The Fort Smith Public Schools Board of Education voted Monday (Oct. 12) to change the name of Albert Pike Elementary School to Park Elementary School. The name change will go into effect for the 2021-2022 school year.
The board voted 6-1 on the new name during its regular Monday meeting. Board Member Wade Gilkey moved for the board to name the school the Ray Baker Elementary School. That motion did not receive a second. Gilkey was the only board member who did not vote in favor of naming the school Park Elementary School.
On Aug. 24, the school board unanimously approved a resolution to adopt a new name for Albert Pike Elementary School 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 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.”
The resolution called for the process to rename the school to involve Albert Pike Elementary School stakeholders. To help with that, the district posted a link to a survey regarding the renaming of the school on the district website and social media and sent the link to the families of all Albert Pike Elementary School students and to members of the school’s staff. Paper surveys also were available.
There were 876 responses to the survey, of those 431 (49%) were from FSPS staff and students. The name most suggested by the 231 Pike students and 42 staff members who responded was Park Elementary. Of the 445 (51%) unduplicated responses from the community, 111 suggested Ray Baker for the school’s new name. Other suggestions included Charlotte Tidwell (25), Pike (30), Park (41) and Bass Reeves (30). There were a variety of other suggestions.
Gilkey said because of the number of respondents who suggested naming the school because of the impact he made on Fort Smith and those who lived here as a former teacher at Southside High School and mayor of the city the board should consider doing so. Board Member Susan McFerran said naming the school after a person would set a precedent the board did not want to set and that schools do not need be named after a person.
While some board members expressed concern that a committee should be formed to better research a name for the school, McFerran said she had heard from a number of people that the community was tired of committees and just wanted the board to pick a name.
“We are elected to designate names to facilities. That’s what we are voted in for. And if the electorate doesn’t like us, they have their options. The survey had over 870 people responded … and I think we have provided sufficient form and opportunity for public feedback, and we should bear the responsibility of duking it out here and deciding what we want this to be called,” said Dalton Person, board member.
While many on the board agreed that Baker deserved recognition and a school or a building in the city named after him, the generic move to name the school after a street which serves as a cross street for the school would stand as a good decision in the future.
“I personally like the name of Park Elementary. It is generic. From what I understand, Mr. Baker was a wonderful man for our community, for education. He was certainly a champion for children in our community. But just looking forward, a name that will stand in 50 years, 70 years, 100 years, I think we need to consider a generic name,” said Dee Blackwell, board member.
Person also noted the new name will go well with the school’s mascot, the Panthers.