Should the RCSD change the names of some schools? The Alexander von Humboldt Academy instead of the Henry Hudson School?

Should the RCSD change the names of some schools?  The Alexander von Humboldt Academy instead of the Henry Hudson School?

Henry Hudson School No. 28, 450 Humboldt Street [Photo: David Kramer, 1/30/21]

For decades, the San Francisco School District has changed the names of many of its schools, often to reflect the recent experiences of Californians. For example, in 1996 the Nathaniel Hawthorne Elementary School — named for the 19th century New England author — was renamed  the César Chávez Elementary School.

Last week, the Board recommended 44 schools for name changes, drawing national attention because six of the schools are named for U.S. Presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.


The panel voted 6-1 to approve the plan, which calls for removing from schools names of those who “engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings,” “oppressed women,” committed acts that “led to genocide,” or who “otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

I look at the five RCSD schools also named for presidents to assess whether any changes would be appropriate under the broad criteria outlined by the San Francisco School Board. I also look at four RSCD schools named after men who at one time owned slaves: Benjamin Franklin High School, Nathaniel Rochester Community School No. 3, Charles Carroll School No. 46 and John James Audubon School No. 33.  John Marshall High School (closed) was named after slave owner Chief Justice John Marshall.

Finally, I suggest that the Henry Hudson School No. 28 on Humboldt Street be renamed the Alexander von Humboldt School, after the 19th century German geographer often described as hero of modern racial egalitarianism.

The Big Ones — Presidents

Monroe Elementary (SF) — “Slave owner (imprisoned 100s of slaves in Monroetown, Va.)”

James Monroe High School (Roch)

James Monroe High School, 164 Alexander Street, Rochester, NY, 14607 [Photo David Kramer, 1/2/18] From An open invitation to a conversation in Nathaniel Square

I have difficulties advocating for a wholesale name change. James Monroe High School is one of the oldest in the District. Generations of Rochester alum identify with the Monroe name which itself has local connections: the school is adjacent to Monroe Avenue and in Monroe County.

Furthermore, the school is rarely referred to as “James Monroe.” When I was a Guest Teacher there, I learned many of the students did not even know the school is not Monroe High School, but officially, James Monroe High School.

I suggest the school drop the “James,” and simply refer to itself as “Monroe.” Such a change would mirror the name of Monroe Community College which is named after Monroe County rather than James Monroe himself.

Abraham Lincoln High School (SF)

“Abraham Lincoln is not seen as much of a hero at all among many American Indian Nations and Native peoples of the United States, as the majority of his policies proved to be detrimental to them. For instance, the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 helped precipitate the construction of the transcontinental railroad, which led to the significant loss of land and natural resources, as well as the loss of lifestyle and culture, for many Indigenous peoples. In addition, rampant corruption in the Indian Office, the precursor of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, continued unabated throughout Lincoln’s term and well beyond. In many cases, government-appointed Indian agents outright stole resources that were supposed to go to the tribes. In other cases, the Lincoln administration simply continued to implement discriminatory and damaging policies, like placing Indians on reservations. Beginning in 1863, the Lincoln administration oversaw the removal of the Dine’ Nation (Navajo) and the Mescalero Apaches from the New Mexico Territory, forcing the Dine’ to march the “Long Walk” of 450 miles to Bosque Redondo—a brutal journey. Eventually, more than 2,000 died before a treaty was signed. Also responsible for the Dakota 38+2, largest mass hanging in US history.”

Abraham Lincoln School No. 22 (Roch)

Abraham Lincoln School No. 22, 595 Upper Falls Blvd (RCSD website)

Changing the name of Abraham Lincoln School No. 22 feels like a bridge too far. When I think of Lincoln, I think of his statue atop the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument in Washington Square Park, overseeing the war that ended American slavery. At the same time, Lincoln’s Native American removal policy certainly hurt western tribes who don’t necessarily view Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.

Roosevelt Middle School (SF)

“The Richmond School was renamed in honor of Theodore Roosevelt at a school board meeting on
February 10, 1910. Theodore Roosevelt – opposed civil rights and suffrage for Black folks”

The SF Board also made a case against naming a school after his distant cousin, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

“FDR – refused to support anti-lynching bill (proposed by his wife) and other racist policies/views (including racial engineering and limiting migration dependent on race). Roosevelt ordered the forced relocation of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans to concentration camps after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. As Vox reports, “Japanese American internment is almost universally considered one of the most egregious things the United States has done to an entire ethnic group.” It took a Supreme Court ruling to release the detainees, most of whom could read, write, and speak English, and only a fraction of whom had spent much time in Japan.”

