Archive for Sunday, April 29, 2012

What’s in a name? Lawrence school names are a nod to (sometimes obscure) history

April 29, 2012


Barber Elementary School, Trails West Junior High and Lawrence North High School.

None of these is in Lawrence, but they very well could have been if conversations in the community had swayed a little differently.

While it is hard to imagine our schools named anything other than what they are now, back before the first students entered their doors those names weren’t carved in stone.

Mary Loveland served on the Lawrence school board from 1987 to 2003 and from 2007 to 2011. During that time, three elementary schools, one middle school and one high school were built.

There were a number of names that Loveland would have rather not seen (we’ll get to that later), but one of her favorite names was Free State High School. In fact, she threw it out as a name for Southwest Junior High several years earlier.

“I really wanted it to be Free State,” she said. “It harkened back to tradition.”

But when Free State was first pitched, people immediately connected it to the popular Free State Brewing Company.

There were a lot of “only in Lawrence would we name a school after a brewery” comments, Loveland said. And, so an education campaign was set in motion. The name paid tribute to the somewhat bloody role that Lawrence played in opposing slavery so that when Kansas entered the union in 1861 it did so as a free state.

“I had to write an article explaining the 1854 to 1861 context and what that meant for the settlement of Lawrence,” said Steve Jansen, former director of Watkins Community Museum of History. “I had to explain that Free State wasn’t associated with the bar and that it was associated with people’s political beliefs at the time.”

Since then, Free State has been adopted by a host of businesses and organizations.

“It was kind of an ice-breaker. It helped rehabilitate it and make it more popular,” Jansen said.

For Jansen, historical names are an important way to carry on a community’s heritage.

“As much as possible, I’d like to see names associated with the history of Lawrence as opposed to generic landscapes or natural references,” Jansen said.

Back in the mid 1980s, when Quail Run School was being built, Jansen said he lobbied for the building to be named after Thomas W. Barber, a farmer who was killed by pro-slavery forces in 1855 during what was known as the Wakarusa War. Barber was memorialized by poet John Greenleaf Whittier in “Burial of Barber,” a poem that became a call to arms for the country’s abolitionists.

Barber died within a mile of where Quail Run stands today and Jansen thought using his name would be a fitting tribute to one of Lawrence’s historical figures. But others disagreed, worrying that people would confuse it for an actual barber shop school.

Ultimately, Quail Run was chosen, named after a nearby subdivision.

“We tend to get a lot of those kind of animal and landscape references when we name a school, and there is nothing particular to Lawrence about it,” Jansen said.

On the other hand, Jansen applauds the 1961 naming of Kennedy after longtime educator and Principal Opal Jayne Kennedy. He also was pleased to see the school district honor Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes by naming a school after him in 2000. Hughes lived in Lawrence as a boy and attended Pinckney, New York and Central.

Loveland also strongly advocated for Langston Hughes.

“I said let’s look at our literary heritage,” Loveland said. “I did like paying tribute to the fact that Lawrence has a claim to the Harlem Renaissance.”

She wasn’t so thrilled with the name choices for some of the other schools built during her time. She opposed the use of directional names for the district’s junior highs, which are now middle schools.

Those directions become irrelevant as the city grows, Loveland said. A classic example is West Middle School, which today is much closer to the middle of Lawrence and miles from its western border.

“I am uniquely unfond of directions as names for schools. As a community expands and additional schools are needed, directions are no longer accurate or relevant. And, then they can become confusing,” she said.

Loveland was on the school board when Southwest Junior High was named. She thought Trails West would be a nice comprise, because it still included a direction but also paid tribute to the pioneer trails that once rolled through the area.

“I didn’t get a lot of traction for that,” she said.

She also balked at naming the adjacent elementary school Sunflower, a name inspired by the sunflowers that grew on the field where it was going to be built.

Also growing on the field were liatris. The purple-flowered plant is more commonly called blazing star.

Loveland would have preferred to have named the school after the less often used Blazing Star. But others said it sounded too much like a less-than-reputable character, stripper Blaze Starr, in a Paul Newman movie that came out several years earlier.

“How many schools are named Sunflower?” Loveland said. “That’s not unique.”

Many of the district’s earliest elementary schools, such as Pinckney, New York and the former Quincy School, were named after the streets on which they were located, according to former school board member Austin Turney.

In the original town site, the streets running east to west were named for individuals who were “distinguished for their Patriotism, Philanthropy, and Love of Liberty,” according to New England Emigrant Aid Company secretary Thomas Webb. In 1913, the city council switched the names of east-west streets to numbers. So, Pinckney Street was renamed Sixth, and Quincy Street became 11th, making their connection to the schools less obvious.

“We have gotten better, over the years” Turney said of the district’s naming process.

For Jansen there are still plenty of local historical figures worthy of school names.

He wouldn’t be surprised if one day there’s a school named after James Naismith, the father of basketball, who is buried in Lawrence. But, he’d also like to see some of Lawrence’s lesser-known but equally worthy historical figures recognized.

For example there is the Lawrence industrialist Justin D. Bowersock, whose arrival in 1877 provided stability in Lawrence when the town’s economic future was in doubt.

Another good contender, Jansen said, is George “Nash” Walker, a black theatrical pioneer in the late 1800s and early 1900s who grew up in Lawrence and is buried here.

And, Jansen said he’d also like to see more recognition of the town’s Native American heritage. The Lawrence school district has one school, Broken Arrow, that pays tribute to Native American traditions.

Regardless of the name, Jansen said the process of naming a school should be undertaken with great thought to the past and future.

“Communities shouldn’t do it for light or transient reasons,” Jansen said. “When you are going to name a building, I hope they go the extra mile and figure something out that would be particular to a community.”

— Reporter Christine Metz can be reached at 832-6352.


cato_the_elder 6 years ago

Ms. Loveland still hasn't gotten over the naming of Sunflower Elementary School because someone other than she came up with the name. The sunflowers were actually located in a large field directly south of where Sunflower was built.

honestone 6 years ago

Loveland was pushing for her high school to be named the Mary Loveland Memorial High School but Free State High was her second choice

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