As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Alex Geli reported last month, residents have urged the School District of Lancaster to “change the name of Edward Hand Middle School because of its namesake’s participation in slavery.” A Revolutionary War general, Hand owned slaves at Rock Ford, his Lancaster home; a Black man who was enslaved escaped from the property shortly before Hand’s death in 1802. Lancaster schools Superintendent Damaris Rau was asked by the district’s school board to develop a plan to rename the 96-year-old school. The school board meets tonight.
It’s not our place to suggest a new name for Hand Middle School. We’d just ask those who will be assigned that task to heed the words of Hand alumnus Leroy Hopkins, retired Millersville University professor and president of the African American Historical Society of South Central Pennsylvania.
In an LNP | LancasterOnline online discussion last Wednesday about monuments, statues and history, Hopkins said he hoped that Hand students and alumni will be involved in renaming the school.
He noted that he attended four city schools and all but one — J.P. McCaskey High School — were named for historical figures who owned slaves (the others were Hand; Adam Reigart Jr., a Lancaster businessman who lived from 1765-1844; and George Washington).
John Piersol McCaskey was an educator, Lancaster city mayor and, according to this newspaper’s archives, “considered the founder of the state’s Arbor Day observance.”
Hopkins also said something we can’t stop thinking about: “Sometimes,” he observed, “people grasp at straws — they look for heroes where they really don’t need heroes. Or they ignore the heroes that are nearby.”
We couldn’t agree more with this point.
Everyone does this, not just those in charge of naming schools. We do it ourselves — we honor famous athletes and celebrities instead of the high school drama teacher who’s been inspiring great performances in students for decades, or the learning support teacher whose dedication has helped hundreds of children with learning disabilities to succeed. We celebrate heroes on the national stage, but overlook the individuals doing hard, noble work in our own communities.
As for the Lancaster city schools, there were certainly heroes nearby whose names could grace the school buildings.
Hazel I. Jackson was one.
When she died July 7, 2014, LNP | LancasterOnline noted that she was “a trailblazing educator, a local civil rights icon, a poet, a fashion plate, a devoted mother, a mother figure, a role model. The first female African-American teacher in the School District of Lancaster, and the first female Black professor at Millersville University, Jackson was described by more than one person as Lancaster’s Maya Angelou.”
Letter writer Eleanor Bosserman suggested “a local man who dedicated his career to the School District of Lancaster — Leon ‘Buddy’ Glover. Buddy ... served as principal at Edward Hand Middle School and then assistant superintendent for the School District of Lancaster. It would be a fitting honor for Buddy and would serve as an inspiration to district students.”
Another letter writer suggested Barney Ewell, “a Lancaster hero.” Ewell, of course, was a sprinter who won silver and gold medals at the 1948 Olympics. Lancaster Square downtown was renamed Ewell Plaza last August.
Then there are Thaddeus Stevens, congressman, abolitionist and champion of public education, and Lydia Hamilton Smith, who managed Stevens’ household and was a successful Black businesswoman in Lancaster. A historic site at the corner of Queen and Vine streets is being developed by LancasterHistory to tell their stories and celebrate their legacies.
The public call for Hand Middle School to be renamed comes at — let’s face it — an inconvenient time. The School District of Lancaster board and administration have their plate full devising how to safely reopen schools in August. As do the administrations and boards of all the school districts in Lancaster County.
But we fully understand why parents would no longer want their children of color to attend a school named for someone, however celebrated, who owned slaves. Names have power. Building names convey messages about an institution’s priorities and values.
Hopkins said he wasn’t taught as a child that the men for whom his schools were named were slave owners. History must be taught more fully now.
Pamela Stoner, president of the Rock Ford Foundation board, which oversees Edward Hand’s Lancaster home, said last month that Rock Ford “supports the rights of the School District of Lancaster to name or rename its schools to reflect the needs of the community and its students.”
She added: “We hope that any decision that is reached follows a thorough study of Edward Hand’s life and times and that students take part in this research. Further exploration should include the histories of persons after whom other schools are named including George Ross, George Washington and James Buchanan, for example.”
We agree with this wholeheartedly.
Indeed, between now and when the school bell rings, we’d suggest a homework assignment for children and parents all over Lancaster County.
If your child’s school is named for someone, research the person for whom the school was named. We suggest this not to encourage renaming controversies, but because students should know something about the name etched into the walls, signs and history of their schools.
As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
That has never been truer than now, in this summer of reckoning.