson, before voting against a change in February. “This idea of elevating one person over another, it just doesn’t seem right.”

Other proposals for the middle school name included Jerry Moss Middle School, after an influential Black physical education teacher who mentored generations of Concord teens, or naming the school dually for Korean War veteran Thomas Hudner and Jesse Brown, the Black airman he tried to save in combat.

But it is Garrison who has stirred debate. Local historians say she attended Concord public schools and later traveled to Southern states at great personal risk during Reconstruction to teach emancipated children to read. In 1866, she refused to give up her spot at a Baltimore train station and was forcibly removed, nearly a century before Rosa Parks held her ground on an Alabama bus.

Joe Palumbo, a co-chair of the DEI Commission and leader among the “Friends of Ellen,” said Garrison’s grandfather is thought to have fought on Concord’s Old North Bridge as an enslaved person during the Revolutionary War. He called her an unsung heroine.

When Williams first heard the proposal to name the building for Garrison, he said he “felt seen” and was brought to tears. Reflecting on his own life and career, he said Garrison’s name on a building could be a source of inspiration.

“I’ve never been in a room where the people around me wanted me there,” said Williams. “You take up space, you do what needs to be done, and don’t expect that you’re going to make friends. But that’s a big, big weight to put on your kids.”

Other Garrison supporters, who have a website and a petition with more than 1,100 signatures in support of their cause, have rejected the notion that Garrison’s name would not be unifying and said they have concerns that others view it that way.

Last fall, the Boston Globe reported that a Black student at the middle school was called a racist slur while playing football with a group of students, one of whom suggested that they whip the teen “because he’s Black.”

Families told GBH News about ways large and small that they routinely feel unwelcome in Concord. They said Black families taking walks in the town’s predominantly white neighborhoods may be questioned or eyeballed, and some residents get alarmed if they see a group of teens of color.

Megan Denis, who moved to Concord six years ago and has three biracial sons in the town’s schools, said one of her sons in elementary school was called the N-word and “monkey” twice by other students last year.

“We’ve had a lot of challenges with peer-to-peer racism,” she said, noting that the schools have intervened to her satisfaction, but that she feels there is a bigger problem in the Concord community.

The district also hosts 130 METCO students who come to the Concord from Boston daily. Domingos DaRosa, a representative of the METCO parent advisory group to the school committee, expressed support for the Ellen Garrison name in February, saying it would send a welcoming signal to people of color beyond Concord’s borders.

The School Committee is not required to change the name as a result of the Town Meeting vote.

This is a condensed version of a story published April 29 on wgbh.org and includes updates from a May 1 story on the results of the townwide vote.

Concord Middle School, Concord Town Meeting, Ellen Garrison

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