A Montgomery County middle school named after a white man who historians have called an “unrepentant segregationist” will soon be rebranded to honor the first Black woman elected to public office in Montgomery County.
In February 2019, the Montgomery County school board began a renaming process for Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School in Silver Spring, after community members and then-County Council President Nancy Navarro raised concerns about its namesake’s history.
During a meeting on Tuesday, 21 months later, the school board voted unanimously to rename the school Odessa Shannon Middle School.
“This is a historic day in our school system,” Superintendent Jack Smith said. “… It has been a longstanding goal of MCPS to create, foster and promote equity, inclusion and acceptance. And when our places of learning and work carry the names of those that embody inequity and exclusion, it creates a barrier to creating safe, positive and welcoming learning spaces for students, families and staff.”
Shannon, who died in May at age 91, was elected to the Montgomery County Board of Education in 1982, and served until 1984. She vacated her seat when she was appointed as special assistant to then-Montgomery County Executive Charles Gilchrist in 1984.
From 1995 to 2008, she was the executive director of the Montgomery County Human Rights Commission. She also was the founder of the county’s Human Rights Hall of Fame.
Shannon was involved in many local civic organizations, including the Montgomery County Housing Partnership, United Way, the Montgomery County Arts Council, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Regional Institute of Children and Adolescents.
The school board did not follow the community’s top choice for the school’s name.
The community, represented by a committee appointed to recommend Lee’s new name, said its top choice was Dolores Huerta Middle School. Odessa Shannon Middle School was the committee’s third choice.
Brigid Howe, the mother of a son who will attend the school and who was part of the renaming committee, said she is excited about the new name.
“While Odessa Shannon wasn’t the committee’s top choice, it was one of the top three and had enthusiastic support from several committee members,” Howe wrote in a text message Tuesday evening. “I know our community will be proud of the new name — and I’m glad that Ms. Shannon’s groundbreaking contributions to Montgomery County are being honored.”
Katherine Johnson Middle School was the committee’s second choice, in honor of a mathematician credited with making the calculations that helped Americans land on the moon in 1969.
Dolores Huerta, 90, is the co-founder of the Agriculture Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers. She also co-founded the Stockton, Calif., chapter of the Community Service Organization, which fought for economic improvements for Mexican and migrant farm workers.
Former President Barack Obama awarded Huerta the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, and she received the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights in 1998.
School board member Pat O’Neill argued that MCPS policy says “it is preferred” for school facilities to be named after “deceased distinguished persons who have made an outstanding contribution to the community, county, state or nation.” The board is advised to give strongest consideration to names of women and minorities with local ties.
“I do believe community input is important, but the policy, the regulations, transmittals to the community, they have all said the ultimate responsibility for naming rests with the Board of Education,” O’Neill said.
Lee’s name change will take effect on Shannon’s birth date: July 4.
It will be the third Montgomery County school named after a former Board of Education member, along with the Blair G. Ewing Center and Roscoe Nix Elementary. It will be the first named after a woman who served on the school board.
Lee’s new name will be more representative of the school’s student body, board members said.
Lee Middle School is a minority-majority school with less than 5 percent of students identifying as white, according to school system data. Sixty percent of students are Hispanic and 25.8 percent are black. More than 80 percent of students are on a free- and reduced-priced meal program.
Lee Principal Kimberly Hayden Williams said “it was extremely important” that the school’s new name “represented the majority of the students of our school.”
Col. E. Brooke Lee is credited with creating the first land use and zoning system in Montgomery County, but historians say he purposely attached racially restrictive policies prohibiting African Americans from buying or renting homes in subdivisions, according to county reports.
A county historian characterized Lee as “an unrepentant segregationist up until the bitter end.”
Lee died in 1984. Bruce Lee, a descendant still in the area, said last year that the family understands and supports the name change. Bruce Lee is president and CEO of a real estate development company in Silver Spring.
Other names considered for Lee Middle’s new name were:
• Brookside Middle School
• Josiah Henson Middle School
• Brigadier General Charles McGee Middle School.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org