Theodore Roosevelt School No. 43 (Roch)

Inside Theodore Roosevelt School #43 on a visit by student volunteers from St. John Fisher College, April, 2015. From October, 26th, 1898: the Rough Rider on his way to the Governor’s mansion. TR Comes to Town, again…and again…and again…

Based on the SF criteria, I can see some case for changing the name of School #43.  That said, I don’t think the objection that Theodore Roosevelt “opposed civil rights and suffrage for Black folks” is accurate. During that period, most Blacks voted for Roosevelt’s Republican party. In addition, Roosevelt was a strong supporter of Booker T. Washington, visiting Washington’s Tuskegee University campus and inviting him to dine at the White House.

It can be argued, however, that Roosevelt committed acts that “led to genocide.” Roosevelt was Commander-in-Chief during the Filipino-American War, a blatantly imperialist war that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Filipino civilians.

Ultimately, I reject the SF’s argument that renaming the school after FDR would be wrong. Make # 43 just “The Roosevelt School,” whereby the statue of TR can remain in the school lobby.

Rachel Barnhart in Washington Square Park [Photo: David Kramer 6/16/16] From Rachel’s Rebel Roots

Madison Campus (Grades K-2) (SF)

“James Madison was a slave owner who owned a plantation. Upon becoming president, Madison said the federal government’s duty was to convert the American Indians by the ‘participation of the improvements of which the human mind and manners are susceptible in a civilized state.’ He worked at colonizing Native Americans by ‘assimilating.'”

Madison Campus (also referred to as the Genesee Street Campus) (Roch)

200 Genesee Street. Home to the Joseph C. Wilson Foundation Academy and the Rochester Early College International High School [Photo: David Kramer, Jul 9, 2016] From On the Mount Zion Mass Choir’s fundraiser, Edison football summer practices and some city schools

The RCSD also has a Madison Campus on Genesee Street, home to the Joseph C. Wilson Foundation Academy and the Rochester Early College International High School.

In this case, any change would be simple. I’ve heard the campus referred to as either the “Madison Campus” or the “Genesee Street Campus.” Let’s just make the campus officially the “Genesee Street Campus.”

Jefferson Elementary (SF) — “Slave owner”

 The Jefferson Campus (Roch)

Edgerton Park, 41 Backus Street. In background, the Jefferson Campus, home to the Rochester International Academy. From Not Earl Lloyd. But a painting of Dolly King, the first African-American Rochester Royal, at the Edgerton-R Center’s beautiful mural

Currently, the Jefferson Campus, the site of the former Thomas Jefferson High School, is home to the Rochester International Academy. Like the Madison Campus, the Jefferson Campus could be renamed the Dewey Avenue Campus.


Benjamin Franklin High School

(left) Benjamin Franklin High School, 950 Norton Street (RCSD website); (right) marble World War Two memorial inside  BFHS [Photo: David Kramer, November 9, 2014, from Remembering the fallen of the RCSD from America’s past wars

Benjamin Franklin did own two slaves, George and King, who worked as personal servants. Franklin eventually freed both. Furthermore, in 1785, Franklin became president of an abolitionist group, the Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, founded a decade earlier by the Pennsylvania Quakers.

Actually, San Francisco once had a Benjamin Franklin Middle School. In 2006, the school was renamed the Burl Toler Middle School at the Franklin Campus. In 1968, Tolder — also the first Black referee in the NFL — became the first African American secondary school principal in San Francisco at Benjamin Franklin. Significantly, the school kept “at the Franklin Campus,” and the change was apparently not based on any objection.

Ben is safe.

Nathaniel Rochester Community School No. 3 and Charles Carroll School No. 46

Nathaniel Rochester Community School # 3, 85 Adams Street [Photo: David Kramer 6/18/20] from An open invitation to a conversation in Nathaniel Square

Charles Carroll School No. 46, 250 Newcastle Road [Photos: David Kramer, 6/21/20] From An open invitation to a conversation in Nathaniel Square

In An open invitation to a conversation in Nathaniel SquareMichael J. Nighan‘s section, “What do we do about Nathaniel?”, discusses the Nathaniel Rochester School and the Charles Carroll School, both named after slave owners. Nighan was writing amid the defacement of the statue of Nathaniel Rochester, as well as calls for the removal of the statue.

