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Milwaukee School Named After President With Slavery Ties On Track For Renaming

Emily Files
Franklin Pierce Elementary School may soon be called Riverwest Elementary School.

A Milwaukee school named after a president who helped slavery spread is set for a name change. At a meeting Tuesday, a Milwaukee school board committee indicated support for Franklin Pierce Elementary School to become Riverwest Elementary School.

Franklin Pierce was president from 1853-1857 — immediately before James Buchanan, who was followed by Abraham Lincoln. He is usually ranked among the worst presidents in American history. Historians say his failures helped lead to the Civil War.  

Although Pierce claimed he was morally against slavery, his actions enabled it to expand into the Western U.S. Pierce saw abolitionist movements as a threat to the country.

Leaders within MPS and at Pierce Elementary aren’t sure how the school got its name. In any case, they want to change it.

“When I first arrived at Pierce there was definitely some discomfort among the staff with the name of Franklin Pierce and his association with slavery,” said Principal Leticia Washington, who has been at the school for three years.

Washington spoke to the MPS board of directors at a committee meeting Tuesday.

Teacher Ellen Evans told the board that during her 20-plus years at the school, she has tried to avoid saying Franklin Pierce’s full name.

“I abbreviate it," Evans said. "Because Franklin Pierce, I learned very soon after I started there, was a supporter of slavery."

According to state data, the students at Pierce Elementary are 97 percent minority.

A national conversation is taking place around monuments and place names that have connections to slavery, especially those commemorating Confederate leaders. Across the country, statues memorializing figures who supported slavery have been taken down.

Principal Washington says Pierce school’s name change initiative wasn’t inspired by the movement against Confederate monuments. She says it predates that conversation. 

But the momentum picked up this year. In March, the school asked parents to vote on the name change. More than 200 voted to rebrand as Riverwest Elementary School. Only one ballot was returned in favor of keeping the current name.

The name change is on track for approval. The school board committee said yes, sending it to the full board for a decision. If it’s given the final go-ahead, the school's goal is to rebrand before the start of next school year.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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