The Fort Smith Public Schools Board of Education on Monday (Aug. 24) unanimously voted to rename Albert Pike Elementary School, with a new name to be selected and approved for the 2021-2022 school year.
The controversial effort to rename the school building began earlier this year when the district’s Vision 2023 Equity and Minority Recruitment team recommended a renaming.
Albert Pike settled in Fort Smith in 1833 and taught school while he studied law. He opened a law practice in 1834. He later served as a general in the Confederate Army. The proposed resolution brought up that Pike joined a petition in 1858 to “expel all free blacks from the State of Arkansas” and wrote in 1868, “We mean that the white race, and that race alone, shall govern this country. It is the only one that is fit to govern, and it is the only one that shall.”
“In June 2020, Albert Pike Elementary School in Fort Smith appeared in an Education Week article as one of six Arkansas schools named for a confederate figure. Documented activities and statements of General Pike as described in the attached resolution do not reflect the commitment of the school and the district as a whole to ‘treat all people with dignity and respect’ as articulated in the Vision 2023 Strategic Plan,” noted the recommendation.
The board on Monday heard from two residents, with one opposing and one supporting renaming the school. Andrew McMinn, a U.S. Army combat veteran with two sons in the district, said a building should not be named after someone who took up arms against the United States.
“No person who actively tried to take the lives of American soldiers should be honored with their name on a public building,” McMinn said.
McMinn also said the name on the building is not part of remembering Pike, but honoring him. He noted that Darby Junior High is named after Col. William Darby, “because we recognize that this is a man whose life was worthy of honor,” unlike Pike who, McMinn argued, is not worthy of such an honor.
Val Oliver, a graduate of the district, questioned the timing the effort to rename the school.
“My question is, ‘Why now?’ If Albert Pike was such a terrible person, why was the name of the school not changed in the sixties during the Civil Rights movement? Or more recently, in 2015, during the rush to take the Rebel (mascot) out of Southside (High School)?” Oliver said.
Oliver also said the name should remain and be used as a teaching tool, adding that schools are a place to “obtain an education, and not a place to make me feel good.” She said King David of the Old Testament was “an adulterer and a murderer” but that does not mean the book of Psalms should be removed from the Bible.
Board Member Wade Gilkey said renaming the school may not be wrong, but said the “timing of this is baffling” when the district is attempting to return thousands of students to classes during a global pandemic. He suggested waiting until later in the school year so the school administration and board can better “digest the issues we are dealing with.” Board Members Susan McFerran and Dalton Person disagreed, with Person saying he wasn’t sure if he was quoting Mark Twain or Lou Holtz in noting, “There is never a wrong time to do the right thing.”
With the unanimous vote, Superintendent Dr. Doug Brubaker will form a committee to consider naming possibilities. The committee will return a proposal to the board in time to rename the building for the 2021-2022 school year.