Nighan favors removal and he also argues for changing the names of both schools:

[This] Could, and should, accomplished in short order with new school names selected to commemorate more deserving individuals, perhaps “conductors” on the local Underground Railroad, in a manner similar to the way the James P. B. Duffy School was recently renamed to honor Anna Murray-Douglass. (see A Frederick Douglass statue and the naming of the Anna Murray-Douglass Academy)

Personally, as mentioned regarding James Monroe, I might change the school to just The Rochester Community School, after the city and not Nathaniel himself. I would like Charles Carroll to become The Harriet Tubman School. After reading this article, Rochester School Board President Van White told me he’s had preliminary discussions regarding renaming the NRS to the Constance Mitchell School.

John James Audubon School No. 33

(left) John James Audubon School No. 33, 500 Webster Ave (RCSD website); (right) Webster Recreation Center, School 33 in background. [Photo: David Kramer, 8/20/16, from On the electoral road with Rachel]

The naturalist John James Audubon is the least known of the slave holders in question. In “The Myth of John James Audubon”(July 31, 2020), Gregory Nobles, a Contributor to the Audubon Magazine and author of John James Audubon: The Nature of the American Woodsman (UPenn Press, 2017) writes of Audubon:

The National Audubon Society’s namesake looms large, like his celebrated bird paintings. But he also enslaved people and held white supremacist views, reflecting ethical failings that it is time to bring to the fore.

Furthermore, Nobles refutes claims that Audubon’s slaveholding can be ignored or excused:

Audubon was also a slaveholder, a point that many people don’t know or, if they do, tend to ignore or excuse. “He was a man of his time,” so the argument goes. That’s never been a good argument, even about Audubon’s time—and certainly not in this one—because many men and women in the antebellum era took a strong and outspoken stand for the abolition of slavery.

As I learned more about Audubon, his removal is the easiest of the three, especially since Audubon himself has no local connections. I propose the Michelle Obama School, including a visit by the former First Lady at the ceremony.

Incidentally, the SF School Board proposes changing the name of the John Muir Elementary (like Audubon, Muir was a noted naturalist) because Muir was “Racist and responsible for theft of Native lands.” In some of his writing, Muir described Native Americans and Black people as dirty, lazy and uncivilized. In an essay collection published in 1901 to promote national parks, he assured prospective tourists that “As to Indians, most of them are dead or civilized into useless innocence.” (The Conversation, Martin La Monica, 9/2/20)

My recommendation: renaming Henry Hudson School as the Alexander von Humboldt School

Henry Hudson School No. 28, 450 Humboldt Street [Photo: David Kramer, 1/30/21]

By the San Francisco criteria, Henry Hudson might be considered an English version of Christopher Columbus as objectionable symbols of European exploitation of the Americas. Historians generally describe Hudson’s interaction with Native Americans as both cooperative and violent. Most likely, Hudson’s men spread smallpox to the Lenapes, effectively wiping out the tribe, although the men were not really employing later English strategies to intentionally offer Native Americans smallpox laden blankets.

I would probably not change the school name, except for a truly remarkable rebranding possibility. The Henry Hudson School is located on Humboldt Street. Very few people know that the street’s namesake, the German geographer Alexander von Humboldt, was a long standing racial egalitarian who foreshadowed modern conceptions of race as “socially constructed.”

In the synopsis of her chapter, “All are alike designed for freedom”: Humboldt on Race and Slavery,” (The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America), Laura Dassow Walls shows that:

Humboldt played a key role in American abolitionism or the trajectory of racial science. He was the only major scientist during the nineteenth century to argue consistently, for six decades, that “race” was not a biological category and that, as he declared in Cosmos, “all are alike designed for freedom.” Stephen Jay Gould states in his classic study of racial science that Humboldt should be the hero of modern racial egalitarians, for “he, more than any other scientist of his time, argued forcefully and at length against ranking on mental or aesthetic grounds.”

Self-portrait, 1815, Alexander von Humboldt. From Celebrity intellectuals

The Humboldt brothers together developed a historical anthropology that sought to appreciate every human group on its own terms, for none were in any meaningful sense “superior” or “inferior” to any other. Their arguments are important both for their own sake, and for the impact they had on modern conceptions of race.

