Review Group Says Six Montgomery County Schools Named After Slave Owners
Renaming proposal for Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School sparks broader study
Thomas S. Wootton High School
Photo via MCPS
A new report detailing the origins of the names of all Montgomery County public schools shows that six county schools are named after slave owners.
In February, MCPS launched a countywide review of the names of its school facilities after County Council President Nancy Navarro suggested Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School be renamed because its namesake was a segregationist.
While school board members wait to hear back from a group exploring the idea for Lee, district officials decided on a broader study to review the history of school facilities’ namesakes.
A committee of MCPS staff members, Montgomery County historians and student researchers from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, did the review.
The schools named after slave owners, according to the report, are:
• Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring
• Francis Scott Key Middle School in Silver Spring
• Col. Zadok Magruder High School in Derwood
• Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville
• John Poole Middle School in Poolesville
• Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville.
There are 207 public schools in Montgomery County and several other MCPS facilities. Fifty-one are named after people.
“Of course, it’s concerning to me as an African American woman that any of our schools are named after slave owners,” board member Brenda Wolff said. “Any proposed changes have to arise from the community, so I would be looking to support anybody that wants to raise the issue. I’m willing to consider that if the public brings it forward.”
Montgomery County also is named after Richard Montgomery, who historians believe acquired slaves when he married into his wife’s family, according to the report.
One name on the MCPS list of potential names for future schools, John Clark, was also found to have owned slaves. The list includes names suggested by community or school board members during naming processes for schools.
Col. E. Brooke Lee, the namesake of the middle school school in Silver Spring, is credited with developing the county’s first land use and zoning system. But historians say he purposely attached racially restrictive policies prohibiting African Americans from buying or renting homes in subdivisions.
In February, Navarro, a former school board member, urged MCPS to consider renaming the school to align with the completion of an ongoing renovation and addition project, set to be completed in 2021.
The proposal sparked the MCPS review of all school facility names.
Lee Middle School is a minority-majority school, meaning most students are racial minorities. In her letter to MCPS suggesting the school’s name be changed, Navarro said it is “a supreme irony” those students attend a school named after someone outspoken against minorities.
Less than 5 percent of students there identify as white, according to school system data. Sixty percent of students are Hispanic and 25.8 percent are black.
Countywide, more than 56 percent of residents are people of color, compared to 28 percent in 1990, according to a report the county Planning Department released in January.
School board Vice President Pat O’Neill said the review of MCPS school names was primarily for informational purposes. Aside from Lee Middle School, there haven’t been any formal discussions about renaming facilities.
The school board’s policy on school facility names says “it is preferred” that they be named after “deceased distinguished persons who have made an outstanding contribution to the community, county, state or nation.” The board is urged to strongly consider names of women and minorities.
The committee that reviewed MCPS facility names recommended that the school board create or use a separate entity’s evaluation criteria for researching a person being considered as a school’s namesake. The committee suggested models used at Yale University and Oregon State University. Both models evaluate whether a person’s name aligns with the mission or values of the schools when considering naming or renaming a facility.
In cases where existing school names don’t align with MCPS values, a “reconciliation model” should be employed to “acknowledge and reconcile those differences in a way to bring healing and transition to the community,” the committee’s report says.
The reconciliation model promotes “the belief that confronting and reckoning with the past is necessary for successful transitions from conflict, resentment and tension to peace and connectedness,” according to the report. It says while it may not always be appropriate or feasible to change a school’s name, it is important to allow communities to be aware of and process the namesakes’ history.
“We needed to do this look and see if any school names had skeletons in their closet, and know the background of the names we have,” O’Neill said. “Sometimes people forget who schools are named for and it just becomes a name on the building. It’s important for us to know what the names mean.”
The committee’s report is expected to be presented to the school board this fall.
Namesakes who owned slaves
A committee reviewing Montgomery County public school/facility names found that six buildings are named after people who owned slaves. A seventh school, Col. E. Brooke Lee, is named after someone considered a segregationist. The school plans to change the name of Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School.
The committee provided the following historical context and school demographics for the MCPS facilities determined to be named after slave owners. Bethesda Beat collected information about school demographics from school profiles:
• Montgomery Blair High School: Montgomery Blair, born in May 1813 in Kentucky, served as a U.S. district attorney and mayor of St. Louis, Missouri. Blair represented Dred Scott, an African American man who petitioned for freedom from slavery. He served in the Maryland House of Delegates in the late 1870s. He took an “anti-slavery” political stance, but his family was known to own slaves. Blair died in July 1883 in Silver Spring.
Student body: Blair High School enrolls about 3,200 students. About 34% of students identify as Hispanic, 24% as black, 22% as white and 15% as Asian.
• Francis Scott Key Middle School: Francis Scott Key, the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was born in Frederick County in 1779. Key was a slave owner himself, but said slavery was “full of sin” and “a bed of torture.” He died in 1843.
Student body: Francis Scott Key Middle School has a student enrollment of about 1,000 students. Less than 5% of students are white, according to school system data. About 45% are black and 40% are Hispanic.
• Col. Zadok Magruder High School: Zadok Magruder was a member of a prominent Maryland family who owned more than 4,000 acres in Calvert and Prince George’s counties. Magruder was a delegate to the first Maryland Convention held in 1774. During the Revolutionary War, Magruder was a colonel and commander of Lower Frederick County, later Montgomery County. He was elected as one of the first seven commissioners of Montgomery County. In the first national census, conducted in 1790, Magruder is shown as the head of a household that owned 26 slaves. Magruder died in 1811.
Student body: Col. Zadok Magruder High School enrolls about 1,700 students, 40% of whom are Hispanic, according to school system data. Twenty-six percent are white and 18% are black.
• Richard Montgomery High School: Richard Montgomery, a decorated war hero, was born in 1738 and raised in Ireland. He later became a major general in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. On Dec. 31, 1775, he led an attack on Quebec City, but was killed during the battle. Montgomery never set foot in current-day Montgomery County, according to historians, and became a slave owner when he married into his wife’s family.
Student body: About 30% of the 2,500 students at Richard Montgomery High School are white, 25% are Asian, 23% are Hispanic and 18% are black.
• John Poole Middle School: In 1793, John Poole opened a one-room store at the intersection of two roads used by plantation owners in western Montgomery County, where the town of Poolesville is now. Poole, born in 1769, owned four slaves when he opened his store.
Student body: About 72% of the roughly 350 students at John Poole Middle School are white, according to MCPS data.
• Thomas S. Wootton High School: A member of the first Maryland Convention, Thomas Sprigg Wootton, was a leading figure in the county during its formative years, introducing legislation in the 1776 Maryland General Assembly to establish Montgomery County. Wootton was born in 1740 and died in 1789. He owned “around three dozen” slaves, which placed him “among some of the largest slaveholders in Maryland at the time,” according to the MCPS report. When he died, Wootton liberated three of his slaves and left the rest to his nephew. Wootton told his nephew to “be kind” to them.
Student body: Thomas S. Wootton High School has about 2,100 students, 37% of whom identify as Asian, according to school system data. Forty-four percent are white.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org