Student Petitions for School’s Name Change: Slave Owner James Madison’s Name Means Black Students ‘Unsafe’

james madison
AP Photo

A student at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin is seeking to change the name of the school, citing that President James Madison was a slave owner, a fact she says makes the school “unsafe” for black students.

Mya Berry, a senior, says the fact that President James Madison inherited slaves, along with his Montpelier plantation, from his father means her school – which, like the city of Madison, Wisconsin, is named after the fourth U.S. president – is hostile to black students, reports the Capital Times.

In a petition, which currently has nearly 1,500 supporters, Berry states:

The significance of this name in association with my school has a negative effect on memorials black students. The lack of representation I feel in this school makes me feel more than unsafe. I do not feel supported by the majority of staff at memorial, especially considering the fact that I’ve gotten called n word multiple times, along with having an individual threaten me by telling me they would lynch me.

Berry continues in her petition that when race is discussed at school, she is “told my perspective is just an opinion, and not anything valid to take into consideration.”

“With all the injustice I and others face in James Madison Memorial High School, do you truly think it’s appropriate to glorify a man that enslaved my ancestors?” she writes, adding that another reason to remove Madison’s name from the school is the “education disparity” between white and black students.

Berry also told the Capital Times she has never reported incidents in which she was allegedly threatened because she did not feel comfortable doing so. She also said the incidents did not happen over the course of the current school year.

“At the time, I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t know who to reach out to. Now that I’m a senior and I’ve become more comfortable speaking out, I’ve told more people about it,” she said. “I feel like faculty overhear injustice and they know it’s wrong. Some of them don’t speak up, and that adds to the unsafe environment.”

James Madison High principal Jay Affeldt said he was unaware of Berry’s issues.

“I have met and will continue to meet with Ms. Berry and other student leaders to discuss how we can best move forward to have this dialog as a larger school community in a safe and healthy way,” he told the Capital Times. “Also, I do not believe the specific incidents mentioned in the petition were ever reported to school staff, and I am trying to learn more about these incidents from Ms. Berry.”

“It’s important to me that every student feels safe, and we take all reports of hurtful behavior very seriously,” he said.


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