In her abstract, Walls adds that Humboldt’s ideas “bolstered efforts to free the slaves and honor the rights of Indians.”

Despite the rich legacy of Germans in Rochester, the Alexander von Humboldt Academy would be the only Rochester school named after a German of local or international fame.


Nathaniel Hawthorne School No. 25 

Nathaniel Hawthorne School # 25 on Goodman Street. [Photo: David Kramer, 8/16/16] From A gathering of students, educators, urban farmers and social entrepreneurs at the Bay Street Community Garden

As mentioned, the SFSD once had the Hawthorne Elementary School, named in 1893 after Nathaniel Hawthorne, famous for The Scarlet Letter. In 1996, the school was renamed César Chávez Elementary. I would not consider changing the name of the Nathaniel Hawthorne School, especially given its namesakes commitment to the feminist movement of his era.

Edison Technology Campus

Edison Technology Campus, 655 Colfax Street (RCSD website)

This year, the SF School Board Thomas considered, but did not propose, changing the name of the Edison Charter Academy because “Thomas Edison had a fondness for electrocuting animals, and did a whole string of animals including Topsy the Elephant, who was a well loved circus elephant during that time.”

My research discovered a Smithsonian Magazine article, “Topsy the Elephant Was a Victim of Her Captors, Not Thomas Edison”(Kat Eschner, 1/4/17), that argues Edison was not at fault.

Edison stays.

John Marshall High School (closed)

180 Ridgeway Ave, Rochester, NY 14615 (pinterest)

Currently, the John Marshall Campus is not in use.

According to Paul Finkelman’s post, “Master John Marshall and the Problem of Slavery,” (The University of Chicago Law Review Online, August, 2020):

Marshall owned hundreds of slaves during his lifetime. He owned plantations and clearly profited from them. In 1830, five years before his death, he owned about 150 slaves . . . Furthermore, throughout his public career Marshall publicly and privately opposed the presence of free blacks in America. He petitioned the Virginia legislature to fund removing them from the state.

This name change is a no-brainer. Before the Marshall Campus is again used, the High School should be “Thurgood Marshall High School.”

The Timeline at the Greater Rochester Vietnams Veterans Memorial in Highland Park. From Remembering April 4th, 1968 and the Civil Rights Movement at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Highland Park


Thoughts on changing the name of the James P.B. Duffy School

An open invitation to a conversation in Nathaniel Square

A Frederick Douglass statue and the naming of the Anna Murray-Douglass Academy

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.

1 Comment

  1. Michael Nighan

    To me the issue of whether buildings, real estate, etc. named for past historical figures should be renamed because those individuals held or fostered beliefs or took actions now considered as anathema, could be resolved in the following manner. On one side of the scale we list the individual’s
    accomplishments viewed as positive. On the other side we list their aforementioned anathema beliefs and actions. If the positives outweigh the negatives, the name stays. If the reverse, the name goes. Obviously there will be a certain degree of subjectiveness in the process. But at least a process will exist.

    Take individuals such as Washington, Grant and Lincoln. There is no question that George held slaves. That Grant owned/was given a single slave for a year or so, and Lincoln held views of racial superiority which are repugnant to us today. But their positive accomplishments are so gargantuan as
    to vastly outweigh the negative aspects of their lives. Their names deserve to continue to be honored.

    On the flip side, we have men like Robert E. Lee, and indeed any Confederate military or political leader from Jefferson Davis on down. I can not think of a single Confederate leader who can claim an accomplishment which outweighed their treason and their efforts to protect slavery. Thus, any
    public memorial bearing their name(s) should be removed and their names removed from any building, military base, etc. where it exists today. Similarly, Nathanial Rochester contributed precious little to the world (being a real estate promoter looking to make a buck buying and reselling property along the Genesee River hardly makes him important). While renaming the city is likely far too expensive and cumbersome a project to contemplate, his name could easily be taken off a school and the other organizations which bear it today.

    As to the Henry Hudson School. Setting aside any debate on his positives and negatives, certainly we can do far better than dragging in a Prussian scientist as a replacement. (I should point out that, as a geology minor in college, I have great respect for von Humbolt and his role as the godfather of the theory of continental drift). I’d suggest renaiming the Hudsion school after William H. Seward. We once had a school named for him here, but for whatever reason it was replaced years ago. Past time to put him back.


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