Wheeler High students still struggle for name change amid racist history, dissolution of committee by school board

map of Wheeler High School used in article "Diverse school named after ConfederateScreenshot of Openstreetmap map of Wheeler High School (© OpenStreetMap contributors)

Students from Joseph Wheeler High School in Marietta are continuing their campaign to rename the school, named for a Confederate general.

Their campaign continues after a recent development, in which Cobb Board of Education Chairman Brad Wheeler decided to dissolve the committee that was set up look at names of schools across Cobb County during the board’s November meeting.

Brad Wheeler is not related to Joseph Wheeler.

Some students from Wheeler, under the name “Wheeler Name Change,” want to rename their high school.

Joseph Wheeler was a Confederate general during the Civil War.

Wheeler opened in 1965, which was the year Cobb County racially integrated schools.

Wheeler Name Change members agreed that it was no coincidence that the high school was named after a Confederate general the same year it integrated, a decade after the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Wheeler High School has a plurality of Black students, and is majority non-white.

In addition to the local campaign to rid the high school of its namesake, U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi also has called for Joseph Wheeler’s statue to be removed from the US Capitol this summer.

Wheeler High students Caroline Hugh, Sydney Spessard and Nina Kesava have all spoken in front of the board in recent meetings in October and November to convince the board to change the name of the school.

As a result of the student’s activism, school board members Brad Wheeler, Dr. Jaha Howard, Charisse Davis and David Morgan had previously voted to form a committee to look at changing the name in August.

The committee was to include three board members and one resident from each of the board’s seven posts.

Before the committee had a chance to meet and anyone was appointed to be on the committee, Brad Wheeler, David Banks, David Chastain and Randy Scamihorn voted to dissolve the committee in November.

Only Howard and Davis voted against dissolving the committee. Morgan was not at the meeting and did not vote.

Brad Wheeler’s reasoning behind doing so was that the name change should be left to the board.

The Wheeler Name Change students believe it’s very disappointing that Brad Wheeler would change his mind and support dissolving the committee before it had even met.

“It seems really backward that Brad Wheeler would change his mind, especially right after his re-election,” Wheeler Name Change member Jake McGhee said.

Kesava pointed out that the name change has been met with lots of support from other students, parents, teachers, school administration and current and past alumni, even from alumni going nearly 40 years back.

The group’s petition, which was started six months ago, has nearly 5,000 signatures.

“It’s really disheartening to see that in spite of there being student interest in this issue as well, [the board] still went against what we wanted and dissolved the committee,” Kesava said.

Wheeler Name Change member Zoe Shepard said the vote was dishonest as well, because Brad Wheeler had implied to the group that he had already picked people to be on the committee and so the committee was going along.

Hugh said the board dissolving the committee is a systemic matter, as she pointed to the board changing agenda rules so that there must be a four-person majority to get something on the agenda.

This leaves out minority voices, particularly the voices of Davis and Howard.

“I think that acknowledging our desires, the student’s desires, would’ve been an easy way for the board to show that they stand for their students,” Hugh said. “By them failing to do that I think makes a really loud statement about who they are and about what the priorities of the board are.”

Kesava said the group is not asking for much and the name changes occur all the time.

Just recently, the Atlanta Public School Board approved changing the names of Grady High School and Brown Middle School, named after a white supremacist journalist and Civil War-era Georgia governor who opposed ending slavery, respectively.

This was after nearly four years of debate over the legacy of the names.

Despite the disappointment at the school board’s action, Wheeler students say they are continuing to try to initiate a conversation among the board to look at the name.

Email campaigns are an ongoing part of the Wheeler Name Change campaign.

The students said they have emailed all seven board members and only Davis, Howard and Tre’ Hutchins have replied that they would like to meet.

These three board members have been supportive of Wheeler Name Change and are allies, the students believe.

Despite the hostility from Banks, Brad Wheeler, Scamihorn and Chastain, the students say they are still trying to have conversations with them.

“The door is open,” Kesava said. “We would love to have a conversation with them, sit down with them one on one and talk as we did with Ms. Davis and Dr. Howard. We just haven’t received any response or communication.”

Spessard said the group has reached out to Chastain, Banks and Scamihorn a myriad of times for individual meetings, with the most recent being December 10. They said they will try again on Monday and hopefully get a response.

In the meantime, the group is focusing on building their social media presence and engaging the community. The group has also formed a website.

“We’re getting [alumni’s] support, we are getting videos from them to verbally support us,” McGhee said.

The group will also continue going to school board meetings every month and are asking supporters to also email the board members about the importance of the name change and the committee.

“It’s so impactful when these board members see emails day after day after day from different email addresses,” McGhee said. “I feel like as we continue to do this, as we continue to go to these board meetings, if we continue to push and meet with these board members individually, we will make progress.”

The Wheeler Name Change group believes changing the name of the school is very important because names are representative of who society chooses to honor.

The group was inspired by the protests and removal of Confederate symbols in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minnesota.

Hugh said that once someone knows of something that is wrong, one cannot go back to being ignorant.

“It’s clearly a right and wrong issue,” Hugh said. “We know what the Confederacy fought for — and people argue all kinds of things — but it was fundamentally for slavery, so if you have a Confederate name on a diverse school, what kind of message are you sending?”

Wheeler Name Change member Rachel Toole also said she decided to attend Wheeler because of its diversity and so having a name that does not value that diversity is disheartening.

“A name change or at least opening up a discussion would be an acknowledgment to all the students of color at Wheeler that hey, the board sees you, the school cares about you, they’re doing their best to improve your lives and have a better future and hopefully this will open up more conversation to address bigger issues,” Kesava said.

Arielle Robinson is an undergrad at Kennesaw State University. She is the president of the university’s Society of Professional Journalists and an editor at the KSU Sentinel. She enjoys music, reading poetry and non-fiction books and collecting books and records.